Their Eyes Were Watching God


Symbols and Themes

The Ships—The ships are only mentioned briefly in the beginning of the novel, but their image sets the overall tone of the work. The ships carry dreams, and some men are fortunate enough to grasps those dreams. Some hold onto them, and some lose them. But for the woman, the dream is truth. Janie’s dream is love, which she discovers in nature, and finds in Tea Cake. Even though Tea Cake is a transient figure and their life together is relatively brief, Janie knows that the love she finds with him and that is taken back out to sea (so to speak) will still wait for her in the next life. In other words, the ships are there whether one chooses to believe in them or not. Janie believes and so is able to rest contentedly at the end of the novel.

Slavery—The idea of slavery is introduced by Nanny, who grew up a slave in the South. Nanny’s slavery has caused her to fear the unknown and so she wants Janie to grow up in security, where everything is foreseeable. Nanny does not realize that this too is a kind of slavery—slavery to safety. But Janie does not want to be enslaved to safety. If Janie must be enslaved, then she wants to be enslaved to love. She imagines that this might happen with Logan. Then she thinks it might happen with Joe Starks. Finally, it happens with Tea Cake, and Janie becomes a slave of love, totally giving herself to Tea Cake. However, in the end, she kills Tea Cake to save her own life, and thus breaks the bonds of her slavery. She returns to Eatonville, where she was of an elevated class—and hopes that Tea Cake waits for her in the afterlife.

The Pear Tree—The pear tree is the symbol of Janie’s dream. It resonates with love and fruit and sweetness and childhood. Her desire is to sit beneath the pear tree and to be one with the spirit that makes it live and gives it breath. She imagines that Joe Starks will bring her to the glory that is beneath the pear tree, but she is mistaken. It is Tea Cake who really personifies the spirit that she senses in...

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Essays About Their Eyes Were Watching God