Symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston Research Paper

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¶ … Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a story of self-actualization. a.H. Maslow, describes self-actualization as "What a man can be, he must be. (Maslow, 1943). Throughout Hurston's novel, her main character, Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods, struggles with the need to be a full a human being as possible. Janie's journey to self-actualization has both growth and setbacks. As Janie ends her relationship with her grandmother and her first and second husbands, she is moving away from roadblocks to new opportunities to better understand and fully express herself.

Maslow, a professor of psychology, first explain the hierarchy of human needs in his paper a Theory of Human Motivation. This paper appeared in a 1943 volume of Psychological Review, six years after Hurston's novel was published. Maslow's theory states that humans have five levels of need: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. J. Finkelstein's pyramid diagram provides greater detail for each level:

Maslow's theory states that an individual must satisfy each level of need, starting at the bottom of the pyramid before he/she can use their resources to obtain the next level. Janie moves between levels -- both up and down -- throughout the novel. Each primary relationship she has brings growth. After a period of time Janie leaves each relationship because she needs more freedom to become herself.

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In chapter 2, Janie begins to tell her story to Pheoby. The narrator tells us that "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches" (Hurston, 1937, Location 443-450). This comparison of Janie's life to that of a tree provides a summary of the entire story; just as a chapter in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath has a turtle crossing the road to illustrate the journey of the Joad Family.

Research Paper on Symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston Assignment

Janie describes her first moment of conscious life as the time her grandmother saw her kissing Johnny Taylor over the gatepost. Prior to Johnny's arrival, Janie had been lying beneath a blooming pear tree. For three days she had observed the tree go "from barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf buds to snowy virginity of bloom" (Hurston, 1937, Location 479 -- 485). Hurston also uses an image of a tree to express the blossoming of Janie's desire for a happy life:

"Oh to be a pear tree- any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her?" (Hurston, 1937, Location 498-505).

Janie was able to think about love, life and happiness because both her grandmother and her grandmother's employer, the Washburn Family, met her physiological and safety needs. She had food, clothing and shelter and her grandmother to protect her from the unkind teasing from her schoolmates. With these needs mostly taken care of, she was able to focus on her need for love, affection and belonging.

Almost immediately upon acknowledging these needs did Janie's world change. Janie's grandmother's observed her kissing Johnny and this act had inflamed her with very strong feelings. Nanny, as Janie referred to her grandmother, was solely concerned with fulfilling Janie's physiological and safety needs; Nanny did not want to see Janie repeat the mistakes her own daughter had made. Nanny wanted to protect Janie's reputation and see her well provided for by an older, land owning husband. Nanny had prearranged Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks. Janie's reaction to her grandmother's angry and her protection was sadness and numbing; her needs and desired were completely ignored in order to protect her from the fears her Nanny's held. The narrator states that this conversation between Janie and her grandmother was the end of Janie's childhood (location 499-506). For Nanny, dreaming of a better life was not an option for a woman born into slavery; rather then let her dreams died she transferred them from herself to her granddaughter (Hurston, 1937, Location 561-574).

Marriage to Logan Killicks did indeed provide food and shelter but it did not provide her with safety or love. Janie falsely believed that she would come to love Logan as the years passed. Within a year all sense of manners and affection left the marriage with Logan convinced that Janie was spoiled. Logan demanded that Janie help with the farming allowing him to wander off supposedly to purchase a second mule. While Logan was gone, Janie befriended a stranger who was walking by. Joe Starks was a man who reminded her of Mr. Washborn - ambition, unafraid and wanting to be a leader.

Joe Starks recognized that Janie was still a child and was appalled to learn that she was doing farm chores: "You behind a plow! You ain't got no mo'business wid uh plow than uh hog is go wid uh holiday! You ain't got no business cuttin' up no seed p'taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo'self and eat p'taters dat other folks plant just special for you" (Hurston, 1937, Location 738-745). Janie saw Joe's future as her own and left Logan to marry Joe. She imaged that being with Joe would advance not just his life but her life as well. The quote above is very foretelling. Janie was indeed treated like a doll; Joe dressed her in the finest clothing, admired her beautiful hair and seduced her with his dreams of being a leader in an all black town. The doll-baby analogy continues to be applicable as the relationship continues. Joe soon controlled Janie; she was not allowed to dress in a way that would attract other men, her comments, thoughts and desires went unacknowledged and she was force to once again to become un-hired help. Janie's life was repressed; she no longer existed as Janie Starks but lived as the mayor's wife.

At the beginning of their relationship Janie's physiological, safety and love needs were satisfied by Joe's money, status and affection. As Joe's power within Eatonville grew, his need to confine Janie's life to that of Mrs. Mayor also grew. He began to restrict her activities and withhold his affection. Janie's reaction was to try harder to please Joe and to push back her feelings of anger and disappointment. Ironically, Joe had told Janie she was made to sit on the front porch but he did not allow her to participate in any of the conversations that took place on the front porch of their store. Janie's psychological needs were never a true priority to Joe and thus Janie never found her desires fulfilled.

Hurston again turns to nature to explain Janie's feeling about Joe. In chapter six, one of the townspeople's mules has died and impatient buzzards circle the carcass. The birds have not landed because they are waiting for the blessing of their leader.

" as a soon as the crowd was out of sight they closed in circles. The near ones got nearer and the far ones got near. A circle, a swoop and a hop with spread-out wings. Close in, close in till some of the more hungry or daring perched on the carcass. They wanted to begin, but the parson wasn't there, so a messenger was sent to the ruler in a tree where he sat."

"The flock had to wait the white-headed leader, but it was hard. They jostled each other and pecked at heads in hungry irritation. Some walked up and down the beast from head to tail, tail to head. The Parson sat motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off. He had scented the matter as quickly as any of the rest, but decorum demanded that he sit oblivious until he was notified. Then he took off with ponderous flight and circled and lowered, circled and lowered until the others danced in joy and hunger at his approach" (Hurston, 1937, Locations 1217- 1232).

The story of the Parson buzzard was the story of Joe's rule over Janie and the townspeople of Eatonville. Joe was well aware of his ability to manipulate others. He would let them feel their pain and then come to their rescue. Janie knew she was being manipulated and was angry about Joe's behavior, however she never wanted to create a scene by disagreeing with Joe. The narrator starts Chapter 7 with the following observation; " the years took all the fight out of Janie's face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody [the name Joe went by in Eatonville] did, she said nothing" (Hurston, 1937, Location 1446-1453). Janie knew that his treatment was selfish and mean-spirited, but she did not have the courage or social support to confront Joe. Upon Joe's death, she saw the opportunity to rediscovery… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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