Nature’s Role in their Eyes were Watching God
Historically, women have always been associated with nature. Whether it be the uncontrollable side which contains natural disasters or the nurturing side which is commonly birth-giving and growth of plants; nature has always connected to women. In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston subtly uses nature as an element in her work. She creates a mental image in readers heads of a growing pear tree, a disastrous hurricane and a lush everglade. In a few articles I have read, I learned the importance of the environment and how it connects with women. “Mother nature” experiences domination and torment at the hands of humans, but in the same way, women have experienced similar abuse throughout history. Both are exploited yet claim to be valued; women and nature continue to persevere and grow. Ecofeminist Susan Dobscha writes, “The domination of women (as studied in traditional feminism) parallels the domination of nature and that this mutual domination has led to environmental destruction by the controlling patriarchal society” (Dobscha). Janie Mae Crawford is a prime example of that; she discovers herself, her body and ultimately reaches self-discovery in the novel. The Pear tree, the everglades and the hurricane serve as allusions to Janie’s inevitable transformation in the novel, with her physical body and within herself as she reaches self-actualization.
Under a blossoming pear tree in Florida, a young Janie Mae Crawford dreams of a world that will answer all her questions. This begins Janie’s journey toward herself and toward the farthest horizon open to her. At the age of sixteen, Janie finds herself enthralled with a beautiful blooming pear tree and naive of the world around her. Janie’s first encounter with the tree shows readers how young and naive she is. This tree is also on its pathway of growth, “from barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to the snowy virginity of bloom.
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It stirred her tremendously” (Hurston 10). The tree, and the accompanying birds and bees that Janie is so enamored with as well, is of course a metaphor for Janie’s own blooming into womanhood and sexual maturity. Hurston makes no mistake in her language. She connects nature taking its course, and details a blossoming tree but it can be seen as a metaphor for Janie’s blossoming body. It is no coincidence that Janie’s experience with the pear tree coincides with her first kiss and her grandmother’s own realization that Janie is now a woman in desperate need of a man who would be able to support her (Hurston 10-14). She is deeply moved by the images of fertile springtime and the bloom of the tree evokes a bloom in Janie’s life too. It arouses her fantasies of love and passion, and brings about the awakening of her sexuality. Janie says this to emphasize the idea of perfect identification: “Oh to be a pear tree –any tree in bloom!”(14). Janie literally wants to be the pear tree and bloom herself! This reminds me of a 2004 study written about by Colin Capaldi in which he says, “Mayer and Frantz described connectedness to nature as a “measure of an individual’s’ trait levels of feeling emotionally connected to the natural world” (Capaldi).
Janie’s modern vision of female sexual autonomy is represented by her pear tree vision, idealizing a relationship in which passion does not result in domination, but rather in a beautiful union of individuals. This strong desire of having marriage, imitating a union found in nature, was Janie’s ultimate goal. The pear tree thus symbolizes Janie’s sexual epiphany. However, Janie misconstrues the natural harmony she witnessed under the pear tree with romance, which reflects her immature consciousness. Janie likens her experience under the pear tree to marriage and begins her quest for happiness through relationship. Eventually, the mature 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” (10). Clearly, the tree symbolizes Janie’s life which is now in leaf rather than in bloom. “Her initial interpretation of the tree is essentially static, focused on the social institution of marriage. Her later, more sophisticated vision centers on the balancing of opposites, ‘things done and undone’. Janie attempts to harmonize her daily life with her ideal image derived from the pear tree” (Kubitschek,112). The pear tree thus symbolizes the tranquil aspects of nature.
We see nature taking course again in Their Eyes with the fertile Everglades. When Janie’s third husband Tea Cake takes her down to the Everglades, the area is fertile and blossoming with “ground so rich that everything went wild” (Hurston 129). And while in the beginning life for Janie and Tea Cake is good and they are prospering both financially and emotionally, eventually the area is tragically devastated and destroyed by a massive hurricane. The destruction of the Everglades can also be seen as symbolic of the natural order of the world and of the changes women and nature partake in. In many ways the tragedy that befalls the Everglades is a metaphor for all three of Janie’s marriages. All three, or at least the last two, begin as ripe and blossoming romances, only to have those romances end tragically, with either a loss of love, death or both. Her marriages have taught her so much about herself and she is challenged through them. Janie has “done been tuh de horizon and back.” She has learned what love is; she has experienced life’s joys and sorrows; and she has come home to herself in peace. This powerful story, pays quiet tribute to a black woman, who, though constricted by the times, still demanded to be heard.
The destructive and powerful hurricane that strikes towards the end of the book is used as an element of the fury of nature, it tells us anything can change within a second in Janie’s life and nature. Hurston uses nature to strip the characters of the feeble power of material possessions. Confronted by the awesome strength of the hurricane, people find themselves vying for safety with fleeing animals. Houses in the quarters and big houses alike are flooded and blown away, proving that nature does not discriminate. As such the storm functions as a destroyer of human power, and as an eraser of artificial distinctions and hierarchies. The hurricane symbolizes a sense of humility in the recognition of how small and powerless we humans are, and reveals the ridiculousness and irrelevance of the existence of race, gender and social class. Throughout the novel, Janie’s attempt to attain personal identification with nature is apparent. She believes that nature is flawless, and that self-fulfillment is only attainable through the unhindered pursuit of nature-imbued feelings.
But the hurricane shows the other side of nature, in contrast to the pear tree which is a positive symbol. Whereas the pear tree stands for beauty, pleasure and harmony, the hurricane demonstrates how chaotic and capricious the world can be. “Nature contains both the pear tree and the hurricane; communities have both celebrations and brawls; individuals have both compassion and more violent feelings” (Kubitschek, 110). Janie realizes this chaotic nature of the universe and the futility of struggling against it, and ultimately achieves perfect accord with nature which was her fundamental ambition. So, the hurricane symbolizes the completion of Janie’s individuation. In the book Janie states: “If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people that never seen de light at all” (159). By imparting this philosophy to the reader Hurston gives a direction to Janie’s journey and a powerful message to the reader. Life experiences are universal in nature and there is no set path. All anyone can hope to achieve is the self.
Janie’s transformation is symbolized through nature and Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates its power and how it connects to women. Janie’s transformation begins as a young girl sitting under the pear tree, as a married woman in the everglades with her love, and ends with the powerful yet purifying hurricane. Nature, similar to women, suffer but that will never stop their power; the pear tree continued to grow and the hurricane eventually passes. As Janie’s character is developed in the novel, forces of nature symbolize her growth and perseverance in significant ways. The novel’s lasting moment demonstrates what Janie does throughout the story – taking her difficult past in and molding into a strong, wise woman as a result. Hurston displays Janie’s development in one powerful passage, Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see”(183). The end of a novel focuses on Janie’s self-discovery and transformation into a strong woman, Janie survives with her soul – made resilient by her struggles.