Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes, Symbols, and Motifs


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes to Look For and Discuss

A Character’s Journey to Self-Realization

The primary theme in the novel is Janie’s journey to self-realization. The novel begins with Janie longing to fall in love and have it become something beautiful, like the kissing bees she sees in spring. Her journey leads her to three marriages, two of which are unfulfilling and oppressive. Janie finds herself wanting more, expecting more, and deserving more. Her path eventually comes across Tea Cake who sweeps her off her feet. Despite his jealousy and violent outburst early in their marriage, and his tragic death at Janie’s hands, Janie comes to find that when she returns home to Eatonville, she had finally found what her soul had been searching for. Her love with Tea Cake has made her whole, and she is at peace.

Defining Gender Roles

Another important theme is the defining of gender roles. Janie was raised by her grandmother, who worked for a white family until she could afford her own piece of land in Florida. While Janie is married off quickly by Nanny to an older farmer, Janie soon finds that she does not want to work the farm like Logan intends for her to do. With Jody, Janie discovers that she is merely a trophy wife for him, and is given no real say in the town or in their marriage. Joe keeps her under strict supervision because, as his wife and as a woman, she is his property, not his partner. Janie again falls victim to domestic violence with Tea Cake, but soon finds that she has a voice and a say, even as a woman, in her new marriage and home in the Everglades. The women look upon her return in scorn, criticizing her clothes as not being proper for a lady; however, Janie has never been one to be defined by traditional gender roles. The novel upends the preconceived notions about the role of women in society long before it was popular to do so.

The Difference between Love and Marriage

The difference between love and marriage is another important theme. Janie believes, naively, that because the older folks tell her so, marriage makes two people fall in love. She quickly learns with Logan Killicks however, that this is not so, because she does not grow to love him. When she meets Joe Starks, he speaks well and looks nice, so again, Janie thinks that maybe she can love him. She quickly finds that despite his flashy exterior, money, power, and status, she still is not fulfilled. Nor does she feel loved. She finally finds love with Tea Cake who does not have money, land, or status, and even has a bit of a gambling problem. After his death and her return home, she finally feels like she has found the love she’s always wanted since her days beneath the pear tree.


Another theme that the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God examines is silence. Throughout the story, despite her constant unhappiness, Janie stays silent. She keeps her silence with Logan until she runs away with Jody; she keeps her silence with Jody as he bosses her around and limits her socialization with the townspeople. When she finally breaks her silence with Jody, he hits her and then refuses to see her as he dies. It is only with Tea Cake that Janie finally finds her voice and feels happy. As she returns to the disparaging gossip of the women of Eatonville, she chooses to tell her story only to Phoeby and to remain silent to the women. This time, her silence is because of her newfound strength and peace, rather than fear or to avoid confrontation.

Judgment and Social Hierarchy in a Community

A final important theme that the novel explores is the judgment and social hierarchy within a community. In particular, it might be surprising to some readers to see it happening in an African American community, especially in light of the fact that slavery is not too far in the past for many of the characters. In fact, Joe Starks becomes much like a plantation owner, delegating work to those he feels are below him, and making sure he maintains his power. He won’t allow Janie to socialize with the townspeople because he feels they are beneath her. Mrs. Turner has disdain for people who are dark, and wants Janie to marry her brother and divorce Tea Cake because he’s too dark for her taste. She takes a particular liking to Janie because she is lighter-skinned, like her. This social hierarchy creates tension and resentment among many of the characters in the novel, and even episodes of jealousy and violence.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Motifs, Imagery & Symbols

Janie’s Hair

An important recurring symbol in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is everyone’s preoccupation with Janie’s hair. The men imagine themselves luxuriating in it; the women are jealous of Janie because of it. Jody finds it to be a threat after he sees Walter touching it without Janie’s knowledge, and demands that she tie it up under a head-rag. For the men, Janie’s hair is a sexual temptation; for the women, it gives rise to jealousy and anger because of the effect her hair has on their men, and because they themselves can’t grow such beautiful hair. In a way, it is also giving Janie a perceived higher power than others because it is a result of her white ancestry.

The Blossoming Pear Tree and Spring

An important recurring motif is the blossoming of the pear tree. As a young teenager, Janie sits under a pear tree, fascinated by the way it slowly blooms. She thinks to herself that the tree and the bees and the pollen come together as a marriage of some sort, and this is what she begins to envision marriage to be - a true union and partnership, something that flows naturally together. She herself views her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.” This motif continues throughout the novel, and she searches for that pear tree moment in her marriages to Logan and Joe. She finally finds it with Tea Cake. Janie thinks, “He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom - a pear tree blossom in the spring… He was a glance from God.”

The Town Mule

Another symbol is the Eatonville mule. Matt Bonner’s old mule becomes something of a legend to the Eatonville residents. The mule is half-starved, old, and cruelly treated by Matt, so he often runs away and shows up in different parts of the town. Janie senses a kinship with the mule who is cruelly treated and enslaved by Matt, especially on one particular day when the men surround it and begin to tease it. Janie mutters under her breath about the injustice of it, and Jody overhears her. He buys the mule from Matt for $5, he says “to let it rest.” The mule lives out the rest of his days as a kind of celebrity until he dies. This kindness on Jody’s part for his wife is short-lived, however, because when the mule dies, Jody refuses to let Janie follow the town as they “drag out” the mule to his final resting place.

The Eatonville Store

An additional important symbol in the novel is the Eatonville store. When Jody arrives in Eatonville, he expects to find a thriving community of African Americans; instead, he finds a few people milling about, seemingly with no direction or drive. Jody immediately takes over and delegates responsibilities, the first of which is to build a town store. He sees the store as the future heart of the town, and indeed it does become the social center for the people. Janie hates it because she is easily confused by math when people want to buy things, and she is not allowed to participate in any of the conversations that happen on the porch of the store. She finds the store isolating and a burden; however, it becomes a place of community for much of the town.

The Hurricane

A final symbol is the hurricane. The hurricane is a destructive force of change literally and figuratively in the novel. The hurricane literally devastates the Okeechobee area, upending the comfortable lives that Janie and Tea Cake have built for themselves among the Bahamian migrant workers. Figuratively, it devastates Janie and Tea Cake, as Tea Cake contracts rabies trying to save Janie, and Janie has to kill Tea Cake because the disease destroys his mind. The happiness and security that Janie finds with Tea Cake is ripped away from her with his death, and she must find new meaning from her experiences.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from Their Eyes Were Watching God you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

Template: Theme


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