Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Janie’s Head-Rags

Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, forces Janie to wear a head-rag when in public. Because Janie’s hair is so attractive to men, Joe jealously makes his wife bind up her hair, constraining Janie’s femininity and stifling her identity. In an attempt to keep Janie all to himself, he suffocates her and loses her completely. When Joe dies, Janie wastes little time in burning all of the head-rags she owns. Here, the head-rag represents the constraints imposed on women by men in power.

The Rabid Dog

A symbol of a hate so vicious that it stops at nothing to lash out at another living being, the dog is blind to whom it hurts. For Hurston, the concept of hate is so frightening and so unnatural that not even a savage animal is enough to convey it; this creature must be twisted in some vital way. In this case, the dog is afflicted with rabies.


A symbol of masculinity and (go figure) destruction. The fact that Janie learns to shoot effectively shows her crossing into decidedly male territory in an attempt to empower herself.

The Sun

A symbol of rebirth. Throughout the novel, Hurston keeps pointing out the position of the sun and, in the end, Janie eventually comes to associate Tea Cake with it. The sun demonstrates, simply by rising day after day, that life goes on—no matter how tragic yesterday was. For Janie, Tea Cake’s memory will be as enduring as the sun.


These often represent the beauty and fertility of the earth. In the novel, they are often associated with female characters. One very clear example is the blossoming pear tree that is pollinated by a bee. This is Janie’s idea of the ultimate loving union, which she strives to find through three marriages.


Animals often symbolize either inhumanity (savagery, lust, hate) or beasts of burden (which brings to mind slavery). Most of the former are associated with male characters, casting them as violent or predatory. Beasts of burden, such as the yellow mule, tend to be associated with female characters.

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