Their Eyes Were Watching God
Lesson 2 -- Symbolism
• Discuss the use of symbols in literature
• Using a list of the prominent symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God, analyze what the symbols represent, where the symbols appear in the novel, and how the characters in the novel are affected by each symbol.
• Select one symbol from Their Eyes Were Watching God to focus on and analyze.
• Write a short analysis (or longer essay) of the symbol of choice and/or create an illustration of the meaning of the symbol.
• Pens, pencils, paper
• “Powerful Symbols” handout for each student
• Copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Concepts in this lesson:
What is a symbol?
An object or physical thing that suggests, expresses, or represents a reality beyond itself. Examples include: a sunrise literally showing the beginning of a new day and symbolically standing for a new beginning; a rose is literally a flower and symbolically it stands for beauty and purity.
Symbolism in literature: Not every writer chooses to use symbols that are recognizable to everyone. Often, writers create their own symbols for the purposes of expressing larger, more abstract ideas and concepts. When you are reading literature, ask
• “Which objects or physical things have a central place in this book?”
• “Which objects or physical things appear repeatedly in the narrative and/or appear at seemingly significant moments?”
• “Which object or physical thing seems to transform other elements in this book?”
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, there are several important symbols that appear in the novel, including:
• the horizon
• the porch
• Janie’s hair
• the mule/the yellow mule
• the gate
• the pear tree
These are the prominent ones (though students may find others). Most of these symbols show up numerous times throughout the novel. Even if a symbol only appears in a single chapter (as the yellow mule does in Chapter 6), it can still carry symbolic importance.
How do students engage with the concepts in this lesson?
Once students are confident they understand the definition of symbolism and how symbols work in the novel, have them choose a symbol from Their Eyes Were Watching God to focus on as they read.
Have them keep track of the symbol by keeping a running log of the occurrences of the symbol in the book, including page number, quotation, and a short response to the significance of the symbol in that instance and which characters are affected by it.
1. Begin the lesson by having a class discussion about the role of symbols in literature. Include such questions as:
• Why do authors use symbols?
• What do symbols convey?
• Do students think of symbols as powerful or effective literary devices?
2. Then ask students to think about symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Discuss the compelling symbol of the horizon which appears at the beginning of the novel. Ask students:
• What do you think the horizon could potentially represent?
• Do you have any personal association with the symbolic power of horizons? Describe it.
• What seems important to Janie about horizons and those who talk about them?
• Why is she trying to reach a more distant or expansive horizon?
3. Go over the Powerful Symbols worksheet with students, showing them, explaining directions to them, filling in the questions for the first symbol, the horizon, and discussing how they should fill out the rest the worksheet as they read the novel.
4. Tell students that they will have an opportunity to experiment using symbols in a piece of writing. Working individually or in pairs, students should choose a symbol from the novel. They should then either discuss their chosen symbol within the pair, or write a short analysis with or without an illustration, of the symbol. If students are advanced enough to write a longer essay on their symbol’s significance to the novel overall, assign them the essay at the end of the book.