I recently finished reading Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book tells the story of one woman’s efforts to find and use her own voice and not be silenced by others – particularly the men in her life – and her discovery that fulfillment and happiness doesn’t lie in security, stability, wealth, or status, but in finding the right person to face life’s struggles with.
I really enjoyed Their Eyes Were Watching God but the part of the book that struck me the most was the passage where Janie experiences an awakening underneath a blossoming pear tree. Not only was the writing beautiful and lyrically sensual, but it also was rather thought-provoking and reminded me of the vision of the fig tree that Ester Greenwood had in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
In both Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Bell Jar, trees represent a longing. In Janie’s case, that longing is physical.
“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the son and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink in the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation….
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? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made” (Hurston, 10-11).
“Beglamored” by the pollen of the pear tree, Janie kisses the “shiftless Johnny Taylor” and is caught in the act by her grandmother, who is so concerned by Janie’s burgeoning sexuality that she pushes Janie into the first of her two unsuccessful and stifling marriages. Janie waits for the promise of the pear tree vision to be fulfilled by her marriage but her relationship with Logan Killicks is fruitless and barren and amounts to exile from her garden.
Meanwhile Ester Greenwood – whose very name connects her to the image of fruitful trees – has a vision of a fig tree laden with possibilities that are there for her taking.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet” (Plath, 77).
Here, Ester is not forbidden from plucking the fruit of her tree, like Janie is, but a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the options open to her and the effects of an encroaching mental breakdown prevent her from eating from the fruit.
The association of fruit and fruit trees with women is nothing new. Just look at the Biblical character, Eve with her apple and fig leaves, or even the Greek goddess Persephone with her pomegranate seeds. But what strikes me the most about the similarities of these two books is how a common symbol can connect two very different characters with each other just by the simple act of wanting more.