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Robert Louis Stevenson

The Ships—The ships are only mentioned briefly in the beginning of the novel, but their image sets the overall tone of the work. The ships carry dreams, and some men are fortunate enough to grasps those dreams. Some hold onto them, and some lose them. But for the woman, the dream is truth. Janie’s dream is love, which she discovers in nature, and finds in Tea Cake. Even though Tea Cake is a transient figure and their life together is relatively brief, Janie knows that the love she finds with him and that is taken back out to sea (so to speak) will still wait for her in the next life. In other words, the ships are there whether one chooses to believe in them or not. Janie believes and so is able to rest contentedly at the end of the novel.

Slavery—The idea of slavery is introduced by Nanny, who grew up a slave in the South. Nanny’s slavery has caused her to fear the unknown and so she wants Janie to grow up in security, where everything is foreseeable. Nanny does not realize that this too is a kind of slavery—slavery to safety. But Janie does not want to be enslaved to safety. If Janie must be enslaved, then she wants to be enslaved to love. She imagines that this might happen with Logan. Then she thinks it might happen with Joe Starks. Finally, it happens with Tea Cake, and Janie becomes a slave of love, totally giving herself to Tea Cake. However, in the end, she kills Tea Cake to save her own life, and thus breaks the bonds of her slavery. She returns to Eatonville, where she was of an elevated class—and hopes that Tea Cake waits for her in the afterlife.

The Pear Tree—The pear tree is the symbol of Janie’s dream. It resonates with love and fruit and sweetness and childhood. Her desire is to sit beneath the pear tree and to be one with the spirit that makes it live and gives it breath. She imagines that Joe Starks will bring her to the glory that is beneath the pear tree, but she is mistaken. It is Tea Cake who really personifies the spirit that she senses in nature.

The Water and the Flood—The water keeps the ships of dreams at bay from some men, and for those who do find their dreams, the water comes rushing back in to take them away. This is the case with Janie, who loses Tea Cake during the hurricane and the resulting flood. Her ship, in a sense, came in when Tea Cake arrived; and again it has set sail when Tea Cake dies. The water image is an extension of eternity and the metaphor of the ships. This life is passing, it seems to suggest, but one must prepare oneself for the next world, where the dream is the truth and the truth is love.

Race—Race is viewed as a superficial object in the novel. Janie, for example, does not even realize she is different from the white children until she sees a photograph. Mrs. Turner, in the end of the novel, sees only race, and does not look any more deeply than the color of one’s skin. Thus, she fails to see Tea Cake’s goodness or what it is that makes Janie unique (her love, not her skin color). Mrs. Turner is a superficial Negro because she is obsessed with race. But the color of one’s skin does not make one any better or brighter. After all, Tea Cake stays in the ‘Glades rather than follow the Seminoles out because he sees that the whites are not afraid. Yet, in this matter it is the Seminoles who have better sense than the whites. Race, therefore, is of no significance in the novel. What matters is how well one is in tune to nature and the mystical quality of life.

Janie’s Hair—Janie’s hair is a symbol of beauty, grace, nature, and freedom. Joe Starks tries to control Janie, symbolized by his demand that she cover her hair. He does not want her beauty to be seen by other men; he does not want to have to deal with any rivals. When Joe dies, however, Janie feels free and burns her head rags and shows off her hair. By revealing her beauty she attracts many suitors, but none of them are worthy. Only Tea Cake can possess her because he has within himself an inner beauty that matches Janie’s. Both are innocents, full of grace, and therefore free to defy convention and go their own way through life.

Dreams—Janie’s life is inspired by a dream, just as Nanny’s life is inspired by a dream. Their dreams are different. Nanny’s dream is for peace and security. Janie’s dream is for love and beauty and life. The men Janie encounters also have dreams. Logan’s dream is matter-of-fact and more in line with Nanny’s than with Janie’s. Joe Starks’ dream appears to be in line with Janie’s but is more worldly than what Janie desires. Tea Cake is essentially Janie’s dream come true. He is her ship come in to harbor. They are both simple children of a dream of love. Even though they fight and beat one another, they are still devoted to one another through and through. This is how Hurston suggests the dream becomes reality. Because it (the love) does not ever die it is also the ultimate truth.

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