The Role of Trees in Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee and Their Eyes Were Watching God
Trees play integral roles in Seraph on the Suwanee and Their Eyes Were Watching God as sites of sexual awakening for Hurston’s heroines, providing a space under which dreams bloom into “glistening leaf-buds” or over-ripen and die like spoiled fruit. Close readings of Janie’s pear tree and Arvay’s mulberry evoke strikingly disparate images of female sexuality despite Hurston’s articulation of both experiences as the realization of “a pain remorseless sweet.” Depicted within the first quarter of each narrative, Hurston places great emphasis on her characters’initial sexual experiences as shaping the development of Janie and Arvay’s identities.
As suggested by her pensive pose beneath the pear tree (“stretched on her back”), Janie possesses agency, navigating the course of her own sexual maturation by searching, inviting, and questioning the tree and herself for “voice and vision.” ...view middle of the document...
What? How? Why? . . . but where? When? How?” (11-12). Connecting the stimulation of Janie’s intellect with the sexual awakening that her heroine actively controls, Hurston expounds upon her theory of the interiority of the female identity, as women define truth in terms of their own dreams and desires: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly,” (1).
In rendering the apprehensive and insecure Arvay, Hurston colors her first sexual experience with violent tones not found under Janie’s pear tree. Though initial descriptions of Arvay’s beloved mulberry reflect majestic images of lush tranquility (“It was a cool, green temple of peace,”), Hurston infuses the passage portraying Arvay’s rape with brittle lifelessness. Conducive to Janie’s inviting emotional, intellectual, and physical posture toward the “revelation” of sex, Hurston employs diction evocative of wetness, such as “soaking,” “sink,” “creaming,” and “frothing”. In contrast, the once verdant mulberry morphs into a backdrop of broken, splintered desiccation. Arvay has to shake “off the little dust and dry leaf” from her undergarments, and hangs them on “dead snag of a limb,” a symbol of her former innocence “left behind” “swinging in the breeze,” (54). Jim picks “dead leaf and bits of trash” out of Arvay’s hair as well. By drying up the earth around Arvay and Jim, Hurston conveys the impact of Arvay’s fall from her contemplation of the “cool-like and tender green” heights above to the barren earth below: “In a fraction of the second she was snatched from the sky to the ground,” (51). While Hurston equates Janie’s blossoming sexuality with the release of voice (“What? How? Why?”), Arvay’s voice is smothered by Jim’s kisses. Interestingly, images of wetness enter into the desiccated landscape of Arvay’s rape only when her shame turns into a newfound passion: “she sought to hold him tight in a flood of kisses,” (53). But Arvay’s thirst can’t be sated, and her passion stems from the need to consume Jim whole: “She must eat him up, and absorb him into herself,” (54).