Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Mule Symbol Icon
The image of the mule emerges repeatedly in different contexts throughout the novel, but remains consistent in its figurative meaning as a symbol of victimization and bondage. The image of the mule first appears when Nanny tells Janie that black women are the mules of the earth, meaning that they are the lowest creatures, used by others. It then appears again when Logan Killicks goes to buy a mule for Janie to use when working behind a plow; his forceful attempt to make Janie work makes her feel as though she herself is being treated as an animal. Finally, the mule reappears once again when the townspeople of Eatonville make fun of Matt Bonner's sad looking mule, which Janie pities. When Jody purchases the mule to appease Janie's sense of pity for it, the town regards Jody as a savior, and adopts the freed mule as a kind of emblem. Throughout the novel, the mule symbolizes victimization, a theme that appears throughout the novel in various ways.

Mule Quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Their Eyes Were Watching God quotes below all refer to the symbol of Mule. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God published in 2006.
Chapter 2 Quotes

"Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see…De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."

Related Characters: Nanny Crawford (speaker), Janie Crawford
Related Symbols: Mule
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

When Nanny catches sight of Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she calls her in to the house and broaches the topic of marriage. Janie is a woman now, she explains, and she should therefore marry a "decent" suitor like Logan Killicks, rather than someone "trashy." Janie's resistance leads Nanny to describe their world's social hierarchy: white men at the top, black women at the bottom. 

Hurston here introduces the symbolic mule, which comes to stand for victimization, particularly that of many of the novel's black women. Again and again Janie pushes back against her fate, a life of thankless physical and emotional labor without freedom or joy. Logan Killicks, her first husband, even buys her a mule and Janie sees her own plight reflected in the animal. 

Not only does this section have symbolic value, but it also raises questions about Hurston's endless shifts between dialect and a more traditional narrative voice. In this way, Hurston puts the two styles on a single plane, proving to her contemporaneous readers that all dialects have equal literary merit. As they navigate this complicated text, one in which no register is ever stable, readers must remain engaged and attentive — authority, particularly in the novel's world, can reside within grammar and diction.

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Mule Symbol Timeline in Their Eyes Were Watching God

The timeline below shows where the symbol Mule appears in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon
Desire, Love, and Independence Theme Icon
...security alongside a well-established husband like Logan. Nanny further explains that black women are the mules of the world, and she doesn't want such a low place in society for her... (full context)
Chapter 4
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon
Desire, Love, and Independence Theme Icon
One morning, Logan leaves home to go buy a second mule so that Janie and he can both productively plow the fields. While Logan is away... (full context)
Chapter 6
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Power, Judgment, and Jealousy Theme Icon
...fun of a fellow Eatonville resident named Matt Bonner for his sad and tired looking mule. They often accuse him for being a bad owner and responsible for the mule's feeble... (full context)
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Power, Judgment, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Jody overhears Janie, and in order to quell Janie's anxiety about the mule's victimization, Jody purchases the mule from Matt Bonner for a mere five dollars, so that... (full context)
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Power, Judgment, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
When the mule dies, Jody plans a funeral for it, as the mule had become a kind of... (full context)