Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How are the Eatonville "porch sitters" in Their Eyes Were Watching God like a Greek chorus?

The "porch sitters" function as a modern-day Greek chorus mainly as gossipers who offer commentary that reflects the opinion of the community from which the story emerges. The porch sitters do not spur on significant action to advance the plot, but they do clarify how the townspeople view the events as they unfold. As the novel opens, this role is clearly defined: "It was time to hear things and talk. ... [The sitters] sat in judgment." Although the porch sitters talk a lot about Janie, they do not really know her or understand what is going on in her life, as Janie points out: "You don't know half as much 'bout us as you think you do." For this reason, the porch sitters can't be viewed as offering much insight into Janie's personality and actions. Nor does Janie let the porch sitters' gossip affect her, as she has no respect for their opinions. As she tells Pheoby "people like dem wastes up too much time puttin' they mouf on things they don't know nothin' about. ... They don't know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!"

How does Zora Neale Hurston's use of a frame narrative support one or more of the main themes of Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Hurston uses the device of the frame narrative to establish Janie in Eatonville after she has lived through her three marriages and learned about life, love, and herself. In doing so, she allows a mature Janie to relate her own story from a position of experience. Since Janie tells her own story, the reader appreciates that Janie is allowed to speak for herself after being trapped in two marriages to domineering men. The frame narrative highlights the fact that Janie has come of age through her experiences and is now independent and confident enough to express herself, which reflects the silence and speech motif of the novel.

In what ways does Janie's response to Joe Starks's purchasing of Matt Bonner's mule in Chapter 6 of Their Eyes Were Watching God connect to the book's themes?

When Joe Starks purchases the mule so that the animal may rest and be saved from work and torment, Janie helps explain the act by saying "You have tuh have power tuh free things." With these words, Janie draws an important analogy between Starks's freeing of the mule and Lincoln's freeing of the slaves: in order to free something, it must have first been held in bondage by the very power that freed it. At the same time, she begins to dismantle Starks's power over her by speaking out and challenging his power by identifying it. It is significant, of course, that her speaking out is something Starks had forbidden. Given the pain Janie felt at the mule's suffering, suggesting she identified with it—not surprising, given Nanny's words that link black women to mules—the statement is also a pained recognition that Starks has the power to free her and yet does not.

What is the significance of the death of the mule in Chapter 6 of Their Eyes Were Watching God?

The death of the mule in Chapter 6 foreshadows what will happen to Janie if she continues to be the mule of Joe Starks's world, as Nanny tells her earlier in the book all black women are for their men. This particular mule is similar to Janie in that Starks, in his view, saves it from hard work and torment, just as he saved Janie from a life of labor with her first husband, Logan Killicks. In addition, Janie responds to it emotionally; she is happy when Starks buys it because she sees that act as sparing the mule from further suffering. Starks spares the mule the hard labor and starvation it experienced with its first owner. He also provides for Janie's creature comforts; she has a home, clothes, and food. But Starks makes her toil in the store six days a week and criticizes her frequently for doing tasks incorrectly or for talking to customers. Her life becomes miserable. She will become like the mule: old, tired, and worn out, if this continues. Eventually, she rebels, finding in the daydreams she indulges in while she works, a way to detach and make sure the work doesn't bother her.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God why is it important that Joe Starks becomes the mayor of Eatonville and not some previously incorporated town?

Starks's arrival on the scene of Eatonville signals a change in their governance and both progress and the loss of independence for the townspeople. He could not have had this effect in an already established town, as it would have had an existing social order. Given the novel's southern setting, that social order would also have had whites in power, with little opportunity for African Americans to have a voice in public affairs. The fact that Eatonville was being newly formed by black people meant he had an open stage on which to act. When Starks asks to see the mayor, Coker says that they don't have one, explaining that no leader is needed because all the residents are adults ("Everybody's grown.") and can make their own decisions. Starks has grand plans, however, and through his leadership in organizing the town's incorporation and building infrastructure like streets, he becomes the mayor, the leader around whom the community is organized and on whom it is dependent. With this move, he establishes a leader-focused power structure, and steps into the roles of mayor, store owner, postmaster, and land owner, erasing the potential for Eatonville residents to develop their own system and control their own lives.

In Chapter 16 of Their Eyes Were Watching God, what is suggested about contemporary race relations through Janie's conversation with Mrs. Turner about Booker T. Washington?

Booker T. Washington advocated for African Americans during the late 1800s to early 1900s to assimilate into white society by contributing to the economy through hard work that would, over time, improve their own economic standing. He expressly called for African Americans to surrender the quest for political power, civil rights, and education. Janie saw Washington as a great man. Mrs. Turner espouses her brother's position on Washington, arguing that he held blacks back by focusing on work "when de race ain't never done nothin' else." She calls him an enemy to his people and derisively refers to him as "uh white folk's nigger." Janie, having absorbed the accepted wisdom among Nanny's generation, viewed these harsh judgments as sacrilege. However, Mrs. Turner's words reflect a growing sentiment among many African Americans of the time, particularly W.E.B. DuBois, who urged black activism to push for civil rights.

How is the symbol of Janie's hair developed over the course of Their Eyes Were Watching God?

The "porch sitters," who sit in judgment of Janie after she returns to Eatonville following Tea Cake's death in Chapter 1, criticize her for letting her hair fall loose, like that of a young woman. This introduces the controversy surrounding Janie's hair. Her hair is also described as "the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume," an image that is accompanied by descriptions of her buttocks and breasts, establishing her hair as a symbol of sexuality. In Chapter 2, when Janie recounts seeing the photograph that led her to discover she was black, she identifies herself as the girl with the long hair. This story shows that Janie's hair is central to her identity. The next mention of her hair is when Nanny pulls Janie by her hair after she finds her kissing Johnny Taylor. Nanny then rocks Janie on her lap, and the "long braids of her hair swung low," a description that suggests Janie's youth in contrast to Nanny's perception that Janie is becoming a woman who needs to be married off. Janie's husbands' interest in her hair suggests something about Janie's identity in relation to her marriage. At first, Logan Killicks admires her hair, but before a year is over, he no longer fingers it, making clear that Janie's sexuality was not awakened with this man. In Janie's first encounter with Joe Starks, he admires her hair. When they are married, though, Starks demands that she conceal it under a head rag because men like Walter would brush up against the end of her braid. Once again, then, Janie's hair is linked to her sexuality, but now it is repressed by Starks. When Starks dies, Janie lets her hair loose and burns the hair rags, symbolizing her release from Starks's control and newfound independence. Like Starks, Tea Cake treasures Janie's hair initially, combing it even as she sleeps.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God what does the "muck" of the Everglades represent?

One interpretation is that "the muck" of the Everglades represents a kind of Black Eden or paradise, where the people are free to live outside the political and social conventions of white America. In this view, various elements of African American, Native American, and Caribbean folklore and culture are infused into the community in the muck; people work as they need to and play games and laugh in abundance. This setting is where Janie and Tea Cake are the happiest, supporting the notion that the muck represents a paradise that is lost in the flooding from the hurricane. In the community that forms in the muck, then, Zora Neale Hurston allows her characters to embrace the mythology of their ancestors, while in the destruction of that community through the hurricane, she rewrites the story of man and woman losing paradise.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's external journey compare to the journey of Odysseus in Homer's The Odyssey?

Janie's journey can be compared to that of a hero's quest, drawing specific parallels to Odysseus's journey in The Odyssey. Odysseus travels around the Mediterranean into surreal lands, just as Janie travels from the well-established order of Eatonville to the Everglades, where "everything ... was big and new." Like Odysseus, Janie has an external journey that parallels and facilitates her internal journey toward claiming her identity; Odysseus becomes the leader he is meant to be, and Janie becomes the woman she needs to be. Likewise, both heroes' stories end with a homecoming, Odysseus to Ithaca and Janie to Eatonville.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Zora Neale Hurston's use of third-person point of view contribute to the characterization of Janie and other characters?

Using the third-person omniscient point of view allows Hurston to give readers access to the inner thoughts of characters besides Janie. This technique allows her to humanize characters like Joe Starks, whose impulse to control Janie by curbing her sexuality and intellect is rooted in jealousy and insecurity. By providing insights into Starks's thinking, Hurston can treat him as a complex character, rather than as a static villain. The use of third-person narration also complicates notions of narrative and voice by acknowledging that Janie has to live through other people's narratives—Nanny's, her various husbands', the townspeople's—of who she is before she can arrive at her own voice and come to a place where she can cast off these other narrative influences and fully claim her own voice and story. This claiming is signified by Janie's testimony to the jury at her trial. She is revealed to herself, to the townspeople, and to the white power system represented by the jury. In this scene, she reclaims the narrative voice of her life by speaking her truth.

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