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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's understanding of marriage and love evolve during her marriage to Logan Killicks?

In Chapter 3, as Janie is essentially forced to marry Logan Killicks, she begins to question what marriage is all about. She grudgingly accepts the forced marriage in hopes that the union will "compel love like the sun the day." When Janie tells Nanny after a few months of marriage that she wants to feel attraction to her husband, she reveals her belief that love and passion are tied together, and their presence is an essential part of marriage. By the end of the chapter, Janie realizes that her initial hope would not be realized because "marriage did not make love." That realization does not destroy her hope for happiness in marriage in general, only any hope in happiness from her marriage to Killicks. Indeed, the chapter ends with her hanging over the gate, looking up the road, yearning for a chance for the love, passion, and happiness that she still craves.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's development during her marriage to Logan Killicks lead her to run off with Joe Starks?

During her marriage to Logan Killicks, Janie develops in two ways—she realizes that marriage does not necessarily breed love, leading to a loss of hope of gaining happiness with him, and she recognizes a growing sense of her own power and insight. Janie entered the marriage to Killicks reluctantly but hopefully. She hoped that marriage would compel love; she finds that is not at all the case. Janie gains confidence in her own abilities through her marriage to Killicks. While she is unhappy and frustrated, she acknowledges that there are things she knows, "things that nobody had ever told her," such as the words that trees, the wind, and seeds speak and she hears. This confidence is a key development in empowering Janie to leave Killicks.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's marriage to Joe Starks compare and contrast to her marriage to Logan Killicks?

While Janie's marriages to Joe Starks and Logan Killicks are similarly unhappy for her, they differ in her expectations on entering them, her economic contribution to the marriage unit during them, and her treatment by her husbands. Janie enters the marriage to Killicks reluctantly but still with the hope that marriage will lead to love. She enters the marriage to Starks voluntarily and with less of an expectation of love because he "did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees" but symbolizes the horizon and the road, her dream of a life of experience. Janie, more mature during her 20 years with Starks than she was in her teenage marriage to Killicks, plays a more active role in the economic well-being of the family. With Killicks, she refused to do work beyond tending to the home. With Starks, she not only does that work but also labors six days a week in the store. One of the sources of her unhappiness is Starks's incessant criticism of that work. The two husbands treat her differently, too. Killicks chides her but gives up when she resists or talks back. Starks seeks to dominate and control Janie, confining her sexuality by insisting on her wearing a head rag and limiting her speech and interactions with others by telling her not to talk to the porch sitters. While married to Starks, Janie feels like Matt Bonner's old mule.

How does Zora Neale Hurston provide details of location, including cultural norms, to establish the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and why was this important to her?

Hurston uses a variety of techniques to add details of place and culture, including reproducing the speech of African Americans from the rural South, including folklore and folk customs, naming her characters, and providing realistic physical descriptions. She uses folk speech, including idioms and figurative language, as well as dialect to capture the way African Americans and Bahamans in the rural southern communities of Eatonville and the Everglades speak. Hurston also incorporates folklore into the novel, such as the allegory of the buzzards when the mule is buried in Chapter 6, and folk customs, such as the games of checkers, the porch sitting, and the funeral customs. Another way Hurston adds local color to the novel is by giving characters colorful names such as Tea Cake or Motor Boat. By using such realistic and descriptive details about the look and feel of the different settings, Hurston is able to root her story firmly in those locations. As an anthropologist devoted to the preservation of folklore, Hurston wanted readers to fully understand the unique culture of the people in the novel, including the challenges faced by African Americans at the time. Making this culture come to life for readers, even while including universal messages, was hugely important to her.

How might Their Eyes Were Watching God be read as a scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures, a type of writing also known as an ethnography?

Zora Neale Hurston was a trained anthropologist and was thus familiar with the practice of ethnography, the objective description of the customs of a culture or group. A common method of data collection that leads to this scientific description is the method of participant-observation, in which the researcher notes how people actually behave when carrying out group customs or rituals. In Their Eyes Were Watching God the third-person narrator functions as a participant observer, offering data through the story. She observes and presents the establishment and enforcement of social norms through the conversations and judgments of the porch sitters. These talks and the different interactions of the characters also reveal the core beliefs of the community. She observes and presents ritual behavior such as the various funerals. She presents attitudes toward members of the group and outsiders in her presentation of race relations and relations between the African American workers in the Everglades and the Bahamans and Seminoles. She offers views of leadership structures in the community through the ascendancy of Joe Starks, generational roles in her portrait of Nanny, gender identity and roles through the marriages of Janie and others, and belief systems.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God what is the significance of the title?

The title line is delivered in the narrative while the great hurricane strikes the Everglades, a place where the community had effectively cast off the established hierarchy of American culture and created an egalitarian paradise in "the muck." While the whole of the narrative to this point works to negotiate power relations across genders, classes, and races, in the scene where the hurricane descends, the narrator says that Janie, Tea Cake, and the others who did not evacuate looked into the sky, with their eyes watching God, wondering "if He meant to measure their puny might against His." Here Hurston suggests that the right of men to declare dominance or supreme authority as the white slave owners had over the slaves and as Starks had attempted over Janie is futile; the dominion of God over humankind is the only true hierarchy.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Pheoby's response to Janie's story guide readers to understand the novel?

When Janie finishes telling her story, Pheoby responds by saying "Ah ain't satisfied wid mahself no mo'." This response suggests a couple of things to readers. First, Janie is a powerful storyteller to elicit such a strong response from her audience. The power of storytelling is central to Janie's ability to define herself, to make her own meaning in life. Second, as witness to Janie's testimony, Pheoby's comment recognizes her own failure to craft her own story. This tension between Janie's and Pheoby's lived experiences prompts readers to consider the extent to which they have been the authors of their own narratives or lived someone else's prescribed story.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God why does Zora Neale Hurston choose to have Janie kill Tea Cake, rather than let him die in any other way?

Hurston likely has Janie kill Tea Cake not just to add to the drama and tragic ending of Janie's journey, but to signify Janie's conscious release from men and attainment of the independence that she long sought. Throughout the story, Janie comes to define and know herself in relation to her husbands. From Killicks, she learns that she cannot assume that marriage means love, and she takes some control over her own life by leaving him. From Joe Starks, she learns—after many years—first to find happiness in using her own thoughts to escape from an unpleasant daily drudgery and second to express herself and use her own voice. Her marriage to Tea Cake is the relationship in which she fully and finally comes of age. From him she not only learns what love is, but she also learns to value her self-worth. Her killing him is symbolic of the fact that she no longer needs to define herself against a man but can stand on her own.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how are the two communities Janie lives in as an adult—Eatonville and the Everglades—similar and different?

Eatonville and the Everglades are both small, rural communities in Florida. They are similar in being relatively isolated from the majority white world and in the strong sense of community feeling and community judgment. While the people in the Everglades are transient migrant workers, they, along with the townspeople of Eatonville, are African Americans who work for the white "bossman." The communities are different in many ways, however. Eatonville is more civilized and the Everglades more wild or natural. While Eatonville has tidy houses with porches, the Everglades is filled with ramshackle shacks and camps. Life in Eatonville is relatively quiet, predictable, and staid. On the other hand, the seasonal life in the fertile Everglades has ups and downs as workers arrive for the picking season and then leave. With its lively, noisy jooks and Bahaman fire dances, the Everglades is anything but quiet. Compared to Eatonville, the Everglades is an exotic and vibrant community.

In what ways can Their Eyes Were Watching God be viewed as a feminist novel?

Their Eyes Were Watching God can be described as feminist because the main character, Janie, undergoes a transformation from a dependent, teenaged bride to a liberated, mature woman. During the course of the novel, Janie discovers that she is capable of making her own decisions and living without a man in her life. She becomes self-sufficient through her experiences such as working in the bean fields, driving a car, and learning to shoot a gun. Janie's awakening is the result of her three marriages to different men at different times in her life. By the time Tea Cake dies, Janie is content to be on her own and has found peace and tranquility; she has found her own voice, is living life according to her wishes, and no longer cares what others think.

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