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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's life journey from her childhood home in West Florida to Eatonville to the Everglades reflect an exploration of black culture?

When Janie lives in West Florida, she lives at first in the backyard of the white Washburn family, playing with the Washburns' grandchildren. She is so immersed in white culture that she is not aware she is black until she sees a picture of herself at six years old. Janie is teased by other black children when she goes to school, for living with white people and for wearing their hand-me-down clothes. When she leaves West Florida with Joe Starks and arrives in Eatonville, she lives in a town incorporated by African Americans. Here, she sees a black man, her husband, in charge. She learns about living beyond the view of white people, but the social organization established by Joe and the other townspeople replicates that of white traditions. It is only when Janie travels to the Everglades with Tea Cake, where the "ground [is] so rich that everything went wild," that she is immersed in African American traditions. The culture is vibrant and alive, with music and dancing, crying, laughing, and singing all the time. In the Everglades Janie and Tea Cake embrace their heritage with "the rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants."

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how is Janie's clothing used to communicate her condition at different points in the novel?

When Janie is small, Mrs. Washburn dresses her up in her white grandchildren's clothes. In this stage of her life, Janie identifies with the white children, not the black children, a condition expressed through her clothing. When Janie is with Starks, he wants to place her in a class above the other women. At the store opening, he insists she wear "one of her bought dresses. ... Her silken ruffles rustled and muttered about her. The other women had on percale and calico and here and there a head rag among the older ones." So even though Janie works six days a week, her clothes set her above the other working women of the town. After Joe's death Janie wears black in accordance with mourning customs, but when she meets Tea Cake, she rejects this custom, explaining that "the world picked out black" as the color of mourning, not Starks and not her. Done with mourning and not grieving over Starks's death at all, she wears what she wants. Later she wears blue because Tea Cake loves it. When Janie moves to the Everglades, she takes to wearing overalls, like the other women migrants. This act shows Janie's shift from a mindset of deference to men's wishes to a type of communal spirit with women. Her insistence on continuing to wear overalls when she returns to Eatonville suggests an ongoing identification with those working women rather than the judgmental porch sitters.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's speech at the end of Chapter 6 advance the story?

At the end of Chapter 6, Janie inserts herself into a discussion by the men about hitting women; she had never before taken such a step. Janie tells the men that it's easy for them to think of themselves as "God Almighty" because they have "nuthin' tuh strain against but women and chickens." Here, Janie exposes men as predators dominating the weak. She reminds them that God also created women; he knows and hears women in a way that the men don't. With this act of courage, Janie shows her growing strength and maturity. She feels powerful enough to speak and to challenge the male power. The maturity comes in the thoughtfulness underlying her position; she does not simply react emotionally, as she had when she objected to Logan Killicks's insistence that she work more, but she gives a reasoned argument.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how do the opening two paragraphs of the novel frame the story to follow?

The first two paragraphs of Their Eyes Were Watching God contrast how men and women view the world, and in doing so set the themes of gender identity and independence that the novel explores. The first paragraph rhapsodizes about the dreams of men, which are associated with journeys—"ships at a distance"—but these are unrealized dreams. While some ships, the narrator says, come in with the tide—suggesting a return from a destination—more words are spent describing the other ships, which simply linger on the horizon, leaving the dreams embodied by those ships "mocked to death by Time." The second paragraph contrasts this experience of life with that of women, which is focused not on dreams but on memories. Women seem much more in control of their mental and emotional lives to the narrator, for they forget what they want to forget and remember what they want to remember. These passages provide the context in which to view the actions of and reactions to Janie and the male and female characters of the book.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God what does the way the men observe Janie when she returns to Eatonville after Tea Cake's death convey about gender relations in the community?

The narrator explains that upon Janie's return the male porch sitters notice Janie's buttocks and breasts, along with her hair. Their focus on these aspects of her physical appearance points to their understanding of Janie as a sexual object. Not only do the men appraise her in this way when they see her in real time, but also, as the narrator explains, they save "with the mind what they lost with the eye," and continue to think of her this way in private. This passage introduces a central conflict in Janie's journey. She is perceived by the men, and perhaps also by the women who resent her for her strength and power, as an object in their lives, as opposed to the subject of her own life.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God why might Janie choose to tell her story to Pheoby?

Janie is willing to tell her story to Pheoby for three reasons—her need for self-expression, her relationship with Pheoby, and her sense of Pheobe's character. First, she has the desire to tell her story, to speak her truth to people that she knows, just as she spoke her truth at the trial for Tea Cake's murder. Having achieved self-understanding, she wants to share it. Second, she wants to tell Pheoby because she is Janie's close friend. Finally, Janie knows Pheoby and knows that she is less likely to be judgmental than others would be. She wants to have her story fully heard, not constantly interrupted, as would be likely with many others of Eatonville's residents.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God why might so much of the action in Eatonville take place on the store's porch?

Given Zora Neale Hurston's training as an anthropologist, she was likely interested in the notion that social roles and power structures are maintained by their rehearsal and performance in public spaces. The porch functions as a stage where people's roles and hierarchies are performed for all to see. Thus the men and women of the town discuss, comment on, and judge the persons and events of their community. The store provides a neutral corner, a public space rather than the private space of the porch of any individual's home. The store setting also gives the townspeople an opportunity to observe many individuals over the course of the day as people come to the store to purchase needed goods. Finally, the store setting also gives them the chance to see Joe Starks's and Janie's marriage in action.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how do Janie's marriages support or refute Nanny's view that black women are the mules of the world?

Nanny's comment expresses her view of the hierarchical social structure in the early 20th century South. As Nanny sees it, whites are at the top of the social structure. Black men are below them, as evidenced by the fact that white men can tell them to pick up a load that they have no desire to carry. But black men will not pick the load up, Nanny says. Instead, they will tell their women to carry it, which is why she says these women are the mules. Janie's marriage to Joe Starks seems to verify Nanny's claim. While Starks does the public work of a mayor and community leader, Janie runs the store. She chafes under the compulsion to work because she is constantly criticized for how she does it. Janie's other two marriages seem to contradict Nanny's view, however. Killicks tries to get Janie help him—he wants a second mule so she can plow fields with him, rather than instead of him. At any rate he does not press the matter when Janie resists other work that she wants him to do. Her marriage to Tea Cake also goes against Nanny's view. The two of them work in the fields together and are happy to do so. There's a suggestion in this that love promotes a sharing of work that makes the work itself more joyful and less of a burden.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's marriage to Tea Cake satisfy her dream of marriage she had beneath the pear tree when she was 16?

When Janie watches a bee gather pollen from a pear blossom at age 16, she imagines an ideal relationship where each party gives and receives from one another, as the bee pollinates the flower and the flower provides nectar for honey to the bee. In this symbiotic relationship there is no damage done to either party, and no domination by either partner. After living through two possessive marriages, Janie meets Tea Cake, who "looked like the love thoughts of women." Here the narrator reminds the reader of Janie's girlhood dreams and shows that their fulfillment will be with Tea Cake. When the narrator says that Janie "was not shocked at Tea Cake's gambling. It was part of him, so it was all right," it is clear that Janie fully accepts Tea Cake as he is, without desire or need to possess him.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God what do the buzzards symbolize following the elaborate funeral for the mule in Chapter 6?

After the narrator mocks the ceremony of the elaborate burial of the mule, saying they "mocked everything human in death," the people move away from the dead carcass, leaving the rest to the buzzards. The narration then gives way to what might be understood as a folktale offered as a critical contrast to the actions of the humans. The flock needs to wait for its leader to come and perform a ceremony before they will eat; this can be seen as a mocking commentary of Joe Starks's leadership. The reader recalls the conversation Starks had with Lee Coker on first reaching the town, in which Coker explains that there is no mayor because the townspeople are all adults and can make their own decisions. Just as the buzzards could follow their natural instincts and eat without waiting for the leader, so the townspeople could have gone on without a mayor. But humans, like buzzards, find communal identity in rituals and customs.

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