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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does Janie's speech against Joe Starks in Chapter 7 move the novel forward?

After Joe publically insults Janie for not cutting tobacco right, she verbally strikes back in front of the townspeople, emasculating him by saying that when his pants were off, he "look lak de change uh life." This response changes Janie's role. She is no longer the passive female who is not allowed to speak. As Sam Watson says, she is "really playin' de dozens tuhnight," referring to the African American game of verbally one-upping one's opponent. Janie has entered the discourse from which she was previously excluded and is competing in games Joe told her she had no business playing for twenty years. The exchange marks the beginning of the end for Starks. After Janie takes his power from him in this way, Starks quickly deteriorates and dies, and Janie is free from his hold on her.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how does the symbol of the horizon evolve over the course of the story?

It is clear that the horizon is a very important symbol, as it surfaces in the first paragraph of the novel and returns in the last paragraph. In the first paragraph, some men's dreams are poised "forever on the horizon, never out of sight" but never in possession. Later, after Joe Starks dies, Janie is "ready for her great journey to the horizon," or the edge of Florida where she finds herself among people living in a whole new way, outside the restraints she had previously known. By the end of the novel, Janie has not only traveled to the horizon, she has also come back home, where "she pulled in her horizon like a great fish net ... so much of life in its meshes." Now the horizon no longer belongs to men and their dreams; it belongs to Janie and instead of dreams it holds memories.

How is Their Eyes Were Watching God not only about Janie's journey to personal freedom but also about this journey for African Americans?

When Hurston was writing, many of the existing stories about African Americans were told from the white perspective. African American characters were often seen as objects controlled by white people in positions of power, rather than people able to act on their own free will. Some believe that African Americans had internalized this view of themselves, a phenomenon that Hurston herself described as "the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a dirty deal." Hurston resists this narrative in a couple of ways. First, there are nearly no white characters in the story, a fact that shows African Americans as independent of the white community, and that asserts that these characters are the subjects of their own story, rather than the objects upon which white people act. Second, throughout the story, Hurston uses her characters to explore different potential roles that African Americans were adopting in the early 20th century. Logan Killicks represents the mentality of keeping one's head down and not causing trouble; Joe Starks represents a move to recreate and ascend to the top of a traditional power structure in the United States; and Tea Cake represents liberation from both of those narratives. He and Janie forge an alternative way forward while living in the Everglades, in which African Americans are free from the historical narratives of blacks in the United States. Janie and Tea Cake find their own emancipation in their own re-imagining of who and what they could be in the uncharted Everglades where they are free to operate as subjects and to define their identities by emancipating themselves.

What where some outcomes of the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston's work in the 1970s?

When Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and other revered and accomplished female African American writers brought Hurston's long-forgotten work back into the public eye in the 1970s, they not only offered a well-deserved celebration of that work, they also resurrected Janie. She is a hero who could easily fit into their own work. This parallel encouraged contemporary narratives from and about African American women. The revival of Hurston's work also led to its inclusion in the American canon of literature, a move that validates African American narratives in the public sphere and insists on their place in the American imagination.

Do you agree that readers of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God should feel "drenched in love," as writer Alice Walker said of the book?

Alice Walker elaborates on the notion that one must be drenched in love when reading Hurston's novel by reminding readers that the African American community has done incredibly well under the dysfunctional circumstances in which they find themselves. Though Hurston's novel has characters who are judged negatively by other characters, Walker contends that Hurston's characters are humans. They struggle and they fail, but they triumph in that their behaviors are acts of love, attempts to love others and themselves. Hurston leads the reader toward a nonjudgmental attitude with scenes such as the one where Tea Cake whips Janie in an effort to assert himself. Janie's enduring unconditional love signals to the readers that they are not meant to judge these characters, but to see and love them as they are. Likewise, when Janie behaves violently toward Tea Cake, there is no suggestion in the text that she should be shamed for her behavior, and she herself does not attempt to hide it when she tells her story to Pheoby. Also worth noting is that Pheobe, unlike the townspeople, doesn't judge Janie either, but rather meets her story with love, friendship, and compassion.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God what is the significance of the references to Joe Starks and Janie sitting high in chairs?

Starks's and Janie's relative attraction to and rejection of high chairs reveals differences in their characters. At the end of Chapter 4, Starks comes in a hired rig to pick up Janie. Janie sees him in that position as though he were on "some high, ruling chair," suggesting a throne. This description of a throne signals the importance that sitting position will take as the story progresses, and in this scene, Janie gets a first glimpse of what it will mean to sit beside him. Later, the Eatonville residents express the idea that the throne need not be a literal chair, because Starks has a throne "in de seat of his pants." This comment recognizes that Starks's ruling nature is part of him, and while they do not necessarily like it, they do not rail against it. The importance of the high position in Starks's mind is made clear when he ruminates on Janie's lack of appreciation for the position he's put her in. He sees himself as "building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world." The use of "overlook" makes the chair a seat of judgment. This position is one Janie is uncomfortable with, however. She tells Pheoby that when she was up on the high chair, she "felt like de world wuz cryin' extry and Ah ain't read de common news yet." In other words, she felt isolated and removed from the plight of her people. Starks is perfectly happy ruling over and judging other people. Janie wants to be with the people.

What do the different descriptions of trees in Chapter 2 of Their Eyes Were Watching God say about Janie and Nanny and their relationship?

The opening line of Chapter 2 reads: "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone." She imagines herself as a pear tree, or any tree in bloom, with "kissing bees singing the beginning of the world." Here the tree represents not only Janie's budding sexuality, but also possibility and eagerness for experiences and life ahead. Nanny, on the other hand, has a head and face that "looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm." Nanny represents a life lived, hard experience that weathers and beats a person down. She represents an "ancient power that no longer mattered." These juxtaposed similes signal the stage of life where each woman finds herself, as well as the generational divide that becomes important as Janie grows up and discovers who she is and how she fits in the changing world. While Nanny's way of life and experiences influence how she treats Janie, Janie has yet to discover her own desired way of life.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how might Tea Cake's real name Vergible be significant?

Some critics have suggested that Vergible is a dialectic pronunciation of the word veritable, which suggests something authentic or true. This view sees Vergible Woods as Janie's true love. Whereas her life with Logan Killicks and Joe Starks was the fulfillment of someone else's version of her life, her life with Tea Cake answers the dream of her true life that was born under the pear tree when she was 16. A larger suggestion made by the text might be that their way in the Everglades, a life of equality infused with folklore and tradition, is representative of the true life of African Americans.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God how did Joe Starks's manner and actions affect his relations with people of Eatonville, and what effect did those relations have on Janie?

The narrator describes Joe Starks as not being an imposing man physically or intellectually but having a "bow-down command in his face" that compelled people to do as he said but also kept them at a distance. His actions reinforced this distance. He takes charge of the town; he launches projects and then directs people to carry out the work. He builds a magnificent, two-story home with large porches that is painted white that people think of in terms of the days of slavery, viewing it as the master's house and all the other homes, including their own, as slave quarters. Janie too is affected by this attitude toward Starks. As the mayor's wife, she is held in a certain regard and people are distant toward her as well.

What is revealed by the discussion of Bahaman dancing in the beginning of Chapter 18 of Their Eyes Were Watching God?

As a trained anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston likely had keen interest in expressions of culture, including dance. In the opening of Chapter 18, the Bahamans stop hiding their dancing because they saw that Americans didn't laugh at them, the reaction they expected and feared. Instead, the Americans like Janie and Tea Cake take up the dance style, signaling a merging of two cultures in the Everglades. In her Master's thesis for Florida International University, Jennifer M. Sittig suggests that the performance of these Caribbean dances signifies a reforging of community in the black diaspora, a community that is the result of the slave trade out of Africa and other nations. In Janie and Tea Cake's case, it is significant that they (and other Americans) choose to adopt this element of Bahamian culture, a move that departs from the imposed adoption of white culture that resulted from the slave trade.

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