Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Motifs



Throughout the novel, Hurston includes nature imagery. Images of trees and flowers, bees, the sun, the moon, the lake, and the hurricane often signal times when Janie is having a profound insight about her life. Hurston frequently personifies nature, which helps highlight one of the conflicts in the novel: the power struggle between humans and nature.


Hurston includes three funerals in the novel: the mock funeral for Matt Bonner's mule, the funeral for Joe Starks, and the funeral for Tea Cake. Each of these events helps the reader understand customs, traditions, and rituals of rural, southern African Americans.


Hurston's repeated references to playing games—checkers, dice, cards—helps convey the setting of the novel and brings the characters to life. Playing games is how many of the characters relax and entertain themselves and shows a sense of community as people interact with one another. In particular, the game of checkers reflects Janie's desire to be part of her community. Joe Starks refuses to let Janie play it, but Tea Cake teaches her how.


During the course of the novel, Janie lives in several different communities. Hurston draws a rich portrait of each one and shows how a community can be both hurtful and helpful. For example, the porch sitters in Eatonville are judgmental and critical, whereas the migrant workers in the Everglades are accepting and supportive, except when Janie kills Tea Cake. At times Janie relies on her community, and at other times she feels estranged from it.

Silence and Speech

The recurring references to silence and speech support the theme of independence. As Janie becomes a confident woman, she begins to express herself. Joe Starks with his "big voice" wants to keep Janie from speaking, but Tea Cake encourages Janie to speak her own mind.

Another element of speech is Hurston's use of folklore and folk speech in the development of the plot and the characters. Her use of "eye" dialect conveys the way characters speak, and she incorporates songs, stories, beliefs, and traditions to capture African American culture in the South. Examples include the buzzard allegory in Chapter 7, the Bahaman fire dance in Chapter 16, and the reference to death as Him-with-the-square toes in Chapter 18.

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