Their Eyes Were
Watching God (1937)
 
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Khaled Al Masaeed and Rebecca Few
Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education
Department of English & Theatre
University of North Carolina, Pembroke

I. WORTH BEING FAMILIAR WITH

This section provides information that a teacher may want to share with his/her students before teaching the novel. It covers notes on the author, the novel, and some of the literary terms that might be taught along with the text to direct the teacher to the discussion of the time period and explore the language of the novel. Focusing on the novel’s location in history and its problematization of language helps introduce the novel to students and readies them to read and explore the novel, its meaning, and the issues it addresses.

Notes about the Author and the Novel

Zora Neale Hurston, according to Carla Kaplan in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2003), was born January 15, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John Hurston and Lucy Potts Hurston. In 1892, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the United States, where John Hurston served several terms as mayor. In 1917, Hurston enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, where she completed her high school education. Three years later, she enrolled at Howard University and began her writing career. The university's literary magazine published her first story in 1921. In 1925, she moved to New York and became a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Meanwhile, she enrolled in Barnard College and majored in English and studied anthropology as well. Hurston's life in Eatonville and her extensive anthropological research on rural black folklore greatly influenced her writing (773-778).

One of the strengths of Their Eyes Were Watching God is that it can be studied in the context of different American literary traditions. For example, it is associated with Harlem Renaissance literature, because of Hurston's connection to that scene, and can also be read in the context of American Southern literature, with its rural Southern setting and its focus on the relationship between man and nature, the dynamics of human relationships, and a hero's quest for independence.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is the story of a black women’s search for identity, love, and self-happiness that takes place in the black town of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston, presents the story in the dialect of the times, rich in local color, and includes examples of the black oral tradition. While the text contains many racial offenses by today’s standards, they are spoken, for the most part, by the black people themselves and are normal speech patterns of the time.

Hurston places great emphasis on the control of language as the source of identity and empowerment. Their Eyes Were Watching God is most often celebrated for Hurston's unique use of language, mainly her mastery of rural Southern black dialect. Throughout the novel, she utilizes an interesting narrative structure, splitting the presentation of the story between high literary narration and idiomatic discourse. As Joseph Urgo states in, “The Tune Is the Unity of the Thing: Power and Vulnerability in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Hurston’s novel empowers folk culture with the language of literate discourse” (3). The long passages of discourse celebrate the culturally rich voices of Janie's world; these characters speak as do few others in American literature, and their distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and tone mark their individuality. In other words, language is part of the identity; therefore, the novel pays a lot of attention to the use of language and its importance in representing the individuality of the characters.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered by many to be Hurston’s feminist manifesto. Janie, the unconventional main character of the novel who struggles against society’s norms in order to achieve independence and self-realization as a woman, represents Hurston in many ways. Through Janie, one can see that Hurston believed that women were treated as less than mules by men. Hurston encourages women to rise above the burdens placed upon them by men and realize their true potential as women, as Janie did (Dilbeck 104).

Hurston’s novel was made into a television motion picture in 2005. Executively produced by Oprah Winfrey, the film stars Halle Berry as Janie Crawford and Michael Ealy as Tea Cake. According to The New York Times, some key elements of the novel such as racial discrimination are left out of the film. Instead, “the key dynamic is sexual politics and feminism amid a fledgling black culture in Florida” (W7). It received a rating of TV-14 indicating that parental supervision is strongly suggested for children under 14 years old due to the sexual nature of some scenes.

Literary Terms

Their Eyes Were Watching God is full of opportunities for teachers to integrate the teaching of literary terms. Some of the literary terms that can be taught in conjunction with this novel are irony, metaphor, symbolism, theme, flashback, and characterization.

The bulk of the story is told as a flashback including all three of Janie’s marriages and the time previous to her first marriage; therefore, it is necessary to address the issue of time and flashback in order for the students to understand the time-frame of the novel. In addition, characterization is present through Janie’s character. As Janie goes through her journey of self-discovery, her character is revealed. This is one of the most important aspects of the novel, and students should have a deep understanding of Janie’s character when they finish reading the book.

Metaphors are also present throughout the novel. A few examples are when Janie compares herself to a pear tree: “She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds” (pg). In addition, the metaphor of Janie’s bottom as grapefruits in her back pockets and of her hair as rope in Chapter 1 are metaphors, just as Nanny uses metaphors to tell Janie that black women are mules in Chapter 2.

There are several themes in the novel. One theme is that love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. This theme is demonstrated by the true love that Janie finds in Tea Cake. He is unexpected because the townspeople think he is using Janie for her money and because of their age difference. Another theme is that women should be treated with respect. This theme is evident in the portrayal of Janie’s three marriages. During her first two marriages, Janie is not respected by her two husbands and she is miserable. Janie does not find true happiness and fulfillment until she marries Tea Cake and experiences his love and respect.

II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO

This section is related to the text of the novel and the rationale for the provided activities and teaching approaches. This section contains some of the important symbols that Hurston uses throughout the unique language of the text itself.

Symbolism is one of the most prevalent literary devices used in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Some of the most common symbols used in the book are the mule, hair and the pear tree. (See section below.) Finally, irony exists when Janie kills Tea Cake at the end of the novel. This is an example of irony because it is Tea Cake who has taught Janie to shoot a gun.

Symbolism

Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned with issues of racial and gender identity and records the female growth possible in relationships with supportive black men and the dangers to black women’s identity in relationships with oppressive black men. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a text richly endowed with meaning and purpose which uses poetic language and folkloric imagery to convey its messages.

One recurrent symbol throughout the first half of the novel is that of the mule. The novel works as a celebratory “exploration of a woman’s consciousness accompanied by an assertion of that woman’s right to selfhood” (Hemenway 232). The use of the mule imagery indicates the way in which African American females have been mistreated and dehumanized by the society. Also, the mule symbolizes the relationship between “the white man and the black man” and “the black man and the black woman.” This can be seen clearly through Nanny’s view of the situation when she says, “So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his women folks. De nigger woman is de mule oh de world as fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 14).

Another important symbol is that of the pear tree. The pear tree presents the ideal relationship between women and men. The key to the novel is Janie's idea of marriage, which is pitted against other, less romantic, ideas of marriage in the book. Janie gets her definition of marriage from nature. When she is sixteen, her sexuality awakens as she watches “the mystery” of a blossoming pear tree in her back yard. This interpretation is supported by Susan Meisenhelder in “False Gods and Black Goddesses in Naylor’s Mama Day and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God”:

[T]hrough Janie’s vision, the pear tree presents the ideal relationship, both sexual and emotional, between women and men. The male bee is not aggressive or rapacious: he gently “sinks” into the blossom, and the female flower is not passive: she “arches to meet the love embrace.” It is the marriage of such active femaleness and gentle masculinity, it is fundamental equality, that results in fruit. (2)

This is Janie’s idealized view of nature. It is beauty and pleasure that she keeps chasing after throughout the rest of the story. The pear tree and the horizon represent Janie's idealized views of nature. The horizon represents the far-off mystery of the natural world, with which she longs to connect. Janie's hauling in of her horizon “like a great fish-net” at the end of the novel indicates that she has achieved the harmony with nature that she has sought since the moment under the pear tree.

The hurricane, another important symbol, symbolizes the destructive fury of nature to free the black women from a threatening heterosexual relationship and purify and reject those characters who have betrayed the democratic and culturally autonomous values of black life on the muck. The hurricane functions as a destroyer of white power and as an eraser of artificial distinctions and hierarchies. Meisenhelder elaborates:

The hurricane dissolves boundaries between the human and the natural as the lake's waters enter the houses and a terror-stricken baby rabbit seeks refuge in the house with Janie, Tea Cake, and Motor Boat. Even the lines between water and land become blurred when stray fish are found "swimming in the yard" and the "water full of things living and dead. When these boundaries are erased, the racial categories are gone too. Unable to distinguish white corpses from black, white officials are stymied in their ludicrous attempt to ensure white corpses get coffins and black ones quick-lime. (4-5)

The hurricane cleans the screen of white values that sits between the black community of the muck and the face of divine power. Tea Cake and his friends prefer to imitate the white’s resistance to the hurricane, rather than to listen to the wise retreat of the Indians and Bahamanians. Therefore, the storm eventually forces them to look to God.

III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS

This section addresses what students should retain for years after reading the novel. They should still know that this literary piece addresses the issues that black women suffered from at that time within the framework of feminism. Furthermore, students should be able to recognize the importance and the purpose of the journey in the story in order to support the status of black women at the time the story was written.

Feminism

Through the use of symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford embarks on a journey of self discovery in which she learns what it is to be a woman. According to Dilbeck, “by the end of the novel, Janie realizes that a woman is to be loved, respected and self-sufficient” (102).

Through Janie’s three marriages, she yearns for and finally experiences love. In early cultures, pear trees represented sexuality and fertility (cit). Perhaps this knowledge is what spurred Hurston to use this symbol to represent Janie’s ideal of a perfect marriage. As mentioned above, at 16, Janie forms an ideal of love and marriage while relaxing under a pear tree. Her first marriage to Logan Killicks was repugnant: “Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree” (cit). Though Janie was sexually desired during her first marriage, she was not treated with respect and dignity.

Janie’s second husband, Jody Starks, also falls short of the fetishized pear tree. Jody is controlling of Janie as a result of his jealousy because of her good looks. He does not offer Janie any freedom to experience life. “It is not until her final marriage that the dream of the tree is realized” (Dilbeck 102).

In addition to the pear tree image of femininity, the mule symbol also represents womanhood. This is very clearly introduced when Janie’s grandmother explains that black women are mules. The symbol is used as a metaphor during Janie’s second marriage to Jody Starks when Eatonville resident Matt Bonner is teased by the other residents because he is unable to control his mule. The mule is pushed around and prodded by the townspeople. Here the mule represents Janie’s own gender entrapment (103). The mule is not mentioned again in the novel after Jody, Janie’s most domineering husband, dies. Once Jody is gone, Janie is available to embrace her femininity and be independent.

Janie’s hair is the final and perhaps strongest symbol of her feminism. It represents her womanly strength and beauty. Jody Starks finds her hair to be threatening; therefore, he forces her to tie it back as a form of control. When he dies, Janie burns all of her handkerchiefs as a sign that she is now a free and independent woman. Tea Cake, Janie’s third husband adores her hair and embraces her femininity. “Tea Cake treats Janie’s hair (womanhood) with considerate devotion, and it is under these circumstances that Janie’s identity is her own" (103).

The abilities of N.C. secondary students to understand the biographical and historical information, as well as adequately and and sit at the loophole to watch the passers by.” (cit.)

Journey

Their Eyes Were Watching God is perceived by critics as a journey toward self-identity through which a black female achieves growth and development against the history and the oppression of race and sex. “Janie rejects her grandmother’s misguided vision of black women’s lives in favor of the journey to the horizon in search of the independent self” (McKay 62). Her relationship with Tea Cake (her third husband) helps her to find her identity, but his death helps her to stand for herself and to speak in her own voice without being dependent on men any more.

Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dilbeck, Keiko. "Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Explicator 66:2 (Winter 2008): 102-104.

Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2006.

Kaplan, Carla, ed. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.

McKay, Nellie Y. "'Crayon Enlargements of Life': Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as Autobiography." In Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Meisenhelder, Susan. "False Gods and Black Goddesses in Naylor's Mama Day and Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Callaloo 23:4 (Autumn 2000): 1440-1448.

"ON TELEVISION: Oprah presents 1920s journey to womanhood Sunday on ABC." New Haven (Conn.) Register 4 March 2005: W4. NewsBank: America's Newspapers. Accessed online 9 Nov. 2008: http://0-infoweb.newsbank.com.uncclc.coast.uncwil.edu.

Urgo, Joseph R. "'The Tune Is the Unity of the Thing': Power and Vulnerability in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Southern Literary Journal 23 (1991): 40-54.

THE AUTHORS

Khaled Al-Masaeed was born in 1982 in Rawdit Basma, Jordan, where he received his high school education. In 2005, Al-Masaeed received his bachelor of arts in English Language and Literature from Al al-Bayt University, Jordan. A year later, he got a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship at the University of Arizona for the academic year 2006-2007. Then, he enrolled at UNC-P and earned his master of arts in English education in 2009. His working experience includes teaching English as a Foreign Language in Jordan, Teaching English as a Second Language at UNC-P, and Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language at the universities of Arizona and Wisconsin, Madison. Al-Masaeed’s main areas of focus are Second Language Acquisition, Contrastive Linguistics, and the Phonetics and Phonology of Arabic and English. In fall 2009, Al-Masaeed will pursue his Ph.D. in second-language acquisition and teaching at the University of Arizona.
Rebecca Few has taught seventh grade language arts for three years at New Century Middle School in Moore County, N.C. She began attending UNC-P in spring 2008 and aspires to finish her degree in middle grades English in fall 2009. The teaching of writing and grammar are subjects she is passionate about, and through the classes at UNC-P, she is learning to love literature as well. Middle school is her age gropu of choice because it is such a pivotal and moldable age. She hopes that in some small way through her classes her students will enjoy learning as much as she does.

© 2008 | Last rev. May 8, 2009