Their Eyes Were Watching God
Reader's Guide - Discussion Questions
- Why does Janie choose to tell her story only to her best friend Pheoby? How does Pheoby respond at the end of Janie's tale?
- Hurston uses nature
— the pear tree, the ocean, the horizon, the hurricane
— not only as a plot device but also as metaphor. Describe the ways these function as both. Can you think of others?
- The novel's action begins and ends with two judgment scenes. Why are both groups of people judging her? Is either correct in its assessment?
- Many readers consider the novel a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, as Janie journeys through three marriages. What initially attracts her to each man? What causes her to leave? What does she learn from each experience?
- In the novel, speech is used as a mechanism of control and liberation, especially as Janie struggles to find her voice. During which important moments of her life is Janie silent? How does she choose when to speak out or to remain quiet?
- Is there a difference between the language of the men and that of Janie or the other women? How do the novel's first two paragraphs point to these differences?
- The elaborate burial of the town mule draws from an incident Hurston recounts in Tell My Horse, where the Haitian president ordered an elaborate Catholic funeral for his pet goat. Although this scene is comic, how is it also tragic?
- Little of Hurston's work was published during the Harlem Renaissance, yet her ability to tell witty stories and to stir controversy made her a favorite guest at elite Harlem parties. Identify several passages of wit and humor in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
- How does the image of the black woman as "the mule of the world" become a symbol for the roles Janie chooses or refuses to play during her quest?
- What do the names of Janie's husbands
— Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
— tell us about their characters and their relationships with Janie?
- What kind of God are the eyes of Hurston's characters watching? What crucial moments of the plot does the title allude to? Does this God ever answer Janie's questioning?
- Re-read the last three pages of the novel. How do the imagery and tone connect with other moments in the novel? Does Janie's story end in triumph, despair, or a mixture of both?
If you want to read other novelists influenced by Hurston, you might enjoy:
Toni Morrison's Jazz (1992)
Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982)
Alice Walker's Meridian (1976)
If you want to read other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, you might enjoy:
Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues (1926)
James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922)
Jean Toomer's Cane (1923)
"As early as I could remember it was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories. Even the women folk would stop and take a breath with them at times. As a child when I was sent down to Joe Clarke's store, I'd drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more."
-Zora Neale Hurston
Dust Tracks on a Road