Friday, January 27, 2012

Discussion Questions for Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Reader's Guide - Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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


  1. The names of Janie's husbands tell us a lot about their general personalities and attitudes towards women. Logan Killicks is a hardened farmer who doesn't really care about having a wife, all he wants is someone to help him make as much money as possible. His name in and of itself just sounds rough, apathetic, and antisocial. Janie is not treated as a person by him, she is treated as a workhorse that is expected to perform heavy manual labor and obey Logan. Jody Starks is a man who wants to be seen in the best light possible as the mayor of a town and a bringer of prosperity. The last name Starks suggests that he loves to hold the stop light and will do whatever he can to keep women in the dark. This is seen particularly when Janie tries to make a speech to the town but Jody shuts her up so he can talk. His relationship with Janie is superficial and he wants Janie to stay in her place. He is superior to Janie and she must tend to his every need. Tea Cake is exactly what his nickname sounds like. He is sweet and caring towards Janie and treats her as his equal especially noted when he plays checkers with Janie. He is a smooth talker and has a lot of fun with Janie. She is Tea Cake's perfect match.

  2. 9. For Logan Killicks she didn't want to be a mule so she left. For Joe Starks she allowed herself to be used as a "mule." "Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn't satisfied wid me de way Ah was." (pg 86) "...but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. ah never married her for nothin' like dat..." (pg 43) Tea Cake didn't want her to be a "mule" for her, he just wanted her to do it because she wanted to. " 'Tain't mah notion tuh drag you down wid me." (pg 124) "Me scramble 'round tuh git de money tuh take yuh-been workin' lak uh dawg for two whole weeks...Nobody else on earth kin hold uh candle tuh you, baby. you got de keys to de kingdom." (pg 108-109) She had the best relationship with Tea Cake because he didn't force her to do anything that she didn't want to do. with Joe and Logan she wasn't herself, Tea Cake treated her like Janie not whoever she was married to wife.
    Alexa Narvaez and Anastacea Best

    Alexa Narvaez & Anastacea Best

  3. Angela , Chantel, Maeve .

    1. Pheoby is the only one who seems to care about Janie after she returns and she is the only one who treats Janie with kindness that is why Janie chooses Pheoby to talk to about the story. Pheoby responds in an excited manner. She says " Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie. Ah ain't satisfied wid mahself no mo'. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin' wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin'." (192 Hurston)

    2. She uses the setting (pear tree) as a metaphor of not only what Janie seeks in life but what she wants to become. Janie seeks to be free and she sees it as a symbol of beauty. It is a plot device for love and her search for finding true love. "She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road." (11 Hurston)

  4. Janie's self-assurance is evident in her choice to tell her story only to Phoeby. She remarks that she doesn't feel the need to prove herself or explain herself to the gossipy, critical town--"People like dem wastes up too much time puttin' they mouf on things they don't know nothin' about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don't know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings and if love is a bed-quilt!" Janie relates her story to her best friend, as "[they] been kissin' friends for twenty years," and allows Phoeby to tell her story to the others, if she so wishes. It is implied that Pheoby does tell Janie's story to the town, and it is Pheoby's re-telling that dominates the narrative. Pheoby also comes away from Janie's story with a new sense of herself--she craves equality with her husband, Sam.

    Throughout the novel, speech and language plays a key role in defining identity. As Janie is metaphorically searching for her voice, she literally searches for control over her voice--Jody believes it is not a woman's place to speak her mind, rather, she is a pretty thing to put on a pedestal. Tea Cake, contrastingly, engages Janie's voice--he engages her as an equal and willingly engages her in conversation. This freedom to speak is symbolic of true liberation--and with the power to speak comes the equal power of silence. Janie, in her full self-actualization, realizes the benefits of silence, and knowing she does not have to explain herself to anyone, refuses to tell her story to the entirety of Eatonville.

  5. Cindy, Junwan, Carolyn

    10. The names of Janie's husbands, Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, and Tea Cake help convey their personalities and relationships a tad bit more throughout the novel.

    When one searched the name, 'Killick' on Google search, one found the meaning to be "wood." This is a great reference to the character of Killicks since he, himself, chops wood.
    "'Scuse mah freezolity, Mist' Killicks, but Ah don't mean to chop de first chip." (pg 26)
    This shows he is hardworking and alternatively polite.

    Moving on to Jody Starks. When one typed the name 'Starks' on Google search one derived the term 'stiff; rigid; complete; absolute' which seemed to go perfectly in hand with the character of Jody. He is very condescending and firm in his approach to life, especially with Janie.
    "Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home." (pg 43)

    One Google searched Tea Cake the results were obviously 'sweet; kind; happy; and food.' This relates to Tea Cake's character pretty well since he seems to be the epitome of sweet in his relationship with Janie (in the beginning).
    "He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it was natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points." (pg 95-96)
    This quote demonstrates he is sweet and kind towards Janie, and not controlling and affirmative like her previous husbands.

  6. Gabi, Sam, Jessica, Ben and Gus

    2. Hurston’s use of nature adds to the meaning behind the plot and characters. The pear tree and the horizon represent Janie’s view of nature. The horizon can also symbolize her hopeful future soon to come. “So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time, and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect thing” (25). Janie’s passionate interaction with nature expresses her desperate need for change and freedom.

    6 & 9. Janie symbolizes “the mule of the world” as she takes on the burden of women’s role of being subservient to men. After being married off to Logan Killicks, Janie falls under the category of the average black woman. She endures harsh labor and is treated as an animal, like the mule. Even after meeting Jody Starks, she found herself working endless hours for him to only be labeled as the “mayor’s wife.” He forced her to hide her hair which is a woman’s most prized possession. Losing her femininity made her slowly transform into the man’s possession. The man’s voice is very powerful, and the woman learns to responds softly. She realizes the emotional abuse that he had caused and later found a voice once he died. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). Janie realized that in order for her to be free, she must distance herself from the man and his control.

  7. 2. Hurston uses the season spring to represent fertility and compare to to Janie's budding sexuality. this metaphor is continued in the orgasmic pear tree scene where Janie is blossoming into the beginnings womanhood similar to the ripe pears blossoming on the tree.
    "the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree..."
    The bees pollinating the tree represent the men about to place themselves around the life of Janie. this extended metaphor is enhanced with the use of poetic language and vivid imagery.

    George Ryder Jordan

  8. Isho Osman

    1) Janie chooses to tell her story to her best friend Pheoby because Pheoby is the only person she can trust, she is the only person in that town that understand her. The other people in town judge Janie and they make conclusions.

    “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ’Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ‘em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf”(6).

    Speech is used as a mechanism of control and liberation, especially as Janie struggles to find her voice. An important moment of silence in Janie’s life is when she was asked to make a speech when Jody became the mayor of the town. When she was asked to speak, Jody stopped her, even though she was going to speak.

    “ Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home”(43).

  9. Cassidy and Shannon

    4) As Janie goes through a series of relationships in her life, she learns more about her needs and places more value on those aspects; she marries Logan to appease her grandmother and finds that she possesses the bare necessities. She finds safety in this marriage, but she is unhappy. Logan is older, and he expects her to behave and work on his farm, and the amount of attraction Janie feels for him is minimal. She then marries Joe Starks, and she finds him much more attractive. He is charming and he initially treats Janie well, and she finds herself leaving Logan to marry him in the first place. After she spends enough time with Joe, she realizes he does not respect her as an individual or as his wife, and even though he initially provided Janie with security and friendship, his devaluing of their relationship and drive for power in both his job and his home deteriorated their relationship. She then meets Tea Cake, and Janie finds herself attracted to him the most; he is younger than Janie, and he is charming in addition to being a strong male figure; more importantly, he respects Janie as a individual, a friend, and a lover. When Janie and Tea Cake brave the storm together in Tea Cake's less-than-elegant house, he apologizes to her for it even though Janie deems it unnecessary. His passion and youth is something Janie admires and his constant respect for her is something that solidifies the relationship. Janie discovers with each relationship that there are more to things that what she has already had, and this is characteristic of the traditional journey. Relating to psychological theories such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the Bildungsroman fits Janie's life perfectly in terms of what she searches for with each relationship.

  10. Anna and Shantel, questions 9 & 11.
    9.) The phsyical state of the mule as described in the book can be related to the personal starvation of Janie throughout her marriage to Jody. Just as the mule was overworked and never able to feel fully comfortable, Janie was held to high expectations of perfection of image and never allowed to enjoy her friendships, or her beauty. The marks on her back from the corset stand just as poignantly as the ribs of the mule through his skin.

    11.)Throughout literature, God has always stood to signify a persons faith, and the hopes they have for life meaning. In "Their Eyes were Watching God," God stand to signify the dreams of each character. Janie has high hope that her life will be the romantic and love-filled dream that she has grown up with. God to her is the happiness characterized by love that means so much.

    To other characters, God is the security of their community. God is the town that Jody built for them, and they look to God when that security is not as promised as it was. During the hurricane scene, several of the townspeople hide in one house, and wait to find out if the storm ends.

    "They huddled closer and stared at the door. they just didnt use another part of their bodies, and they didnt look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God." -pg 159.

    The townspeople look to god in the midst of their uncertianty to see if everything that He means to them will still be there when they open the door again. God is outside the door, deciding how much he will leave them. They watch the door just as they would watch Him if he were standing there deciding in front of them.

  11. Desire' Giddens and Angela Rollins
    1)Why does Janie choose to tell her story only to her best friend Pheoby?
    Janie has generally remained silent about her life. Therefore, it is an extremely personal tale in which she is entrusting Phoeby with. Phoeby is her truest friend, since all other people are either judgemental or biased towards her. Although when Janie first gets with Tea Cake, Phoeby warns her because off all the talk circulaing, ultimately she respects Janie's feelings and lets her run off with Tea Cake. Becuase of this respect and kindness, Janie trusts Phoeby and tells her the whole story. She also mentions in the novel that she knows Phoeby doesn't gossip with the other women, which makes her even mopre trustworthy for this story.

    2)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?

    Hurston's use of nature is both symbolic and a means of progressing the story. Fo example, the pear tree is a symbol and metaphor of coming of age. When standing at the pear tree, Janie think of how she wants her life to start. She wants the stress and the problems and the joy of really living, and at 16 she elt like she had not reached that point yet. She observes the bees and thinks of them kissing the pollen. This inspires her, in an effort to get her life moving, to kiss her neighbor, which then propells the story onward. Her grandmother sees her and forces her to get married to Logan. In this way, the symbolism of growing up and the pear tree actually makes her grow up and move on in her life.

  12. 1. When Janie comes back home, she chooses to tell her story to only Pheobe because of their trust in each other. Pheobe is the only one who regards Janie with kindness when she returns. Not only that but Pheobe listens and understands what Janie has been through. By the end of Janie’s tale, it is implied that Pheobe has told the town of Janie’s adventures, and has put her own spins on it. Pheobe walks away from Janie’s story feeling like she was not as content in herself as she had been. She feels a new raw love for her husband, Sam, and wants to be near him because of the way Janie’s stories of love impacted her.
    10. The image of the black woman as the “mule of the world” is a symbol for how men treat their wives. During the course of the novel, Janie has three husbands, Logan Killicks, Jody Starks and Tea Cake. Logan Starks is a farmer who does not care much for his wife, only that she does her share of work. He treats her not like his lover, but like a mule. Janie refuses to live this type of life. Jody Starks is the mayor of Eatonville, and he had a soft spot for his wife at first, but when his ideas of love became twisted, Janie had to suffer through it. Jody forced Janie to wear a scarf around her hair, which was a symbol of a woman’s beauty and pride. Jody causes Janie to lose her feminine side, which in turn causes her to submit for twenty years to him. Even though Janie worked just as hard as him, she ended up getting the description of “Mayor’s Wife” and nothing more. Tea Cake was a final symbol of Janie allowing herself to be free, to become happy and content with at least one of her marriages. As his name implies, Tea Cake is a sweet and treats her as his equal, not the mule of his world as Logan and Jody treated her.

  13. Taylor Rugg
    6) The novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, explores the difference between men and women in the first two paragraphs. The first paragraph describes men as individuals who can see their wishes and dreams on the horizon – at a distance, and only a few wishes ever reach the “shore.” This metaphor states that most men just see their dreams at a distance, but neither make an effort to reach them nor do the dreams come to them with ease. The second paragraph describes women as individuals who are in control of their mentality and actions: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly” (page 1.)
    In the rest of the novel, the language of the men is condescending and controlling – mocking the dreams and attitude of the women, especially Janie’s. This relates to the metaphor in the opening paragraph because the men see themselves as individuals who can wait for their dreams to come to them and they can sit on a throne while it floats to shore. Jody Starks responds to the townspeople requesting for Janie to make a speech by saying that Jody doesn’t have anything to say because she is a woman – he didn’t marry her for her speech making skills. This displays the condescending attitude men had. They believed that women belonged in the home – making meals, keeping the house clean, etc. It was the men who had “real” dreams (i.e. Jody Starks having the dream to better Eatonville.) Jody Starks made Janie wear a head scarf to hide her hair, which is a woman’s most prized possession. Starks was in control because he was the man of the marriage; she wore what he told her to wear and did what he told her to do. When she disobeyed, there were consequences (i.e. Jody Starks slaps Janie.) Being stripped from the simple joys of individualism that Janie had (wearing her hair in bows and wearing the dresses that the townswomen made her) slowly transformed her into a man’s possession. Janie realizes the mental abuse she is suffering, but she can’t bring herself to leave Jody Starks right away. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25.)
    The women in the novel, on the other hand, have a different voice. They are constantly gossiping – as seen in the first chapter when the women are sitting on the porch gossiping about Janie when she returns from running off with Tea Cake. Pheoby comments that the other women don’t really know Janie at all – this relates back to the second paragraph of the novel because the women only remember what they don’t want to forget. In Janie’s case, they don’t want to forget that she ran off with Tea Cake and now she’s coming back without a word. They choose not to remember how unhappy Janie was with Jody Starks and how distressed their relationship was in the last few years of their marriage before he died. Janie’s voice differs slightly from the rest of the women in the novel because she finds moments to speak out against the men in her life. On Jody Starks’ death bed, Janie finally tells him that she was unhappy with her marriage because he wouldn’t allow her to have emotions – he wouldn’t let him love her. And even then, as he is dying, Jody Starks took control and ordered her to leave, ending his life in control.

  14. Message flagged Thursday, February 9, 2012 2:53 PM
    Hurston uses nature as a metaphor as well as plot device because each represents certain events that take place in her life. For example, the pear tear, symbolizes the beginning of her journey of figuring out what love was, after she watched the bee's making pollen. "She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her...So this was marrige! She had been summoned to behold a revelation."(11) The pear tree also represented Janies youth and discovering the fascination to find love and feel the beauty in what she saw with the bees. " She searched as much of the world as she could...Waiting for the world to be made." This marks the beginning of her journey.
    - Alyssa Keller, Eleonora Clemente

  15. 10. The names of Janie’s husbands are symbolic of the demeanor of the character it corresponds with. Logan Killicks has a harsh, sharp sound to it , which reflects and represents his hard, unaffectionate nature. Jody Starks’s name suggests that he is a strong leader. It represents how he considers himself sophisticated and important. It also notes how he is proud and easily jealous. Her third husband, Vergible Woods was nicknamed Tea Cake. His character is sweet, and preferable to Janie’s taste. He is kind to her and more affectionate than the rest of her husbands, and so he had the sweetest most affectionate name.

    5. Throughout the novel Janie was trying to find her voice, but she was constantly being silenced by those above her figuratively. She had no say in her original marriage with Logan Killicks, and when she tried to object to in, Nanny wouldn’t hear of it. During her marriage with Logan she was isolated from society, and out of her element. She wasn’t supposed to talk to people and she was incredibly unhappy. Once she met Jody Starks something changed within her, and she realized she needed to leave Logan and marry Starks, finding her voice. During her marriage with Logan she realized that he wasn’t letting her speak freely, for instance when she wanted to interact with the other townspeople on the porch, and most importantly when Jody didn’t allow her to give a speech when prompted by the town. As the rest of their marriage progressed she became increasingly silent and isolated. She no longer had control of herself and her life, and her liberty was suppressed. When Jody hit her something changed inside of Janie, and she realized once again that she needed to speak out to protect herself. She did just that and made the decision to remain his wife, but to leave his house and begin to acquire her own liberty once again.

    4. Originally, Janie married Logan for the safety and security that he could provide for her for the rest of her live. Although she was not attracted to him, she followed her grandmother’s suggestion to marry Logan. She tried to reciprocate to Logan’s “love” but she couldn’t find it in herself. Then she met Jody Starks who looked sophisticated and like a man who would be able to support her, as shown by his fancy clothes and talk. After Janie flirts with Jody for a period of time, she makes the decision to leave him. She finally falls for Tea Cake because of her the true love and attraction she felt for him, that could not be provided by her previous two husbands.

  16. Mawia,Shamira.Sidnee

    1.She only tells her story to Pheoby because she trusts her. Pheoby has continued to be one of her realest and closet friends since forever. She knew about her and Teacake from the beginning. Therefore she is the only one who she wants to confide in.

    4. Janie was attracted to Johnny because of his physical appearance. He was like one of her first real crushes. The next guy she was in some type of relationship was Logan Killicks. However, this was an actual marriage. But there was no type of attraction at all. She instead became apart of this relationship for financial stability and security. This marriage was arranged by Nanny to provide her with those basic needs. Since Janie respected Nanny’s thought and ideas she followed Nanny’s wishes. Her next husband was Joe Stark also known as Jodie. She married him for freedom and adventure. A good example of this beginning journey, is how she met Jodie on the road, “ The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on….After that she came to where Joe Starks was waiting for her….”(32) The road then becomes a symbol of her journey. Her third and final husband was Tea Cake, who she became attracted to because he was young and reviving. He allowed her to be herself and he gave her freedoms her last husband didn’t.
    10. Their names exemplify their personalities and attitudes. Tea was sweet and simple and that was an example of how his persona was simple and simplifie


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