The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

1. How do you interpret the title? What tone does it set for our understanding of the novel?

2. What is the style of the opening section? How do the first four paragraphs prepare us for what follows?

3. What are some features of the speech used by the characters? How does this contrast with the narrative voice? What effect is created by the shifts of narrative voice from third to first person?

4. What does the attitude of her unsympathetic neighbors tell us about Janie's choices? Is it effective that the novel is portrayed as one woman's account of her life to a friend?

5. What is meant by Janie's statement, "So 'tain't no use of me telling you somethin' unless Ah give you de understandin' to go 'long wid it"? (7) By the metaphor of her life as a tree? (8)

6. What is gained by beginning each chapter with a statement in italics? Whose voice is the speaker? What is the relation between Janie's voice and that of the authorial narrator?

7. Chapter 2: What does Janie remember/know about her parents?

8. What childhood incident revealed to her her racial identity? Why was she nicknamed "Alphabet," and what result does this have?

9. What forms of awakening are associated with the pear tree and spring? What does Janie desire from life?

10. What alarms and motivates Janie's grandmother? What do we learn about the old woman's past and the circumstances of her daughter's birth?

11. What have been the chief motivations of her grandmother's life? Can you compare her with other grandmother figures in works by African-American women? (cf. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)

12. Of what does Janie complain in her marriage to Logan Killocks? What goads him to anger? Do you feel he is presented fairly?

13. Why does Janie leave him for Joe Starks? Do you think it is realistic that she is able to marry him?

14. Chapter 5: What roles does Joe Starks play in the new village of Eatonville? How do the other townspeople respond to him?

15. What is Joe's view of his new wife's role? What demands are made on her? What are some sources of dissatisfaction in her marriage?

16. What is added by the scene in which the other men speculate on their marriage?

17. What are some feminist themes addressed in this novel?

18. What incident precipates her estrangement from Joe? Why had he commented on her aging?

19. What is the significance of her final conversation with her husband? Is the scene in which he dies effective?

20. Why do other townspeople prod her to marry? What attracts her in the manner and conversation of "Tea Cake"?

21. What are some aspects of the courtship of Tea Cake and Janie? What familiar activities do they share before their wedding?

22. Why do the neighbors consider him an unsuitable match for her? What had happened to another widow, Annie Tyler, in her romance with Who Flung? What does Janie answer to the warning that her fate might turn out similarly? (113)

23. What critique Janie make of her past life, and of the demand for gentility? (112, 114)

24. What are some ways in which issues of class and money are central to this novel? What is meant by the term, "class off"? What attitudes and activities are associated with poverty? What seems to be the novel's attitude toward the seasonal farm workers it portrays?

25. What do you make of the choice of names for the characters--e. g. "Tea Cake," "Who Flung," "Sop de Bottom"?

26. What are some trials/tests in the Woods' marriage? What attitude does Jamie/and or the narrator take toward gambling, theft, and partying?

27. What seems to be the narrative's attitude toward marital violence? (147) How do the other farm workers respond to signs of aggression?

27. What do you make of the scene in which Tea Cake spends his wife's money on a party and a guitar? On the couple's quarrels and mutual jealousies?

28. Are there any aspects of Janie and Tea Cake's life together which you think may be unrealistically treated? Why does Janie prefer to work in the fields to her earlier life in the store, and do you find this realistic? (133)

29. What assumptions about gender and money which underlie their relationship? Are there ways in which their relationship might be criticized by late twentieth-century feminists?

30. What activities do Janie and her husband share, and what new skills does Janie learn? Is there irony in the fact that Tea Cake teaches her to use a rifle?

31. What purpose is served by the presence of Mrs. Turner? What are some ways in which the narrative makes fun of her (i. e., her use of white doctors, 141)? How does Janie respond to her opinions? (141) What is meant by the passage in which the narrator tells us that for Mrs. Turner, "real gods require blood" (145)?

32. What fate befalls Mrs. Turner, and who is the agent of her discomfort? (151-52) What importance is given to her desire for Janie to meet her brother?

33. What are some roles played by animals in the novel? (e. g., mule, rabbits, cow, dog)

33. What seems the relationship of Janie, Tea Cake, and their fellow workers?

34. What role is played in the novel by the Everglades hurricane? What contact does the African-American community have with Native Americans, and how do the Native and white communities react to the threat of storm? (154-155ff)

35. Who makes the decision that Janie and Tea Cake not leave their home after the hurricane warnings, and what motivates the decision?

36. How is the storm described? What are some of its most frightening features? What are some metaphors used to describe it? (158-59, 161-62, 170)

37. What is the significance of the fact that the title, "their eyes were watching God," refers to the inhabitants of the shacks during the storm? Whose eyes in particular are referred to?

38. Which of their friends or acquaintances survives the storm, and who is lost? Are there ironies in the account of the fates of those beset by the storm?

39. What is offensive forms of racism does Tea Cake experience as he is forced to help bury the dead? (171) What do he and Janie believe to be the attitude of white people toward African-Americans? (172) Are their views upheld by the behavior of the novel's white people?

40. What immediate and longer-term consequences does the storm have for Jane and Tea Cake? In particular, what causes Tea Cake's death?

41. What are poignant/horrible aspects of his death? Do you think his death is adequately prepared for in the novel?

42. Is the presence or absence of medical care significant in the plot?

43. Aristotle says that the inintended slaying of family members is one of the features of high tragedy? Would you say that the novel's ending is tragic? Ironic? Merely sad?

44. What views of religion/God, if any, are expressed by the characters in the novel, or implied in its narration? (e. g., Janie, 178)

45. Is the trial scene realistically and/or well presented? What do you make of the fact that many white townswomen rally behind Janie's case? That her friends, acquaintances and other farm workers judge her harshly?

46. Is Janie able to give a full account of what happened to her at the trial? What aspects of the case prompt Janie's release? What is her attitude toward the trial, her shooting of her husband, and Tea Cake's death?

47. What values underlie her choice of funeral arrangements? (189) What do you make of the fact that she readily forgives those who a few days previously had sought to have a murder verdict brought in against her?

48. Why do you think the story continues on to recount Janie's return to her home town, rather than ending directly after the death and trial? What does she bring back with her as a memory of Tea Cake? (191)

49. What is added to the story by her final reflections to Phoeby? What does she mean by her description of love, "It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore" (191). How do you think we are meant to apply this to Hurston's story?

50. What is added by Phoeby's response? (192) What has Janie gained by her experiences? (193)

51. How does the ending alter the novel and its meaning? E. g., what effect is created by the fact that Tea Cake dies young, so that his and Janie's marriage is not permitted to age? By the manner of his death?

52. What are some of the best scenes in the novel? What do you think are some of more effective or memorable passages?

53. Based on the biographical facts appended to the novel, do any aspects of Hurston's life seem to have resembled those of her heroine? Why do you think she didn't chose a heroine as well-educated and published as herself?

54. What do you make of Henry Louis Gates' description of her politics in later life as "marked conservative and Republican"?


What are some aspects of Janie's life which seem typical for a woman of her background? (seems to have no independent choices; her fate is tied to life with her three husbands; in each case she waits for a new fortune to come and propose)

As reflected in the novel, what effect does Janie's appearance have on her fortunes? (chosen largely for her appearance; tale of a beautiful woman in a world in which beauty was one of a woman's few assets)

What are some atypical aspects of Janie's fortune and life? (no childbearing, wealth of second husband, lack of sense of her aging or ill health)

How is "love" defined within the novel? Is it largely sexual? Is this novel a good portrayal of a marriage?

Are elements of the plot and its narration romanticized? What effect does this have on the tone and message of the book?

Does the poverty of the characters alter our view of the plot and its meaning?

Would you say this novel conveys a moral, and if so, is it a clear one? What final thoughts does it leave with the reader? (value of love over money; elusiveness and transience of love; need to seize one's fate)

Some of her fellow Harlem Renaissance writers felt this book was politically damanging to the cause of African-American equality (e. g. Alain Locke felt it was a politically "unserious" book?) Why might they have responded this way? On what grounds might you argue against their view?

Does the novel critique the effect of poverty upon its characters? To what extent does it present favorably an ethic of "self-help"?

Page numbers are from Harper Perennial Classics edition, 1990.

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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56