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Syllabus | Their Eyes Were Watching God

Updated: Oct 15



Summary


“An expression of Zora’s desire for her own, meaningful place in a male dominated world”

- Robert Hemenway


Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the most well renowned and highly regarded pieces of fiction to be written in the 20th century. The story features a young woman named Janie, who after growing up under the strict discipline of her grandmother, finds herself lost in unfulfilling marriages that hinder her growth. She longs for freedom and joy in a world dominated by patriarchal dynamics that simply will not let her be great. Hurston has a unique storytelling ability that pieces together smaller folktales into one larger narrative, promising to keep the reader engaged.


The remainder of this syllabus may contain spoilers!


Themes:

  • Self-expression & identity

  • Folklore

  • Marriage and ownership

  • Domestic violence

  • Colorism & internalized racism

  • Black love



Additional Reading


Haurykiewicz, J. (1997). From Mules to Muliebrity: Speech and Silence in "Their Eyes Were Watching God". The Southern Literary Journal, 29(2), 45-60. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078182


Summary:

This paper investigates the imagery of the mule throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God. Using Hurston’s previously written folklore as a resource, Haurykiewicz extracts the meaning behind the mule and how Hurston uses this imagery as a metaphor for Janie’s silence vs. her voice. She also draws the connection between the origins of the mule and Janie’s origin, and how that plays a role in Janie’s suppression and yearning for freedom.


Hurston, Z. N. (1924). Drenched in Light. In Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories (pp. 17-25). New York: Opportunity. http://www.pf.jcu.cz/stru/katedry/aj/doc/kocmichova/Z_N_Hurston_Drenched_In_Light.pdf


I loved this short story because it’s simply about an unapologetic Black girl and surrounds themes of self-love and pro-Blackness. I love the proclamation that despite the prominence and privilege of whiteness, this Black girl is unashamed in her self expression and adoration of other people. I believe Isie and Janie are actually the same character at different stages of life. It is very possible that Hurston based both of these characters on herself. They remind me of each other in their search for freedom, love, acceptance, etc. They’re both considered “defiant” in their attempts to gain a little bit of freedom and simply be themselves. As Hurston’s initial contribution to the Harlem Renaissance and her first nationally published story, “it was her manifesto of selfhood, and affirmation of her origins” (Hemenway, 10-11).


Tasharofi, P. (2014). Domestic Violence in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Feminist Reading. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 3(4), 120-127. doi:10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.3n.4p.120


Abstract:

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the acclaimed boldly feminist novels of the 20th century. In general, this article draws on feminism and what looms large in feminism which is called sexism. In particular it focuses on domestic violence as a major sexist oppression. Domestic violence aroused by jealousy, anger, coercion, humiliation, threatening is manifest in verbal and physical abusing of women. Hurston skillfully depicts her heroine's undergoing of domestic violence by her husbands, each in different ways. This article aims to show that how the black heroine's battling with this violence purports to feminism and self-discovery of women.


Tasharofi, P. (2014). Mrs. Turner Cut in the Web of Internalized Racism: A Black Feminist Reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. English Language and Literature Studies, 4(2), 1-5. doi:10.5539/ells.v4n2p1


Abstract:

This paper is written to shed light on racism in general and internalized racism in particular. The application of the study of internalized racism on Mrs. Turner in Hurston’s novel illuminates a very significant fact about the Black females now and then. Under racism which is the white imperialism and superiority, the back women have been programmed to believe in White standards of beauty and this latter is called internalized racism. Hurston so skillfully characterizes Mrs.Turner who is psychologically oppressed under this system of internalized racism. Her esteem of white skin and straight hair while she is black with kinky hair oppresses her because of her being a colored woman. Thus Race and gender converge on this issue of evaluating beauty and this purports to the belief of Black feminists that women are oppressed not only because they are women but also because they are black women.



Discussion Questions


  1. Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God after experiencing sudden inspiration while visiting Haiti for her studies:

  2. For seven straight weeks after her arrival she struggled to get it down on paper, sometimes writing late at night after a day of collecting. By the third week in December she had completed her second novel. She sent it to Lippincott’s and when she returned to the United States mainland in March, 1937, plans were already underway for the novel’s publication in the fall; the editors had found little need for revisions. The book was to be called Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Hemenway, 230-231)

  3. How do you think Hurston could have expanded on this story had she been afforded more time to write?

  4. In the beginning of the book we learn that Janie is biracial with long curly hair. How do you think her appearance, particularly her hair, influenced her encounters with those around her?

  5. What do you think is the significance of the book’s title? What does it have to do with the overall story?

  6. Hurston was known for using the same or similar characters throughout many of her stories. What similarities do you see between Issie in Drenched in Light and Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God? Do you think the two could be based on the same character?

  7. In her paper, Haurykiewicz highlights the imagery of the mule, and what this has to do with Janie’s identity and longing for a voice. Did this mule metaphor readily stand out to you while reading Their Eyes? If not, did you interpret the presence and subsequent absence of the mule in a different way, or note it’s significance at all?

  8. An important theme of this story were the dynamics between Janie and the men in her life. Historically, marriage has often been described as a transaction between a girl’s parents and the man who either wanted to marry her or was chosen to marry her. The daughter/wife was essentially seen as the property of her father or parents, until she was married and was then the property of her husband. This is made clear with different symbols including changing the woman’s title from Ms. to Mrs., and wearing a wedding ring to indicate she is taken. (If you know of any good literature on this topic, please send it my way!) How much of a role do you think ownership plays in Janie’s three marriages? In what ways do Janie’s husbands show ownership over her?

  9. If you’ve seen the movie, how did you think it compared to the book?


Writing Prompt


Imagine you looked like Janie and lived in her time period. How do you think societal standards would shape the way you move through the world and go about finding yourself? Consider gender norms, racial and color dynamics, and economic status. What would independence and self-love look like for you? Would this be attainable?


Answer the same questions considering the race/skin color you are now.




Additional information:

Hemenway, R. E. (1980). Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


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