National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time… They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.


Zora Neale Hurston, 1934 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

  1. After years of polite submission to her male counterparts, Janie gains her voice in Chapters 7 and 8. Prior to her defiance of Joe, Janie observes the way Daisy, Mrs. Bogle, and Mrs. Robbins are treated by the men. These three Eatonville women provide caricatures—quick, stereotyped sketches—of what it means to be a black woman in this small Florida town. In what ways do these caricatures highlight a larger disrespect toward women? How do they show Janie’s increasing difficulty with the way men judge women?
  2. The elaborate burial of Bonner’s mule draws on an incident Hurston recounts in Tell My Horse, in which the Haitian president ordered an ornate funeral for his pet goat. Although this scene is comic, how is it also tragic? What is the relationship between mules and women in this novel, and how is this highlighted by the way Eatonville treats this mule?
  3. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright (Native Son) reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God. He argued: “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes ‘the white folks’ laugh…The novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.” How would you answer his criticism?
  4. What is the relationship between Janie’s silent voice and her cloistered hair? What happens to Janie after “she tore off [her] kerchief... and let down her plentiful hair” (Chapter 8)? How does her hair reflect her womanhood?
  5. Compare Janie with Delia from Hurston’s short story “Sweat.” “Sweat” is one of the few stories Hurston published during the Harlem Renaissance. How do both stories demonstrate Hurston’s use of black idiom?
  6. If your class has read other novels with female protagonists, ask students to compare Janie Crawford to those heroines. What differences do you find among the novels' endings?
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