Their Eyes Were Watching God

by: Zora Neale Hurston

Further study

Discuss the role of conversation in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In particular, discuss the effect of Hurston’s narrative technique of alternating between highly figurative narration and colloquial dialogue.

One of the most interesting aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s interweaving of Standard Written English on the part of the narrator and early twentieth-century Southern black vernacular speech on the part of her characters. The extended passages of dialogue celebrate the language of Southern blacks, presenting a type of authentic voice not often seen in literature. In addition to asserting the existence and richness of Southern black culture, Hurston’s use of dialogue articulates thematic concerns of the novel. For example, Hurston uses language to express the difference between Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake and her relationship with Jody. When Janie meets Jody, we do not hear her speak to him; instead, the narrator tells us, in Standard Written English, that they talk, giving us few of their actual words. Janie’s interactions with Tea Cake, on the other hand, are full of long passages of vernacular dialogue, a reflection of their genuine connection and mutual respect for each other. Throughout the novel, Janie struggles to find her own voice; Hurston demonstrates the importance of this quest with her use of dialogue as a narrative device.

Explain the significance of the book’s title. How does it relate to Janie’s quest and the rest of the book?

One important feature of the title Their Eyes Were Watching God is that the first word is plural, which anticipates the issues of community and partnership with which the novel concerns itself. As much as the story is about one woman’s quest, it is also the story of how that quest is achieved both through and against community and partnership. The title is drawn from a moment in which three people act together against a threatening force—the hurricane, in Chapter 18—but soon afterward, Janie and Tea Cake split up with Motor Boat, and Janie is later forced to shoot Tea Cake. The “Their” in the title seems a fragile construct.

The novel’s concept of God, the other pregnant word in the title, is most clearly articulated when the narrator describes Mrs. Turner’s obsession with white features and social norms. Gods, the reader is told, require suffering, and this suffering is the beginning of wisdom. The lesson that the hurricane seems to offer is that God is all-powerful and will damn the proud like Tea Cake, who believes that his mastery of the muck will allow him to weather the hurricane. The novel’s overall tenor, however, is hardly one of awed submission and humility. Janie is focused on understanding herself, not God, and exhibits a high degree of autonomy in achieving this goal. Though external forces and circumstances may demand sacrifice and suffering, Janie herself still determines the course of her life.

Why is Janie initially attracted to Jody? Why does this attraction fade?

Jody comes along at a transitional period in Janie’s life. She is still partially under the spell of her grandmother’s philosophy, prizing material wealth and status, but at the same time has begun to search for something greater. She is unsure what that something is but knows that it involves more than what she has with Logan Killicks. When Jody arrives, full of bluster and ambition, he reconciles Janie’s upbringing with her desire for adventure. His talk of power and conquest soothes Janie’s disenchantment while his ambitious social climbing satisfies the values that Nanny has imparted to her.

Janie’s interest in Jody ultimately wanes because she discovers that the role he wants her to fit offers her no fulfillment. She learns that there are two reasons that Jody will never help her achieve her dreams. First, Jody’s quest is for material and social gain. He wants wealth, power, and status. No accumulation of such things, however, will help Janie in her spiritual quest. Second, Jody defines himself through his control of others, especially through his silencing of Janie. Their marriage fails because Janie refuses to tolerate Jody’s inflated sense of himself any longer. His egotism, based on power over others, demands that he control and dominate Janie, which prevents her from exploring and expressing herself.