Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Their Eyes Were Watching God Include:

Zora Neale Hurston was a woman before her time, and when she passed away in 1960, her works had largely gone unnoticed. She died in relative obscurity. However, author Alice Walker saw the important voice that Hurston’s writing gave to the African American community and revived Hurston’s writings, where at last, they finally received the attention they deserve. Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s best-known work, a novel that centers around Janie, a poor black girl raised in Florida by her grandmother, who is always searching for something more. Her struggle with who she wants to be versus who others expect her to be is a central conflict throughout the novel. In addition to Janie’s journey to self-realization, the novel examines other important themes, including defining gender roles, the difference between love and marriage, silence, and the tension created by a social hierarchy within the African American community itself.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Plot Diagram in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.

Example Plot Diagram for Their Eyes Were Watching God


Janie Crawford returns to Eatonville, and her old friends want to know where she’s been. She’s now in her 40s, and she’s been married three times. She tells her story to her friend Pheoby. Janie was first married off to an older rich man named Logan Killicks by her Grandmother, but Janie was not happy with him. She meets and runs off with a man named Joe Starks who takes her to a new African American town, called Eatonville, where he buys land and becomes the de facto mayor.


Throughout Janie’s first two marriages, she keeps expecting to find happiness; however, she finds herself restless and unsatisfied. She’s not in love with Logan Killicks, and he’s planning on making her work the land. As Joe’s wife, he keeps her on a tight leash. He is jealous of the way the other men in the community look at her, especially her beautiful hair, so he makes sure she ties it up and that she doesn’t interact with the other townspeople.

Rising Action

Eventually, Janie gets so angry at Joe’s insistence on keeping her separated from the townspeople in Eatonville that she lashes out at him and he strikes her across the face. Their relationship is fractured, and Joe grows ill and dies. Janie inherits his wealth, and meets a younger man named Vergible Woods, also known as Tea Cake. Janie falls head over heels in love with Tea Cake, they marry, and they move to the Everglades.


Janie finds happiness with Tea Cake in their marriage, despite an initial rocky start. However, disaster strikes a hurricane that forces the evacuation of the Everglades. Initially, Tea Cake refused to leave, but then seeing Lake Okeechobee flood, he and Janie join others in running for higher ground. Janie ends up in the water and grabs onto a cow with a dog on its back. The dog tries to attack her, and Tea Cake intervenes. He’s bitten in the face by the dog, which is rabid.

Falling Action

Janie and Tea Cake return to the Everglades to help with the post-hurricane cleanup. Tea Cake falls ill a few weeks later, refusing to eat or drink. The doctor diagnoses him with rabies. Tea Cake finds out that Mrs. Turner’s brother is back in town and becomes jealous and suspicious that Janie is seeing him; his jealousy is amplified by the disease taking over his brain. He pulls a pistol on her, and Janie shoots him with a rifle in defense.


Janie is put on trial for Tea Cake’s murder. While most of the black community is against her, the white women take her side. Dr. Simmons testifies on Janie’s behalf about Tea Cake’s disease. Janie is acquitted, and she holds an elaborate funeral for Tea Cake. She is devastated. Janie eventually returns to Eatonville, where she is telling her story to Pheoby. Pheoby promises to curtail any nasty talk about Janie among the women. Janie finds her soul finally feeling at peace because of the love that she had found with Tea Cake.

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Character Map Graphic Organizer for Their Eyes Were Watching God

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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

Use a character map to help track the different characters that are discussed in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Janie Mae Crawford

  • Physical Traits: Fair-skinned; long dark hair; beautiful; graceful

  • Character Traits: Quiet; determined; restless; gentle; avoids confrontation; wishes to find true love; has a quiet inner strength

  • Quote

    “The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Other characters included in this map are: Logan Killicks, Joe (Jody) Starks, Tea Cake, Phoeby Wilson, and Mrs. Turner.

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.

  1. Identify the major characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character from the "1900s" tab to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in the Textables for Physical Traits, Character Traits, and a Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

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Literary Conflict Student Activity for Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the Storyboard Creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.

Literary Conflict in Their Eyes Were Watching God


Janie feels increasingly aggravated and disturbed by Jody’s constant remarks about her age and her body. She knows that he is feeling self-conscious about his own aging body and is projecting it onto her, but when he critiques her in front of men in the store, she fires back at him, insulting his manhood and comparing his body to a woman in menopause. He strikes her out of humiliation and his lost sense of pride.


Shortly after Janie is married to Logan Killicks, she keeps waiting to be happy. She’s been told her whole life that when people get married, they fall in love, so she marries Logan and waits for the love to begin. After a year, Janie realizes that being married does not create love, and her dreams of love and marriage die. She becomes restless and expectant for something more.


Janie returns home to Eatonville and finds that the other women of the town are gossiping about her. They are jealous of her beauty, and speculate that she acts as if she’s better than they are. They remember how she left Eatonville with all of Joe Starks’ money, and they wonder where Tea Cake is, a man much younger than Janie. Their jealousy clouds their ability to accept her, so they ostracize her. Pheoby is the only person who stands up for Janie.

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  1. Identify conflicts in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes to Look For and Discuss

A Character’s Journey to Self-Realization

The primary theme in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie’s journey to self-realization. The novel begins with Janie longing to fall in love and have it become something beautiful, like the kissing bees she sees in spring. Her journey leads her to three marriages, two of which are unfulfilling and oppressive. Janie finds herself wanting more, expecting more, and deserving more. Her path eventually comes across Tea Cake who sweeps her off her feet. Despite his jealousy and violent outburst early in their marriage, and his tragic death at Janie’s hands, Janie comes to find that when she returns home to Eatonville, she had finally found what her soul had been searching for. Her love with Tea Cake has made her whole, and she is at peace.

Defining Gender Roles

Another important theme is the defining of gender roles. Janie was raised by her grandmother, who worked for a white family until she could afford her own piece of land in Florida. While Janie is married off quickly by Nanny to an older farmer, Janie soon finds that she does not want to work the farm like Logan intends for her to do. With Jody, Janie discovers that she is merely a trophy wife for him, and is given no real say in the town or in their marriage. Joe keeps her under strict supervision because, as his wife and as a woman, she is his property, not his partner. Janie again falls victim to domestic violence with Tea Cake, but soon finds that she has a voice and a say, even as a woman, in her new marriage and home in the Everglades. The women look upon her return in scorn, criticizing her clothes as not being proper for a lady; however, Janie has never been one to be defined by traditional gender roles. The novel upends the preconceived notions about the role of women in society long before it was popular to do so.

The Difference between Love and Marriage

The difference between love and marriage is another important theme. Janie believes, naively, that because the older folks tell her so, marriage makes two people fall in love. She quickly learns with Logan Killicks however, that this is not so, because she does not grow to love him. When she meets Joe Starks, he speaks well and looks nice, so again, Janie thinks that maybe she can love him. She quickly finds that despite his flashy exterior, money, power, and status, she still is not fulfilled. Nor does she feel loved. She finally finds love with Tea Cake who does not have money, land, or status, and even has a bit of a gambling problem. After his death and her return home, she finally feels like she has found the love she’s always wanted since her days beneath the pear tree.


Another theme that the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God examines is silence. Throughout the story, despite her constant unhappiness, Janie stays silent. She keeps her silence with Logan until she runs away with Jody; she keeps her silence with Jody as he bosses her around and limits her socialization with the townspeople. When she finally breaks her silence with Jody, he hits her and then refuses to see her as he dies. It is only with Tea Cake that Janie finally finds her voice and feels happy. As she returns to the disparaging gossip of the women of Eatonville, she chooses to tell her story only to Phoeby and to remain silent to the women. This time, her silence is because of her newfound strength and peace, rather than fear or to avoid confrontation.

Judgment and Social Hierarchy in a Community

A final important theme that the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God explores is the judgment and social hierarchy within a community. In particular, it might be surprising to some readers to see it happening in an African American community, especially in light of the fact that slavery is not too far in the past for many of the characters. In fact, Joe Starks becomes much like a plantation owner, delegating work to those he feels are below him, and making sure he maintains his power. He won’t allow Janie to socialize with the townspeople because he feels they are beneath her. Mrs. Turner has disdain for people who are dark, and wants Janie to marry her brother and divorce Tea Cake because he’s too dark for her taste. She takes a particular liking to Janie because she is lighter-skinned, like her. This social hierarchy creates tension and resentment among many of the characters in the novel, and even episodes of jealousy and violence.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Motifs, Imagery & Symbols

Janie’s Hair

An important recurring symbol in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is everyone’s preoccupation with Janie’s hair. The men imagine themselves luxuriating in it; the women are jealous of Janie because of it. Jody finds it to be a threat after he sees Walter touching it without Janie’s knowledge, and demands that she tie it up under a head-rag. For the men, Janie’s hair is a sexual temptation; for the women, it gives rise to jealousy and anger because of the effect her hair has on their men, and because they themselves can’t grow such beautiful hair. In a way, it is also giving Janie a perceived higher power than others because it is a result of her white ancestry.

The Blossoming Pear Tree and Spring

An important recurring motif in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is the blossoming of the pear tree. As a young teenager, Janie sits under a pear tree, fascinated by the way it slowly blooms. She thinks to herself that the tree and the bees and the pollen come together as a marriage of some sort, and this is what she begins to envision marriage to be - a true union and partnership, something that flows naturally together. She herself views her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.” This motif continues throughout the novel, and she searches for that pear tree moment in her marriages to Logan and Joe. She finally finds it with Tea Cake. Janie thinks, “He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom - a pear tree blossom in the spring… He was a glance from God.”

The Town Mule

Another symbol in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is the Eatonville mule. Matt Bonner’s old mule becomes something of a legend to the Eatonville residents. The mule is half-starved, old, and cruelly treated by Matt, so he often runs away and shows up in different parts of the town. Janie senses a kinship with the mule who is cruelly treated and enslaved by Matt, especially on one particular day when the men surround it and begin to tease it. Janie mutters under her breath about the injustice of it, and Jody overhears her. He buys the mule from Matt for $5, he says “to let it rest.” The mule lives out the rest of his days as a kind of celebrity until he dies. This kindness on Jody’s part for his wife is short-lived, however, because when the mule dies, Jody refuses to let Janie follow the town as they “drag out” the mule to his final resting place.

The Eatonville Store

An additional important symbol in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is the Eatonville store. When Jody arrives in Eatonville, he expects to find a thriving community of African Americans; instead, he finds a few people milling about, seemingly with no direction or drive. Jody immediately takes over and delegates responsibilities, the first of which is to build a town store. He sees the store as the future heart of the town, and indeed it does become the social center for the people. Janie hates it because she is easily confused by math when people want to buy things, and she is not allowed to participate in any of the conversations that happen on the porch of the store. She finds the store isolating and a burden; however, it becomes a place of community for much of the town.

The Hurricane

A final symbol in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is the hurricane. The hurricane is a destructive force of change literally and figuratively in the novel. The hurricane literally devastates the Okeechobee area, upending the comfortable lives that Janie and Tea Cake have built for themselves among the Bahamian migrant workers. Figuratively, it devastates Janie and Tea Cake, as Tea Cake contracts rabies trying to save Janie, and Janie has to kill Tea Cake because the disease destroys his mind. The happiness and security that Janie finds with Tea Cake is ripped away from her with his death, and she must find new meaning from her experiences.

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from Their Eyes Were Watching God you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Janie’s Character Evolution in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Janie undergoes an evolution as she journeys through different places and marriages, learning important lessons about life along the way. Use the activity for Character Evolution found here with your students to help them keep track of how Janie evolves throughout the course of the novel.


Janie’s Traits: 16 years old; long beautiful hair; young and a dreamer

Explanation: After sitting under a pear tree, Janie decides that she wants to find a love that is effortless and beautiful; her soul is searching for it. She allows a young boy named Johnny Taylor to kiss her. Nanny sees.

Conflict/Rising Action

Janie’s Traits: Early 20s; works in Eatonville General Store; keeps her hair tied up in a head-rag; dresses in fancy clothes; miserable

Explanation: After Janie is married off to Logan and learns that marriage does not equal love, she runs off with Joe Starks. Joe intends to keep Janie as a trophy wife and is very jealous of other men looking at her. He isolates her and forces her to hide her hair.


Janie’s Traits: Late 30s; wears overalls; hangs on Tea Cake's every word; works beside him in the bean fields

Janie’s Traits: After Joe's death, Janie finds true love with Tea Cake. He makes her happy, and she feels like she is finally in a true, effortless partnership.

Falling Action

Janie’s Traits: Late 30s; depressed and devastated

Explanation: Janie had to kill Tea Cake because rabies took over his mind. He flew into a jealous rage and tried to shoot Janie. Luckily, she had rigged his gun in case he tried to shoot her; she kills him with a rifle and is put on trial. She is acquitted.


Janie’s Traits: Early 40s; still beautiful; wears overalls; quiet; proud

Explanation: Janie returns to Eatonville to the stares and envious gossip of the town women. She realizes that she finally found the love she had always wanted, and her soul feels at peace. She doesn't acknowledge the other women's gossip because she is now beyond all of that.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows the evolution of Janie throughout the course of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  1. Use the Character Evolution Template to get started.
  2. Break the story down into Exposition, Conflict/Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. What traits does Janie have?
  3. Illustrate one or more of the traits for each stage of the story.
  4. Identify major events in each part of the story that affected Janie.

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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from Their Eyes Were Watching God. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Vocabulary

  • horizon
  • resignation
  • saunter
  • coquetry
  • eulogy
  • resilient
  • pugnaciously
  • usurper
  • scimitars
  • fetid

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Their Eyes Were Watching God by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an important African American flowering of art, literature, and music in Harlem, New York from 1919 to the mid 1930s. This intellectual and artistic movement gave a new sense of cultural identity to African American writers and thinkers. It also served to lay the foundation for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It included several important writers, including Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Rudolf Fisher, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Important characteristics of Harlem Renaissance literature include:

Understanding the Use of Eye Dialect

Hurston’s novel is most compelling because of its use of eye dialect, or the phonetic, nonstandard spelling of words to effect the sound of local dialect or accents. It may be a bit disconcerting for students to get used to at first; however, it soon becomes apparent that being able to read what is usually heard instead gives a strength to the characters that is fascinating. As the students read, have them make a list of recurring words Hurston uses in the narrative for easy reference. Some key points of Hurston’s eye dialect to point out before beginning the novel are:

If students get stuck, it helps to sound it out. There are also audio readings on the internet of the novel - some students may also find it more helpful to listen along with the reading.

Essential Questions in Their Eyes were Watching God

  1. Can marriage ever bring about love, or must love always happen before marriage?
  2. What are some important lessons people learn about themselves after facing hard situations?
  3. What is a woman’s role in a family? In a marriage? How have ideas about women’s roles in society changed since the 1920s?
  4. Can people of the same race be prejudiced towards each other? How?
  5. How can staying silent about one’s true feelings be damaging in a relationship?
  6. What is more important: the journey to reach a dream, or the fulfillment of that dream?
  7. What obstacles come between people and their dreams?
  8. How does the use of dialect enhance understanding about a character?

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•   (English) Their Eyes Were Watching God   •   (Español) Sus Ojos Miraban a Dios   •   (Français) Leurs Yeux Regardaient Dieu   •   (Deutsch) Ihre Augen Beobachteten Gott   •   (Italiana) I Loro Occhi Guardavano Dio   •   (Nederlands) Their Eyes Were Watching God   •   (Português) Seus Olhos Observavam Deus   •   (עברית) עיניהם הביטו באלוהים   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) عيونهم كانت تراقب الله   •   (हिन्दी) उनकी आंखें परमेश्वर देख रहे थे   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Их Глаза Смотрели на Бога   •   (Dansk) Deres Øjne var Watching Gud   •   (Svenska) Deras Ögon Tittade Gud   •   (Suomi) Heidän Silmänsä Olivat Katsomassa God   •   (Norsk) Øynene Deres var å se Gud   •   (Türkçe) Gözleri Tanrıyı İzliyordu   •   (Polski) Ich Oczy Patrzyły na Boga   •   (Româna) Ochii lor Erau Vizionarea lui Dumnezeu   •   (Ceština) Jejich oči Sledovaly Boha   •   (Slovenský) Ich oči sa Dívali na Boha   •   (Magyar) Szemük Watching God   •   (Hrvatski) Njihove oči su Gledale Boga   •   (български) Очите им Гледаха Бога   •   (Lietuvos) Jų Akys Žiūrėjo Dievas   •   (Slovenščina) Njihove oči so Bile Gledanje Boga   •   (Latvijas) Viņu Acis Bija Skatīšanās Dievs   •   (eesti) Nende Silmad Vaatasid Jumal