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.
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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:
- Racial and ethnic pride
- Addressed stereotypes and marginalization
- Realistic portrayals of black life
- Examined the lingering impact of slavery
- Explored institutional racism; gave rise to a voice for equality
Understanding the Use of Eye DialectHurston’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:
- “d” is often substituted for “th”, as in dem, dat, wid, dese, de
- The long “i” sound is often replaced with the short “a” sound, as in Ah instead of I, lak instead of like, mah instead of my
- Sometimes words are shortened, letters are dropped, or are put into contractions, such as willin’, s’posed, and speck instead of expect
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
- Can marriage ever bring about love, or must love always happen before marriage?
- What are some important lessons people learn about themselves after facing hard situations?
- 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?
- Can people of the same race be prejudiced towards each other? How?
- How can staying silent about one’s true feelings be damaging in a relationship?
- What is more important: the journey to reach a dream, or the fulfillment of that dream?
- What obstacles come between people and their dreams?
- How does the use of dialect enhance understanding about a character?
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