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Their Eyes Were Watching God
Submitted by Jean Trounstine (profile)

Title and Author: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Novel
Theme: A woman's quest for autonomy; self-discovery; African American woman's struggle in a white man's world; what love is
Class type: Women

This poetic book is one of the mainstays of my women's CLTL group. I use it every year. It is a book that I use after the group has cohered and has experience with other novels because it does involve dialect and the language of imagery, and getting through that with appreciation and identification means some positive experience with reading.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of Janie, a young black woman who starts her life dreaming about love and how it can save her. The book begins and ends with a frame, after the death of Janie's third "husband," Teacake. Sitting on her porch, Janie tells the tale while her best friend Phoebe listens. Most of the rest of the book is the tale that Janie tells of a life in the 1930s, during the course of which she loses her grandmother, moves several times, has three husbands, and ends up an independent woman in her middle years with a home and business of her own. The story evokes these kinds of responses during our first Go-Round.

From the students:

Rebecca: "I loved the book and the jokes, innuendos and phrases, and I respected Janie."

Rochelle: "It was tough to start, and at first, I didn't have a clue but tried to get ahead. It was about empowerment."

Maureen: "A good story about a whole different culture and sad."

The discussion always delves into the questions that are raised so that we explore what Rochelle means by empowerment and ask if that is true, what she says about the book. We explore the language and how Janie's language is different than the men's language in the book and what that means. We talk about what it must have been like for Nanny growing up during slavery and the fact that her daughter, Janie's mother, was raped. We talk about all the cultural things Maureen noticed and others add to what they call "a whole different culture." The discussion always involves grappling with the question of love, and we discuss what Hurston shows us of love and where we find it, how we know it, are afraid of it, live in its illusion, share it, refuse it, build on it, and are hurt in its name.

Some good questions that have propelled discussion are:
1. What is Janie searching for? Does she find it?
2. Can a woman ever be equal to a man in Janie's world?
3. Does Teacake really love Janie? What about the fact that he steals from her, cheats on her, and hits her? What do you make of all that?
4. What does it mean, "She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief?"
5. What historical facts did you learn from this book?
6. Why does Janie kill Teacake? Of Judge Dever, who is at the discussion table with us, we ask: Would you have given Janie any time?
7. What does the title mean?
8. What does the book show us about community?

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