Their Eyes Were Watching God Questions and Answers
by Zora Neale Hurston

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, compare/contrast Janie to Nanny. Draw some conclusions about them. 

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston describes a social hierarchy where the white male reigns and the black female exists metaphorically as the lowly mule. Victimized at the bottom of the hierarchy, the African American female lacks agency, or the ability to act independent of repressive societal influence. The black female endures continual oppression, even in a primarily African American community, because she embodies two marginalized identities; she exists not only as an African American, but also as a woman. Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates the power of one woman’s voice in overcoming oppression and gaining agency. Seizing control of her voice allows the novel’s African American heroine, Janie, to break away from the predetermined mule identity that society and her grandmother impose upon her to subvert the male-dominated power structure. Through the lens of gender and race Janie may not advance much on the social hierarchy, although from an individual perspective she destabilizes societal limitations and seizes control of her identity, thus acquiring agency. Janie’s journey is ultimately successful, as she represents something much larger than herself; she leads the way for other African American women to seize the power of voice and take control of their identity.

Before discovering the power of her voice, Janie also permits society and, more specifically her grandmother, to sculpt her identity because she remains unaware of her own abilities. Critic Valerie Babb contends that in order for Janie to achieve agency, she must first learn to define herself instead of leaving this task to others, such as her Nanny (86). Babb argues that the importance of words lies in their ability to define an identity (85-86). Rather than allow her granddaughter to discover the words necessary for self articulation, Nanny oppresses Janie’s identity at an early age by limiting her role to racial and gender specific definitions:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as ah been able tuh find out…So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womanfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. (Hurston 14)

According to Nanny’s definition of identity, Janie exists as one more mule in the world that is confined to social boundaries. Nanny...

(The entire section contains 785 words.)

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