Zora Neale Hurston was strongly influenced by African American oral narrative traditions and the vernacular speech of black communities in her time. She incorporates elements from both of these factors into the structure and language of the novel. Rather than insert and repeat individual folktales, Hurston weaves the concepts into the fabric of the novel.
Storytelling itself becomes part of the novel’s substance from the outset. Janie not only agrees to tell Pheoby her story, she insists on it. At various points in the novel, the reader becomes acquainted with a number of different gifted storytellers, smooth talkers such as Joe, and even outright liars like the porch sitters. After Janie suffered from being silenced by Joe, her second husband, she decided she would not permit herself to be silent again. Coming into her own voice as a storyteller is an important element that develops her as a character and merges her with the broader world she came from. By extension the novel itself is drawn more deeply into the conceptual world of folklore.
Other storytellers also emerge with distinctive voices. While the narrator uses standard American English, some individuals relate their tales in dialect. Significant among these is Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, who embodies the traditional values and resilience of African Americans as they overcame their former enslavement. In relating Janie’s family story, therefore, Nanny offers the collective story of countless other black families. Specific structural elements are incorporated into Janie’s life story, such as the tripartite division of her marriages.