Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes Lesson Plan
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Theme Revealed Through Character Development:
This lesson plan focuses on how Janie Crawford develops as a dynamic character, whose quest for independence and love reveals major themes in the novel. Students will examine Janie Crawford as a dynamic character by comparing and contrasting her feelings, motivations, and actions at key points in the plot. In studying how Janie’s character changes over the course of the novel, students will be better able to describe and analyze how the development of dynamic characters supports key themes in the text.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to
- define dynamic character and explain how Janie Crawford’s character changes over the course of the plot;
- compare and contrast Janie’s feelings and motivations at key turning points in the novel;
- identify and describe two major themes that can be drawn from how Janie is characterized in the novel.
Common Core Standards: RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, SL.1
Though generally praised by progressive white critics, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God received harsh criticism from African American intellectuals when it was published in 1937. Though most critics acknowledged Hurston’s talent for writing, many rejected her portrayal of African Americans. Author Richard Wright accused Hurston of intentionally oversimplifying her characters in order to pander to white audiences, thus perpetuating harmful stereotypes originally established by white people. Others criticized Hurston for not sufficiently condemning discrimination against black people.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a bildungsroman; it is a “coming of age” story that follows the emotional and psychological development of Janie Crawford, a young African American woman seeking love and independence during a time when black women had no value or rights in American society. Hurston’s alleged failure to confront black stereotypes and denounce prejudice against black people is perhaps due in part to the root of Janie’s power and beauty: she has Caucasian ancestry. Janie has lighter skin and beautiful, flowing hair—so eye-catching that her second husband, Joe (Jody), forces her to tie it up in a rag—because her father and grandfather were white. Nevertheless, Janie still suffers a great deal of abuse and oppression, often from black men.
Like many bildungsromane, Their Eyes Were Watching God’s major themes and arguments are best understood in the context of Janie Crawford’s life story. As a child, Janie lives with her grandmother, Nanny, whose emphasis on the importance of money and status runs contrary to Janie’s desire for love, excitement, and fulfillment. Over the course of the novel, strong-willed Janie finds herself in several loveless, unhappy marriages. She learns to suppress her thoughts and feelings—especially during her abusive marriage to Joe Starks, who beats her and tries to isolate her from the community in Eatonville, Florida. By the end of the novel, Janie has achieved some level of self-fulfillment and independence; she has been “to the horizon and back.” Her eventual self-sufficiency, which is perhaps most effectively underscored when she kills Tea Cake to save herself, reveals the novel’s rejection of the contemporary attitude that black women do not deserve to be valued or respected. Furthermore, the novel highlights the ways in which an African American community might internalize the same prejudices used to oppress it, such as when it becomes clear that Janie’s Caucasian characteristics are valued by other African Americans like Mrs. Turner.
Whether read as a feminist text or an examination of the effects of racism and oppression on black communities at the turn of the 20th century, Their Eyes Were Watching God continues to be a cornerstone of African American literature and will doubtlessly endure as a staple in English classrooms for a long time to come.
About this Document
- An introduction to the text
- A step-by-step guide to lesson procedure
- Previous and following lesson synopses for preparation and extension ideas
- A collection of handouts and worksheets complete with answer keys