Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1913
Jody Starks and Tea Cake as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Jody Starks and Tea Cake. While Janie loves Tea Cake more than she loved Jody, both men are abusive and disrespectful. Nevertheless, Tea Cake is different from Jody in many ways—he is young and physically fit, hardworking, and unconcerned with social status, whereas Jody is old, unattractive, and obsessed with power and his standing in Eatonville.
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- For discussion: Follow Jody’s and Tea Cake’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of Janie’s life story. What matters most to each character? How does each character treat Janie?
- For discussion: Both Jody and Tea Cake die by the end of the novel. However, Jody dies of natural causes, whereas Tea Cake dies when Janie shoots him to save herself. What does each man’s cause of death—one at the hands of nature and one at the hands of a woman—suggest about the novel’s stance on gender dynamics and masculinity in African American communities in the early 20th century?
The Horizon as a Theme: Throughout the novel, Janie calls upon the symbol of the horizon to represent her desire for a fulfilling, liberating, and exciting life. An important aspect of her life story involves battling others’ attempts to figuratively shrink her horizon— especially her first two husbands. Even Nanny “had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon . . . and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about [Janie’s] neck tight enough to choke her.” However, Janie tells Pheoby that her brief marriage to Tea Cake transported her “to the horizon and back,” so she is satisfied with life when she returns to Eatonville.
- For discussion: Though Janie loves Tea Cake, he is still abusive and controlling at times. Why is their marriage still satisfying to her? What about their life in the Everglades is so liberating and exciting?
- For discussion: In a literal sense, “the horizon” does not exist—it is caused by the curvature of the earth; the sky and landscape do not actually meet. Why would Hurston choose what is essentially an illusion to represent the excitement of the unknown? What does the symbol of the horizon imply about Janie’s quest for independence and love?
Gender Roles: Gender is an important part of the plot in Their Eyes Were Watching God. A large part of Janie’s identity quest unfolds as she learns how to stand up for herself, especially when men try to control her. Each one of her husbands attempts to dominate her by using emotional and physical abuse—even Tea Cake, whom she truly loves.
- For discussion: While Janie is often victimized by men in the novel, she has few female advocates besides Pheoby. Why do you think this is the case? What might be Hurston’s reasons for leaving out strong female companionship?
- For discussion: Why is it important that Janie’s quest for independence and agency culminates in shooting Tea Cake in order to protect herself? Why might it have been necessary for Hurston to include such a violent act? What evidence can you find to support your opinions?
Janie’s Quest for Love: Their Eyes Were Watching God is a bildungsroman because it follows Janie’s “coming of age” story. In many ways, her life story is a quest for unconditional, reciprocal love, as well as for independence. Janie wants to be loved by Nanny, but Nanny does not care about Janie’s happiness. Janie believes she will grow to love Logan Killicks, but he forces her to work and calls her names. Though Janie initially loves Jody, he proves to be oppressive, controlling, and cruel. And, though Janie deeply loves Tea Cake, he resorts to beating her to prove he can dominate her.
- For discussion: How does Janie’s character change from the novel’s beginning when she is living with Nanny to the moment she shoots Tea Cake to defend herself? In what ways does her character remain the same? In what ways does her character change or become more mature? What lessons does she learn about love along the way?
- For discussion: Janie is a widow when she returns to Eatonville, but she tells Pheoby she is satisfied with her life now. Do you think it is because she has finally experienced true love, or is it because she has learned to love herself enough to shoot Tea Cake when he tries to kill her? Why do you think so? Give evidence from the text to support your answer.
Janie’s Hair as a Symbol of Power: Janie’s beautiful hair attracts a lot of male attention. When Jody notices a male customer admiring her, he forces her to tie up her hair in a rag even though she hates it. Figuratively imprisoning Janie’s hair gives Jody power, and he uses it to further subjugate her. One of the first liberties Janie enjoys after Jody dies is burning her rags and wearing her long hair in a braid.
- For discussion: Since Janie herself is beautiful, what is the significance of Jody being specifically threatened by her hair? Why not prevent her from appearing in public at all? Provide examples from the text to support your answer.
- For discussion: Janie’s hair is unusually straight and flowing because her father and grandfather were white. Why would Hurston portray a caucasian attribute in such a positive manner? Is Janie depicted as beautiful simply because she looks more caucasian than everyone else? Why or why not?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Slavery, the Civil War, and Racism: Their Eyes Were Watching God mentions slavery, the Civil War, and the oppression and racism that many African Americans still experience today. Some students may find this confusing, upsetting, or controversial.
- What to do: Give students some historical context before discussing the novel. Explain what led to and took place during the Civil War and describe some of the events that unfolded after the slaves were emancipated. Emphasize that African Americans faced violent hate crimes and were still denied many civil rights, particularly due to the Southern "Black Codes" and Jim Crow laws.
- What to do: Have students trace events in the novel back to actual historical occurrences. Why does history figure so prominently in the novel? What would be the impact if Hurston never acknowledged the influence of prejudice and oppression on African American communities?
Dialect: Many of the characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God speak in a Southern dialect that may be difficult for students to understand.
- What to do: As the class progresses throughout the novel, have students write down unfamiliar phrases or words they do not understand. Go over these phrases and words as a class and ask students to work through meanings and definitions together.
- What to do: Have students consider the reasons why Hurston includes potentially confusing or unfamiliar dialect in the novel. What would be the impact if Hurston’s characters spoke without dialect? How does this dialect preserve Southern black culture?
Violence: The novel occasionally mentions or explicitly describes physical abuse, death, and rape, subjects which may be upsetting and confusing for students.
- What to do: Give students an advance warning that there will be violent scenes throughout the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Hurston may have included them.
- What to do: Have students trace each act of violence back to the novel’s overarching themes. What does Janie’s response to Jody’s and Tea Cake’s physical abuse suggest about the novel’s position on gender roles? Why is it important that Janie shoots Tea Cake at the end of the novel? Why does Hurston include violent death at all?
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Mrs. Turner and the White Ideal: Though Mrs. Turner is not a major character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, her attitude about whiteness versus blackness is important to the novel’s portrayal of how a marginalized community can internalize and perpetuate the very prejudices used to oppress them. Mrs. Turner, though a black woman, seems to devalue blackness and discriminates against people with darker skin. She even urges Janie to leave Tea Cake, who has very dark skin, for her lighter-skinned brother.
- For discussion: Follow Mrs. Turner’s predominant character traits throughout the course of the novel. What motivates her pursuit of friendship with Janie? Why does she persist in befriending her even after Janie tries to distance herself?
- For discussion: Why might Mrs. Turner’s idealization of whiteness be harmful or bad? What evidence can you find to support your opinions?
Janie’s Quest for Love: When Janie is a child, Nanny tells her that black women are “mule[s] of de world so fur as Ah can see” because their husbands expect them to carry the “load” of work that white men heap on them. Later, Janie identifies with the abused mule that Jody rescues from Matt Bonney. The mule, like Janie, is stubborn even though its master tries to beat it down.
- For discussion: Have students trace all of the ways black women are, as Nanny says, treated like “mule[s] of de world.” Does Hurston seem to call for action and activism in her portrayal of the abuse black women endure in the novel? What evidence can you find to support your opinions?
- For discussion: If the mule symbolizes Janie, then its abusive master symbolizes Jody. However, Jody is the one who rescues the mule to please Janie. Why does Jody buy the mule from Matt Bonner? What does Hurston imply about how and why black men treat their wives the way that they do?
- For discussion: Jody throws a farcical funeral for the mule after it dies. Afterwards, vultures descend on its corpse. Why would Hurston include such a gruesome scene in the novel? What do the vultures symbolize, if anything? Include evidence from the text to support your opinions.
Power and Narrative Voice as a Theme: Their Eyes Were Watching God is part of the bildungsroman genre because it is Janie’s “coming of age” story. Janie tells her story in a conversation with Pheoby, her best friend and confidante. However, Janie’s story is delivered in third-person omniscient and not, as one would expect, in the first person. The reader is left with the impression that Janie does not entirely own her bildungsroman.
- For discussion: Why would Hurston choose a third-person narrative instead of a first-person narrative? What does this imply about the identity and voice of black women in terms of being able to tell their own stories?
- For discussion: Why is Janie’s life story told within the context of a conversation with her friend? What would the impact be if Janie told her story directly to readers?
- For discussion: Who is the implied narrator who tells Janie’s story in the third person? Is this narrator more qualified to speak about Janie than Janie is to speak for herself? Why or why not?