Their Eyes Were Watching God Teaching Approaches
by Zora Neale Hurston

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Teaching Approaches

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.

  • 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...

(The entire section is 1,913 words.)