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Their Eyes Were 







Their Eyes Were 
Watching God 



A great nation 
deserves great art 






The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support 
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create 
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute 
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to 
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support 
professional development. 

Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts 
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based 
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state 
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South 
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six nonprofit regional arts organizations in the United 
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years. 

Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg 

Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 



Excerpts from Their Eyes Were Watching God, copyright © 1937, 1965, by Zora Neale Hurston are 
reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Sarah Bainter Cunningham and Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the 
Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas- Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover reproduced courtesy 
of HarperCollins; Zora Neale Hurston image from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs 
Division. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: Hurston, 
1919-23, Zora Neale Hurston Manuscript Collection, courtesy of the Department of Special 
and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Images of 
Zora Neale Hurston used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston. 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: Zora Neale Hurston: A Brief Biography 16 

Handout Two: The Harlem Renaissance 17 

Handout Three: Jim Crow 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

- _AU..*- l »* 

,,.ci»** ,e * 


It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. 
Janie had spent most of the day under a 
blossoming pear tree in the back-yard... 
It had called her to come and gaze on a 
mystery. From barren brown stems to 
glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds 
to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her 
tremendously. How? Why? It was like a 
flute song forgotten in another existence 
and remembered again. What? How? 
Why? This singing she heard that had 
nothing to do with her ears. The rose of 
the world was breathing out smell." 


from Their Eyes Were Watching God 

Sv • Tl- E BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become lifelong readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Zora Neale Hurston's classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Each 
lesson has four sections: a thematic focus, discussion activities, writing 
exercises, and homework assignments. In addition, we have provided 
capstone projects and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with 
more background information about the novel, the historical period, and 
the author. All lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards 
required in the fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, The Big Read CD presents 
firsthand accounts of why Hurston's novel remains so compelling seven 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make Big Read 
CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

£3&AAfc M$W 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD, 
Track I. Read Handout One and Reader's 
Guide essays. Write a short life story. 

Homework: Read Chapter I (pp. 1-7).* 

Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read 
CD, Track 2. Listen to music on the Web 
site. Read Reader's Guide essays 
and Handout Two. 

Homework: Read Chapters 2-3 (pp. 8-25). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Compare the omniscient narrator 
and the heroine's narration. Explore how 
audience affects the story. Tell a story from 
the point of view of a secondary character. 

Homework: Read Chapter 4 (pp. 26-33). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Explore Janie's relationship to 
nature. Introduce foil. 

Homework: Read Chapters 5-6 (pp. 34-75). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Document figurative language used 
in first six chapters. Follow a repeated image. 

Homework: Read Chapters 7-9 (pp. 76-93). 

Page numbers refer to the HarperCollins 1990 edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God. 


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Day Six 

Day Nine 

FOCUS: Symbols 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD, 

Activities: Develop an interpretation based 

Track 2. Explore symbols of the pear 

on a theme: a woman's voice, race, or 

tree, the street lamp, and the mule. 


Homework: Read Chapters 10-12 

Homework: Read the Afterword by Henry 

(pp. 94-115). 

Louis Gates, Jr. Work on essay. 



Day Seven 

Day Ten 

FOCUS: Character Development 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great? 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD, 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 

Track 1. Map Janie's development as a 

novel and the voice of a generation. Examine 

young woman. Write on freedom and 

qualities that make Hurston's novel successful. 

the "maiden language." 

Peer review paper outlines or drafts. 

Homework: Read Chapters 13-16 

Homework: Essay due next class period. 

(pp. 116-146). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Chart a timeline of the story. 

Watch a segment of the film of the novel. 

Write a new conclusion. 

Homework: Read Chapters 17-20 
(pp. 147-193). 

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Lesson One 



Examining an authors life can inform and expand the readers 
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, 
explore the authors life to understand the novel more fully. 

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston infuses the setting, characters, 
and dialogue of the novel with southern folklore and anthropological 
research. Also, events in the novel mirror some circumstances and events in 
her life. Hurston's bold statement, "I love myself when I am laughing and 
then again when I am looking mean and impressive," captures the defiant 
confidence we encounter in the maturing main character, Janie 
Mae Crawford. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD, Track I (16 minutes). Students will take notes as 
they listen. Students will present the three most important things they learned 
from the CD. Discuss Carta Kaplan's argument that Hurston "depicted black 

Read Handout One aloud in class. Copy Reader's Guide essays, "Zora Neale 
Hurston, 1891-1960" (pp. 4-6), "Hurston and Her Other Works" (pp. 12-13), 
and "Hurston's Death ... and Resurrection" (pp. 10-11). Divide the class into 
groups. Assign one essay to each group. Groups will present what they learned 
from the essay. Ask students to add a creative twist to make their presentation 

Writing Exercise 

Write an essay about a significant event or moment that changed your view of 
the world. Describe your experience through images or word pictures. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter I (pp. 1-7). Why would Hurston use Southern black idiom to tel 
her story? Ask students to think about Kaplan's comment as they read. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details or the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the 

The Jazz Age of the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance marked the artistic, 
political, and cultural birth of the "New Negro" in literature and art. 
This renaissance relied upon its deep roots, including the oral traditions 
of storytelling and folktales. These traditions corresponded to a variety of 
musical styles: Negro spirituals, blues, and jazz. In Hurstons prose, the old 
and new converged into the dynamic, vibrant language of Janie, Pheoby, 
and the Eatonville townspeople. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD, Track 2(13 minutes). After listening to the first two 
tracks of the CD, your students should be able to identify several revolutionary 
aspects of the novel. How is this evident as early as Chapter I ? What aspects of 
the novel derive from a tradition of oral storytelling? 

Go to NEA's Jazz in the Schools Web site at Go to 
Lesson 2 and click on "Listen." Play clips of music from the 1930s. Ask students 
to take notes as they listen and to identify patterns in the music. Can your 
students articulate the similarities between the rhythms of the novel and the 
jazz styles of the 1930s? 

Writing Exercise 

Read the Reader's Guide essays "Harlem Renaissance: The Era" (pp. 7-8), 
"Harlem Renaissance: Hurston's Circle" (p. 9), and Handout Two in the Teacher's 
Guide. Using these essays, students should write a few paragraphs about 
Hurston's relationship to her era. 

E3 Homework 

Read Chapters 2-3 (pp. 8-25). Ask students to consider how Janie's point of 
view affects the way this story is told. Why does she begin her narrative with the 
pear tree? How is Janie's growth reflected in the way the story is told? 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the 
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with an unidentified third-person 
narrator who remains outside the story. This anonymous, omniscient 
narrator immediately creates interest by declaring: "So the beginning of this 
was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead." The first 
page also contains one of several allusions to the book's title: "the sudden 
dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment;" however, the narration 
changes when Janie tells her story to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. 

Discussion Activities 

How can an omniscient narrator tell the story at the same time that the novel's 
heroine, Janie, also tells her story? Do these voices reflect different parts of Janie, 
or does the omniscient narrator reveal another force in Janie's universe? 

Janie is judged throughout the novel. In the first chapter, who judges her, and 
why? How does Janie respond? 

Why does Janie choose to tell her story only to her best friend Pheoby? How 
does our audience (especially friends) affect what we reveal or conceal? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to choose one secondary character who has appeared so 
far: Nanny, Logan, Pheoby, the Eatonville townspeople, Johnny Taylor, or 
Janie's mother and rewrite the novel's beginning from the perspective of this 
character. Use this exercise to reflect on how a story can be told from multiple 
perspectives. Why did Hurston choose Janie as the heroine instead of another 
character? Ask students to provide a dramatic presentation of the re-told story. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter 4 (pp. 26-33). Five significant characters have been introduced: 
Janie, Pheoby, Nanny, Logan, and Joe. Have students list what motivates each of 
these characters. 


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I he central character in a work oflircrature is called the protagonist. 

The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a Haw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great 
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist 
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or 
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The 
protagonists journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold 
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast 
with the protagonists and highlight important features of the main 
characters personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes 
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 

Discussion Activities 

How do Logan and Joe reveal different sides of Janie? What are their 
motivations? To what extent does Janie acquire her own voice and the 
ability to shape her own life? How are the two attributes related? 

5 Writing Exercise 

In Chapter 3, our protagonist, Janie, wanders back and forth to the pear tree, 
"wondering and thinking" as she tries to adjust to her arranged marriage. She 
struggles with words, inheriting a "deepness" from her Nanny. Although Janie 
fails to find any "bloom" in this marriage, she discovers that "she knew things 
that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the 
wind." Like her Nanny, Janie's "basin of mind" finds words in the sights and 
sounds of nature. 

Review the first four chapters, documenting moments when Janie finds meaning 
in nature. What other natural phenomena guide Janie on her journey? Students 
should write about the way the sun reflects Janie's emotional state. 

2J Homework 

Read Chapters 5-6 (pp. 34-75). Ask students to pay attention to the street 
lamp in Chapter 5. How does the text suggest that this is more than an ordinary 
street lamp? How might such references to light be symbolic? 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Imager)' — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound, 
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and 
adds immediacy to literary language. 

Some Figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding 
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two 
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant 
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than, 
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is 
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is 
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an 
important similarity 7 between these two things. 

Janie reads natural phenomena as indicators of her internal landscape. As 
a result, Hurston's writing is thick with language that draws us beyond the 
literal descriptions of people, places, and events. Janie uses simile to describe 
her life "like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, 
things done and undone." 

Discussion Activities 

Divide your class into groups. Review Chapters 1-5 and list examples of 
figurative language. Pay special attention to the novel's first page. How are these 
descriptions used figuratively: the road, ships, trees, the sun, eyes, time, God, 
dreams, judgment, speech, silence, and mules? 

To verify student findings, list each group's images on the board. Ideally, a lively 
debate will take place as some students may propose examples that might be 
taken literally. 

To expand the discussion, use this unit to look at specific types of figurative 
language such as simile, metaphor, or personification. 

Writing Exercise 

Whether individually or within the same groups, ask students to find several 
instances when an image recurs figuratively. What deeper meaning does this 
repetition suggest? 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 7-9 (pp. 76-93). How does Janie's voice change? 


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Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

Use this class period to mark the development of three major symbols in 
the novel: the pear tree, the street lamp, and the mule. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Divide your class into groups. Ask them to outline the literal elements of 
the pear tree or street lamp before they discuss possible symbolic meanings. 
Have them present their ideas to the class and, if possible, develop them in a 
short essay. 

The Pear Tree 

Listen again to the first three minutes of Track 2 of The Big Read CD as Ruby 
Dee reads the "pear tree" passage from Chapter 2. Do you agree with Carla 
Kaplan's and Azar Nafisi's interpretations of this symbol? Janie has now journeyed 
through two unsatisfying marriages; notice when she does (or does not) 
remember the pear tree. For what is she searching? Do you think she will find it? 

The Street Lamp 

What does the street lamp in Chapter 5 communicate about the ideals of the 
Eatonville townspeople? Does it exemplify a control over nature that empowers 
the community? Why does Mrs. Bogle sing "Jesus, the light of the world" when 
the lamp is lit? What does Joe mean when he says: "And when Ah touch de 
match tuh dat lamp-wick let de light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it 
shine, let it shine"? 

The Mule 

In Chapter 6, Bonner's yellow mule stimulates the Eatonville men to "mule-talk." 
How does this deepen the meaning of the mule, both literally and symbolically? 
How does Hurston capture the musical, imaginative talk of the townspeople in 
this scene? This talk also reflects "playing the dozens." If you have time, students 
can research the history and evolution of "playing the dozens." 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 10-12 (pp. 94-1 15). What are the most significant changes in 
Janie after she meets Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods? 

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Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and 
vices. Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in 
each character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The 
tension between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader 
guessing about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual 
success or failure. 

Many readers consider this novel a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age 
novel. As Janie's external journey takes her through southern Florida and 
her three marriages, she Finds her voice and learns to use it. In order to 
trace the development of Janie's character, use this lesson to explore Janie's 
transformation at two major turning points: her confrontation with Joe 
Starks (Chapters 7-8) and her meeting with Tea Cake (Chapter 10). 

Discussion Activities 

Replay The Big Read CD, Track I (12:06-15:42). Listen to Ruby Dee's reading of 
Janie and Tea Cake's first meeting. Consider Jerry Pinkney's commentary. Notice 
his illustration in the Reader's Guide on page 14. Is this the way students pictured 
this scene? Why or why not? 

Have students map Janie's development from the young woman under the pear 
tree to her life as Mrs. Killicks, Mrs. Starks, and Mrs. Woods. How has she 
changed? How has she remained the same? 

d Writing Exercise 

Have students write two pages to respond to one of these topics. Have them 
refer to the text to support their conclusions. 

1. After Joe's funeral in Chapter 9, Janie faces her hatred of Nanny, who "pinched 
the horizon." Although she sees "mislove" around her, she finds a "jewel" 
within. What factors allow Janie to rediscover herself? Does her newfound 
freedom relate to her ownership of property? How does Janie define freedom 
in her new life? 

2. How does Janie feel when she first meets Tea Cake? How is it significant that 
he teaches her to play checkers? Notice the return of the pear tree symbol 
(p. 106). What does Janie mean when she says Tea Cake is "a glance from 
God" and has "done taught me de maiden language all over"? 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 13-16 (pp. 1 16-146). Reflect upon Janie's new life with Tea Cake. 
Why does her "soul crawl out from its hiding place"? 

10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Plot 

1 lie author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented. 

Hurston has made deliberate choices about how to structure and pace the 
series of events to demonstrate one black woman's experience in Florida. 
In this lesson, map the events of the story to begin to assess the artistry of 
storytelling. The discussion of two major turning points from Lesson 7 
should prepare your students for these activities. 

Discussion Activities 

In small groups, students will map a timeline of the novel's major events. Define 
the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. How does Hurston build the drama? 
Groups should present their timelines to the class, discussing any discrepancies 
along the way. 

Show students the first or last fifteen minutes of Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their 
Eyes Were Watching God (2005). What important plot points are omitted? How 
does the pacing of the plot differ from a novel to a film? How are these choices 
complicated when a screenwriter is adapting a novel for film? This analysis can 
be expanded by watching the entire film (90 minutes). 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to write their own conclusion to the novel, based on what they 
have read thus far. Remind them that Janie narrates her story to Pheoby. 
Have students use at least one image or symbol to reach a happy, tragic, or 
ambiguous ending. 

E3 Homework 

Read Chapters 17-20 (pp. 147-193). Ask students to consider the following 
questions: Why do you think Hurston chose her title? If you were required to 
change it, what title would you choose? What themes does your title suggest? 

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Themes of 
the Novel 


Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

This complex novel possesses many themes, but here are three to begin class 

A Woman's Voice 

1 . What do Bret Lott, Azar Nafisi, and Alice Walker say about Janie's developing 
voice? Do students agree? Ask them to give supporting examples from the novel. 

2. During which important moments of her life is Janie silent? How does she 
choose when to speak out or remain quiet? 

3. How does Pheoby respond at the end of Janie's story? What is Janie's final 
advice to her best friend? 


1. On the CD, Carla Kaplan, Robert Hemenway, and Alice Walker discuss 
Hurston's folk voice and complex characters. Assess the accuracy of their 
opinions with evidence from the novel. 

2. The novel's only explicit reference to Jim Crow laws appears in Chapter 19, 
when Tea Cake is forced at gunpoint to clear the hurricane wreckage and 
bury the dead. See Handout Three for details on Jim Crow laws. What role 
does Jim Crow play in the novel? 

3. Why are white people omitted until the last chapters? How might this reflect 
Hurston's literary goals? 


1. Voodoo and Catholicism influenced Hurston. How would you describe 
Hurston's idea of religion in the novel? 

2. What might be the meaning of the novel's title? In what ways do the characters 
see and hear God? Does He answer their questioning? 

3. In Chapter 17 Janie muses about the pious Mrs. Turner's idols and altars. The 
narrator says that "Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods 
require blood." What does this mean? 

23 Homework 

Read the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Students should begin working on 
their essays. See the essay topics at the end of this guide. Turn in outlines at the 
next class. 

12 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


What Makes 
a Book 

Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the 
larger context of the human struggle. The writers voice, style, and use of 
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects 
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and 
breaks new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

What elevates a novel to greatness? Ask students to list ten characteristics of a 
great novel. Ask students to identify ten reasons why Their Eyes Were Watching 
Cod might be considered a great American novel. Share these qualities with the 
class. Write all contributions on the blackboard, discuss them, and allow students 
to vote for their top five characteristics. 

In his Afterword to the novel, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., asserts that Hurston's "work 
celebrates rather than moralizes; it shows rather than tells." What does he mean 
by this? Use the novel to support your ideas. 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Hurston 
employ, and why would she use a novel to express this voice? What does her 
voice reveal about her generation? Is it still relevant? If you were the voice of your 
generation, what would be your most important message? Why might you choose 
to convey this in a fictional novel rather than a speech or essay? 

Writing Exercise 

Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist them with their 
outlines, ideas, and arguments. Have them partner with another student to edit 
rough drafts. For this editing, provide students with a list of things that they should 
look for in a well-written essay. 

23 Homework 

For the next class, students will turn in their essays and present their paper 
topics and interpretations to the class. Celebrate by participating in a Big Read 
community event. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or 
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting 
reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

1. After years of polite submission to her male 
counterparts, Janie gains her voice in Chapters 
7 and 8. Prior to her defiance of Joe, Janie 
observes the way Daisy, Mrs. Bogle, and Mrs. 
Robbins are treated by the men. These three 
Eatonville women provide caricatures — quick, 
stereotyped sketches — of what it means to 
be a black woman in this small Florida town. 

In what ways do these caricatures highlight 
a larger disrespect toward women? How do 
they show Janie's increasing difficulty with the 
way men judge women? 

2. The elaborate burial of Bonner's mule draws 
on an incident Hurston recounts in Tell My 
Horse, in which the Haitian president orders 
an ornate funeral for his pet goat. Although 
this scene is comic, how is it also tragic? What 
is the relationship between mules and women 
in this novel, and how is this highlighted by the 
way Eatonville treats this mule? 

3. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright (Native 
Son) reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching 
God. He argued: "Miss Hurston voluntarily 
continues in her novel the tradition which was 
forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, 


the minstrel technique that makes 'the white 
folks' laugh. . . . The novel carries no theme, no 
message, no thought. In the main, her novel 
is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white 
audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows 
how to satisfy." How would you respond to his 

What is the relationship between Janie's silent 
voice and her cloistered hair? What happens 
to Janie after "she tore off her kerchief and 
let down her plentiful hair" (Chapter 8)? How 
does her hair reflect her womanhood? 

Compare Janie with Delia from Hurston's 
short story "Sweat". "Sweat" is one of the few 
stories Hurston published during the Harlem 
Renaissance. How do both stories demonstrate 
Hurston's use of black idiom? 

If your class has read other novels with female 
protagonists, ask students to compare Janie 
Crawford to those heroines. What differences 
do you find among their endings? 

14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, student assembly, 
or bookstore. 

1. Public Presentations: Your students have 
now given a number of presentations about 
the novel's themes. Have students give their 
favorite presentation to a Big Read partner: 
a bookstore, literary organization, or library. 

2. Parent's Night: Host parents for a Hurston 
celebration. Include music from Jelly Roll 
Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, or 
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Have students 
reenact their four favorite scenes from the 
novel. Have student visual artists create 
illustrations to assist parents in understanding 
the scenes and the historical moment. Have a 
number of students present their ideas about 
the novel, concluding with what they learned 
from this experience. 

3. Create a historical timeline to display in your 
classroom. Use this as a way to explore the 
time in which Hurston lived. For a more 
specific focus, create a timeline of Harlem 
Renaissance events, including Hurston's 

4. Create a work of art to serve as a new cover 
for the novel. Have a show of student work at 
a local bookstore or Big Read sponsor. As an 
alternative, have students create a new title for 
the novel and create a corresponding image. 

5. Invite an anthropologist to guide students in 
collecting social and cultural data. Ask students 
to collect songs from their own cultural 
backgrounds. Work together to create a 
class songbook. Extend the project by having 
students determine how these songs reflect 
specific values. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Zora Neale Hurston: A Brief Biography 

Now lauded as the intellectual and spiritual 
foremother to a generation of black and women 
writers, Zora Neale Hurston's books were all out of 
print when she died in poverty and obscurity 
in 1960. 

Born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, 
Hurston and her family soon moved to Eatonville, 
Florida, the First all-black incorporated town 
in the United States. Her mother's death and 
father's remarriage led the outspoken Hurston 
to leave home at fourteen and become a wardrobe 
girl in an all-white traveling Gilbert and Sullivan 
operetta troupe. 

She completed her education at Howard University 
in Washington, D.C., while supporting herself at a 
variety of jobs from manicurist to maid. Heeding 
her mother's encouragement to "jump at de sun," 
she arrived in New York in January 1925 with 
$1.50 in her pocket. Two years later, Hurston 
had not only published four short stories, but also 
become one of the most popular and flamboyant 
artists of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. 

As the only black scholar at Barnard College, 
Hurston studied with the pioneering anthropologist 
Dr. Franz Boas. His encouragement, combined 
with a stipend of $200 a month and a car from 
patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, allowed Hurston 
to complete much of her anthropological work in 
the American South. Her lifelong fascination with 
collecting, recording, and broadcasting the daily 
idiomatic communication of Negroes informed her 
seven books and dozens of stories, articles, plays 
and essays. 

Her ambition also led to tension in her romantic 
relationships. Hurston married and divorced three 
husbands and, at age forty-four, fell in love with 
Percy Punter, who was twenty-three. When he 
asked her to forsake her career to marry him, she 
refused because she "had things clawing inside 
[her] that must be said." She fled to Haiti as an 
attempt to "smother [her] feelings" for him. She 
wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven 
weeks "to embalm all the tenderness of [her] 
passion for him." 

Despite the novel's 1937 publication, Hurston's 
lifelong struggle for financial security continued 
throughout the 1940s. Once, she even pawned 
her typewriter. The largest royalty any of her 
books ever earned was $943.75. Since most were 
published during the Depression, she paid her 
bills through story and essay sales, advances on 
the books, and two Works Progress Administration 
jobs with the Federal Writers' Project. 

In the 1950s Hurston remained devoted to writing, 
but white publishers rejected her books, in part 
because black literature was no longer considered 
marketable. Other complications followed, and 
her health seriously declined. Her anticommunist 
essays and denunciation of school integration 
increasingly alienated her from other black writers. 
After a stroke in 1959, Hurston reluctantly entered 
a welfare home, where she died penniless on 
January 28, 1960. Her grave remained unmarked 
until novelist Alice Walker erected a gravestone 
in 1973. 

16 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Harlem Renaissance 

Their /-yes Were Watching Godvns published 
in 1937 several years after the heyday of the Harlem 
Renaissance. But the novel should be read with the 
context or the "New Negro in mind, since 1 lurston 
was an influential member of the Harlem literati. 

Thousands or African Americans migrated 
north at the beginning of the twentieth century; 
According to the Sehomberg Center for Research 
in Black Culture, "between 1910 and 1920 New 
York's black population increased by 66 percent, 
Chicago's by 148 percent, and Philadelphia's by 500 
percent. Detroit experienced an amazing growth 
rate of 61 1 percent." This exodus heightened black 
intellectual output in cities like New York and 
Chicago. While new industry (like Henry Fords 
automotive factories) supplied jobs to these new 
arrivals, artists within these communities gave voice 
to the new challenges of the African-American 
experience. Ralph Ellison captures this journey 
in his 1952 novel, Invisible Man. In this story, the 
main character migrates from his boyhood south to 
New York City. An educated young mans dreams 
transform as urban life brings betrayal and racial 

Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, became 
the center for African-American artists from 1910 
to 1930. These artists produced an astounding 
array of internationally acclaimed works. Harlem 
Renaissance literary greats included poet Langston 
Hughes, author Zora Neale Hurston, writer Richard 
Wright, and political thinker W.E.B. DuBois. At 
the same time, a host of musicians would make 
an indelible mark on the evolution of American 

music. These artists included Louis Armstrong, 
Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, 
Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Bessie Smith. 
Since racial prejudice dominated mainstream 
America, some artists, like actress and dancer 
Josephine Baker, met with more success in Europe. 
International audiences also provided artists with 
an opportunity to experiment more freely with their 
art form. 

While American society was still segregated, 
artistic collaborations between blacks and whites 
would provide a foundation for improving 
interracial relations. Zora Neale Hurston, a trained 
anthropologist as well as novelist, called whites 
supporting this artistic movement "Negrotarian." 
Jazz musicians from New Orleans to New York to 
California overcame racial differences to embrace 
potent musical collaborations. Literary works, plays, 
paintings, and political commentary provided all 
Americans with new, positive, and realistically 
complex images of the African American. As 
a result, there was great debate within African- 
American communities as to what would properly 
represent the race. W.E.B. DuBois rejected Bessie 
Smiths music as inappropriate. Richard Wright and 
Alain Locke criticized Hurston s use of language as 
failing African Americans by representing them as 
uneducated. The gusto and triumph of the Harlem 
Renaissance was fed precisely by tensions that forced 
artists to come to terms with new definitions of race 
made possible in and through a variety of art forms. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Jim Crow 

Despite some legal changes after the Civil 
War, former slaves and their children had little 
assurance in the South that their freedoms would 
be recognized. When Hurston was a child in the 
1890s, a system of laws and regulations commonly 
referred to as Jim Crow emerged. Most of the 
laws separated such public facilities as parks, 
schools, hotels, transportation, water fountains, 
and restrooms into "Whites Only" and "Colored." 
Race-mixing laws deemed all marriages between 
white and black both void and illegal. 

The term "Jim Crow" probably originated in 
1830, when a white minstrel show performer first 
blackened his face and sang the lyrics to the song 
"Jump Jim Crow." At first the term was no more 
derogatory than black, colored, or Negro, but 
soon it became a slur. Although using violence to 
subjugate blacks was nothing new in the South, 
its character changed under Jim Crow. Brutal acts 
and mob violence were common. Torture became 
a public spectacle. Railroad companies sold tickets 
to lynchings. Some white families brought their 
children to witness such violence, and body parts 
of dead victims were sold as souvenirs. 

Hurston and Jim Crow 

Hurston's lifetime spans the Jim Crow era almost 
exactly. She often said in her autobiography 
and letters that she was "sick" of the "Race 
question," and she tried to avoid it in her fiction. 
Nevertheless, Hurston was often the object of 

In the 1944 Negro Digest, Hurston published 
"My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience," 
an experience that took place in New York, not 
the South. Hurston needed medical treatment 

that she could not afford. For over a year, she had 
been suffering from digestive problems. In 1931, 
Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hurston's godmother, 
arranged for her to see a white doctor. But 
when Hurston arrived at the specialist's office in 
Brooklyn, an embarrassed receptionist took her to 
a private examination room, a room with soiled 
towels, dirty laundry, and one chair. 

To avoid the Jim Crow coaches during her 
southern folklore-collecting travels, Hurston and 
her brother John agreed that she should buy a 
car. The coaches were often poorly ventilated and 
dangerous for women traveling alone. In February 
1927, she bought a used car for $300 (with 
payments of $26.80 a month), which she soon 
dubbed "Sassy Susie." 

In white motels and restaurants, Hurston could 
not escape the "aggressive intolerance" from 
white faces. Even when Hurston traveled with the 
famous white novelist Fannie Hurst, both women 
resorted to tricks to procure equal treatment for 
Hurston. Hurst records one occasion when she 
announced to the waiter, "The Princess Zora and 
I wish a table." Hurston's African attire inspired 
him to believe her, so he quickly seated them at the 
best table. But no tricks would allow white hotels 
to place Hurston anyplace other than servants' 
quarters. To avoid this disgrace, sometimes she 
would sleep in the car if a colored hotel room 
could not be found. 

Source: Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life 
of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner's, 2003. 

I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of 
Zora Neale Hurston. New York: A Lisa Drew Book/ 
Scribner's. 2003. 

A readable, detailed account of Hurston's life. Boyd not 
only accounts for the "dropped" decade of Hurston's life 
(1891-1901), but also provides a brief analysis of each 
novel. Teachers may find the end of Chapter 25 ("Mules, 
Men, and Maroons") and all of Chapter 26 ("A Glance 
from God") useful as they teach Their Eyes Were 
Watching God. 

Hemenway, Robert. : Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary 
Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. 
Hemenway 's biography — the first about Hurston — helped 
launch the Hurston revival. 

Hurston, Lucy Anne, and the Estate of Zora Neale 
Hurston. Speok, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora 
Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004. 
Lucy Anne Hurston is Zora's niece. This is a great 
addition to a teacher's library, as it features a CD, 
historic papers, photographs, handwritten poems, and 
manuscripts (including the first few pages of Their Eyes 
Were Watching God). 

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. New 
York: Harper, 1991. 

This work diverges from the familiar pattern of recent 
autobiography: Hurston ignores such major historical 
events as the Depression and World War I. She is almost 
entirely silent on matters of race, politics, and education. 
She never mentions a single American president, and she 
hardly alludes to any of her three marriages. Critics often 
joke that this memoir is one of her best works of fiction. 

Hurston only refers to Their Eyes Were Watching God 
in two chapters. At the end of Chapter II, "Books and 
Things," she claims that of all her books, this is the one 
she most regrets writing. In Chapter 14, "Love," Hurston 
mentions Percy Punter — the novel's muse — and her 
attempt to repress her love for him during her 1937 flight 
to Haiti. 

Kaplan, Carla," ed., Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. 
New York, Doubleday, 2002. 
In contrast to her autobiography, Hurston's letters 
are politically savvy and unapologetically feminist. They 
demonstrate her self-awareness as a writer, though they 
say little about her published work or literary influences. 
As Kaplan says in the introduction: "Her letters showcase 
Hurston as writer, anthropologist, dramatist, teacher, 
celebrity, folklorist, and urbanite. They also reveal her less 
public personas: Hurston as wife, lover, sister, aunt, friend, 
entrepreneur, recluse, sailor, pet lover, gardener, and cook. 
Hurston was famously Janus-faced and has often been 
noted for dissembling and secrecy. But her letters are 
often startlingly — even brutally — honest" (p. 13). 

Walker, Alice* In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist 
Prose. New York: Harcourt, 1983. 

If you only have time to read one outside source, you will 
find these three essays interesting and informative."Saving 
the Life That Is Your Own" (pp. 3-15) compares Kate 
Chopin's Edna Pontellier (from The Awakening) to 
Hurston's Janie Crawford. In "Zora Neale Hurston: A 
Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View" (pp. 83-92) and 
"Looking for Zora" (pp. 93-1 16), Walker recounts her 
discovery of Hurston's writings and later of her grave. 
This last essay was originally published in Ms. Magazine, 
propelling the Hurston revival. 

Featured on The Big Read CD for Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and 
non-print texts to build an understanding of 
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of 
the United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

"I shall try to lay my dreaming aside. Try hard, 

But Oh, if you knew my dreams! My vaulting 

ambition! How I constantly live in fancy in 

seven league boots, taking mighty strides 

against the world, but conscious all the time 

of being a mouse on a treadmill. Madness 

ensues. I am beside myself with chagrin half 

of the time; the way to the blue hills is not on 

tortoise back, it seems to me, but on wings. I 

haven't the wings, and must ride the tortoise." 

in a letter to playwright Annie Nathan Meyer 

The wind came back with triple fury, 
and put out the light for the last 
time. They sat in company with the 
others in other shanties, their eyes 
straining against crude walls and their 
souls asking if He meant to measure 
their puny might against His. They 
seemed to be staring at the dark, but 
their eyes were watching God." 

from Their Eyes Were Watching God 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

\:\. Museum-.dLibrary