Closer Readings Commentary

Plumbing Zora Neale Hurston’s Voice for the Classroom

I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads. —Zora Neale Hurston

A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 11 – College and Career Readiness (Appendix B) Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is more than simply the coming-of-age story of a woman finding herself and extending her horizons.

A careful record of place and time, this novel brings to life the culture of the first African American-controlled town in Florida and the settlement of black migrant workers in the rich agricultural “muck” around Lake Okeechobee in the early decades of the 20th century. A trained anthropologist and ethnographer, Hurston imbued her characters’ dialogue and descriptive passages with firsthand knowledge of the folk life and folk language of this region.

EDSITEment’s new multicultural literature lesson, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative Language for the Common Core, provides students with an opportunity to observe how Hurston creates a unique literary voice by combining folklore, folk language, and traditional literary techniques. Students will examine the role that folk groups play in their own lives and in the novel. They will undertake a close reading of passages in Their Eyes Were Watching God that reveal Hurston’s literary techniques and determine their impact on the novel.

The Novel

Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) with its tale of Janie’s three marriages is the pre-eminent novel written by a woman who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The protagonist of this early feminist “manifesto” liberates herself from the expectations of society and particularly from the men in her life. At the same time, the novel celebrates and preserves a particular time, place, and way of life with the accuracy of an anthropologist.

The National Endowment for the Arts The Big Read selected Their Eyes Were Watching God for “the syncopated beauty of Hurston's prose, her remarkable gift for comedy, [and] the sheer visceral terror of the book's climax,” that “transcend any label that critics have tried to put on this remarkable work.”

Applications for the Common Core

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Folk Speech and Figurative Language offers an application for the Reading Literature Anchor standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Activity 1 introduces students to the specialized vocabulary of folklore and has them apply it to Hurston’s fictional writing in the novel. They go on to analyze the impact of Hurston’s choices regarding how she integrated folk groups and folk genre into her narrative. This is followed by Activity 2, in which students identify examples of Hurston’s “eye dialect”—a technique used by writers to simulate speech as it is actually spoken rather than in its polished, abstract, “correct” form.

Worksheet 3 aids students in their task of analyzing the impact of specific word choices on Hurston’s meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings and language that is powerful. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

Regardless of whether Zora Neale Hurston was using dialect or Standard English, she clearly employed many figures of speech in her writing. The lesson concludes with Activity 3, in which students complete a close reading of several passages from the novel to uncover some of these figurative elements.

Overall, the lesson provides a series of steps in which students can evaluate the effectiveness of these elements in creating Hurston’s unique “voice.” CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings: (a) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5a Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text and (b) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5b Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.