Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
For sixteen-year-old Janie, living with her grandmother in rural Florida near the turn of the 20th century, the horizon seems limited indeed. At first she is pushed against her wishes into marrying a much older farmer, and then she finds herself in a lengthy but ultimately dreary marriage to an ambitious and successful businessman. Then there is the charming Tea Cake, a much younger man who knows how to enjoy each day and breezes into Janie’s life, changing her forever. Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God; however, is more than simply the 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.
This lesson 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.
How did Zora Neale Hurston integrate folk life, folk speech, and figurative language into her fiction to create a distinctive “voice” that captures the culture of an African American community in the 1920s and 1930s?
Students will be able to:
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.
Individual Grade standards:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama.
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
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Born in Alabama and raised in Eatonville, Florida, the locale of her main character Janie’s second marriage, Zora Neale Hurston left home to study at Howard University and earned a B.A. in anthropology from Barnard College. As a trained ethnographer and folklorist, she traveled to Jamaica and Haiti and returned to her own environs of Florida to collect folktales, songs, and anecdotes, which found their way into her fiction and nonfiction. An online exhibit from Rollins College, Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance: Searching for Identity, connects Hurston’s works with other artists of that movement’s remarkable surge of African American poetry, music, theatre, and books in the 1920s and 1930s. It also identifies major themes in her writing. This is an excellent resource for exploring links between Zora Neale Hurston and contemporary artists.
In spite of her popularity during the years between the two world wars, Hurston’s political views were not in sync with the times. By the 1950s she was living in obscurity; her works were out of print and in 1960 she died largely forgotten. Novelist Alice Walker realizing the importance of Hurston’s work, made a literary pilgrimage to Florida in 1973 to locate her grave. Walker’s persistence revived Hurston’s work and caused it to receive new and richly deserved attention from English teachers and the reading public.
Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which forms the basis of this lesson, is important for several reasons. The 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.
Further background and resources to place Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work in context can be found at the University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gap. More comprehensive biographical material is available on her official website, Zora Neale Hurston.
Refer to EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary for definitions of key literary terms
Have students learn the specialized vocabulary of folklore and apply it to Hurston’s fictional writing in the novel. Analyze the impact of Hurston’s choices regarding how she integrated folk groups and folk genre into her narrative.
Distribute Worksheet 1. Folklore: Some useful terminology to students for homework the night before the lesson and ask them to read through it carefully.
When students have a solid understanding of the meanings of these terms, remind them that, broadly defined, a folk group is any two or more people who share some common identity or cultural expression.
Distribute Worksheet 2. Folk groups and have students work in small groups to complete the first page. When they have finished, give student groups an opportunity to share their ideas and make suggestions for additional groups.
For classwork or homework, assign the second page of Worksheet 2. Give the entire novel for review or break it up into sections, depending on the number of students you have and their ability to work with the text. You may assign the same sections to two or more groups so that they can cross-check their findings.
Have students write in response to the following prompt:
Identify a folk group you recorded on Worksheet 2 that had the most impact on Janie’s life. Write a one-page essay in which you describe that impact. How did contact with the folk group change her? What impact in turn did she have on the folk group?
Have 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. Students use Worksheet 3 to analyze the impact of specific word choices on Hurston’s meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings and language that is powerful.
Explain that this is an example of dialogue. Then tell students that it is also an example of dialect. Check students’ understanding of the terms and provide examples. Point out that not all people from a particular region speak with a regional dialect; generally people are expected to write in Standard English in formal situations no matter how they pronounce the words. There is considerable leeway for authors of fiction who choose to integrate dialect into their narrative.
Explain that Hurston switches back and forth in the book between Standard English and “eye dialect.” (Bring up examples of this in the novel as necessary.)
(To record the authentic speech of African American groups in Florida in the 1920s and 1930s);
Have students go back a page or two to the conversation between Janie and Nanny about Logan Killicks.
Have students select one additional descriptive passage in the novel where Hurston switches back and forth between Standard English and dialect. In one or more paragraphs, have students analyze the difference between the impact of folk speech and Standard English on the reader’s understanding of the narrative.
Tell students that regardless of whether Zora Neale Hurston was using dialect or Standard English, she employed many figures of speech in her writing. Instructing students to complete a close reading of several passages will uncover some of these figurative elements. Have students to evaluate the effectiveness of these elements in creating Hurston’s unique “voice.”
Define hyperbole. Have student find an example of hyperbole in the paragraph they have just read. (“… some dressed up dude … make it across.”)
Distribute Worksheet 3: Figurative language in Their Eyes Were Watching God and ask students to answer Question 1. List the words and phrases they have identified on the board. Review the concept of imagery (images within a literary work, which serve as figurative language that conveys sensory perceptions).
List the types of imagery on the board as follows:
Have students identify the types of images they have found in the three paragraphs from Chapter 2.
Continue working through Worksheet 3 with students to accustom them to locating and analyzing the effect of Hurston’s figurative language and other literary techniques.
Instruct students to select one additional descriptive paragraph in the novel that contains an arresting figure of speech. In one or more paragraphs, students analyze the figure of speech and its impact on the passage to report on the next day.
Zora Neale Hurston’s first short story, “Spunk,” already had many of the characteristics that would later define her style of writing: the use of folk language; folk groups; and figurative language. Explain to students that they are going to write an essay analyzing the techniques Zora uses in the story. Have them read the story and complete the graphic organizer on Worksheet 4 to organize the evidence to be cited in the essay. (Worksheet 4.1 contains suggested answers) Then have students respond to the prompt below:
Have students write a well-organized essay in which they discuss how Zora Neale Hurston used elements of folk culture as well as figurative language to create a sense of a community, delineate character, and create atmosphere in her story “Spunk.” Be sure that they supply adequate evidence to prove your assertions. Have them check their work to be sure it is correct in grammar, spelling, and usage before submitting it.
1a. Their Eyes Were Watching God, written during the 1930s, is widely considered an example of black literature. In a 1926 essay “The Negro Art Hokum,” available from EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters, African American critic and reporter George Schuyler denied that there was such a thing as “black art” or a black sensibility.
(Note: “Negro”, considered a proper term through the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., generally went out of use in the late 1960s and was replaced by the term, “black” and then by “African American.”)
After carefully reading Schuyler’s article and discussing his thesis, ask students to imagine that George Schuyler read and reviewed a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God when it appeared in 1937 (eleven years after his article was written). Have them write a well-developed letter addressed to Schuyler in which they argue that Hurston’s novel, with its literary techniques discussed in this lesson (folk groups and folk language), can be considered an example of a distinctive black literature. Instruct students to provide evidence from the text of the novel and the article to support their answers.
1b. Poet and writer Langston Hughes responded to Schuyler’s article a week after it appeared, in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” available from EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation. After they carefully read Hughes’ response, have students write an informational essay in which they compare and contrast the main ideas, arguments, and assumptions that underlie the two essays by Schuyler and Hughes, as well as their style of writing.
(Note: If necessary, refer students to the biographical entry on Langston Hughes. Hughes employed the infamous “n-word” once as part of a quote in his rebuttal.)
2. Read examples of nonfiction works by Zora Neale Hurston, such as the autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, or her collection of African American folklore, Mules and Men, which includes a famous essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Instruct students to report to the class about how these nonfiction texts support or contrast with the “voice” of Hurston as it is manifested in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In The Greene Space at WNYC and WQXR, Alice Walker appears in video clips defending Hurston’s love for her people and joy in life against her more political critics. (See: Walker reading the courtroom scene aloud.)
See Alice Walker’s essay, “Looking for Zora,” (a reprint of the 1975 Ms. Magazine article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”) in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1985).
A film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God starring Halle Berry as Janie was produced by Oprah Winfrey in 2005. (It is not rated, so preview it first to see if it is appropriate for your class.)
3 class periods