By Zora Neale Hurston
Reading Level: 7th grade
Interest Level: 9th-12th grade
Awards: Audie Award for Solo Narration – Female (2001)
Teaser: Janie is a woman who is just trying to find love. As we follow her different relationships, she learns that maybe she was looking for love in all the wrong places!
Summary: Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the story of Janie, a young African American woman who readers see learn and grow through her relationships with men. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, wants what is best for Janie. She is so afraid that Janie will run off like her mother. After catching Janie kissing a local boy, Nanny arranges for Janie to marry an older farmer who is looking for a marriage, Logan Killicks. Sad and uninterested in a life with Killicks, Janie is charmed away by a man named Joe Starks and runs away with him to Eatonville. Starks becomes mayor and Janie finds out that he is not the man that she thought he was. He is controlling and demeaning towards her and eventually hits her. Starks gets very sick and passes away. All of his estate goes to Janie and she finds herself surrounded by eligible bachelors. After a long courtship, Janie falls in love and marries a younger man named Tea Cake. The couple moves to “the muck” to plant beans for work. One day a terrible hurricane strikes and Tea Cake ends up getting bit by a rabid dog while saving Janie’s life. He slowly loses himself to rabies and experiences extreme anger and jealousy towards Janie. He tries to shoot her with his pistol, but she kills him with her rifle instead. Then Janie moves back to Eatonville where she tells her friend the whole story of her life. She talks about what she has learned about love and what she has learned about herself.
Information about the Authors: Wikipedia says, “Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In addition to new editions of her work being published after a revival of interest in her in 1975, her manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives.”
Critical Evaluation: I like how the book is broken up into three parts that correspond to Janie’s three marriages and the different stages of her life. In her first marriage, Janie learns that she does not just want to marry for a domestic relationship; she wants to marry for love. This causes her to choose to marry Joe Starks. With Starks, she comes to the realization she wants to have control of her own life. After he dies, she marries Tea Cake. She finds love with Tea Cake and feels like she has more control of her own life. When Tea Cake dies, Janie learns that she can survive the loss and that she has come to love herself. Hurston is a genius at writing dialogue. She effectively communicates a person’s entire personality through their words and interactions with Janie. Additionally, the dialogue plays a huge role in creating the setting and time period for this story.
Curriculum Ties: Feminism, African-American History
Booktalk Ideas: Compare and contrast Janie’s relationships with male and female characters during her story.
Challenge Issues: Spousal abuse, Religious Overtones
Challenge Resources: Rationale for choosing this book (see “Why Did I Pick This”), Engage students and parents in discussions about intellectual freedom, ALA Library Bill of Rights,Challenge Resources from the American Library Association
Why Did I Pick This: This book follows a young woman’s journey into love and relationships. Janie learns and grows from every relationship she’s had and she finally finds herself along the way. This is an empowering book for young women written in a different cultural perspective.
Hurston, Z.N. (1937). Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philidelphia: J.B. Lippincott.