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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

Compassion and Forgiveness Theme

In this book, compassion is unconditional sympathy for all manner of people, no matter what their flaws. Special attention is paid to how people treat "helpless things," entities that cannot defend or speak up for themselves – namely women, children, and animals. Closely tied to compassion is the concept of forgiveness, in which a person relinquishes any spite, ill will, or even memory of a crime committed against him. Compassion and forgiveness often go unnoticed in the novel, and those who give compassion and forgiveness without recognition are even more virtuous because they expect nothing in return.

Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

  1. Why does Janie have such sympathy for "helpless things"? What kinds of beings does she classify under this label? How does she fight for the representation and rights of these "helpless things"?
  2. Does Janie’s compassion ever hurt her? For example, does Nanny use Janie’s inherent compassion to manipulate her into marrying Logan?
  3. Janie’s capacity to forgive is rather amazing. Identify at least three examples where she forgives someone for doing wrong to her, even when the guilty party does not recognize his crime.
  4. How might Janie’s ability to forgive be linked to the religious rhetoric that appears sporadically in the novel?
  5. Why is Janie able to forgive Joe but not Nanny? What about Nanny’s sin makes her deserve condemnation so much more than Joe? You might want to consider the anecdote about the angels that try to muddy man’s "shine," and also Janie’s passion for speaking truthfully.

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Janie’s sympathy for "helpless things" stems from her position as a helpless woman under Joe’s reign.

Despite the many crimes committed against her, Janie is able to forgive everyone but Nanny because Nanny’s crime violates the virtue Janie holds most dearly: honesty.

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