Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God Theme of Language and Communication
Speech in this novel is transcribed phonetically to capture the spirit of the black vernacular; the poetic and metaphoric aspect of the dialect emerges most strongly in forms like tall tales, songs, and prayers. The protagonist is especially concerned with the sincerity behind words and considers the ultimate virtue truth in language. The novel also explores the ways men and women use language differently; essentially, men dominate conversations, making demands and issuing orders, while women are cowed into submissive silence. For the most part, however, language has the most power when there is truth behind it.
Questions About Language and Communication
- What kind of tone does the phonetic transcription of the black vernacular give to the book? How do you react to the metaphors and tall tales? Does this vernacular encourage readers to sympathize more with the African-Americans or view them as quaint people to be looked down upon?
- Think about Janie’s characterization of Joe as a "big voice." How does Joe’s big voice affect Janie’s speech and the communication within their marriage? What does this say about women’s relationship to language, as opposed to men’s?
- Would better communication have been the solution to Janie’s first two marriages?
- In what ways is Tea Cake’s speech with Janie a dialogue? Consider their arguments, their conversations, and even the way they addresses each other.
- Why do the women of Eatonville gossip so much? Why doesn’t Janie gossip?
Chew on This
Throughout the novel, the narrator speaks condescendingly of the gossipers on the porch. Gossip is viewed as speech without substance, and in the end, Janie advocates action over speech. Thus, gossip is painted in a negative light, while action is represented positively.