Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God Theme of Memory and the Past
A person’s memories and their past are essential in order to truly understand them. The entire book is the protagonist telling her life story to a friend so that her friend can accurately understand and judge her. Memory acts as a repository of past emotion and experiences which can later be drawn upon to trigger new understanding. By the end of the novel, memory has taken on a new significance as a way to reconcile oneself with death, through remembrances and commemoration of a loved one’s life.
Questions About Memory and the Past
- How are memories differentiated from their usual state as set-in-stone remembrances of time past and transformed into mercurial, changing things? How do Janie’s experiences change the way she views her memories?
- How do memories, like dreams, eventually become idealized? And how is this idealization a harkening back to Janie’s childhood?
- Why does Janie want to tell Pheoby the whole story of her life? Why not just update Pheoby on what happened after she left town with Tea Cake?
- Why does Nanny tell Janie about her past? What is her goal in relating her past to Janie? Does Nanny meet her goal?
- Do you think that Janie’s memories of the past and the story she tells Pheoby are accurate? Do we have any reason to doubt the truth of Janie’s life story? Does Hurston want us to assume Janie’s memories are completely true?
Chew on This
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, memory is not a fixed entity, but one that constantly changes in retrospect; Janie’s continuing experiences in life often change the ways she interprets old memories and occasionally forces her to recall memories she would not otherwise have remembered.