Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Memory and the Past

By Zora Neale Hurston

Memory and the Past

Chapter 1

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. (1.1-2)

Women reconstruct their pasts through selectively forgetting and remembering different aspects of their lives. In this way, women ensure that they see themselves as living out their dreams. It is interesting that Hurston starts off her novel by calling into question a woman’s ability to accurately look at her past because Their Eyes Were Watching God is largely one woman telling her life story. Does this imply that we aren’t supposed to trust Janie’s version of her past?

Chapter 2

Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches. (2.1)

When beginning her story, Janie’s memories are shaped like a tree. This is appropriate because Janie’s whole life has been in pursuit of her experience underneath her pear tree—an experience of love and life that she constantly seeks to replicate. Janie’s tree of her memories and past, however, is quite different that the pear tree that symbolized what she hoped her life would be. The tree of her memories doesn’t contain blossoms, but both suffering and joy. Looking back on her life, she sees that her dreams were more idealistic compared to what her life turned out to be.

Old Nanny sat there rocking Janie like an infant and thinking back and back. Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart. (2.57)

Memories are presented as a chain of events that reach into the deepest part of the human soul. First, memories are mere "mind-pictures" that then trigger emotions that finally blossom into full-fledged stories that are "dragged out" from the deepest recesses of the heart. Memories are, in themselves, fragments of a narrative.

Chapter 6

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. (6.186)

The first time Joe beats Janie, her ideal and illusion of him is shattered. Janie realizes for the first time that her past with Joe has been very different that she previously thought. She realizes that his goodness was all an illusion to her, that Joe in reality "never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams" but "just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over." This harkens back to the first page of the novel (1.2) in which the narrator states that women create a version of their own past separate from reality in order to enforce the idea that their life is in line with their dreams. Here, Janie has just realized that her life and her dreams have not been at all aligned.

Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. (6.183)

This statement implies that Janie usually pushes her negative thoughts about Joe aside. It is only when Joe insults her intelligence or limits her freedom in any other way that Janie’s memories are triggered and she thinks about how differently her marriage has gone from the way she envisioned it.

Chapter 9

Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there in the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. She asked if she wanted to leave and go back where she had come from and try to find her mother. Maybe tend her grandmother’s grave…She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for not matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (9.4)

After Joe’s death, Janie’s memories of Nanny suddenly hit her with a new force and she interprets them radically differently. Her memories, tinged with the bitterness of her oppressive marriage to Joe, now seem desecrated. Nanny is no longer the loving grandmother who wanted only good for her child, but a woman who valued only material objects and subjected her granddaughter to horrors simply to obtain such trivial wealth. Thus, life experience can change the way one parses her memories.

Chapter 20

The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob to sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. (20.12)

Janie finds comfort, salvation, and even life in her memories. For her, Tea Cake is not dead; he cannot be until she can no longer remember him.

Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain’t so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo’ Tea Cake come along. It’s full uh thoughts, ‘specially dat bedroom." (20.6)

Now that Janie has lived her life to the fullest, she can look back and indulge in memories. She can now "live by comparisons," comparing her marriages to one another and appreciating little things like the bedroom of her Eatonville house now that it is rife with memories of Tea Cake, and even Joe. Now that Janie’s dreams have been fulfilled, she can recall that happiness at will and be grateful for it because she has lived in darker, less blessed times.