American Literature Review

American Literature Review



American Literature Review

American Literature Final Review Sheet



  • Symbolism is a form of expression in which the world of appearances is violently rearranged by artists who seek a different and more truthful version of reality.
  • Symbolist poets did not merely describe objects; they tried to portray the emotional effects that objects can suggest.
  • They sought to get rid of the typical “symbols” and explore more imaginative choices.
  • This was a new manifestation of the Romanticism that had swept the US in the 19th century; however it did not focus on nature.
  • They focused more on how to keep individualism in a modern world that was succumbing to the power of mass culture.


  • Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were the two poets who introduced Symbolism to America.
  • Then, Pound, along with a group of American and British poets, founded Imagism which flourished between 1912 and 1917.
  • Imagists believed poetry could be made purer by concentration on the precise, clear, unqualified image.
  • Imagery alone, they believed could carry a poem’s emotion and message.
  • The Imagists sought to rid poetry of its prettiness, sentimentality, and artificiality.

A New Poetic Order

  • Today, poems with imagistic technique are commonplace.
  • But, at the time, this movement caused quite a stir.  It insisted that the range of poetic subject matter might include the kitchen sink as well as the rising moon.
  • Really promoted free verse poetry, which was frowned upon.
  • Gave rise to some of the great poets of the 20th century: William Carlos Williams, e.e cummings, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens

e.e. cummings
what if a much of a which of a wind contrasts the world before and after, and says that if world is destroyed men will still live. It uses alliteration and parallelism.
Wallace Stevens
Of Modern Poetry embodies the self-conscious aspect of modern writing as it lays out what it means to be poetry. It also uses metaphors.
Ezra Pound
In The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, Ezra Pound translated the Chinese poem which contained a lot of images to tell a love story.
William Carlos Williams
Spring and All begins by describing the scene: the dead plants that cover everything at the end of winter. Then, the poem shifts, and the speaker describes the coming of spring, imagining how new life will emerge from this landscape as it begins to wake up.
In The Red Wheelbarrow, the author gives the words power by putting each of them in separate lines. The image is simply a red wheelbarrow. In The Great Figure, the image is simply a fire truck, and the author details the process of moving through the city.
Marianne Moore
In “Poetry,” the speaker opens the poem by claiming that she “dislikes . . . all this fiddle”— meaning poetry. In a tone that is both authoritative and witty, the speaker then goes on to develop her argument, carefully cataloging many of poetry’s shortcomings. Occasionally, she illustrates her logic by using carefully chosen images. The speaker says that one of poetry’s biggest flaws occurs when it lacks genuineness. She insists that poetry should combine both imagination and reality. She illustrates this point by saying that true poetry is able to present “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” This metaphor has become one of the most widely cited metaphors for poetry. Ironically, through the speaker’s exploration of what is “derivative” and “unintelligible” in poetry, this poem proves the merits of poetry. It offers the very model of what “genuine” poetry is, and it exemplifies how valuable good poetry can be.
Sandburg attempts to found an American version of social realism, writing expansive verse in praise of American agriculture and industry. All of these tendencies are manifest in "Chicago" itself. Then, as now, the city of Chicago was a hub of commodities trading, and a key financial center for agricultural markets. The city was also a center of the meat-packing industry, and an important railroad hub; these industries are also mentioned in the poem.
Ars Poetica
The central theme of "Ars Poetica" is that a poem should captivate the reader with the same allure of a masterly painting or sculpture—that is, it should be so stunning in the subtlety and grace of its imagery that it should not have to explain itself or convey an obvious meaning. Oddly, though, in writing that a poem "should not mean / But be,"
Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance (HR) is the name given to the period from the end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930s Depression, during which a group of talented African-American writers, thinkers and artists produced a sizable contribution to American culture.

The Great Migration
The Great Migration which congregated black populations in northern cities like Chicago and New York in unprecedented numbers. The concentration, in New York City, occurred on the upper west side, in Harlem. 

Important Features of the HR

  • It became a symbol and a point of reference for everyone to recall. The name, more than the place, became synonymous with new vitality, Black urbanity, and Black militancy.
  • It became a racial focal point for Blacks the world over; it remained for a time a race capital.
  • The complexity of the urban setting was important for Blacks to truly appreciate the variety of Black life. Race consciousness required a shared experience.
  • It encouraged a new appreciation of folk roots and culture. Peasant folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for racial imagination.
  • It continued a celebration of primitivism and the mythology of an exotic Africa that had begun in the 19th century.
  • Common themes begin to emerge: alienation, marginality, the use of folk material, the use of the blues tradition, the problems of writing for an elite audience.
  • The HR was more than just a literary movement: it included racial consciousness, "the back to Africa" movement led by Marcus Garvey, racial integration, the explosion of music particularly jazz, spirituals and blues, painting, dramatic revues, and others.

The Jazz Age
Jazz music is idiosyncratic by nature where the performer creates the rhythm. There is truly no incorrect way to play Jazz. J.A. Roger wrote," Jazz isn't just music, but also a spirit that can express itself in almost everything," It was in many ways a revolt against constraints because it was so joyous. Typically instrumented by piano, string bass, and drums, jazz began to take charge of the new era of music.

The Intellectuals

  • Among the important intellectuals writing and thinking during the Harlem renaissance were W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Alain Locke.
  • The notion of "twoness,"  a divided awareness of one's identity, was introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). and the author of the influential book The Souls of Black Folks (1903): "One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
  • The HR. gave birth to many important publications, such as Crisis magazine, edited by W. E. B. DuBois, giving black writers a forum where their voices could be heard.

What happened to it?

  • The Harlem Renaissance ended because the central ideas that underlay its artistic production had been exhausted by the mid 1930s. The idea that the American Negro was somehow the harbinger of a rural, southern, ultimately African primitivism had been exhausted as a literary idea by the works that had been produced in the 1920s and early 1930s, works by Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, and Zora Neale Hurston. There were only so many poems and short stories to be written about "what it means to feel like black me" and "what does Africa mean to me?" In the later twenties, moreover the desire to take advantage of the "vogue of the Negro" led some writers to produce works of poor quality that inevitably eroded the staying power of the movement.
  • Even those like Langston Hughes who had contributed mightily to the Harlem Renaissance's celebration of the distinctive culture of the Black of "primitive" masses, found that in the 1930s he needed to move on to embrace what Alain Locke later called "proletarian literature," a poetry and fiction of the Black masses that focused on their class position rather than their ethnic or racial specialness. In that move, Langston befriended and mentored a whole new generation of leftist writers like Richard Wright, Frank Marshall Davis, and Sterling Brown who found in the blues and the southern experience of Black people a powerful critique of American society that was altogether missing from Harlem Renaissance writing.
  • Others from the period like Zora Neale Hurston took another route out of the Harlem Renaissance and embraced a Black Diaspora consciousness, that saw the logical extension and exploration of Black culture taking them to the Caribbean where many believed Africanisms survived in much more potent forms. Here her work connected with that of a younger generation that included such dancers and choreographers as Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, both of whom, like Hurston, combined an artistic with an anthropological interest in studying Black culture in the Caribbean, and such visual artists as Jacob Lawrence and Lois Mailou Jones, who explored Caribbean historical and artistic themes in their work.
  • In short, the Harlem Renaissance reached a natural end, but was able to feed into and stimulate further developments in the 1930s.

I, too, sing America by Langston Hughes
Hughes faced many difficulties in writing self-proclaimed "Negro" poetry and offered this poem as a response to Walt Whitman "I Hear America Singing", responding to Langston Hughes by defining what America means to each individual.
Go Down, Death by James Weldon Johnson is a funeral sermon. It comforts the family that God has brought the dead to Him, and dying is just like going home.
Of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery by Gwendolyn Brooks is about a plain black boy. The poem uses repetition of the phrase “Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot, nothing but a plain black boy.”
America by Claude McKay
Although it is sometimes difficult to live in a country filled with racism the speaker still loves America because it makes him grow to be a stronger person. "Her hate" gives him strength, and although America is a huge country he is still willing to put up a fight against it like "a rebel fronts a king in a state." He is not afraid of it; he simply looks toward the future day after day. He sees how mighty America is and he appreciates it because of that. However time is being wasted like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. He believe that the longer America is ignorant toward blacks the more time is being wasted because there are many black people who can do great things for America, but because America has such a racist culture it doesn't allow blacks to prosper, and so time is being wasted.

Tableau by Countee Cullen is about an imagination of a white boy and a black boy walking together, followed by disapproving glances. Incident by Countee Cullen is about him not forgetting a Baltimorean calling him a nigger on the street.

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes refers black people as a sad tune because they were the victim of racism and prejudice. Harlem by Langston Hughes reflects on the things the blacks were promised to get but could never get.

Contemporary Literature
Contemporary Literature is a highly complex literary movement that is difficult to define. The best defining achievement of Contemporary Literature that distinguishes it from all other literary movements is the joy of life over the destruction that occurs all around the world. Whether trauma is across nations or is personal, Contemporary Literature seeks to connect individuals to provide assurance that all human beings are not along in their traumatic experiences.
Everyone is connected through their trauma and life will continue despite and horrific situation. Life is worth living and being praised in spite of the terrible situations that occur, whether it is the destruction of war, weapons of mass destruction, or the personal traumas of losing family and living through sexual abuse.
The previous literary movement, Modernism, surveyed the horrible state of the world and decided that human beings were isolated individuals but literature and other artistic endeavors could save the world. Contemporary Literature follows the legacy of Modernism but departs from some of its ideals—including the idea that an Utopian existence is possible tomorrow.
Contemporary Literature, unlike Modernist Literature, sees the terrible circumstances in the world and decides that literature’s goal is not to solve the problems of the world but to connect people together in order to achieve some level of optimism. Contemporary Literature is about finding light in a world of darkness—and upon seeing that light, valuing the positive events for surviving in a world in which darkness seems to take hold and thrive.

At the Bomb Testing Site by William E. Stafford describes the intense mood and anticipation.

Night by Elie Wiesel is a memoir of the experience in the Jewish concentration camp.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell is about the death of a gunner in a ball turret, the horrible conditions before getting hit, and the dehumanizing and scary death.

A Noiseless Flash by John Hersey from the book Hiroshima
It is an introduction to the characters described in Hiroshima, providing a window into the normal lives of each in the hours leading up to the explosion. There are elements of the ordinary in each description, but there is also a fair amount of wartime anxiety and disruption. Everyone’s lives are touched by the war, even in the most indirect ways. Hersey shows how wartime hardship is woven into every character’s daily existence: Mrs. Nakamura, for example, has been trudging up to a safe area every night with her children, and the siren warnings have lost much meaning for her. Many people, it seems, are both anxious and unconcerned at the same time.
The other common element in each character’s story is the utter confusion generated by the blast. Many people expect to hear the sound of approaching planes or the warnings or the air-raid sirens, but nobody hears anything before the bomb is dropped. The first moment is, as Hersey describes it, a “noiseless flash,” astoundingly bright and powerful, toppling and imploding buildings before anyone even hears a sound. Most of the people who survive are just lucky to be in a safe place at the right time. Hersey refrains from making explicit moral judgments, but it is difficult to miss the fact that the confusion and chaos that the citizens of Hiroshima undergo reflect the United States deliberate decision not to warn the civilians in Hiroshima about the imminent bomb attack.

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell
The setting of the poem is the Boston Common near the well-known Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. In the poem, Lowell's visit to the park leads to a series of associations that the dug-up park conjures. First, watching the construction of the underground parking garage beneath the Common makes him think about his childhood and how Boston had changed; in particular, the South Boston Aquarium that he'd visited as a child had recently been demolished in 1954. This leads him to think about the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and the history associated with the memorial (including Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that Shaw led during the Civil War). Finally, Lowell thinks of the then-controversial civil rights movement and the images of the integration of black and white school-children that Lowell had recently seen on television.
The final lines of the poem, which read, "The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,/ giant finned cars nose forward like fish;/ a savage servility/ slides by on grease" are particularly well-known for their rather dark description of the large American cars that were popular at the time

Game by Donald Barthelme is about two people being trapped in an underground nuclear silo. They both have to turn on the switch to activate the launching of a nuclear missile. In the end it is found out that so long as one of the protagonists gives the other protagonist to play a game of jacks, the missile will be launched, and they will get out of there. The story is satirizing how two people and a game control the lives of millions of people.

Speaking of Courage by Tim O’Brien
After the war, Norman returns to Iowa. On the Fourth of July, as he drives his father’s big Chevrolet around the lake, he realizes that he has nowhere to go. He reminisces about his high school girlfriend, Sally Kramer, who is now married. He thinks about his friend Max Arnold, who drowned in the lake. He thinks also of his father, whose greatest hope, that Norman would bring home medals from Vietnam, was satisfied. Norman won seven medals in Vietnam. He thinks about his father’s pride in those badges and then recalls how he almost won the Silver Star but blew his chance. He drives around the town again and again, flicks on the radio, orders a hamburger at the A&W, and imagines telling his father the story of the way he almost won the Silver Star. Norman wants to relate this memory to someone, but he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. On his eleventh trip around the lake, he imagines telling his father the story and admitting that he did not act with the courage he hoped he might have. He imagines that his father might console him with the idea of the seven medals he did win. He parks his car and wades into the lake with his clothes on, submerging himself. He then stands up, folds his arms, and watches the holiday fireworks, remarking that they are pretty good, for a small town.

Monsoon Season by Yusef Komunyakaa is about the war in Vietnam. During a storm rain, the soldier stops fighting and observes around the nature. The dead is unburied from the ground.

In Flanders Fields contrasts the war with the calmness after death. The poppies are the evidences of the dead soldiers. In Waters Deep states that the navy soldiers don’t lie in field where poppies grow. They don’t have a burying ground.
Lili Marlene and I’ll be Home for Christmas are love poems comforting the people at home and on the battlefield.
The Times They are A-Changing by Bob Dylan tells people to move on and accept new ideas because the times are changing. Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan is a protest song against Vietnam War and discrimination.
In the year 2525 imagines the future with awe and uncertainty.

Magical Realism
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud starts as the about-to-be rabbi has been urged by his teachers to find a wife before he actually becomes a rabbi; he gets a bigger congregation that way, they say. Because he is quite incapable (he recognizes this later on in the story and presumes his study stole his social life) and has almost finished his study (and thus has to hurry), he answers an ad of a marriage counselor. Unhappy and terribly sorry about a meeting with one of the proposed women, he retreats back again to his study. The marriage counselor suddenly turns up delivering him photographs of women, which he initially ignores. However, something draws him to them and after viewing several of them he discovers another one in the envelope. He instantly falls in love with that picture and yearns to meet her. After he's found the marriage counselor (who left him immediately after delivering the photographs) the girl turns out to be the counselor's daughter (though at first the counselor states it's one of the photographs that should have been in the barrel; hence Finkle thinks of the barrel as magic). He gets to meet her anyway; the marriage counselor (her father) hiding around the corner, "chanting prayers for the dead."

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One day a covered body is found on the beach. Upon removing the sea plants from his face, they discover his handsome face. Eventually, they name the man Esteban, to give him some sort of identity. Soon the entire town begins making excessive funeral arrangements and one of the village families is chosen to pose as his relatives and grieving widow. No sooner had the villagers thrust his body from the cliff do they realize that one day he may come again. In celebration of the new life they had discovered, the village men irrigated their bleak and barren land to produce flowers, and the houses were painted in bright colors to identify Esteban’s Village and give him a home to which he could return.

Elegy for Jane by Theodore Roethke is a poem written for his dead student. The author constantly compares Jane with a kind of bird. At the end of the story, we see the teacher's comments on how society views his relationship with the girl, and how he is forced to distance himself from her based on his occupation. Night Journey by Theodore Roethke is describing his experiences journeying through the night. He describes the land passing him by and his own personal response to it. The poet loved the land, and his love of the land gradually increased throughout his life.

Black Boy by Richard Wright
When Richard begs his mother for food, she responds by informing him that he no longer has a father, which leads Richard to develop a bitter association between his father and hunger. Later, a gang of boys attack and rob Richard when Ella sends him to the grocery store. After many times of crying, returning home in vain, Richard stands up for himself and fights the boys.
Ella invites the preacher from the local black church over for a dinner of fried chicken. Richard is very excited about the relatively fancy meal, but Ella will not let Richard eat any of the chicken until he finishes his soup, which he is unable to do in his excitement for the meat. Increasingly distressed as he watches the preacher devour piece after piece of the precious chicken, Richard eventually runs out of the room, screaming that the preacher is going to eat everything. The preacher laughs, but Ella does not find Richard’s dramatic actions amusing, and forbids him any more dinner.
Poverty forces Ella to place Richard and his brother in an orphanage for a month, where they eat two miserable meals per day and tend the lawn, pulling grass by hand. The orphanage director, Miss Simon, apparently takes a liking to Richard and asks him to help her blot envelopes in her office. Once in Miss Simon’s office, however, Richard is paralyzed with an inexplicable fear and is unable to do anything she asks of him. Frustrated, Miss Simon drives Richard from her office. He decides to run away from the orphanage that night, and when he does so he gets lost. Richard encounters a white policeman, but he remembers the story of the white man beating the black boy and fears that the policeman will beat him. The policeman is friendly, however, and brings Richard back to the orphanage. Miss Simon promptly lashes Richard for running away.
Ella decides that the family should go to her sister Maggie’s home in Elaine, Arkansas. She takes Richard out of the orphanage so that he can go to Nathan and plead for the money the family needs to make the journey. Predictably, Nathan claims that he has no money to give, and he seems amused by the idea that his children are going hungry. A slight altercation ensues, and Richard and his mother say harsh words to the irritatingly jolly Nathan and his mistress. Nathan then offers Richard a nickel, and though the boy wants to accept it, he refuses.
Richard muses that this meeting is the last time he would see his father for twenty-five years. When he next sees Nathan, the old man is nothing more than a poor, toothless sharecropper. Richard feels nothing but pity for Nathan as an old man, reflecting that whereas Nathan failed in his attempt to find a successful life in the city, Richard himself has done much better, and created a dramatically new life out of his humble origins.

Their Eyes Were Watching God
J anie Crawford, an attractive, confident, middle-aged black woman, returns to Eatonville, Florida, after a long absence. The black townspeople gossip about her and -speculate about where she has been and what has happened to her young husband, Tea Cake. They take her confidence as aloofness, but Janie’s friend Pheoby Watson sticks up for her. Pheoby visits her to find out what has happened. Their conversation frames the story that Janie relates.
Janie explains that her grandmother raised her after her mother ran off. Nanny loves her granddaughter and is dedicated to her, but her life as a slave and experience with her own daughter, Janie’s mother, has warped her worldview. Her primary desire is to marry Janie as soon as possible to a husband who can provide security and social status for her. She finds a much older farmer named Logan Killicks and insists that Janie marry him.
After moving in with Logan, Janie is miserable. Logan is pragmatic and unromantic and, in general, treats her like a pack mule. One day, Joe Starks, a smooth-tongued and ambitious man, ambles down the road in front of the farm. He and Janie flirt in secret for a couple weeks before she runs off and marries him.
Janie and Jody, as she calls him, travel to all-black Eatonville, where Jody hopes to have a “big voice.” A consummate politician, Jody soon succeeds in becoming the mayor, postmaster, storekeeper, and the biggest landlord in town. But Janie seeks something more than a man with a big voice. She soon becomes disenchanted with the monotonous, stifling life that she shares with Jody. She wishes that she could be a part of the rich social life in town, but Jody doesn’t allow her to interact with “common” people. Jody sees Janie as the fitting ornament to his wealth and power, and he tries to shape her into his vision of what a mayor’s wife should be. On the surface, Janie silently submits to Jody; inside, however, she remains passionate and full of dreams.
After almost two decades of marriage, Janie finally asserts herself. When Jody insults her appearance, Janie rips him to shreds in front of the townspeople, telling them all how ugly and impotent he is. In retaliation, he savagely beats her. Their marriage breaks down, and Jody becomes quite ill. After months without interacting, Janie visits him on his deathbed. Refusing to be silenced, she once again chastises him for the way that he treated her. As she berates him, he dies.
After Jody’s funeral, Janie feels free for the first time in years. She rebuffs various suitors who come to court her because she loves her newfound independence. But when Tea Cake, a man twelve years her junior, enters her life, Janie immediately senses a spark of mutual attraction. She begins dating Tea Cake despite critical gossip within the town. To everyone’s shock, Janie then marries Tea Cake nine months after Jody’s death, sells Jody’s store, and leaves town to go with Tea Cake to Jacksonville.
During the first week of their marriage, Tea Cake and Janie encounter difficulties. He steals her money and leaves her alone one night, making her think that he married her only for her money. But he returns, explaining that he never meant to leave her and that his theft occurred in a moment of weakness. Afterward, they promise to share all their experiences and opinions with each other. They move to the Everglades, where they work during the harvest season and socialize during the summer off-season. Tea Cake’s quick wit and friendliness make their shack the center of entertainment and social life.
A terrible hurricane bursts into the Everglades two years after Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage. As they desperately flee the rising waters, a rabid dog bites Tea Cake. At the time, Tea Cake doesn’t realize the dog’s condition; three weeks later, however, he falls ill. During a rabies--induced bout of madness, Tea Cake becomes convinced that Janie is cheating on him. He starts firing a pistol at her and Janie is forced to kill him to save her life. She is immediately put on trial for murder, but the all-white, all-male jury finds her not guilty. She returns to Eatonville where her former neighbors are ready to spin malicious gossip about her circumstances, assuming that Tea Cake has left her and taken her money. Janie wraps up her recounting to Pheoby, who is greatly impressed by Janie’s experiences. Back in her room that night, Janie feels at one with Tea Cake and at peace with herself.

Language: Speech and Silence
Their Eyes Were Watching God is most often celebrated for Hurston’s unique use of language, particularly her mastery of rural Southern black dialect. Throughout the novel, she utilizes an interesting narrative structure, splitting the presentation of the story between high literary narration and idiomatic discourse. The long passages of discourse celebrate the culturally rich voices of Janie’s world; these characters speak as do few others in American literature, and their distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and tone mark their individuality.
Hurston’s use of language parallels Janie’s quest to find her voice. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the afterword to most modern editions of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God is primarily concerned “with the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.” Jody stifles Janie’s speech, as when he prevents her from talking after he is named mayor; her hatred of him stems from this suppression of her individuality. Tea Cake, on the other hand, engages her speech, conversing with her and putting himself on equal terms with her; her love for him stems from his respect for her individuality.
After Janie discovers her ability to define herself by her speech interactions with others, she learns that silence too can be a source of empowerment; having found her voice, she learns to control it. Similarly, the narrator is silent in conspicuous places, neither revealing why Janie isn’t upset with Tea Cake’s beating nor disclosing her words at the trial. In terms of both the form of the novel and its thematic content, Hurston places great emphasis on the control of language as the source of identity and empowerment.

Power and Conquest as Means to Fulfillment
Whereas Janie struggles to assert a place for herself by undertaking a spiritual journey toward love and self-awareness, Jody attempts to achieve fulfillment through the exertion of power. He tries to purchase and control everyone and everything around him; he exercises his authority hoping to subordinate his environment to his will. He labors under the illusion that he can control the world around him and that, by doing so, he will achieve some sense of profound fulfillment. Others exhibit a similar attitude toward power and control; even Tea Cake, for example, is filled with hubris as the hurricane whips up, certain that he can survive the storm through his mastery of the muck. For both Jody and Tea Cake, the natural world reveals the limits of human power. In Jody’s case, as disease sets in, he begins to lose the illusion that he can control his world; the loss of authority over Janie as she talks back to him furthers this disillusionment. In Tea Cake’s case, he is forced to flee the hurricane and struggles to survive the ensuing floods. This limit to the scope of one’s power proves the central problem with Jody’s power-oriented approach toward achieving fulfillment: ultimately, Jody can neither stop his deterioration nor silence Janie’s strong will.

Love and Relationships versus Independence
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of how Janie achieves a strong sense of self and comes to appreciate her independence. But her journey toward enlightenment is not undertaken alone. The gender differences that Hurston espouses require that men and women provide each other things that they need but do not possess. Janie views fulfilling relationships as reciprocal and based on mutual respect, as demonstrated in her relationship with Tea Cake, which elevates Janie into an equality noticeably absent from her marriages to Logan and Jody.
Although relationships are implied to be necessary to a fulfilling life, Janie’s quest for spiritual fulfillment is fundamentally a self-centered one. She is alone at the end yet seems content. She liberates herself from her unpleasant and unfulfilling relationships with Logan and Jody, who hinder her personal journey. Through her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie experiences true fulfillment and enlightenment and becomes secure in her independence. She feels a deep connection to the world around her and even feels that the spirit of Tea Cake is with her. Thus, even though she is alone, she doesn’t feel alone.

As Janie returns to Eatonville, the novel focuses on the porch-sitters who gossip and speculate about her situation. In Eatonville and the Everglades, particularly, the two most significant settings in the novel, Janie constantly interacts with the community around her. At certain times, she longs to be a part of this vibrant social life, which, at its best, offers warmth, safety, connection, and interaction for Janie. In Chapter 18, for example, when Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat seek shelter from the storm, the narrator notes that they “sat in company with the others in other shanties”; of course, they are not literally sitting in the same room as these others, but all of those affected by the hurricane share a communal bond, united against the overwhelming, impersonal force of the hurricane.
At other times, however, Janie scorns the pettiness of the gossip and rumors that flourish in these communities, which often criticize her out of jealousy for her independence and strong will. These communities, exemplifying a negative aspect of unity, demand the sacrifice of individuality. Janie refuses to make this sacrifice, but even near the end of the book, during the court trial, “it [i]s not death she fear[s]. It [i]s misunderstanding.” In other words, Janie still cares what people in the community think because she still longs to understand herself.

Race and Racism
Because Zora Neale Hurston was a famous black author who was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, many readers assume that Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned primarily with issues of race. Although race is a significant motif in the book, it is not, by any means, a central theme. As Alice Walker writes in her dedication to I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” Along the same lines, it is far more fulfilling to read Janie’s story as a profoundly human quest than as a distinctly black one.
But issues of race are nonetheless present. Janie and Tea Cake experience prejudice from both blacks and whites at significant moments in the book. Two moments in particular stand out: Janie’s interactions, in Chapter 16, with Mrs. Turner, a black woman with racist views against blacks, and the courtroom scene, in Chapter 19, after which Janie is comforted by white women but scorned by her black friends. In these moments, we see that racism in the novel operates as a cultural construct, a free-floating force that affects anyone, white or black, weak enough to succumb to it. Hurston’s perspective on racism was undoubtedly influenced by her study with influential anthropologist Franz Boas, who argued that ideas of race are culturally constructed and that skin color indicates little, if anything, about innate difference. In other words, racism is a cultural force that individuals can either struggle against or yield to rather than a mindset rooted in demonstrable facts. In this way, racism operates in the novel just like the hurricane and the doctrine to which Jody adheres; it is an environmental force that challenges Janie in her quest to achieve harmony with the world around her.

The Folklore Quality of Religion
As the title indicates, God plays a huge role in the novel, but this God is not really the Judeo-Christian god. The book maintains an almost Gnostic perspective on the universe: God is not a single entity but a diffuse force. This outlook is particularly evident in the mystical way that Hurston describes nature. At various times, the sun, moon, sky, sea, horizon, and other aspects of the natural world appear imbued with divinity. The God in the title refers to these divine forces throughout the world, both beautiful and threatening, that Janie encounters. Her quest is a spiritual one because her ultimate goal is to find her place in the world, understand who she is, and be at peace with her environment.
Thus, except for one brief reference to church in Chapter 12, organized religion never appears in the novel. The idea of spirituality, on the other hand, is always present, as the novel espouses a worldview rooted in folklore and mythology. As an anthropologist, Hurston collected rural mythology and folklore of blacks in America and the Caribbean. Many visions of mysticism that she presents in the novel—her haunting personification of Death, the idea of a sun-god, the horizon as a boundary at the end of the world—are likely culled directly from these sources. Like her use of dialogue, Hurston’s presentation of folklore and non-Christian spirituality celebrates the black rural culture.

Janie’s hair is a symbol of her power and unconventional identity; it represents her strength and individuality in three ways. First, it represents her independence and defiance of petty community standards. The town’s critique at the very beginning of the novel demonstrates that it is considered undignified for a woman of Janie’s age to wear her hair down. Her refusal to bow down to their norms clearly reflects her strong, rebellious spirit. Second, her hair functions as a phallic symbol; her braid is constantly described in phallic terms and functions as a symbol of a typically masculine power and potency, which blurs gender lines and thus threatens Jody. Third, her hair, because of its straightness, functions as a symbol of whiteness; Mrs. Turner worships Janie because of her straight hair and other Caucasian characteristics. Her hair contributes to the normally white male power that she wields, which helps her disrupt traditional power relationships (male over female, white over black) throughout the novel.

The Pear Tree and the Horizon
The pear tree and the horizon represent Janie’s idealized views of nature. In the bees’ interaction with the pear tree flowers, Janie witnesses a perfect moment in nature, full of erotic energy, passionate interaction, and blissful harmony. She chases after this ideal throughout the rest of the book. Similarly, the horizon represents the far-off mystery of the natural world, with which she longs to connect. Janie’s hauling in of her horizon “like a great fish-net” at the end of the novel indicates that she has achieved the harmony with nature that she has sought since the moment under the pear tree.

The Hurricane
The hurricane represents the destructive fury of nature. As such, it functions as the opposite of the pear tree and horizon imagery: whereas the pear tree and horizon stand for beauty and pleasure, the hurricane demonstrates how chaotic and capricious the world can be. The hurricane makes the characters question who they are and what their place in the universe is. Its impersonal nature—it is simply a force of pure destruction, lacking consciousness and conscience—makes the characters wonder what sort of world they live in, whether God cares about them at all, and whether they are fundamentally in conflict with the world around them. In the face of the hurricane, Janie and the other characters wonder how they can possibly survive in a world filled with such chaos and pain.

Analysis of Major Characters
Although Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around Janie’s relationships with other people, it is first and foremost a story of Janie’s search for spiritual enlightenment and a strong sense of her own identity. When we first and last see Janie, she is alone. The novel is not the story of her quest for a partner but rather that of her quest for a secure sense of independence. Janie’s development along the way can be charted by studying her use of language and her relationship to her own voice.
At the end of her journey, Janie returns to Eatonville a strong and proud woman, but at the beginning of her story, she is unsure of who she is or how she wants to live. When she tells her story to Pheoby, she begins with her revelation under the blossoming pear tree—the revelation that initiates her quest. Under the pear tree, she witnesses a perfect union of harmony within nature. She knows that she wants to achieve this type of love, a reciprocity that produces oneness with the world, but is unsure how to proceed. At this point, she is unable to articulate even to herself exactly what she wants.
When Jody Starks enters her life, he seems to offer the ideal alternative to the dull and pragmatic Logan Killicks. With his ambitious talk, Jody convinces Janie that he will use his thirst for conquest to help her realize her dreams, whatever they may be. Janie learns that Jody’s exertion of power only stifles her. But just before Jody’s death, Janie’s repressed power breaks through in a torrent of verbal retaliation. Her somewhat cruel tirade at the dying Jody measures the depth of Jody’s suppression of her inner life. Having begun to find her voice, Janie blows through social niceties to express herself.
Janie flourishes in her relationship with Tea Cake, as he “teaches her the maiden language all over.” Her control of speech reaches a new level as she learns to be silent when she chooses. This idea of silence as strength rather than passivity comes to the forefront during Janie’s trial, when the narrator glosses over her testimony. Dialogue has been pivotally important up to this point, and one might expect Hurston to use the courtroom scene to showcase Janie’s hard-won, mature voice. The absence of dialogue here, Mary Ellen Washington argues in the foreword present in most editions of the novel, reflects Hurston’s discomfort with rhetoric for its own sake; Hurston doesn’t want Janie’s voice to be confused with that of the lawyer or politician. Janie’s development of her voice is inseparable from her inner growth, and the drama of the courtroom may be too contrived to draw out the nuances of her inner life. Janie summarizes the novel’s attitude toward language when she tells Pheoby that talking “don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans” if it isn’t connected to actual experience.

Tea Cake
Tea Cake functions as the catalyst that helps drive Janie toward her goals. Like all of the other men in Janie’s life, he plays only a supporting role. Before his arrival, Janie has already begun to find her own voice, as is demonstrated when she finally stands up to Jody. As we see at the end of the novel, after Tea Cake’s death, Janie remains strong and hopeful; therefore, it’s fair to say that Janie is not dependent on Tea Cake. Nevertheless, he does play a crucial role in her development.
When she meets Tea Cake, Janie has already begun to develop a strong, proud sense of self, but Tea Cake accelerates this spiritual growth. Ever since her moment under the pear tree, Janie has known that she will find what she is searching for only through love. In Tea Cake she finds a creative and vivacious personality who enjoys probing the world around him and respects Janie’s need to develop. Whereas Logan treats her like a farm animal and Jody silences her, Tea Cake converses and plays with her. Instead of stifling her personality, he encourages it, introducing her to new experiences and skills.
al to Janie’s development, he is not an indispensable part of her life, a crucial truth that is revealed when Janie shoots him. He plays a role in her life, helping her to better understand herself. By teaching her how to shoot a gun, ironically, he provides her with the tools that ultimately kill him. Janie’s decision to save herself rather than yield her life up to the crazy Tea Cake points to her increasing sense of self and demonstrates that Tea Cake’s ultimate function in the novel is not to make Janie dependent on him for happiness but to help her find happiness and security within herself.

Jody Starks
Jody’s character is opposite that of Tea Cake. He is cruel, conceited, and uninterested in Janie as a person. But his cruelty is not a result of any specific animosity toward Janie; rather, it is a reflection of the values that he holds and the way that he understands his relationship to the world. Jody depends on the exertion of power for his sense of himself; he is only happy and secure when he feels that he holds power over those around him. In Janie’s words, he needs to “have [his] way all [his] life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let [him]self heah ’bout it.” He needs to feel like a “big voice,” a force of “irresistible maleness” before whom the whole world bows.
In order to maintain this illusion of irresistible power, Jody tries to dominate everyone and everything around him. His entire existence is based on purchasing, building, bullying, and political planning. He marries Janie not because he loves her as a person but because he views her as an object that will serve a useful purpose in his schemes. She is young, beautiful, and stately, and thus fits his ideal of what a mayor’s wife should be. Jody is obsessed with notions of power, and Janie remains unfulfilled by their relationship because these notions require her to be a mute, static object and prevent her from growing. He forces her to tie her hair up because its phallic quality threatens his male dominance and because its feminine beauty makes him worry that he will lose her. Janie ultimately rebels against Jody’s suppression of her, and by toppling his secure sense of his own power, she destroys his will to live.

Study Questions
1. Discuss the role of conversation in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In particular, discuss the effect of Hurston’s narrative technique of alternating between highly figurative narration and colloquial dialogue.
One of the most interesting aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s interweaving of Standard Written English on the part of the narrator and early twentieth-century Southern black vernacular speech on the part of her characters. The extended passages of dialogue celebrate the language of Southern blacks, presenting a type of authentic voice not often seen in literature. In addition to asserting the existence and richness of Southern black culture, Hurston’s use of dialogue articulates thematic concerns of the novel. For example, Hurston uses language to express the difference between Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake and her relationship with Jody. When Janie meets Jody, we do not hear her speak to him; instead, the narrator tells us, in Standard Written English, that they talk, giving us few of their actual words. Janie’s interactions with Tea Cake, on the other hand, are full of long passages of vernacular dialogue, a reflection of their genuine connection and mutual respect for each other. Throughout the novel, Janie struggles to find her own voice; Hurston demonstrates the importance of this quest with her use of dialogue as a narrative device.

2. Explain the significance of the book’s title. How does it relate to Janie’s quest and the rest of the book?
One important feature of the title Their Eyes Were Watching God is that the first word is plural, which anticipates the issues of community and partnership with which the novel concerns itself. As much as the story is about one woman’s quest, it is also the story of how that quest is achieved both through and against community and partnership. The title is drawn from a moment in which three people act together against a threatening force—the hurricane, in Chapter 18—but soon afterward, Janie and Tea Cake split up with Motor Boat, and Janie is later forced to shoot Tea Cake. The “Their” in the title seems a fragile construct.
The novel’s concept of God, the other pregnant word in the title, is most clearly articulated when the narrator describes Mrs. Turner’s obsession with white features and social norms. Gods, the reader is told, require suffering, and this suffering is the beginning of wisdom. The lesson that the hurricane seems to offer is that God is all-powerful and will damn the proud like Tea Cake, who believes that his mastery of the muck will allow him to weather the hurricane. The novel’s overall tenor, however, is hardly one of awed submission and humility. Janie is focused on understanding herself, not God, and exhibits a high degree of autonomy in achieving this goal. Though external forces and circumstances may demand sacrifice and suffering, Janie herself still determines the course of her life.

3. Why is Janie initially attracted to Jody? Why does this attraction fade?
Jody comes along at a transitional period in Janie’s life. She is still partially under the spell of her grandmother’s philosophy, prizing material wealth and status, but at the same time has begun to search for something greater. She is unsure what that something is but knows that it involves more than what she has with Logan Killicks. When Jody arrives, full of bluster and ambition, he reconciles Janie’s upbringing with her desire for adventure. His talk of power and conquest soothes Janie’s disenchantment while his ambitious social climbing satisfies the values that Nanny has imparted to her.
Janie’s interest in Jody ultimately wanes because she discovers that the role he wants her to fit offers her no fulfillment. She learns that there are two reasons that Jody will never help her achieve her dreams. First, Jody’s quest is for material and social gain. He wants wealth, power, and status. No accumulation of such things, however, will help Janie in her spiritual quest. Second, Jody defines himself through his control of others, especially through his silencing of Janie. Their marriage fails because Janie refuses to tolerate Jody’s inflated sense of himself any longer. His egotism, based on power over others, demands that he control and dominate Janie, which prevents her from exploring and expressing herself.

Suggested Essay Topics
1. In 1937, Richard Wright reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God and wrote: “The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.” In particular, Wright objected to the novel’s discussion of race and use of black dialect. Why might Wright have objected to Their Eyes Were Watching God? Do you agree or disagree with Wright’s interpretation of the novel?

2. Discuss the idea of the horizon in the Their Eyes Were Watching God. What does it symbolize for Janie?

3. Compare and contrast Janie’s three marriages. What initially pulls her to each of the three men? How do they differ from one another? What does she learn from each experience?

4. In her marriage to Jody, Janie is dominated by his power. At several points, however, it is obvious that he feels threatened by her. Why does Jody need to be in control of everyone around him? How does Janie threaten Jody and his sense of control?

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned with issues of speech and how speech is both a mechanism of control and a vehicle of liberation. Yet Janie remains silent during key moments in her life. Discuss the role of silence in the book and how that role changes throughout the novel.

Hail- v. to greet
Brazenness- n. boldness
Caper- n. foolish prank
Exalted- v./adj. lifted up
Realm- n. kingdom
Avarice- n. greed
Tread- n. stepping
Profoundly- adv. deeply
Resolved- v. to make a decision; determine
Conceive- v. to think, imagine
Tactful- adj. skilled in saying the right thing
Margin- n. extra amount
Clammy- adj. cold and damp
Plague- v. to annoy
Vanity- n. excessive pride
Jilted- v. rejected (as a lover)
Disputed- v. contested
Frippery- n. something showy, frivolous
Nimbus- n. aura, halo
Dwindled- v. diminished
Abyss- n. gulf or void too deep for measurement
Pestilential- adj. likely to spread and cause an epidemic disease
Scouring- v. roaming about searching
Encumbrance- n. burden; hindrance
Semblance- n. outward appearance
Conscientiously- adv. carefully and honestly; diligently; thoroughly
Rendezvous- n. meeting place
Abstinence- n. staying away
Obsessed- adj./v. preoccupied; haunted
Philanthropies- n. charitable gifts
Incendiary- adj. designed to cause fires
Debris- n. rubbles; broken pieces
Hedonistic- adj. self-indulgence pursuit of pleasure
Sustained- v./adj. prolonged
Convivial- adj. jovial; sociable
Idealistic- adj. believing in noble, though often impractical goals
Ruse- n. trick, deception
Precedence- n. order
Simultaneously- adv. at the same time
Acrimoniously- adv. bitterly, harshly
Percale- n. a closely woven fine cotton fabric
Sparkly- adv. shining brightly with flashes of light
Hackles- n. hair along an animal’s back which rise when it is angry or alarmed
Pugnacious- adj. eager or quick to argue or fight
Britches- n. knee-length trousers
Bunion- n. a painful swelling on the big toe
Lacerate- v. tear or deeply cut (the flesh or skin)
Commiserate- v. express sympathy or pity; sympathize
Desecrate- v. treat (something sacred) with violent disrespect
Temporize- v. act so as to gain time before making a decision
Sodden- adj. soaked through
Transfiguration- n. transformation into something more beautiful or spiritual
Disgorge- v. cause to pour out
Skillet- n. a frying pan
Fracas- n. a noisy disturbance or quarrel
Transmutation- n. change in form, nature, or substance
Uninitiated- adj. without the necessary special knowledge or experience
Paunch- n. a stomach that is large or sticks out
Counterpane- n. bedspread
Banister- n. the upright posts and handrail at the side of a staircase
Endurable- adj. able to be suffered; tolerable
Scimitar- n. a short sword with a curved blade, used in Eastern countries
Phosphorescent- adj. giving light without burning or heating
Aggravating- adj./v. making worse
Ostentatiously- adv. showy in a way which is intended to impress
Remorseless- adj. without deep regret or guilt for something wrong
Inaudible- adj. unable to be heard
Unattainable- adj. not able to be reached or achieved
Seraph- n. a type of angel associated with light and purity
Temerity- n. excessive confidence or boldness
Distend- v. swell because of internal pressure
Lisp- n. a special kind of speech defect
Peevish- adj. irritable
Bloat- v. cause to swell with fluid or gas
Indiscriminate- adj. done or acting without careful judgment
Relentless- adj. never stopping or weakening
Disconsolate- adj. hopelessly unhappy
Chasten- v. cause to feel subdued or ashamed
Relish- n. great enjoyment, pleasurable anticipation
Sacrilege- n. the treating of something sacred or highly valued with great disrespect
Dazzle- v. amaze with impressive quality and let someone lose clear vision
Wallow- v. about in mud or water; deeply engulfed
Indulge- v. allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of
Usurper- n. someone who takes (a position of power) illegally or by force
Ecstatic- adj. very happy, excited, or enthusiastic
Broach- v. to raise a subject for discussion
Discomfiture- n. uneasiness or embarrassment
Oblique- adj. not straightforward
Eulogy- n. a speech or piece of writing that praises someone highly who has just died
Fanatical- adj. excessively enthusiastic for an extreme political or religious cause
Promontory- n. a point of high land jutting out into the sea or a lake
Supplication- n. a beg for something
Resignation- n. acceptance that something undesirable cannot be avoided
Swagger- v. walk or behave in a very confident or arrogant manner
Transient- adj. lasting only for a short time
Ailing- adj. in poor health
Delirium- n. a disturbed state of mind marked by restlessness and illusions
Scramble- v. move quickly and awkwardly; make confused
Ponderous- adj. slow and clumsy because very heavy
Scornful- adj. contemptuous
Hypocrite- n. a person who pretends to have higher beliefs than is the case
Drawl- v. speak in a slow, lazy ay with prolonged vowel sounds
Languish- v. grow weak or feeble
Turbulent- adj. involving much conflict, disorder, or confusing
Saunter- v. walk in a slow, relaxed way
Mingle- v. mix together
Wanton- adj. deliberate and unprovoked (of a cruel or violent action)
Quench- v. satisfy thirst by drinking
Horde- n., a large group of people
Metropolis- n. the main city of a country or region
Privy- adj. sharing in the knowledge of (something secret)
Dilemma- n. a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between alternatives
Clamor- n. a loud and confused noise
Compelling- adj. attracting much attention or admiration
Snort- n. a disrespectful laugh
Resurrection- n. rebirth from death
Scorch- v. burn or become burnt on the surface or edges
Futile- adj. pointless, in vain
Innovation- n. a new method, idea, or product
Ail- v. cause trouble or suffering to
Unravel- v. to become undone
Mule- n. the offspring of a donkey and a horse (can be used to describe a stubborn person)
Folk- n. people in general
Luxurious- adj. extremely comfortable, elegant, enjoyable
Dominant- adj. ruling, control, influence
Scoundrel- n. a unscrupulous person
Sullen- adj. gloomy, grumpy, irritated
Homage- n. respect, reverence
Malice- n. ill will
Prosperous- adj. successful
Stagger- v. to walk unsteadily
Disposition- n. a person's quality of character
Glance- v. to take a brief or hurried look
Laden- adj. heavily loaded
Dike- n. a long wall to prevent flooding
Brawny- adj. physically strong, muscular
Fitful- adj. not regularly; intermittently
Varmint- n. undesirable, troublesome person
Agony- n. extreme physical, mental, suffering, prolonged pain
Brute- n. a violent, cruel person

Root Word






Vot, vow

To vow, pledge, wish





To devour




Voc, vok

To call




Veil, vig

To watch














Vac, void

To be empty




Use, uti

To use





To put, place





To regulate




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