In Search of Janie: Tracking Character Development and Literary Elements in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Judi Berridge, San Antonio, Texas
"Are we going to read that Janie and Tea Cake story in here?"
Janie Crawford, the main character in Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God introduced herself to the girls in my high school Women in Literature class three years ago as we began with chapter one, and each year students have heard about her before the reading begins. As Janie and her best friend Phoebe sit on the porch in Eatonville sharing a heaping planer of mulatto rice, Janie talks about her soul mate and husband TeaCake. Zora Neale Hurston draws us into her story with the soft drawl of the South Florida dialect in the velvet dusk. In this Harlem Renaissance novel, my students and I follow Janie through three marriages, seeing her strength and sense of self evolve. Since our first expedition into Eatonville, the character Janie has become a mainstay of our discussions in successive Women in Literature classes and the reference point from which the girls evaluate other female characters in the stories we include in this course.
What draws the students into this book so successfully each time I teach this course? It could be the imagery of Hurston's word pictures: "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"(p. 8).
It may be the way Hurston's characters speak. Janie's grandmother, Nanny, an emancipated slave, tries to explain her hopes for her daughter and granddaughter, "Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah'd take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. She would expound what Ah felt"(p. 15).
Hurston also entices us with a great love story that Janie tries to put into words for her most intimate friend, Phoebe. "Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."
Along with those literary aspects of the book, we also value discussions about women's roles in society: ways they are silenced, ways they use their silence, their ability to control their destinies, and their ability to learn from past experiences. In Hurston's words:
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation. That is the life of men. 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. (p. 1)
Some of the young women in my classes have already experienced physical and psychological abuse from significant partners. Many of my students have children or are pregnant. Some have been abandoned by their own mothers and live with their grandmothers. The majority of the girls who enroll in my class come from minority backgrounds and know the double discrimination of being either African American or Latina and female. In Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston provides a leading character who knows these issues intimately, learns how to deal effectively with and finally gains emancipation through recognizing her own strengths and values.
In the all the novels and short fiction we read in this class, we focus on strong female characters and analyze the characteristics that place them in that category. We also look at the life experiences that the characters must deal with and how these experiences strengthen those characters. In this book, Janie's journey through the hardships she experiences and the joy she finds endears her to the girls who enroll in a high school class that deals with women's issues. It also opens up an opportunity to address topics that today's young women need to address--abuse, self-esteem, and their place in the world. Janie speaks to them.
The students anticipate hearing about Janie, and they enjoy the story of her love with TeaCake. We get into animated discussions about sixteen-year-old Janie's forced marriage to "that old skullhead, Logan Killicks." Then the girls protest the indignities imposed upon Janie by the controlling and abusive second husband, Joe Starks. We discuss issues that Deborah Tannen highlights in Gender and Discourse about men enforcing silence upon women in the work place and in public, just as Joe Starks did to Janie. We look at the men's power talk in the front porch banterings, the storytellers, and the mule stories as we examine Tannen's research on verbally aggressive behavior in males. These discussions lead to the kinds of information the students will select from the novel to write on the panels of a graphic organizer which will be their study guide, review unit, prewriting activity, and keepsake of a well loved book.
One of my greatest challenges with the students is to help them move beyond plot to more fully appreciate how the writer's craft brings meaning to the events and circumstances in the novel and, through her craft, how Hurston embodies in Janie the same kind of metamorphosis women as a segment of society have undergone in order to emerge strong and self-sustaining. Hurston's art as a writer steps across the horizon of the role of woman as storykeeper and into the realm of woman as a highly professional crafter of words of vibrancy, imagery, and myth.
Because Hurston's book is so full of metaphor and imagery, I wanted the students to understand how this crafting adds layers and depth to a novel and raises it above a run-of-the-mill trade book and into the realm of the classic, at the same time conveying the message of Janie's growth into a strong self sustaining individual. I designed a project that included both text and visual conceptualization of the plot and the imagery to show how words and images work together to form an engaging literary experience. I also wanted to show the students a useful study format for organizing ideas— one they could use again in any course.
In her book about visual learning, Drawing Your Own Conclusions, Fran Claggett points out that:
Our primary goal as teachers is to enable students to explore, through the dimensions of the senses, the power of the mind; to provide situations in which they can engage in all of the four functions--observing, analyzing, imagining, feeling; to help them gain the confidence to recognize and claim their creations and responses; then to provide them with tools that will enable them to go back to the text...to validate and prove their ideas. (p. 13)
Having students think visually in colors archetypal symbols, and shapes helps them listen "with an eye toward drawing that keeps students' visualizing ability from atrophy" (p. 27).
As I designed this unit project I was reminded of one of my favorite resources on visual learning, Images in Language, Media, and Mind edited by Roy Fox. Fox discusses the philosophies of imaging that range from Einstein's teacher, Johan Pestalozzi, who believed that "all understanding is rooted in visual thinking," to Jung's "archetypal images," to Gestalt's "interaction between the whole and its parts," and Rudolph Arnheim who believes that all thinking occurs in a visual medium" (p. 4). Hurston's novel embodies the philosophy of visual thinking as the narrator says:
There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. (p. 23)
Through the four stages of her life, Janie Crawford undergoes physical and psychological changes that enable her to become self-sustaining. The strength inherent in her character and embodied in the iron will of her grandmother only needs to find its way through the layers of control, injustice, and male assumptions in order to emerge and bloom. The four-part structure of the novel lends it easily to a project that enables my students to visually organize the plot, the literary techniques, and the character changes Janie undergoes. By developing a visual creative project, an accordion book, in which students track the changes in Janie through the four phases of her life, I have been able to engage the students in a kind of literary criticism that helps them grasp the depth of Hurston's story. I hope, also, that through this accordion book they identify parallels to their own lives and find a sense of encouragement to see through the problems that confront them as women.
As old Nanny sits rocking Janie in the second chapter, "Mind pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart" (p. 16). Using brightly colored 12X18 inch sheets of construction paper, markers, and whatever other art supplies the students bring to enhance their projects, we embark upon our journey with Janie to those dramas in the hollows of the heart. While the paper is still flat, each student prints the title and author of the novel in large decorative letters that form a banner across the top.
Then, we begin folding. First, we fold a one-inch flap on each end of the paper. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a frame story, with the beginning and end chapters consisting of Janie's return to Eatonville and her conversation with Phoebe which frame the flashback segments making up the middle part of the book. I want to give the students a concrete visualization of this literary construction, so we make special areas to record this on our accordion book. On the far left flap students write about the opening chapter where Janie walks down the street, ignoring the inquisitive stares of the porch sitters as she returns to Eatonville and begins to tell her story to Phoebe. When the students have completed the novel, they will also write on the far right flap about the closing chapter when Janie finishes her conversation with Phoebe, who is amazed by Janie's transformation.
Next, we fold the paper like an accordion so that we have four sections on which to write. In this novel, Janie journeys through four stages of life in her quest for respect, independence, and wholeness. Her life is controlled by others in the first three stages, first her grandmother, then Logan Killicks, and Joe Starks. By the end of the Logan Killicks section, Janie assesses the growing deterioration of their relationship and asserts herself for the first time by running away with Joe Starks. It is only when she is released from her marriage to Joe by his death that she begins to take stock of herself, her situation, and her options and make her own decisions. Finally, after her marriage to Teacake, who has taught her a rich enjoyment and appreciation for life, she begins to truly celebrate her own worth and independence. Each of the four sections of the accordion books represents one of those stages, further emphasizing the literary construction of the novel. The students trace, delineate, and illustrate the stages of her journey, which helps them draw conclusions about character development.
In order to complete each section of this project, the students need to pay close attention to the literary elements as well as the plot line of the story. I ask them in each section to sketch one visual image that stands out to them, to use colors that remind them of the mood, setting, or characters, and to draw one symbol or icon that they think most expresses a crucial part of that section. Finally, they write about the events, especially the ones that lead up to a change in Janie.
Close reading and journaling help them compile and remember information about images, symbols, internal stories, characters, and plot. The students record the sentences and phrases that Hurston uses to paint vivid word pictures. As they read the book, they organize information in their journals about the events, the places she lived, the four men who influenced her life, and how she coped and grew from her experiences.
At the end of each stage in Janie's life, the students use their journal notes to complete the respective activities on the accordion book. On a panel representing a particular stage of Janie's life, each student creates her own title that expresses the essence of that particular stage. Then, the student writes information about that time segment; that could include where Janie lived, the person who most influenced her life, events of the story, and how Janie changed to meet the challenge of these events and influences.
Because this story parallels events in many of my students lives, they become immediately engaged when they learn that Janie is being raised by her grandmother, that she is illegitimate, and the whereabouts of her mother is unknown. They can relate to many of Janie's experiences. Depicting this story on a visual somehow helps each of them perceive events of their own lives in a different light. One student who has lost track of her parents and lives with her grandmother sees for the first time how difficult it must be for her own grandmother to be raising her at a time in life when the grandmother should not have to be facing these responsibilities. Another girl imagines how her two year old baby would feel if she were not there to be his mother. The majority of the students express a realization that people sometimes cannot control their own immediate destinies and must compromise to make the best out of a particular situation.
Angela, a sophomore in our class, sympathizes with Janie as she writes in the first column of her accordion about the ambivalence: the Grandmother who protects Janie from the harsh knowledge of the family's past but is unable to protect her from the school children who tease Janie about where she lives. "Janie's childhood life was hard at times, but also it was sheltered. Her grandmother didn't let on to Janie about [Janie's mother] Leafy's rape. Janie lived in a cabin with her grandma on some white people's property her nanny worked for. Kids teased her about this," Angela writes.
Our seventeen-year-old foreign exchange student from Hungary, Heine, contributes some insight about Grandmother's vision for Janie and Janie's initial desire to please. "When Janie gets her first kiss from Johnny Taylor, grandmother gets worried; she doesn't want Janie to get pregnant before marriage. She decides to marry her to a man from their church," writes Heine in her first entry on the accordion project. Heine emphasizes that Grandmother wants Janie to be happy and avoid the mistakes and destiny of her mother and grandmother, but how despite her submission to her grandmother and her new husband, no matter how hard she tries, Janie cannot love Logan Killicks. Heine notes how Hurston sets the scene for Janie's initial self-examination through a plot situation that leaves Janie out of control of her destiny.
Plot is the obvious vehicle for Hurston's message. Her literary techniques, though, set the mood for contemplation and internalization of her messages about a woman's place in society and a woman's self-concept. One of Hurston's greatest stylistic elements, her use of rich colors, illuminates the landscape of the text as it moves from one stage of Janie's life to another. To address that element, I ask the students to decorate each panel of the accordion with colors that they find in the respective section of that story. They might use the frothy pink and white of the blossoming pear tree that defines marriage in Janie's adolescent daydreams. Some include the black of the mourning colors Janie was expected to wear for Eatonville's Mayor Joe Starks, her second husband, despite the fact that he had forced her to wear a head rag in public, controlled her every action, and eroded her self esteem. Vivid Caribbean hues that the Bahamian's clothing brings to The Muck reflect the place where Janie and TeaCake have their happiest times, and the tropical shades of Florida and the fertile earthen colors of the fields and the swamps in the Everglades match the richness of Janie's soul and spirit as it is freed by her soul mate, TeaCake. Students use combinations of crayons, markers, fabric paints, chalk, and sometimes even glitter to create the kinds of colorful images that Hurston makes with her word pictures.
At the bottom of each panel on the accordion, the students illustrate an important image, event, or place essential to the plot of this part of the story. The task of finding something to draw leads the students to the need to define and recognize imagery as they discuss examples from the novel. As students search for word pictures and symbolism to represent graphically on their project, they begin to grasp the concept of imagery and point out possibilities to each other. This collaboration helps them transfer their ideas to graphic representations. At the bottom of her panel on Janie's childhood, Angela draws a gate, a blossoming pear tree and a pair of kissing lips with the word "smooch" underneath.
"Janie doesn't want to marry brother Killicks for he is old and 'some skullhead in de graveyard,' but she comforts herself that she'll love him after they're married. After Granny dies, he changes for the worse," Heine writes on the panel about Janie's forced marriage to Logan Killicks. Then, Heine draws an ax to symbolize that Logan at first chops wood for Janie, but later they fight over his demands that she chop wood and plow behind a mule like a field hand.
Cash in the form of bills and coins represents money and power hungry Mayor Joe Starks in the Eatonville segment on the third panel of another student's project. On the fourth panel of another accordion book, a neon-orange sun on the morning horizon depicts Janie's rise in the final phase of the novel to real love, fulfillment, and respect.
Students really want to talk most about the plot. We discuss how the plot is a literary technique that requires the character to change and how those changes in the multidimensional character make the novel, itself, more interesting. We discuss the ways Hurston causes Janie handle to situations and learn from them, as the author builds this strong female character. We map in the accordion book the construction of the plot and see how plot contributes to the development of Janie's character. We look for admirable traits and problem solving techniques Janie uses when she is victimized by circumstance or by the men who try to control her, situations in which many of my students could find themselves involved in both work and personal relationships. The students begin to realize how Hurston purposely puts these elements together to craft this novel. Then, they begin to evaluate and comment about the meaning of the novel as a whole.
About Janie's loveless marriage to Logan Killicks, one member of our class, Leah, an eleventh grader, writes about the difference between the inside and the outside of relationships:
Janie's time with Logan looked all right on the outside. But on the inside, Janie wasn't happy with him. She didn't feel protected by him. She didn't marry him for love but for Nanny's peace of mind. Janie felt forced. He tiptoed around her at first, but later abused her by verbally attacking her about her family's past and where she came from.
Concerning Janie's life with Joe Starks, a man who treasured her as a possession, Heine writes:
He thinks happiness is in money, and he buys Janie everything. He also wants to be dominating. Janie's place is in the home. Janie wants open discussion and relationship, but Jody is too busy and in love with Eatonville. Janie has to learn to hush, keep her hair tied up, and act the way a mayor's wife should act. When Jody dies, Janie is free and she can comb her hair down. She burns her head rags.
"Janie then ran off with TeaCake," writes Susan. "He was younger than Janie and most people thought he would use her for the money. They were wrong. He loved her for who she was and let her be herself."
Leah begins her section on TeaCake with borders of tropical reds and greens of The Muck and a symbolic pair of black dice at the top to represent TeaCake's gambling prowess. At the bottom of her section, Leah draws palm trees, a red heart for love, and the musical notes from TeaCake's guitar. In between, she writes:
It was a time full of love, new emotions, experiences, fun, learning and living. Janie experienced more with TeaCake than she ever did with Joe or Logan. Janie still loved him even after he died. He gave life to her house. She could feel him. He was there.
As I watch the students work on these brightly colored projects, I notice the intensity of their interest evolve not only in the story, and in Janie, but also in the writer's craft. They look for Hurston's imagery, which we call "word pictures" as they search for ideas to illustrate. They look for words and phrases that hint at symbols or icons. They become conscious of the purpose of the landscape in creating an atmosphere and tone as they observe and record her use of colors. Most important of all, they see the emergence of Janie's strength and character. By the end of the novel, near to the day they show their accordions in class, they realize each accordion will be displayed on the bulletin board. More detail conscious, they add more specific information to their text, embellish decorations, and add to illustrations.
As the students share with the class, a reading circle activity serves as an instant review, reinforcement, relearning, and test preparation activity. Students enthusiastically engage in discussions about motives, characters, setting, and literary elements as they compare their accordions in small group discussions. As they look at the story as a whole they also come to conclusions such as the one Heine expressed: "The whole of life is learning, finding new ways, rebuilding, remembering, searching, but you'll find your way through like Janie did, even though you have to get through hard times."
We praise each presentation, applaud each project, and display the work prominently. As we move to the next piece of literature, students bring along an array of skills to enable them to respond critically with confidence. They also look to their own place as women and have a map to help lead them to the kind of strength and sense of self that they learned from Janie.
Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Berridge, Judi. (1999). "In Search of Janie: Tracking Character Development and Literary Elements in Their Eyes Were Watching God ." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 8-12,