Character Development in Chapter Two of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Character Development in Chapter Two of Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Character Development in Chapter Two of Their Eyes Were Watching God

    In Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God the character of Nanny dies in the beginning of Janie's adventures, but her influence is felt throughout the book. In this way, she is a minor character with effects on the major character. This makes Nanny important. The reader learns a lot about Nanny in last paragraph of chapter two, mainly from her dialogue, including unique syntax and diction, and imagery.

"And, Janie, maybe it wasn't much, but Ah done de best Ah kin by you. Ah raked and scraped and bought dis lil piece uh land so you wouldn't have to stay in de white folks' yard and tuck yo' head befo' other chillun at school. Dat was all right when you was little. But when you got big enough to understand things, Ah wanted you to look upon yo'self. Ah don't want yo' feathers always crumpled by folks throwin' up things in yo' face. And ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolks white or black is makin' a spit cup outa you: Have some sympathy fuh me. Put down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate."  Last Paragraph in Chapter 2


Nanny's dialogue is indicative of her time and place, which allows a fuller picture of her aside from physical descriptions. The reader can tell that Nanny is a black woman from the South, just by her syntax. Examples include the "Ah done de best Ah kin by you," which is not the way a white person from the North would phrase this statement. In the next sentence, this image of Nanny is upheld by her construction, "Ah raked and scraped and bought. . ." which is not the simplest or most common way of phrasing this statement. The diction used in these regional constructions further supports Nanny's image. Examples of this include "Ah done" instead of "I've done," "dis lil piece uh land,"instead of "this little piece of land," or "yo'" replacing "your."

In Nanny's talk with Janie, she includes much imagery to support her statements. Examples include, "Ah don't want yo' feathers always crumpled.. .," Ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolks. . . makin' a spit cup outa you," and"Ah'm a cracked plate."This imagery is indicative of an upbringing involving many stories, often involving hyperbole. It is a figurative style of speech common in this culture, one which carries on today in the form of such phenomena as "dozens" and "lying sessions.

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" This is a cultural trait found in African Americans at the turn of the century in the South, Hurston and other anthropologists confirm, by including it in their representations of characters such as Nanny. Figurative speech involving colorful imagery is the way Nanny was brought up to communicate, as part of the mechanism developed by the slaves to amuse themselves and keep themselves sane during their harsh treatment.

Nanny's style of dialogue and imagery are part of who she is. Hurston has used these literary devices to convey to the reader that Nanny is part of the group traditionally recognized as identifying with them. Hurston may also be using this hyperbolic imagery ("spit-cup") to indicate hyperbolic tendencies in Nanny. If Nanny is prone to exaggeration, she is perhaps overestimating the need for marrying off her granddaughter.


Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent writer and anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930’s and 40’s, has oftentimes been criticized for her use of dialect in her works. In her most celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston develops her characters through this dialogue. Imagery, personification, and diction are used extensively at the end of Chapter Two. Nanny, the grandmother who raised main character Janie, is shown to let her defenses down and become a much more intimate and defensive character. Hurston reinforces her theme that women struggle throughout life to find themselves and love with Nanny’s “confession.”

Hurston’s dialogue differs greatly from her narrative tone. The characters speak naturally, sometimes inventing words and use grammar "incorrectly" often. Nanny’s speech in these lines is a contrast from her earlier descriptions and actions. She has forced Janie to marry an older man for whom she has no love, and Janie has mildly protested with tears. Nanny, for the first time in the novel, explicates her actions. “Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outta you: have some sympathy fuh me.” This contrasts with the Nanny we saw earlier in the chapter, who didn’t have to explain a thing she did. The sympathy Nanny shows towards Janie is a sign of shared experience. Nanny has been through some hard times, and it's a fact of life that Janie will, too.

“Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” The images of a cracked plate shows that Nanny, though the struggles and joys of her life, has been hurt.She is the cracked plate, and doesn’t want Janie to be completely smashed. Nanny saying that she doesn’t want Janie to be a spit cup is also foreshadowing to the rest of the novel. The use of everyday objects to symbolize the women show the time period well. They relate to home things, because they are given little opportunity to be anywhere else. Hurston uses many techniques to create depth in her characters, and the reversal of Nanny’s usual actions is just another personality trait that helps to continue the theme of search for self.

Chapter Two highlights an important motif in the story and also demonstrates the force that drives its development. Throughout Eyes the reader can identify the theme of mules. Janie expresses contempt and resentment of the mule because of the impression she is given within the context of Chapter 2. Her “Nanny” says, “De nigger woman is the mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Nanny expresses her life-long desire to change this situation for Janie. Realize that this concern happens to be the product of Janie’s approaching sexual awakening. Through guidance from Nanny, Janie develops hatred for female repression. Rarely does she express this animosity with any fervor but, in other subtle and/or subconscious ways, Janie develops her contempt for the black woman as the world’s mule. It is with this newly recognized contempt for sexism and racism that the reader, and Janie, listen to Nanny’s words.

The ending paragraph of Chapter Two is essential to the remainder of the story, but it also develops Nanny’s character. Within the tree motif of Eyes, Nanny plays the role of the roots. She is the founding “mother” and has dictated the path of her family for a long time. Her monologue at the end of Chapter Two reaffirms these concepts. She expresses concern for Janie: “Ah done the best Ah kin by you.” And she also wants to change the mule stereotype of her past for Janie: “Ah don’t want yo’ feathers always crumpled by folks throwin’ up things in yo’ face.” She wants Janie to live with strength and self-respect. We know from an earlier passage that Nanny was once a slave and has seen hard times, but it becomes apparent through her concerns and ideals that she has risen above her past - she has shown strength. Her honest and direct tone reiterate her genuinly good intentions.

Hurston's use of imagery also gives Nanny's monologue a poetic tone. She worries that Janie will become a “spit-cup.” “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate,” Nanny pleads. She shows, in her poetic tone, that she is concerned. With this imagery she contrasts an ugly, trashy, brown, dirty can people spit into Janie’s possible future. But, at the same time she implores Janie to resist this possibility. Her concern, which has existed since Janie’s birth, is not going to protect Janie much longer so she must respect and appease Nanny. Hopefully like someone would treat a loved, worn plate.

In the last paragraph of chapter Two, the author uses various stylistic devices to develop Nanny’s character. In this particular scene, Janie is being held by her grandmother as the old woman relates to her tales of the past and hopes for the future.

Imagery is one of the main stylistic devices that are used. The simple image of Janie being held by her grandmother is developed earlier in the chapter. “For a long time she sat rocking with the girl held tightly to her sunken breast. Janie’s long legs dangled over one arm of the chair and the long braids of her hair swung low on the other side.” This image earlier in the chapter is just as vital to the rhetoric development of Nanny’s character as the last paragraph. The image of Janie being held in the lap of her frail, elderly grandmother creates a feeling of intimacy and loving regard, almost motherly qualities — fitting, since Nanny is the closet thing Janie has to a surrogate mother.

Nanny describes her efforts to make Janie’s life as easy and carefree as possible. She says, “And… maybe it wasn’t much, but Ah done the best Ah kin by you.” She continues to describe what she did to aid Janie. Nanny’s main concern was that they would have a “lil’ piece of land” so Janie “wouldn’t have to stay in de while folks’ yard.” This was done for one main reason — Nanny was anxious that if Janie were raised around white children, the black children would not socially accept her later in life. Nanny put forth these efforts so Janie “wouldn’t have to tuck her head befo’ other chillun at school.” That was “all right when she was little,” but as Janie grew older, her grandmother was definitely concerned with her social acceptance by the local black residents.

When Janie was “little,” she was very innocent. She lived and played in the yard of a house full of white people that employed her grandmother. Janie didn’t understand that she was “colored,” and therefore different than the other “chillun.” When Janie “grew older” and was able to understand what being “black” meant, her grandmother wanted to give her pride and hope. She didn’t want her “feathers always crumpled by folks throwin’ up things in yo’ face.” This, again, helps to develop Nanny’s character — but in a different way. To the reader, she seems to be overprotective and sheltering. Throughout the early part of the book, Nanny described blacks as being like “trees without roots,” — as in having nothing to hold on to, and having nothing to look forward to. Nanny felt that black women were the “mules of the earth,” forever subservient to those around them. She didn’t want Janie growing up with “de menfolks… makin’ a spit cup outa” her. Nanny, most likely, grew up being a “spit cup,” and she didn’t want Janie to have to live through the same predicament.

The image that the chapter concludes with is quite striking — that of Nanny being a “cracked plate,” old, worn, and incredibly fragile. Through relaying her past to Janie, Nanny comes across as being concerned and caring, yet somewhat overly protective. This paragraph effectively works to develop her as such within the dialogue.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. "The Hurston/Walker/Vaughn Connection: Feminist Strategies in American Fiction."

Women's Studies 28.2 (1999): 185-201.

duCille, Ann. "Stoning the Romance: Passion, Patriarchy, and the Modern Marriage Plot." The Coupling Convention:

Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 110-142.

Haurykiewicz, Julie A. "From Mules to Muliebrity: Speech and Silence in Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Southern Literary Journal 29.2 (Spring 1997): 45-61.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). : Urbana, Ill.: U of Illinois P, 1937.

Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:

Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Kayano, Yoshiko. "Burden, Escape, and Nature's Role: A Study of Janie's Development in Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1998): 36-44. (ILL – not yet received)

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. " ‘Tuh de Horizon and Back': The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Modern Critical
Pondrom, Cyrena N. "The Role of Myth in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." American Literature 58.2

 (May 1986): 181-202.

Williams, Shirley Anne. Forward. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Bantam-Dell, 1937. xv.
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