Their Eyes Were Watching God
Lesson 4 – Personification and Their Eyes Were Watching God
• Discuss personification and the use of personification in literature
• Get acquainted with Hurston’s work by listening to examples of personification from Their Eyes Were Watching God and, if time allows, from a James Weldon Johnson poem, “Go Down Death”
• Show how personification can reinforce an important concept
• Better understand personification by writing personification sketches using prompts and writing within specified guidelines
• Pens, pencils, paper
• Copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Concepts in this lesson:
Definition of personification:
A figure of speech in which an emotion or something inhuman (such as the sky, anger, or a ship) is given human qualities. Both concrete objects as well as abstract ideas can be personified when a writer gives them human qualities such as emotions, desires, sensations, speech, or physical gestures. Examples:
• The heavens were weeping rain.
• The ship’s belly was bloated with goods for the voyage.
Throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston personifies the fictional world she creates as well as the real world her characters live in. She turns philosophical concepts (such as time and fate), life passages (such as death), and natural forces (such as storms) into characters alive with human traits. Examples:
• To reinforce the idea that a flood caused great damage, she writes, “Havoc was there with her mouth wide open.”
• To show how violent the overflowing lake is, she writes, thunder “woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble… The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed.”
How do students engage with the concepts in this lesson?
Once students are confident they understand the definition of personification, they will get reinforcement of personification as an important technique in the novel by listening to examples from the novel and discussing how these work.
After students understand the use of personification in the novel, and read a poem by James Weldon Johnson that personifies death, they discuss the importance of specific details, and of creating images that draw on the five senses.
The class brainstorms a list of abstractions that they want to focus on in their writing. Drawing from the list, and working either in groups or as individuals, students create a living character out of the abstraction they choose from the list. Students then have the option to share their writing with the class.
1. Begin the lesson by having a short class discussion about the role of personification in literature.
a. What is personification?
b. Why do authors use personification?
c. Do students think of personification as a powerful or effective literary device? Why or why not?
2. Read (multiple times, if there is time) them the following passages from the novel that demonstrate Hurston’s skill at creating unusual personification. Have students follow along in their books if they have them.
a. Context: Janie goes to bed one night feeling doubtful that her new husband, Tea Cake, who has disappeared with her money, will return. She finds reassurance in the sun:
Janie dozed off to sleep but she woke up in time to see the sun spending up spies ahead of him to mark out the road through the dark. He peeped up over the door sill of the world and made a little foolishness with red. But pretty soon, he laid all that aside and went about his business dressed all in white.
Discuss the nature of the sun as this passage illustrates it: What kind of sun do you imagine who sends up spies, peeps over a door sill, makes foolishness, and goes about his business? What pictures do the images in the passage create in your mind?
b. Context: Janie encounters Death as she watches her husband grow weak:
So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in a straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now…
Discuss the elements of personification in this passage; death is portrayed as having a home, gestures, a history, feathers, and flesh.
3. If time allows, give students an example of personification from another writer. “Go Down Death,” by James Weldon Johnson, complements Hurston’s use of personification. (Use handout.) Death appears in the third, fourth, fifth, and last stanza of the poem and, at the end of the poem, if you want to read them only sections of it.
Discuss how Johnson’s poem and Hurston’s passage about death are different.
• What guises does Death take on in Hurston’s passage? In Johnson’s poem? Point out that there is no single ‘right’ way to treat a universal occurrence such as Death.
• Be sure to point out how the language in the poem and novel passage are specific. Point out that specific language helps writers from falling into using clichés and overly-general language.
• Point out examples of writing that shows sensory detail. Go over the five senses with students and have them indicate which of their senses come alive at hearing the language they have heard and read.
• Ask students, “Why give human traits to something as seemingly abstract as death?”
4. Ask the class to name some abstractions other than death that they might want to personify. If they are overwhelmed by the idea of abstraction, ask them for words they frequently hear, which they may have heard so often that they’ve become meaningless. Love, happiness, and courage are all examples of such words. Make a list of the words students come up with.
5. If time allows, start students off in groups, writing a group description of a selected abstraction. Have students choose which word they want to transform into a character. Encourage students to 1) avoid clichés, writing in specific language and 2) include the five senses.
6. Have each student choose a word from the list and create a character from it. Encourage them to imagine a living, breathing character. Structure the assignment as students require. For example, require that each description have a certain number of specific details, or set a word limit to each description (say, 50 or 100 words).
7. Have students read their work aloud to the class.
Since each student’s description involves so much individual choice, there will not be a single “right” response to this assignment. However, giving students a structure will help them write better descriptions. Here are suggestions for providing that structure:
• The description should have a set number of specific details (10-12, for example).
• The description should have details that evoke the five senses.
• The description should have at least a certain number of words (50, or 100, for example)
• The description should reflect the student’s understanding of the personification and its impact on the imagination.