Note: I originally wrote this piece for my U.S. Studies in Ethnic Lit. course. It was such a pleasure to write reader response pieces. This was my second reading of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and it was wonderful!
A hurricane is a brutal, destructive force of nature that, much like love can be a deceiving forecast. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, her novel reaches a pivotal moment of continuous devastation when a hurricane moves across southern Florida, and alters the lives of Janie and her husband Tea Cake until the end. However, the storm was always brewing, churning and building since Janie’s youth.
Janie returns to Eatonville, catching the bitter glances of the porch sitters as she walks with a tired pride back to a home she has not lived in for two years. Although Hurston opens with Janie’s forward action, the novel quickly turns counterclockwise after her good friend, Pheoby, settles on the back stoop and Janie tells the story of her return. Janie’s story is one of love, filled with wind, rain, and calm. Janie does not experience love until she falls for Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods, a much younger man that comes into her life after the death of her second husband, Joe Starks. Joe whisked Janie away from her first husband, the much older, Logan Killicks who Janie quickly decides “Some folks never was meant to be loved and he’s one of ‘em” (Hurston 28). Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is both fervent and fierce. Unlike the loneliness Janie feels with Joe, Tea Cake teaches her how to play checkers, makes conversation with her, plays his “box.” He enters Janie’s life like cool dense air and soon she is dressed in sky blue and hopping a train to Jacksonville (136-137). Why Janie makes the decisions that she makes, specifically regarding Tea Cake, is a list of why and maybe. Why does she want to be with a young, violent gambler? Tea Cake gambles with dice, wins a considerable sum, but admits to possible murder: “He wuz hollerin’ for me tuh turn him loose…Ah left him on the doorstep and got here to tell yuh de quickest way Ah could”(150). Although it is unclear whether Tea Cake killed the man, he tells Janie’s tearful face that “You ain’t de one to be cryin’, Janie. It’s his ole lady oughta do dat” (150). They flee Jacksonville and head to the ‘Glades, where the waters begin to rise. Tea Cake informs Janie that they’re going “on de muck,” (151) where they can earn money picking beans and hacking cane, and where the people are free.
After they are settled near Lake Okechobee, Janie falls into her previous routine of cooking, cleaning, and staying in the house, but Tea Cake wants her in the field with him because all the other women are working. Their two-room house is filled with folks night after night, dancing, singing, eating. Later, Mrs. Turner, a black woman light enough to pass for white, and does not identify herself as black (166), tells Janie that Tea Cake is no good for her and wants to introduce her brother to Janie. Tea Cake overhears their conversation and after Mrs. Turner and her brother make a house call, Tea Cake whips Janie as a savage expression of his ownership and authority over his wife:
Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. (173)
Tea Cake’s controllable wildness is much like the eyewall of a hurricane; he is made of layers of thunderstorms that crackle and disturb, yet Janie’s love for him is the feeder bands, rain showers that intensify as the storm builds. Regardless of Tea Cake’s treatment of Janie, and the likeliness that he also committed adultery with Nunkie, Janie harbors her intense love for Tea Cake beneath an umbrella the she seems to believe is the gift of experience.
When the actual hurricane of the natural world approaches, Tea Cake does not believe that he and Janie are in danger, so when his friend ‘Lias asks if they want a ride out of town, Tea Cake says no. Janie’s opinion on any matter, which is usually correct, is never accepted by Tea Cake; his manhood combined with his youth masters one error after the next, and this one proves to be fatal when the eye of God bears down with judgement, taking soul after soul: “They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock…Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island” (192). At a point of rest in their run away from God’s elements, Janie gets caught up in the water trying to reach for a piece of tar paper to use as a blanket for Tea Cake, but she gets caught up in the maddening waters and a rabid dog attacks her. Tea Cake jumps in to save her and the dog bites his cheek. Whether this too is perceived as an irreverent act of God, the Conquest and his white horse leave behind a pestilent bite that proves to be fatal and Tea Cake’s gusting anger is exacerbated by disease. “Tea Cake had two bad attacks that night. Janie saw a changing look come in his face. Tea Cake was gone” (213). Janie discovers the six-shooter beneath his pillow and deftly arranges the bullets in the chamber to give herself time in case her man who is no longer Tea Cake, attempts to kill her. When this attempt occurs, Janie kills the love of her life in self-defense and is acquitted at trial. After Janie tells Pheoby her story, Hurston returns us to the back stoop and forward motion resumes, the storm has ended. In many ways Pheoby is not only Janie’s best friend, but her confessional who then agrees to sermon Janie’s story to the porch sitters when the time comes.
Hurston’s novel is beautifully complex with disillusionment. The idea of love in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the greatest of storms that draws a watchful eye from all. The folk in Eatonville always have their eye on Janie, judging her constantly, saying she is not good enough for Mr. Starks. After his death, the town folk watch Janie as she interacts with Tea Cake and they harshly evaluate their relationship. Judgement continues everywhere Janie goes. She is born from judgement. Hurston suggests that the eye of God, or the ability to judge like God is a deed of the people which becomes a severe lesson learned when the hurricane bears down with fury. However, love is the greatest storm in this novel, and that too is complex and unexplained. Janie’s love for Tea Cake as observed as a reader, sucks the life from her, but in her view, Janie experiences life; she honestly feels that everything she has felt or experienced is because of him. We cannot unravel Hurston’s novel and discover easy answers to the decisions made by these characters. Perhaps our best motivation as readers is to make our observation within the cultural context of the Hurston’s novel.