To celebrate African-American History Month, I thought I’d take a break from dead white guys and feature a dead black woman instead. Hence, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. The writing style in this one is really quite breathtaking and I highly recommend it.
Our story begins as our main character, Janie, returns home from a mysterious voyage. She is greeted with awkward staring and whispered ridicule from her neighbors. Her old friend Pheoby is the only one brave enough to talk to her and we learn several things during the conversation: 1. Gossip is practically a form of currency around here. 2. Janie has recently lost her husband Tea Cake. 3. Tea Cake is actually somebody’s name.
As the two of them are sitting on the porch, Pheoby asks what happened. Janie takes the opportunity to delve into her life story via flashback because, well, why not.
Janie was raised by her grandmother (creatively called Nanny) in Florida. As a child, she played with the local white children so often that she didn’t discover she was black until she saw a group photograph and didn’t recognize herself. This implies that: 1. Janie is fairly light skinned. 2. Janie grew up among pretty tolerant people. 3. Janie isn’t entirely self-aware.
Fast forward until Janie reaches the elderly age of 16, when Nanny catches her kissing a black boy at the gate and decides it’s time Janie got married to somebody fancy. Like, immediately. Nanny’s even got a bloke in mind – Logan Killicks – and she plays the “You’re wearing out your tired old grandma by making her take care of you” card to guilt Janie into agreeing.
Marriage, Janie discovers, does not magically make a woman love a man. When she complains to Nanny after the fact, Nanny doesn’t see how she can’t be in love with Logan – I mean, he has 60 acres of land and the only organ in town (and that’s not even a euphemism).
One day, when Logan is off buying a mule, Janie meets a man called Joe Starks while pumping water. It eventually turns into a water cooler romance, and by that I mean they chat every day until he informs her that he intends to make her his wife. Apparently he sees no flaw in this plan.
Janie considers the offer, and that night in bed asks her husband what would happen if she ran off and left him. He doesn’t seem overly concerned by the thought, and tells her she’d probably just come straight back. The next day while she’s cooking, he asks her to help him with the manure and she decides that’s quite enough. She tosses her apron into some bushes and runs off to marry Joe.
Apparently bigamy is not an issue around here.
They ride the train to a primarily African-American town called Maitland as Jody (apparently that is the name Joe prefers) talks about his big plans for moneymaking. Surprisingly, he actually follows through, setting up a store and making improvements to the town when he gets there. Elections come around, and he is immediately voted in as mayor. During the victory celebrations, one of the citizens demands a speech from the new mayor’s wife. Jody informs them that Janie’s no speechmaker and her place is in the home. Darn. I was just starting to like him.
Janie is not pleased with the assumption, either, and even less pleased when he insists that she run the store while he is off doing important mayorial things, like throwing barbeque parties for the installation of the first lamp in a colored town and freeing abused mules in order to let them roam the streets until they die. (Furthermore, apparently when a mule dies, the body is dragged out to the edge of town. Like everything else, this is cause for a local celebration as most of the town shows up for the funeral. Jody, however, won’t let Janie go because he thinks it’s below her dignity. If that wasn’t enough to solidify his status as a terrible human being, he forces her to wear headscarves so other men aren’t tempted by her hair, slaps her over a poorly cooked meal, and spends years stomping down any opinions or personal value she attaches to herself.
Years go by until one day when Janie makes a small mistake measuring tobacco for a customer. Jody publicly insults her for the error, mostly by calling her butt saggy. This sets her off onto a great speech in which she tells him to “stop mixin’ up mah doings wid mah looks,” which is something I’d like to say to the media whenever they whine about certain women looking old. During her rant, after admitting that she probably looks her age (about 40), Janie makes the mistake of insulting Jody’s wrinkly genitals as well. It’s amusing, and certainly makes for fair play, but since it makes it really awkward for Jody to regain the respect his friends, he blows it out of proportion. He beats her and they start to sleep separately. When he refuses to eat her cooking (and why on earth she still cooks for him, I may never understand), she complains to her friend Pheoby, who tells her to just go and get a divorce.
It turns out there is no need, as Jody’s kidneys suddenly start to fail him and he refuses to see her until the very end, when she gives him another tongue lashing. I would say it’s kind of awful to give someone a piece of your mind when they’re on their deathbed, but this guy sorta deserves it. Janie feels some sympathy when his noises of complaint turn into death gurgles, but it’s overshadowed by her newfound sense of freedom.
After the funeral, she burns her headscarves and thrives peacefully in her solitude. Of course, after a month, all the local men notice there is a rich and pretty widow and think it’s high time she have another husband. (Meanwhile I still can’t help but wonder what happened to the first one.)
One afternoon while the whole town is at a baseball game, she meets a 25 year old man who got a bit lost in trying to find its location. Instead of sending him on his way, Janie learns to play checkers instead. He introduces himself as Vergible Woods – Tea Cake for short.
I give up trying to make sense of that nickname.
He starts visiting regularly. Janie tries to convince herself that he’s only there for her money, but she doesn’t do a very good job of it. Whenever he comes around, she enjoys the time they spend together, whether it’s playing chess or fishing in the dark (that’s not a euphemism either).
When Janie and Tea Cake go to the town picnic together, the citizens are abuzz. They whisper that her husband has only been dead 9 months (never mind they all tried to marry her before) and he would be rolling in his grave to see her with a younger man. When Pheoby asks, Janie explains that he makes her happy, hasn’t asked for a cent, and doesn’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do. Janie’s tired of living the way other people want her to, so now she’s living the way she wants. Now that’s a role model.
Janie and Tea Cake move to Jacksonville and get married. (For those keeping track, we’re barely halfway through the book and this woman’s on her third marriage). She pins $200 into her shirt as emergency money, but wakes up one morning to find it and her husband have vanished. She completely underreacts, shrugging off the money and just hoping Tea Cake isn’t hurt. He shows up a few days later and explains how he discovered the money and spent it all on a party for a few old coworkers and invited attractive women before getting caught in a brawl and buying a guitar.
Janie, for her part, is only upset that she didn’t get as close to the door as the ugly women he paid to keep away from the party. Janie still does not seem to have her priorities set quite right. Tea Cake assures her that the $12 left over in his pocket can be gambled back into more than $200. He practices his cards and dice all weekend, and in the end, he comes home with $322 and only a minor stab wound. No biggie. He tells her to put her $200 back in the bank so they can go make money gambling and raising crops in the Everglades. With reputable financial planning like that, how can they go wrong?
Once they reach Florida, Tea Cake gets a job harvesting crops and in his free time, he teaches Janie to shoot, to the point where she becomes better than him. This is in no way foreshadowing future sinister events.
Out in the fields, all kinds of things happen. Women make passes at Tea Cake and men make passes at Janie. One black woman named Mrs. Turner worships Janie because she’s lighter than the average black person and everyone decides to boycott that woman for being racist. When Mrs. Turner goes as far as trying to set Janie up with her brother, Tea Cake decides that the solution is to slap Janie around a bit to show everyone that she belongs to him. Because there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a little domestic violence, right? Even Tea Cake’s reasoning is completely sound: “Ah didn’t whup Janie ‘cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.” I mean, with logic like that, how could you not appreciate this guy? (Blogger’s note: This paragraph is pure sarcasm. In reality, anyone who advocates violence immediately sinks to the bottom of my “awesome people” list. Sorry, Tea Cake, but I’m not that sorry.)
In a rather sickening show of solidarity, the local guys, of course, applaud Tea Cake and wish their wives were half as light as Janie so their bruises would show as clearly as hers do. They also decide to take their violence to Mrs. Turner’s restaurant and start brawling, shoving over her tables and breaking her dishes and running her family out of town. While I’m not one to side with racists, I’m not too sure I can side with the local guys either. I mean, yeesh.
One day, Janie sees several groups of native Seminoles passing by, who warn her that a hurricane is coming. Rather than taking this as a warning, she and her friends assume that because they’re making $8 a day for picking beans, the Indians are just being stupid. Apparently, so are the rabbits, snakes, and deer that appear to be fleeing the scene. Tea Cake and Janie laugh it off with their friends and keep playing their games into the rainy night until the storm whips the light out.
When they start to see fish swimming in the water that’s accumulated in the yard, Janie and Tea Cake decide it’s probably time to move to higher ground. They make it out into the streets, but by that time, the lake has spilled over and is coming toward them. As they trudge through the rapidly rising water, they try to grab hold of anything solid. At one point, Tea Cake hangs onto a cow. Unfortunately, the cow currently has an occupant on its back – a mad dog, which bites Tea Cake on the face.
The two of them keep climbing and, surprisingly, they make it through the storm and the flood alive. The survivors begin to bury the dead, but the overseers demand that the bodies be separated by color so that the white victims can be buried in coffins while the rest go into pits. Of course, most of the drowned bodies are bloated and gray or covered in mud so that no one can tell them apart, and once you stop feeling sick to your stomach, there is a rather lovely metaphor in that. Janie and Tea Cake can’t handle the racism on top of everything else, and they decide to flee back to the Everglades.
There, they last a few weeks until Tea Cake comes home one day with a headache that escalates quickly into rabies, which he got from that dog bite. He retains his sanity for a little while longer, but eventually starts gurgling viciously. Janie partially unloads the guns in the house, fearing for her own safety at the hands of her increasingly deranged husband. He does, of course, get his hands on the pistol. There is a good old-fashioned standoff as she grabs the rifle while he fires three empty clicks at her, and then they both shoot bullets. His bullet hits the wall behind her, while hers finds its mark. Guess those lessons came in handy after all.
Janie spends the rest of her day in jail with a speedy trial at the end of it. She is found not guilty of murdering her husband and is let go. If only the justice system today were nearly as swift. She buries her husband in a strong vault in the cemetery, grabs a packet of garden seeds he never planted, and heads back to her old town to tell the whole story to Pheoby. This is basically where we came in, but now we know a little more about Janie beyond the local gossip.