In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of an African-American woman living in the 1930’s Southern black community. Janie is a spirited woman who struggles to find freedom and expression in her life, especially her love life. Buy a ticket to the vulkanplatinum, wait for the draw, and find out if the fortune smiled at you. Through multiple relationships, Janie’s character experiences a myriad of communities and lifestyles, providing the reader a cross-sectional view into the time period. The story is told in beautiful dialogue and prose crafted by Hurston, and she weaves in and out of poetic personification, distinct characterization, and detailed narrative throughout the text. Strong metaphors are used to reinforce the message behind Janie’s story, including a hurricane that destroys Janie’s house and leads to the death of her third husband, Tea Cake.
The hurricane in the novel is tied metaphorically to Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake, her third husband. Their marriage is fitful and crazy, a love affair unlike that of either of Janie’s previous marriages. Raw passion, jealousy, and a sense of adventure and risk create an unstable, yet committed, relationship. Tea Cake is 15 years her junior, and he is a volatile, gambling man. When he flirts with other women, Janie becomes insecure and jealous. But, when other men talk to Janie, Tea Cake becomes angry. Their relationship is intense, with extreme highs and lows.
Janie waits until she was 40 years old to discover a relationship like this. Much like the hurricane, the buildup was slow but unstoppable. Janie says to Tea Cake, “‘If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all” (159). She is so satisfied with her relationship with Tea Cake that, even if the worst happens, which it does, she is thankful for the time that she spends in love with Tea Cake. Here Hurston utilizes another metaphor used throughout the novel: the horizon. Janie peers out at the horizon at different moments in the story, wishing for something more. From her first marriage when Hurston says, “the familiar people and things had failed her so she hung on the gate and looked up the road towards way off” (25), to running away with her second husband because, “he did not represent […] blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon” (29), Janie has been on the hunt for the very thing that she found in her relationship with Tea Cake, romance and contentment.
Like a dam, Janie is held back in her first two marriages. The dam metaphor is good, because the water provides fertile ground for a community. Janie was in stable relationships, her needs were met, and she was well-respected for her choice. Her marriages with Joe and Logan serve her well, but she wasn’t content and doesn’t feel loved. When she finally finds what she considers to be love, the dam breaks. A hurricane of her pent-up emotion is channelled into loving Tea Cake, and results in a mess. Hurston writes, “they wrestled until they were doped with their own fumes […] till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body” (137), and later she narrates how their on-and-off wrath for each other is out of jealous love and a desire to possess each other (147). Their independent charisma, paired with their jealousy for one another, makes them each other’s worst nightmare. They literally live underneath the tension of a dam, but with figurative high pressure in their marriage. At any moment, the waters of the lake could burst, and their relationship would flood.
When the hurricane does come, the high-risk relationship has consequences. Hurston says, “The wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things” (160). Janie, and their community, thought that their relationship was full of life, but all the risk and adventure results in death. The hurricane decimates Janie and Tea Cake’s community, destroying homes, jobs, and friends. In an effort to protect Tea Cake from the wind, Janie falls into the flood waters, putting herself in danger with a rabid dog. Then, in an attempt to protect Janie from the animal, Tea Cake is bitten and contracts rabies.
Hurston’s introduction of rabies is an interesting one. The symptoms are anxiety, paranoia, and fear of water. Tea Cake and Janie laughed at the oncoming hurricane, ignoring the red flags (155). In their relationship, the abuse and mistrust intensified over time (147), and they ignored these warning signs as well. The effort to love and possess each other turns against them. Janie thinks, “to kill her [Janie] through Tea Cake was too much to bear. Tea Cake, the son of the Evening sun, had to die for loving her” (178). Tea Cake represents her horizon. The jealous desire to protect each other becomes anxiety and paranoia, the symptoms of rabies. The life and energy they give to each other becomes toxic, as the life and energy derived from water degrades to fear of water under the influence of rabies. The relationship leads to self-destruction.
The scene of Janie caring for an infected Tea Cake shows the building toxicity of the relationship. Tea Cake tries to drink water, but finds himself in fitful rages out of fear. Janie cares for him and strokes his brow, making things right, but in vain. Paranoia has taken hold: “Tea Cake wanted to put his head in Janie’s lap and tell her how he felt and let her mama him in her sweet way. But something Sop told him made his tongue lie cold and heavy like a dead lizard between his jaws” (179). He doubts Janie, and his paranoia causes him to create an imagined jealousy. The disease intensifies an emotion that existed in Tea Cake, taking it to the extreme, and Janie’s fear of “this strange thing in Tea Cake’s body” (182) causes her to doubt him, as well. She prepares a gun to protect herself against his madness, and puts blanks in his gun.
The climactic final scene of Tea Cake’s life narrates the ultimate ramifications of the insanity of the hurricane, and their love for one another becomes mutually-assured destruction. Tea Cake fires on Janie, shooting blanks, but when he reaches the loaded bullet in the gun, Janie is forced to defend herself (184). The hurricane, and rabies by extension, has culminated in the violent death of their toxic romance that was built on emotional highs.
When Tea Cake becomes sick, Janie looks to the horizon again, asking God why He let her and Tea Cake down. She questions why the horizon wasn’t what she thought it should be. She had come to where she thought the horizon was, a beautiful romance, and now she is forced to look past it into something new. “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons,” Janie reflects at the end of the story. “Love is lak de sea. It’s a movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (191). Janie’s love was like the lake that broke through the dam when the hurricane of Tea Cake came, but Tea Cake had no boundaries to shore her up, and they couldn’t withstand the pressure of hurricane.
Hurston’s metaphor of a hurricane is an illustration of Janie’s love life. Through the process of seeking her horizons, and the hurricane, she finds something she didn’t expect: Independence. “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh themselves,” Janie says in the final pages, “They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” (192).
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.