Their Eyes Were Watching God

by: Zora Neale Hurston

Tea Cake

At five-thirty a tall man came into the place…. She knew she didn’t know his name, but he looked familiar. “Good evenin’, Mis’ Starks,” he said with a sly grin as if they had a good joke together. She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it.

This description shows Janie’s first impressions of Tea Cake. He knows her name, but she does not yet know his. Tea Cake speaks to Janie with respect, but his demeanor is easygoing and confident. His combination of good humor and charm immediately appeal to Janie.

They joked and went on till the people began to come in. Then he took a seat and made talk and laughter with the rest until closing time. When everyone else had left he said, “Ah reckon Ah done over-layed mah leavin’ time, but Ah figured you needed somebody tuh help yuh shut up de place. Since nobody else ain’t round heah, maybe Ah kin get de job.”

Here, we learn that during Janie and Tea Cake’s first meeting, Tea Cake doesn’t try to monopolize Janie’s time. He talks and laughs with all who visit the store. Tea Cake is also humble and self-deprecating, and he doesn’t push himself on Janie. His offer to help Janie close up the store is a gesture of kindness, not a tactic to get her alone.

She heard somebody humming like they were feeling for pitch and looked towards the door. Tea Cake stood there mimicking the tuning of a guitar. He frowned and struggled with the pegs of his imaginary instrument watching her out of the corner of his eye with that secret joke playing over his face. Finally she smiled and he sung middle C, put his guitar under his arm and walked on back to where she was.

Tea Cake is back to see Janie a week after their first meeting, and he is not sure what his reception will be. In this scene, we learn that Tea Cake is a guitarist, and he uses music as a metaphor for the question of his status: When he feels that Janie is happy to see him, his “guitar” is correctly tuned. Tea Cake is obviously a good mimic and actor, which Janie finds charming.

She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.

Here, we learn how Janie struggles with her overwhelming attraction to Tea Cake, mainly due to their age difference. Janie does her best to resist Tea Cake’s interest in her, but her attraction to him is overwhelming and she ultimately gives in to her feelings.

Janie woke next morning by feeling Tea Cake almost kissing her breath away. Holding her and caressing her as if he feared she might escape his grasp and fly away. Then he must dress hurriedly and get to his job on time. He wouldn’t let her get him any breakfast at all. He wanted her to get her rest.

It is the morning after Janie and Tea Cake’s first night together. It has been many years since Janie has been with a man. Tea Cake’s actions and treatment of Janie, as revealed by the narrator, contrast with her late husband Jody’s. Jody always expected Janie to be working and didn’t appreciate her. Tea Cake encourages her to pamper herself, while not stinting on working himself.

One word brought on another and pretty soon he made up his mind to spend some of it. He never had had his hand on so much money before in his life, so he made up his mind to see how it felt to be a millionaire. They went out to Callahan round the railroad shops and he decided to give a big chicken and macaroni support that night, free to all.

Tea Cake leaves the house with some money of Janie’s that he found. Realizing that the amount was a lot more than he expected, he decides to spend it by buying food for a large number of people. This decision reveals Tea Cake to be generous, self-confident, and either irresponsible with money or not concerned with having a lot of it.

“Janie, Ah would have give Jacksonville wid Tampa for a jump-back for you to be dere wid me. Ah started to come git yuh two three times…. Ah was skeered, too skeered Ah might lose yuh…. Them wuzn’t no high muckty mucks. Dem wuz railroad hands and dey womenfolk. You aint usetuh folk lak dat and Ah wuz skeered you might git all mad and quit me for takin’ you ‘mongst ‘em.”

Tea Cake has spent an entire night out, and Janie is worried. After he returns and she learns that he was out having fun, her worry is replaced with disappointment and she wants to know why she wasn’t invited. Here, Tea Cake explains that he didn’t think she’d want to be there as he believes Janie is far above his usual social circle. When he explains he was scared he would lose her by inviting her, she can’t be mad at him.

“Honey, since you loose me and gimme privilege tuh tell yuh all about mahself, Ah’ll tell yuh. You done married one uh de best gamblers God ever made. Cards or dice either one. Ah can take uh shoe string and win uh tan yard.”

Until this moment, Tea Cake avoids revealing everything about himself to Janie, fearing her disapproval. Finally, he reveals that he is a gambler, and one of the best at that. Tea Cake’s chosen past time reveals a lot about his nature: He enjoys risk and excitement, but he isn’t reckless. He gambles with the expectation that he will win, and even uses gambling to supplement his income.

“Naw suh, Mis’ Turner, Ah’m gointuh show ‘em dey can’t come runnin’ over nice people and loud-talk no place whilst Ah’m around. Dey goin’ outa heah!”

With these words, Tea Cake exposes his sly side. He has decided that the Turners need to leave the ‘Glades because of Mrs. Turner’s virulent racism. But instead of confronting them directly, he cleverly incites a fight in their restaurant but pretends to be on the Turners’ side. The Turners decide on their own to leave the Glades after this event.

Tea Cake was lying with his eyes closed and Janie hoped he was asleep. He wasn’t. A great fear had took hold of him. What was this thing that set his brains afire and grabbed at his throat with iron fingers? Where did it come from and why did it hang around him? He hoped it would stop before Janie noticed anything. He wanted to try to drink water again but he didn’t want her to see him fail.

We are given a glimpse into what is happening both physically and mentally to Tea Cake shortly after being bitten by the dog during the hurricane. Tea Cake is ill and does not know what is wrong with him. He recognizes the illness is bad, but he does not want Janie to worry about him or to see him as weak. Unfortunately, this moment is one of the last few times Tea Cake is able to think rationally about Janie, as his illness takes over his brain and worsens.