Summary: Chapter 17

As the season begins, some familiar faces return and some new faces appear. Mrs. Turner brings her brother to town, and Tea Cake, feeling threatened, beats Janie to show that he still controls her. He pampers her afterward, and Janie harbors no ill will toward him. All the men are envious of his power over her.

On Saturdays, workers receive their pay, and many use their money to buy liquor. One particular Saturday, two men named Dick Sterrett and Coode may get drunk and walk around the town making a ruckus. They end up at Mrs. Turner’s restaurant, where Tea Cake and his crowd are eating. They get rowdy and a fight breaks out. Tea Cake tries to throw the two out and get on Mrs. Turner’s good side, but his efforts only lead to further havoc. The restaurant gets trashed, and Mrs. Turner gets trampled and injured. She fumes at her husband for passively letting the roustabouts wreck her business.

Summary: Chapter 18

They sat in company with the others . . . They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

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One day, Janie sees several groups of Native Americans departing the Everglades for Palm Beach. She asks them why they are leaving and they respond that a hurricane is coming. The news spreads through the settlement and everyone begins watching anxiously. Over the next few days, more indigenous people leave and animals begin scurrying off in the same direction. Soon, workers begin leaving the town. Although he is offered a ride to higher ground, Tea Cake decides to stay. Several men who decide to stay gather at Tea Cake’s house, and a party ensues. But as the storm whips up, all of the men leave for their own houses except a fellow named Motor Boat. That night and the next day, the storm builds in the distance and the gigantic Lake Okechobee begins to roil. The three of them wait out the storm in the shanty with “their eyes . . . watching God.”

Tea Cake says that he bets Janie wishes that she had stayed in her big house in Eatonville, but she replies that she doesn’t care what happens as long as they remain together. He goes outside and sees that a serious flood has begun. They decide to flee. They gather up some essential papers and, arms locked against the wind, Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat head east to higher ground.

The three look behind them and see that the Okechobee’s dikes have burst and that the lake is pouring toward them, crushing everything in its path. They hurry and reach an abandoned, tall house on a little hill, where they decide to rest. After a short sleep, Janie wakes up and sees the lake moving closer. She and Tea Cake flee, but Motor Boat decides to stay in the house. Exhausted, the couple trudge onward, and the flooding gets so bad that they have to swim great distances. They pass bodies and horrible destruction along the way.

Trying to grab a piece of roofing for cover, Janie gets blown into rough water. She struggles but then sees a cow swimming by with a growling dog perched on its back. She grabs the cow’s tail for safety, but the dog begins to attack her. Tea Cake dives to the rescue and wrestles in the water with the beast, who bites him on the cheek before he stabs it to death. The next day, Janie and Tea Cake reach Palm Beach, a scene of chaotic destruction. They find a place to rest and Janie thanks Tea Cake for saving her life.

Analysis: Chapters 17–18

Chapter 17 provides another glimpse of life in the muck, complicating our understanding of Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship just before the climactic arrival of the hurricane in Chapter 18. Tea Cake’s beating of Janie early in Chapter 17 is one of the most confusing incidents in the novel. Modern readers may be surprised that the beating has such little effect on Janie. It is tempting to attribute the briefness of Hurston’s treatment of the incident to the more tolerant attitude toward domestic violence that prevailed when Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s passive acceptance of the beating, however, relates to the development of her character.

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At this point in the story, the idea of silence becomes quite significant. Since Jody’s death, Janie has struggled to find her voice. Now that she has found it, she is learning to control it. With Jody, Janie’s silence is a sign of his domination; now, silence is becoming an important part of Janie’s strength. She chooses when and when not to speak. In this situation, it is implied that she is willing to sacrifice her body to satisfy Tea Cake’s need for control. Her silence reflects her strength. She puts up with a beating, just once, because she feels that she is strong enough to withstand it and because its negative effects are outweighed by her love for Tea Cake and the good things that he does for her.

Read more about speech and silence as a theme.

In many ways, Chapter 18 is the book’s climax. The battle with the hurricane is the source of the book’s title and illuminates the central conflict of the novel: Janie’s quasi-religious quest to find her place in the world amid confusing, unpredictable, and often threatening forces. Throughout the novel, characters have operated under the delusion that they can control their environment and secure a place for themselves in the world. Jody, in particular, demonstrates the folly of this mindset in his attempts to play God. Tea Cake exhibits this folly as well. His ease in the natural environment—his mastery of the muck, his almost supernatural skill at gambling—has made him too proud; he feels that the storm is not a threat.

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But, of course, the storm humbles all. It is a force of pure destruction and chaos; furthermore, it is a force without a conscience or a consciousness. It is random and unfair, a cruel and devastating facet of a confusing universe. Throughout the novel, similar forces antagonize Janie: the doctrines to which Nanny, Logan, and Jody adhere; Mrs. Turner’s racism; the sexism of Eatonville’s men; and the gossip of the porch culture. Like the hurricane, these forces cause Janie pain but lack malicious intent. Janie can never defeat them, only bear them and perhaps survive them.

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The episode in which Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat wait out the storm is the most direct example of this conflict. Here we see the opposition between individual and environment described in the starkest terms: humans against God, Janie and her friends against nature. The conflict is framed in terms of community. Janie and Tea Cake are joined by Motor Boat in their house, and all of the people in the muck share in the same horrible communion, united together against a terrifying environment. Community and intimacy—people bonded together by circumstance—are humanity’s refuge against threatening forces.

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Tea Cake and Janie’s relationship represents the most intimate type of communal bond and once again, reciprocity is central to their relationship; each helps the other survive. Their bond represents the ultimate answer to Janie’s spiritual quest. Tea Cake has helped her find her voice, and this voice has enabled her to develop a love based on reciprocity and mutual respect. This union allows her to face the storm boldly and survive the storm and subsequent conflicts.

Read more about love and relationships vs. independence as a theme.