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. 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 and her weakness; 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.