Summary: Chapter 19
After the hurricane, death is all around Palm Beach. Two white men with rifles force Tea Cake to bury corpses. Disgusted with the work and fearful of the racism around the town (the white corpses get coffins, but the Black corpses are simply dumped in a ditch and covered with quicklime), Tea Cake and Janie decide to leave surreptitiously and return to the Everglades.
Tea Cake and Janie learn that although some of their friends have died, many have survived, including Motor Boat, who miraculously stayed alive during the storm while sleeping in the abandoned house. Tea Cake works for a while rebuilding the dike. But about four weeks after their return, he comes home from work early with a bad headache. He says that he is hungry, but when Janie makes him food, he is unable to eat. At night he wakes up in a choking fit and the next day gags when trying to drink water. Janie gets Dr. Simmons, a friendly white man who is a fixture in the muck. He chats amiably with Tea Cake and hears his story. But afterward, he pulls Janie aside and tells her that he thinks that the dog that bit Tea Cake was rabid. He adds that it is probably too late to save Tea Cake but that he will order medicine from Palm Beach just in case.
Tea Cake’s health deteriorates and the rabies warp his mind, filling him with delusional, paranoid thoughts. Janie doesn’t tell him about the doctor’s diagnosis. When she sneaks off to see if the medicine has arrived, Tea Cake accuses her of sneaking off to see Mrs. Turner’s brother, who has just returned to the Everglades. She mollifies him, telling him that she went to see the doctor, and they begin to talk lovingly. But Janie grows afraid when she feels a pistol hidden under the pillow.
That night, Tea Cake is seized by more choking attacks. In the morning, Janie says that she is going to see Dr. Simmons again. Tea Cake gets angry, and when he goes outside to the outhouse, Janie checks his pistol. She finds that it is loaded with three bullets. Instead of unloading it, she sets it so that it will run through the three empty chambers before getting to a bullet, giving her time to act in case he fires at her.
When Tea Cake returns, he becomes crazier, accusing Janie of treating him wrongly. Janie sees that he is holding the pistol. He pulls the trigger once, and it clicks on the empty chamber. Janie grabs the rifle and hopes to scare him off. But he pulls the trigger twice more, and as he is about to fire again, Janie has no choice but to shoot him.
Janie is put on trial that same day. In the courtroom, all of the Black people of the muck have come to watch, and Janie can feel that they, her former friends, have all turned against her; they even offer to testify against her. Dr. Simmons takes the stand in defense of Janie, but Janie gives the most powerful testimony of all, telling the court about their story and her love for Tea Cake. The all-white, all-male jury finds her innocent. The white women watching the proceedings crowd around her in solidarity while her former friends shuffle out, defeated. After the trial, Janie gives Tea Cake a royal burial.
Analysis: Chapter 19
The second tribulation that Janie must face is Tea Cake’s disease and deterioration. Once again, Janie and Tea Cake are confronted not by a particular person but by an impersonal force: a disease that he contracts as a result of events that occur during the hurricane. The diseased Tea Cake, who flies into jealous rages, is the polar opposite of the man he once was, secure in the midst of the natural world and generally confident in his possession of Janie. In other words, this capricious force destroys Tea Cake’s very essence. The moment of Tea Cake’s death, though horrible for Janie to endure, reflects how much she has grown as a person and how secure she has become. Although Tea Cake means everything to her, she is able to kill him to save herself. Her relationship with him has brought her along the path of enlightenment, and now that she has achieved the horizon, she is strong enough to live on her own.
The courtroom scene is Janie’s final trial. Here, she faces ostracism from the same community that nurtured her development and supported her during the hurricane, a penalty worse than any the court could impose: “It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding.” She does not need the superficial acceptance in the gossip culture of the porch—she has already dismissed that world—but she needs the community to recognize the strength of her bond with Tea Cake as well as her own fortitude.
At this point, Hurston utilizes an unusual narrative device that has been the source of much debate about the novel. For most of the second half of the story, Janie speaks without interruption. She has found her voice, and language has become her means of exploring herself, asserting herself, and enjoying human interaction. But at the trial, Hurston renders her silent. While speech has been rendered in bold, direct quotations throughout much of the novel, the narrator here summarizes Janie’s statements indirectly. Janie herself does not speak to the reader. The passage reads, “She talked. . . . She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed.”
Some critics have argued that this shift reflects that Janie’s quest has gone unfulfilled, that she has not found her voice or the horizon. But other critics, notably Alice Walker, have argued, as Mary Ellen Washington recounts in the foreword to most modern editions of the book, that Janie’s silence reflects her mastery of her own voice. This perspective is in keeping with the interpretation of Janie’s passive acceptance of Tea Cake’s beating her in Chapter
In any event, Janie survives the trial, but, in a final, complex commentary on race, Janie is welcomed by the white women but shunned by the Black community. Again, this reversal seems to reflect Hurston’s anthropological views on race: racism is a cultural construct and as such, Black people are as susceptible (or potentially resistant) to its doctrines as anyone else. This final scene reinforces the broad view of humanity that informs the entire book: Janie’s quest is ultimately not specifically a Black person’s quest or a woman’s quest (although her race and gender are certainly significant) but a fundamentally human one.