Their Eyes Were Watching God
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Out in the swamp they made great ceremony over the mule. They mocked everything human in death. Starks led off with a great eulogy on our departed citizen, our most distinguished citizen and the grief he left behind him, and the people loved the speech. It made him more solid than building the schoolhouse had done. He stood on the distended belly of the mule for a platform and made gestures. When he stepped down, they hoisted Sam up and he talked about the mule as a school teacher first. Then he set his hat like John Pearson and imitated his preaching. He spoke of the joys of mule-heaven to which the dear brother had departed this valley of sorrow; the mule-angels flying around; the miles of green corn and cool water, a pasture of pure bran with a river of molasses running through it; and most glorious of all, No Matter Bonner with plow lines and halters to come in and corrupt. Up there, mule-angels would have people to ride on and from his place beside the glittering throne, the dear departed brother would look down into hell and see the devil plowing Matt Bonner all day long in a hell-hot sun and laying the rawhide to his back. (6.74)
This almost-bacchanal celebration of the yellow mule’s death seems to bring to mind the story in the Hebrew Bible of the Egyptians’ idolatry of a golden calf. As in the Biblical story, the black community of Eatonville attaches an overblown, even spiritual meaning to a physical entity (of a golden color) where there is none to be found. Here, Joe – leading the "congregation" – mocks the Biblical conception of heaven and hell and directly violates the tenet that animals do not go to heaven. And their orgiastic celebration reeks of something taboo, in happily celebrating someone’s death, an occasion that is supposed to be a time of mourning. The sad thing is, at Joe’s funeral, Janie won’t be mourning either, she’ll be celebrating her freedom.
Everybody enjoyed themselves to the highest and then finally the mule was left to the already impatient buzzards. They were holding a great flying-meet way up over the heads of the mourners and some of the nearby trees were already peopled with the stooped-shouldered forms.
As soon as the crowd was out of sight they closed in circles. The near ones got nearer and the far ones got near. A circle, a swoop and a hop with spread-out wings. Close in, close in till some of the more hungry or daring perched on the carcass. They wanted to begin, but the Parson wasn’t there, so a messenger was sent to the ruler in a tree where he sat.
The flock had to wait the white-headed leader, but it was hard. They jostled each other and pecked at heads in hungry irritation. Some walked up and down the beast from head to tail, tail to head. The Parson sat motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off. He had scented the matter as quickly as any of the rest, but decorum demanded that he sit oblivious until he was notified. Then he took off with ponderous flight and circled and lower, circles and lowered until the others danced in joy and hunger at his approach. (6.77)
At the funeral’s death, the black community of Eatonville is compared to vultures hungry for the flesh of the dead. Though they do not literally plan to eat the dead mule’s flesh, this metaphor is appropriate for it captures the uncouth, almost blasphemous joy they take a fellow creature’s death.
"Just a matter of time," the doctor told her. "When a man’s kidneys stop working altogether, there is no way for him to live. He needed medical attention two years ago." (8.15)
The doctor essentially sentences Joe to death. This foreshadows the doctor’s similar pronouncement at during Tea Cake’s period of bedridden illness. In both cases, the men die of preventable illnesses because they refused to see a doctor, so it seems that pride in the face of death just isn’t a good idea.