Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
He wins Janie’s heart with his carefree, fun-loving nature. She adores his energy and willingness to make her his equal. We see that Tea Cake is fundamentally different from Janie’s former lovers when he...teaches her how to play checkers:
He [Tea Cake] set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from one of his good points. Those full, lazy eyes with the lashes curling sharply away like drawn scimitars. The lean, over-padded shoulders and narrow waist. Even nice! (10.25)
Yup, something as silly as a board game speaks volumes: the fact that he considers her intelligent enough to learn such a game shows that he has a more modern conception of women than Logan or Joe.
This sense of gender equality continues when Tea Cake asks Janie to work alongside him in the Everglades fields. Both of Janie’s earlier husbands wanted her to work, too, but she resented it. The difference is that Logan wanted Janie to do hard labor because he thought of her as an object—like a work horse—to dominate and utilize. Joe wanted Janie to work in the store, which she also disliked because Joe did little work himself and through forcing her to work, he mostly wanted to publicly display her as his trophy wife and to prove that he was the boss of her.
Tea Cake’s attitude about Janie working is completely different. To begin with, he gives her the choice of working and doesn’t command her. Secondly, his reasons for wanting her to work are so that they can share more time and experiences together. In working together, Tea Cake doesn’t see Janie as an object, but as a partner and companion:
So the very next morning Janie got ready to pick beans along with Tea Cake. There was a suppressed murmur when she picked up a basket and went to work. She was already getting to be a special case on the muck. It was generally assumed that she thought herself too good to work like the rest of the women and that Tea Cake "pomped her up tuh dat." But all day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss’s back made her popular right away. It got the whole field to playing off and on. Then Tea Cake would help get supper afterwards. (14.27)
Another characteristic that distinguishes Tea Cake from Janie’s previous husbands is his willingness to both talk and listen. These were the most fundamental flaws in Logan and Joe—Logan didn't express himself, and Joe wouldn't listen to Janie.
Tea Cake does both (he's awesome like that) and, because of this steady flow of communication, he and Janie are able to talk out and resolve their problems. Equally importantly, they both reassure each other of their love on a regular basis. #relationshipgoals
However, Tea Cake has a seed of jealousy in him, which completely takes over when he gets rabies from the mad dog:
"Janie, whut is dat Tuner woman’s brother doin’ back on de muck?"
"Ah don’t know, Tea Cake. Didn’t even knowed he wuz back."
"Accordin’ tuh mah notion, you did. Whut you slip off from me just now for?"
"Tea Cake, Ah don’t lak you astin’ me no sich question. Dat shows how sick you is sho nuff. You’se jealous ‘thout me givin’ you cause."
"Well, whut didja slip off from de house ‘thout tellin’ me you wuz goin’. You ain’t never done dat befo’."
"Dat wuz cause Ah wuz tryin’ not tuh let yuh worry ‘bout yo’ condition. De doctah sent after some mo’ medicine and Ah went tuh see if it come." (19.117-122)
(PSA: stay away from stray dogs. Their Eyes Were Watching God makes rabies look about as much fun as medieval torture.) In fact, Tea Cake's rabies-fueled jealousy is what ends up killing him: when he attempts to shoot Janie (because he thinks she's two-timing him), she shoots him in self-defense.
Tea Cake might be considered a tragic hero because his pride keeps him from leaving the Everglades when signs of the oncoming hurricane are evident. Pride also keeps him from calling on a doctor when he desperately needs care.
But, Hurston makes it obvious that during his last few hours, Tea Cake isn't there; he has been replaced by some monstrous, bloodthirsty creature. The legacy of Tea Cake, then, remains untarnished.