Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Fate and Free Will

By Zora Neale Hurston

Fate and Free Will

Chapter 3

Nanny sent Janie along with a stern mien, but she dwindled all the rest of the day as she worked. And when she [Nanny] gained the privacy of her own little shack she stayed on her knees so long she forgot she was there herself….Towards morning she muttered, "Lawd, you know mah heart. Ah done de best Ah could do. De rest is left to you." She scuffled up from her knees and fell heavily across the bed. A month later she was dead. (3.30)

Despite all her misfortune, Nanny entrusts herself to God/Fate. Her prayer shows that she believes that in order to have a good life, two things are necessary: you need to work hard and do your part, and trust that God will do the rest.

Nanny

[Nanny]: "How come?"

"’Cause I hates de way his [Logan’s] head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck."

"He never made his own head. You talk so silly." (3.24-26)

Although young Janie resents Logan for his ugliness, Nanny makes the wise observation that Logan had no choice in his looks. Clearly, however, Logan’s looks to impact the way his life plays out – Janie leaves him in part because he isn’t pretty. Janie’s fate is also subject to her looks; at least her first two marriages, which both give her increasing social status, are a direct result of her attractiveness.

Chapter 4

Janie pulled back a long time because he [Joe] did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance. (4.28)

Joe’s entire philosophy on life is to discount God and take your fate into your hands. He believes that men make their destinies, not some omnipotent powers-that-be. Joe represents the "far horizon […] change and chance" because he believes in striking out, full of ambition and making your way in the world.

Chapter 5
Joe Starks

[Joe]: "Folkses, de sun is goin’ down. De Sun-maker brings it up in de mornin’, and de Sun-maker sends it tuh bed at night. Us poor weak humans can’t do nothin’ tuh hurry it up nor to slow it down. All we can do, if we want any light after de settin’ or befo’ de risin’, is tuh make some light ourselves. So dat’s how come lamps was made. Dis evenin’ we’se all assembled heah tuh light uh lamp." (5.119)

Joe is so ambitious a man that he will not trust to fate to provide everything he needs. In Eatonville, he isn’t not content to only have light when the sun is up, so he takes the initiative and obtains streetlamps for the whole town. This is one example of Joe taking matters into his own hands and initiating change.

There was no doubt that the town respected him [Joe] and even admired him in a way. But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate. (5.130)

It seems an unwritten law of fate that powerful men draw hate from the general, less powerful public. It is inevitable that Joe, because he gains wealth and opportunities, incites resentment in the townspeople against himself.

Chapter 8
Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "Tain’t really no need of you dying, Jody, if you had of – de doctor – but it don’t do no good bringin’ dat up now. Dat’s just whut Ah wants tuh say, Jody, You wouldn’t listen. You done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall. And you could have but you was so busy worshippin’ de works of yo’ own hands, and cuffin’ folks around in their minds till you didn’t see uh whole heap uh things yuh could have." (8.37)

Fate isn’t compelling Joe to die; Janie points out that it’s been his own choice not to see a doctor. It seems that much of Joe’s life has been about free will; he created his own future by seizing opportunities, and he has destroyed his future by not seeing a doctor or tending to his own health.

Chapter 9

Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered al over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chipped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (9.4)

Janie’s story renders man a victim of fate. In this case, the forces of fate are the jealous angels, divine beings that beat down man and try to smother his shining, singing virtue in mud. If this is true, it means that man is destined to wallow in the mud, never being able to show his true worth to his fellow man.

Chapter 11

All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake. She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God. (11.68)

Janie’s prudence warns her against getting too intimate with Tea Cake, but fate pulls her inevitably towards him. It’s almost like his appearance and smell make him completely irresistible and she has little choice about whether or not to fall in love with him.

Chapter 13
Janie Crawford

[Janie]: But oh God, don’t let Tea Cake be off somewhere hurt and Ah not know nothing about it. And God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. May Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time. (13.15)

Janie tries to show her faith by praying to God. Her prayer is an attempt to use her free will to beg for his safe return, rather than just sit back and see what the future has in store for her.

Chapter 18

"De lake is comin’!" and the pursuing waters growled and shouted ahead, "Yes, Ah’m comin’!", and those who could fled on. (18.60)

Again, the personification of the lake as a live speaking being gives it the semblance of an avenging angel descending to reign its divine fury and justice on a crowd of sinners. The fact that it speaks, answering, "Yes, Ah’m comin’!" to the people’s frightened cries makes it seem particularly vengeful, like a spurned God seeking revenge.

The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (18.39)

Only when faced with a natural disaster in the magnitude of a hurricane does man feel humbled at his smallness in the face of God. The characters here realize that their free will (their desire to remain in the Everglades despite the hurricane) can’t stand against God’s will (the hurricane).

She [Janie] crept on hands and knees to the piece of roofing and caught hold of it by either side. Immediately the wind lifted both of them and she saw herself sailing off the fill to the right, out and out over the lashing water. She screamed terribly and released the roofing which sailed away as she plunged downward into the water.

"Tea Cake! He heard her and sprang up. Janie was trying to swim but fighting water too hard. He saw a cow swimming slowly towards the fill in an oblique line. A massive built dog was sitting on her shoulders and shivering and growling. The cow was approaching Janie. A few strokes would bring her there.

"Make it tuh de cow and grab hold of her tail! Don’t use yo’ feet. Jus’ yo’ hands is enough. Dat’s right, come on!"

Janie achieved the tail of the cow and lifted her head up along the cow’s rump, as far as she could above water. The cow sunk a little with the added load and thrashed a moment in terror. Thought she was being pulled down by a gator. The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge. Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived. The dog raced down the backbone of the cow to the attack and Janie screamed and slipped far back on the tail of the cow, just out of reach of the dog’s angry jaws. He wanted to plunge in after her but dreaded the water, somehow. Tea Cake rose out of the water at the cow’s rump and seized the dog by the neck. But he was a powerful dog and Tea Cake was over-tired. So he didn’t kill the dog with one stroke a he had intended. But the dog couldn’t free himself either. They fought and somehow he managed to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone once. Then Tea Cake finished him and sent him to the bottom to stay there. (18.93-96)

Tea Cake’s fatal bite by the rabid dog is caused almost directly by his love for Janie. It is their intense, self-sacrificing love that first causes Janie to go for the piece of roofing and later causes Tea Cake to fight the dog. Thus it is their selfless love for each other that destines Tea Cake to death and Janie to a widowed life.

Sometime that night the winds came back. Everything in the world had a strong rattle, sharp and short like Stew Beef vibrating the drum head near the edge with his fingers. By morning Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum. So when Janie looked out of her door she saw the drifting mists gathered in the west – that cloud field of the sky – to arms themselves with thunders and march forth against the world. (18.26)

Everyone realizes the storm is indeed coming when the narrator makes the comparison of the coming storm to "Gabriel [the angel of death]…playing the deep tones" as if prophesying the coming death of the Everglades’ inhabitants. Their doom is approaching and to underscore this concept that the world has turned against them, heaven is united against them, "arm[ed with] thunders." Divine justice is swooping down on those who did not heed warnings to leave the swamp.

[Motor Boat]: "Ah’m safe here, man. Go ahead if yuh wants to. Ah’m sleepy."

"Whut you gointuh do if de lake reach heah?"

"Go upstairs."

"S’posing it come up dere?"

"Swim, man. Dat’s all." (18.75-79)

Motor Boat has much more faith in a benevolent God than Tea Cake or Janie. In the end, Motor Boat has amazing luck and sleeps through the storm, never once being touched by the water. Tea Cake and Janie, however, suffer deeply. Tea Cake eventually dies of rabies and Janie suffers the loss of her husband. The different outcomes of Motor Boat and Tea Cake/Janie makes it seem like Janie and Tea Cake made the wrong choice by taking their fate into their own hands.

Some rabbits scurried through the quarters going east. Some possums slunk by and their route was definite. One or two at a time, then more. By the time the people left the fields the procession was constant. Snakes, rattlesnakes began to cross the quarters. The men killed a few, but they could not be missed from the crawling horde. People stayed indoors until daylight. Several times during the night Janie heard the snort of big animals like deer. Once the muted voice of a panther. Going east and east. That night the palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain. Several people took fright and picked up and went in to Palm Beach anyway. A thousand buzzards held a flying meet and then went above the clouds and stayed. (18.6)

The children of mother nature know what fate has in store for them and they are not sticking around to meet it. Because the invincible forces of mother nature are so wholly devastating and cannot be prevented, they are often linked to the forces of fate. Thus, it makes sense that the animals would have instincts warning them of the coming storm.

They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn’t use another part of their bodies, and they didn’t look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God. (18.30)

The act of turning one’s eyes heavenward in a prayer to God is an act of faith, or, in this case, suspended faith. The question in their eyes is an expression that hinges on God’s response; it can lean either towards hope or despair. Watching, in this case, is akin to asking or pleading for divine mercy, begging for a reason to have faith.

It was next day by the sun and the clock when they reached Palm Beach. It was years later by their bodies. Winters and winters of hardship and suffering. The wheel kept turning round and round. Hope, hopelessness and despair. (18.98)

The endlessly turning wheel of fate brings "hope, hopelessness and despair" in its respective rounds; Tea Cake and Janie are just unlucky to experience the "despair" phase of it when death visits mankind in devastating enormity.

Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, "Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo’ big house ‘way from such as dis, don’t yuh?"

"Naw."

"Naw?"

"Yeah, naw. People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all. (18.32-35)

Janie recognizes that she’s had free will in her life, and is happy with the choices she’s made. However, she also recognizes an element of fate when she essentially sys that people die when it’s their time to die, storm or no storm. It’s like she believes in a predetermined time of death. If this is her time to go, then she’ll die in the storm, if not, she’ll be fine.

Chapter 19

Finally he [Tea Cake] dipped a drink. It was so good and cool! Come to think about it, he hadn’t had a drink since yesterday. That was what he needed to give him an appetite for his beans. He found himself wanting it very much, so he threw back his head as he rushed the glass to his lips. But the demon was there before him, strangling, killing him quickly. It was a great relief to expel the water from his mouth. He sprawled on the bed again and lay there shivering until Janie and the doctor arrived. (19.78)

Tea Cake refers to his disease as a "demon," giving it a supernatural aspect, as if God is hounding Tea Cake to death, punishing him for ignoring all the warnings of the coming hurricane earlier. It seems as if Fate has it in his cards that Tea Cake must die for his transgression.

Did He [God] mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her? It wasn’t anything she could fight. She could only ache and wait. Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He’d give her a sign. She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign. A star in the daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder. Her arms went up in a desperate supplication for a minute. It wasn’t exactly pleading, it was asking questions. The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house. God would do less than He had in His heart. (19.104)

Janie watches the heavens, asking for a reason to believe, to have faith in God again. Janie herself says that free will can’t halt Tea Cake’s death, his illness isn’t "anything she could fight." However, she tries to exercise her will by praying to God. But God seems merciless and Janie must steel herself for Tea Cake’s impending death. It is too late for prayer.

[Doctor]: "He’s got almost no chance to pull through and he’s liable to bite somebody else, specially you, and then you’ll be in the same fix he’s in. It’s mighty bad."

"Can’t nothin’ be done fuh his case, doctah? Us got plenty money in de bank in Orlandah, doctah. See can’t yuh do somethin’ special tuh save him. Anything it cost, doctah, Ah don’t keer, but please, doctah."

"Do what I can. Ah’ll phone into Palm Beach right away for the serum which he should have had three weeks ago. I’ll do all I can to save him, Janie. But it looks too late." (19.101-103)

Appropriately, money cannot save Tea Cake’s life. There is, in fact, nothing that Janie or Tea Cake or anyone can do to keep Tea Cake alive. In this case free will can’t stand up against death.

Janie Crawford

[Janie to Tea Cake]: "Ah jus’ know dat God snatched me out de fire through you. And Ah loves yuh and feel glad." (19.126)

Despite Tea Cake’s impending death, Janie reiterates her satisfaction with God. It wasn’t Janie or Tea Cake that saved her, but God acting through Tea Cake.

Mrs. Turner

Janie tries to show her faith by praying to God. Her prayer is an attempt to use her free will to beg for his safe return, rather than just sit back and see what the future has in store for her.

Mrs. Turner believes fate works like karma – rewarding those who have worked hard and worshipped harder. She believes her faith alone will render her a fully white woman and admit her into a white Paradise.