Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. (1.1-2)
According to Hurston, men are more practical than women; they know that their dreams are unattainable, as illustrated by the distant ships that rarely come to shore. When they realize that their dreams are unrealistic, men become resigned to their fates and live on. On the other hand, women close that metaphorical distance by failing to distinguish between dream and reality. Their dreams are their reality and thus, they live far more idealistic lives.
[Nanny:] "So de white man throw down de load and tell de n***** man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n***** woman is de mule ud de world so fur as Ah can see." (2.44)
Black women, as far as Nanny can see, get the worst lot in life. While white men are highest in the hierarchy and look down on black men, the black men in turn drop the burden on the shoulders of their women. Everyone treats black women like animals.
Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.
In the last stages of Nanny’s sleep, she dreamed of voices. Voices far-off but persistent, and gradually coming nearer. Janie’s voice. Janie talking in whispery snatches with a male voice she couldn’t quite place. That brought her wide awake. She bolted upright and peered out of the window and saw Johnny Taylor lacerating her Janie with a kiss. (2.16-17)
Janie’s pseudo-sexual experience under the pear tree changes her attitude toward boys. It makes her aware of her own body and her own budding sexual desires. This leads her to romanticize a boy whom she once ignored. Nanny, on the other hand, has a much more cynical vision of men. She considers them, especially the unmarried ones, dangerous—as demonstrated by the use of "lacerating" to describe Johnny’s kiss.
She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (3.31)
Girls, according to the narrator, become women through hardship. Thus, girls must have their dreams shattered to become women.
[Nanny to Janie:] "Don’t tell me you done got knocked up already, less see—dis Saturday it’s two month and two weeks."
"No’m, Ah don’t think so anyhow." Janie blushed a little.
"You ain’t got nothin’ to be shamed of, honey, youse uh married ‘oman. You got yo’ lawful husband same as Mis’ Washburn or anybody else!" (3.10-12)
To Nanny, a woman should take pride in bearing her husband’s children. Conversely, unmarried women should be ashamed of getting pregnant. So, in Nanny’s eyes, women’s worth is defined by their position relative to men.
Janie got up with him the next morning and had the breakfast halfway done when he bellowed from the barn.
"Janie!" Logan called harshly. "Come help me move dis manure pile befo’ de sun gits hot. You don’t take a bit of interest in dis place. ‘Tain’t no use in foolin’ round in dat kitchen all day long…"
"You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine."
"You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick." (4.51-54)
Janie thinks that both men and women have their proper places in a marriage; the man should be out in the barn scooping up the manure while the woman should be indoors, making meals. Logan, however, thinks that the woman should serve the man, no matter what place he wants to put her in. Essentially, a woman has no defined identity or role outside of what her husband gives her.
Six months back he [Logan] had told her, "If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah fust wife never bothered me ‘bout choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten."
So Janie had told him, "Ah’m just as stiff as you is stout. If you can stand not to chop and tote wood Ah reckon you can stand not to git no dinner. ‘Scuse mah freezolity, Mist’ Killicks, but Ah don’t mean to chop de first chip." (4.1-2)
Logan and Janie both have strong opinions about gender roles in a marriage. Logan thinks a wife essentially exists to make life as easy for her husband as possible. He gradually increases the number of tasks he thinks she should do: cook, care for the house, now chop and haul wood, and soon plow and plant potatoes. Janie, however, thinks both spouses should pull their weight equally. In her mind, the man should chop the wood while the woman makes dinner.
[Joe to Janie:] "You behind a plow! You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than uh hog is got wid uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you." (4.26)
On the surface, Joe has a different conception of a woman’s proper role than Logan. A "pretty doll-baby" should be treated like a queen, never obliged to work and always served by others. What the young, naïve Janie does not realize is that Joe doesn’t think that pampering a woman is necessary because she’s a valuable human being, but because she’s a valuable object. This is not so different from Logan after all, who also considers Janie an object. For Joe, women are objects to look at; for Logan, they’re objects to be utilized.
[Tony Taylor when Joe is made mayor:] "And now we’ll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks."
The burst of applause was cut short by Joe taking the floor himself.
"Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home." (5.107-109)
Joe, like many men, thinks that women do not have the intellectual capacity of men and should not be allowed to speak. He cuts short any chance for Janie to make herself heard because he considers a woman’s place not in the public eye, but in the privacy of the home. Joe jealousy guards Janie and wants her all to himself because he fears losing her.
[Joe:] "…but Ah’m uh man even if Ah is de Mayor. But de mayor’s wife is somethin’ different again. Anyhow they’s liable tuh need me tuh say uh few words over de carcass, dis bein’ uh special case. But you ain’t goin’ off in all dat mess uh commonness." (6.71)
Joe hides his fear of losing Janie behind rhetoric of a woman having no place in the "mess uh commonness" that this mockery of a funeral will bring together. By dominating Janie, Joe doesn’t realize that he’s keeping her physically to himself but losing her emotionally.
[Joe:] "Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves."
"Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!"
"Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one." (6.180-182)
Joe considers women to be on the same intellectual level as children and domesticated animals. He imposes this view on Janie, never considering how it feels to be a woman. When she protests, he gets more adamant, attempting to maintain a position of authority by harping on women’s stupidity and lack of perception.
"I god, Janie," Starks said impatiently, "why don’t you go on and see whut Mrs. Bogle want? Whut you waitin’ on?"
Janie wanted to hear the rest of the play-acting and how it ended, but she got up sullenly and went inside. She came back to the porch with her bristles sticking out all over her and with dissatisfaction written all over her face. Joe saw it and lifted his own hackles a bit. (6.168-169)
Joe seems to think that he has more of a right to enjoyment and entertainment than Janie. He either doesn’t consider or doesn’t care that Janie might also like to have a bit of fun. As a woman, he turns her into a bit of a personal slave. Notice the use of "Starks" instead of "Joe" or "Jody," showing Janie’s growing emotional distance from him because of his poor treatment of her.
He [Joe] wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.
So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. (6.183-184)
Here, Hurston gets to the heart of the matter. No matter how smart or spirited women are, some men simply want them to be submissive. And women, whose oppression was tolerated by society in Hurston’s time, often have no choice but to hush and bow their heads. This, of course, destroys any illusion of love in a marriage and leaves only a pretence of love that flaunts itself to the public.
Janie did what she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation.
"Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens."
"You getting’ too moufy, Janie," Starks told her. "Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers." (6.215-217)
Janie breaks out of the traditional role of the silent, obedient woman and speaks her mind to the men, telling them how stupid they’ll feel when they learn the truth of how hard women work and how much they know. Joe feels threatened by Janie’s outburst and puts Janie back in her place by taking a commanding tone with her and reasserting his dominance by bossing her around.
"If dat wuz mah wife," said Walter Thomas, "Ah’d kill her cemetery dead."
"More special after Ah done bought her everything mah wages kin stand, lak Tony do," Coker said. "In de fust place Ah never would spend on no woman whut Tony spend on her."
Starks came back and took his seat. He had to stop and add the meat to Tony’s account.
"Well, Tony tells me tuh humor her along. He moved here from up de State hopin’ tuh change her, but it ain’t. He say he can’t bear tuh leave her and he hate to kill her, so ‘tain’t nothin’ tuh do but put up her if she wuz mine. Ah’d break her or kill her. Main’ uh fool outa me in front of everybody."
"Tony won’t never hit her. He says beatin’ women is just like steppin’ on baby chickens. He claims ‘tain’t no place on uh woman tuh hit," Joe Lindsay said with scornful disapproval, "but Ah’d kill uh baby just born dis mawnin’ fuh uh thing lak dat. ‘Tain’t nothin’ but low-down spitefulness ‘ginst her husband make her do it." (6.208-212)
These men consider women too lowly to spend much money on and consider it appropriate to beat their wives when they don’t perform up to expectations. Any man who won’t hit a woman is thought to be a fool.
It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store. (6.185)
Many men in the book reserve the right to beat their wives and insult their intelligence simply because they’re having a bad day. Joe considers his home a refuge made comfortable by Janie, and when the reality doesn’t live up to his expectations, he takes out his frustration physically on his wife. Men in the novel, even Tea Cake, seem to endorse some level of domestic violence as a means of getting out their frustrations and showing women who’s boss.
This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. (6.31)
Joe treats Janie like a trophy—a prized object, but an object nonetheless. He doesn’t think of her as a human being with her own thoughts and feelings, but as a coveted possession that he must guard against other men, lest they take it from him.
[Janie when Joe implies she is old:] "Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ‘tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life." (7.22)
Both Joe and Janie try to get under each other’s skin by attacking each other’s sexuality. Joe, by suggesting Janie has become an old hag, implies that she has lost her characteristic beauty. Janie retorts by directly insulting Joe’s manhood and stripping him of his pride in front of his peers.
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood. Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible. The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David. But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing. When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together. They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them. When he sat in judgment it would be the same. Good-for-nothing’s like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn’t change place with him. For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength? Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble. There was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same. (7.27)
Janie’s verbal assault on Joe’s manhood is perceived by him as castration, both physically and socially. Because men in this novel associate their sexual prowess with their reputation and worth as a human being, Joe is devastated by Janie’s comment. Interestingly, Janie doesn’t seem to be so diminished by Joe’s nasty comments. This seems to indicate that men care more about their reputations than women. Now, Joe not only refuses to have sex with Janie but also withdraws from society, choosing rather to live alone than be mocked by his peers.
[Mixon teasing Janie about her lack of skills with a knife:] "Looka heah, Brother Mayor, whut yo’ wife done took and done." It was cut comical, so everybody laughed at it. "Uh woman and uh knife—no kind of uh knife, don’t b’long tuhgether." There was some more good-natured laughter at the expense of women. (7.10)
Knives and weapons of any kind are usually considered a product of a masculine realm, and Janie’s clumsiness with the knife is caused by a female venturing into male territory—or so they assume. Everyone assumes that women cannot do what men do and thus they laugh "at the expense of women."
[Janie:] "But Ah ain’t goin’ outa here and Ah ain’t gointuh hush. Naw, you gointuh listen tuh me one time befo’ you die. Have yo’ way all yo’ life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let yo’self heah ‘bout it. Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me. " (8.39)
Janie makes plain to Joe one way that men try to keep women down—by silencing their voices (often by speaking louder than their women or ignoring their pleas). Because a person’s words are a direct product of their mind, Janie recognizes that Joe’s attempts to silence her are an intrusion on her very thoughts.
Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look small when he did it to her all the time? (8.1)
Janie recognizes and laments an unfair double standard: men always put down women and expect them to take it while the reverse does not hold true; women cannot possibly insult their men without drastic and often public consequences. There is a sexual double meaning here, with "small" meaning both Joe’s reputation and his actual manhood.
Then thought about herself. Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she’d better look. She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. (8.45)
Even after years of repression and insult from Joe, Janie’s womanly beauty and strength remain. This seems to be Hurston’s way of showing how much women can endure and still emerge with their sense of identity unscathed.
"Womenfolks is easy taken advantage of. You know what tuh let none uh dese stray n*****s dat’s settin’ round heah git de inside track on yuh. They’s jes lak uh pack uh hawgs, when dey see uh full trough. What yuh needs is uh man dat yuh done lived uhround and know all about tuh sort of manage yo’ things fuh yuh and generally do round." (9.13)
Ike Green tries to feed Janie the idea that women cannot function on their own, without a man. However, readers recognize that Ike is one of the "hawgs" that he is so quick to condemn. Janie isn’t as dumb and easily duped as Ike thinks, either. She recognizes Ike’s tactics and calls him a "pee-de-bed."
Janie found out very soon that her widowhood and property was a great challenge in South Florida. Before Jody had been dead a month, she noticed how often men who had never been intimates of Joe, drove considerable distances to ask after her welfare and offer their services as advisor.
"Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing," she was told over and again. "Dey needs aid and assistance. God never meant ‘em tuh try tuh stand by theirselves. You ain’t been used tuh knockin’ round and doin’ fuh yo’self, Mis’ Starks. You been well taken keer of, you needs a man." (9.5-6)
Women are considered incapable of fending for themselves. Janie’s suitors seem to use this argument to feel that they remain in control and obscure the fact Janie is in a position of power because of her physical attractiveness and her wealth.
[Janie to Tea Cake:] "If it wuz me, Ah’d wait on uh train. Seben miles is uh kinda long walk."
"It would be for you, ‘cause you ain’t used to it. But Ah’m seen women walk further’n dat. You could too, if yuh had it tuh do." (10.44-45)
Janie seems to some extent to see herself as Joe intended—weak and incapable as a woman. Tea Cake sets to work undoing some of the damage Joe has done, assuring Janie that she is stronger than she thinks. To reinforce the idea, he tells her of other women he has seen walk seven full miles.
He [Tea Cake] set it [the checkers] 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. Then lean, over-padded shoulders and narrow waist. Even nice! (10.25)
Because Tea Cake treats men and women relatively equally—thinking they both have the right and intelligence to play the same games—Janie finds herself attracted to him. His unconventional thinking makes him even more attractive to Janie, who finds herself admiring his physical assets.
"Yuh can’t beat uh woman. Dey jes won’t stand fuh it. But Ah’ll come teach yuh agin. You gointuh be uh good player too, after while."
"You reckon so? Jody useter tell me Ah never would learn. It wuz too heavy fuh mah brains."
"Folks is playin’ it wide sense and folks is playin’ it without. But you got good meat on yo’ head. You’ll learn." (10.34-36)
Tea Cake differentiates himself from Joe by assuring Janie that women are just as smart as men and have just as much potential to better themselves. Tea Cake’s sense of gender equality is unprecedented and Janie basks in his praise.
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
[Tea Cake to Janie:] "Jes lak uh lil girl wid her Easter dress on. Even nice!" He locked the door and shook it to be sure and handed her the key. "Come on now, Ah’ll see yuh inside yo’ door and git on down de Dixie." (10.60)
Even though Tea Cake tries to treat men and women equally, he still unconsciously considers women weaker than men; he assumes they require men to escort them back home safely. He calls Janie a "lil girl wid her Easter dress on," somewhat diminishing her image and seriousness. Though chivalric, Tea Cake’s language and offer to walk Janie home might be read as sexist. Or, we could read it as his way of attempting to get an invitation to come inside her home.
[Pheoby about Janie:] "Still and all, she’s her own woman. She oughta know by now whut she wants tuh do." (12.7)
Pheoby, being a woman, recognizes that women are intelligent and know what they want out of life and out of their men. She sees that independence in Janie and thus awards her friend with the title of being "her own woman." This sense of self-ownership and self-confidence is usually reserved for a man. Thus, this can be seen as one instance of Janie crossing the traditional boundaries between men and women.
[Janie after Tea Cake has stolen her money and disappeared:] Way late in the morning the thought of Annie Tyler and Who Flung came to pay her a visit. Annie Tyler who at fifty-two had been left a widow with a good home and insurance money.
Mrs. Tyler with her dyed hair, newly straightened and her uncomfortable new false teeth, her leathery skin, blotchy with powder and giggle. Her love affairs, affairs with boys in their late teens or early twenties for all of whom she spent her money on suits of clothes, shoes, watches and things like that and how they all left her as soon as their wants were satisfied. Then when her ready cash was gone, had come Who Flung to denounce his predecessor as a scoundrel and took up around the house himself. It was he who persuaded her to sell her house and come to Tampa with him. The town had seen her limp off. The under-sized high-heel slippers were punishing her tired feet that looked like bunions all over. Her body squeezed and crowded into a tight corset that shoved her middle up under her chin. But she had gone off laughing and sure. As sure as Janie had been.
Then two weeks later the porter and conductor of the north bound local had helped her off the train at Maitland. Hair all gray and black and bluish and reddish in streaks. All the capers that cheap dye could cut was showing in her hair. Those slippers bent and griped just like her work-worn feet. The corset gone and the shaking old woman hanging all over herself. Everything that you could see was hanging. Her chin hung from her ears and rippled down her neck like drapes. Her hanging bosom and stomach and buttocks and legs that draped down over her ankles. She groaned but never giggled.
She was broken and her pride was gone, so she told those who asked what had happened. Who Flung had taken her to a shabby room in a shabby house in a shabby street and promised to marry her next day. They stayed in the room two whole days then she woke up to find Who Flung and her money gone. She got up to stir around and see if she could find him, and found herself too worn out to do much. All she found out was that she was too old a vessel for new wine…. (13.10-13)
This passage is particularly illustrative of the popular idea that women are all artifice and no substance. Annie Tyler uses her money to make herself look pretty in her old, decrepit age. But events work to reveal her true state, one in which "everything…was hanging," a state that decidedly lacks any pride or dignity. However, this passage condemns the shameless deception of young men, manipulating older women just to get their money and a night of pleasure. This passage shows the faults of both genders.
Then two men tried to pick a fight with one another, so Tea Cake said they had to kiss and make up. They didn’t want to do it. They’d rather go to jail, but everybody else liked the idea, so they made ‘em do it. Afterwards, both of them spit and gagged and wiped their mouths with the back of their hands. One went outside and chewed a little grass like a sick dog, he said to keep it from killing him. (13.44)
Men in this novel put so much worth into their identities as "manly" men, or straight males, that the idea of homosexuality frightens and repulses them deeply. The men’s reactions to the two men kissing are demonstrative of this idea, since one of them would rather chew grass like a mindless animal than affect affection for a person of the same sex.
[Man at Tea Cake’s party:] "Ah don’t want nobody handin’ me nothin’. Specially don’t issue me out no rations. Ah always chooses mah rations." He kept right on plowing through the pile uh chicken. So Tea Cake got mad.
"You got mo’ nerve than uh brass monkey. Tell me, what post office did you ever pee in? Ah craves tuh know."
"Whut you mean by dat now?" the fellow asked.
"Ah means dis—it takes jus’ as much nerve tuh cut caper lak dat in uh United States Government Post Office as it do tuh comes pullin’ and haulin’ over any chicken Ah pay for. Hit de ground. Damned if Ah ain’t gointuh try you dis night."
So they all went outside to see if Tea Cake could handle the boogerboo. Tea Cake knocked out two of his teeth, so that man went on off from there. (13.40-44)
The novel shows a clear distinction between the ways men and women respond to conflict. The masculine response is demonstrated in this quote—they solve the problem by duking it out physically. They first exchange insults, implying that the other is less than a man. Then, they bring their fists into it, and the man that is defeated leaves quietly, in shame. This contrasts sharply with the method of the women in the book, who tend to gossip and snipe verbally at their enemies—as demonstrated by the gossipy women on the porches in Eatonville.
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
[Tea Cake:] "Put dat two hundred back wid de rest, Janie. Mah dice. Ah no need no assistance tuh help me feed mah woman. From now on, you gointuh eat whutever mah money can buy uh and wear de same. When Ah ain’t got nothin’ you don’t git nothin’."
"Dat’s all right wid me." (13.76-77)
Tea Cake demonstrates his strong sense of masculinity by making "[his] woman," Janie, financially dependent on him. He takes pride in being able to provide for a woman who has lived such a privileged life. Although Janie never seems conflicted about living a poor life with Tea Cake, she kind of has to agree to live by what he provides or severely damage his pride.
Tea Cake made her [Janie] shoot at little things just to give her good aim. Pistol and shot gun and rifle. It got so the others stood around and watched them. Some of the men would beg for a shot at the target themselves. It was the most exciting thing on the muck. Better than the jook and the pool-room unless some special band was playing for a dance. And the thing that got everybody was the way Janie caught on. She got to the place she could shoot a hawk out of a pine tree and not tear him up. Shoot his head off. She got to be a better shot than Tea Cake. (14.14)
The idea of a woman handling weapons is a scandalous idea in the post-Civil War South. Its shock value draws many bystanders to witness this breach of gender barriers. By wielding a gun, Janie is taking on a definitively masculine role since she can now attack others and defend herself. The fact that Tea Cake teaches her how to shoot shows that he, unlike Joe, is not afraid of Janie becoming more independent than the average woman.
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)
Here, both Janie and Tea Cake break gender boundaries. Janie, by coming out onto the fields to work like the other migrant men and women, shows that she can survive in a tough world, despite her prim and pampered life. By getting her hands dirty, Janie takes on the hard and dirty work often reserved for men. In return, Tea Cake "helps" her "get supper afterwards," meaning that Tea Cake ventures into the feminine realm of cooking and serving. Both sacrifice typical gender roles for the sake of being with each other and expressing their love for one another.
[After Janie finds Tea Cake messing around with Nunkie:] It wasn’t long before Tea Cake found her…and tried to talk. She cut him short with a blow and they fought from one room to the other, Janie trying to beat him, and Tea Cake kept holding her wrists and wherever he could to keep her from going too far. (15.9)
Even though Janie is justifiably angry with Tea Cake for flirting with Nunkie, she transgresses traditional gender boundaries by daring to hit Tea Cake. Because he loves her, Tea Cake does not retaliate, but he still "keeps her from going too far"—in other words, he keeps Janie from engaging in too much of this all-too-masculine violence.
[Mrs. Turner:] "What kinda man is you, Turner? You see dese no count n*****s come in heah and break up mah place! How kin you set and see yo’ wife all trompled on? You ain’t no kinda man at all. You seen dat Tea Cake shove me down! Yes you did! You ain’t raised yo’ hand tuh do nothin’ about it." (17.43)
Mrs. Turner castigates Mr. Turner in a rather domineering, masculine tone. She accuses him of effeminacy. By her rants, readers can discover what exactly in this novel is considered effeminate in a man—silence and passivity.
"Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her [Janie]. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit yuh back, neither. Take some uh dese ol’ rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn’t tell you ever hit ‘em. Dat’s de reason Ah done quit beatin’ mah woman. You can’t make no mark on ‘em at all. Lawd! Wouldn’t Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie. Ah bet she don’t even holler. She jus’ cries, eh, Tea Cake?" (17.2)
In this extremely disturbing passage, Sop-de-Bottom verbalizes the desire of seemingly all men in the book to beat a beautiful, soft woman. The men receive pleasure out of seeing their women submit to their beatings and hearing them cry. Conversely, they become annoyed if the women behave out of their place and take on "masculine" roles by fighting back or verbally protesting. Also, seeing the marks of violence on their women’s skins gives the men a sense of possession over women that apparently turns them on. And beating the women doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than marking them as conquered, which is why Sop has stopped beating his wife—the marks don’t show on her. Maybe they should try tattoos or something a bit less abusive?
Mrs. Turner saw with dismay that Tea Cake’s taking them out was worse than letting them stay in. She ran out in the back somewhere and got her husband to put a stop to things. He came in, took a look and squinched down into a chair in an off corner and didn’t open his mouth. (17.38)
Mr. Turner acts in a decidedly non-masculine way, refusing to defend his wife’s honor and taking a passive role by sitting down silently to watch the fight rather than participate in it. Mrs. Turner, by default, is forced to take on a stereotypically masculine role and fight for her own honor.
When Mrs. Turner’s brother came and she brought him over to be introduced, Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. (17.1)
In a strange perversion of Joe’s act of beating Janie, Tea Cake strikes her, not to inflict fear, but to reassure himself of his possession over her. Read in one way, this makes Tea Cake just as misogynistic as Joe, but read in another light, probably Janie’s way of thinking, his beating is simply an expression of love for her and thus acceptable. This is kind of a freaky and twisted passage by modern standards. It’s strange that the narration makes it seem okay for him to possess her or be the boss of her. What happened to all of that gender equality we thought he symbolized? Anyway, we don’t recommend imitating Tea Cake as you express your affection for your family, significant other, or pets—they won’t appreciate it.
Mrs. Turner hit at him the best she could with her hurt hand and then spoke her mind for half an hour.
"It’s a good thing mah brother wuzn’t round heah when it happened do he would uh kilt somebody. Mah son too. Dey got some manhood about ‘em." (17.45-46)
In the first paragraph here, Mrs. Turner reminds readers of Joe Starks, with his big, incessant voice and beating hands. To further humiliate her husband, she cites some close relations who "got some manhood about ‘em," in contrast to her husband’s perceived effeminacy for not fighting or killing anyone.
Pretty soon the girl that was waiting table for Mrs. Turner brought in the order and Sterrett took his fish and coffee in his hands and stood there. Coodemay wouldn’t take his off the tray like he should have.
"Naw, you hold it fuh me, baby, and lemme eat," he told the waitress. He took the fork and started to eat off the tray. (17.25-26)
Coodemay takes advantage of the waitress’ position as a woman and servant to her customers by assuming she will not complain about holding his plate for him while he eats. This thoughtlessness shows how deeply the stereotype of female inferiority was rooted in the society depicted in the novel.
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
[Tea Cake:] "You don’t have tuh say, if it wuzn’t fuh me, baby, cause Ah’m heah, and then Ah want yuh tuh know it’s uh man heah." (18.109)
Tea Cake considers himself a man because he is always there for Janie and willing to perform all sorts of gallantries for her.
When they were alone Tea Cake wanted to put his head in Janie’s lap and tell her how he felt and let her mama him in her sweet way. (19.116)
Tea Cake, in times of distress, wants Janie to take on an ultra-feminine role and comfort him just as a mother would. While men often put down women’s "weakness," in times like these, they define the same softness as "sweet" and tender.
Tea Cake began to cry and Janie hovered him in her arms like a child. She sat on the side of the bed and sort of rocked him back to peace. (19.123)
Tea Cake is able to show his vulnerability to Janie, but not to other men. Interestingly, we only see him show his vulnerability when Janie takes on the role of mother, rather than that of a wife. This is probably because he feels the need to protect a wife but feels comfortable being taken care of by a mother.
"Janie, us got tuh git outa dis house and outa dis man’s town. Ah don’t mean tuh work lak dat no mo’."
"Naw, naw, Tea Cake. Less stay right in heah until it’s all over. If dey can’t see yuh, dey can’t bother yuh." (19.34-35)
Here, Janie reverts back to a stereotypically feminine role of wanting to be passive—out of fear. Tea Cake, however, asserts his masculinity by insisting on action.
And twelve more white men had stopped whatever they were doing to listen and pass on what happened between Janie and Tea Cake Woods, and as to whether things were done right or not. That was funny too. Twelve strange men who didn’t know a thing about people like Tea Cake and her were going to sit on the thing. Eight or ten white women had come to look at her too. They wore good clothes and had the pinky color that comes of good food. They were nobody’s poor white folks. What need had they to leave their richness to come look on Janie in her overalls? But they didn’t seem too mad, Janie thought. It would be nice if she could make them know how it was instead of those menfolks. (19.155)
In a strange moment of identification, Janie feels a kinship with the white women who have come to listen to her trial. By pure fact of their womanhood, she feels they would understand and sympathize with her more than the jury of men.
"Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her." (19.178)
The black male speaker implies that the men of the jury are inherently biased toward Janie because of her beauty. Is it true that the male jury is doing a favor for a pretty lady, or is the male speaker just belittling Janie because of his own sexist notions about a woman killing her own husband? Or neither?