Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Language and Communication

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Language and Communication

Chapter 1
Pheoby Watson

[Janie]: "To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about […]"

[Pheoby]: "[…] so long as they get a name to gnaw on they don’t care whose it is, and what about, ‘specially if they can make it sound like evil." (1.53-54)

Gossipers, according to Janie and Pheoby, have no greater purpose in life than to take someone’s words and twist them to make them sound "like evil." They find great pleasure in defaming others, whether or not such infamy is deserved.

[Pheoby]: "Yeah, Sam say most of ‘em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment. Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there and hear it all." (1.46)

Pheoby comments on the porch’s insatiable curiosity, their invasive prying into everyone’s private lives. They hunger for scandalous stories and revealing words, maybe because they aren’t out living themselves and need ample communication as a replacement.

The sun was gone…It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. (1.4)

Since many of the people of Eatonville are laborers during the day, they are rendered powerless and voiceless – essentially animals – while under their boss’s watch. When the "bossman [is] gone," their humanity returns to them and they finally have the capacity to speak and listen and judge.

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song. (1.5)

The women on their porches uses words as weapons, aimed to insult and hurt people that they envy, like Janie. This evocative description introduces the idea of language, especially gossip, as a destructive tool.

They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie was full of that oldest human longing – self revelation. Pheoby held her tongue for a long time, but she couldn’t help moving her feet. So Janie spoke. (1.56)

Here, Hurston points out that it is natural for people not only to be curious but to want to talk about themselves. The "oldest human longing" – according to Hurston – is the desire to tell your story to eager ears, to garner sympathy from others, and to connect to other human beings through words.

Janie Crawford

"Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth the trouble. You can tell ‘em what I say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ‘cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf." (1.51)

Janie trusts Pheoby enough to repeat what she says faithfully to the porch gossips. This idea of linguistic integrity perhaps bolsters readers’ trust in Janie when she starts retelling her story, because it is obvious she values truth.

Chapter 3

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. There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain again on her old knees. (3.30)

In this fascinating dichotomy of the human mind, the narrator shows us various levels of the mind – the level closest to the surface where words are manifested to express thought, then a deeper level where pure thought and intellect reigns without the vehicle of words to express them, and finally a level of pure emotion – untouched by either thought or word. Thus, language is but the most superficial manifestation of emotion, but to the external observer, words are all we have.

Chapter 4

From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them. (4.59)

Janie sees this moment of abandoning Logan and eloping with Joe as a moment of rebirth. This rebirth requires coining of "new words" so that Janie never has to be tied down by language referring back to her unhappy times with Logan and Nanny.

There! Janie had put words in his [Logan’s] held-in fears. (4.44)

By saying out loud that she might run away from him, Janie is making Logan’s fears a real possibility, to herself and especially to Logan. Thus, words are transformative vehicles, rendering unspoken thoughts into a possible reality the moment they are uttered.

Janie turned from the door without answering, and stood still in the middle of the floor without knowing it. She turned wrongside out just standing there and feeling. When the throbbing calmed a little she gave Logan’s speech a hard thought and placed it beside other things she had seen and heard. When she had finished with that she dumped the dough on the skillet and smoothed it over with her hand. She wasn’t even angry. Logan was accusing her of her mamma, her grandmamma and her feelings, and she couldn’t do a thing about any of it. The sow-belly in the pan needed turning. She flipped it over and shoved it back. A little cold water in the coffee pot to settle it. Turned the hoe-cake with a plate…(4.58)

After Logan’s rant against Janie, she treats his speech like an object, "plac[ing] it beside other things she had seen and heard." By objectifying it, she can consider his words from a distance and not allow them to impact her emotionally and render her irrational. Also, all her movements within the kitchen – turning over pots and pans, setting food down to cook – could all be read as things she does to her thoughts – turning her thoughts over and letting them stew to get as much meaning out of them as she can and make her decision.

Chapter 5

Another big blow-out of a laugh. Tony was a little peeved at having the one speech of his lifetime ruined like that.

"All y’all know whut wuz meant. Ah don’t see how come – "

"’Cause you jump up tuh make speeches and don’t know how," Lige said.

"Ah wuz speakin’ jus’ all right befo’ you stuck yo’ bill in."

"Naw, you wuzn’t, Tony. Youse way outa jurisdiction. You can’t welcome uh man and his wife ‘thout you make comparison about Isaac and Rebecca at de well, else it don’t show de love between ‘em if you don’t."

Everybody agreed that that was right. It was sort of pitiful for Tony not to know he couldn’t make a speech without saying that. Some tittered at his ignorance. So Tony said testily, "If all them dat’s goin-tuh cut de monkey is done cut it and through wid, we’ll thank Brother Starks tuh a respond." (5.94-99)

Language is integral to a person’s self-concept. If your words are laughed at, like Tony Taylor’s are, you feels as inadequate as your words. The crowd probably is just as ignorant as Tony about how to speak publicly, but they quickly agree with anything that sounds vaguely educated – which is essentially everything that comes out of Joe’s mouth.

"Whut is de real name of de place?"

"Some say West Maitland and some say Eatonville. Dat’s ‘cause Cap’n Eaton give us some land along wid Mr. Laurence. But Cap’n Eaton give de first piece." (5.34-35)

The name of the town is in question; "West Maitland" names it according to its geography while "Eatonville" dubs it after its patron. Maybe Eatonville is the name that sticks because it shows that the town is independent. As the first all-black town, it should probably have it’s own name rather than just being know for it’s location west of a white town.

"Shucks!" said Hicks. "Mah britches is just as long as his. But dat wife uh hisn! Ah’m uh son of uh Combunction if Ah don’t go tuh Georgy and git me one just like her."

"Whut wid?"

"Wid mah talk, man."

"It takes money tuh feed pretty women. Dey gits uh lavish uh talk."

"Not lak mine. Dey loves to hear me talk because dey can’t understand it. Mah co-talkin’ is too deep. Too much co to it."

"Umph!" (5.19-24)

Hicks has great confidence in his ability to talk to women and convince them to fall for him. He sees language as a manipulative key to getting women. According to Hicks, getting women isn’t the actual content of the language. So he’s consciously manipulative and belittling with his language, assuming that women don’t understand his clever use of words and stupidly fall for a man because he uses impressive language.

"Everybody come right forward and make merry. I got, it’s mah treat." Jody gave one of his big heh heh laughs and stood back. Janie dipped up the lemonade like he told her. A big tin cup full for everybody. (5.90)

Jody’s "heh heh laugh" is his trademark, marking him as apparently good-natured and somewhat fatherly. However, it is also one aspect of his "big voice" and probably a superficial tactic designed to make people like him. Also, notice how Janie is doing exactly what Joe tells her to.

[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." (5.105-107)

Joe makes sure to deny Janie any chance of speaking, even when she is publicly invited to. By denying her a voice, he shows that he completely dominates and controls her. He sees his wife’s ideal place as in the house and working silently at whatever he tells her to.

On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had, like apples and a glass lantern full of candies. Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there […] (5.1)

Unlike Logan, Joe does not start off his marriage by "mak[ing] many speeches with rhymes" to Janie, or embellishing a love that isn’t sincere. His words are directed towards his destination (Eatonville) and plans for the future, which reveals his ambition but not his emotions. Joe isn’t communicative about their relationship at the beginning of the marriage – he seems to think that objects and gifts are all that Janie needs – and this trend continues throughout their entire marriage. Since Joe gives gifts instead of communication, he never is showing his emotions or heart to Janie, or letting her reveal her inner self either.

Joe Starks

[Joe]: "Y’all know we can’t invite people to our town just dry long so. I god, naw. We got tuh feed ‘em something, and ‘tain’t nothin’ people laks better’n barbecue. Ah’ll give one whole hawg mah ownself. Seem lak all de rest uh y’all put tuhgether oughta be able tuh scrape up two mo’. Tell yo’ womenfolks tuh do ‘round ‘bout some pies and cakes and sweet p’tater pone." (5.116)

Joe takes on a commanding tone with the citizens of Eatonville, telling them what to do to prepare for a public party. Everyone seems to listen and obey, maybe because he has a big voice, and always sounds confident.

[Joe]: "Ah told you in de very first beginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you." (5.126)

Joe’s idea of becoming a "big voice" or having great influence in Eatonville means a rise in his rank and the respect he commands. To Joe, communication is synonymous with power and influence. It’s important to note that by denying Janie a voice, he is keeping her powerless.

Chapter 6

Take for instance the case of Matt Bonner’s yellow mule. They had him up for conversation every day the Lord sent. Most especial if Matt was there himself. Sam and Lige and Walter were the ringleaders of the mule-talkers. The others threw in whatever they could chance upon… (6.2)

The Eatonville community enjoys poking fun at Matt Bonner for his treatment of his yellow mule. All their conversation centers around the rather frivolous subject of the yellow mule and they only talk about it to put down Matt Bonner and make themselves feel bigger. The men use language to both tear people down and build themselves up.

Anyhow a free mule in town was something new to talk about. The town talked it for three days and said that’s just what they would have done if they had been rich men like Joe Starks. Starks piled fodder under the big tree near the porch and the mule was usually around the store like the other citizens. Nearly everybody took the habit of fetching along a handful of fodder to throw on the pile. He almost got fat and they took a great pride in him. New lies sprung up about his free-mule doings. How he pushed open Lindsay’s kitchen door and slept in the place one night and fought until they made coffee for his breakfast; how he stuck his head in the Pearsons’ window for Rev. Pearson and handed him a plate; he ran Mrs. Tully off of the croquet ground for having such an ugly shape; he ran and caught up with Becky Anderson on the way to Maitland so as to keep his head out of the sun under her umbrella; he got tired of listening to Redmond’s long-winded prayer, and went inside the Baptist church and broke up the meeting. He did everything but let himself be bridled and visit Matt Bonner. (6.62)

Eatonville’s imaginations – fired up by the thought of a liberated mule being similar to a black freedman – make up all kinds of stories and rumors to entertain themselves. They find enjoyment and distraction in stories and conjure up a little fantasy world for themselves.

But sometimes Sam Watson and Lige Moss forced a belly laugh out of Joe himself with their eternal arguments. It never ended because there was no end to reach. It was a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason. (6.95)

Here, Hurston comes straight out and admits that Sam and Lige argue pointlessly for no other reason than to show off. Their arguments are "a contest in hyperbole," each man aiming to outdo the other in this contest of exaggerated words. It seems like in many cases in the novel, language is used as a form of harmless entertainment.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. (6.184)

Janie cannot win against Joe’s big voice so she "learn[s] to hush," silencing herself so that Joe doesn’t have to be humiliated by Joe telling her to shut up.

Janie did what she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation. (6.215)

When Joe and his friends insult women’s intelligence, Janie is finally enraged enough to break her habitual silence and speak up. She crosses gender boundaries by doing this, taking on a masculine force as shown through the word "thrust."

Janie Crawford

Janie came back out front and sat own. She didn’t say anything and neither did Joe. But after a while he looked down at his feet and said, "Janie, Ah reckon you better go fetch me dem old black gaiters. Dese tan shoes sets mah feet on fire. Plenty room in ‘em, but they hurts regardless."

She got up without a word and went off for the shoes. A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things. She wanted to fight about it. "But Ah hates disagreement and confusion, so Ah better not talk. It makes it hard tuh git along." (6.48-49)

Because Janie wants to preserve peace between her and Joe, she remains silent and does not protest his demands like she wants to. She seems to be somewhat brainwashed into thinking that it’s better for her not to say anything, and that instead of communication bringing clarity and understanding, her words will bring "disagreement and confusion."

Janie stood still while they all comments. When it was all done she stood in front of Joe and said, "Jody, dat wuz uh might fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ‘cause it ain’t no everyday thought. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de N****es. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something."

Hambo said, "Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts."(6.60-61)

Like Hambo says, Janie has a gift for words. This directly contradicts what Joe said earlier about Janie not knowing how to make speeches. Janie has just proven that she can indeed speak publicly. This means she could potentially pose a threat to Joe’s power or increase his influence, but he doesn’t notice because he is too busy basking in everyone’s praises and inflating his ego.

Joe Starks

"All you got tuh do is mind me. How come you can’t do lak Ah tell yuh?"

"You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!"

"Dat’s ‘cause you need tellin’," he rejoined hotly. "It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves." (6.174-176)

Joe has no qualms telling Janie what to do all the time. When Janie points out that he won’t listen to her, Joe brushes it off and tells her directly what he thinks of women’s intelligence. To him, women are stupid and cannot think for themselves. That’s why men must always speak in the imperative to them, directing their every action. It’s interesting that eventually Joe has an untimely death because he didn’t listen to Janie about how much he needed to see a doctor.

[Joe]: "But it’s awful tuh see so many people don’t want nothin’ but uh full belly and uh place tuh lay down and sleep afterwards. It makes me sad sometimes and then agin it makes me mad. They say things sometimes that tickles me nearly tuh death, but Ah won’t laugh jus tuh dis-incourage ‘em." Janie took the easy way away from a fuss. She didn’t change her mind but she agreed with her mouth. Her heart said, "Even so, but you don’t have to cry about it." (6.94)

Communication clearly isn’t always honest. Joe claims not to laugh when the locals say stupid things, but he sure laughed at a lot of the mule stories, so he’s just plain lying. Similarly, what Janie communicates with her "mouth" is different from what she feels in her heart. Neither of them are truthful with each other, which really doesn’t help their marriage.

Chapter 7

The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. (7.1)

Janie’s inability to communicate isolates her to such an extend that she sees herself as a "rut in the road." She is eventually rejuvenated when she finds her voice again, which she uses to accuse Jody of his crimes against her.

Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "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)

Janie recognizes Joe (and men in general) as nothing but a "big voice"; in other words, Joe’s words have no substance behind them. It’s almost like Janie’s showing that words aren’t good enough on their own, they only have power when there is truth behind them. Then, she goes on to castrate Joe with her incisive words – since her words are true, they’re very potent.

Chapter 8

[after Janie insults Joe’s manhood]: They didn’t talk too much around the store either. Anybody that didn’t know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the stillness was the sleep of swords. So new thoughts had to be thought and new words said. She didn’t want to live like that. Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look small when he did it to her all the time? (8.1)

Joe’s embarrassment and rage at Janie for publicly insulting his manhood leads to the silent treatment. For once, Joe is at a loss for words and tries to get back at Janie by refusing to speak to her. Janie sees this and realizes that their marriage is totally destroyed. In order to renew their relationship, they need to change the way they communicate with each other and use "new words."

"All dis tearin’ down talk!" Jody whispered with sweat globules forming all over his face and arms. "Git outa heah!"

"All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice – dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you." (8.42-43)

Now that Janie speaks up, strongly and confidently, Joe has lost his big voice, he can only whisper. Janie appropriately points out that being forced to follow all of Joe’s orders was the equivalent of bowing before him. He was trying to use his voice to completely dominate her.

She thought back and forth about what had happened in the making of a voice out of a man. (8.45)

In the "making of a voice out of a man," that man (Joe) loses his substantiality and humanity. In becoming just a "big voice," Joe puts all his life force into speaking and loses everything else, including his heart.

Joe Starks

"Janie! Janie! don’t tell me Ah got tuh die, and Ah ain’t used tuh thinkin’ ‘bout it." (8.36)

To Joe, the thought of death is unthinkable and, thus, unspeakable. To him, saying such a thing means giving truth to it.

Janie Crawford

[Janie to Joe]: You ain’t tried tuh pacify nobody but yo’self. Too busy listenin tuh yo’ own big voice." (8.41)

Joe’s obsession with becoming a "big voice" means that he is deafened by his own words; he cannot and will not hear any one else’s words, no matter how legitimate they may be.

Chapter 10
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

"Evenin’, Mis’ Starks. Could yuh lemme have uh pound uh knuckle puddin’ till Saturday? Ah’m sho uh pay tuh then."

"You needs ten pounds, Mr. Tea Cake. Ah’ll let yuh have all Ah got and you needn’t bother ‘bout payin’ it back." (10.54-55)

Tea Cake and Janie jest in words, playing on the idea of "knuckle puddin’" being both a foodstuff and a beating with the fists. Tea Cake, realizing he is in the doghouse for being a little too flirtatious with Janie, requests that Janie beat him with her fists as punishment. Janie, recognizing the pun, returns it, saying that she’ll give him more than he asked for and that he need to pay it back (beat her in return). Joe would never have engaged in this type of wordplay with Janie, because the verbal sparring implies that the speakers are equal. Joe wouldn’t even play checkers with her, let alone talk to her as an equal.

"Who ever heard of uh teacake bein’ called Mister! If you wanta be real hightoned and call me Mr. Woods, dat’s de way you feel about it. If yuh wants tuh be uh lil friendly and call me Tea Cake, dat would be real nice." (10.58)

The dropping of formal titles in discourse marks the breaking down of certain social barriers – like the coldness of addresses between two people who do not know each other very well. Tea Cake wants to close that social distance between himself and Janie linguistically by getting rid of the formal "Mister" title. He hopes that will allow him to get more intimate with Janie.

Chapter 11

"Me scramble ‘round tuh git de money tuh take yuh – been workin’ lak uh dawg for two whole weeks – and she come astin’ me if Ah want her tuh go! Puttin’ mahself tuh uh whole heap uh trouble tuh git dis car so you kin go over tuh Winter Park or Orlandah tuh buy de things you might need and dis woman set dere and ast me if Ah want her tuh go!"

"Don’t git mad, Tea Cake, Ah just didn’t want you doin’ nothin’ outa politeness. If dere’s somebody else you’d ruther take, it’s all right wid me." (11.91-92)

Tea Cake lays bare the absurdity of Janie’s attempt to be polite. By doing this, he closes the distance between himself and Janie.

Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

"Naw, you ain’t sleepy, Mis’ Janie. You jus’ want me tuh go. You figger Ah’m uh rounder and uh pimp and you done wasted too much time talkin’ wid me." (11.48)

Tea Cake does not hedge around the truth when Janie shows reluctance to speak to him; instead, he accurately reads her emotions and puts them into words. His frankness and blunt way of speaking the truth contrasts sharply with the other two men Janie has been with and this makes her more attracted to Tea Cake.

Chapter 12

"Oh, Ah know you don’t talk. We ain’t shame faced. We jus’ ain’t ready tuh make no big kerflommouck as yet." (12.38)

Janie defends her decision to keep quiet about her relationship with Tea Cake because she doesn’t want to announce it to the whole town yet. Here, you get the sense that no matter how little credit Janie gives to the porch gossips, she is influenced by their talk and doesn’t want their gossip to interfere with her happy relationship.

Chapter 18

The monstropolous beast had left his bed. (18.55)

The rise of the lake is so massive that the narrator has to coin a new word to describe its incredible enormity (or its monstropolousity).

Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "Ole Massa is doin’ His work now. Us oughta keep quiet." (18.29)

Janie knows that silence can be a sign of respect; thus, she suggests that they all stop their gaming and keep quiet when God’s judgment – in the form of a hurricane – comes.

Chapter 19

"Mistah Prescott, Ah got somethin’ tuh say," Sop-de-Bottom spoke out anonymously from the anonymous herd.

The courtroom swung round on itself to look.

"If you know what’s good for you, you better shut your mouth up until somebody calls you," Mr. Prescott told him coldly.

"Yassuh, Mr. Prescott."

"We are handling this case. Another word out of you, out of any of you n*****s back there, and I’ll bind you over to the big court."

"Yassuh." (19.162-167)

When a black man wants to speak, he is quickly and mercilessly silenced by the white judge. The language that Mr. Prescott uses is very divisive, clearly showing who’s in charge and who’s in the "in" group. Mr. Prescott uses "we" and "you" to clearly show that any of the black people in the "anonymous herd" are not part of the group "handling this case," nor are they important in any way in the court.

Then she saw all of the colored people standing up in the back of the courtroom. Packed tight like a case of celery, only much darker than that. They were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks. (19.156)

The black people in the courthouse have come to speak out against Janie because their tongues are the "only real weapon" they have left. Racism has made sure that no other weapons come their way.

It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding. If they made a verdict that she didn’t want Tea Cake and wanted him dead, then that was a real sin and a shame. It was worse than murder. (19.174)

To Janie, death is a more merciful sentence than having her words twisted and misunderstood. The idea that she would actually hate Tea Cake enough to kill him is a blatant lie and Janie hates falsehoods more than she hates death. To Janie, honest words are the ultimate virtue.

They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fighting something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice.

She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he couldn’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. But she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed. (19.169-170)

The text is ambiguous about what Janie means by "she had to remember she was not at home." Perhaps it means that she drops the black vernacular and speaks in Standard English to seem more professional and to gain the ear of the white jury. Or that she’s more open and direct than she commonly was at home. Who knows? Anyway, her words in her testimony come straight from the heart, telling it exactly as it happened. The astute reader remembers the instance in which Janie congratulates Joe on freeing the yellow mule and recalls the moving eloquence with which she spoke. You can assume she is applying the same kind frank eloquence here. It is important that Janie is not "plead[ing] to anybody;" she does not view the white men as gods (like Mrs. Turner), but instead speaks her words ringingly true so that nobody can deny them. Like when she criticized Joe at the end of his life, her words have power because there is truth behind them.

Chapter 20

The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. (20.12)

Janie’s memories are depicted as having voices, able to "sing," "sob and sigh." Their vocalizations are expressions of poignant grief, lamentations that are beautifully sung, then reduced to less controlled outpourings of sobbing and sighing. This personification of Janie’s memories accentuates her deep sadness for Tea Cake, a sadness which is beyond words.

Janie Crawford

[Janie to Pheoby]: "Dem meatskins [the gossipers on the porch] is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let ‘em consulate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves." (20.9)

Janie highlights the crucial difference between talk and action. She characterizes the gossipers on the porch as petty because they live vicariously through talking, never having the guts to strike out for themselves and try living what they talk about.

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