Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Mortality

By Zora Neale Hurston

Mortality

Chapter 1

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment. (1.3)

It is significant that Janie’s story begins with death because her life revolves around metaphoric deaths and rebirths. Because death is the start of the novel, it clues us into the fact that death is also generally a new beginning for Janie. Death is also related to judgment—but who are the dead bodies judging, themselves or others?

Chapter 2
Nanny

[Nanny:] "Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection. Ah ain’t gittin’ ole honey. Ah’m done ole. One mornin’ soon, now, de angel wid de sword is gointuh stop by here. De day and de hour is hid from me, but it won’t be long. Ah ast de Lawd when you was uh infant in mah arms to let me stay here till you got grown. He done spared me to see de day. Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life.

"Lemme wait, Nanny, please, jus’ a lil bit mo’."

"Don’t think Ah don’t feel wid you, Janie, ‘cause Ah do. Ah couldn’t love yuh no more if Ah had uh felt yo’ birth pains mahself. Fact uh de matter, Ah loves yuh a whole heap more’n Ah do yo’ mama, de one Ah did birth. But you got to take in consideration you ain’t no everyday chile like most of ‘em. You ain’t got no papa, you might jus’ as well say no mama, for de good she do yuh. You ain’t got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo’self. De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is a hurtin’ thing. Every tear you drop squeezes a cup uh blood outa mah heart. Ah got tuh try and do for you befo’ mah head is cold." (2.52-54)

Nanny isn’t afraid of death, but afraid of having unfinished business when she does die. She considers her life satisfactory except for Janie’s single status; she refers to her dying days as "golden moments." Nanny’s attitude toward death is markedly different than that of Joe Starks, who is terrified of death and refuses to believe he is dying. In Joe’s case, maybe his fear stems from dissatisfaction with his life.

Chapter 3
Nanny

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. 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)

Nanny is ready to die because she no longer feels that she has unfinished business on earth. She has "done de best [she] could do." Nanny dies probably realizing that she’s hurt Janie by choosing Logan as her granddaughter’s husband, but feels she can’t fault herself for making an imperfect decision based on love. Later in the book, Janie reveals that she hates her grandmother for forcing her to marry Logan. Do you think Hurston wanted the reader to agree with Janie?

So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things…She knew that God tore down the old world every morning and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (3.31)

The end of the "bloom time" and "green time" and "orange time" are ends of separate seasons and signals a sort of mini-death throughout the year. Hurston implies that at the end of each season, Janie feels another little part of her faith die. Finally a year later, her dream of true love is completely dead. Ironically, however, Hurston hints that experience with death is a prerequisite for becoming a mature woman. Thus, the death of her dream is the beginning of her womanhood. So a key point to remember is: new beginnings are often tied to death in this novel.

Chapter 4

[Logan to Janie:] "Don’t you change too many words wid me dis mawnin’, Janie, do Ah’ll take and change ends wid yuh. Heah, Ah just as good as take you out de white folks’ kitchen and set you down on yo’ royal diasticutis and you take and low-rate me! Ah’ll take holt uh dat ax and come in dere and kill yuh! [...] God damn yo’ hide!" (4.57)

To Logan, Janie’s lack of respect for him is cruel enough to merit death. A woman talking so directly back to him and contradicting his commands is unthinkable for him. This shows just how conservative are the morals Logan lives under. Of course, his death threat may also be insincere, simply an outburst of uncontrollable emotion. Either way, they do foreshadow a sort of upcoming death for Janie—the death of her innocence and her first marriage.

Chapter 6

But after a while he [the yellow mule] died. Lum found him under the big tree on his rawbony back with all four feet up in the air. That wasn’t natural and it didn’t look right, but Sam said it would have been more unnatural for him to have laid down on his side and died like any other beast. He had seen Death coming and had stood his ground and fought it like a natural man. He had fought it to the last breath. Naturally he didn’t have time to straighten himself out. Death had to take him like it found him. (6.63)

This passage seems to foreshadow Joe Starks’ death. Just as the yellow mule isn’t a normal animal, Joe isn’t just your average human. Therefore, it wouldn’t be natural for either to die in a peaceful, regular position. The mule dies fighting, with its legs rigid and in the air. Joe dies fighting, too; he refuses to believe he’s dying, argues with and curses Janie, and dies with an unnatural look on his face and his hands "in protest."

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. (6.77-79)

At the mule's funeral, 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 in a fellow creature’s death.

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.

Chapter 8

"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 during Tea Cake’s period of bedridden illness. In both cases, the men die of preventable illnesses because they refuse to see a doctor, so it seems that pride in the face of death just isn’t a good idea.

So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. Poor Jody! (8.16)

Janie’s conception of death is full of ironies. First, she imagines Death as an eternal being when he really introduces people to eternity. When she asks, "What winds can blow against him?" it foreshadows the deathly hurricane at the end of the novel that brings so much death among the inhabitants of the Everglades. Appropriately, though, Janie’s concept of death is a vacuum—a space "without sides and without a roof"—signaling the emptiness and eternity of death. Interestingly, she doesn’t imagine such a horrible and lonely death for Tea Cake later on.

A sound of strife in Jody’s throat, but his eyes stared unwillingly into a corner of the room so Janie knew the futile fight was not with her. The icy sword of the square-toed one had cut off his breath and left his hands in a pose of agonizing protest. Janie gave them peace on his breast, then she studied his dead face for a long time. (8.44)

Like the yellow mule, Joe does not go quietly when faced with death. He tries to fight, but it is futile. He does not die in peace, reconciled with his crimes on earth, but "in a pose of agonizing protest." It’s also interesting that Hurston describes Joe as dying when his breath is taken away—when he no longer has his "big voice"—rather than the point when his heart stops beating. This kind of goes to show that all that was left of him was his voice; he had no heart left.

Janie Crawford

"Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died." (8.39)

For Janie, the real Joe died a long time ago when the "big voice" took over. This Joe that lies before Janie is a pitiful shadow and remnant of Joe’s former glory. Whereas the "real" Joe had substance, this Joe is only a voice.

Chapter 9

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe’s funeral and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. (9.2)

Everything associated with death is about emptiness and ending, sadness, and sobbing. Janie, however, inside her fancy veils of mourning black, is anything but mournful; she hides her joy at her sudden freedom from Joe under her "expensive black folds." Inside, she is experiencing "resurrection and life" from the ashes of her formerly dead self, the part that Joe killed. Joe’s death brings a new beginning for Janie.

Chapter 18

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 as 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. (18.96)

This death scene is a mirror to Tea Cake’s own. Tea Cake, like the rabid dog, will battle madness and mindless aggression, a fear of water, and a prolonged struggle with death. The image of the feral dog entangled with Tea Cake, one struggling to kill the other, is a symbolic representation of Tea Cake struggling with overwhelming illness as death looms.

As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. (18.40)

The God-sent storm is of such a magnitude that it seems to turn the world upside down, enlivening dead things and killing the living. This perhaps foreshadows the death of Tea Cake, an entity that has lived his life so joyously.

[while fleeing from the hurricane]: They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other. (18.89)

Death is the great equalizer. Fear of death renders all living creatures immobilized and passive, quelling their desire to strike out—even in fear—and making their ultimate goal one and the same, to survive the storm. Thus, no creature lashes out against another.

Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

[Tea Cake]: "But ‘sposing you wuz tuh die now. You wouldn’t git mad at me for draggin’ yuh heah?"

"Naw, We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door." (18.36-37)

In her reassuring response to Tea Cake, Janie likens life to a day—referring to traditional light imagery of dawn representing hope, while dusk and the coming of darkness symbolize despair. She calls Tea Cake her "light at daybreak" and considers her life full enough so that she can "die at dusk" peacefully.

Chapter 19

The pistol and the rifle rang out almost together. The pistol just enough after the rifle to seem its echo. Tea Cake crumpled as his bullet buried itself in the joist over Janie’s head. Janie saw the look on his face and leaped forward as he crashed forward in her arms. She was trying to hover him as he closed his teeth in the flesh of her forearm. They came down heavily like that. Janie struggled to a sitting position and pried the dead Tea Cake’s teeth from her arm. (19.152)

Death seems impending for both Tea Cake and Janie; one must die for the other to live. And, ironically, it is Tea Cake’s marksmanship training with Janie that saves her. However, she is not completely out of danger; Tea Cake uses his dying strength to make a second attempt at killing Janie by biting her. This is a bit like Joe, who used his dying breath to curse Janie and wish her death.

Tea Cake found that he was part of a small army that had been pressed into service to clear the wreckage in public places and bury the dead. Bodies had to be searched out, carried to certain gathering places and buried. Corpses were not just found in wrecked homes. They were under houses, tangled in shrubbery, floating in water, hanging in trees, drifting under wreckage.

Trucks lined with drag kept rolling in from the ‘Glades and other outlying parts, each with its load of twenty-five bodies. Some bodies fully dressed, some naked and some in all degrees of dishevelment. Some bodies with calm faces and satisfied hands. Some dead with fighting faces and eyes flung wide open in wonder. Death had found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing. (19.22-23)

Tea Cake’s involvement with the mass burial effort is not just a job, but a survey of people in their final moments. They are found in every type of place, in every condition, and with every imaginable expression on their faces. But Tea Cake is struck by those that seem to accept death peacefully and those others who fight death to the very end—fearing it and all the terrifying possibilities that it might bring.

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.

[…]

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. (19.169; 174)

To Janie, falsehood—especially in words—is the worst sin there is. It is to be feared more than death for it can malign a good man’s name—his spirit, his soul—undeservedly for all of eternity if allowed to stand unchallenged.

He steadied himself against the jamb of the door and Janie thought to run into him and grab his arm, but she saw the quick motion of taking aim and heard the click. Saw the ferocious look in his eyes and went mad with fear as she had done in the water that time. She threw up the barrel of the rifle in frenzied hope and fear. Hope that he’d see it and run, desperate fear for her life. But if Tea Cake could have counted costs he would not have been there with the pistol in his hands. No knowledge of fear nor rifles nor anything else was there. He paid no more attention to the pointing gun than if it were Janie’s dog finer. She saw him stiffen himself all over as he leveled and took aim. The fiend in him must kill and Janie was the only thing living he saw. (19.151)

The creature in Tea Cake’s body has no fear of death and thus cannot be fully human, or even mortal. Janie, on the other hand, does fear death, and tries to scare Tea Cake with her gun. Unfortunately, she actually has to use the gun and kill Tea Cake because he’s become a "fiend [that] must kill."

Tea Cake had two bad attacks that night. Janie saw a changing look come in his face. Tea Cake was gone. Something else was looking out of his face. She made up her mind to be off after the doctor with the first glow of day. So she was up and dressed when Tea Cake awoke from the fitful sleep that had come to him just before day. He almost snarled when he saw her dressed to go. (19.136)

Tea Cake effectively dies that night because his lovable, compassionate self is replaced by something foreign and bestial that snarls at Janie with unnatural jealousy and irrational hate. Tea Cake has become the mad dog, crazed with bloodlust and no longer anything remotely human.

And then again Him-with-the-square-toes [Death] had gone back to his house. He stood once more and again in his high flat house without sides to it and without a roof with his soulless sword standing upright in his hand. His pale white horse had galloped over waters and thundered over land. (19.1)

The allusion to the pale white horse is a Biblical allusion to the Pale Horseman of the Apocalypse—the rider who represents death, bringing it through war, famine, and plague. The fact that death’s sword is "soulless" is appropriate for he also represents hell, a place of eternal torment for those who abused their souls in their lifetimes.

"Shucks! Nobody can’t tell nothin’ ‘bout some uh dese bodies, de shape dey’s in. Can’t tell whether dey’s white or black." (19.30)

Death is a great equalizer in another, more ghastly way. It mangles the corpses’ bodies so that they are unrecognizable; even their skin color is imperceptible. Though death tries to show the living that everyone is equal, the living insist on imposing meaningless standards—such as skin color and social status—on the senseless corpses.

Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "You mean he’s liable tuh die, doctah?"

[Doctor Simmons]: "’Sho is. But de worst thing is he’s liable tuh suffer somethin’ awful befo’ he goes." (19.96-97)

This is the second husband that Janie will lose to death. Both Joe and Tea Cake should have been sought medical treatment before their illnesses reached a critical stage, but both were too proud to do so. In the end, such reckless behavior not only kills them, but forces them and their loving wife (Janie) to "suffer somethin’ awful" before they die. Sadly, both deaths were utterly preventable.

Chapter 20

Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. (20.12)

Janie comes to an understanding of death that is not one of utter emptiness and sorrow, but—as her life has shown her—a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Tea Cake will always be alive for her as long as she can resurrect him with her fond memories and love. Janie, then, learns that love transcends even death.