Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-20

Chapter Seventeen Summary:

Many people return to live on the Muck after the summer. Some of the people are familiar from the previous year and some people are brand new. Mrs. Turner brings her brother to town to introduce him to Janie. Tea Cake whips Janie to show Mrs. Turner's brother that he has full control over Janie. "Being able to whip her reassured him in posession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women."

Other men are envious of Tea Cake's ability to hit Janie and leave marks on her skin. Because her skin is fairer than other blacks, her bruises are much more obvious. Women are jealous of the caring that her husband shows her afterward, worrying that he has killed her after a few slaps.

Tea Cake tells Sop-de-Bottom that Mrs. Turner hates blacks. Sop-de-Bottom tells Tea Cake that he thinks that they should throw rocks at her restaurant. Tea Cake agrees that they must find a way to drive her out of the city. Saturday afternoon rolls around and everyone gets paid and uses their money to get drunk. The men goes to Mrs. Turner's restaurant, telling her that she has the best beef stew in town. When the waitress brings Coodemay's dinner to him, Coodemay refuses to take it off the tray. Instead, he tells the waitress to stand there with the food on the tray and allow him to eat off it. He says that this is fair because the restaurant has run out of chairs and it would be very difficult to eat without having the waitress hold his plate. Then, Coodemay tries to take Sop-de-Bottom's chair. They begin fighting. Tea Cake steps into the fight ostensibly on Mrs. Turner's behalf saying that "she is too nice a woman" to have people destroying her restaurant. Once the restaurant is thoroughly destroyed by the brawl, the men cheerfully stop fighting, apologize to each other and go off to another bar.

Mrs. Turner yells at her cowardly husband for not standing up to the men. Mr. Turner sits calmly in his chair, smoking a pipe. Mrs. Turner begins hitting him, exclaiming that had her son and brother been in the restaurant during the fight, they would have stopped the ruckus. What she does not know is that her brother and son had in fact been at the restaurant. When they saw that there was trouble, they ran away to Palm Beach. Mrs. Turner decides to leave the Everglades and go to Miami "where people are civilized."

Monday morning, Sterrett and Coodemay come to the restaurant to apologize to Mrs. Turner. They give her five dollars each for the damage.


This chapter focuses on Tea Cake and the "black" perspective. In the previous chapter, Hurston exalted the black spirit, culture and way of life. In this chapter she explores some of the more questionable actions of her people.

The chapter begins with understatement. Hurston explains in a brief, emotionless fashion the brutality with which Tea Cake beats Janie. He beats her in order to show another man his power. Hurston's understatement of this poor logic is designed to make the reader angry and upset at Janie's predicament as a woman in black society.

Although she has been liberated through Tea Cake by her introduction into real black society, Janie is still oppressed as a woman in black society. Although she is not a mule (as she was when she was Logan's wife) or a glittery showpiece (as she was with Joe Starks) she is still oppressed.

Hurston successfully labels Mrs. Turner and her ilk as cowards. Mr. Turner does nothing during the fight and her son and brother do not even enter the restaurant when there are signs of trouble. Through the Turners, Hurston comments on all the "'s" of black society: African-Americans who "turn" against their own when the going gets tough are cowardly, infertile, ugly, miserable people.

Chapter Eighteen Summary:

Tea Cake's and Janie's friendship with the Bahaman musicians grows. Soon, every night there is traditional African dancing around a fire behind Tea Cake's house.

One afternoon, Janie sees Seminole Indians passing through town heading east. They warn her that a hurricane is coming. Nobody believes that there can possibly be anything wrong. After all, the bean-picking season is going well, and everyone is making huge amounts of money.

The weather becomes very still, and the animals leave. The snakes, possums and rabbits all hurry east to Palm Beach. Some people get scared and leave, including the Bahamans leave. One Bahaman boy, Lias, encourages Tea Cake to come with him, but Tea Cake is resolute about staying in the Everglades. He responds that the "Indians don't know much uh nothin', tuh tell de truth. Else dey'd own dis country still. De white folks ain't gone nowhere." Lias tells Tea Cake that he will wish he had left when the hurricane comes.

That night, everyone collects at Tea Cake's house. Everyone has a wonderful evening gambling and joking. The weather starts to get worse and everyone but Motor Boat leaves to go home. As the whole world starts to rumble, Janie, Tea Cake and Motor Boat look fearfully at the rumbling door. "Six eyes were questioning God."

Tea Cake asks Janie if she wishes that she had never come with him to the Everglades. But Janie says that before she had met Tea Cake she had been fumbling around. "God opened the door" and brought her Tea Cake. The lights go out and the three stare into the darkness. "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."

Tea Cake and Janie decide to find a car to take them out of the storm. They wake up Motor Boat and the three trudge through the storm. The dam on the lake breaks and the water rushes behind them, dangerously high. The three find a tall house on high land. Motor decides to stay in the house; he thinks it is safe. Janie and Tea Cake continue on. Tea Cake shouts to help a passerby escape a snake; afterwards he is breathless. Janie sees a piece of roof sailing in the wind. As she grabs it, it lifts her off the ground. She flies through the air and falls into the water. She is starting to drown when Tea Cake instructs her to swim toward a large cow with a dog standing on it. Janie grabs the cow's tail and the dog starts barking at her.

Tea Cake swims into the water to rescue her and the dog bites him on the face. Afterward, Janie and Tea Cake walk to safety. Janie tells Tea Cake they should find a doctor for his dog bite, but Tea Cake says he is fine. They find a place to rest and recover.


Tea Cake's death is heavily foreshadowed in this chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, he is compared to John the Conqueror, who went to heaven playing a guitar and then went to Hell and gave water to all the sufferers. The reader knows that Tea Cake's death will come soon.

This chapter emphasizes the wisdom of people who watch nature and God. The Indians realize first that the hurricane is coming, but Tea Cake dismisses them in a stereotypical anglocentric capitalist manner. He believes that the Indians are wrong because they have "always been wrong." Why else would they have lost their land? Tea Cake does not realize that he too at last has become too dependent on money. He does not want to leave because he does not want to lose any potential earnings. Hurston is commenting that American blacks are too far removed from their roots and the need to watch God and the messages he sends them. The people who are closest to nature (the Indians and the Bahamans) understand God's ways and signals. The blacks and the whites are removed from perceiving God because they are too concerned about money.

Only when God's fury and power are literally knocking down their front door do Tea Cake and Janie "watch God."

Chapter Nineteen Summary:

Death, personified again as the man with square toes that lives in a house with no sides (so that he can see all the mortals of the earth) returns to his house. This means that the time for death is over and it is time to bury the dead.

Janie and Tea Cake are not certain where to go next. Tea Cake decides to head into town to see if he can hear any news about his friends in the Everglades. Janie warns Tea Cake not to go into the city because the Red Cross is pressing men into service burying the dead.­ Tea Cake tells Janie that because he has money, the Red Cross people will not bother him. Unfortunately, he is wrong. As soon as Tea Cake wanders into the city, he is approached by two white men with rifles who call him "Jim" and enlist him to bury the dead. Tea Cake resists their command, saying that he has just survived the storm himself. But they point their rifles at him and tell him that if does not help, he will be dead soon.

Tea Cake helps bury the dead from the storm. The Red Cross orders the workers to separate the blacks from the whites when they are dumping the bodies in the cemetery. All of the whites will be put in coffins, while the blacks will be dumped in a mass grave. Since the bodies are so mangled, it is difficult to tell black from white. So the workers are instructed to use the hair as a guide. Tea Cake remarks, "Look lak dey think God don't know nothin' 'bout de Jim Crow law."

Time passes and Tea Cake realizes that Janie must be worried. He escapes when the truck leaves to unload the bodies. Although he is almost shot, he runs home and finds Janie. Tea Cake tells her that they should leave, but Janie thinks that it is safer to stay put. Tea Cake is adamant ­that they should leave. They are in danger because they are strangers and white people don't like "strange niggers." Janie laughs. She says: "De ones de white man know is nice colored folks. De ones he don't know is bad niggers."

They return to the Everglades and find Sop-de-Bottom, 'Lias, Coodemay, Bootyny and Motor Boat. Motor Boat stayed safely in the house after Janie and Tea Cake had left. Sterrett, another friend, died in the flood. Tea Cake finds work cleaning up after the storm. He buys a new pistol and a new rifle and he and Janie practice shooting. Janie is a better shot than Tea Cake.

Tea Cake wakes up in the middle of the night feeling like someone is strangling him in his sleep. He tries to drink water but it chokes him. In the morning, Janie is worried and calls Doctor Simmons. She tells him that Tea Cake was bit by a dog one month ago in the storm. Doctor Simmons tells her that Tea Cake has rabies and will die. He will try to fetch an antidote for Tea Cake, but it is probably useless because the disease has had so much time to progress.

No serum is available in Palm Beach; Simmons calls Miami and they say that it will be delivered the next morning. Meanwhile, Simmons instructs Janie not to sleep with Tea Cake since he might bite her and give her rabies as well.

Tea Cake falls into a jealous rage when he finds out that Mrs. Turner's brother is back in the Everglades. He asks Janie why she left the house without telling him; is she interested in Turner? Janie tells him that he is sick and that he is taking everything the wrong way; she is not interested in Turner at all. In the morning, Janie sees that Tea Cake is holding a pistol underneath the pillow; he is ready to kill her. When Tea Cake goes to the outhouse, Janie rushes to see if the pistol is loaded and it is. There are three bullets inside. She whirls the cylinder so that the pistol will not fire on the first three pulls of the trigger; at least she will a warning if Tea Cake shoots. She loads the rifle and makes sure that she can grab it if she needs it.

When Tea Cake comes back from the outhouse, he has a strange loping gait and a clenched jaw. He believes that Janie is not sleeping with him because she is interested in Turner. He grabs the pistol and aims it at Janie. He fires three shots, all blanks. Janie grabs the rifle, and they both fire at each other at the same time. The rifle is slightly faster, and Tea Cake falls to the ground, biting Janie's forearm.

Janie falls to the floor with him, weeping. She whispers her love to him and he dies. Janie is arrested for murder, put in jail, and tried in court. All of her black friends believe she is at fault for Tea Cake's death and want her to go to prison. Simmons explains her case to the jury and she is not convicted of murder. She is set free.

Janie arranges a beautiful funeral for Tea Cake in Palm Beach. She explains to Sop and the other friends that she knows that they were not trying to hurt her. They loved Tea Cake and just didn't understand what had happened. Sop and the friends all apologize.


This chapter presents the climax of the novel: Janie and Tea Cake's shoot-out. Tea Cake taught Janie how to shoot a gun, and, in a tragically ironic twist, Janie ends up using this skill to kill Tea Cake.

This chapter is full of social commentary. After the flood, Tea Cake is forced to seperate the victims by race before burying them. Hurston suggests how absurd racial prejudices are by showing how far they extend. Tea Cake's commentary is Hurston's own political viewpoint: he says, "Look lak dey think God don't know nothin' 'bout de Jim Crow law."

The Jim Crow laws were the laws that existed in state constitutions from 1880s through the 1960s that guaranteed the equality of people through "separate but equal treatment." Tea Cake comments that giving whites coffins and blacks a mass grave is unequal treatment.

In addition to her hair, a new symbol of Janie's identity is her overalls. She wears overalls to the funeral: "She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief." She also wears them home to Eatonville when she returns.

Janie's voice is used more rarely in this chapter than usual. In certain scenes, for example the court scene, Janie's voice is entirely absent from the narration. Some critics have argued that places where the reader hears Janie's voice indicate places where Janie has power. In the court scene, the fact that Janie does not have power is reinforced by the fact that her voice does not mediate what is happening. Thus, critics argue, Janie fails in her quest to find her voice, because when it really matters most she is unable to speak out in her own defense.

Other critics, particularly Alice Walker, take an opposite line of reasoning: a woman who has a voice has power and may choose when to use her voice and when to keep silent. Walker argued that Janie has power in the final scene; she chooses not to use her voice because she knows that it would not help her.

Chapter Twenty Summary:

After the funeral, Janie's friends on the Muck blame Mrs. Turner's brother for Tea Cake's death and force him off the Muck again. After two days, they forget about ever having been angry at Janie; remembering is "too much of a strain." Janie remains for a few weeks, but the Muck reminds her too much of Tea Cake. She gives away all of her belongings, except a package of seeds that Tea Cake had been planning to plant before he fell ill.

The narration returns to the porch where it began in the first chapter. Back on the porch of her old home in Eatonville with Pheoby, Janie takes her feet out of the pan of water and dries them. She says that she is happy to be home and that the house does not seem so empty as it used to be, because it is now filled with her thoughts and memories. She has been to the horizon and back; she knows now that, "you got tuh go there tuh know there...Two things everybody got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." Janie tells Pheoby to explain her story to the townspeople; perhaps they will learn a little about love from her experiences.

After a long hug, Pheoby leaves. Janie climbs the stairs to her bedroom with her nightlamp. Shutting the window and brushing her hair, she remembers the day of the shooting and the trial. She sees visions of Tea Cake all around her. Tea Cake is not dead; while Janie is living, he will live on in her memory. Janie finally finds peace; she pulls in the horizon like a great net and drapes it over her shoulders. "So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."


This chapter is the resolution of the novel and of Janie's development. She has seen the horizon and taken control of it­; the horizon is no longer some strange faraway source of inspiration. Janie owns the horizon; she can wrap it around herself and rejoice in the memories that have been trapped in it like fish in a net.

The theme of the novel is summarized by Janie in three sentences: "you got tuh go there tuh know there...Two things everybody got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." These sentences empower direct action by all people, women and men alike. Janie has found that she must live for herself in order to be self-fulfilled.

More difficult to understand, perhaps, is the theme of "going to God" or "watching God." Why would Janie recommend that all people find God? Janie's recommendation is not synonymous with the traditional Christian understanding of finding God. Janie "finds God" in the hurricane. The might and fury of the storm causes Janie and her friends to seek a larger meaning behind the storm. They watch God to try to glimpse a meaning behind nature's fury, nature's creation, and their own destinies.