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Tea Cake's real name is Vergible Woods. He meets the heroine Janie after she has had two less than fulfilling marriages. Tea Cake is twenty-five years old and is not wealthy, but he has an inner wealth that Janie has not encountered before. He possesses a knowledge of himself as a human being and a confidence that comes with knowledge and understanding of self. Janie and Tea Cake marry and return together to his community in Jacksonville, Tennessee.
Tea Cake is welcoming of Janie's involvement in the community as she makes a place for herself in it and their home becomes a community social center. Tea Cake teaches Janie to play checkers and disregards a traditional gender boundary and takes Janie with him fishing and hunting. He then teaches her to fish and hunt for herself. The dark spot in Tea Cake's behavior and mentality is that he hits Janie.
The end of their story together has an ironic twist. Tea Cake saves Janie from a rabid dog but in doing so is bitten himself. He contracts rabies. The disease progressed quickly and before they knew he had gotten rabies and could treat it, Tea Cake had already succumbed to irreversible symptoms. When fully rabid and irrationally mentally deranged, he attacks Janie to kill her and Janie has no option but to shoot him to protect herself.
The irony is that (1) Tea Cake received his death sentence, the bite, while rescuing Janie; (2) he could both beat her and rescue her; (3) she killed him with a skill he taught her and (4) the end result of his physical attacks on her was his death at her hands.
Some critics see Tea Cakes brutality toward Janie as confirmation of the innate male need to dominate women. Considering the ironic twist involved in Tea Cake's death, an opposing analysis can be made asserting that the author is showing the true light of male dominance over women through a symbolic judgment (the rabies bite) and execution (the killing shot), thus demonstrating that even the acts of teaching and saving Janie can not atone for nor overshadow physical brutality.
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