At the very end of Chapter 2 of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nanny speaks to her granddaughter Janie as follows:
"Ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolks white or black is makin' a spit cup outta you: Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate."
This statement and its particular phrasing are significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It exemplifies the novel’s heavy emphasis on rural southern dialect. The effect (and effectiveness) of this passage would be greatly diminished if it began, “I can’t die in peace thinking that perhaps males . . . .” Nanny’s diction is entirely appropriate to her character – a fact that Aristotle would appreciate.
- This sentence, like so much of the novel, deals with relations between men and women. The statement thus helps develop one of the novel’s central themes.
- The sentence also deals with relations between whites and blacks – another of the novel’s major motifs.
- The phrase “spit cup” is vivid, colloquial, and highly memorable. It implies the possibility that Janie may be degraded in (and by) her relations with men. It also has subtle sexual undertones. For all these reasons, it is much more effective phrasing than if Nanny had said, “treating you disrespectfully or abusively.”
- Nanny’s appeal to Janie’s sympathy is implicitly also an appeal to sympathy from the novel’s readers. We may not agree completely with Nanny’s treatment of Janie (especially regarding the arrangement of Janie’s first marriage), but at least we can understand Nanny’s motives. She genuinely thinks she is acting in Janie’s best interests. Hurston doesn’t treat Nanny as a villain; instead, she endows her with the complexity of a real and believable human being.
- The phrase “Put me down” means “treat me gently,” but it also implicitly foreshadows Nanny’s death.
- Nanny’s reference to herself as a “crack’d plate” is a splendidly vivid metaphor that implies her fragility and her need to be treated tenderly. A cracked plate has been damaged in the past and can easily split apart in the present or future. Nanny is implying her vulnerability, but she is doing so in a way that does not seem saccharine or melodramatic.
In short, this passage exemplifies Hurston’s skill as a writer, particularly her skill at creating effective dialogue.