Chapter 19: Summary and Analysis
In the wake of the flood, everything seems more or less fine. There are bed bugs in the room Tea Cake and Janie have rented, and they squabble over whether or not to head back upstate, but they appear healthy, at least, and that's something. Tea Cake is recruited to help clear up the debris left behind by the storm. He's told to check if the bodies are white or black before dumping them in a communal grave. Officials are making coffins for the white people, it seems. Tea Cake hates this job and convinces Janie to return to the muck.
When they arrive, they find out that many of their friends survived the hurricane. Things go back to normal for three weeks, and then Tea Cake comes home one day complaining of a headache. It isn't clear yet, but he has contracted rabies from the dog who bit him during the flood. His illness makes it hard for him to drink water. Frightened, Janie calls for a doctor, who realizes that he has contracted rabies. The doctor tells Janie to put Tea Cake in the hospital, but Tea Cake hates being in hospitals, so she keeps him at home, taking care not to sleep in the same bed as him.
His friends Dockery and Sop-de-Bottom come to visit one day. While they're there, Janie goes to get the doctor again, but can't find him. Tea Cake gets suspicious because he thinks that she went out to meet Mrs. Turner's brother, who is back in town for some reason. While Tea Cake is using the outhouse, Janie finds their pistol and takes out some of the bullets, reasoning that if Tea Cake does fire on her, the chamber will be empty and he'll have time to come to his senses. He doesn't, though, and she's forced to shoot him with the rifle.
Janie is arrested and subsequently put on trial for Tea Cake's murder. There's some tension in the courtroom because Janie is being tried in front of an all-white jury, but after hearing the doctor's testimony and listening to Janie's side of the story, the jury only takes five minutes to deliberate. Janie's found not guilty, and she's free to go bury Tea Cake in peace. She pays for a funeral vault in Palm Beach, where she holds a funeral attended by all of Tea Cake's friends.
Hurston personifies death when she writes, "Death had found them watching."
There are many similes in this chapter, including one where Tea Cake rides into the afterlife "like a Pharaoh to his tomb."
Death. Tea Cake's death has been a given since the first chapter of the novel, which makes Janie's whole narrative function as a long, slow reveal, not just of the manner of Tea Cake's death but of how it affects Janie and why she returns to Eatonville after she buries Tea Cake. It's very important that Tea Cake's death takes place in the second to last chapter, rather than the last, because this makes his death a secondary narrative that informs the primary narrative (that of Janie's life story). This doesn't diminish Tea Cake's death in any way, but does put it into perspective.
Mourning. Janie previously stated in Chapter 9 that mourning shouldn't last longer than grief. This comment suggests that grief is a kind of performance, something we do both in private for ourselves and in public for an audience. When Janie is "too busy feeling grief to dress like grief," she is, in effect, refusing to perform her grief, repudiating the idea that she has to wear black and make a show of crying in front of other people. She simply grieves, and that's enough.
Race. For the most part, Janie has lived in all-African American communities, and there has been little interaction between whites and blacks, especially in comparison to today's world. In this chapter, the extreme racism of the Deep South upsets Tea Cake, who is forced to discriminate against his own race when officials demand that blacks be buried in communal graves instead of coffins. It's bad enough that Tea Cake and Janie decide to return to the muck.