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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Discussion Topic

Tea Cake's character and significance in "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Summary:

Tea Cake is a pivotal character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, serving as Janie's third husband and true love. His significance lies in his representation of genuine companionship and love, offering Janie a sense of freedom and fulfillment that she had not experienced in her previous marriages. Tea Cake helps Janie grow emotionally and spiritually, ultimately shaping her journey towards self-discovery.

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Why is the character Tea Cake named so in "Their Eyes Were Watching God"?

Tea Cake explains that his real name is Vergible Woods and tells Janie,

De name mah mama gimme is Vergible Woods. Dey calls me Tea Cake for short.

We can infer that people called him Tea Cake because his original name was awkward and hard to pronounce. Janie also realizes that he was given the nickname because he is a sweet or likable person. When she asks him if he is as sweet as his name suggests, he says he might be and says she should try him out and see.

Tea Cake, though a flawed character, is in many ways "sweet" and delightful for Janie. He is young and vibrant and treats her as a human being in a way her first two husbands never did. He encourages her to develop, inspiring and invigorating her with his creative and charismatic personality. He teaches her new things, such as how to shoot a gun. He doesn't force her to follow him to places she doesn't want to go.

However, Tea Cake can also be unhealthy for her. He steals 200 dollars from her, and he is jealous that she will stray from him, which causes him to beat her.

Tea Cake's nickname thus reflects the genuine treat he is for Janie after her experiences with her first two husbands. However, he also, like most sweets, can be unhealthy for her, too.

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How did Tea Cake get his nickname?

"Tea Cake" is the nickname of Vergible Woods, a vagabond who becomes the third husband of Janie Starks in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. His nickname is an inversion of his real name in more than one sense, suggesting feminine society (in which he becomes markedly successful) as opposed to the natural, primitive world from which he comes—and a change in social status from teeming wildness to genteel drawing room. The transition remains evident in Tea Cake's new name: both tea and cake were prepared by the black servant class for white rentiers.

In her introduction to the University of Illinois Press edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sherley Anne Williams also suggests that Tea Cake's nickname is a polite play on "jelly roll," "synonymous in the blues with sexual delight." Even without this connotation, the name suggests a sweet indulgence which contrasts with the constraints of Janie's first two marriages and hints at the seductive powers of its bearer.

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Can you summarize Tea Cake's character in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Vergible Woods, better known as Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, is Janie's third husband and the man who teaches Janie what it like to really be a part of a community.  Janie's previous two husbands, Logan Killicks and Joe Starks, both repressed Janie and did not allow her to be herself in front of others.  Tea Cake, on the other hand, welcomes Janie into his way of life.  In Eatonville, Janie was well respected as a shop owner, so Tea Cake is not sure that she will like the agricultural life that he leads.  However, when Janie says that she is willing and wanting to learn, he teaches her how to fit into the community.  Tea Cake is a gentle man, and he openly expresses his love for Janie.  Ironically, he tries to kill Janie near the end of the novel after he is bitten by a rabid dog while trying to save Janie's life, and she is forced to shoot him to save herself and put Tea Cake out of his misery.

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Is Tea Cake a good character in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Tea Cake is a complex and three-dimensional character, so it is difficult to slot him neatly into categories of "good" and "bad." Janie loves Tea Cake, who is twelve years her junior, and because of his young, vibrant, happy, and creative personality, he helps her grow as a person in a way her first two husbands never did. He is self-confident but not ambitious and enjoys teaching her to play checkers and shoot a gun.

However, Tea Cake's love for Janie is marred by his selfishness. He steals from her and beats her when he fears she is interested in another man, focusing on his own fears rather than on her needs. Tea Cake doesn't make Janie do what he wants, but as the beating and stealing shows, he is also often more focused on himself than on her. The darker side of his confidence is his tendency to take too many risks. As the relationship develops, Janie realizes that it will not be as perfect as she first envisioned it.

In the end, Tea Cake's tendency to take risks means that stay too long in the Everglades, and he and Janie encounter the hurricane. However, he is heroic in saving Janie from the rabid dog during the hurricane, even though it means his own death. In the end, Tea Cake, though flawed, emerges as a good character and a hero.

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How is Tea Cake described in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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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