Tea Cake Must Die: What “Their Eyes Were Watching God” Tells Us About Abusive Relationships

When I was younger I read something that I didn’t totally understand at the time. It read, “You can love somebody but not be able to live with them”.

That’s been running through my head as I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Janie Crawford, a young African American woman on a journey of self discovery. Janie marries three times: first for convention, second for power, and the third time for love. 

That love is Tea Cake, a dashing younger man who wastes absolutely no time living up to his sweet name. We are first introduced to Tea Cake when he challenges Janie to a game of checkers. This symbolic gesture shows that Tea Cake considers Janie an equal, something neither of her former husbands ever did. That is admirable, but Janie’s instantaneous adoration should raise some eyebrows. Really, Tea Cake is just treating her how she ought to have been treated all along—years of neglect make Janie jump at the prospect of any respectful man, even a respectful man who isn’t suited to her at all.

… years of neglect make Janie jump at the prospect of any respectful man, even a respectful man who isn’t suited to her at all.

After a courtship of checkers and baseball games, Janie and Tea Cake elope. The sex is good, but nothing much else is. Tea Cake proves himself to be unequivocally disrespectful by stealing Janies money, running away, throwing a party, and not inviting her. This is not only extremely poor form, it is emotional abuse. The threat of abandonment is a classic tool of manipulation, and will make the victim less likely to ever confront the abuser. Before long, the relationship implodes into full blown chaos, with the two hurling both curses and blows at each other, cheating (or pretending to cheat) on each other, and flying into jealous rages. Even through all this, much to the chagrin of the modern reader, they still claim to love each other.

The author knows better than these star crossed lovers, thank God. Hurston ends the relationship in an appropriately chaotic manner when Janie shoots a rabid and raving Tea Cake in order to save herself. This could have been played off as a tragedy, but instead the end of the book verges on hopeful, even triumphant. This is where my wisdom from a half-remembered book comes in.

Janie really believes she loves Tea Cake. Whether you think she should or not, it’s a dead and buried fact. The important thing is that when Janie has a choice between dying for love or living, she chooses to live. Tea Cake’s rabies add a sense of immediacy to this choice, but she would have had to make it sooner or later regardless. A lifetime of abuse at Tea Cakes hands would have been as bad as dying from rabies, if not worse. Janie loves him, but she decides she’d rather be alive than in love. 

Janie loves him, but she decides she’d rather be alive than in love.

This is so important, and shows us yet again how far ahead of her time Hurston was. Too often people stay in abusive relationships because they love the person, and we’re taught from a young age that that’s the end-all be-all in any relationship. It isn’t. Love is great, but it won’t do you any good if you’re dead. 

It would be immature and irresponsible to say that people don’t love, or believe they love, their abusers. Hurston herself wrote of a fight the lover Tea Cake was based on, writing “Then I knew I was too deeply in love to be my old self… for always a blow to my body had infuriated me beyond measure… but somehow, I didn’t hate him at all.” Frightened by this lovelorn numbness, Hurston left that man and went to Jamaica. I’m sure he had a nasty shock upon reading the character of Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God not long after. 

Still, it must be said that it’s just the relationship we can break off in these situations. We can’t control our hearts. Love is an impractical thing that doesn’t understand red flags or manipulation tactics. A lot of the time when we talk about abuse in relationships we say “That isn’t what love looks like”, which is a well intentioned misnomer. It makes you shudder to think how many victims must be out there, thinking to themselves “But I still feel love for them, so it can’t be wrong.”

The thing is, it doesn’t matter if it’s love or not. It only matters that it isn’t living. Janie knew this when she shot Tea Cake, Hurston knew this when she skipped town. Like them, we must be satisfied to nurse the memory of that love instead of indulging it for a person who is a danger to us. If the end of the book makes Tea Cake’s memory seem sunny and starry eyed, then it is only because he is safely a memory. A living Tea Cake, hitting Janie, wouldn’t seem so fine. Janie remembers Tea Cake how she wants. That’s alright because he’s irrevocably out of her life, and that is the only thing that matters. 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233