Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

After the harvest is finished, most of the migrant workers leave the "muck." Tea Cake and Janie, however, elect to stay. This gives Janie a chance to explore life in the Everglades. She enjoys watching Bahaman drummers and dancers with Tea Cake, and she becomes friendly with Mrs. Turner, the owner of a popular local restaurant.

Mrs. Turner, who is African American, prefers white characteristics and wants to associate with those who are light skinned. She believes, "We oughta lighten up de race." Mrs. Turner so dislikes African Americans that she claims she only sees white doctors and shops in white stores. She even criticizes Booker T. Washington, the well-known educator and advocate of African-American civil rights. Because Mrs. Turner prefers blacks with white characteristics, she wants to be Janie's friend. She invites Janie to come meet her brother when he visits.

Unbeknownst to Janie, Tea Cake has been listening to Mrs. Turner's rant against rough, loud African Americans. He says he hates her and vows not eat in her restaurant. Furthermore, he makes a point of telling her husband not to let her come visit Janie, but it is clear that Mrs. Turner does what she wants.

Janie tries to put Mrs. Turner off by treating her coolly, but Mrs. Turner puts up with Janie's rebuffs because she believes Janie, with her light skin, is better than she is. Despite the problem of Mrs. Turner's distorted views, Janie and Tea Cake enjoy themselves over the summer. Before long, the migrant workers return to the Everglades for another picking season.

Analysis

Chapter 16 introduces an unappealing character, Mrs. Turner, who gives the reader insight into the theme of race. The fact that Janie is of mixed races appeals to Mrs. Turner, since she wants white characteristics for all people. Mrs. Turner's idea of paradise is "a heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs." Her self-hatred and twisted values expose the fact that discrimination based on skin color and tone exists within the black community and not just for African Americans' dealing with a majority white society.

Hurston also uses the character of Mrs. Turner to contrast with the development of Janie's character. While Janie is in the process of learning how to love herself and be who she is, Mrs. Turner is depicted as a hateful, bitter woman full of self-loathing. Janie doesn't condone Mrs. Turner's remarks but seems to accept her own mixed-race identity, saying "all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks." On the other hand, Tea Cake reacts strongly to Mrs. Turner's black-on-black racism, saying he hates the woman.

This chapter further develops Janie's character. While Janie tolerates most of Mrs. Turner's vitriolic remarks, she really doesn't know what to say to her. She tries to see Mrs. Turner's point of view but feels confused and doesn't know how to confront her. Janie "was dumb and bewildered" and doesn't know how to respond when Mrs. Turner expresses her opinion. This response reflects the theme of silence and speech. Sometimes silence is not imposed by command or the force of will of a dominant person. Sometimes it is a result of confusion over how to address a situation.

Mrs. Turner, of course, represents another manifestation of the theme of judgment. She does not view all African Americans as equals or as members of the same community. Rather, she has pronounced views on which individuals have more value than others. She also shows no hesitation in expressing those views. Her complete ease at speaking her mind, even if her views could hurt others' feelings, is in contrast to Janie's inability to say anything in response.

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