After Jody’s elaborate funeral, Janie begins her period of mourning. On the inside she feels released and joyous, but she maintains a sad face for the outside world. The only noticeable change is that she begins wearing her hair in a long braid again, having burned all of her head rags. Now that she is alone, she begins to examine her feelings and realizes that she hates Nanny for the values with which Nanny raised her. Nanny taught her to seek superficial prizes such as wealth, security, and status instead of chasing her dreams.
Soon, men begin approaching Janie; as an attractive and wealthy woman, she would make quite a prize. Despite these constant advances, Janie’s six months of mourning pass without any suitor making progress. Janie’s newfound freedom and independence make her happy, and she has no desire to become tied down to another man. Her only source of unhappiness is the store, which she continues to run. She feels Jody’s domineering presence everywhere. Eventually Hezekiah Potts begins to imitate Jody, but his mimicry is only amusing, not threatening. As per custom, Janie begins wearing white after six months, supposedly signaling her availability for suitors. But she continues to rebuff all advances and confides in Pheoby that she loves her new independence. Pheoby responds that the townspeople will think that she isn’t sad that Jody is dead. Janie replies that she doesn’t care what the town thinks because she shouldn’t pretend to be sad if she isn’t.
One day, Hezekiah leaves the store early to go to a baseball game. Janie decides to close up early, since most of the town is at the game. But before she can do so, a tall stranger enters the store. He buys cigarettes from her and then begins making flirtatious small talk, making her laugh with his jokes. He invites her to play checkers, which thrills her; no man has ever respected her enough to ask her to play checkers. She notices his good looks and shapely body.
Janie and the stranger play a good-natured game and continue their flirtation. Afterward, they chat some more and Janie asks him how he plans to get home. He answers that he always finds a way home, even if that requires sneaking onto a train illegally. She finally asks his name, and he replies that it is Vergible Woods but that everyone calls him Tea Cake. He pretends to leave but makes Janie laugh with a playful, imaginative joke, and he stays around. They continue to joke and laugh until the store fills with people returning from the game, and they talk until everyone goes home for the night. He helps her lock up the store, walks her to her porch, and chastely bids her good night.
As Janie enjoys her newfound freedom of speech, she becomes more introspective and self-aware. In previous chapters, Janie distances herself from her emotions in order to survive with Jody. Now, however, she confronts feelings that have lain dormant for almost two decades. She realizes, somewhat to our surprise, that she hates her grandmother for raising her according to a flawed belief system that values materialism and social status. Janie understands that while people are what matter to her, she had been raised to value things. Nevertheless, she has a mature enough understanding of life not to blame Nanny; she understands that Nanny impressed these values upon her out of love. As with Jody, evil is localized not so much in a person as in a broader set of beliefs. Nanny is not really a villain; she is merely misguided by a flawed way of looking at the world.
With Tea Cake, an entirely new worldview enters the story. Tea Cake clearly respects Janie for who she is and wants to engage her in a substantive manner. He converses with her and plays checkers with her—both activities that grant equal status to the participants. The substantial space that Hurston devotes to their conversation contrasts with Janie’s first meeting with Jody in Chapter
Furthermore, Tea Cake exhibits a creativity that is immensely appealing to Janie. He makes her laugh with fanciful, imaginative jokes: pretending to hide behind imaginary lampposts, talking to invisible companions, making puns and creative wordplays. Tea Cake’s show of creativity contrasts with Jody’s penchant for consumption. Whereas Jody lives to consume and has materialistic goals involving power and status that he displays with objects like fancy spittoons, Tea Cake, as his creativity demonstrates, is concerned with things beyond material life. By this point in the novel, Janie has realized that her quest for the horizon involves a pursuit of the mystical and unknowable, mysteries that Jody’s materialistic worldview could never approach. Through his respect for her and his vibrancy, Tea Cake seems to Janie the man who will complement her and take her toward the horizon for which she longs.