After a while in the muck, Janie begins to grow jealous of Nunkie, a chunky girl who flirts with Tea Cake in the fields. As the season goes on, Nunkie grows bolder and bolder and is always falling over Tea Cake and playfully touching him. One day, Janie gets distracted and then finds that Nunkie and Tea Cake have disappeared. Their friend Sop-de-Bottom tells Janie that Nunkie and Tea Cake are over in a patch of cane. Janie rushes over and finds them play-wrestling on the ground. Tea Cake explains that Nunkie stole his work tickets and coquettishly made him tussle for them. Nunkie flees, and when the couple returns home, Janie tries to beat Tea Cake. But he holds her off, and her wild anger transforms into wild passion. In bed the next morning, they both joke about what a foolish girl Nunkie is.
Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear . . . the most divine emotion. . . . Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
The season ends, and Janie and Tea Cake decide to stay around for another year. During the off-season, there isn’t much to do, so Janie spends more time socializing. She hangs out a little with the exotic Bahamians who live in the muck but spends most of her time with Mrs. Turner. Although she is Black, Mrs. Turner, a funny-looking, conceited woman, talks all the time about the evils of Black people. She loves whiteness and argues that Black people are lazy and foolish and that they should try to “lighten up de race.” She dislikes the dark-skinned Tea Cake and wants Janie to marry her light-skinned brother.
Tea Cake overhears a conversation between Janie and Mrs. Turner and tells Janie that he doesn’t want Mrs. Turner around the house. He plans to visit Mr. Turner to tell him to keep his wife away, but when he meets the man on the street, Tea Cake finds that he is a depressed, passive man dominated by his wife and drained by the deaths of several of his children. He gets Janie to try to end her friendship with Mrs. Turner. Janie acts coldly toward Mrs. Turner, but the woman keeps visiting nonetheless. Mrs. Turner worships whiteness, and Janie, by virtue of her light skin and high-class demeanor, represents an ideal for her. She disapproves of Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake, but her opinions matter little to them. The summer soon ends, and the busy season begins again.
The incident with Nunkie shows Janie’s need for absolute monogamy with Tea Cake. Because he wholly possesses her, she cannot bear the thought that she does not wholly possess him. Although the previous chapters establish the inequalities in their relationship, this chapter reveals that Janie is not willing to compromise on important matters; their relationship must be reciprocal. It is interesting to see how this reciprocity is expressed. At the first moment of reconciliation—the steamy passion that follows their fight—they express themselves through their bodies. Speech, however, remains the key to Janie’s strength and identity; despite their physical connection, Janie still needs Tea Cake to tell her that he doesn’t love Nunkie.
Through Janie’s interactions with Mrs. Turner, Chapter 16 provides the clearest perspective on issues of race in the novel. Many critics dismissed Their Eyes Were Watching God when it was first published because of its atypical discussion of race. At the time, most critics, Black and white alike, expected a novel by a Black author to deal with issues of race in stark, political terms. Hurston’s presentation of race and racism, however, is nuanced and remarkably free of political diatribe. When discussing Hurston’s perspective on race, one cannot underestimate the effect of Franz Boas and his anthropological outlook on her philosophy.
Boas, considered one of the most important anthropologists of the 20th century, was Hurston’s professor at Barnard College from 1925 to 1927. Instead of approaching race as a marker of innate difference and inferiority, he began to use anthropology to study race in cultural terms, discussing, for example, how ideas of racism circulate. Boas believed that race is not the fundamental truth about a person or group of people but rather a mere cultural construct that affects the perception of a specific person or group. Boas’s perspective was the source of Hurston’s iconoclastic depiction of racism: in the novel, racism is a mode of thought, capable of seducing white and Black alike, and, as such, is a force larger than any particular person or group.
Indeed, the narrator attributes near-cosmic significance to Mrs. Turner’s racism. In her obsession with whiteness, she “like all the other believers had built an altar to the unattainable,” the narrator reveals, which seems to be a comparison to Jody’s materialism and thirst for power. This comparison destabilizes the gender conventions that Hurston posits at the opening of the novel: Mrs. Turner, as men do, watches a metaphorical “Ships at a distance.” Hurston does not dogmatically bind herself to her own conception of gender differences. As Janie’s hair can be both a site of feminine beauty and a phallic symbol, Mrs. Turner can worship false gods like male characters.
The narrator’s meditation on Mrs. Turner’s racism also occasions stylistic variation. When describing ordinary events, the narrator often employs language that resonates with the dialect of the novel’s characters. The Chapter 16 sentence, “That is why she sought out Janie to friend with,” for example, turns the noun “friend” into a verb and ends with a preposition, violating a convention of Standard Written English. Indeed, the narrator sounds like an educated Janie. This subtle incorporation of Black dialect into the narrator’s voice integrates the dialogue and narration into a workable whole: the narration and dialogue do use very different styles, but one can hear the echo of the dialogue in the narration, and this echo helps to glue the two styles together.
In the discussion of Mrs. Turner’s racism, however, the narrator’s voice loses the folksy tone and flies off into omniscient, high poetry. Here, Hurston indulges her command of pithy, almost biblical language: “That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods.” The display is impressive, but the stronger the language becomes, the greater the strain between it and the narrator’s other voice, which uses nouns as verbs and illustrates with barnyard metaphors. Their Eyes Were Watching God is framed as Janie’s telling of a story, but words in the text like “insensate,” “seraph,” and “fanaticism” seem to resist such a context. These words and the poetic passages in which they occur do not sound like they were filtered through Janie’s personality. The narration itself has two different styles. This difference is problematic if we expect the narrator to maintain one style. On the other hand, the novel self-consciously deals with the control of language and transgression of convention. Rigorous adherence to one style of narration may be as legitimate a target for transgression as traditional gender roles.