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Doing the Right Thing in Their Eyes Were Watching God
When faced with urgent moral conflicts such as during the hurricane in Zora Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, men generally have two choices: help others or help themselves. Hurston's characters choose to they help others before attending to their own needs for survival.
The characters' actions are typical of Immanuel Kant's philosophy of the categorical imperative: actions are intrinsically good and do not find justification in their effects, nor does one expect compensation for his actions. In short, one could say that the very lack of thought on the part of Hurston's characters indicates the characters unyielding confidence in their beliefs and the basic moral goodness they possess.
The first event in Hurston's story is the evacuation of the muck as Lake Okechobee overtakes the characters' village. Hurston's characters could run away as fast as their legs can carry them, but they instead notify neighbors without delay. As Hurston describes it, "They cried out as best they could, `De lake is comin'!' and barred doors flew open and others joined them in flight..." (154). They expect nothing for their actions, but they inevitably save many families.
Moreover, although Motor Boat refuses to leave the high house, he still makes an offer to his friends which is as selfless as he can make it: "Mah mamma's house is yours" (155). Motor Boat acknowledges his friends' trouble, as well as his own, but he offers his mother's house as a lodging simply because it is the right thing to do.
Contrary to what might be contended, the white people on the Six Mile Bend bridge, however, are not necessarily demonstrating egoism. A finite area of bridge exists, and if white people were there first (156), then the white people can claim its use. On the other hand, they could be charitable by moving on after a rest and allowing the weary blacks to rest before continuing the journey to Palm Beach or high ground. Hurston could be again demonstrating her perceived differences between the races, but the degree of racism depends on readers' viewpoints.
Not too long afterwards, Tea Cake demonstrates benevolence as he notices a man trapped between an electrified tin roof and a rattlesnake. Tea Cake notices the man's predicament and stops to urge him to move to his left. Readers can presume the man was freed by taking Tea Cake's advice, but in the spirit of the categorical imperative, Tea Cake does not wait in expectation of laurels.
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Tea Cake, however, can not continue forever. As he stretches alongside the road-turned-causeway, Janie attempts to apprehend a piece of tar-paper roofing with which to shelter Tea Cake. In doing so, she is lifted away and into the murky water. Janie's action is righteous because she sacrifices herself, knowing that sheltering her husband is the right thing to do.
The overly-tired Tea Cake then swims to the cow onto which Janie has found refuge. Without thinking, he uses the categorical imperative to solve a moral dilemma. On one side are those who argue that life is sacred and that killing anything, much less a rabid dog which attempts to attack Janie, is wrong. Tea Cake thinks to the contrary: "(The dog) had to die or me.... Mah switch blade said it wuz him" (158-9). However, Tea Cake's expressed logic is in hindsight. At the time of the attack, he knew that killing the dog to save his wife was the intrinsically right thing to do. Despite Hurston's idée fixe for personification, Tea Cake's switch blade obviously did not directly say to kill the dog. Indeed, one could argue that Tea Cake is scapegoating the knife because of his lack of confidence in his own philosophy. He may be ashamed of killing the dog instead of only rescuing Janie and leaving the dog eventually to die. Of course, he might also be expressing modesty because he does not want to seem like he went out of his way to save Janie's life. In keeping with Tea Cake's usually modest character, the latter explanation may be more accurate.
In any event, the hurricane scene in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God confirms the character's unbeknownst belief in Kant's categorical imperative. They never expect compensation for their actions, but commit them because they are the intrinsically right thing to do. Hurston's characters are essentially good humans who do not fret over philosophical debate, but rather they do what they know is right.