Surrounded by dead bodies and destroyed homes in Palm Beach, Janie and Tea Cake discuss where to go and what to do next. Meanwhile, two white men carrying rifles approach Tea Cake and forcefully enlist him to help with the mass burials of the surrounding dead corpses. Both black and white men are forced to help out with the work, though the black and white corpses are treated differently: white corpses are buried in coffins, while black corpses are hurled like trash into a hole. Tea Cake finds the work physically and emotionally intolerable, as he fears that Janie waits for him with anxiety each day, and cannot bear to think about the obvious racism throughout Palm Beach. Tea Cake and Janie resolve to leave Palm Beach and return to the muck.
In this scene, Hurston presents another instance of racism: the white male officials are exerting their power over Tea Cake as a black man and are depriving the black corpses of respect by burying them without coffins. The novel has taken place entirely in all-black towns with few whites around, and this glimpse of the racism in the broader culture shows how it is at once awful and ridiculous. The lack of white people and racism in the novel has allowed the black characters to appear as full people, not reduce by stereotypes or reacting to racism, and in the face of that fullness the premise on which racism rests, that skin color somehow confers more humanness on one set of people than another, is revealed as obviously false.
When Tea Cake and Janie return, they are happily surprised to find out that Motor Boat survived the hurricane. Things appear to return back to somewhat-normal, as Tea Cake returns to work -- rebuilding the dike – and Janie and Tea Cake go hunting. However, after a month of being back in the muck, Tea Cake comes home one afternoon feeling sick, with an aching head and empty stomach. Janie prepares him dinner, but when she serves it to him, Tea Cake refuses to eat. He thanks Janie nonetheless for the food and falls asleep. Later in the night, though, Tea Cake awakes feverishly to a coughing fit, explaining, "Somethin'..tried tuh choke me tuh death." The next morning, Tea Cake is not even able to drink water despite his thirst, nearly vomiting when bringing the cup to his lips. Worried, Janie calls for Dr. Simmons, the local white doctor who is well-respected in the muck. After Tea Cake explains his story, Dr. Simmons pulls Janie aside and informs her that the dog that bit Tea Cake must have been rabid, as Tea Cake's symptoms align with those of rabies. The doctor tries to comfort Janie, telling her that he will order medicine from Palm Beach, though it may be too late to save Tea Cake's life.
Tea Cake's case of rabies is an extension of the force of nature that victimized him and Janie (and other humans) during the hurricane. After contracting the disease, Tea Cake loses his physical strength, and, by extension, his sense of command over himself, Janie, and the rest of the world. Tea Cake thought himself more powerful than nature, and he was wrong. Meanwhile, Janie is now in a position of power in relation to Tea Cake in her new role as his caretaker.
In the coming days, Janie watches Tea Cake lose his sanity, appearing as though "a great fear had took hold of him." He continues to gag when he tries to drink water, and is overwhelmed by paranoia, accusing Janie of cheating on him with Mrs. Turner's brother when she goes to check whether or not his medicine has arrived. Janie comforts Tea Cake as he cries in her arms like a child. Their dialogue becomes re-infused with affection and Janie, too, feels comforted – until she finds a pistol beneath Tea Cake's pillow.
Just as Jody descended into fear and vicious lashing out as his body deteriorated, so too does Tea Cake. But Jody's attacks were verbal, they were expressions of political power. Tea Cake's fears are physical (Janie cheating on him) and so is his potential response—a gun. But note also how he lets Janie care for him in a way that Jody wouldn't. Their love is still there, it's just been warped by the rabies.
Before going to talk to the doctor again the following morning, Janie cautiously checks Tea Cake's pistol while he is outside using the outhouse, and finds that it is loaded with three bullets. She sets the gun so that it will cycle through three empty chambers before firing any bullets, giving her time to respond if the worst should happen. Tea Cake returns from the outhouse with a mad look in his eye, and before Janie knows it he's holding the pistol. He pulls the trigger, firing a blank. Janie pulls a rifle off the wall to try to scare him out of his crazy paranoia, but he fires twice more, and Janie is forced to shoot, killing him, before he shoots her. In Janie's words, "Tea Cake was gone."
Janie said earlier that she would be happy as long as she was with Tea Cake. She had essentially sacrificed herself to their love, which made her happy but did not make her independent. This moment of showdown with Tea Cake is significant not just because of its action, but because of the choice it forces on her—does she choose herself or Tea Cake? And despite her love for Tea Cake, and, in fact, because of her love for Tea Cake (who has been so warped by the rabies) she chooses herself.
Later that same day, Janie is put on trial for Tea Cake's death. In the courtroom, the black people who've come to watch have obviously turned against her, and are even willing to testify against her. Dr. Simmons delivers a testimony, telling the court that Tea Cake was genuinely dangerous and that he even wanted to have Tea Cake locked up in prison in order to ensure Janie was safe, but knew that she cared too much for Tea Cake to let that happen. When Janie is called to the stand, the novel's third-person narration disappears, and Janie explains to the jury in her own voice the story of the life and love she shared with Tea Cake. The all-white, all-male jury finds her innocent. After the trial, the white women of the muck gather around Janie to comfort her, while her former friends stand in judgment against her. Janie buries Tea Cake in Palm Beach on a white silk couch surrounded by roses "like a Pharaoh in his tomb."
In the aftereffects of choosing to live, of making the choice to choose herself over a damaged Tea Cake despite her love for him, Janie fully finds her voice in giving her testimony at the trial. And she does so in front of the judgment of whites and blacks. By emphasizing her love for Tea Cake, Janie indicates her arrival at a place where her love can coexist with a sense of independence and self-expression, a balance she did not have at any earlier point in the novel. The white jury's acceptance of Janie – especially when contrasted with the judgment of the black onlookers – is another instance in the novel of irony with regard to racism: Janie is rejected by those who nurtured her, and is supported by unfamiliar, white faces. And Janie continues to honor Tea Cake, even in death.