Janie Crawford (maiden name) Killicks/Starks/Woods
Janie is the protagonist of the novel and the narrative traces her development from na´ve girl, to a self-sufficient and outspoken woman in her forties. She is African-American but has very "white" features: light brown skin and beautiful, long, straight hair which she usually wears in a one thick braid down her back. She also has a beautiful figure, which she is able to maintain into middle age; in her forties she still resembles a young girl. She identifies as black - in a rather painful experience from her childhood when she sees a photograph of herself with her white playmates and realizes she is different by virtue of the color of her skin. But, as is the case for many African-Americans, she technically is mixed-race as her history includes a legacy of rape and exploitation: her grandmother was basically the concubine of a slave holder, and her mother was raped by a school teacher. When Janie is sixteen, she has a sexual awakening underneath a pear tree in her grandmother's yard; this fantasy of ideal sexuality, always associated with the pear tree, is referred to throughout the novel. Janie will remember these originary feelings and measure each of her male partners against the ideal of the pear tree; only Tea Cake will measure up. Although she is very outspoken as a child (for example, when she demands to know from her grandmother when she will begin to love Logan), her first two marriages teach her only to bottle up her thoughts and to subordinate herself to men. Her marriage to Joe, in particular, leaves her isolated and miserable, with little opportunity to interact with her community and a husband who delights in making her feel inferior. But on meeting Tea Cake, she comes out of her shell in all sorts of ways, and by the end of the novel, although she is alone again, is much more at peace. She is also unwilling to shape herself or her image based on convention and other people's opinions.
Nana is Janie's grandmother, and although she's dead by the end of chapter three, her memory haunts Janie for most of the novel. Because of her own circumstances in slavery, and the violence committed against her own daughter, Janie's mother Leafy, Nana has come to expect little of the world and less from men. If a man could provide for a woman's material needs and if he did not abuse her physically, Nana believed the marriage was a good one. Her intense fear that Janie will be left alone in the world leads her to, more or less, sell her beautiful granddaughter into a loveless marriage with a much older, unattractive man. Because Nana had had so little control over her own life, and so little power to help those she loves, she is deeply invested in appearances and in material belongings. When Janie asks her questions about "love" she can't even comprehend the subject. But in her last moments of life, she does doubt if she's done the best she could for Janie, if there is something beyond having one's material needs met.
Logan is the older widower who is Janie's first husband. He's not a bad man, but he's not romantic and is decidedly unattractive; Janie finds him tirelessly unattractive, and he ignores all her hints about hygiene and romance. He's clearly both puzzled and intimidated by Janie, who is strikingly attractive and has started to show signs she has a mind of her own. But Logan, a successful farmer, is set in his ways and must depend on his wife to help with the farm, so he's unsure how to deal with Janie when she resists helping with work, especially work she sees as "men's work," like chopping and hauling wood. He also refuses to communicate emotionally with her; the night before she runs away with Jody, she asks Logan what he would do if she ran away with someone else. Rather than responding honestly and saying he'd be hurt, he hides his feelings in insults and replies she should feel lucky to have him, given her spotty family history. The next day, Janie leaves with Jody and the reader never sees Logan again.
Joe (also Jody) Starks
Joe is Janie's second husband. Janie (and the reader), first encounter Joe Starks on the road, and this is a good metaphor for this ambitious man. He's able to win Janie over by telling her she was meant for something better than being a farmer's wife; and he is drawn to her because of her beauty and her use as an "accessory:" it's clear to him she would make a terrific mayor's wife. There is much to admire in Joe: he works hard, and is responsible; he is very smart, even shrewd politically; he has faith in the all-black town he helps improve and expand dramatically; and he understands the high importance his community places on ritual. But his always-present ambition creates a growing gap between himself and Janie. He places her on a pedestal and refuses to let her participate fully in the community (he never allows her to take part in the lively discussions on the porch, which is the center of the community); she is more useful to him as an adornment than as an equal partner. He, like Logan, is threatened by Janie's strength; he insults her constantly and belittles her abilities. Joe is both revered and heavily criticized by the rest of the town. He can be arrogant and spiteful; several different characters refer to his "big voice." He sees himself (and Janie) as above the common people, better educated, wealthier, and feels justified in talking down to those he considers inferior. Even his house, large, white, and clearly resembling that of a white plantation owner, seems to lord his possessions over the rest of the town. In his last years before he dies of an unspecified disease, he becomes even more paranoid and hateful towards Janie, after she verbally emasculates him in public (after being provoked, of course).
Tea Cake (Vergible Woods)
Young and good-looking, Tea Cake is a smooth-talker who enjoys the good things in life; dancing, drinking, eating, gambling, and playing his guitar. When he first approaches Janie, many (including the reader) are worried he is only after her money. But soon it appears he values not only Janie's looks, but her mind, her wants and her needs. With a few exceptions, early in their marriage, he includes Janie in everything he does; their marriage is passionate (the closest Janie gets to the pear tree) and is more of a partnership than either of her previous marriages. He refuses to take any of her money, and is much more adventurous and fun than Logan or Joe had been. He is only interested in hard work momentarily, until he has enough money so that he doesn't have to work for a spell; and he's not at all interested in keeping up appearances and "classing off," as Joe was; and he's at home with all sorts of people, particularly those who Joe might have said were "low." His biggest flaw is his jealousy over Janie; at one point in the book he beats Janie because he's worried she might cheat on him; and during his last days as rabies overcomes his mind, he becomes paranoid and angry at the wrongs he imagines Janie has done him.
Phoeby is Janie's best friend in Eatonville, and perhaps more importantly, is the person to which the whole "story" of the novel is told. We are not told too much about Phoeby: she is married to Sam Watson, who sometimes figures in the novel as one of Hurston's porch-sitters. Occasionally she does offer Janie unsolicited advice: for example, when she begins seeing Tea Cake, Phoeby does warn her to be careful. But Pheoby is also thoughtful and loyal; she looks out for the welfare of her friend and defends her to the town gossips.
Although she appears only briefly in the novel, Mrs. Turner is one of the few other characters who is easily distinguishable from the often-changing groups of friends and neighbors. Like Janie, she is also a light-skinned African-American woman, but she has very different attitudes towards race; Mrs. Turner, in fact, is that interesting figure of a racist towards members of her own community. She worships Janie for her white-featured beauty and deplores others down on the muck for being "low" and even refers to them as "niggers." She is as petty and arrogant as Jody, but in slightly different ways: she sees her white features as raising herself above the common. She continually tries to introduce Janie to her brother, implying she thinks very little of Tea Cake, and in the end is carefully destroyed by Tea Cake and his friends, when they stage a riot in her restaurant.
Browse all book notes|
Points to Ponder
Did You Know