The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Janie Crawford, the central character in the novel, is one of the strongest female figures in American literature. Unlike her counterparts in many of the African American novels influenced by European realism and naturalism, her quest is fulfilled and her desire is celebrated.
Janie’s idealism forms the core of the novel. She desires not only romantic love but also connection with the natural and folklife that surrounds her. Hurston vividly illustrates this motif with the image of the blossoming pear tree kissed by singing bees, which is Janie’s picture of romantic love. Hurston elaborates the point by providing Janie with three husbands, each of whom reflects a part of Janie’s character and demonstrates the perils of the quest she has undertaken.
Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, embodies the dangers of passivity and the search for security. Nanny Crawford’s choice for Janie’s husband, Logan is the type of new African American envisioned by Booker T. Washington. He is a perfectly safe and secure man, a relatively prosperous small farmer who works his land with a mule. When it appears to Janie that she is also expected to work like a mule, she moves out of the passive mode instilled in her by her grandmother and escapes with the romantic Joe Starks. Starks, however, represents another of the possible traps on Janie’s quest for self-fulfillment.
Starks originally appeals to Janie’s sense of adventure and romance...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods
Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods, the novel’s central character, a beautiful, romantic, and hopeful black woman who, over the course of thirty years and three marriages, grows into an attractive, life-affirming, and independent woman. As an adolescent, Janie imagines life and especially marriage as a blossoming pear tree kissed by singing bees. She has her first experience of sexual ecstacy under the pear tree in her grandmother’s backyard. Her first two marriages end in disappointment, but Tea Cake, her third husband, reminds her of a pear tree blossom in spring. Even after Janie kills Tea Cake in self-defense, he lives in her memory, associated with sunshine and life’s plenty.
Nanny Crawford, Janie’s grandmother, who rears Janie while keeping house for the white Washburn family. Born into slavery, Nanny flees a Georgia plantation when its white mistress, rightly suspecting Nanny to be her husband’s lover, threatens to kill her and sell her daughter Leafy (later Janie’s mother). Leafy is raped by her schoolteacher and leaves Janie to be reared by Nanny. Because experience has taught Nanny that “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world,” she forces Janie to marry for protection rather than love. Nanny dies a month after Janie’s first wedding, unforgiven by Janie.
Logan Killicks, Janie’s first...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Themes and Characters
Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the development of an African-American woman living in the 1920s and 1930s as she searches for her true identity. Although the novel follows Janie through three relationships with men, most critics see its main theme to be Janie's search for herself. She must fight off the influences of her grandmother, who encourages her to sacrifice self-fulfillment for security, and her first two husbands, who stifle her development. Her second husband, Jody, has an especially negative impact on Janie's growth as his bourgeois aspirations turn her into a symbol of his stature in the town. She is not allowed to be herself, but must conform to his notions of propriety, which means she cannot enjoy the talk of the townsfolk on the porch', let alone participate in it. After he is elected mayor, she is asked to give "a few words uh encouragement," but Jody interrupts the applause by telling the town, "mah wife don't know nothin' ' b o u t no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for her nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home." After this, Janie feels "cold," realizing that by cutting her off, Jody has prevented her from deciding for herself whether or not she even wanted to give a speech. Throughout the rest of her marriage, Janie must bury her own desires to the point where she loses sight of them altogether. But after Jody's death she feels a freedom she has never known.
When the young Tea Cake enters her life,...
(The entire section is 1300 words.)
The heroine of the novel, Janie, is the first black woman character in African-American fiction to embark on a journey of self-discovery and achieve independence and self-understanding. But she does not do so until she is nearly forty years old. Many obstacles stand in her way, the first of which is her grandmother, who encourages her to marry Logan Killicks for material security. But Janie discovers that "marriage did not make love," and she decides to leave him. When Joe Starks enters her life, she believes she has found her ticket to the "horizon," so she marries him. But when they arrive in Eatonville, she discovers that she is going to be nothing but an ornament of his power and success. Stifled by Jody and cut off from the rest of the community by her status as the mayor's wife, she learns to hide her real self and wear a mask for Jody and the town that conforms to their expectations for her. But in the process she loses sight of the real self she has buried. The narrator tells us, "She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew not how to mix them." After twenty years of marriage, an enmity has grown between Janie and her husband that results in her finally speaking up for herself. She tells him, in essence, that he is no longer a real man, and her outburst robs him of the will to live. As he lays on his deathbed, she sums up for him what their marriage has been like for her: "Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Jody rescues Janie from her first marriage, whisking her off to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town where he intends to "be a big voice," something he has been denied in other towns where whites are in control. Although Janie is reluctant to go, Jody "spoke for far horizon," offering Janie a chance for adventure. But shortly after they arrive in Eatonville, Janie finds out that her life with Jody will be anything but exciting. When he becomes mayor and the most respectable citizen in town, she becomes a "pretty doll-baby," as he calls her, a token of his stature in the town. Jody defines himself by his position and possessions, the most valuable of which is Janie. So Jody stifles Janie's development as he silences her and keeps her from participating in the town's talk on the porch of their store. Jody's world becomes a kind of prison for Janie, who is isolated on a pedestal of bourgeois ideals. As Jody grows older and takes his fears of aging out on Janie, she realizes that her "image" of him has "tumbled down and shattered." When he ridicules her aging body in front of others at the store, something breaks in Janie, and she tells him, "When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life." By belittling his manhood in front of the town, Janie figuratively kills him, as he begins a slow deterioration and dies of kidney failure. Janie attempts to come to terms with Jody on his death bed, and she tells him, "All dis bowin' down, all dis obedience under...
(The entire section is 358 words.)
When Tea Cake, a young man of twenty-five, enters Janie's life, he changes it forever. He does not possess the outward manifestations of power, namely wealth and position, that Jody did. Instead, he possesses an inner power that comes with self-knowledge and being comfortable with himself. When Janie marries Tea Cake, they move to Jacksonville, and she is initiated into his world. At first he is afraid she will not want to be a part of his community. "You ain't usetuh folks lak dat," he tells her. But she assures him that she "aims tuh partake wid everything." When they move to the muck, then, to live amongst the migrant agricultural workers picking beans, Janie and Tea Cake's house becomes the center of the community, hosting dances and card games. Most importantly, Tea Cake allows Janie to feel like she belongs to this community in a way that Jody never let her belong to the Eatonville community. In fact, Tea Cake inspires two important developments in Janie's growth by encouraging her to accept herself and to feel at home in the black community. The space he creates for her that makes these two things possible is a loving relationship that satisfies Janie's spiritual needs, rather than focusing on the material wants that had defined her two previous marriages.
Their relationship is more equal as Tea Cake teaches her how to play checkers, hunt, and fish, activities from which Jody had excluded her because of her gender. Tea Cake almost becomes an...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
After Jody's death, Hezekiah replaces him as the store's manager. Janie notices that Hezekiah also begins to take on many of Jody's characteristics.
See Joe Starks
See Janie Crawford
Janie's first husband. Her grandmother has encouraged her to marry him because he can give her a house and sixty acres of farmland, hence security. His ugly appearance and body odor prevent Janie from falling in love with him. When he tells her he is going to buy a mule for her to plow with, Janie decides that life with Logan is not what she bargained for. She leaves him when the more dashing Joe Starks comes along.
A gambling friend of Tea Cake down on the muck. When the hurricane hits, Motor Boat flees with Janie and Tea Cake.
Janie's grandmother, who raises her in the absence of her mother. A former slave who was raped by her master, Nanny teaches Janie that the "nigger woman is de mule uh de world." In her hopes that Janie will have a better life, she encourages her to marry Logan Killicks, a man who will offer her "protection." But not long after Janie marries him, Nanny dies. Later in life, after Jody has died, Janie reassesses the advice Nanny had given her. "Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon ... and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she...
(The entire section is 565 words.)