In "Janus" by Ann Beattie, what does the bowl symbolize?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Andrea owns a bowl that she found at a craft fair.  It was not particularly aesthetically beautiful, but there was something about it.  As a real estate broker, she uses the bowl in the open house showings with people often making comments about the bowl.  

Ann Beattie’s “Janus” addresses the issue of adultery.  In addition, the author offers the idea that success in career and life does not makes a person happy. 

Throughout the story, the reader believes that the bowl was bought by the protagonist Andrea.  Near the end of the story, she shares this story:

She had first seen the bowl several years earlier, at a crafts fair she had visited in secret, with her lover. He had urged her to buy the bowl. She didn’t need more things she told him. I bought it for you, he said.

The bowl represented their relationship.  Later, he gave her an ultimatum: her marriage or him.  She said and did nothing. So, the lover left her telling her that she was two-faced. When her husband noticed the bowl, he asked no questions and said it was pretty.

The bowl serves as the impetus for the story. Andrea attributes her success in real estate to the bowl.  As the story progresses, Andrea becomes both possessive and obsessive about the bowl. As an example of her obsessive behavior, the narrator relates that Andrea leaves the bowl at a home she has just shown. Upon realizing she has forgotten the bowl, Andrea races back to her client's house, wonder[ing] to herself how she could have left the bowl behind. It was like leaving a friend at a picnic.

The bowl represented her lost love. Mysterious even to Andrea, she believed that the bowl brought with it good fortune.  Sometimes she thought to herself: “the bowl is just a bowl.” What she really believed was that the bowl was something that she really loved because her lover gave it to her.   

The technique used in Andrea’s real estate for putting plants in a dark corner of the house hoping the buyer would think that the sunshine really got into that corner symbolizes Andrea’s need for something similar inside her.

Andrea kept the bowl on the coffee table so that she could see it.  It was large enough that it did not seem fragile or vulnerable. This was how she felt about her love. At night, as she stared at the bowl, it was perfect to her.  It was like the world was cut in half that when looking at it she related her heart: cut in half with no way to fix it.

Andrea decides to tell her husband about the affair; however, she does not know how or where to start. Her guilt overwhelms her with the affair and for the secret that she has kept from him. Yet, her feelings for her lover were real and enduring.