What is the significance of the title of the story "Janus" by Ann Beattie?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Janus” by Ann Beattie presents a contemporary protagonist with an interesting obsession.  She really likes a bowl that she found at a craft fair.  This is an important fact because later the narrator gives more pertinent information about the bowl. 

The narrator for the story is the protagonist, Andrea, a real estate agent, who is talented and sells homes successfully.  The key to selling her homes, she believes, is placing her bowl in just the right place in the house for sale.

There is nothing special about the bowl. Andrea describes the bowl as though it were a dog with no pedigree.  However, some mutts are the cutest and best of pets. This bowl is not exactly pretty, but rather it is eye catching. 

The wonderful thing about the bowl, Andrea thought, was that it was subtle and noticeable—a paradox of a bowl. Its glaze was the color of cream and seemed to glow no matter what light it was placed in. Something about the colors and their random placement suggested motion.

Andrea is married to a nice guy who is successful. Her husband, a stockbroker, thinks the bowl is ‘‘pretty’’ but pays it no special attention. He no longer takes particular pleasure in the possessions they have acquired ''to make up for all the lean years when they were graduate students.”  Nothing more is really known about her marriage. Obviously, they have a strong connection. Her life seems secure in every way. Despite all of this, she seems to be a little unhappy and has an unusual attachment to this bowl.

Throughout the story, the bowl is empty. When Andrea displays it in the homes that she is showing, it sits empty with nothing else on the table. She does not even put anything in the bowl when she is at home. She describes it as “perfect: the world cut in half, deep and smoothly empty.

At night, Andrea would get up from bed and stare at the bowl. Then, finally, in her thoughts, the reader learns the truth about the bowl. She was not alone at the craft fair when the bowl was purchased. Her lover purchased the bowl for her. He had bought her other things, but this was the most special to her. He also said that she should stop being so two-faced, end her marriage, and live with him. The lover finally gives up. 

The Title of the Story

Calling Andrea two-faced and telling her that why should she think that she can have it both ways is the trigger for the title of the story. The name Janus comes from the Roman god with two faces. He is the Roman god of doorways and archways, after whom the month of January is named. Often depicted as a double-faced head, he was a deity of beginnings and ambiguity. The title fits the story since the protagonist is unable to make up her mind. She tries to live with the best of both worlds.  

The bowl, which is always empty, symbolizes Andrea’s inability to choose. Because she wants to continue living in two worlds, the lover leaves her. By leaving the bowl empty, Andrea demonstrates the hold the past has on her. It means a little bit of her lover is still present. Placing something in the bowl symbolizes that she has moved on and decided to reside in one world.

With all of her success, she is not happy. The moral of the story proves that in order to be happy, letting go is important.