Last Updated on April 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881
Chapter 2 marks the beginning of the novel’s main narrative. Janie is a child when it begins, and she hasn’t yet learned about race or sex or love. She doesn’t realize that she is Black until she sees a picture of herself one day and realizes that her skin isn’t...
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Chapter 2 marks the beginning of the novel’s main narrative. Janie is a child when it begins, and she hasn’t yet learned about race or sex or love. She doesn’t realize that she is Black until she sees a picture of herself one day and realizes that her skin isn’t the same color as that of the other girls in the neighborhood. The other Black children at her school tease her for spending time with white children; but one boy, Johnny Taylor, likes her enough to kiss her over a gatepost. Her grandmother, Nanny, realizes that Janie has blossomed and that the days she spends under a pear tree in the backyard are symbolic of her burgeoning sexuality.
Nanny decides Janie will marry Logan Killicks, an old farmer to whom Janie isn’t even remotely sexually attracted. Janie doesn’t want to marry Logan, but Nanny insists, telling her that Black women don’t have very many options and that this marriage is the best way Nanny can think of to keep Janie safe. She then tells Janie about her time being enslaved and how she had a child with her enslaver, Marse (Master) Roberts. Her owner’s wife found out and whipped her. Nanny ran away to safety. She received many offers of marriage after this but refused them all, worried that these men would mistreat her. Despite her best efforts, Nanny couldn’t protect her child, and when the girl was seventeen she was raped by a school teacher. Janie is the child of this rape.
Hurston makes frequent use of alliteration, including in Nanny’s words: “You wants to make me suck de same sorrow yo’ mama did, eh?”
Pear Tree. Janie’s blossoming pear tree, along with the bees that pollinate its flowers, is the most important symbol in the novel. It represents Janie’s blossoming sexuality, which, in these early chapters of the novel, brings her great joy. Later, these pear blossoms will begin to wilt, symbolizing the loss of desire that Janie experiences in her marriages.
Marriage. This novel is set in the period between the late 1800s and the early 1920s, when Black women in particular and women in general had few options for marriage. In the South, it wasn’t uncommon for marriages to be arranged without the woman’s strict consent. Nanny’s determination to marry Janie off underscores the fact that marriage provides financial (if not physical) security. Nanny, who was once enslaved, has no illusions about marriage as a holy or romantic union, and this complete lack of sentimentality primes the reader for what will be a series of bad marriages for Janie.
Race. Early on in chapter 2, Janie realizes that she is Black. Her exact words are: “Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!” From that day on, she understands that there is a difference between her, the white children, and the other, darker Black children who tease her for her light skin and her tendency to play with the white kids. This is the South, and many of the adults (including Nanny) were once enslaved. The lingering specter of slavery affects all race relations in Janie’s hometown, making it difficult for the light-skinned Janie to find a community that accepts her.
Sexuality. Janie’s blossoming is symbolized by the pear tree in her backyard, under which she sits when she first begins to think about her sexuality. In looking at the flowers and at the bees pollinating them Janie comes to an understanding of how sexuality functions in nature. It is, as they say, “the birds and the bees.” This grounds the theme of sexuality in the natural world, making it, for lack of a better word, natural, meaning that Hurston isn’t demonizing Janie’s sexuality and that the novel will in many ways be about sexual liberation.
Slavery. Nanny’s experiences as an enslaved person and as the mistress of an enslaver inform all the relationships in this novel, including Janie’s arranged marriage to Logan Killicks. In juxtaposing Nanny’s slavery with Janie’s unwillingness to marry, Hurston implies that marriage is itself a form of slavery. Her suggestion predates the more definitive claim made by feminists in the mid twentieth century that all marriage is slavery and that the institution of marriage is founded on the false belief that women should be subservient to men. History shows that marriage was mostly about forging treaties and amassing land, so while Nanny’s decision to marry Janie off may seem heartless to some modern-day readers, it is in fact in keeping with a long tradition of marriage being a business transaction.
Violence. Readers will be exposed to many forms of violence in this novel, but perhaps the most gruesome and chilling is that experienced by Nanny during her many years of slavery. Not only is she taken advantage of by a white enslaver, she is beaten by that man’s wife, whipped, chased down by would-be slave catchers, and forced to fend for herself and her child, whom she cannot protect. Her daughter, Janie’s mother, is raped by a school teacher, and this isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) act of sexual violence in the novel.