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 when he tells her of his plans to become a successful politician and businessman. She soon finds, however, that Joe intends to use her as an emblem of his success. Joe desires the status that comes from having a light-skinned wife; however, he commands Janie to keep her long straight hair hidden in a headrag whenever she is in public. Thus he controls the envy of his neighbors and Janie’s ambition to become one of the folk. Janie believes that Joe’s desire is to be like the whites for whom he once worked. He eventually builds a large white house for Janie that she compares to those of wealthy southern whites.
Joe’s materialism is nicely balanced by the egalitarian qualities represented in Tea Cake. Tea Cake is literally a man of the people, for he spends a majority of his time each year as a migrant farm laborer in southern Florida. He also has no desire to keep Janie above people; instead, he asks her to do what she wants. She decides of her own volition to work with Tea Cake out in the fields; he reciprocates by helping her with the housework after they both return from work, and he does his share of the cooking as well. He has his faults, including a fondness for gambling and knife-fighting, but to Janie even his faults add to his romantic appeal.
The townspeople of Eatonville and the migrant workers on the “muck” add yet another dimension to the range of characters Hurston represents in the novel. The Eatonville folk are out of reach of Janie as long as Joe is alive; their “signifying” ways serve as entertainment and culture in which Janie is not allowed to participate. The migrant workers and their bluesy style are Janie’s antidote to years spent caged by Starks in Eatonville, but even this group comes to resent her independence. Only when Janie returns to her home in Eatonville does she find fulfillment.