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Nanny on Leafy]: "Dat school teacher had done hid her in de woods all night long, and he had done raped mah baby and run on off just before day."
"She was only seventeen, and somethin’ lak dat to happen! Lawd a’ mussy! Look lak Ah kin see it all over again. It was a long time before she was well, and by dat time we knowed you was on de way. And after you was born she took to drinkin’ likker and stayin’ out nights. Couldn’t git her to stay here and nowhere else. Lawd knows where she is right now." (2.72-73)
Here, Janie learns that the sex act – which she has seen performed only in terms of love – can be used to hurt. Leafy was only seventeen when she was raped and impregnated by her schoolteacher, and it was such a traumatic experience that she never recovered. This serves as a warning to Janie not to idealize sex or mistake it for love.
It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (2.13-14)
The pear blossoms and bee have an undeniably sexual overtone here. The leaf-buds are described as having a "snowy virginity" whose scent sensuously "caress[es]" Janie "in her sleep." To naïve little Janie, the penetration of the bee into the blossom is a "love embrace" whose "ecstatic shiver" creates a "creaming in every blossom and a frothing of delight." This sounds suspiciously like the overwhelming passion and ejaculation of sexual intercourse. And it leaves young Janie feeling "limp and languid," as a woman might after orgasming. This experience, ironically, both seems to take Janie’s virginity by introducing her so sensually to sex, and also to preserve her innocence by building such a romantic ideal for her future lovers to live up to.
[Nanny at the sight of Johnny Taylor kissing Janie]: "Janie!"
The old woman’s voice was so lacking in command and reproof, so full of crumbling dissolution, – that Janie half believed that Nanny had not seen her. So she extended herself outside of her dream and went inside of the house. That was the end of her childhood. (2.18-19)
Janie’s definitive end of childhood and the most naïve level of innocence is initiated by a single word from Nanny. Curiously, this word does not carry a tone of authoritative reproof, but is marked by its frailty. It seems that Janie is more moved by pity for Nanny than actual regret for kissing a boy, and that her childhood innocence is lost not from the awareness of her sexuality, but from disappointing Nanny.