A woman of mixed white and black heritage, Janie is the result of a poor, black girl being raped by an unnamed white schoolteacher, and the upbringing of her tough old grandmother whose views were shaped by the traumatic Civil War. Her sensuality and romantic quest for love make her a target for men of all ages. She experiences three different marriages, all of which teach her about different aspects of love.
Her heritage is a dubious one and does not bode well for her future, especially a future of satisfying romantic love. Janie comes from several generations of unmarried women. Janie’s mother was raped at a young age, and her grandmother also gave birth to Janie’s mother, Leafy, as a result of a forced relationship with her white master during slavery. Despite generations of unmarried women, Janie is not so concerned with being the first legitimate wife in her family, but with finding true love.
As a young girl, Janie has some romantic bones in her body. Her magical experience underneath a blossoming pear tree has a profound effect on her; she associates the pollination of pear tree blossoms with the epitome of a romantic experience. After seeing the pear tree, Janie is immediately inspired to seek love, which leads to her first kiss and lifetime searching for true love. From the pear-tree incident onwards, Janie becomes associated with plant and flower imagery, perhaps emphasizing her natural beauty, her Eden-like innocence, her gentle nature, and her ripeness for romance.
Janie’s relationship with Nanny, her grandmother, demonstrates her need for love. She aims to please Nanny and, for this, she is rewarded by being coerced into marriage with an older man she cannot love. From her brief marriage with Logan Killicks, Janie learns that marriage does not necessarily entail love. She learns that being a legitimate wife of a landholder isn’t enough for her. She doesn’t like being told what to do and cannot live a purely perfunctory life without any romance. Having learned this, Janie strikes out to take her future into her own hands.
Instead, she ends up handing herself over to Joe Starks, a man she thinks she loves. She is blinded to his faults by her own visions of pear blossoms and bees and his entrepreneur’s charisma. Ultimately, Joe values ambition and material wealth more than Janie. She suffers under his iron rule, being forced to keep silent, refrain from associating with the locals, hide her beautiful hair, and putter around the store. Joe keeps Janie socially and emotionally isolated. At this point, Janie is merely an ornament for Joe to show off and their relationship has soured. Janie, though occasionally speaking her mind, shows little fight during their marriage. However, her caring nature will not allow her to rest while Joe is in his sickbed. She does everything in her power for him, but in the end, feels victorious at his death. She has won some freedom at last.
Having lived under Joe, Janie is cautious when she first meets Tea Cake. Though they have chemistry, he seems suspect. He is much younger than she, obviously not from the upper class, and he does not seem reliable. But Tea Cake persists in his courtship and eventually Janie’s heart is won over by his fun-loving, egalitarian nature – a characteristic none of her previous husbands had. With her new husband, Janie does not mind returning to a poor rural life. In fact, she rather enjoys the freedom it brings to associate with everyone she wants and speak freely. Tea Cake doesn’t try to tame or stifle Janie’s nature; he even encourages her to try new things, like checkers and hunting. The secret to Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage is their communication with each other; they talk out their troubles and constantly reassure each other of their love.
Janie learns that true love comes with its own consequences. She discovers what it means to be jealous for the first time. She worries and cries at home when Tea Cake goes missing. She also suffers for his mistakes. The hurricane seems to come specifically to ruin their happiness. Tea Cake’s fatal mistake of refusing to leave when offered a ride out of the Everglades triggers a chain of events that ultimately leads to his death. For most of Tea Cake’s downfall, Janie is merely a passive spectator. Though she knows she can do little to save Tea Cake, she still tries with her whole heart.
Only in the final moments before Tea Cake’s death does she take decisive action, and then only in self-defense. Her choice in shooting Tea Cake and saving herself is hardly a choice, but it does show her maturity – she values herself and realizes that Tea Cake is beyond help. However deeply she mourns his death, she does not – as might be expected – blame herself. Instead, Janie extends her energy towards keeping his memory alive. She does not despair, but picks herself up, goes home, and passes on her story so that the memory of Tea Cake and herself may remain alive. In the end, she thanks Tea Cake for giving her the opportunity to love and for taking her far beyond her horizons. Thanks to Tea Cake, Janie finally feels that she has lived a full and satisfying life.