(Click the character infographic to download.)
Janie is our heroine, narrator, tour guide, and all-around hero. She's the lens through which we see the world of turn-of-the-20th-century Florida. And she's also an incurable romantic.
We don't mean that she's always listening to vintage Celine Dion and sighing into her pillow. Janie knows all about the kind of hardships that life can bring about...but she still believes in the power of l'amour.
What kind of hardships? Well, since you asked...
A woman of mixed white and black heritage, Janie's birth was the result of a poor black schoolgirl being raped by an unnamed white schoolteacher. When her mom splits, Janie is brought up by her grandmother, a woman whose views have been shaped by a) living through the Civil War and b) having been in a forced relationship with her white master in the years before the war.
Her grandma has no aspiration for Janie's romantic life besides seeing her officially and respectably married. Janie is less concerned with getting a ring and more concerned with finding true love.
But Janie's is not a case of "first comes love and then comes marriage." Instead, she has to marry (twice) before she finds her Mr. Right.
But let's start from the beginning.
As a young girl, Janie has some romantic bones in her body. Her introduction to love—watching a bee pollinate a flower while lying underneath a blossoming pear tree, has a profound effect on her; she associates this (pretty overtly sexual) pollination with the epitome of a romantic experience:
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. (2.14)
We can look at Janie's life as being divided into two distinct periods—there's before the pear tree and after the pear tree. Janie is immediately (and we mean immediately) inspired to seek love, which leads to her first kiss and a lifetime searching for true love. From the pear-tree incident onward, Janie becomes associated with plant and flower imagery, perhaps emphasizing her natural beauty, Eden-like innocence, gentle nature, and ripeness for romance.
But her road to romance is far from easy.
The first obstacle to come between Janie and true romance is her well-meaning Nanny. Janie wants to make her grandma proud and, because of this, she's coerced into marrying an older man she can't love. This union is totally respectable, totally upstanding...and totally soul-crushing.
But her brief marriage to Logan Killicks teaches Janie a valuable lesson: she learns that marriage doesn't necessarily lead to love, despite what her grandma promised her:
She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (3.31)
Janie learns that being a legitimate wife of a landholder isn’t enough for her because she doesn’t like being told what to do and can't live a purely perfunctory life without any romance.
Having learned this—and seeing as how her grandmother has conveniently kicked the bucket by this point—Janie strikes out to take her future into her own hands.
She ends up handing herself over to Joe Starks, a man she thinks she loves. She's blinded to his faults by her own visions of pear blossoms and bees and by his entrepreneurial charisma. Ultimately, Joe values ambition and material wealth more than he values Janie, and he sees her as an accessory rather than as an equal. Check out this scene when Joe becomes mayor:
[Tony Taylor:] "And now we’ll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks."
The burst of applause was cut short by Joe taking the floor himself.
"Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home." (5.107-109)
Janie suffers under Joe's iron rule and is forced to keep silent, refrain from associating with the locals, hide her beautiful hair, and putter around the store. Basically, Joe keeps Janie socially and emotionally isolated. And all this isolation leads to being compliant: Janie, although occasionally speaking her mind, shows little spunk during their marriage.
However, her caring nature won't allow her to distance herself from him while Joe is dying. She does everything in her power for him but in the end feels victorious at his death. This sense of victory isn't surprising: she's won some freedom at last.
Having lived under Joe's thumb for so long, Janie is cautious when she first meets her Prince Charming, the awesomely named Tea Cake. Though they have chemistry, he seems a little suspect. He's much younger than she is, for one thing, and he doesn't seem reliable.
But, Tea Cake persists in his courtship and eventually Janie’s heart is won over by his fun-loving, egalitarian nature—he respects her as an equal and takes her on midnight fishing trips (win-win). In fact, she falls head over heels in love with him:
Janie awoke next morning by feeling Tea Cake almost kissing her breath away. Holding her and caressing her as if he feared she might escape his grasp and fly away. [...] She could feel him and almost see him bucking around the room in the upper air. After a long time of passive happiness, she got up and opened the window and let Tea Cake leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind. That was the beginning of things. (11.81-82)
She's so swept off her feet that she marries him and embarks on a new, rural life. And, despite what her nosy neighbors think, she ends up liking her change in material status. Even though she's not well-to-do, she enjoys the freedom it brings. Now that she's not chained to middle-class values, she can associate with everyone she wants and speak out 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.
But this isn't a happy ending.
For one thing, 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:
But it was always going to be dark to Janie if Tea Cake didn’t soon come back. (13.16)
She also suffers because of his mistakes. When a hurricane rolls in, Tea Cake makes the literally fatal mistake of refusing to leave when he's offered a ride out of the Everglades. This decision to stay behind triggers a chain of events that ultimately leads to his death.
And because Tea Cake’s downfall is one part hamartia, two parts the wrath of the natural world (hurricanes and rabid dogs happen, y'all) Janie is basically a passive spectator. She can't help him survive:
[Janie:] "You mean he’s liable tuh die, doctah?"
[Doctor Simmons:] "’Sho is. But de worst thing is he’s liable tuh suffer somethin’ awful befo’ he goes." (19.96-97)
But she can help him die. In the final moments before Tea Cake’s death, Janie takes decisive action: in a mixture of self-defense and mercy killing, she shoots Tea Cake. This shows her maturity—she values herself and realizes that Tea Cake is beyond help. (Rabies is a terrible way to die.)
And, however deeply she mourns his death, she does not—as might be expected—blame herself. Instead, Janie extends her energy toward keeping his memory alive. She doesn't despair; she picks herself up, goes home, and passes on her story. 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—he definitely taught her that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.