[The porch gossips]: "What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? – What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? – Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? – Thought she was going to marry? – Where he left her? – What he done wid all her money? – Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs – Why she don’t stay in her class? – " (1.6)
The porch wants to confine Janie to a rigid and easily-definable category – through gender, social class, and age. The fact that she freely moves between high and low classes as well as male, female, and youthful types of dress makes her too ambiguous for the people to classify. And this fluidity between groups makes the townspeople uncomfortable.
Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will. Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did. Ah even hated de way you was born. But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance. Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. She would expound what Ah felt. But somehow she got lost offa de highway and next thing Ah knowed here you was in de world. So whilst Ah was tendin’ you of nights Ah said Ah’d save de text for you. Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed." (2.56)
Slavery, obviously, is confining. It kept Nanny from fulfilling her dreams and taking action to bring black women more respect. However, though slavery physically shackled her, Nanny claims that it couldn’t chain up a person’s will and wishes.
The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. (3.32)
Because her relationship with Logan is so ensnaring, Janie longs for freedom, away from her husband’s property and towards an unending horizon.
"Janie!" Logan called harshly. "Come help me move dis manure pile befo’ de sun gits hot. You don’t take a bit of interest in dis place. ‘Tain’t no use in foolin’ round in dat kitchen all day long…"
"You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine."
"You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick." (4.52-54)
Despite her chafing under Logan’s rule, Janie does indeed want boundaries. She likes to think of her "place" in the house, reigning over a domestic sphere. This is her comfort zone. However, Logan’s definition of her place is, ironically, far more confining. He says that her place is wherever he needs her. So, in effect, he wants to strip her identity and freedom.
The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel and apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet. After that she came to where Joe Starks was waiting for her with a hired rig. He was very solemn and helped her to the seat beside him. With him on it, it sat like some high, ruling chair. From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. (4.59)
Although Janie doesn’t explicitly say it, she has felt confined in her marriage to Logan. Evidence of this can be found in all the instances where Logan kept trying to put Janie "in her place." So Janie throws off Logan’s constraints with her old apron and finds freedom walking off through the flowered fields and finding Joe ready to take her away to a new, liberated life.
"Whut make her [Janie] keep her head tied up lak some ole ‘oman round de store? Nobody couldn’t git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat." (5.143)
Janie’s constant wearing of the head-rag attracts public notice. Because people have already seen her gorgeous hair in all its unbound glory, they wonder at why Janie would not want to flaunt such an attribute, but rather keep it all tied up and out of sight. Later we find out that the head rag is another one of Joe’s ways of confining Janie, and jealously attempting to keep her under his control and all to himself.
This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. (6.31)
Joe’s jealousy forces Janie to bind up one of her greatest displays of womanhood. This is one way that Joe traps Janie and keeps her from letting her true self, including her identity as a beautiful woman, be free.
[Joe]: "Shet de door behind yuh, Janie. Lum is too busy wid de hawses."
After more shouting of advice and orders and useless comments, the town escorted the carcass off. No, the carcass moved off with the town, and left Janie standing in the doorway. (6.72-73)
Janie is confined in her house when she really wants to go off with the town and watch the mule’s fun funeral. Joe traps her by playing on her dignity and the image of the door shutting behind Janie as the town moves freely away emphasizes the degree of Janie’s immobility.
[Janie to Joe] "Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de N****es. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something." (6.60)
Joe’s altruistic act, as pretentious as it was, of freeing a mule from a life of hard labor is akin – in Janie’s mind – to Lincoln emancipating the black slaves. It shows a degree of generosity rarely found in powerful men. But Joe’s display is just that – all show; he frees the mule to garner public admiration, not because he loves the animal. He does not show the same degree of compassion to his wife or his customers.
Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness. (7.5)
Janie’s waking life is so enclosed by Joe’s jealousy that she can only find freedom in her thoughts. So she imagines a "shadow of herself" confined in the store while her true self is free to sit among nature’s blessings – under a tree (like her beloved pear tree) in the garden. This is reminiscent about what Nanny said about slavery – you’re physically trapped but your mind and dreams can be free.
[Janie]: "Maybe he ain’t nothin’," she cautioned herself, "but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t got nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house." (7.3)
Janie deludes herself into thinking that Joe still deserves her love because the alternative would mean being trapped in nothing but "uh store and uh house." Janie cannot imagine a life of such confinement, utterly stripped of meaning and purpose. In reality, Janie’s life is confined to a store, house, and a loveless marriage.
She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there. (8.45)
After years of confinement under Joe’s reign, Janie liberates her hair – a distinctive mark of her femininity – and assesses it. "The weight, the length, the glory" of it confirms that her womanhood is still intact – strong and beautiful as ever. Her new-found freedom is reflected in the return of confidence in her womanhood.
Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist. (9.3)
After Joe’s death, Janie revels in the freedom she has to let her hair down as she pleases. Doing so is an expression of joyful liberation and defiance of Joe’s restrictive ways.
Besides she liked being lonesome for a change. This freedom feeling was fine. (9.7)
After Joe’s death, Janie exults in her freedom. She enjoys being single because it means not having to bow down to a man’s every command.
She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon – for not matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you – and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (9.4)
Nanny tried to confine Janie’s sense of value to only material objects or "things" while Janie has always really loved "people." Nanny imposed her narrow sense of the world onto the more broadminded Janie. This concept is illustrated in Janie’s metaphor of the horizon; Nanny took the "biggest thing God ever made" and twisted it into a choking noose that would not let Janie breathe, much less live, in the way she wanted to.
"Why, Tea Cake? Whut good do combin’ mah hair do you? It’s mah comfortable , not yourn."
"It’s mine too. Ah ain’t been sleepin’ so good for more’n uh week cause Ah been wishin’ so bad tuh git mah hands in yo’ hair. It’s so pretty. It feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face." (11.37-38)
By sharing in Janie’s pleasure, Tea Cake does not manipulate her into a single confining sex object role. Instead, by giving both of them pleasure, Tea Cake gives both the freedom to enjoy the experience.
[Janie]: "She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam look lak uh might fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere." (12.32)
Janie’s and Nanny’s differing outlooks on life and women’s freedom stem from their backgrounds. For Nanny who’s early life was spent in slavery, idleness is freedom. For Janie, on the other hand, feels trapped doing nothing but sitting up on high and looking pretty.
[Janie to Pheoby]: "Naw, Pheoby, Tea Cake ain’t draggin’ me off nowhere Ah don’t want tuh go. Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ‘low me tuh. When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hands and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got uh heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ‘em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over." (12.16)
Janie admits her desire to get up and get around, to move. Joe, however, didn’t want his woman to be too worldly and thus kept her confined and immobile in the store. Janie loves Tea Cake because he is not threatened by her mobility and her desire to "utilize [her]self all over."
Tea Cake had been working several hours when the thought of Janie worrying about him made him desperate. So when a truck drove up to be unloaded he bolted and ran. He was ordered to halt on pain of being shot at, but he kept right on and got away. He found Janie say and crying just as he had thought. They calmed each other about his absence then Tea Cake brought up another matter.
"Janie, us got tuh git outa dis ouse and outa dis man’s town. Ah don’t mean tuh work lak dat no mo’." (19.33-34)
Tea Cake’s brief stint of forced labor at gunpoint by white men harkens readers back to the days of slavery when black people were forced to work. But since Tea Cake isn’t a slave and he can exercise some free will, he means to make sure that he’s not pushed around anymore. Forced labor was completely degrading for Tea Cake; he’s a free man and wants to be able to act like it.
"Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her."
"She didn’t kill no white man, did she? Well, long as she don’t shoot no white man she kin kill jus’ as many n*****s as she please."
"Yeah, de n***** women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet’ not kill one uh dem. De white folks will sho hang yuh if yuh do."
"Well, you know whut dey say ‘uh white man and uh n***** woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please." (19.178-181)
Paradoxically, the most confined creatures according to Hurston – black women – are construed to be as free as white men – the freest of all mankind. Is this really true? It’s interesting that the men think this way while we, the reader, have seen what a confined life Janie lived before she was married to Tea Cake.
Soon everything around downstairs was shut and fastened. Janie mounted the stairs with her lamp…Now, in her room, the place tasted fresh again. The wind through the open windows had broomed out all the fetid feeling of absence and nothingness. (20.11)
This passage alternates between images of enclosed spaces and wide open ones. But here, nothing feels trapped. Janie has returned to the home that Joe once trapped her in, but even though the downstairs is "shut and fastened," it feels cozy and comforting instead of claustrophobic. Upstairs, the open windows give the room a sense of largeness which, paradoxically, does not feel empty. Instead, it makes Janie feel free.