Janie Crawford: Janie is the novel's hero as she narrates her life story to
her friend Pheoby Watson. From the beginning of her story under the pear
tree Janie undergoes the process of self-discovery, as she evolves through
her experiences with three distinctly different husbands. Janie defies
convention, however, by cultivating and preserving her own inner space in
spite of the submission that her first two husbands demand. Her heritage -
the fact that she is a product of white rape - causes her to be
lighter-skinned than other black women, an important physical characteristic
of Janie's to keep in mind throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God (especially during her marriage to Joe Starks and interactions with Mrs.
Pheoby Watson: Despite rarely being seen or heard from throughout the novel,
Pheoby - Janie's closest friend in Eatonville - serves an essential function. After Janie returns to Eatonville from the Everglades, Pheoby visits with
her and wants to hear Janie's stories. Thus, Pheoby serves as the sole
audience member present while Janie tells of her adventures long into the
night. Their friendship stands out as Janie's primary female bond throughout
a story focused on Janie's relations with her three husbands.
Nanny: Nanny is Janie Crawford's grandmother, who raises Janie after her
mother disappears shortly after her birth. Insisting that Janie needs a
man's protection Nanny arranges sixteen-year-old Janie's marriage to Logan
Killicks then dies shortly after the wedding. Janie resents Nanny for
betraying her by forcing her to marry a man she did not love and, thus,
desecrating Janie's marriage ideal represented by the pear tree. After Joe
Starks dies, Janie realizes that her grandmother had "taken the biggest thing
God ever made, the horizon.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"
(85). For the story of Nanny's past, please see Chapter Two.
Logan Killicks: Janie's first husband, Logan Killicks, arranged with Nanny to
marry her granddaughter without Janie's assent. His sixty acres of land -
and the respectability which goes with landholding - provides Nanny all the
assurance she needs to assume that "he's a good man" (13). His house - "a
lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had
ever been" (21) - is symbolic of Killicks' own character. He does not treat Janie
kindly, often treating her as a servant rather than his wife and frequently
telling her that she is lazy and spoiled. Janie leaves him to run off with
Joe Starks after Killicks threatens to kill her and insults her family.
Joe (Jody) Starks: This is Janie's second husband, who she initially meets by
chance one day while still married to Logan Killicks. When Joe proposes to
her several weeks later Janie accepts and feels hopeful to get away from
Killicks and start a new life. Joe's ambition to be a "big voice," (27)
however, soon creates conflict for his new wife. Janie realizes she is an
adornment for Joe, the trophy light-skinned wife for the citizens of Eatonville to envy. Jealous of other men lusting after his wife, Joe
restricts Janie by forcing her to always tend the store, leave fun situations, and wear a head rag to hide her beautiful hair. Joe desires
Janie's complete submission, and occasionally beats her when she does not
submit. The novel suggests several times that Joe's quest for power imitates
the white man's, evidenced by his new house painted a "gloaty, sparkly white"
(44); in addition, Joe makes Eatonville's black community bow to him as
non-equals, echoing traditionally white behavior. At the time of his death,
however, Joe's ambition leaves him soulless and friendless, with only Janie
by his side to fake sorrow for the townspeople's sake. Tea Cake (Vergible Woods): Tea Cake, Janie's third husband, is the first
younger man she marries and also the first without property or wealth. Yet,
Tea Cake is also her first husband to truly love and respect her, giving her
the chance to enjoy life. He enjoys gambling, which leads to an immediate
conflict after he takes Janie's $200 to bet with when they are first married. He quickly wins the money - and Janie's trust - back, providing an
illustration of the unconventional risks Tea Cake seems willing to take.
Janie thoroughly enjoys being with Tea Cake: watching him gamble, listening
to him play guitar, picking beans, making love, and learning how to shoot
guns with him. He provides the ultimate fulfillment of her idealism regarding what marriage could and should be. Ironically, Janie must kill Tea
Cake in self-defense after he goes crazy from being bit by a mad dog during
Mrs. Turner: This character provides the depiction of an African-American
woman brainwashed by white racism. She believes the race needs to be lightened and becomes, therefore, immediately attracted to Janie's fair
complexion. Turner's internalized racism is most vehemently directed at Tea
Cake - because of the darkness of his skin - as she urges Janie to leave him
for Turner's brother.