A Janie Crawford
The heroine of the novel, Janie, is the first black woman character in African American fiction to embark on a journey of self-discovery and achieve independence and self-understanding. But she does not do so until she is nearly forty years old. Many obstacles stand in her way in the meantime, the first of which is her grandmother, who encourages her to marry Logan Killicks for material security. But Janie discovers that “marriage did not make love,” and she decides to leave him. When Joe Starks enters her life, she believes she has found her ticket to the “horizon,” so she marries him. But when they arrive in Eatonville, she discovers that she is going to be nothing but an ornament of his power and success. Stifled by Jody and cut off from the rest of the community by her status as the mayor’s wife, she learns to hide her real self and wear a mask for Jody and the town that conforms to their expectations for her. But in the process she loses sight of the real self she has buried. The narrator tells us, “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew not how to mix them.” After twenty years of marriage, an enmity has grown between Janie and her husband that results in her finally speaking up for herself. She tells him, in essence, that he is no longer a real man, and her outburst robs him of the will to live. As he lays on his deathbed, she sums up for him what their marriage has been like for her: “Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
Having lost herself once, she vows not to do so again, and so she enjoys her freedom after his death. But when Tea Cake walks into her life, she finds a man who complements her search for self-awareness rather than squelches it. Under the influence of his all-encompassing love, “her soul crawled out from its hiding place.” With Tea Cake, she finds a spiritual sense of love that had been absent in her first two marriages. “Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened the door,” she tells him. But many critics have questioned Hurston’s decision to make Janie discover her true self in the context of a relationship with a man. What has seemed like a feminist search for identity is undermined by Janie’s apparent dependence on Tea Cake, some say. But Janie does eventually gain true independence when she is forced to kill Tea Cake, who has gone mad from being bitten by a rabid dog and has come after her with a gun. This final act, although it devastates Janie, also allows her to return home to Eatonville a fully self-sufficient woman who is finally at peace with herself. “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons,” she tells her friend Pheoby. Her journey of self-discovery is complete.
After Jody’s death, Hezekiah replaces him as the store’s manager. Janie notices that Hezekiah also begins to take on many of Jody’s characteristics.
C Logan Killicks
Janie’s first husband. Her grandmother has encouraged her to marry him because he can give her a house and sixty acres of farmland, hence security, but his ugly appearance and body odor prevent Janie from falling in love with him. When he tells her he is going to buy a mule for her to plow with, Janie decides that life with Logan is not what she bargained for. She leaves him when the more dashing Joe Starks comes along.
D Motor Boat
A gambling friend of Tea Cake down on the muck. When the hurricane hits, Motor Boat flees with Janie and Tea Cake.
Janie’s grandmother, who raises her in the absence of her mother. A former slave who was raped by her master, Nanny teaches Janie that the “nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” In her hopes that Janie will have a better life, she encourages her to marry Logan Killicks, a man who will offer her “protection.” But not long after Janie marries him, Nanny dies. Later in life, after Jody has died, Janie reassesses the advice Nanny had given her. “Nanny 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.” Janie decides that she hates Nanny for teaching her to bury her own desires for the sake of security.
Young woman on the muck who attempts to lead Tea Cake away from Janie.
A friend of Tea Cake on the muck. He applauds Tea Cake’s beating of Janie and attempts to speak up at Janie’s trial after she has killed Tea Cake. He wants to accuse Janie of murder but is silenced by a white lawyer.
H Joe “Jody” Starks
Jody rescues Janie from her first marriage, whisking her off to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town where he intends to “be a big voice,” something he has been denied in other towns where whites are in control. Although Janie is reluctant to go, Jody “spoke for far horizon,” offering Janie a chance for adventure. But shortly after they arrive in Eatonville, Janie finds out that her life with Jody will be anything but exciting. When he becomes mayor and the most respectable citizen in town, she becomes a “pretty doll-baby,” as he calls her, a token of his stature in the town. Jody defines himself by his position and possessions, the most valuable of which is Janie. So Jody stifles Janie’s development as he silences her and keeps her from participating in the town’s talk on the porch of their store. Jody’s world becomes a kind of prison for Janie, who is isolated on a pedestal of bourgeois ideals. As Jody grows older and takes his fears of aging out on Janie, she realizes that her “image” of him has “tumbled down and shattered.” When he ridicules her aging body in front of others at the store, something breaks in Janie, and she tells him, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” By belittling his manhood in front of the town, Janie figuratively kills him, as he begins a slow deterioration and dies of kidney failure. Janie attempts to come to terms with Jody on his death bed, and she tells him, “All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice-dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you.” But she comes to the conclusion that the only kind of change he was able to create in her life was an outward change in material conditions. Nothing has changed inside of him, and she has not been able to grow at all. When he dies, the only legacy he leaves Janie is his money. At the end of the book, it is the memories of Tea Cake that inhabit the house, not those of Jody.
I Johnny Taylor
The boy who kisses Janie over the fence. This event signals Janie’s sexual awakening and instigates Nanny’s concerns that Janie will allow an unworthy man to lure her away.
J Mr. Turner
Restaurant owner on the muck who has no control over his wife.
K Mrs. Turner
A light-skinned mulatto woman who befriends Janie on the muck. Her prejudices against those who are blacker than herself reveal the racism within the black community. Her restaurant, which she owns with her husband, is destroyed by Tea Cake and his friends, who resent her racist attitudes towards them.
L Annie Tyler
A woman from Eatonville who ran off with a younger man who was after her money. Her shameful return to the town after he has left her is a warning to Janie, who fears that Tea Cake will do the same to her.
M Pheoby Watson
Janie’s “bosom friend” who is her link to the Eatonville community. Pheoby’s role in the book is an important one, as she is the audience for Janie’s life story, which is the novel. After hearing the whole story, Pheoby tells her, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you.” Many critics see this statement as the feminist declaration that Janie’s story will inspire other women to demand self-fulfillment.
N Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods
When Tea Cake, a young man of twenty-five, enters Janie’s life, he changes it forever. He does not possess the outward manifestations of power, namely wealth and position, that Jody did. Instead, he possesses an inner power that comes with self-knowledge and being comfortable with himself. When Janie marries Tea Cake, they move to Jacksonville, and she is initiated into his world. At first he is afraid she will not want to be a part of his community. “You ain’t usetuh folks lak dat,” he tells her. But she assures him that she “aims tuh partake wid everything.” When they move to the muck, then, to live amongst the migrant agricultural workers picking beans, Janie and Tea Cake’s house becomes the center of the community, hosting dances and card games. Most importantly, Tea Cake allows Janie to feel like she belongs to this community in a way that Jody never let her belong to the Eatonville community. In fact, Tea Cake inspires two important developments in Janie’s growth by encouraging her to accept herself and to feel at home in the black community. The space he creates for her that makes these two things possible is a loving relationship that satisfies Janie’s spiritual needs, rather than focusing on the material wants that had defined her two previous marriages.
Their relationship is also much more equal as Tea Cake teaches her how to play checkers, hunt, and fish, activities from which Jody had excluded her because of her gender. Tea Cake almost becomes an idealized male figure in the book as he provides all of the support and love that has been lacking from Janie’s life, but he also reveals his ability to fall back on attitudes of male dominance in his relationship with Janie. Many critics have seen his beating of Janie to show others who is in charge as an indication that Hurston believed all men possessed the need to overpower women and be the “boss.” But Tea Cake is a part of Janie’s life for only two years. As they try to escape the devastation of a hurricane in the Everglades, Tea Cake rescues Janie from a rabid dog, only to be bitten himself. By the time they discover Tea Cake’s illness, it is too late. When he tries to kill Janie in his madness, she is forced to shoot him to protect herself.