'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Characters

Descriptions and Significance

Zora Neale Hurston’s cast of characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God demonstrates the complicated gender dynamics of Black Americans in the early twentieth century. Many of the characters strive to obtain power and agency, often by means of using one another, as they navigate the demands of their social hierarchy.

Janie Crawford

Janie Crawford is the romantic and beautiful heroine of the novel, and a woman of both Black and White ancestry. Over the course of the book, she breaks from circumstances of subjugation to become the subject of her own narrative. Her story is one of evolution, of finding enlightenment, love, and identity. As a child, Janie witnessed the harmony of life and creation in the blossoms of a pear tree. This pear tree is evoked throughout the novel as a parallel to her inner life, corresponding to her dreams and her passions as she grows. She searches for the oneness that the pear tree signifies throughout her three marriages.

Janie embodies femininity, and her relationships with her husbands illustrate the complex gender dynamics that determine her agency and independence. Janie begins her story as a naïve child, married off when she is just sixteen. Her first two husbands treat her like an object. Janie identifies with a mule, feeling as though she is just another piece of their property, a means to their ends. She is isolated and belittled and abused. She struggles to satisfy her craving for emotional fulfillment. Finally, in her third marriage to Tea Cake, Janie finds true love. Though their relationship is not perfect, he treats her like an equal, and Janie trades her high-class status to work in the fields in overalls, spending all her time with a man who returns her desire. She experiences a relationship borne out of communication and desire, and finds her voice. By the end of the novel, she arrives back in Eatonville having experienced all that she dreamed of when she was a child standing under the pear tree.

Nanny

Nanny is Janie’s grandmother. Nanny was enslaved from birth and lived through the Civil War, and this history shapes the way she parents Janie and the hopes she passes on to her. Nanny was raped by her enslaver and had Janie’s mother, Leafy, while at the plantation. Nanny tells Janie that Black women are like the mules of society; because of the abuse and oppression she suffered, all she wants is marital and financial stability for her granddaughter. When Nanny sees Janie being kissed by a local boy, she immediately urges her to marry a landholder, Logan Killicks.

Nanny views marriage as a transactional protection that will keep Janie from falling prey to the same circumstances that she and Leafy suffered, especially as Nanny knows she won’t be around for long. Janie is full of life and beauty and her proposed marriage to the old, ugly Logan seems incongruous. But Nanny stands by her decision. She leads Janie to believe that marriage begets love. Wealth and security are the ultimate prizes in life, and she wants Janie to have those things, even if it comes at the cost of emotional fulfillment. She does not value love and hope like Janie does, and does not understand the emptiness that Janie experiences in her marriage.

Logan Killicks

Logan Killicks is Janie’s first husband, a wealthy, older farmer who happens to be a widower in search of a new wife. He is able to give Janie the financial stability that Nanny seeks for her. Their relationship, however, is purely pragmatic and devoid of love. When Janie marries him, she is young and beautiful, desperate for sweet and pretty things, romance and shared passions. Logan is the antithesis of her hopes; he is old, ugly, and his initial “speaking in rhymes” quickly devolves into commands. He is very traditional in his views on masculinity and femininity, and believes Janie should obey him because she is his wife. He expects her to work in the field doing manual labor, and berates her for being spoiled and ungrateful. He treats Janie like another one of his mules.

Janie is terribly unhappy in their marriage, as she expected marriage to bring about love. For her, he represents the harsh reality of an unfeeling life, and is the precipice for the death of her innocence and her passage from girlhood to womanhood.

Joe “Jody” Starks

Jody is Janie’s second husband, and is crueler than Logan. At first he seems to be a suave, stylish, charismatic gentleman. However, this impression is merely a front—a manifestation of his ambition and hunger for superiority. Underneath his fancy façade Jody is plagued by fragile self-esteem. As he upholds his stringent views of masculinity, his worst tendencies become the source of Janie’s oppression.

As the mayor of Eatonville, he surrounds himself with objects to validate his title. He owns a huge white house, sits behind an impressively large desk, and spits into a gold vase. He’s noted for his large belly and habit of smoking cigars. Janie is just a beautiful “bell-cow,” a trophy to further establish his wealth and power. He keeps Janie working at the store, forbids her from socializing, and makes her cover her hair because he believes it is only for him to appreciate. Jody believes that women are far inferior to men, and claims that they “sho don’t think non theirselves.” He grows angry with his wife because she does not enjoy the terribly isolating pedestal he has put her on. When Janie reaches her breaking point and talks back to him publicly, she effectively robs him of his “illusion of irresistible maleness.” He strikes her violently and drives her from the store. Jody’s idea of masculinity and desire for power leave him ignorant and alone on his deathbed, having distanced himself from any true connection because of his inability to look upon anyone as an equal.

Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods

Tea Cake represents true love in Janie’s life. With him, she finds the answer to the pear tree. Unlike her previous husbands, Tea Cake treats Janie like an equal and makes an effort to incorporate her into all aspects of his life. Upon meeting her, he teaches Janie how to play checkers. She finds this act of inclusion immediately notable, since Jody would never let her partake in any social fun. He is spontaneous and playful—they talk and flirt late into the evening and go fishing at midnight. Despite Tea Cake’s much younger age, his lower social status and disapproving town gossip, the two get married.

The biggest difference between Tea Cake, Logan, and Jody, is that he does not keep Janie from experiencing life. He communicates with her. He teaches her things that others would find “below” her, like shooting guns and hunting and working in the fields. When Tea Cake steals Janie’s money and throws a party he doesn’t invite her to, he listens to her explain her feelings when she confronts him. He wins all her money back and more and gains her trust. Through this, he shows that he is receptive and communicative and willing to change, unlike Logan or Jody.

Tea Cake is not perfect, though, and does let his jealousy get to him sometimes. He slaps Janie around as a way to “show he was boss.” However, their fights always turn into pampering and passion. When Janie finds Tea Cake rolling around with Nunkie, a girl who ceaselessly flirts with him, the argument that follows flows into desire. Their love is volatile, but always strong. Through Tea Cake, Janie finds liberation, and after his death, she is only left with memories of pure love.

Mrs. Turner

Mrs. Turner is Janie’s neighbor in Belle Glade who runs a restaurant with her husband. She greatly admires Janie on account of her “coffee and cream” complexion and her silky hair—her more Caucasian features. Mrs. Turner herself is biracial, and has a real hatred for Black people. She worships everything that is White. She wants Janie to marry her brother who is light-skinned and doesn’t understand why Janie is married to someone as dark as Tea Cake. Mrs. Turner can be read as an illustration of the extent of racism; she has been so conditioned by it, that she regurgitates the hateful discourse despite the fact that she herself is partly Black.

Pheoby

Phoeby is Janie’s best friend from Eatonville. She is at the beginning and the end of the novel and is the one to whom Janie tells the story of her life to. Pheoby isn’t judgmental, like many of the other townspeople, and is always there with an open ear. She stands as a proxy for the reader. In relating her life to Pheoby, Janie is able to effectively relate her life on the page.