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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
Most of the novel's action takes place in three Florida locales: rural west Florida; Eatonville, just north of Orlando; and the bean-fields outside of Palm Beach. The frame of the story, Janie's recounting of events to her friend Pheoby, takes place in Eatonville on the porch of Janie's house. The time is, presumably, the forty or so years leading to the mid-nineteen thirties. (The novel was published in 1937.) The settings are mostly rural, with the exception of the part of the story concerned with the development of Eatonville, a town built by "colored folks."
Janie Crawford (Killicks, Starks, Woods)
The novel is the story of Janie's coming to self-awareness, living her life according to her own purpose. At the beginning of the novel, she decides to tell her story to her friend, Pheoby, knowing full well that the town of Eatonville will be wanting to know why she has arrived back home by herself, a middle-aged woman wearing overalls and tying her long hair in a great rope. Janie's story charts her life from her earliest awareness of family and race through three lives, or marriages, where she tries out various methods of living. Janie is a woman determined to live up to her high level of awareness and her loftiest vision of what a human life should be. As her life goes on, she becomes happily more self-determined.
"Tea Cake" (Vergible Woods)
Janie's third husband, Tea Cake, is a free-spirit. He is in his twenties, about fifteen years younger than Janie. Tea Cake has no family and not much history. He is the first man to value Janie as a real person with desires of her own. He works and plays hard, being both a gambler and a jokester. Tea Cake's philosophy of living involves taking things as they come and gaining as much pleasure from life as possible.
Janie's second husband, Joe Starks, is a very hard-working, man-of-the-town; during the course of the novel, he becomes a significant founder of Eatonville. Joe has a fixed vision of what he thinks people should amount to, especially Janie. He is a big man with big ideas. He is charismatic at first, but also stubborn, hypocritical, and demeaning. He turns suspicious of Janie, and dies without ever coming to grips with their failed relationship.
Janie's only apparent friend in Eatonville, Pheoby is the listener to Janie's life story. Pheoby is a middle-aged woman, like Janie, and, unlike the other townspeople, she respects Janie. She also feels she has something to learn by listening to and not just making quick judgments about her unusual neighbor.
Janie's grandmother is a former slave who works for a white family and raises Janie. Nanny is a successful "mother" to Janie and a hard worker who manages to own her own house. She has definite ideas about black women, believing they are the mules of the world. As a slave, she wanted to 'preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high,' but she was released from slavery with a daughter in her arms, a result of her master raping her. Her life has been spent working long and hard for white folks. She has limited hopes for Janie and wants her to marry for protection. Nanny is a representative of an important part of black history, the former slave grown old in a land of continual hardship.
Logan is Janie's first husband, an older man who has property and is considered "dependable" by Janie's grandmother. He is a hard-working farmer, bald, and overweight. Although he is rather quiet, he has definite ideas about what kind of farm-wife he wants Janie to be. He thinks he is a godsend to Janie.
When Joe Starks dies, Hezekiah is the young man who helps Janie manage the store. He begins to act like Joe Starks, taking over his mannerisms and speech and warning her against Tea Cake.