Hurston's Janie is an African American woman who is neither victim nor saint, living during the 1920s and 30s in the American South. The novel begins, "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, ever out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men." Then, the delineation comes out in the piece, "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly."
Janie holds the opinion to such thoughts as she returns to her home town after a long journey away. She is 40 years old. And for an unknown reason has never had children. She wears her hair long down her back, like a young girl, her body is tightly built, yet full so the men folk notice. The town whispers, "What she doin coming back here in dem overalls? 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 in? - 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?-"
And Janie meets with Phoebe, her old time friend. Phoebe gives Janie a meal of mulatto rice and they talk like old friends tend to talk, with an inborn familiarity whereby the settings; time and place may change but the friendship never does. Phoebe warns Janie of the town gossipers and Janie responds with "If God don't think no mo' 'bout 'em then Ah do, they's a lost ball in de high grass."
Janie relies on Phoebe to be her voice (really her public relations) to the towns people. And as the sun sets and the dark descends Phoebe and Janie sit on the porch of Janie's house while Janie tells her story. "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches."
She was raised without ever seeing her father. Her mother left too, before Janie was old enough to know her. She was raised by her grandmother and the white people her grandmother worked with. Janie grew up in West Florida, playing with the grandchildren of her grandmother's employer, Mis Washburn.
She didn't know she was African American until she was six years old. The family had a portrait taken and Janie, called Alphabet by the Washburns because she had been given so many names looked at the photograph and thought she must not be in it, because the only one not identified by name was a dark little girl with long hair. The Washburns laughed and pointed Janie out to herself.
Janie is, for better or worse, much better off with the Washburns than a lot of African American children in general were at the time. It does seem Mis Washburn genuinely cares for Janie and her grandmother, who everyone calls Nanny. But Janie's ultimate conundrum is that she is torn between two worlds. The black children at school consider her to be too fine, with her long flowing hair and white children's clothes. She was given outgrown clothing from the Washburns but it was still much nicer than most clothing given to African American children. She was picked on by the kids at school, who told her mean and lopsided stories about her parents. Nanny didn't like seeing her granddaughter's head hanging so low, and then with the support of the Washburns they were granted a house and more space, so as to improve Janie's quality of life.
Nanny loved Janie. She didn't want her girl to suffer, from so many constraints and spiteful factions that could befall a pretty and single woman making her way in the world. When Nanny sees Janie kissing with Johnny Taylor, a soul Janie always viewed as shiftless until she started noticing how much fun it is to kiss with him, she pulls her granddaughter aside and commands her with powers of soft acceptance, rather than force, that Janie needs to marry a safe and good man as soon as possible. Nanny wanted Janie to continue with school, but Janie has no wish to go to college. It is unknown how much education Janie has exactly. But it is known at the age of 16, Janie does not want any more schooling.
Nanny insists Janie marry Brother Logan Killicks with his sixty acres, as Nanny knows herself to be soon to die and she does not want to go to her grave with her grandchild unprotected. Logan Killicks weds Janie and though he lives a common life, Janie is well cared for and never starved. He loves her perfectly, speaking rhymes to her and looking after all her needs, but she just doesn't want him. Janie wants to be kissed by love like a fruit tree is kissed by bees in the spring.
Logan does everything that he is supposed to and Janie is bored, or at least not naturally attracted to him. But at the same time, Janie is a 16 year old girl at the time of her wedding. She really had no choice in the matter and she had never been used badly by a man. She is a teenager and doesn't know first hand how some men can really be.
Janie leaves Logan for the stylish Joe Starks, who she meets while she is peeling potatoes by the roadside and he promises Janie to take her away and treat her like a lady. The next day, Janie meets up with Joe along the road, where Joe had a hired driver to take them both to Green Cove Springs.
Logan treated Janie with all the logic and soul he had, but he still had his heart broken by this pretty young bride who just couldn't love him. Joe had charisma and a strong head for business. He married Janie just like he said he would. They run a store together in the colored section of Orange County and have a fine house. With Joe Starks, Janie becomes the mayor's wife. But Joe does not say rhymes to Janie. He criticizes her work in the store endlessly and their sex life becomes non existent.
Janie stays married to Joe for twenty years, until Joe's death from kidney failure. Joe refused to see a doctor, when he became sick and instead would see sham medicine men who took his money and did nothing for him. Janie finally sends for a real doctor once Joe is too sick to protest, but by the time the doctor comes, it is too late. "Just a matter of time," the doctor told her. "When a man's kidneys stop working altogether, there is no way for him to live. He needed medical attention two years ago. Too late now."
And with Joe on his death bed, Janie lets fly as to what she has really been thinking of him for about twenty years. " 'All dis tearin' down talk!' Jody [Joe] whispered with sweat globules forming all over his face and arms. 'Git outa heah!'
'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.' A sound of strife in Jody's throat, but his eyes stared unwillingly into a corner of the room so Janie knew the futile fight was not with her. The icy sword of the square-toed one had cut off his breath and left his hands in a pose of agonizing protest. Janie gave them peace on his breast, then she studied his dead face for a long time."
It is as if Janie decided to tear out his soul and then watch him die. Her next husband is the dark skinned Tea Cake who is much younger than she and who she is happy to work the fields with. But Janie shoots Tea Cake to death after he becomes rabid from a dog bite. The only reason Janie is acquitted of the murder is due to the jury being composed of white people.
And so, at the age of 40, Janie returns to the house she had with Joe. She is free. From each man, Janie lost something and gained something.
By Sarah Bahl