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. Turner).
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 into 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 the hurricane.
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.