Janie is a beautiful black woman with partially white ancestry. As a child, Janie is brought up by her grandmother, Nanny. Janie listens to her grandmother and marries a man of Nanny's choosing: Logan Killicks. Janie leaves Logan when she realizes that she doesn't love him. She runs away with Joe Starks, a man with huge dreams for the future. Unfortunately, instead of allowing Janie to develop her own voice, Joe squelches her individualism. After Joe dies, Janie finally finds Tea Cake Woods, and she discovers real love. When Tea Cake dies suddenly, Janie returns to Eatonville fulfilled and with memories to sustain her for the rest of her life. Janie's primary characteristics are her ability to dream and her ability to act on her instincts to find happiness. Through free indirect discourse, Janie shares the narration of the story with Hurston. Often her voice is so tightly interwoven with Hurston's that it is difficult to discern who is the narrator and who is the author.
Pheoby is Janie's best and only lifelong friend. Due to the responsibilities of her marriage, Pheoby is unable to adventure the way that Janie does. Pheoby represents the everyday person, the audience; just as Janie tells her story to Pheoby, Hurston tells the story to her reader. At the end of the novel, Pheoby tells us that Janie's story has made her grow ten feet taller and has encouraged her to go fishing. Hurston, through Pheoby, asserts her desire for the readers of her novel to be mobilized into action through Janie's story just as Pheoby has been.
Janie's grandmother is a former slave who represents the thoughts and fears of the men and women of the slave era. Nanny values wealth and security over anything else and too strongly encourages Janie to marry Logan Killicks because he possesses some land and a mule. Janie's first major triumph is to escape her grandmother's vision of happiness and recognize that she should seek her own type of freedom.
Logan is Janie's first husband. He is unloving and too old for Janie. He treats Janie as if she were a possession like his mule. He cares for Janie and is upset when he realizes that Janie will leave him for another man, Joe Starks, but is powerless to convince Janie that she should stay with him.
Joe is Janie's second husband. He is an appealing choice for Janie who admires his youthfulness and ambition. Joe runs away with Janie to Eatonville, where he becomes mayor. Hurston's criticism of Joe is that he seeks power through the same measures as slave-era whites did. He attains power by taking power away from others. He treats Janie badly, quieting her voice in order to make his voice heard more loudly. Between the Sears Roebuck street lamp, his big house which is literally white, and the golden spittoons, Joe's imitation of white people is farcical.
Tea Cake (Vergible Woods)
Tea Cake is Janie's third husband. He is twelve years younger than Janie. From Tea Cake, Janie learns how to love, about her cultural roots, how to live life in a natural way, and to find ways to have fun just living. Tea Cake is fun, adventurous, and spontaneous; he is a gambler and a musician. Although he is not a rich man, he proves to Janie that he can always find money if they need it, and they live off his income alone. Tea Cake is a natural leader like Joe Starks, but acquires peoples' admiration and trust just by listening to them, by laughing at their stories and jokes, and by playing guitar for them. Tea Cake dies from rabies as a result of saving Janie's life in the flood.
Leafy is Janie's mother. When Nanny was a slave, the master of the plantation repeatedly raped her. As a result, Nanny had a baby with blonde hair and gray eyes. When the mistress of the plantation saw the baby one night after the men left to fight in the Civil War, she told Nanny that she was going to whip her to death in the morning for having sex with her husband. Nanny ran away from the plantation and hid for months until the war ended. She named the baby Leafy because she had hid the baby in the moss of the forest. Leafy grows up with the Washburns just as Janie does. When Leafy is seventeen, her school teacher rapes her, and Leafy has a baby soon after. She becomes an alcoholic and runs away. Leafy's traumatic life convinces Nanny to force Janie to marry when she is very young.
Nanny is a nanny for the Washburns when Janie is a young girl. Hurston defied other black writers of her era by describing the Washburns as "quality white folks." The Washburns treat Janie like a member of their family. They dress her up and put bows in her hair.
Johnny Taylor is the first boy that Janie kisses. Nanny sees the kiss and tells Janie that she "is now a woman" and must get married to Logan Killicks rather than someone low-class like Johnny.
Hezekiah is a boy that helps Janie in the shop after Joe dies. He mimics Joe in a humorous way.
Annie Tyler is a rich widow who leaves her stable home to run off with a younger man. The younger man, named Who Flung, runs off with all her money soon after she marries him. Images of Annie Tyler haunt Janie early in her marriage to Tea Cake as she worries if she's made a mistake by entering into her risky new relationship.
Mrs. Turner is a mixed-race woman who hates her blackness and yearns to be white. Through Turner and the town's treatment of Turner, Hurston comments negatively on the people who turn away from their culture and try to be something that they are not. Turner is a much disliked character in the story; all of her "white" features are described as blunt and ugly. She has a weak husband and a weak son.
A young girl that flirts with Tea Cake, and whom Janie is jealous of.
A friend of Tea Cake's and Janie's on the Muck. In the struggle to escape the flood, Motor Boat decides to stay home in bed and sleep rather than to try to run to safety outside, as Janie and Tea Cake do. Ironically, Tea Cake and Janie almost die in the flood while trying to find safety, whereas Motor Boat stays safe by staying home.
Another noble white character in the novel, he tries to save Tea Cake from rabies. He also testifies on Janie's behalf in her murder trial.
Their Eyes Were Watching God Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Their Eyes Were Watching God is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.