An unwritten law in the little community in which Janie Crawford grew up stated that no girl would appear in school better dressed than the other girls, even those wearing second-hand clothes. Likewise, no 16-year-old should live in a neat little house with a yard on land owned by her grandmother. Moreover, no young girl should have a coffee-and-cream complexion and a long braid of dark hair that hangs below her waist. Surely such a child would think herself better than her schoolmates, and later, better than other women. The exception to that unwritten law is Janie Crawford, who continually finds herself being defined by other people rather than by herself — even from the beginning.
For Nanny, Janie's grandmother, Janie represents a second chance to do something right with a child. Born to Nanny's daughter, 17-year-old Leafy who was raped by the town schoolteacher, little Janie grows up as her grandmother's special child. Her father had disappeared long ago, and her mother abandoned her shortly afterward.
Janie's early childhood years are spent in Nanny's household, playing with the white grandchildren of Mrs. Washburn, Nanny's benevolent white employer. Not until she is 6 years old does she realize that she is a brown-skinned little girl — and not white like her Washburn playmates. She is an outsider at school, taunted by the other girls who envy her clothing, her complexion, and her extraordinary hair. Without giving Janie a chance to be friendly, the girls decide that she considers herself better that they are. Janie makes no friends at school.
Nanny encourages this attitude of exceptionality in Janie. The old woman labors not for herself, but for this child whom she believes that God has sent to her. With the help of Mrs. Washburn, Nanny buys some land and a house — more for Janie than for herself, thereby enhancing Janie's role as a very special person.
In her first marriage to the farmer Logan Killicks, Janie, at age sixteen, begins to draw some lines in her own way. Logan sees her as a spoiled child who must learn to be a farm wife. It is quite evident that Janie is willing to perform the chores that she sees as rightfully and dutifully hers, but those chores do not include plowing a potato field, regardless of how gentle the mule is. Although Logan recognizes the special qualities that Janie carries within herself, he fails to respect Janie as his wife. She desires a better life, and Janie believes that she will find it with Joe Starks.
Joe, the third person in Janie's life, wants her because he sees that she has class. She is a physically attractive young woman, far above any other woman Joe has known. He takes her as a possession, a trophy he has captured and can display along with his other possessions: his town, his house, his store, and his position as mayor.
Neither Nanny nor Joe ever consults Janie about what she wants in life; therefore, Janie is always yearning for something. The inner Janie is far from satisfied. Within the outwardly attractive woman called Janie Starks is a simple inner woman called Janie, and all she wants is to love and to be loved.
After Joe dies, when Janie is in her late 30s and economically secure and free, Tea Cake Woods comes strolling down the road with his guitar and his fun-loving ways. Like a true romantic hero, he courts Janie, a new and exciting experience for her. All he can offer her is his guitar, his songs, his mischievous spirit, and jobs on the muck of the Everglades with a gang of migrant workers. It is enough for Janie.
In a way, Tea Cake, like the others, defines Janie, but not in a restrictive way. In this marriage, Janie finds the love she sought in other relationships. Tea Cake is a man who respects Janie as an intelligent, exciting companion.
In addition to the security of Tea Cake's love, Janie is eventually accepted unconditionally and is not judged by the migrant workers. Nanny, Joe, and the Eatonville porch sitters would have said that the workers on the muck were unbearably crude people, but Janie accepts them as fellow human beings. Because of the brief time that she spends with Tea Cake on the muck, Janie transcends the misery of being defined by someone else and discovers who she is, what she can do, and how fulfilling love can be.