Summary and Analysis
Janie begins the recollection of her life with an overview of her years with Nanny, her grandmother. She and Nanny lived in a house on the property of Mrs. Washburn, Nanny's very sympathetic and helpful white employer. Janie played with Mrs. Washburn's white grandchildren, and it was not until she saw herself in a group picture, when she was six years old, that she discovered that she was not white. As a child, she had happy times, but those times ended when the girls at school picked on her because she came to school better dressed and better groomed than they did; she even wore ribbons in her hair. They told Janie derogatory stories about her father and omitted anything positive. According to Janie, her father tried to get in touch with her mother with offers of marriage.
Nanny believed things would be better for Janie if they did not live with Mrs. Washburn. Nanny was a woman of ambition and determination. She accepted help from her employer and was thus able to purchase land and a small house with a yard that Janie loved.
One spring afternoon while Nanny is sleeping, Janie lingers in the yard under her favorite pear tree. Johnny Taylor, known to the neighbors and to Janie as lazy, passes by the fence and stops to talk to Janie — and kisses her. Nanny wakes in time to see the kiss and memories of her life and that of her daughter run through her mind. It is time now, the old lady knows, for Janie to have protection for herself in the form of a solid, respectable husband. The girl's life cannot be ruined by some trifling youth like Johnny Taylor.
Janie protests that the meeting was accidental and that the kiss was innocent, but Nanny is unconvinced. In an emotional scene, Nanny rocks and embraces Janie. When they are both calm, Nanny tells Janie how much she loves her. Now is the time for Nanny to tell Janie about her own life.
Although Nanny was born into slavery on a plantation near Savannah, Nanny had dreams. The fact that she was a slave would not allow her to do more than dream, but Emancipation gave her freedom and a chance to transfer those dreams to her daughter Leafy. Leafy, whose father was Nanny's white master, disappointed Nanny; one day she left home, leaving behind the infant Janie. Nanny now sees Janie as another chance for her to see her dreams fulfilled, and those dreams do not include Johnny Taylor.
Nanny had opportunities to marry, she tells Janie, but she chose not to, preferring to dedicate her life to her granddaughter. Now it is time for Janie to marry, and Nanny has chosen Logan Killicks, a much older man, who can offer Janie the protection and security of his age, plus a 60-acre potato farm.
Janie protests the plan, but Nanny knows that she can do no more for Janie. She has done her best. Someone else must now care for Janie.
Chapter 2 serves as the exposition of the novel by providing valuable background information about the characters of Janie and Nanny. Readers learn for the first time about Janie's childhood, her absent mother, and Nanny's life as a slave on a southern plantation. Readers now can understand Nanny's sincere need to protect Janie from the evils of the world. She wants Janie to have a better, more secure life than she (and her daughter) did.
For the first time in the novel, Hurston compares Janie's life to a tree with the simile, "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done, and undone." The image of the tree continues as Janie becomes infatuated with a blossoming pear tree in Nanny's backyard. While the first image compared Janie's life to a tree, this next image causes Janie to make a realization. As she watches a bee enter the center of a bloom to extract pollen, Janie suddenly understands what she believes to be the concepts of love and marriage. Although Janie is married three times in the novel, it is not until her third marriage that she encounters true love. It becomes evident that, more than anything, Janie yearns for true, unconditional love. Hurston's tree image appears again as she uses the metaphor, "She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her." At 16, Janie yearns for the answers to life's questions, especially those queries about love.
The narrative shifts in chapter 2 as Janie's history is revealed. As Hurston begins the description of the blossoming pear tree, the point of view shifts from Janie's voice to a third-person narrator who tells a story about Janie, rather than a story told by Janie.
A new character is also introduced in Chapter 2. Janie's grandmother has chosen Logan Killicks, a much older man, to be Janie's husband. Nanny believes Logan to be the perfect choice for Janie because he offers her protection as well as stability because he owns a 60-acre potato farm. Janie protests her grandmother's plan because she does not know Logan, let alone love him. Janie's images of perfect love emanate from the pear tree, and according to Janie, "The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the tree. . . ." Janie's brief marriage to Logan failed to bring her the happiness, love, and acceptance that she desired.
Note that in this chapter, Janie calls herself "a real dark little girl." Later on in this novel, she is described as having skin like coffee and cream. Hurston is not always consistent, but such discrepancies do not alter the powerful narrative of the story.
never hit us a lick amiss never beat or spanked the children when they didn't deserve it.
palma christi leaves the leaves of a gigantic herb plant called palma christi in Spanish-speaking countries; its leaves are believed to reduce severe headaches.
bore the burden in the heat of the day The biblical reference is to Matthew 20:12: "These latecomers did only one hour's work, yet you have treated them on a level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun."
school out . . . high bush and sweeter berry take more time to look around and think about what you want to do. Picking a good husband is compared to knowing what part of a berry bush has the sweetest fruit.
angel with the sword a metaphor for death; the biblical reference comes from Numbers 22:23: ". . . the angel standing in the door with his sword drawn. . . ."
got in quotation wid people Sherman's march had ended, the slaves had been freed, and the Union had set up a system to help the freedmen. It was only by talking around, though, that Nanny found out what was going on.