The search for one’s identity is as poignant for the fictional character Janie as it was for former slave Frederick Douglass. Douglass used education to form an independent identity, which would separate him from the white slave masters. In contrast, Janie attempts to construct a dependent identity through marriage to each of her three husbands. With the death of her final husband Tea Cake, she plants the seeds he left behind, symbolically proving that she has grown as the seeds will grow and she is now a woman with her own identity. Janie’s first husband Logan does not understand that like any plant, Janie needs room to grow. He gives Janie material advantages through his sixty acres of land, but does not know how to treat her as his wife and not a servant. The reader receives a glimpse into his heart as he sobs while shouting his suspicion that she is planning to leave him, proving that he does want to please her.
Through their lack of communication, however, Janie feels that the relationship is dead and leaves to marry Joe Starks, whom she believes will always provide her with springtime. Joe Starks gives her material wealth as well as a prominent position in the community for the price of her ultimate subservience. He is a jealous husband so she is not allowed to let her hair down in the store for fear that other men might covet it, and he refuses to let her take part in the community gatherings outside the store. After seven years of marriage and constant submission, Janie reflects on their relationship, realizing that “She wasn’t petal-open with him anymore.”
As in her first marriage, Joe wants someone who will serve him and fill the role of the mayor’s wife, not an equal partner. While married to Joe she can only be the mayor’s wife and receive respect through his position instead of receiving respect for herself. Janie’s final marriage to Tea Cake teaches her to love herself, though at first she still is dependent upon having a man around for a sense of identity. She places great importance on his desire to play checkers with her and it seems as though Janie will always need a man beside her for fulfillment.
Tea Cake shows her to love each aspect of herself. Janie comments on their blooming relationship during the hurricane, “If you can see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all.” Janie’s light is her newfound ability to realize her worth. When Tea Cake is bit by the mad dog and attempts to bite her Janie saves herself, knowing that he loved her more. At the novel’s conclusion Janie says, “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Thus power of truth for Janie is not book knowledge, but rather the knowledge that she has grown to discover an identity all her own.