The two headed ancient Roman idol Janus was considered to be the god of doorways and portals. Carvings and statues of Janus overlooked doorways, gates, passageways, bridges and entrances and exits of temples. The people of ancient Rome believed that Janus, with his two heads, witnessed the comings and the goings of people, the risings and the settings of the Sun, the beginning and the end of love and that which was past as well as that which was to come. In modern times Janus is associated with hypocrisy and being “two-faced”. Janus is invoked when referring the duplicitous, the deceptive, the liars, the frauds, and the cheats.
Some is referred to as ‘Janus-faced’ to imply that the real motivations for their actions are different than the ones that they overtly claim to have. Both these different connotations of the word ‘Janus’ are present in Anne Beattie’s short story of the same name. Janus is the story of a married real estate agent named Andrea, who possesses a decorative bowl that she is greatly attached to. Andrea seems to have an obsession with the bowl. She leaves it in houses that she is engaged to sell and believes that the bowl brings her luck and is responsible for the sale of the houses.
She warns her husband against leaving his keys in the bowl and is greatly disturbed by the idea that she might lose the bowl. Andrea believes that she has a ‘relationship’ with the bowl. It is revealed that the bowl is a gift from a past lover. The lover asked her to leave her husband and be his alone but she would not do so. He termed her “two-faced”; a janus in the modern sense (Beattie). Andrea wanted a future with her lover but was unwilling to give up her husband, despite being unsatisfied with him. Now with her lover having rejected her, she still clings to the bowl that he gifted her.
Like the Roman god Janus she cannot let go of the past. She clings to artifacts from her past that were better abandoned. Andrea’s relationship with her husband is very unsatisfactory for her. He is a successful stockbroker and she is a successful real estate agent but their relationship is devoid of all passion. Andrea and her husband have all the material possessions they want, they inhabit a shallow materialistic society where the primary pleasure in the person’s life is deemed to come from acquiring new possessions, but now that they are rich, possessions do not give them the same pleasure anymore (Beattie).
The concave shape of the bowl of is symbolic of the emptiness and lack of meaning in Andrea’s and her husband’s life. Andrea and her husband are childless. This childlessness is probably a conscious career decision on their part, both of them being high performing professionals dedicated to their careers. When Andrea forgets the bowl at a house, she likens her act to a mother forgetting her child (Beattie). This suggests that Andrea is deeply troubled by not having children; she has sublimated this dissatisfaction with childlessness into an obsessive attachment with the bowl.
The empty bowl is symbolic of Andrea’s own empty womb. In this too, Andrea ambivalence and her two-faced ‘Janusness’ is revealed; on one hand Andrea consciously chooses to not have children in order to better pursue her profession as a real estate agent and on the other hand, she nurtures a hidden desire to have children that is expressed in her obsessive attention and affection for an inanimate object. As suggested by the title, Janus is a deeply ambiguous work of short fiction, open to multiple interpretations but on the whole it is a call to abandon the banal life and embrace passion.