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Chapters 7 - 9
Joe looks off into the corner of the room, and Janie realizes that this last fight in his eyes is with death. Joe dies with his hands in a pose of protest. She places them calmly on his chest and studies his face. A wave of pity for her husband washes over her, and she wishes she could have found another way to deal with him. She wonders what has happened to her and goes to look in the mirror. She still sees an attractive woman and realizes she has a life in front of her. She tears the kerchief off her head, lets her hair down, and then ties it back up. She composes herself to go and tell the people gathered in the yard that her husband is dead.
Joe Starks' funeral is impressive, the fanciest and most powerful Orange County has ever seen. Janie attends the funeral, wearing a sad, set face, but inside she is moving with the spring tide. For a while, she plays the part of the widow, making no outward change in her life. She quietly runs the store with the usual help of Hezekiah, a young employee. The one difference is that she burns all her head rags and lets her hair down in a braid to swing freely. At night, in her house, she wanders into her lonesomeness, wondering where she should go. She realizes she has no feelings for her mother and resents her grandmother, for the old woman had twisted love horribly and made Janie pay dearly for it. At this stage in her life, she is determined to no longer chase after things and security; she wants to engage with others in human joy and brightness.
Since Janie is a rich widow, before long there are many suitors. They tell her she needs a man's assistance, for women are not meant to manage business for themselves. Janie laughs at them; she likes her lonesome freedom and considers the pack of greedy men ridiculous. After six months, not one of the men has gotten as far as her front porch. She does let Hezekiah handle much of the business, and the young man unconsciously imitates Joe in his concerns, gestures and language, which amuses Janie. The men keep coming, but they all act stiff and formal with her, and Janie is not interested. She does go out with her girlfriend Pheoby, who tries to press the case of a man she knows, an undertaker; but Janie is not interested in things related to death, for she is seeking life. Pheoby, however, is worried that folks will think that Janie is glad that Joe is gone. Janie answers that mourning should last no longer than grief.
At the start of this section, Janie is at her lowest. She has split herself into two; there is her real existence and her dream one. In reality, she has so beaten down the liveliness of her spirit in order to get along with Joe that she has aged and her face has gone blank. She lives in this state of numbness for years. When she finally wakes up, she notices that Joe is old and ill; his years of energetic directing have taken their toll. But he and Janie are so estranged that there is no question of her caring for him; he will not even allow it. When she tries, he rebuffs her. Instead, his fears about his own frailty move him to a new set of friends and an unreliable herbalist, who sets him against Janie. She sees no way of changing things between them. In this portrait of a marriage gone sour, Hurston deftly portrays the ill-will that characterizes many relationships.
In the scene where Janie finally defends herself and confronts Joe, Hurston writes with full understanding what such a challenge would mean to a person with a weak ego. Joe is easily emasculated by her and beats a full retreat from the woman he has tried to hold in subjugation for so long. Hurston's portrait of Joe, however, is not without sympathy. He is a man to be pitied in his self-imposed fear and loneliness.
When death again visits the story, Hurston's prose takes flight. Janie insists on telling Joe just what she thinks of their marriage and of him. He protests that she has no sympathy and is killing him. She refuses to stop until she speaks her peace; and then Joe dies. In suddenly realizing the weakness of her husband, she feels a moment of pity for him, but it is short-lived. Her inside and outside have been split for so long that, as a widow, she can only feel more whole and free. To represent her freedom from Joe, she burns her head rags, takes her hair down and lets her braid swing. It is quite clear that Janie knows where she stands; the life she has been leading is not the life she wants to continue to live. As she reflects on her past, she realizes that there is still a "jewel down inside herself." She is determined to help it come to ripeness.
Fortunately, Janie has Hezekiah to help her in the store. He is even a source of humor to her as he tries to imitate Joe's mannerisms and sense of utter importance. The steady string of stiff suitors is also humorous to her. She realizes that they seek her company out of greed and offer her nothing that she seeks. Because she is a wealthy widow, she no longer has any thought of material things or security. She is seeking happiness, the joy of the pear tree.