The porch sitters are spread out on the front porch of Pheoby and Sam Watson's home, happy to be free of the responsibilities of their long day's labor. They are astonished to see a bedraggled and weary-looking Janie Starks trudging into town, then turning her face in their direction. The women see her as a disaster, but the men see her as still possessing physical attraction. Janie speaks, acknowledges them, and goes on, and their indignation is great. How could she have the nerve not to stop and explain why she went off a year and a half ago in a blue satin dress and now she returns in dirty overalls?
Surely her husband — they assume she married the man, the guitar-playing, roving Tea Cake — took her money and probably went off with a younger woman. After all, Tea Cake was nearly ten years younger than Janie. They believe that Janie should have stopped and talked to them. The inherent jealousy of the women is quite apparent.
Janie's friend Pheoby defends her to the porch sitters. Pheoby believes that Janie does not have to share any of her personal business with them. Assuming that Janie is hungry, Pheoby volunteers to take Janie a pot of mulatto rice, and soon she finds her way through the darkness to Janie's back steps. Pheoby's motive is not completely unselfish. She is quietly certain that Janie will talk to her and explain what happened during the past year and a half. Janie welcomes her friend and the gift of food. She informs Pheoby that Tea Cake did not run off with the money that Joe left her. She reveals that the money is safe in the bank, but Tea Cake is dead. After Janie has rested for a while, cleaned and soothed her tired feet, and enjoyed the rice, she tells Pheoby about her months with Tea Cake.
Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with a focus on judgment, a powerful and prevalent theme in the novel. As Janie returns to Eatonville after a lengthy absence, the porch sitters treat her especially harshly when talking about her. They make it their business to criticize her past actions and her present appearance, while ultimately judging her. This theme of judgment will continue throughout the novel, as Janie will be judged by her husbands and others.
Thus, the character of Janie Mae Crawford Killicks Starks Woods, the novel's 40-year-old heroine, is introduced as she endures the judgments of the porch sitters. Readers will come to know Janie as a strong, independent, free-spirited woman who strives to define herself, rather than allow others to determine who she is. In the novel, Janie encounters many people who attempt to define her by her beauty or by her relationships with others, just as the porch sitters do in the first chapter.
Besides Janie, Pheoby Watson is introduced as Janie's loyal confidante and best friend. In this chapter, Pheoby, who is genuine and kind, contrasts with the porch sitters, who are mean and superficial. Pheoby shows true care and concern for her friend as she offers Janie rice as well as a listening ear. While the character of Pheoby is minor in the novel, she represents true friendship for Janie.
The end of the chapter sets the format for the remainder of the novel. Janie tells Pheoby that she cannot tell her about her experiences without relating the events of her life. This first chapter takes place in the present, while the remaining chapters (until the last) are composed of Janie's recollections of her past.
porch sitters hard-working farmers and laborers; men and women who work for someone else — a white boss. Only in the evening do they gain control of their time. Janie's late husband, Joe Starks, seems to be the only man in Eatonville who didn't work for someone else.
dat ole forty year ole 'oman a reference to Janie; the remark, by a woman, about a woman, is made out of spite and envy. Although Janie is 40 years old, she is still an attractive woman, much to the annoyance of the women.
bander log possibly a long log that people sat on while they bantered, joked, and gossiped.
fall to their level The women hope that Janie will someday, somehow, stop having an aura about her. Her charisma reinforces their envy and is proof that they do not think well of themselves.
to study about Mrs. Sumpkins' phrase that means she isn't "thinking about" Janie; ironically, from her remarks, she has evidently spent much time doing just that.
She sits high, but she looks low Lulu Moss suggests that while Janie carries herself in a high-mannered way, her social standing has come down considerably after her relationship with Tea Cake.
booger man the mythical monster who is often called the "boogeyman"; a frightening imaginary being, often used as a threat in disciplining children.
mulatto rice a concoction of cooked rice, chopped and browned onions, crisp bacon bits, and some chopped tomatoes.
lamps and chimneys the reference is to kerosene lamps. Apparently, Janie, a good housekeeper, either left the lamps clean when she went away or took time to clean at least one of them as soon as she returned. Kerosene lamps and their chimneys must be clean in order to function properly.
stove wood Although Janie has the most pretentious house in town, it does not have gas or electricity; she must cook on a wood-burning stove.
Mouth-Almighty someone who talks too much.
An envious heart makes the treacherous ear Pheoby characterizes the gossipy women with this biblical-sounding adage.
a lost ball in de high grass The townspeople love baseball; not only do they like to watch it, but they also like to play it. The field where they play has tall, uncut grass, and fly balls are often lost and the game delayed while both teams search for the ball.
They don't know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings and if love is a bed quilt The experiences of the townspeople are so limited that they can't make any valid observations on life and love.
come kiss and be kissed come and talk to me, Janie is saying; it's implied that the townspeople should do more of this in their lives.
The 'ssociation of life . . . De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin' Janie refers here to the common experience of belonging to fraternal or church organizations and going to their conventions and meetings. Janie wants Pheoby to understand that her experiences in the past eighteen months were as exciting as attending a convention.
hard of understandin' Pheoby will want a detailed explanation to be sure that she understands all that Janie says.
a mink skin . . . a coon hide one thing looks pretty much like something else until both can be studied carefully. No one can understand what Janie's life was like with Tea Cake or with Joe until each is examined carefully.
monstropolous hyperbole invented by Hurston; perhaps an extension of monstrous.