Summary and Analysis
Married life with Joe Starks seems to get off to a good start as Janie and her husband ride the train to the new town ("
a town all outa colored folks
") that he told her about. He indulges her by buying little trinkets, and she is impressed by his ability to talk to strangers. While she studies him and compares his rather portly figure to those of white folks, Joe talks about his plans for the town where they will live.
When they arrive in town, both are disappointed. It is much less than either of them expected, yet Joe is undaunted. He is full of ideas, and he has the money and the energy to carry them out. Having assessed the unprogressive nature of the town, Joe first arranges for a place for them to live, and next, sets a date for a town meeting to form a committee. The local men are impressed by Joe's overwhelming personality and Janie's good looks.
Joe rents a house for a month, and he and his wife settle in. The men gather around, and Joe picks them for information. They tell him that the town has a choice of two names: West Maitland or Eatonville. It will become Eatonville in honor of Captain Eaton, one of the original land donors.
Fifty acres is not enough land for a town, Joe decides, and, much to the amazement of the townsmen, he goes off to buy more land. Their skepticism is immense, but so is Joe's self-confidence. He returns with the papers for 200 acres. While he is away, one of the local men tries to work up a conversation with Janie, yet she coolly rebuffs him.
Joe moves fast to build a crossroads store and to secure a government post office for the town. He begins selling off portions of his 200 acres to new settlers, the town grows rapidly, and when Joe's new store is completed, he holds a party. The men who will become the porch sitters preside over the party, teasing and joking with one another. Joe makes a speech, but he refuses to let Janie say anything. He comes away from the meeting with what he wants: the position of elected mayor.
So far, this has been Joe's Eatonville, and now that the store and post office are functioning, Joe announces to Janie that she must work in the store, because he is simply too busy. Janie demurs because the street is dark, but Joe has an answer for that. He writes Sears, Roebuck, and Company, pays for a street light, and has a big barbecue festival after the lamp has been installed. Of course, it is Joe who climbs the ladder to be the first person to light the street lamp.
The long dark hair that was beribboned for the schoolgirl Janie becomes an item of jealousy for Joe. He makes Janie hide her hair under headrags while she works in the store because he is afraid that some other man might touch it or admire it. By now, Janie knows that she has no power to dispute Joe, and so she complies.
The women in the town have no way of knowing how unhappy their mayor's wife is. As they watch Joe push their men to upgrade the town, and as he builds an impressive house, their envy of Janie increases. Her feelings of being different, of being avoided, of not fitting in — those feelings she had as a schoolgirl — are repeated. As the mayor's wife, a woman certainly more prosperous than the other women, she realizes she can't get close to them for friendship. One friendship does develop, however, with Pheoby Watson.
The porch sitters soon take their places at Joe's and also observe and comment on the mayor's wife. They can't help but notice Joe's verbal abuse of her and her subservience to his harsh criticism of the mistakes she makes in the store and post office. They wonder about the quality of their marriage relationship.
Joe has a powerful presence in Eatonville, and Janie finds herself in the background, dominated by her husband and his ambitions. Joe is infatuated with making Eatonville into a working city. The townspeople both respect and fear Joe. While they are grateful for the positive changes that he has brought to the town, they fear the power that he holds over them. Not only does Joe dominate Janie, he also commands the townspeople.
In his rise to power, Janie becomes Joe's possession, similar to the businesses and people of the town. For example, after Joe is appointed mayor, one of the townspeople, Tony, introduces Janie to make a speech. Before she even has a chance to speak, Joe interrupts explaining "mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin' . . . She's uh woman and her place is in de home." He craves the power that he has as mayor and he also uses it in his relationship with Janie. He fails to treat Janie as an equal, but rather as one of his town subjects. Joe also refuses to allow Janie to wear her long hair down for fear that other men might touch it. Joe fears that another man will charm his wife and snatch her away from him, just as he did when she was married to Logan. Janie abides by Joe's rules because she has no power to challenge him.
Joe's position as mayor causes Janie to feel cold, isolated, and lonely. Janie feels isolated from most of the townspeople. Besides Pheoby Watson, she has no other close friends. As the mayor's wife, many people keep their distance from Janie because "she slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind." Not only does Janie feel isolated from the townspeople, but also she feels isolated from her husband. She explains to Joe that his position as mayor exerts a "strain" on their relationship. Joe believes Janie should be grateful to him for making "uh big woman" out of her. No longer is Janie an individual; she is the mayor's wife. For the second time, marriage for Janie is not what she had hoped.
sitting on their shoulder blades a position that's closer to lying down that sitting.
a huge live oak tree an evergreen oak.
uh mite too previous In this particular colloquialism, "previous" means "a little too early."
Middle Georgy the middle of the state of Georgia.
Ah'm uh son of Combunction a polite way of swearing; similar to "Well, I'll be a son of a gun. . . ."
All de women in de world ain't . . . teppentine still and saw mill camp free and easy women, women from the lowest level of laborers. Turpentine stills and saw mills were usually located in the woods, removed from town and close to the trees essential for their products.
Isaac and Rebecca at de well This biblical reference is not literally accurate. Isaac never met Rebecca at the well. Isaac's father's servant encountered Rebecca at the well. The servant had prayed for divine guidance in finding a wife for Isaac — that after his long journey to the land of Aramnaharaim, a generous and humble woman would approach him at the community well and offer him a drink of fresh water from her jug, as well as to offer to draw sufficient water for his camels. Rebecca did so and agreed to leave her village and travel to the land of Canaan to become Isaac's wife.
All them dat's goin' tuh cut de monkey in other words, if everyone has finished acting silly.
bell-cow the leader of the herd; here, the most important women in town.
Protolapsis uh de cutinary linin' The reference is to something that upsets the stomach and makes a person nervous. Hurston is pointing out the men's fondness for impressive words, whether they have real meaning or not.
the street lamp Before electric lights were common, cities and towns lighted their streets with gas lamps. The lamplighter would go around at dusk with a small four- or five-step ladder which he would climb to open the globe of the lamp and light the wick.