Summary and Analysis
The porch sitters soon take up daily residence on the porch of Joe's store. There, they delight in accusing dimwitted Matt Bonner of mistreating his yellow mule. Matt and his mule become a favorite topic of conversation and teasing, and the porch sitters vie with one another in tantalizing Matt, accusing him of overworking and nearly starving the animal. Janie listens to the talk and is amused by it. She has in mind some comical stories she'd like to tell, but Joe forbids her to take part in the chatter. He calls the people trashy, unworthy of conversation with the mayor's wife.
One afternoon, the men engage in a game of mule-baiting. In a natural defensive reaction, the mule fights back, but the more the animal resists, the more the men tease him. Finally, Janie mutters her disapproval, which Joe overhears. In a surprising act of kindness, both for the mule and for Janie, he purchases the animal. From then on, it becomes the town pet, living in the front yard of the store and rambling about at will, leading a life of ease and freedom. Joe has done an act of unselfishness for Janie.
The mule finally dies of old age, and the townspeople stage an elaborate mock funeral service before they leave the carcass to buzzards. Joe joins in the hilarious parody, but Janie does what Joe tells her to do: She stays in the store. When Joe returns, still chuckling at the foolishness, they briefly discuss the role of fun and play in the serious business of survival and daily living.
One day, Joe discovers that a bill of shipment has been misplaced and a desired item is not in stock. He berates Janie severely, and she tries to answer with comments about his own deficiencies. As usual, Joe prevails, and Janie gives up trying to defend herself. Thus, Joe is satisfied with her apparent submission.
On a day when everything goes wrong in the kitchen, Joe slaps Janie. At this moment, Janie knows beyond any doubt and hope that this marriage will never be what she wants. All she can do is summon the courage to put on a good face and endure it.
Joe goes through the motions of being kind to a customer, perhaps because he can't be kind to Janie. He helps Mrs. Tony, a town parasite and slovenly housekeeper, get some groceries for her family. The porch sitters observe the scene and remark that the woman's husband loves her and puts up with her faults, an observation lost on Joe.
Mock arguments on pseudo-serious subjects, such as those about the mule, found in this chapter often occupy the porch sitters as they struggle to understand their position in the world. They also serve as a form of entertainment for the porch sitters. These discussions do not involve Janie, Joe, or even the town of Eatonville, but they help characterize the men and provide an interlude of local color.
Joe's domination over Janie continues. As the porch sitters share gossip and conversation, Janie longs to take part in this idle chatter, but Joe forbids her to associate with such "trashy people." As a result of his jealousy, he continues to forbid Janie from showing her hair in the store. Joe feels threatened that another man might steal Janie, his possession, away from him. (Perhaps Joe feels even more vulnerable because he actually stole Janie from Logan Killicks.) Joe believes that "she was there in the store for him to look at, not the others." Janie, like the majority of the town is a possession, owned by Joe.
In this chapter, much of the conversation among the porch sitters centers on Matt Bonner's helpless mule. When the men torture the animal, the mule fights, but the men only tease him more. The mule serves to symbolize Janie and her struggle with Joe. Just as the mule has been starved from food, Janie has been denied love and affection from Joe. Joe demands Janie's complete compliance and he continues to dominate her.
Janie finally realizes that her marriage to Joe is a sham, but she also realizes that she has no way out. When Joe slaps Janie one day after his dinner fails to meet his expectations, Janie's "image of [Joe] tumbled down and shattered." Janie knows now more than ever that she must endure her husband and his abuse.
In this chapter, Janie speaks out against the torturing of the mule. She believes that "people ought to have some regard for helpless things." Like the mule, Janie, too, feels helpless in her marriage to Joe. Each time that Janie attempts to stand up to her husband, he only makes her life more difficult by ridiculing or hurting her. Joe has suppressed her so many times that she has stopped speaking her mind. Joe holds all of the power, and Janie has none.
The use of irony is also evident in Chapter 6. Near the end of the chapter, Joe treats Mrs. Tony with sympathy and kindness, even though he cannot be compassionate to his own wife. Perhaps Joe treats Mrs. Tony with compassion because the townspeople are present to witness his act of kindness. With Janie, Joe has no audience, and so he feels no need to pretend.
. . . and yo' feet ain't mates In the first part of Matt's response, he does something that frequently occurs in folk speech: He equates the man Sam with a lie. "You'se a lie, Sam," he says, adding "Yo' feet ain't mates," meaning that Sam is not put together right and hence can't be believed.
Feeds 'im offa 'come up' and seasons it wid raw-hide This is a way of saying that the animal is not well fed. "Come up" would be a promise — someone is waiting for something to come up, a job, for example. Rawhide is untanned cattle skin, certainly not very palatable for man or beast. Rawhide is also a material used for whips.
rub board The old-fashioned galvanized or glass washing board was in common use before washing machines became economically available.
before de ornery varmit could tack a sailing and boating term, consistent with the strong wind that was blowing during this episode. To a sailor, "tack" means to turn the bow to the wind. The mule wasn't fast enough to turn and run into the wind in pursuit of the children.
Say you started tuh Miccanopy but de mule . . . Miccanopy is a small community northwest of Eatonville. The man didn't really know where he was going.
Folks up dat way don't eat biscuit bread but once a week Biscuits must be made of white wheat flour, something better than cornmeal. Cornmeal is the staple of the poor, used in corn bread, corn pone, hush puppies, cornmeal mush, and a host of other stomach-filling items. Biscuits are special and an indication of some prosperity.
side-meat Matt bought side meat by the slice. Side meat is meat from the side of a pig, specifically bacon or salt pork. In Joe's store, it would be sold by the slab to be sliced at home by the purchaser or sliced and weighed in the store. This is another indication of Matt's poverty or ignorance — or both.
fractious hard to manage; unruly; rebellious; also, peevish; irritable; cross.
goosing a sudden, playful prod in the backside.
black gaiters ankle-high shoes with elastic gores at the sides. For Joe, they would be a classy sort of houseslipper.
crazy as a betsy bug a variation of "crazy as a bed bug," an insect of a family (Cimicidae) of wingless, bloodsucking hemipteran insects, especially the species (Cimex lectularius) with a broad, flat reddish-brown body and an unpleasant odor that infests beds, furniture, walls, and so on, is active mainly at night, and may transmit a variety of diseases.
you didn't have gumption "Gumption" is shrewdness in practical matters; common sense.
Drag him out to the edge of the hammock a precarious place to be because a hammock tips very easily when the occupant gets too close to the edge.
No Matt Bonner with plow lines Plow lines control an animal. Now that the mule is dead, he will no longer be hitched to the plow.
Ah knowed you would going tuh crawl up dat holler In other words, I knew that you were going to take that path in the discussion. Sam will "smoke out" Lige in his rebuttal. The two men engage in regular and predictable arguments. Each one knows pretty well what the other one will say, but all of this is part of the entertainment on the porch of the store.
uh butt-headed cow a stubborn animal that won't do what its owner wants it to do.
dat great big ole scoundrel beast up dere The speaker is referring to a picture of an enormous dinosaur on a billboard advertising the Sinclair Oil Company. A dinosaur was the logo of Sinclair and was prominently displayed at their filling stations. In all likelihood, the men do not know it is a dinosaur.
Daisy is walking a drum tune The drum is the key percussion instrument in a musical group. It sets the tempo. Daisy is walking with the stylish snap of a precision solo drummer — and she knows it!
a "studied jury" Educational resources were limited for this community, and there were very few men with college degrees in law or medicine — or even the ministry. In Mules and Men, Hurston has a character say, "You see when Ah was studyin' doctor . . ." Whereas a man or woman might get a "call" to the ministry, the path to informal law or medicine was self-study or perhaps apprenticeship with a practitioner.
Sam Watson, you'se mah fish a good catch — not an empty hook for the fisherman or woman. Joe plans to beat Sam at checkers — that is catch him like a fish on his hook.