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[T]he dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
As the sun sets in a southern town, a mysterious woman trudges down the main road. The local residents, gathered on Pheoby Watson’s porch, know her, and they note her muddy overalls with satisfaction. Clearly resentful, they talk about how she had previously left the town with a younger man and gleefully speculate that he took her money and left her for a younger woman. They envy her physical beauty, particularly her long, straight hair. She doesn’t stop to talk to them, and they interpret her passing by as aloofness. Her name, it is revealed, is Janie Starks, and the fellow with whom she ran off is named Tea Cake.
Pheoby criticizes the other women on the porch for their malicious gossip and sticks up for Janie. She excuses herself and visits Janie’s home, bringing Janie a plate of food. Janie laughs when Pheoby repeats the other women’s speculations to her. Janie explains that she has returned alone because Tea Cake is gone but not for the reasons that the crowd on the porch assumes. She has returned from living with Tea Cake in the Everglades, she explains, because she can no longer be happy there. Pheoby doesn’t understand what she means, so Janie begins to tell her story.
[T]he thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace . . . the ecstatic shiver of the tree . . . So this was a marriage!
Janie is raised by her grandmother, Nanny. She never meets her mother or her father. Janie and Nanny inhabit a house in the backyard of a white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Washburn. She plays with the Washburns’ children and thinks that she herself is white until she sees a photograph of herself. The children at the black school mock Janie for living in a white couple’s backyard and tease her about her derelict parents. They often remind her that Mr. Washburn’s dogs hunted her father down after he got her mother pregnant, though they neglect to mention that he actually wanted to marry her. Nanny eventually buys some land and a house because she thinks that having their own place will be better for Janie.
When Janie is sixteen, she often sits under a blossoming pear tree, deeply moved by the images of fertile springtime. One day, caught up in the atmosphere of her budding sexuality, she kisses a local boy named Johnny Taylor. Nanny catches Janie with Johnny and decides to marry Janie off to Logan Killicks, a wealthy middle-aged farmer. She wants to see Janie in a secure situation, which Logan Killicks can provide, before she dies. She says that black women are the mules of the world and that she doesn’t want Janie to be a mule.
Janie protests, and Nanny recounts to her the hardships that she has experienced. Nanny was born into slavery. She was raped by her master and, a week after her daughter Leafy was born, her master went to fight during the last days of the Civil War. The master’s wife was furious to see that Leafy had gray eyes and light hair and thus was obviously her husband’s daughter. She planned to have Nanny viciously whipped and to sell Leafy once she was a month old. Nanny escaped with her baby and the two hid in the swamps until the war was over. Afterward, Nanny began working for the Washburns. Her dreams of a better life for Leafy ended when Leafy was raped by her schoolteacher. After giving birth to Janie, Leafy went out drinking every night and eventually ran off. Nanny transferred her hopes to Janie.
Their Eyes Were Watching God begins at the end of the story: we first see Janie after she has already grown old, concluded the adventures that she will relate, and been “tuh de horizon and back.” Her story then spins out of her own mouth as she sits talking to Pheoby. From the very beginning of the book, then, language plays a crucial role; the book is framed more as an act of telling than of writing. Even before Janie speaks, we hear the murmur of the gossips on the porch: “A mood come alive. Words walking without masters.” Throughout the book, speech—or more accurately, the control of language—proves crucially important. These first chapters introduce the important and complex role that language and speech will play throughout the novel.