Summary: Chapter 1
[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.
Summary: Chapter 2
[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.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
One of the most commented-upon aspects of the novel is Hurston’s split style of narrative. The book begins in an omniscient, third-person narrator’s voice, one that is decidedly literary and intellectual, full of metaphors, figurative language, and other poetic devices. This voice anchors the entire novel and is clearly separate from Janie’s voice. Hurston splits the narrative between this voice and long passages of dialogue uninterrupted by any comment from the narrator. These passages are marked by their highly colloquial language, colorful folksy aphorisms (“Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide”), and avoidance of Standard Written English. These unusual passages celebrate a rich folk tradition that is not often expressed on the page.
The oscillation between Standard Written English and Black Vernacular English mirrors one of the novel’s central themes: the importance of controlling language. Throughout the book, we see Janie struggle with her own voice and control of language. As Gates writes in an afterword included in most modern editions of the book, Hurston views the “search for voice” as the defining quest of one’s lifetime. The divided style of narration, however, suggests that the quest is complicated and lacks a singular resolution. Gates argues, “Hurston uses the two voices in her text to celebrate the psychological fragmentation of both modernity and of the Black American...[H]ers is a rhetoric of division, rather than a fiction of psychological or cultural unity.”
Against this division, though, Hurston, in subtle ways, opens lines of communication between the two narrative styles. The third-person narrator is a voice that, while different from Janie’s, partakes of figures and experiences in Janie’s world. Hurston colors the narrator’s sophisticated prose with colloquialisms, like the “Now” that opens the novel’s second paragraph, nature metaphors, and a tone that reveals that the narrator delights in storytelling as much as any of the characters. Because of these qualities, the narrative voice is more than just the absence of dialect; the narrator has a personality that is related, though not identical, to those of the characters. Hurston’s affection for Black folklore and dialect is evident not only in its raw presentation in dialogue form but also in the traces it leaves on her high prose. The subtlety of the traces allows her to integrate the widely divergent styles into an aesthetic whole; the styles remain in tension but can speak to one another.
From the opening passage of the book, it is clear that men and women are seen as fundamentally different. Janie doesn’t want a male identity but rather a female one to parallel a male one; in the natural world, male and female impulses complement each other, creating a perfect union in a mutual embrace. Each gives the other what the other needs but does not yet possess. This ideal of love and fulfillment is at the center of Janie’s quest throughout the book.