Summary: Chapter 6
[Nature]’s de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it’s de onliest thing God every made.
Janie dislikes the business of running the store but loves that people sit on its porch and talk all day telling colorful, exaggerated stories. The men love teasing a man named Matt Bonner about his overworked, underfed, bad-tempered mule. They make jokes about how sorry the mule looks and needle Matt about how careless and cruel he is toward the animal. Despite Janie’s interest in these stories, Jody doesn’t allow her to sit outside, saying that she’s too good to interact with “trashy people.” But most annoying to Janie of all, Jody orders her to wear a head-rag because it makes him jealous to see other men look at her long hair, though he never reveals his motives to Janie.
One day, Matt Bonner’s mule runs away, and some of the townsmen find it outside the store. They irritate the mule for fun, and Janie mutters her disapproval of their cruelty. Unbeknownst to her, Jody is standing nearby and hears her complaint. He buys the mule for five dollars so that the poor beast can rest for once in his life. Everyone considers Jody’s liberation of the mule very noble, comparing it to Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of northern slaves. The animal becomes a source of pride for the town and the subject of even more tall tales. After it dies, Jody convenes a mock funeral, which becomes a festive event for the entire town. But Jody refuses to allow Janie to attend, saying it would be improper for a woman of her status. After the funeral, vultures descend on the animal’s carcass.
At the store, Jody and Janie argue. She accuses him of being no fun and he argues that he is just being responsible. Although she disagrees, she decides to hold her tongue. On the porch, meanwhile, Sam Watson (Pheoby’s husband) and Lige Moss hold a humorous philosophical debate. They argue about whether natural instinct or a learned sense of caution keeps men away from hot stoves. The good-spirited argument gets intense and Jody decides to join it, leaving his delivery boy Hezekiah Potts in charge of the store. The conversation shifts to a discussion of the Sinclair gas station in town but then becomes a playful performance of machismo and flirtation as several of the town’s women parade by. Janie is enjoying the fun when Jody orders her back in the store to wait on one of the women.
When Janie cannot find any pig’s feet for another customer, Jody grows angry and accuses her of incompetence. Instead of fighting back, Janie remains silent. But as time goes on, her resentment builds. She feels the spark go out of their sex life and the spirit of love leave their marriage. One day, seven years after they met, Jody slaps her after a disastrous dinner. Still, Janie doesn’t express her anger; she decides to maintain an exterior of silent respect while keeping her dreams and emotions inside.
But later that day, Janie goes to the store. There, she finds Tony Robbins’s wife begging Jody for a little meat for her family. Jody gives her a small piece and adds the cost to Tony’s account. The men on the porch mutter that they would never allow their wives to embarrass them like that, especially since her husband had spent so much money on her. Janie finally cannot resist speaking up, scolding the men and saying that they don’t know as much about women as they think they do. She points out that it is easy to act big and tough when women and chickens are the only things around to subdue. Jody tells her to be quiet and orders her to fetch him a checkerboard.
Analysis: Chapter 6
Chapter 6 serves two chief functions: it further explores Janie and Jody’s relationship, particularly his need for control, and it examines the strong sense of community in Eatonville, particularly the way language nurtures this sense of community. Both of these issues relate to Janie’s continuing quest to find herself and a sense of meaning and purpose. Initially drawn to Jody because of his ambition, and thinking that she would achieve her dreams through him, Janie learns, in this chapter, that Jody’s power only restricts her. On the other hand, by experiencing the richness of life in Eatonville, in particular the rich folk traditions of conversation, Janie begins to see how she might live the life that she so desires.
Jody continues to exert the same kind of control over Janie that he does in Chapter 5. It is important to note, however, that Jody is not an evil character. Indeed, there are no true antagonists in the book, and evil is not manifested in specific individuals. Jody doesn’t cause pain for its own sake; rather, pain results for Janie as a result of the way that Jody acts—according to the rules that make sense to him, misguided though they are. He is living the only way he knows how. In his heart, he does not intend to hurt people, but his unfailing belief in a social hierarchy dominated by wealthy males inevitably hurts those around him.
That Jody is not fundamentally evil manifests itself in the episode with Matt Bonner’s mule. Jody’s purchase of the animal is a tender moment: unbeknownst to Janie, he spares the animal in order to please her. It is a noble display of power both because it frees the mule from cruelty and because it is meant to please Janie. But even in moments such as this one, Jody’s relationship to Janie still operates according to an imbalanced power dynamic. Though this incident is not a matter of anger or ambition but rather tender kindness, he can demonstrate this kindness only by means of money. He is unable or unwilling to interact on equal terms with Janie; he uses his purchasing power to express his emotions.
Furthermore, we get the sense that perhaps Jody’s actions are not so noble. One can argue that he senses Janie slipping away from him and that he intends the act to woo her back under his dominion. Indeed, he is praised for his compassion, and the comparison to Lincoln only feeds Jody’s haughty sense of himself—the same egotism with which he first attracts Janie. In refusing to allow Janie to attend the mule’s funeral, Jody again prioritizes issues of decorum over Janie’s happiness; he would rather keep up the appearance of his wife as a perfect lady than indulge her emotions. The unromantic, commonplace descent of the vultures upon the mule’s carcass after the funeral seems to testify, if not to the shallowness of Jody’s motivations, then to his inability to express himself suitably.
Hurston again uses two different narrative devices to differentiate between the realm of Janie and Jody’s relationship and that of the community. The third-person omniscient narrator describes Janie’s life in the store: except for her outburst at the end, she remains silent, and the narrator tells us her story. But in the lengthy passages of dialogue, we are brought deeper into the world of the novel: instead of being told a story, we are actually being shown a world. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his essay “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly Text,” we experience the full richness of these conversations because the characters speak for themselves. Only rarely does the narrator interrupt to tell us something about the scene.
Sam Watson and Lige Moss’s conversation about the role of nature in the world strikes at the heart of the novel’s central theme: the relationship between humans and the world around them. The porch conversation is, in modern terms, a debate over nature versus nurture: whether we are as we are because of what we are born with (nature) or what we are taught (nurture). Sam Watson’s comment that “[God] made nature and nature made everything else” resonates throughout the novel, particularly at the climax, when all of the characters find themselves at the mercy of nature. Janie is attracted to these conversations because of the warm human connection that they offer and their organic, humorous approach to the questions that are at the center of her journey to the horizon. Her outburst at the end of the chapter represents an attempt to break out from Jody’s silencing control and join the world of the porch.