Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

It is early evening in Eatonville, Florida, one day in the early 20th century. As the sun sets, a group of women sit on Pheoby and Sam Watson's porch gossiping about Janie Starks. She is dressed in muddy overalls and a faded shirt, which the women note with interest. The men pay more attention to her appealing form. The gossipy "porch sitters"—Pheoby, Pearl Stone, Mrs. Sumpkins, Lulu Moss, and unnamed others—are annoyed that Janie walks to her house without stopping to talk to them. They are suspicious about why she came back from the Everglades, after a year and a half, without Tea Cake, the "young lad of a boy" with whom she had left Eatonville. Fueled by jealousy, these women judge Janie harshly.

Pheoby, who is Janie's best friend, defends Janie and tells the other women that she is going to take Janie some supper. Carrying a "heaping plate of mulatto rice," Pheoby goes around the side of Janie's house. As the two women sit on the back porch, Janie eats all of the rice and then cleans off her dusty feet with a rag. The two friends talk about the porch sitters and their curiosity about Janie's life. Pheoby warns Janie that if she ignores the townspeople, they will gossip about her; Janie dismisses the concern, saying she pays no attention to the others.

Although Pheoby does not condone the porch sitters' disapproval, she tries to help Janie understand that their behavior is motivated by insecurity and envy. While the two close friends sit in the darkness, Janie reveals that Tea Cake is gone and begins to tell Pheoby the story of her life.

Analysis

Chapter 1 introduces the main character, Janie Mae Crawford, and her best friend, Pheoby Watson. The chapter also introduces the "porch sitters," a group of judgmental, opinionated townspeople who act as foils or contrasts to Pheoby. Finally, the chapter mentions two important settings of the novel—Eatonville and the Everglades. Janie has returned to Eatonville after living in the Everglades in the southern part of the state. Most of the novel's events take place in these two locations.

As the conversations of the porch sitters and the two friends reveal, Hurston uses the dialect of African Americans of the early 20th-century South in the dialogue. Dialect is the distinctive speech of a particular region or group. This approach may be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with the dialect, but Hurston uses what is called eye dialect, in which the way the characters' dialogue is written shows how the words sound when they are spoken aloud. For example, Janie says, "Naw, 'tain't nothin' lak you might think." Rendered in standard spelling, that would be, "No, it isn't anything like you might think." By using eye dialect, Hurston captures the way African Americans in Eatonville typically spoke, recreating the richness of their speech. Readers who try to hear the words as they read can generally understand their meaning pretty easily.

In this chapter Hurston sets the opening of her story within a story. While the first chapter and part of the last chapter take place in the present, the rest of the novel is told as a flashback in which Janie recollects the events of her life from childhood through her third husband's death.

Several key symbols appear in Chapter 1. They include the horizon, the gate, the mule, and Janie's hair. In the opening paragraph, Hurston describes how men and women go after what they want. While some people achieve their dreams easily, others "sail forever on the horizon," meaning they are neither here, at the departure point, or there, the destination. These people are always on the edge of experience, never realizing their dreams. The horizon, then, is the boundary to having important experiences. The gate appears when Janie walks to her own home: she goes straight through her gate without stopping to talk to the others; the gate slams shut behind her to show that she is closing them off. Pheoby comes to Janie's house by "the intimate gate," gaining access to her friend. Hurston refers to mules in paragraph 4, where they are included in the litany of contrasts between the structured workday and the freedom of the evening. During the day the porch sitters must silently follow the orders of whites. In the evening they are free to give voice to their thoughts. Janie's hair is described as a "great rope of black hair swinging to her waist." The men notice it favorably; the women think the style does not fit Janie's age.

The negative views of the porch sitters toward Janie, like this objection to her hair style, introduce a dominant theme in the novel: judgment. The porch sitters are critical and judgmental. They are busybodies who gossip, tease, and question what other people do. In effect, they also function in a similar way the chorus does in Greek drama—by commenting on the main action.

Documents for Chapter 1

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Questions for Chapter 1

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As a review of Chapter 1, you will be completing your first Weekly Assignment. For submission of the assignment, you will click this link to attach your Word Document rather than post to the Discussio
Using what you have learned in Ch 3. Summarizing and Responding , I would like you to summarize Richard Rodriguez's opening for his book, Brown . I'm not sure your experience with writing summaries, b
Historical Speech Review The ability to recognize and explain the elements of the communication process is the beginning of truly understanding how to prepare for and deliver effective oral presentati
Learning Resources Note: To access this week’s required library resources, please click on the link to the Course Readings List, found in the Course Materials section of your Syllabus. Required Readin
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