Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Janie works six days a week in the store and post office. She enjoys listening to the porch sitters and the "mule talkers," a group of men who joke about a skinny yellow mule owned by Matt Bonner. Starks warns her not to lower herself by joining in the conversation.

Struggling to keep up with the work of the store, Janie feels annoyed by her husband's jealousy and his aversion to having a good time. She is also peeved by his demands, including the insistence that she wear a head rag.

One day, Matt is looking for his mule. A couple of the mule talkers catch it and torment it, but Starks stops them by buying the mule from Matt so the mule can be left alone. Janie is proud of what her husband does to relieve the mule's suffering. Starks keeps the mule near the store, and people feed the mule so that it starts to gain weight.

When the old mule finally dies, Starks tells Janie to stay at the store while he and most of the town take the mule's body out to the swamp. During a mock funeral, Starks and Sam Watson deliver eulogies to the mule, after which the people leave its body to buzzards.

After the funeral, Janie is unhappy because she was not allowed to go. The mule talkers continue to engage in lively conversations, including a heated debate about whether people avoid a hot stove because of what they are born knowing or because of what they have learned and experienced. Starks joins the conversation, leaving Hezekiah Potts to mind the store. As three women come to the store, the single men compete for their attention.

When Janie is not able to find pig's feet for a customer, she and Starks argue. The repeated arguments and Starks's insistence on Janie's submission make her think about her marriage. When Janie is 24 and "seven years married" she realizes that she is no longer in love with her husband; this time, Starks slapped her because she didn't prepare a decent meal for him. From that time on, Janie "had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen" over Starks.

Mrs. Robbins comes to the store to beg for food for her children. Starks gives her a piece of meat to bring home. Some of the men discuss how they wouldn't stand for such behavior from their wife. Uncharacteristically, Janie criticizes the men for their attitudes, which makes Starks angry. He dismisses Janie for talking too much.

Analysis

Chapter 6 dissects the relationship between Janie and her second husband and shows that their marriage is slowly deteriorating. Janie feels lonely and isolated because she is left out of social events like the mule's funeral. By the end of the chapter, Janie begins to assert herself, showing her independence, much to her husband's dismay.

Joe Starks is not alone in these attitudes, of course. The men who sit on the store porch criticize Mrs. Robinson's conduct in begging for food. In addition, this chapter further examines the members of the community of Eatonville and the theme of judgment. Hurston paints a vivid portrait of the townspeople, their relationships, their customs, and their traditions. Depictions of the porch sitters, the mule talkers, and the store customers give the reader a sense of how people typically interact; they entertained themselves by play-acting, competing in verbal sparring matches, playing checkers, and talking about their neighbors.

The chapter incorporates elements of folklore, such as the allegory about the buzzards who descend on the body of the dead mule. While they yearn to eat, they cannot until their leader, "the Parson," is called. He has hung back, waiting until he is formally "notified" of the body—even though he knew it was there. He leads the other birds in a ritual conversation and then feeds first. Only when he's done do the others move in. The entire process follows an established order. Hurston alludes to the connection between the two groups of creatures. As Eatonville's residents leave the mule's body, the narrator notes that the nearby trees were "already peopled" with buzzards. Like the residents of Eatonville, the buzzards have a strict hierarchy and adhere to certain rituals and beliefs. Hurston's careful observation and retelling of the human hierarchy, rituals, patterns of interaction, and beliefs, reflect her training as an anthropologist in the 1920s.

In this chapter the mule represents the mistreatment and cruelty African Americans have been forced to endure. It also symbolizes the oppression Janie experiences at Starks's hands. While he provides for her and feeds her—as he ensures that the mule is fed—he suppresses her emotional life. Janie's message to the porch sitters about the mule, telling them that they should "have some regard for helpless things" is really a call for relief.

Documents for Chapter 6

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Questions for Chapter 6

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