The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. . . . These sitters . . . sat in judgment.
In this passage, the narrator describes the street in Eatonville, Florida, where Janie’s house is located. Janie has just returned from the Everglades, where her husband, Tea Cake, died. Janie has been gone for a few years, and now that the neighbors see her, all of their envy and dislike comes to the surface. The neighbors are also curious about where she went and why she came back alone. In Eatonville, the neighbors, or porch sitters, spend their evenings on their porches trading gossip, and Janie walks right past them, head held high, letting readers know that she is a proud woman who is not intimidated by the opinions of others.
The store itself was a pleasant place if only she didn’t have to sell things. When the people sat round on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.
Joe Starks’s general store is the setting for much of the novel. The townspeople shop there because it’s well-stocked, and because it’s the only store in the small town. People gather on the front porch of the store to visit and gossip, making it a very public, busy place. Janie spends a lot of time at the store because her husband, Joe, wants her to work there. Doing the math involved with selling is difficult for her. She enjoys listening to the people talk and dream, especially because Joe does not allow her to socialize, but the description suggests that she tolerates rather than enjoys her time at the store.
“Ah ain’t grievin’ so why do Ah hafta mourn? Tea Cake love me in blue, so Ah wears it. Jody ain’t never in his life picked out no color for me. De world picked out black and white for mournin’, Joe didn’t. So Ah wasn’t wearin’ it for him. Ah was wearin’ it for de rest of y’all.”
Pheoby is visiting with Janie at the urging of some of the other townspeople. They are concerned because Janie has started wearing brightly colored clothes, but Joe has only been dead for about nine months. Pheoby tells Janie that the others think she isn’t paying enough respect to Joe, but Janie defends her choice of clothing colors.
The discussion of the color of clothing exemplifies the cultural and societal norms of the American South in the 1930s, when widows were expected to wear black for at least a year to demonstrate their mourning. By not wearing black for a long enough period, Janie clashes with norms, breaking tradition and giving her neighbors something else to gossip about.
Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field.
Tea Cake takes Janie to “de muck” or the Everglades. This area, around Clewiston and Belle Glade, is known for growing sugar cane and string beans. Janie agrees to go with Tea Cake and to work alongside him picking beans and cutting sugar cane so they can stay together. Even the weeds look big and new to Janie, who has never been to this part of Florida. The narrator describes the area as more lush and fertile than other parts of Florida, reflecting Janie’s own happiness and joy for life in this new and different environment with a man who stirs her emotions.
Everybody was walking the fill. Hurrying, dragging, falling, crying, calling out names hopefully and hopelessly. Wind and rain beating on old folks and beating on babies. . . . So they reached the bridge at Six Mile Bend and thought to rest.
But it was crowded. White people had preempted that point of elevation and there was no more room. . . . Miles further on, still no rest.
The narrator describes the desperate situation in the Everglades as people—including the elderly and children—struggle to evacuate because of the hurricane. The narrator lists all of the ways people around them suffer, painting a dire situation. They race ahead of Lake Okechobee, which has overflowed and is quickly covering the land. They walk on a high strip of land that is crowded with people. The white people do not allow the Black workers to stop and rest on the bridge, reflecting the racial tensions and discrimination of the time.
So they filled up and overflowed the ten sedans that Janie had hired and added others to the line. Then the band played, and Tea Cake rode like a Pharaoh to his tomb. No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.
Janie spares no expense for Tea Cake’s funeral and burial. The number of cars she hires shows the large number of Tea Cake’s friends. The funeral is full of music and pageantry just like Tea Cake’s life. Janie’s choice to wear overalls to the funeral shows that she feels deep sorrow and is not concerned with how she looks. Her flouting of societal norms regarding how one should dress at a funeral reminds readers that Janie has always cared more about making a connection than putting on a show for others.