The novel begins with a description of "ships at a distance" and this powerful image is compared to the dreams of men. Women, on the other hand, "forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget." This story, the narrator tells us, will be about a woman who has just returned from burying the dead, and not the dead from a long and protracted illness, but rather, "the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment."
The action of the novel opens in the all-African-American town of Eatonville, Florida. The sun has just set and many of the residents of the town are sitting on the porches and talking. They notice a woman coming along the road, (Janie, the heroine of this novel) and they begin to gossip about her. Janie is dressed in overalls - they ask why she isn't wearing the fancy blue dress she left town in. They criticize her appearance - they think she is trying to look younger than she is, although she's in her forties. The biggest question in their minds and mouths, however, is why she has returned to town alone, when she had left to run off with a much younger man.
Janie finally reaches the porch, and despite their talk, the men can't help but admire her beautiful, and still young-looking, figure; the women look on jealously. But no one actually speaks to her, so Janie walks by toward her own house and lets the gate slam behind her.
Once she's gone, the people on the porch argue about whether Janie should have greeted them, or whether or not she's even worth talking to. Pheoby Watson, reminding the porch sitters that she's Janie's friend, defends Janie from the criticism. Again, they rail against her relationship with that younger man, Tea Cake, but mostly, they're angry because she didn't stop to explain to them what had happened. Pheoby decides to go and talk to her friend herself, and to bring her dinner.
She walks over to Janie's house and is greeted warmly, and Janie is pleased with the "mulatto rice" that Pheoby has brought, as she's really hungry. Janie asks if the people on the porch had been talking about her; Pheoby confirms that they have been, but tells Janie not to worry about what they think. Janie says she isn't bothered by the town's curiosity, and that if Pheoby wants to tell them about Janie, she can.
Janie then begins to tell her story. She tells Pheoby she still has her nine hundred dollars in the bank, and then she reveals that Tea Cake is dead, which comes as surprise to Pheoby. Janie says that's the only reason she returned: she had been down in the Everglades, but with Tea Cake gone, she had no reason to stay. Pheoby says she is having a hard time understanding Janie; so Janie checks to make sure she has some time to listen, and begins her story in earnest.
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