Their Eyes Were Watching God is largely told as a prolonged reflection on the events of many years leading up to Janie Crawford’s arrival in Eatonville, which opens chapter one. When Janie was married to Joe Starks, the couple lived in Eatonville until his death; for a while, Joe (also called Jody) had even been the town’s mayor. After he died, Janie had remarried and moved away, and had fallen out of touch with her former neighbors and co-residents.
The conflict in chapter one is primarily between Janie and many of the residents—both some who formerly knew her and others who have only heard stories about the Starks era. As Janie seems to be well-off, some people resent her apparent success, in part because of its connection with Jody. Those who enjoying inventing and sharing gossip spread the rumor that her husband, Vergible Woods, nicknamed Tea Cake, has left her. They speculate that she has come back because she has nowhere else to go.
Although Janie could dispel these rumors if she chooses, she maintains a distance from most townspeople. In fact, Tea Cake has died, and Janie killed him. She chooses to share the story of her life, not just the last section, with one remaining friend, Pheoby.