The collective label of “porchsitters” is applied to people who sit and talk; it is largely a synonym for “gossips.” Many of the people frequently hang out on the porch of Joe Starks’s store, while others sit on their own porches. They tend to be highly critical of Janie Crawford.
The people had worked hard for the “bossman” during the day, functioning as “tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences” whom the novel’s narrator compares to mules. Although their relentless gossiping has many negative qualities, Zora Neale Hurston also acknowledges the power that language holds for human beings. At day’s end, the sitters
became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed things through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
The porchsitters appear early in the novel. In chapter 1, it is through their eyes that Hurston depicts Janie’s re-entry into Eatonville. While her friend Pheoby defends her, the other women condemn Janie based on the rumors about Tea Cake’s death. The importance of the store’s porch is made clear in chapter 6, where Hurston often uses it as a metaphor for the town’s social life. Conducting town business out in public is one element of the porch’s importance. Hurston further elaborates on the importance of language, as gossiping and telling tall tales are equally crucial aspects.
[T]he people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts. ...
When the men get into a heated argument, as they often do, she refers to the contest as the porch’s behavior: “The porch was boiling now.”