Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
The novel opens on the main character, Janie Crawford, returning to Eatonville, Florida after she buries her husband Tea Cake. Her neighbors, unaware of what happened, judge her harshly then, assuming that Tea Cake ran out on her. Eventually, Janie's friend Pheoby comes to visit and gets the real story. They talk briefly about how people are cruel and judgmental, and then Janie tells Pheoby that Tea Cake is gone, but doesn't immediately say why. This sets up the frame narrative that the author uses to tell the real story: that of Janie's life. This will begin in Chapter 2.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in a thick Southern African American dialect that first time readers often have trouble understanding. Hurston, a trained anthropologist, studied this dialect in Florida and reproduced it accurately on the page through the use of various colloquialisms, phonetic spelling, and frequent dialogue. Her choice of diction helps characterize the people in the novel, grounding them in the place, time, and culture that produced the dialect.
Death. One of the first images in the book is that of a dead body, its "eyes flung wide open in judgment" (later, we'll learn that this is Tea Cake's body and that Janie was forced to kill him after he began showing symptoms of rabies). This prepares the reader for a narrative that will include a series of increasingly tragic deaths, including two of Janie's husbands.
Friendship. Immediately upon her arrival in Eatonville, it becomes clear that Janie doesn't have many friends in town. Most of the residents criticize her openly, spreading malicious gossip and assuming that her husband has left her when in fact he's dead. The only friend Janie can be said to have here is Pheoby, a more understanding busybody who nevertheless wants to get the story about Tea Cake. That Janie's willing to give it indicates that she and Pheoby are, ultimately, very close.
Gossip. Hand in hand with the theme of friendship is the theme of gossip, which is woven throughout the entire novel and is usually associated with Janie. She's a beautiful, independent, wealthy woman, and all these things together lead to her being criticized by the citizens of Eatonville. Everybody, including her friend Pheoby, participates in the gossip mill, though to varying degrees.