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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
While men are often disappointed by dreams that remain unrealized, women are able to turn their dreams into truths to live by, even if the truths never materialize into reality. The story begins with such a woman, who is around forty years of age. She has just returned to Eatonville from burying the dead, the sudden dead. At sundown, she arrives in the town and passes by townspeople who watch her and form judgments that are cruel. The men see her body and her swinging hair; the women look at her old shirt and overalls. They all wonder why her young husband is not with her. They all wonder if he has spent all of her money.
Janie simply walks up the street, opens her gate, and walks up the steps to her own house. The women think she is rude, not worth any trouble. Pheoby Watson is the exception. She counts herself as Janie's friend. The other women argue with Pheoby, saying Janie Stark is worthless; but she reminds them that they are not sinless themselves. Pheoby soon decides to leave the others gathered on the porch and go take Janie some dinner. The two friends greet each other warmly, and Janie gratefully eats Pheoby's mulatto rice. After eating, Janie wants to wash and soak her tired feet and sit and talk for awhile. The two of them laugh and compliment each other. They discuss how everyone in the town is dying of curiosity to find out what Janie has been up to.
Even Pheoby is eager to hear all about Janie's life and what has brought her back. Janie simply says Tea Cake is gone and that's the only reason Janie is back. Pheoby, of course, does not understand, so Janie invites her to sit right where she is and listen to her story. As darkness envelopes them, Janie begins to tell her story.
Chapters One and Twenty comprise the "frame" of the story, the portion where Janie arrives home and introduces and finishes her life story. Pheoby is the listener, a friend, and an encouraging ear. She is not like the other townsfolk, who show their pettiness. They are portrayed as distant and small-minded, eager to find an unchristian evidence of evil. They are jealous of Janie, a wealthy, middle-aged woman who has taken off with a younger man. They are also curious about Janie, for she has returned to town, dressed in poor clothes but still looking young and self-confident. Phoeby, on the other, just likes her friend and respects her independence. To show her support, she takes Janie some dinner.
Although Janie does not say much in this opening chapter, several things are obvious. Tea Cake, Janie's younger lover, is now gone, but she has enjoyed her life with him. In spite of her loss, she is an undefeated and proud woman. Her easy and friendly manner with Pheoby does not reflect a downtrodden woman, just a road-weary one, who is appreciative of a good meal and who wants to wash her tired feet. The New Testament reference to washing a traveler's feet, in this case Janie washing her own, suggests that she is both fallen and redeemed. The next eighteen chapters will chart the experiences that cause her to feel debased and then forgiven; they will show how she arrives at contented womanhood.