An unnamed woman returns at sunset to a small town in the American South that was once a place she called home. The townspeople, the woman's former neighbors, are sitting together on Pheoby Watson's porch and speculate about why the woman might be returning to town by herself –- and why she's now wearing dirty overalls instead of the blue satin dress she used to wear. Watching the woman approach, without thinking even "to swallow spit," the townspeople mockingly wonder why the woman isn't accompanied by the young man who she left town with in the first place, and smugly guess that he must have run off and stolen her money.
Janie's anonymity makes both her return and the townspeople's gossiping very mysterious. The townspeople's curiosity about what happened to Janie foreshadows the soon to be revealed fact that the novel in fact begins at the end of Janie's story, and points to the novel's important theme of storytelling and language. The malicious tone of their gossip, described as "spit," also speaks to the pervasive theme of judgment and jealousy throughout the novel.
At the same time, the women watching the woman envy her beauty, while the men admire her fit body and luxuriously long and straight black hair.
The sexualized details of Janie's beauty explain some of the neighbor's jealousy. Her long straight black hair suggests Janie's part-white heritage, and therefore perhaps a racial origin for that jealousy as well.
Interrupting the judgmental gossiping of the other townspeople, Pheoby Watson identifies herself as the woman's best friend, and notes with surprise that even she doesn't know why the woman has returned. At this moment, the woman's identity is revealed: her named is Janie Starks, and she left town with a man called Tea Cake, who was much younger than Janie. In response, a woman named Pearl Stone expresses resentment that Janie returned without announcement or even talking to anyone in the town. Pheoby defends her friend and goes off to prepare Janie dinner.
The townspeople's gossiping lacks real context. Their disdain for Janie's relationship with the young Tea Cake introduces the novel's theme of love between men and women, and traditional perceptions underlying judgments of it. Pheoby's allegiance to Janie calls attention to the unfairness of the townspeople, and implies potential for a good reason for Janie's behavior.
Pheoby brings Janie a small plate of dinner and compliments Janie on still looking so young and womanly, despite her shabby clothing. Pheoby criticizes the townspeople for their judgmental speculations about Janie and the reasons for her return, though she then proceeds to ask Janie herself about Tea Cake, and whether or not he stole her money or ran off with another woman.
Pheoby's kindness reveals that Janie is, at least in part, a sympathetic figure, not the scoundrel the townspeople make her out to be. Yet Pheoby's simultaneous curiosity and preemptive judgments of Tea Cake also indicate that she shares some of the townspeople's perceptions and judgments.
With a laugh about the townspeople's mean-spirited gossip, Janie tells her friend with calm self-assurance that no one should worry about her; without any elaboration or detail, Janie explains that she has traveled "tuh de horizon and back." She has returned to Eatonville because Tea Cake is gone and she was no longer happy in the Everglades, where she and Tea Cake were living together after their marriage. Pheoby responds to Janie's vague explanation with understandable confusion, asking Janie to explain. Janie tells her story.
Janie's ability to tune out the townspeople's gossip shows that she has reached inner peace. Her explanation for her return and Pheoby's confusion introduces the theme of storytelling: the novel is the product of Janie telling her own story. The division between Hurston's literary language and the characters' colloquial dialect reveals Hurston's interest in the theme of language, and in insisting that the dialect is just as valid or important as the literary language.