Janie feels limited by the repetitive nature of working in the store each day, but is amused by the townspeople's conversations on the porch that she can overhear, even if she is not directly engaged. In particular, the townspeople repeatedly make fun of a fellow Eatonville resident named Matt Bonner for his sad and tired looking mule. They often accuse him for being a bad owner and responsible for the mule's feeble appearance. One particular day, the townspeople on the porch decide to direct their playfully aggressive energy to the mule itself and purposefully bother the mule. Annoyed by the pointlessness of their immature behavior, Janie voices her feelings.
Janie's submissive role in her relationship with Jody is emphasized by the fact that her only amusement comes from listening to the conversations of townspeople – Jody deprives her of her own voice, and by expressing pleasure in listening, Janie moves toward the realization of her desire to express her own feelings and thoughts, to be a part of the conversation. The townspeople's jokes about Matt Bonner and his mule show another instance of the human impulse for power and control over others, not unlike that which defines Jody. Janie's sympathy for the mule indicates her sense of identification with another victim of subjugation, and she does then speak out.
Jody overhears Janie, and in order to quell Janie's anxiety about the mule's victimization, Jody purchases the mule from Matt Bonner for a mere five dollars, so that the townspeople will stop bothering it. Even though Janie's empathy for the mule is what catalyzed Jody's purchase of it, the townspeople focus instead on Jody's dignity in rescuing the mule from affliction, comparing Jody to Abraham Lincoln delivering slave emancipation.
Jody's purchase superficially appears benevolent both to the mule and to Janie, though the response of the townspeople –to elevate Jody to the level of Abraham Lincoln – reveals again that he is also after making a gesture that will emphasize his power. The townspeople's reference to Lincoln relates the issue of individual quests for power and control, such as that of Jody, to larger historical patterns of subjugation, such as the history of American slavery. Thus it is ironic when the townspeople connect Jody to Abraham Lincoln as a representative figure of freedom, since Jody is engaged in an effort to get power over them.
Need help right now on Their Eyes Were Watching God?
Get help on any subject right away
Learn online or meet in person
When the mule dies, Jody plans a funeral for it, as the mule had become a kind of mascot for the town of Eatonville. Even though the funeral draws residents from around the entire town and proves to be quite celebratory, Jody prohibits Janie's attendance, attributing his decision to his desire to preserve her high status by discouraging her attendance at such a lowly event.
The mule conjures broader theme of victimization and bondage, and thus can be seen in relation to Janie, herself a victim of Jody's domination and even the black race. In this way, Jody's decision to prohibit Janie's attendance from the mule's funeral – the very mule she was the catalyst for saving – is shown to be completely selfish, despite his rationalization. He cares more that Janie act in ways that promote his own power than about her own feelings or connections to others.
One day following the funeral, Janie finds herself annoyed at Jody and instead of remaining silent, she plainly tells him, "You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can't tell you nothin' Ah see." After Jody berates her in an attempt to push her back into her submissive role, Janie realizes the futility of her fight and decides to "press her teeth together and…hush."
At this moment, Janie shows herself to be aware of her desire for self-expression, though simultaneously aware of the consequences of attempting to achieve it. This state of ambivalence is one that ultimately drives Janie to erupt at Jody later in the novel, so is ultimately important in causing her to realize the importance of finding a voice for herself.
Meanwhile, outside on the porch, Pheoby's husband Sam Watson and fellow townspeople argue about the question of nature versus nurture – specifically whether humans stay away from hot stoves because of natural instinct to avoid heat, or because they have been conditioned to avoid it. Jody joins in the conversation, and despite her passive position as listener, Janie too finds herself engaging in the lively discussion – that is, until Jody demands her to return indoors to help a customer. Jody's controlling behavior does not stop, but continues to grow in frequency and intensity: he publicly accuses Janie of incompetence in the store and physically abuses her one evening over dinner. As their relationship worsens, Janie also loses sexual interest in Jody, such that their marriage exists without love or passion. Nonetheless, Janie does not mention any of her grievances to Jody and instead keeps her composure in front of him, though she has realized her desire for something new internally.
The townspeople's conversation about nature versus nurture calls attention to the novel's overarching exploration of the human desire for control over others and over nature. Janie seeks participation in order to find her own ideas through speaking, and its notable here that the narrator, which often interrupts the characters' speech, here lets them speak without interruption. Janie's decision to remain silent is ultimately a self-defense mechanism, as she realizes that expressing herself will result in physical abuse. That said, her discontent causes her to realize her own needs internally, which nonetheless marks progress from her previous states of being – with Logan and even in the earlier stages of marriage with Jody.
Later one day at the storefront, a poor woman called Mrs. Robbins – wife of a man named Tony Robbins – enters the store and requests a bit of meat from Jody for her starving family. Janie ends up getting the meat for Mrs. Robbins, who remarks that her husband neglects to feed both her and their children. Meanwhile, the men on the porch of the store laugh incredulously at Mrs. Robbins behavior, saying that they would never allow their wives to behave so absurdly in public. In response, Janie voices her disapproval of their bad attitude, and tells the group of men that despite what they think, they don't know anything about women.
The men on the porch are dismissive of Mrs. Robbins' needs in the same way that Jody is dismissive of Janie's needs – in all cases, these men desire power, and particularly power over women. Janie's defense of Mrs. Robbins and subsequent insult to the men (that they don't know anything about women) is an eruption of emotions Janie has experienced but has yet to express. It is another step in finding her voice. Though the men were not directly abusing her, Janie empathizes with Mrs. Robbins as a victim of male domination. The men on the porch (and Jody) care about pride. Mrs. Robbins can't afford to care about pride—she cares about her children.