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One evening, Janie Crawford returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades. She's in mourning.
Her old community welcomes her back with scorn and derision. They’re all sitting on their porches, watching her return and exchanging nasty gossip born from jealousy of her beauty and social mobility. They make snide comments about Janie having left town in satin and returning in overalls, having left with a young man and returning alone, etc.
Actually, the men just gawk at her because even though she’s 40, she’s really hot.
When Janie walks past all of her neighbors without stopping to chat, they take her silence as arrogance, which fuels more gossip about her.
We learn that Janie loved a man named Tea Cake, whom the gossipy ladies say she was way too old for.
One of the things they resent is Janie’s beauty and the fact that she had a relationship with a man younger than herself. They try to paint her as whorish.
Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, defends Janie, saying that she's never done anything to hurt anybody. Then, Pheoby leaves to take Janie some supper.
Pheoby finds Janie washing her feet. Their banter establishes that they've been good friends for a long time and that they trust each other.
Janie is sure that she’s being gossiped about, which Pheoby acknowledges. Janie doesn’t care what the others think of her, and she tells Pheoby so.
The two friends discuss how the local gossipmongers are just aching to get in everyone’s business and probably can’t wait until Judgment Day so they can hear the lowdown on everyone.
Janie seems to want to talk about her story just as much as Pheoby wants to hear it (and live vicariously through her friend).
Janie begins by silencing Pheoby’s fears that Tea Cake took all of her money and ran off with a young girl. That didn’t happen—Tea Cake was great to her.
Janie says that Tea Cake is "gone," though what that means isn’t clear…yet. Janie gets ready to tell Pheoby a long story.