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Gender Roles in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Updated on May 26, 2012
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Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We're not inherently anything but human.” -Robin Morgan

Background Information


Aspects of feminism seen in literature are often represented by a woman’s struggle to escape the societal expectation that she live her life in the domestic sphere rather than ardently pursuing the passions which give her a sense of purpose. In a world where most modern social systems are patriarchal, to gain independence women must first escape the societal confines of gender stereotyping and have the courage to follow their natural genius, not as females but as human beings. Feminism in literature is the open acknowledgment that both genders have the same heart and the same brain and should thus be endowed with the same rights. Both Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson explore the stages of womanhood and the constraints that female inequality impose on a woman's search for her self-identity.

The poems of Emily Dickinson complement the various phases in a woman’s life that lead her to independence in obtaining a certain identity as illustrated by Hurston through the failed marriages of protagonist, Janie. Upon closer examination, the poems of Emily Dickinson metaphorically illustrate the realities Hurston sought to convey in her book. By making a connection in the convictions of both female writers, the reader unveils the gender power struggles that promote the need for man and woman to live on equal terms as independent entities who complement, rather than dominate one another. The distinct phases that lead Janie to self-realization and thus independence are marked by three of her marriages which correlate to several 1924 Dickinson poems in which Dickinson tests the boundaries of womanhood and seeks to surpass mere femininity as a woman writer. The first phase that leads to Janie's self-discovery occurs in the duration of her marriage to Logan Killicks, a man whom her grandmother requests that she marry for his financial stability. Seven months into the marriage, Logan stops showing Janie affection and demands that she help him with farming tasks and land maintenance. While stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage with Killicks she a meets an ambitious new man named Jody Starks, who promises her a more fulfilling life if she chooses to run away and marry him. It is when she threatens to leave Logan, that Janies character discovers for the first time, the empowerment of speech.

After Janie’s threat, Logan retaliates by criticizing her upbringing and the values of her family, the pain Janie feels as a result of his words brings about a new revelation pertaining to speech and the way in which words act as weaponry. With the realization that her words had a definite impact on Logan, her self-esteem is bolstered in having summoned a source of power within herself that she never knew she possessed, giving her the confidence needed to act on her plans to leave him and run away with Jody.


Zora Neale Hurston 1934
Zora Neale Hurston 1934 | Source

Janie Finds Her Voice


The concept of identifying her voice and deciding when to speak and when to remain silent proves to be a theme that Janie grapples with at various points in the book. At the end of chapter four the narrator identifies a positive transition in Janie's self-development, showing that her character recognizes the impact her voice will have on her future relationships. “Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them (Hurston 32)”. While, Janie's new-found voice doesn't lead her to a self-fulfilled life of independence, it shakes her out of complacency and a marriage that isn't meeting her needs. By simply making the decision to get out of a rut, shes taking the first steps of her journey. Recognizing the power of one’s voice, figures strongly in Part One of Dickinson's book, with the poem “A word is dead”.

A WORD is dead/ When it is said,

Some say./ I say it just

Begins to live/ That day.

(#89)

In the above stanza Dickinson describes the life force behind a single word and the intensity it eternally holds, even after it is spoken. While it may appear that a word is no longer of significance once it is used in its intended context, Dickinson argues that even after a word is said, it never loses its meaning in the memory of the person who was addressed. The poem reinforces the idea Hurston expressed in Janie's revelation; the sheer force of speech doesn't come from the words themselves but the feelings those words incite within the speaker and the spoken to. Once Janie finds the courage to speak her truth, she is invigorated by the masculine sense of dominance she derives from taking action on her behalf and no longer being stuck in a submissive role.


Gender Role Confinement


The second phase that propels Janie into the hardships of womanhood occurs during her second marriage to Joe Starks (whom she refers to as Jody), when she has her first experience with gender role confinement. The ambitious Joe, sets off from Georgia to Eatonville with Janie in tow where he becomes a mayor, entrepreneur, landlord and postmaster. While Janie believes that marrying Joe will help her to manifest her dreams, she later realizes that Joe views her as his property and expects her to the play the role of mayors wife, rather than encouraging her to pursue her own passions. Janie's second marriage epitomizes the unequal dynamics at work in the male/ female relationship and the ways in which male dominance can oppress and stifle females.

As the employee of her husband’s store, Janie lives her life in Joe's shadow to the point of which, he doesn't think it proper for her to converse with local Eatonville residents or participate in any of their storytelling and card games, “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn't want her talking after such trashy people (Hurston 53-54)”. Joe's unrealistic expectations of Janie seem to discount the fact that she is just as much human as she is woman, with the desire to participate and speak freely in the lively discussions of the Eatonville citizens whom Joe feels are beneath her. It becomes clear that in her marriage to Joe she's a pawn who happens to be well suited for the position as his wife as she is young, beautiful and objectified by Joe as a status symbol rather than a human being with independent will.

During Janie's second marriage, Hurston makes a point of mentioning specific occurrences in which Janie's long and straight hair attracts the attention of Eatonville men, for its beauty and rarity in black women. Conflicts arise when Joe notices the men who come into the store, gawking and fondling Janie's hair without her noticing. The observation heightens all of Joe's insecurities and from then on Janie must tie up her hair in cloth while working. "This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn't seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was (Hurston55)". This unnatural confinement of one of her best assets symbolically represents the confinement of Janie's spirit itself. During a time when women seldom left their hair down, Janie's long, black hair is representative of her independence and originality. The stifled hair that Hurston describes as being wrapped up in cloth, is the outward evidence of Janie's stifled spirit in her marriage and her inability to express herself if her behavior in any way deviates from Joe's expectations of her as the mayors, submissive trophy wife.

As Joe sickens with kidneys that are gradually becoming weaker, Janie chooses to unleash on Joe all the suppressed hurt he has caused her for the duration of their marriage, in the form of a verbal tirade just moments before his death. After having identified the power she wields by using her voice in her first marriage to Logan, the reader questions why Janie has remained silent for the entire duration of her marriage to Joe and decides to wait until he's on his deathbed to make her feelings known. Janie's long periods of ominous silence followed by spontaneous influxes of speech illustrate her growth into womanhood as she gradually learns when to speak and when to remain silent.

After Joes death, Janie experiences the fleeting essence of a profound change to occur within herself and takes stock of her appearance in the mirror as if her outward appearance might suggest the immense growth she feels within. After years of being in a marriage that stunted her ability to grow as a person due to her husband’s inability to let go of the socially constructed gender role he imposed on her as a woman, Janie lets her hair down from the rag and its as if the reader can feel the burden being lifted off her shoulders. "The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair (Hurston 87)". Janie has finally acknowledged herself as a woman and as a separate entity whose self-identity is not tied to her relationships. Having evolved into a woman, the enlightenment she feels after Joes death represents her ability to finally enjoy the freedom of independence she’s deprived herself of since adolescence, by entering marriage with the false hopes that her husband can show her who she is.


Emily Dickinson 1955
Emily Dickinson 1955 | Source

Societal Outlook on Marriage

Society's outlook of marriage as a sanctified institution is challenged not only through the two failed marriages of Hurston's character Janie but in Dickinson's poem “Title divine is mine”. In this poem Dickinson illustrates the ways in which marriage is detrimental to a woman's freedom and her ability to make life choices for herself.

TITLE divine is mine/ The Wife without The Sign./ Acute degree

Conferred on me--/ Empress of Calvary.

Royal all but the/ Crown--/ Betrothed, without the swoon

God gives us women/ When two hold

Garnet to garnet,/ Gold to gold--

Born bridalled--/ Shrouded--/ In a day

Tri- Victory--/ “My Husband”/ Women say

Stroking the melody,/ Is this the way?

(#194)

In the lines, “Acute degree/ Conferred on me--/ Empress of Calvary./ Royal all but the/ Crown--” Dickinson is referring to the way in which marriage is a duty the woman is expected to undertake by defending the honor of her husband without anything to show for her efforts. At the end of the poem in the lines “ “My Husband”/ Woman say/ Stroking the melody,/ Is this the way?” Dickinson asks women to first question whether marriage is a union they are entering into because they feel it will benefit them or because they are playing into a socially constructed gender role. In Their Eyes Were Watching God , Janie is expected to speak beautifully of her husband as mayor of Eatonville while he publicly ridicules her inability to properly price food items in his store, exemplary of the concept that in marriage a woman is expected to defend her husbands honor even when her husband is robbing her of a self.


Janie Regains Her Independence


By the time Janie enters her third marriage with husband Tea Cake, she has developed enough assurance in herself to marry a man who allows her to be an independent, equal in their relationship regardless of the judgment by her peers regarding his young age. Before Janie meets Tea Cake she’s already in the process of gaining a sense of self and when she finds that he amplifies her self-identity in allowing her to partake in all the sportive and thrilling events he partakes in, as his equal, marriage is no longer a threat. Tea Cake takes her to buy a home in the everglades, the only place he can find work and there she learns to hunt, play cards and pick beans while wearing overalls and letting her hair down on a daily basis.

Not long after Janie finds happiness with Tea Cake her life is met with tragedy when a hurricane hits the Everglades and in a last minute effort to escape Tea Cake gets bitten by a rapid dog, protecting her in the aftermath of the storm. Once he begins to fall ill from the dog bite Janie brings a doctor to the house, who warns her of Tea Cakes condition and the gradual worsening that will lead to him irrational outbursts of anger. “ 'Bout de only thing you can do, Janie, is to put him in the County Hospital where they can tie him down and look after him (Hurston 177)”. Unable to part with him in his critical condition, Janie stays with Tea Cake as he grows suspicious about her having affairs every time she leaves the house which sends him into illogical bouts of fury. With the worsening of his sickness, Janie puts her life at risk by continuing to reside with him and when he holds a gun to her chest in anger Janie manages to snatch it from him, load it and shoot Tea Cake dead, seconds before he bites down on the flesh of her forearm.

As Janie stands with a loaded gun aimed at Tea Cake she’s faced with the unbearable task of killing her only love before he has time to kill her. It’s as if all the events in the story that rob Janie of strength and leave her stuck in states of submission, under the power of her husband’s culminate to the point at which Janie stands before her third husband with a loaded gun; the work of Hurston in setting up a dramatic and unexpected gender role reversal in the plot. At the end of the story with the shooting of Tea Cake, Hurston is placing Janie in a masculine role of dominance, the position of power that she has been denied all her life as the passive female in her relationships. Dickinson's poem “My life had stood a loaded gun” flows rhythmically with the scene described in Their Eyes Were Watching God as Janie points a loaded gun at the deranged Tea Cake.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -

In Corners - till a Day/ The Owner passed - identified -

And carried Me away --/ And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -

And now We hunt the Doe –/ And every time I speak for Him -

The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light/ Upon the Valley glow -

It is as a Vesuvian face/ Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done - I guard My Master's Head -

/ 'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's

Deep Pillow - to have shared -To foe of His -

I'm deadly foe -/ None stir the second time -

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -/ Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live/ He longer must - than I -

For I have but the power to kill,/ Without--the power to die--

(#764)

In the lines “I guard My Master's Head -/ 'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's/ Deep Pillow - to have shared -/ To foe of His - I'm deadly foe” Dickinson takes on a predatory position of absolute power over a man whom she identifies as “master” while he sleeps rather than accepting the domestic role of sleeping with him, she guards his head, exemplifying the role of masculinity denied women. The man in the poem takes on a feminine role and in his sleep exposes his vulnerability to the narrator. The gender role reversal depicted in both the poem and Hurston's novel, involve a woman holding a loaded gun; the loaded gun being symbolic of absolute power in the hands of a female and the fate of man being at her mercy.

The three marriages that characterize the development of Protagonist Janie’s self-development in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God expose to the reader the various hurdles women must overcome in creating self-fulfilled lives while living in a patriarchal society dominated by males. In relationships with men, women risk losing their ability to decide and live for themselves as exemplified by Janie in the various marriages that all pose hardships on her ability to create a life of independence in which she is able to find happiness within herself.

The Unifying Theme of Feminism in Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson


The unifying theme in Hurston's novel and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson are the dangers existent in the conformity of humans to societal gender roles when there is clear inequality between women and men, robbing females of the right to be dignified human beings. Dickinson's poems not only metaphorically illustrate the realities in the life of Hurston's character, Janie; they emphasize and home in on the issues of gender role confinement and gender power struggles existent in the relationships of women and men. It is through the work of courageous, feminist authors that female inequality becomes an unignorable issue. Literary geniuses such as Dickinson and Hurston reveal to the public the complications of living in a patriarchal society and the right of females, as human beings to demand that we someday live in a society that we can call equal.


Sources


Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas Johnson. U.S:

Paw Prints, 2008. Print.


Hurston, Zora. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, U.S: Harper Collins,

2006. Print.




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