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Zora Neale Hurston “Their Eyes Were Watching God” shows and depicts several themes such as speech and silence, love and hate, but most importantly gender roles. Hurston does an outstanding job of establishing how men such as Joe Starks believed were the standard roles for the African American female and how they were treated based on social norms. Hurston pertinently described Janie through her relationship with Joe and the metaphoric value of the mule. Her dialogue as a woman of strength, not concerned with the ideals of her white female counterparts, sitting up on a high chair and overlooking the world. Janie desired a greater purpose and call of action.
In Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, men and women inhabit separate roles. Not only are the women portrayed as fragile and weak, but Hurston brings focus to how men define their relationships, rather then it going both ways. The message sent here is that women only obtain power through marrying powerful or at least, motivated men to gasp the little power they can have. By the use of tradition, women are limited to the confines of positions of piteousness, passiveness, domesticity, and of course as sexual objectivity. The men consistently silence the women’s voices, limit their actions with proprietary notions and insult their appearance and sexuality. In contrasts, when the women exhibit any traditionally male characteristics such as authority, intelligence or ambition, men deem them as unattractive and masculine. The male characters set out to prove to their peers that they are masculine by showing their wives who is in charge. This was not always due to personal desire, but also by society and at large as well as environmental pressures.
In “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, Zora Neale Hurston reveals the importance of gender roles and their place in African American culture during the 1930’s. In Chapter 6, Hurston displays the importance males exhibiting superiority their female partners and their attempts to force them into roles of subservience. In this chapter, Joe Starks attempts push Janie into a passive role by hushing her in conversations, physically abusing her in their home, and handling her as an item in his possession. The author establishes this early in the novel to serve as a catalyst for Janie to make the decision that her personal growth and development as a strong woman will only materialize when she escapes the mold into which Joe has forced her.
Hurston exhibits that Janie should be allowed to have the right to do what white women do on a constant basis; perch on high stools on their porches while relaxing. “Everybody was having fun at the mule-baiting. All but Janie” (56). This demonstrates the way Joe stresses that Janie give the impression that she is living the white woman’s dream of relaxing at home and being civilized, as that is the role dictated by her gender and because it promotes his portrayal as a powerful leader of the town. Even when Janie pleads, “Tain’t nothin’ so important Ah got tuh do tuhday, Jody. How come Ah can’t go long wid you tug de draggin’-out?”. This confirms her desire to abandon the preset, generalized roles of gender that women faced during this period. Janie wishes to forge her own path and do what brings her personal satisfaction as a woman and not what the perception of contentment is for all women. Janie’s idea of pleasure, however, is not present in the old-fashioned roles that the women of the 1930s were expected to accept.
All the way through the novel, we continue to witness the outward display of the superiority that men feel over women. If their spouses do not obey or follow the strict roles of gender, it is commonplace for them to endure beatings, not unlike the mule in chapter six. Even something as small as an undesirable meal, could result in physical abuse.
Many men believe that women are in need of guidance in every aspect of their lives, needing instructions for basic tasks on a consistent basis. This sentiment solidifies the belief of the male gender that their sex is greater and superior over women. Many men feel that women are completely ignorant and need men to tell them what to do all of the time; a sentiment that adds fuel to them feeling their gender is greater to their female counterpart. In chapter six Janie objects, “You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!” He responds, “Dat’s ‘cause you need tellin’, It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves”. Here, Joe alludes that women have brainpower akin to a chicken or clumsy cow and that they should embrace their roles as the lesser mate.
Eventually, Janie escapes her traditional female mold of speaking only when spoken to and obeying mindlessly. She finally finds her voice at the end of chapter six when she says to Joe, “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks to and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was…and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you aint’ got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens”.
Janie communicating with Joe in this fashion serves to inform Joe that she believes that God speaks to both sexes equally. She is standing up to the leader of the town. Janie wants Joe to understand that he is not the god of the town because she too can be in touch with God. In addition, she wants Joe to know that she is aware that his gender does not make him a supreme being over her or any woman. This marks a both an evolution and revolution for Janie as a character. We now begin to see her inner thoughts. She is now prepared to battle for her equality and liberation.
By the chapter’s conclusion, we witness a woman refusing to allow men to continue to silence and demanding equal treatment. Janie’s metamorphosis from a passive woman to one wishing to take an active role in shaping the rights and duties of the female gender is established. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman”. No longer afraid to challenge her grandmother’s staunch expectations, Janie realizes that her grandmother’s archaic views of the role of women as pathetic and weak beings with the inability to survive without male protection — even with the absence of love in the relationship, represent boundaries on her full potential. She loathed her grandmother. “… Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon”.
Still, Janie is undaunted and follows her to follow her instincts, including leaving her first husband and marrying her second one, in the absence of a divorce. “Janie hurried out of the front gate and turned south. Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good”. The blather and gossip that permeates her small town when she takes a younger man and leaves with him, after being left a widow following the death of her second husband, does not hinder her path even slightly.
The happiness she finds in her relationship with Tea Cake is that much sweeter as she has made the decision to go through it alone. Janie’s moment of personal triumph is “Discovering the two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves”. “They got tuh go tuh God, and they got to find out about livin’ fuh theyselves,” are the sentiments Janie shares at the end of her journey.
The definitions and roles of gender for both male and female characters were clear in the 1930s. Janie is symbolic of many women today in her refusal to accept the preconceptions about her duties and abilities. In the 21st century, the majority of men have learned, though some reluctantly, to accept and appreciate the equal abilities and thoughts of modern women and Hurston had the foresight to give women a voice that had previously been silent in literature.
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