The theme of Gender Roles in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
After reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” composed by Zora Neale Hurston, I chose to analyze the theme of gender roles, along with their impact on African America civilization during the 1930s. In the sixth chapter of Hurston’s novel, the importance placed by men on feeling senior to their female consorts and compelling them in a subservience role is openly exhibited. Joe Starks in this chapter tries to fit Janie into a self-abasing role by hushing her in discussions, beating her, and treating her like an object he possesses. This cogent sentiment that Hurston establishes early in the novel acts as the driving force for Janie to determine that as a woman, development and personal growth will occur once she decamps from the mold Joe places on her.
Much like mules, thoughts that women should perform the tasks required of them and not attempt to exceed their positions as subservient consorts is exemplified when we see the influence, Joe, Janie’s husband has on the conversations she is allowed to partake in and the tasks she is permitted to undertake. “Janie enjoyed the conversations, and at times she devised good narratives on the mule; however, Joe had restricted her from indulging” (Hurston 53). Joining a conversation about the mule and its interment is important to Janie reason being, she strongly relates to it. Being connected to Joe, Janie feels like the mule previously described by her Nanny as the workhorse of all humanity. Janie feels like she is Joe’s workhorse and desires to see the mule unbound from man’s unjustness. Joe eventually liberates the mule from its harsh owner and lets it die peacefully, an act that makes him appear mightier than he is. However, Joe never “frees” Janie. Janie has to outlive Joe before she can rampage and riot to be liberated from the gender role established for her. Joe’s feelings that women are objects possessed by men are exemplified he witnesses other men coveting his wife. “Her hair will not be openly displayed in the store” (Hurston 55). “She was present in the store for him to glance at, and not others” (Hurston 55). Here, Joe reveals that Janie’s purpose is pleasing him and him only, and he will take it further and demand that she wraps her hair in a certain way in aims on not distracting the daily customers. Joe feels threatened knowing that Janie is a fine-looking woman while he is rapidly advancing in age.
Hurston exhibits the thought that Janie should aspire to want what white women do on a daily basis; sit and relax on the porches of their house. “Everyone was enjoying themselves at the mule bating. Everyone expect Janie” (Hurston 56); this exhibits how Joe requires Janie to appear as one living the white woman’s dream of acting civilized and sitting at home because that is the role her gender should be affiliated with and because it aids him in being painted as an authoritative town leader. When Janie pleads with Joe to take her along with him (Hurston 60), it displays her desire to discard the foreordained gender roles of women in the 1930s. Janie wants to select her own path and do what makes her happy as a woman, and not what others perceive as happiness for women (Marks 152). However, Janie’s idea of happiness is not found in the traditional roles assumed by women of her era. Further into the reading, it states, “Here he stood, pouring honor all over her; constructing an elevated chair for her to sit on and overlook the world (Hurston 62). Joe understands not that pleasing Janie does not necessitate giving her a lifestyle close to one enjoyed by a white woman. Rather, Janie longs to be affiliated with her culture and honor the intricacies of her race. Joe is incapable of fulfilling this for Janie, and this drives her to the company of Tea Cake, a man who greatly appreciates the small things in life like fishing, dancing, singing and sharing stories with her.
Throughout Hurston’s narrative, we notice how men outwardly exhibit their feeling of supremacy to women. If their partners act out of character, it is not unusual for them to be flogged, just like the mule in the sixth chapter of the reading. If a meal does not please them, a domestic attack could occur. Many men believe that women are utterly ignorant and must be told what to do; a sentiment that fuels the feeling that their gender is superior to their female counterparts (Marks 157). Janie further protests asserting that “You sure love telling me what to do but I cannot tell you anything. It would be pitiful if I did not. Someone has to reason for women, and cows, and chickens, but they can reason for themselves” (Hurston 71). Joe believes that women should know their standing as inferior mates, and he further alludes that women possess the same brain power as an inept cow or an idiotic chicken.
Eventually, Janie frees herself from her traditional mold as one who adheres to what she is instructed and replies only when spoken to. As chapter six ends, Janie finally speaks her mind and tells Joe he would be surprised if he knew how God has bestowed upon women so much knowledge and that they know so much compared to men. She further adds that Joe was wrong in making himself seem as God Almighty when in fact, he was nothing (Hurston 75). Janie, openly speaking up to Joe shows that she feels God speaks to both women and men. Janie is essentially letting the town’s leader know two things: One that she strongly believes that God listens to women and they are not mere mules regardless of how they have been formerly treated. And two, that Joe should not act or speak like he is God because her gender also communes with the same Supreme Being (Carol 199). This claim asserted by Janie is revolutionary for her character because finally, she shows us – the readers, her inside. At this point, Janie is ready to fight for a life of equality and independence.
The theme of gender roles captured my attention because of how Hurston superbly established how men like Joe felt the standard roles were for the female African American. Hurston properly depicted Janie through her marriage with Joe, the mule analogy, and her dialogue as one who cared not about what her female counterparts deemed ideal; sitting on an elevated chair overlooking the world. Janie sought after something more. As chapter six concludes, we are introduced to a woman who refuses to be muffled by men and be treated as a lesser equal. Janie converts herself from a passive woman into one who takes an active role in the responsibilities and rights of her gender.
Batker, Carol. “Love Me Like I Like to Be”: The Sexual Politics of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the Classic Blues, and the Black Women’s Club Movement.” African-American Review, 32(2), 199 — 213, 1998.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper, 1937. ISBN: 978-0061120060
Marks, Donald R. “Sex, Violence, and Organic Consciousness in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Black American Literature Forum, 19(4), 152 — 157, 1985.
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