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The novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston are two works by female authors which celebrate the individuality and strength of women. In both cases, the characters portrayed in the novels are stark contrasts to both the typical females and males depicted in both early and contemporary works by many male authors. In the two pieces of literature, women struggle to remain firm in their notions of self-worth, and can become independent if the need or opportunity arises. What makes this inner-strength so amazing is that the women in the novels are living in societies which characterize their entire sex as merely superfluous components-a notion that is compounded by the beliefs of their respective African American and Chinese ethnic communities. However, just as female characters in books written by male authors are usually examples of inhibiting and destructive forces to the independent, yet responsible male, in these two books written by female authors, the men are conversely portrayed as the constraining, if not ruinous forces for the female.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God three men try to constrain and eventually destroy Janie through both their actions and the imposition of their sexist, yet socially-accepted views. However, Hurston’s unique portrayal of this independent black woman will not allow her to succumb to their prohibitive pressure. Janie’s first husband, Logan is the typically idealized mate of most male-, and even some female-created literature. He is the supporter of the family and with him Janie will want for nothing, including a life of her own. Logan expects a wife who will love, honor, and obey. Without fully knowing her or what she can offer, he expects her to appreciate him for fulfilling what he saw as his duty “tuh work and feed yah” (29). While this oft excepted notion of a ‘good man’-and a woman whose only “place” is “wherever Ah need yuh” (30)-is characteristic of male-written literature, it has quite a different twist in Hurston’s book. Instead of Janie giving in to his suppressive ideals, she quite easily leaves him for another whom she believes to be less constrictive and more willing to try new things, and possesses what she believes is a new perspective. Perhaps the most shocking contrast of Hurston’s portrayal of the once typical and idealized provider-husband to that of other writers is Logan’s apparent lack of strength. While Logan’s character, if written by a male, might have said and done the same things as Hurtson’s Logan, his fear of losing Janie, symbolized in his half-sob/half-cry condemnation of her (30) shows that all of the relationship’s power did not lie with him, as male writers might have us believe. Instead, much like Thomas Hardy’s Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge believed that he could do much better without the hindrance of a wife and child, so did Hurston’s Janie believe that she could do better without her ‘perfect’ husband to constrain her. In both cases, one with a male protagonist written by a male, and the other with a female protagonist and female writer, the main character proved to be correct in their assumption.
Janie’s second husband Jody turned out to be unexpectedly much like the first, but even more suppressive in some ways. While Logan primarily wanted Janie to pledge to him her undying gratitude for his proposal, Jody expected Janie’s appreciation in addition to her conformity to a status quo that was set by Jody himself. As mayor of the town in which they resided, Jody required that his wife maintain a certain superiority and detachment from the general residency. This edict, combined with certain standards for her daily appearance, sufficiently alienated Janie from the general public, and attempted to further stifle her as an individual. Although Janie herself believed that her years with Jody had caused all the fight to be “gone from her soul” (72) once he was gone, her own personality and desires quickly resurfaced. Jody, just like Logan, was the traditional ‘good man’. He saw that Janie was taken care of, and even took away her need to express herself in daily interactions by prescribing her required actions. He allowed Janie to live the perfect life her grandmother had envisioned for her-to get “up on uh high chair and sit dere” (109). This was the life that society believes most women only dream about. This superficial goal mirrors Charles Perrault and his Sleeping Beauty who wishes one day for her prince to come. While this notion that a man is necessary to complete a woman, Hurston, portrays Jody, just like Logan to be a constraining influence on Janie. The extent of her freedom and happiness after Jody is no longer able to control her, is evident through her actions immediately following his death. She took down her hair, and gazed at the woman she had become-finally free of male influences in her life to dictate her actions and her desires. Once again, this man that would traditionally be a symbol of strength and success was brought down by Hurtson’s portrayal of his moments of weakness. Because Janie absorbed all of Jody’s mental and physical blows and went on with her life while Jody’s health declined after Janie’s one attack on his manhood, Hurston successfully paints Janie as the stronger person. Through Janie’s first two husbands, the contrast in the image of the traditional, strong male provider to their actual weaknesses and dependence on Janie for her support greatly contradicts the more positive male icon in works by male authors.
Janie’s final husband, Tea Cake, proves to be very different from the first two and a much more positive influence on Janie, but nevertheless, has the potential to be the most destructive force in her life. Tea Cake grants her freedom to pursue all of the recreational activities that life with Jody prohibited, such as fishing and hunting. Because Tea Cake grants her the freedom to do what she wishes and does not demand her appreciation in return, Janie feels as though she has finally had the chance to find “out about livin’ fuh [herself]” (183). What Hurston, through Janie’s preferences, portrays as the ideal man is antithetical to that created by the society both in her novel and in real life.
While Tea Cake does not fit society’s notion of a ‘good man’ or the mold set forth by earlier writers because he cannot provide for a woman as readily as Jody and Logan, he still remains the strongest of her three husbands. While he admits to Janie that he believes she is a woman wonderful enough to “make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die” (132), her disapproval of one thing or another does not cause him to break into tears or let his body succumb to a disease. Although while he is alive, Tea Cake appears to support her more than hinder her growth as a person, at least in the eyes of Janie, his attempt to kill her is another representation by Hurston of the destructive influence of even the seemingly best of men. Because Janie was able to protect herself, and unfortunately was forced to kill him as a result, the author showed once again that women are able to survive on their own, and should not need to sacrifice of themselves simply to appease their male counterpart. All throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, and all of her husbands seem to defy the traditional roles set for them-the men, strong yet inhibited by a wife who needs constant protection and support, and the woman, content with a faithful man who sees that all of her worldly needs are met. While this portrayal of men contrasts greatly with that in earlier books by male authors, it has unfortunately become the prototype of most males in positively female-centered works. Although representative of society at the time of the author, and even somewhat representative of the present day, men in female-written works appear to get as unfavorable depictions as most women in works written by men.
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, the demanding and domineering male characters are just as prevalent as in Hurston’s piece, as are women characters who break the molds set for them in a variety of situations. In her novel, the male characters constantly undermine the worth of the women, but the women must decide either to accept and internalize their belittlement, or defy their preset standards and excel. While the women portrayed vary from a suicidal rape victim to a war hero, the men in each of the stories remain the most influential factor in the women’s lives. The No Name Woman’s decision to commit suicide, for example, is the direct result of the mistreatment and exile by the community, precipitated by the original male perpetrator who did not value the life or happiness of the woman he violated. Mu Lan, is an example of a woman who, out of filial love, chose to be strong and lead to victory men who would kill her if they discovered that she was not one of them. In Kingston’s novel, the attitudes of the men involved were much more harsh than those of Hurtson’s antagonists. Although they are portrayed in very different ways, the constraining and destructive forces that men exert on women are just as obvious in The Woman Warrior as Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In both novels, the reader learns the most about male characters through their interactions with the females-characters whose innermost thoughts we are allowed to read. Because of this narrow view of men in the two works, we are more likely to perceive the men as unfavorably as do the female characters who feel victimized by their suppressive treatment. While the perception of the men through this one-sided view may be as accurate as any that we would create as a result of more in-depth exposure, we must keep in mind that in many ways the portrayal of men in books by female authors is very similar to that of women in books written by men. In both cases one gender is portrayed as an obtrusive force impeding some aspect of the other’s personal development, economic success, or happiness in general.
In Hurston and Kingston’s novels, men are portrayed as a more negative than positive force on the females they interact with, however, their treatment of the women and attitudes toward them nevertheless help the women define themselves. In the two works, this definition seems to come about in two ways-either through conforming to the male’s views and thereby becoming a product of their opinions, or through the rebellion against a negative stereotype in which the woman can become the antithesis of the original male perspective. In Kingston’s novel, the strong male forces at work on the different women through the episodes of the “No Name Woman”, “Shaman”, and even “White Tigers” and the narrator’s own life serve primarily to cause the women to value themselves more as a servant to the men they encounter than as a valuable creature themselves. In Hurston’s novel, Janie finds herself continually defying the preset standard for her life and gets closest to ‘finding herself’ when she is with a less-domineering, and hence less-traditional male figure. While the drastically differing cultural contexts contribute to the differences in the women’s reactions, the role of the male as an extremely influential factor seems to typify the involvement of males in both books, as well as others by female writers.
Through the portrayal of male characters in The Woman Warrior and Their Eyes Were Watching God the authors open a new perspective on the role of males in the lives of women. The typical characterization of men in novels related to women is that of the strong, nurturing provider, who is not without fault, but nevertheless towers above his female counterparts for his independence and willingness to support the women in his life. The works by these two female authors challenge this idealized perception. Hurston attacks the undermining of female efficacy as invalid and unnecessary, while Kingston portrays women and girls who could be strong in themselves, but nevertheless adhere to the unyielding and dangerous guidance of mankind. Although both authors shine a considerably more negative light on the influence of males in the lives of women, they do succeed in opening the door for a more critical, and perhaps even more accurate representation of males in contemporary literature.
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