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With few exceptions, our male dominated society has traditionally feared, repressed, and stymied the growth of women. As exemplified in history, man has always enjoyed a superior position. According to Genesis in the Old Testament, the fact that man was created first has led to the perception that man should rule. However, since woman was created from man’s rib, there is a strong argument that woman was meant to work along side with man as an equal partner. As James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Behold de Rib,” clearly illustrates, if God had intended for woman to be dominated, then she would have been created from a bone in the foot, but “he took de bone out of his side/ So dat places de woman beside us” (qtd. in Wall 378). Still, men have continued to make women submissive to them while usurping their identities in the process: “[s]elf-determination is a mark of adulthood for American males; for American females of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, self-determination was neither expected nor encouraged” (Leder 104). However, not all women were intimidated by the stereotypical expectations imposed by the social norms of their era. Defying their traditional roles, Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston wrote The Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God, respectively; in each work a woman reaches independence and freedom by overcoming male dominance in her relationships. Chopin’s protagonist, Edna, and Hurston’s feminist, Janie, discover that through their “radical attempt to be free…the struggle for freedom is not linear but dialectic; the price of change is doubleness, and out of contradiction emerges a new self”—a self that is determined, dominant, and, most importantly, free (qtd. in Dyer 116).
The first indications of emancipation are evidenced by Edna and Janie’s first marriages. Edna weds Leonce Pontellier, a Creole, to retaliate against her father and sister. In defiance, Edna marries, not for love, but to punish her family for their disapproval. Edna’s first marriage is her initial attempt towards self-determination. Janie, on the other hand, in her initial attempt towards self-determination, rejects the idea of marriage, but is forced into a loveless union to Logan Killicks because of her grandmother’s persistence. Janie had always believed in marrying for love, not security—a virtue her grandmother adamantly preached. Ironically, these oppressive marriages make these women stronger. Initially, these women are looked upon as possessions, and, thus, their identities are degraded. Leonce treats Edna as a belonging and looks upon her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin 7). Janie is regarded in the same way by Logan, who “refuses to accept essential parts of her heritage, personality, and experience” (Kubitschek 23).
Because their husbands limit their avenues of opportunity to pursue any individual growth, they become more determined to rebel against the status quo. Edna and Janie are expected to play the roles of a typical woman of their times: keeping home, cooking meals, and raising a family. The concept that either woman could be capable of supporting herself was alien to this period. Edna demonstrates determination in learning to swim after Leonce orders her to cease in her endeavors. Ignoring his admonition, she swims “for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence…she grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out where no woman had swum before” (Chopin 47). By completing a seemingly trivial feat, Edna’s inner self is awakened, and she realizes that life is more then staying at home following her husband’s orders. After this triumph, “she brings new power with her [. . .] she issues orders and speaks more honestly than she ever has before” (Dyer 57). Edna finally finds the faith in herself that her husband does not see. By excelling in learning to swim, she proves that anything is possible. Janie learns the same lesson by refusing to do extra labor on the farm. She resists Logan’s attempt to add to her chores. When he calls her spoiled she responds, “Ah’m just as stiff as you is stout. If you can stand not to chop and tote wood Ah reckon you can stand no to git no dinner” (Hurston 25). Janie stands up for herself and is starting to find her voice. Realizing that the oppression caused by her femininity is unfair, she strives to find an environment where she can be free to explore and be an equal.
These first experiences of male domination act as their guiding light towards liberation. Both characters do not break away from these marriages until they realize that the love and support they expected the union to provide does not exist for them. Edna and Janie thought that “[h]usbands and wives always loved each other, and that was what marriage meant” (Hurston 20). They thought their marriages would offer them love when it only stripped them of their identities. On the brink of losing their dreams and desires, Edna and Janie discover “that marriage did not make love” (Hurston 24). Although it is not necessarily love that they are seeking, they know that if they do not escape these relationships now, they will lose their freedom forever.
Both authors use imagery and symbolism to convey the status of their heroine’s progress towards independence. Edna is symbolized as a caged bird who repeats at the beginning of the novel “Get out! Get out! Damn it!,” a clue that she needs to escape from the cage in which marriage and society’s view of women has imprisoned her (Chopin 5). She needs to learn how to establish her own identity and define her own life. Likewise, Janie needs to open up to the world around her. The pear tree represents Janie’s desire to be free: “Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom” (Hurston 11). Although the imagery is sexual, it shows her desire to fully bloom and to become independent. The fact that “the vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree” implies that Janie knew her marriage to Logan would prevent her from fulfilling her dreams (Wall 385). These colorful descriptions of the bird and “bees fertilizing the blossoms of a pear tree” awaken both womens’ consciousness of their dreams and desires (Wall 384).
In a further attempt to attain freedom, Edna and Janie involve themselves in new relationships. They have chosen life over despair. Hoping to start the process of redefining themselves, Edna begins an affair with Alcee Arobin and Janie marries Joe Starks. With these relationships, they both seek a new outlook on life and come closer to becoming independent. Edna escapes with Arobin, by conducting a meaningless, loveless affair meant only for excitement. Seeking to be autonomous, she is drawn into Arobin “as the effrontery in his eyes repelled the old, vanishing self in her, yet drew all her awakening sensuousness” (Chopin 127). Here, it is evident that the affair is based on passion, not love. Edna knows “Arobin was absolutely nothing to her” except an adventure and possibly a beginning to her freedom (Chopin 129). With Arobin, she can project a new vision of herself. He allows her the autocracy to get out of the house and have her own social life, a simple pleasure denied by Leonce. He encourages her actions at the race track where she “is often flamboyant, reckless, and excessive [. . .] from the time the horses take the field, it is implied that Edna behaves more like a man than a woman” (Dyer 50). The crowd is attentive to her as though she were a male authority. Leonce would have been embarrassed to witness such a scene, but Arobin looks on in admiration.
Edna at last has the freedom of making her own money. Although there is no need for her to work, Edna demonstrates a desire to support herself. By acquiring money, she attains more power over her life (qtd. in Dyer 51). Despite the fact that her race track winnings are very sufficient, she turns to her artistic ability to make additional income. Dyer explains how “Edna commences her artistic life as a ‘dabbler’ but soon begins to think of painting as her ‘work’—a very unconventional notion for a nineteenth century woman to adopt” (85). Leonce had restricted her from pursuing an artistic career while Arobin models for her, offering her more independence. Mademoiselle, a friend, tells Edna that to survive as an artist, she must be courageous and have a “brave soul. The soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 106). Edna strives to succeed, but Leonce puts her down. He does not see a need for her to “retreat from domestic activity” and go to a private place to do her work (Dyer 87). This statement is very hypocritical because “Leonce fails to recognize the irony of having, and needing, his own private retreat from domestic activity and demands while scolding his wife for needing hers” (Dyer 87). By having restrictions over her desires, his actions make Edna work harder to become self-reliant. While dramatically encouraged by Arobin, Edna remains timid because of the denial of freedom experienced in her marriage to Leonce, which restrains her from comfortably seeking her liberation.
Similarly, Janie attempts to become more independent in her second marriage to Joe, but she finds that this relationship affords her less freedom than anticipated. Joe only “offers Janie an escape from her loveless marriage” (Wall 385). He represents her aspirations for a future that will allow her to move away and change her life. Seeking adventure, she leaves Logan to explore a new world with Joe. Although “he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance,” which Janie hoped would lead to self-sufficiency (Hurston 28). Talking of exotic places and living a life Janie only thought imaginable, Joe urges her to join his hand as they walk together. Janie is moving on, not only emotionally, but also physically; she walks in a new direction. What Janie thinks is releasing her from traditional domestic life, in reality, causes her to digress towards the female role model she sought to escape. Joe “forcibly installs her as Queen of the Porch and cuts her off from any real contact with their community. She becomes his showpiece, his property” (Christian 58).
Again she becomes restricted by male dominance, but this time it makes her stronger and gives her the capability to renew her emergence. Although it takes time, “Janie recognizes that Joe requires her total submission [. . .] she retains a clear perception of herself and her situation that becomes her salvation in the end” (Wall 386). Initiating the process of stepping outside of herself and assessing her situation is the impetus for Janie to finally act in ways to improve her life. Joe’s restriction “short circuits Janie’s attempt to claim an identity of her own, robs her of the opportunity to negotiate respect from her peers. ‘So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush,’” but not for long (Wall 386). Finally, Janie steps up and initiates a new attitude. In her first confrontation with Joe, she declares that “Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!” (Hurston 67). No longer will she tolerate being looked down upon by a man; she strives to be seen as an equal. Her vision of Joe bringing change to her life has been dashed as “her image of Jody down and shattered” (Hurston 68). Dominance will not conquer her now because she has been confronted by her desires. She comes to terms that “she had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (Hurston 68). She has found her own identity. After Joe’s death, “independent for the first time in her life, she exults in the ‘freedom feeling’” (Wall 387). Janie feels ready to disobey Joe’s rules and live freely, however, “[s]he cannot claim her autonomy, because she is not yet capable of imagining herself except in relationship to a man” (Wall 387).
Edna does not need death to free her from the role of a wife of a prosperous man and uses her own initiative to finally sever her relationship with Leonce. He is described as
a rather couteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. It shocked him. Then, her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him. When Mr. Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent. She had resolved never to take another step backward. (Chopin 95)
Hence, she is now determined to achieve complete emancipation. During these times, women rarely emerged from behind the “mother-woman” mask (Chopin 16). Men directed, and women remained submissive. Now, Edna and Janie are “no longer one of [their husbands’] possessions to dispose of or not” (Chopin 178). They evolve as individuals and are prepared to continue their quest for self-determination.
The symbolism of the bird and the pear tree continues to evolve to reflect the metamorphoses of Edna and Janie. The bird, once warning Edna to leave, now greets her in song. Edna has inhaled the breath of freedom as she experiences her first steps outside of the cage. Filled with confidence, she can embark on a journey of flight. Like a young bird, she must find assistance to direct her in the right path and allow her to spread her wings. The tree, once barren, is preparing to bloom in the spring. Janie now finds herself in the springtime of life and needs only to be watered by someone to flourish and flower. Janie has strong roots and a solid foundation that propel her on her course to freedom. With the help of two new relationships, Edna and Janie progress towards liberation.
Although experiencing true equality is not possible, through Edna and Janie’s relationships with Robert Leburn and Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods, respectively, the roles of dominance are shared. Robert and Tea Cake are “an alternative definition of manhood, one that does not rely on external manifestations of power, money, and position” (Wall. 388). These new lovers are the antithesis of their previous perceptions of men. From the beginning of Edna and Robert’s relationship, “he lived in her shadow” (Chopin 20). Ready to obey her commands, Robert demurs to Edna’s requests. She directs him towards her needs and tells him when to “come; go; stand up; sit down; do this; do that;” so that he knows she has control (Chopin 21). He holds some control too though, over her mind. Her mind becomes blocked “under the spell of her infatuation.
[. . .] it was his being, his existence which dominated her thought, fading sometimes as if it would melt into the mist of the forgotten, reviving again with an intensity which filled her with an incomprehensible longing” (Chopin 90). Although Robert accepts her as an equal, Edna feels some submissiveness due to her obsession for him. She knows she will do anything to be in his arms.
Infatuation also absorbs Janie’s mind as she encounters Tea Cake, a man who “confirms Janie’s right to self-expression and invites her to share equally in their adventures” (Wall 388). Janie is no longer restricted because of her sex. Kubischek explains that “their relationship rejects ordinary conceptions of dominant and subordinate sex roles. Tea Cake is Janie’s companion on her quest, not her master or mentor” (25). No one delegates responsibilities to the other because they look upon each other as a partner for life, which was Janie’s initial view of marriage. Unlike in her last relationships, chores are not designated by sex, but shared. It is evident that “the adjustment involves more than Janie’s expansion into previously male roles: Just as she works beside Tea Cake in the fields, he helps prepare supper” (Kubischek 25). By partaking in a joint union, Janie is finally able to view herself as an equal and is no longer ashamed of being a woman. She, too, is succumbed with “a self-crushing” love for him; a love that causes “her soul [to crawl] out from its hiding place” to be free (Hurston 122). In these relationships, Edna and Janie “trust emotion over intellect, value the spiritual over the material, preserve a sense of humor and are comfortable with their sensuality” (Wall 388). Edna and Janie find a part of themselves in Robert and Tea Cake. They discover avenues towards emancipation and self-assessment.
Despite the apparent success of their latest relationships, Edna and Janie are ultimately doomed by too much dependence on a love that does not last. Edna loses herself in “her dreams about Robert, for dreams are the place, the only place, where romance can exist” (Dyer 79). She continues to fantasize and reflects on tender memories when apart; the distance between her and Robert only makes her heart grow fonder. Dyer suggests, “Edna has momentarily forgotten the lesson she learned at Madame Antoine’s: an awakening can not be brought about by another, but only by oneself” (80). No matter how much desire she feels for Robert, only he can direct the course of his emotions. Dyer goes on to imply that “the dream can no longer be so easily re-created; it can be recalled only in ‘a sort of stupor.’ And the conclusion of the dream is cynicism, not hope and joy and exultation. Edna is coming to know, of course, that romance can only be dreamed, not lived” (81). In spite of the truth, Edna goes on to believe in her ideal man and romantic love. Romance only offers her temporary dependency, which is supported by the imagery of Edna and Robert “leaning toward each other as the water oaks bent from the sea. There was not a particle of earth beneath their feet” (Chopin 37). There is no stability or foundation in their relationship, which indirectly leads to her undoing. Unrealistically, “the sensitive but conventional Robert Leburn becomes for Edna the embodiment of ideal and romantic love, her ‘beloved one’” (74). He is a vision that evokes in her the belief that she is living for something.
Like Edna, Janie envisions Tea Cake as an ideal man. In her opinion, “she couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. [. . .] He was a glance from God” (Hurston 101). In her eyes, he represents everything she wishes to become. He is self-determined and free. Tea Cake is “the purposeful, self-reliant, industrious, and courageous wanderer as an ideal man type. Theoretically he was complemented by the ideal woman, his strong supportive spouse who could assume an independent and self-reliant role herself if the situation required it” (Kilson 21). Janie and Tea Cake mirror one another in their actions, devotion, and courage. By learning and working with Tea Cake, “Janie has explored the soul of her culture and learned how to value herself” (Wall 388-89). It is this self-value that allows Janie to free herself from the yolk of male domination. These final relationships that Edna and Janie have entered into expose them to emotions and awakenings that they were denied in their previous experiences. Their quests for self-determination have ended.
The bird now soars in the air with its wings entirely stretched and the pear tree is in full bloom. Edna escapes from society’s views and man’s control and lives for a moment above the rest. She relishes in ecstasy with the feeling of love. Janie has been watered with love and is experiencing daylight for the first time. As she soaks in life, she has finally been awakened and is free. But a bird must always alight and a tree is subject to the changing of seasons.
Even though death intervenes, Edna and Janie triumph and proceed through their final phase of evolution in male dominance. Edna returns to the comfort of the ocean, the environment in which she experienced her initial awakening. Again, she swims far out, but this time does not return. Going out into the sea, she feels “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world it had never known” (Chopin 189). Her soul is awakened and she drowns “as a liberation from the cage of marriage, societies’ rules, and family” (Wyatt 3). Janie’s liberation is sadly achieved with the death of Tea Cake, but it teaches her a salient lesson. Returning to the town where Janie established a foundation for her identity, “she brings back to her community, that self-fulfillment rather than security and status is the gift of life” (Christian 59). She accepts her fate and is now content to be on her own as she continues with her life. Edna and Janie harbor a strong desire to be independent and thought of as individuals without regard to gender. They both possessed the self-determination that was necessary to overcome the male dominance that they experienced on a personal level and in society as well. Because of their persistent drive, each woman finally attained the freedom they so sincerely sought.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Chelsea, 1987.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon, 1972.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892- 1976. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1980.
Dyer, Joyce. The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Fleischmann, Fritz, ed. American novelists Revisited: Essays in feminist Criticism. Boston: Hall, 1982.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1937.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “‘Tuh de Horizon and Back’: The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 19-33.
Masturzo, Sharon. A Guide to Internet Resources for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). University of South Florida. 14 Feb. 2000 .
Wall, Cheryl A. “Zora Neale Hurston: Changing Her Own Words.” American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Fritz Fleischmann. Boston: Hall, 1982. 371-92.
Wyatt, Neal. Women Writers. Virginia Commonwealth University. 18 Feb. 2000 .
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