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The Role Of The Female In Male

Dominated Society Essay, Research Paper

The role of the female in male dominated societies is a prevalent theme in American literature and has been explored by countless authors. Edith Wharton, in The House of Mirth, and Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, are just two of the many who examine this issue in their literary works. Although the novels were published over thirty years apart, and speak of women of distinct cultures and societies, each author uses her novel to make a social commentary on the effects of the societal rules and expectations of patriarchal cultures toward women. As is clear after an examination of the protagonists in each novel, the consequences of such rules depend upon the way in which one approaches them. Although both women are indeed burdened by the rules of society, Wharton’s Lily Bart abides by the expectations placed upon her and is ultimately destroyed by them, while Hurston’s Janie is able to rise above and triumph over assumptions regarding proper behavior for women.

The expectations of women in patriarchal cultures are evident in the early pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God as Janie’s grandmother, Nanny Crawford, arranges the marriage of her grand-daughter to Logan Killicks, the respectable farmer who will provide and care for her. Nanny reminds the reluctant Janie that she “ain’t got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo’self” (Hurston 15). It is clear that the common belief is that as a woman, Janie will be unable to care and provide for herself and Nanny sees marriages as the only way out for Janie, her chance to escape poverty and sit on a “high place.” While Janie does succumb to her grandmother’s wishes, she is aware that this relationship is not the loving marriage she has envisioned, and asserts these sentiments when she proclaims, “Ah ain’t takin’ dat ole land tuh heart neither. Ah could throw ten acres of it over de fence and never look back to see where it fell. Ah feel the same way ’bout Mr. Killicks too. Some folks was never meant to be loved, and he’s one of ‘em” (Hurston 23). Janie knows that this relationship will not bring her happiness, and she looks forward to finding romantic love.

Soon after her marriage to Logan Killicks, Janie meets Joe Starks, and believes that she has found that romance that she has been searching for. Starks promises to fulfill her dreams, to show her “what it was to be treated lak a lady” (Hurston 29). Janie knows full well that leaving her husband to run off with a stranger will be looked upon unfavorably by society, but she does just that, and does not even bother to divorce her current husband before she leaves. Janie rejects the values of her grandmother and defies the rules of society in order to pursue her own happiness. Soon, however, Janie learns that Joe views her merely as his trophy, as nothing more than the Mayor’s beautiful wife. After years of enduring insults about her intelligence and her aging appearance, Janie decides to strike back.

Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’, but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m more woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a log of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life (Hurston 79).

Janie refuses to be silent, to play the role of dutiful wife, and actively opposes her fate. After he is publicly shamed, Joe takes ill and passes away. Following his death Janie once again defies societal expectations with her brief mourning over the loss of her husband. “Ah aint’ grievin’ so why do Ah hafta mourn,” she questions, and begins to fall in love with Tea Cake (Hurston 113).

Her relationship with Tea Cake, a man much younger and in a much less stable financial situation than herself, is yet another instance in which Janie defies the rules of society in the quest for her own happiness. The marriage Janie and Tea Cake is met with much disapproval, as the townsfolk believe that Tea Cake is only interested in her money. After a warning from her friend and confidant, Phoeby, Janie declares

Naw, Pheoby, Tea Cake ain’t draggin’ me off nowhere Ah don’t want tuh go. Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ‘low me tuh. When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hands and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got a whole heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ‘em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize maself all over (Hurston 112).

Rather than follow the rules of society, Janie follows her heart in what proves to be a successful attempt to find true happiness with Tea Cake. Despite his eventual tragic death, Janie has no regrets about her relationship with Tea Cake. Despite the forces working against her, Janie finds true love in a man looked down upon by the people around her.

Following the death of her third husband, Janie’s strength and independence from societal expectations are further reinforced. As she walks back through the town that she left only two years earlier, women sitting upon their porches comment upon her overalls and make “burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs,” but Janie does not concern herself with the people of the town (Hurston 2). Janie disregards conventional values and aspirations, and in doing so finds true happiness with Tea Cake.

Much like Janie, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth feels great pressure, from her mother and from others around her, to marry a wealthy man who can support her and keep her out of “dinginess.” However, while Janie is able to hold on to her romantic vision of a loving marriage, Lily rarely entertains notions of marrying based upon fondness for or devotion to another. Lily’s desire to marry for financial support and stability mirrors the expectations placed upon her by society. While Janie is reluctant to marry Logan Killicks because there is no love between them, Lily is unwilling to marry any man who cannot be of use to her in the pursuit of the wealth that will bring her the higher social status that she desires.

In order to achieve this goal, Lily relies completely upon her beauty, and becomes increasingly concerned with and consumed by the maintenance of her physical appearance. Throughout the novel, Lily is extremely conscious of how she is perceived by others, and continually strives to present herself in a manner that is socially acceptable to those of the upper classes. Upon leaving the apartment of Lawrence Selden after a friendly visit, Lily “paused to look about her. There were a thousand chances to one against her meeting anybody, but one could never tell, and she always paid for her rare indiscretions by a violent reaction of prudence” (Wharton 15). As she departs from the building, Lily encounters Simon Rosedale, and feels as though she must lie to him about the nature of her visit to the Bene*censored*, later dwelling upon the fact that he “was still at a stage in his social ascent when it was of importance to produce” favorable impressions (Wharton 17). The fact that Lily worries about how she will be perceived after such an innocent visit with a friend is indicative of her intense concern with her appearance and the way in which she is perceived by society.

Unlike Janie, who is able to ignore the comments and questions about her, Lily’s very existence is based upon avoiding unfavorable remarks so that she will be able to marry a wealthy man. The devastating effects of negative social perceptions are evident when Lily proposes marriage to Rosedale at the end of the novel. He is unwilling to take her as his wife and states, “I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones” (Wharton 249). The inference is that Lily, as a result of the incident with Mr. Dorset, has become socially unacceptable for marriage. As this his been the focus of her entire life, Lily is devastated by this glimpse into the reality of what is being said about her in the public arena. Whereas Janie is able to thrive in spite of negative perceptions, Lily is destructed by the rules of society that she strives so diligently to adhere to.

The main characters of both novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The House of Mirth, are introduced to common ideals early in their lives, namely that a woman must marry a successful and respectable man in order to secure her future well being. Likewise, both women are subject to the rules of their societies. Yet while Janie is able to overlook the comments about her and find the romance she desires, Lily is ever conscious of how she is perceived by others and is never able to strive for true happiness. As a result, Lily becomes a victim of cultural rules and expectations, while Janie triumphs and rises above them.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial Classics,


Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.