Before the 20th Century, the American literary scene primarily consisted of one group: white males. Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Nathanial Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Wittman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are just a few of the names that one associates with early American literature. With the litany of men in literature, the male perspective is sometimes all one sees represented.
Women like Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston write from the less often heard female viewpoint. Their observations, distilled through their feminine lens, though honest, were considered controversial and scandalous when first published. One area where the ladies’ views were opposed to those of their male counterparts was in the area of relationships. Both Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Chopin’s The Awakening, regardless of their differences, speak to women’s struggles with their desires for love, equality and respect being heard against the male-centric views of relationships.
During that time period, a woman’s primary goal in life was landing a husband. A woman was considered successful in that aim when she married someone who could provide financial security. As far as society was concerned, in the words of Tina Turner, “what’s love got to do with it?” In The Awakening, Edna is wed to Léonce Pontellier, a successful New Orleans businessman. She views him as an acceptable suitor who expressed a great devotion to her, and she settles for him when marrying the previous love of her life, an actor, is perceived as impractical. Edna’s father and sister were vehemently opposed to the match for religious reason, which made her want to marry him more. Edna chose “a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams” (Chopin 18-19). Their Eyes Were Watching God’s Janie Crawford’s first marriage is to Logan Killicks, a farmer who owns “sixty acres.” Hers was arranged by the Nanny, and she was shamed into it (Hurston 21). After Nanny dies, Janie meets the suave and ambitious Joe “Jody” Starks, whom she leaves Killicks for. She sees Sparks as a way out of her first marriage, and finds his visionary drive to be a far more attractive quality in a husband than property (26-33). Yet this still fell within society's expectations for acceptable reasons to marry (more practical and less romantic). Both characters want a loving relationship, neither one discovers it with her husband.
Our female protagonists eventually achieve love. Robert Lebrun is the recipient of Edna Pontellier’s affections. For Janie, it is in the man who will become her third husband, Vergible Woods, aka Tea Cake, a drifter many years her junior. Yet, these men were not perfect. Robert, upon developing feelings for Edna, leaves under the pretense of a business venture. (Chopin 40). Confused, lost and heartbroken, Edna then starts an affair with Alcée Arobin, a known ladies’ man, while her husband and sons are away from home (80). Tea Cake is not the ideal mate either. He takes Janie‘s money to gamble and party (Hurston 123-125). While in the Everglades, referred to as “the muck,” Tea Cake beats her to show Mrs. Turner and her brother that she is his and he is in control (147). Love had not made the two women into equals in the eyes of the public as they thought it would. Yet both find a liberation in being with their love partners, since those matches were ones they freely chose for themselves. They became more than the Victorian “angles of the home” they had been previously, merely by being with their chosen men, the proverbial bad boys, for the reasons of love and desire.
Both women eventually escape their dependence on men and choose their own path to individual freedom. When Robert tells Edna they cannot ever be together no matter how much he loves her, she leaves her husband and family, goes to the place of her and Robert’s first meeting and “to reassert control in the only way she can choose through taking one‘s own life” (Bai 847). Thought Janie also decides her own way, her path is less grim; “Tea Cake’s death as part of the necessary death and rebirth cycle” (Barr 104) gives her a new lease on life. She has outlived two husbands, (possibly three, as the reader is not told of Killicks status among the living by the end of the novel), and has the financial means to provide for herself. She has the opportunity to remake herself, and “called her soul to come and see” (Hurston 193) as she faces her future on her terms.
Janie and Edna are far from being the liberated women of the 21st Century. There was still a strong hold of the patriarchal society, though the women made every attempt to be more than homemakers, arm candy, and baby factories to their husbands. They are as much possessions as the houses and businesses their husbands have. Their views and feelings were either silenced through violence or viewed as a psychiatric concern. Yet, Hurston and Chopin created two women who make progress in the one place where they can; in their relationships.
Bai, Limin. "The Re-Understanding Of Edna Pontellier's Death." Theory And Practice In Language Studies 4 (2014): 845. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
Barr, Tina. "'Queen Of The Niggerati' And The Nile: The Isis-Osiris Myth In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God' (1)." Journal Of Modern Literature 3-4 (2002): 101. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
Chopin, Kate, and Margo Culley. "The Text of the Awakening." The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 3-109. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 75th Anniversary Edition ed. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. 21-193. Print.
© 2017 Kristen Willms