The Duality of Femininity in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Through the use of ambiguity in the plot of Hamlet, Shakespeare brings the audience into the action of the play, allowing its meaning and importance to shift with each varied perception. For centuries, audiences of the play (including readers, actors, directors, artists, and critics) have used the ambiguity of every line of Hamlet to create a thousand interpretations of the text, and yet in the case of Ophelia they seem to lack imagination, always casting her either as the pinnacle of innocence or as a figure of cunning sin. Through these interpretations, Ophelia’s character expresses the duality of societal perception of women and femininity, which is then used to dismiss her and her importance to the play.
In society, from Shakespeare’s time to the modern era, women are either innocent maiden saints or loathsome sinners, and the deciding factor is nearly always sex. Sexuality, either in absence or abundance, has become synonymous with femininity in society to an extent that it never has with masculinity. As Ophelia has become an image of femininity, most often realized as a fragile and powerless maid with few words beyond “I shall obey, my lord” (I.III.19) and rarely imaged as a woman in control of her own choices, with her own agenda, she has come to embody this virgin/villain dichotomy. Uniquely vulnerable to definition by others, Ophelia’s character is the epitome of Shakespearean ambiguity, defined first by the male characters of the play and second by the play’s audience, but never given definitive meaning by herself.
The prevailing view of Ophelia paints her as an sweet virgin, childlike in her innocence, which allows audiences to infantilize and ignore her. Polonius entreats her to “think [herself] a baby / That [she has] ta’en these tenders for true pay / Which are not sterling” (I.III.18), relegating her to the position of a foolish young girl who knows nothing of love or life and must surrender her autonomy to her father and brother. Both Polonius and Laertes exert control over Ophelia’s sexuality, warning her of the dangers of losing her virginity, which, for an unwed woman of Ophelia’s time, were very real. However, father and brother both endeavor to keep Ophelia unwed and under their control, subject to whichever image they wish to fit her to. To Laertes, she is “a slice of female ‘perfection’ whose chastity he can legislate and in whose memory he can prove his manhood” while to Polonius she represents “a perpetual ‘baby’ he must continue to ‘teach’” (Dane 410) Audiences of the play are no less guilty of remaking Ophelia into whatever image they deem most fitting. Most often audiences choose the guileless maid under the power of the men around her, “the paragon of innocence, love, and undeserved tragedy, not very clever perhaps, but so sweet!” (Madriaga 173). In keeping with this view, lines suggesting cleverness in Ophelia are overlooked and swept aside. Take, for example, Ophelia’s response to Laertes’ warning:
“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede” (I.III.16)
Here Ophelia clearly calls out Laertes’ — and society’s — hypocrisy regarding the virginity of females versus males. Laertes, like all men, may tread “the primrose path of dalliance” while Ophelia and her fellow women are resigned to the “steep and thorny way” — an important social analysis that points to at least marginal intelligence in Ophelia, but is nearly always dismissed by audiences who view her as a child incapable of such heavy thoughts.
Some critics choose to read Ophelia not as an innocent virgin but as a conniving harlot, allowing her wit and measured autonomy, but none of the “sweetness” attributed to a virginal reading of her character. Subscribers to this view of Ophelia point first to Hamlet’s comment to her in the nunnery scene: “I say, we will have no more marriages!…To a nunnery, go.” (III.I.55). Evoking the antiquated (though modern in Shakespeare’s time) meaning of “marriage” as “sexual union” as proof that Ophelia is not a virgin, critics claim that Hamlet urges Ophelia to a nunnery that is less than holy, using the word as “a cant term for a house of ill-fame” (Wilson 159). Hamlet, seeing through her role in the plot of the “lawful espials” (in this reading willing and not coerced by her father or the king), realizes that she is not the sweet innocent he thought but a scheming woman whose only place is removed from society. This Ophelia is depicted as “a flirt; a fast girl such as at Elizabeth’s court was the rule rather than the exception: a girl whose model was Anne Boleyn, the young beauty who ascended the throne by way of the King’s bedroom” (Madriaga 175). As a virgin, Ophelia is a poor wretch manipulated by her father to serve his political ends; otherwise, she is a schemer manipulating the good prince in hopes of gaining a crown herself. This second view allows Ophelia more autonomy than a pawn, and even measured control over the men around her, but it also damns her. The virginal Ophelia is only “a screen onto which men might project their fantasies” (Dane 411), whereas a sexual Ophelia is a far less docile fantasy; remove her chastity and Ophelia may use the one weapon allowed to women of her time — sexual allure — to gain modest control over men and her life. Polonius and Laertes, aware of this ability, attempt to keep Ophelia’s sexuality carefully under their control, in turn keeping her under their thumb. Along with Hamlet, they, like many men, fear a woman in control of her own sexuality, and thus a non-virginal reading of Ophelia casts her “not [as] a person…merely a spectre of [men’s] psychic fears…a duplicitous whore…a sexually corrupt beast…a dark pit for breeding sinners” (Dane 409). Here is the dual perception of femininity most evident: girls as children are innocent and sweet, but once a woman is no longer a maid, she is vilified. Although Ophelia gains limited agency in this reading, it is awarded to her only to further condemn her; she is dismissed as a sinner and the gravity of her actions is eclipsed.
Although the portrayal of Ophelia as maid or floozy are divergent, they converge in one aspect: both remove her from the action of the play and place her under the power of the men around her. Those who read Ophelia as a treacherous tramp often dismiss her madness as a just punishment for her promiscuity or duplicity, which is dually problematic in that it assumes promiscuity should be punished and in that it completely disregards the solemnity of her condition. Likewise, in treating her as a lovesick maid too weak to survive the loss of her father and romantic interest, audiences disregard the emotional manipulation and abuse Ophelia suffered at these men’s hands. Completely circumscribed by the men around her, and kept constantly under their control, Ophelia is given no opportunity to develop an authentic self; “With her identity constructed always in reference to another, Ophelia is, in essence, nothing, an empty cipher waiting to be infused with…meaning” (Dane 410). After Polonius’ death, with Laertes and Hamlet abroad, Ophelia is left without the father, brother, and lover who had so long told her who and how to be, caught between their contradictory definitions of her, and faced with the overwhelming ability to “infuse” herself with her own meaning, she goes mad. To read this madness as the result of weakness is to be in error, for Ophelia is “empowered by her own madness” (Hunt 15). It is only once she is mad that Ophelia finds the ability to speak out against the injustices done to her and to those around her. She inflicts her judgment in a uniquely feminine yet scathing way through her nursery songs and metaphor-laden flowers. But Ophelia at her most subversive, and most cognizant, is also Ophelia at her most ignored.
The clear message Ophelia intends to send with her rhymes and flowers is undermined at every opportunity by the men of the play as well as by audiences. At first glance, Ophelia’s rhymes are easily dismissed as the ravings of a mad girl; this is often reinforced by the stage traditions of having Ophelia act wildly or undress, making her into another “female hysteric.” These traditions include productions that include a wildly euphemistic “Mad Ophelia” (harkening back to a promiscuous reading of her character) or an erratic, sobbing Ophelia too overcome with emotion to take part in thought. While the wanton Ophelia is represented onstage with innuendo, her maiden counterpart is infantilized and beautified, as exhibited most clearly by Laertes himself with the words, “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, / She turns to favor and to prettiness” (IV.V.92). Laertes, and many audiences, use the femininity of Ophelia’s madness and turn it into something tragically beautiful but ultimately meaningless, crafting her into “an aesthetic object to whose personal torment he can remain blind” (Dane 407). If Ophelia’s actions are shrugged off as inconsequential, her words are interpreted as even more empty. Ophelia finally speaks out against those who have used her for their own gain, only to have her audience “botch the words up to fit their own thoughts” (IV.V.86) and once again “serve their own emotional and political ends” (Dane 419). Laertes and Claudius both use her madness to support their plot against Hamlet, which, had it succeeded, would have allowed Claudius to remain in power and given Laertes high status in the court, perhaps his late father’s position. Thus interpreted and claimed by Laertes and Claudius, and the play’s audiences, Ophelia’s madness is doubly removed from the girl herself, her meaning removed from both action and word.
Ophelia’s death is likewise at a remove from her character, given meaning by everyone but Ophelia herself. This occurs first when Gertrude relays the news of Ophelia’s drowning in prettified verse, focusing on the serene imagery of the “willow grows aslant a brook” (IV.VII.100) and the “mermaid-like” (IV.VII.100) way Ophelia lay in the water before she drowned. This aesthetic portrait of Ophelia, which limns her death an instance of beauty without substance, is the reigning portrayal of her death. Artists capturing Ophelia’s last moments in painting or photography show the girl afloat among the weeds, her flowing white dress wrapped around her body and made sheer by the water in a morbidly erotic representation of female death. The eroticism common in depictions of Ophelia’s death juxtapose her maiden and sexual selves: the virginal white of her dress combined with the sensuality of her body seen through the sheer dress. This Ophelia, “Aestheticized…[and] wrapped in…the ‘fantastic garland’ of male imagination” (Romanska 486) is nothing more than an object, “the painting of a sorrow, / a face without a heart” (IV.VII.98). Shrouding Ophelia’s watery demise in metaphor and beauty clouds audiences’ ability to see it for the dark tragedy it is.
The most powerful elements of both beauty and metaphor in Ophelia’s death are the flowers Ophelia wears as she drowns. Interpreted as aesthetic objects increasing the beauty of the scene while taking away meaning, in actuality the flowers are especially heavy with nuance. Ophelia adorns herself with a particular arrangement of blooms that capture near perfectly her role in the play and the ways in which it is stolen from her. The crow-flowers symbolize childishness, while daisies symbolize both unhappy love and innocence or purity; together, these flowers represent the maiden side of Ophelia, viewed as little more than a child unwise to the ways of the world and ultimately driven mad by lovesickness. Conversely, she ornaments her garlands with long-purples, a botanical innuendo that Gertrude assumes Ophelia was ignorant of, though it is unlikely that a girl with such command of the language of flowers would be ignorant of the orchids’ meaning. This is the virgin Ophelia claiming the sexuality denied to her by her father, or the harlot bringing disgrace upon herself. Her last flower, the nettle, represents cruelty — all of the manipulation and abuse Ophelia suffers as well as the injustice and harm done to her in judging and ignoring her. Here is Ophelia’s plight distilled into a handful of petals. But the eloquent bouquets meet the same ultimate end as Ophelia, turned into aesthetic objects whose meaning is irrelevant. They become simply another part of her lovely death.
The loveliness of Ophelia’s death ultimately displaces and overshadows any consequence it might have held. Audiences accept Gertrude’s dubious explanation of Ophelia’s death with little trouble or insight into the real reasons behind her demise; “the ‘beautified corpse and the beautified death replaced [sic] the explanation for the death itself” (Romanska 497). Ophelia’s death is accepted as either an accident, which removes the little agency Ophelia exhibits, or as a suicide which is never explored but is easily dismissed as irrational. In both instances, Ophelia is seen as “incapable of her own distress” (IV.V.100) rather than as making an autonomous choice. This eradication of her autonomy begins just before the “nunnery” scene, during Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The play itself contains no stage direction to remove Ophelia from the stage, though she is traditionally made to exit for the length of the speech and return at its end, allowing Hamlet to speak his mind alone, as if Ophelia is unworthy of hearing or unable to understand the soliloquy. This simple change in staging carries tremendous weight in changing the meaning of the play and the role of Ophelia. The Ophelia who remains onstage is Hamlet’s confidante, listening to his words and contemplating her own existence alongside him — a contemplation that will eventually lead to her own choice “not to be.” The Ophelia who retreats to the wings “is just the symbol and the image of man’s distress, but ‘incapable’ of feeling the distress herself” (Romanska 500), a childish girl used as a foil to and symbol of Hamlet’s existential crisis but unable to comprehend its magnitude. Her more licentious twin is undeserving of hearing Hamlet’s soulful confession. To allow Ophelia to hear and consider the “to be” soliloquy is to free her from the dual perceptions of femininity that so constrains her character and enable her to arrive most fully at a genuine “self.” The Ophelia who commits suicide in Act IV is an Ophelia who has “struggled through her own existential monologue, [and] emerges to make her first autonomous choice…that in order authentically ‘to be’ she must choose ‘not to be’” (Dane 423). Suicide for Ophelia is a way to escape a world that will allow her neither voice, nor autonomy, nor self; in killing herself, she claims herself as her own. In a final irony, this first fully autonomous choice is used to further the storylines of Hamlet and Laertes, and is utterly unacknowledged by critics.
The folly in analyzing Ophelia’s character is in attempting to mold her into one of the only two options available for female characters when, like every female character, she is more than simply a virgin or a villain. To read her as either sinner or saint without acknowledgment of the true girl behind these interpretations is to erase her from the play or place her firmly in the shadow of the surrounding male characters. By classifying Ophelia into one of these two categories, audiences predetermine their analysis of her actions, denying her the chance to define her actions herself. In doing so, audiences remove the consciousness that makes us human, perpetuating the perception of Ophelia as an object rather than as a person.
Note: Quotes are taken from an edition (Dover Thrift) of Hamlet that lacks line numbers; page numbers are given in their place. Sources are listed below the break.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is well-known for its revolutionary main character, Elizabeth Bennet, who is seen as an early example of a feminist character in literature. Austen presents Elizabeth as a woman attempting to overcome the sexism inherent in her society. Just as important, however, is her sister Lydia, a woman who is a victim of the patriarchy and is never able to rise above it. Austen portrays Lydia Bennet, a character who does not exhibit the traits most commonly associated with feminist characters, as a feminist antihero whose experiences exemplify Austen’s own feminist ideals.
Lydia’s static and underdeveloped characterization, demonstrates the tendency to stereotype women as well as the consequences of doing so. From the moment Lydia is introduced, she is stereotyped as an empty-headed, flirtatious teenager. Elizabeth remarks of Lydia’s temperament, “the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character…Her character will be fixed; and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous” (Austen 223). Lydia is described numerous times as flirtatious, energetic, careless, and ridiculous; Austen never develops Lydia’s character further, representing the attitude both Lizzy and society take towards Lydia; they know only a small portion of her character and are satisfied that there is nothing else to know. Lydia is never expected to become anything more than the stereotype that has been assigned to her, inviting ridicule and causing her character to stagnate — because nothing else is expected of her, Lydia will likely retain these childish traits into adulthood. This stereotypical view of Lydia influences how her character and her actions are interpreted for the rest of the novel. Lydia shares many traits with her sisters but is seen as more senseless, in keeping with her role as the irresponsible baby of the family, demonstrated by Lizzy’s comment to Jane: “You are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see the fault in any body. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes” (Austen 16). Although Lizzy speaks here about Jane, she could just as easily be referring to Lydia. Both Lydia and Jane are incredibly naive, having been kept separate from the true nature of the world, but because Lydia is stereotyped as silly and Jane as sensible, we view this as a flaw in Lydia’s character but as a virtue in Jane’s.
The flaws in Lydia’s character are a product not only of the way people see her but of her environment as well. She was raised in society which values marriage but not intelligence, so it is less than surprising that Lydia is more interested in boys than books. The effects of this society are seen most clearly in a description of Mrs. Bennet’s pastimes: “The business of [Mrs. Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (Austen 7). Mrs. Bennet and her lifestyle serve as a parallel to her daughter; like her mother, Lydia has never been given anything of import to think of. The patriarchy forbids her from participating in politics, holding a job, or managing money, so all that is left to her is attending balls, gossiping and visiting friends, and chasing after potential husbands. She is shallow because society has never given her an opportunity not to be. Like many women of the time period, Lydia is trained from childhood to be a wife rather than an intelligent person. The effects of this society are only further confounded by her lack of parental guidance; her parents view her not as a daughter who must be nurtured but as a wife-to-be in search of a husband. Lydia’s father disregards her, her mother is no more grown up than Lydia herself, and their parenting style is ill-advised, allowing all of their daughters to become eligible for marriage at a very young age and declining to provide them with a governess. Lady Catherine voices her surprise at this situation, exclaiming, “Five daughters brought up in a home without a governess! — I never heard of such a thing…Who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected” (Austen 161). Without a governess, the Bennet girls were certainly neglected, as they lacked instruction in academics as well as social propreity. Mrs. Bennet, a perpetrator of frequent social faux pas, is certainly not up to the task of teaching her daughters the complicated ins and outs of nineteenth century society, leaving them vulnerable to men like Wickham. The nonexistence of a formal education for the girls left them more likely to be immature and inaugurated in the ways of the world; this is likely the source of Lydia’s self-involvedness. The absence of education also leaves women more dependent on men, as seen throughout history. By failing to offset the negative influences of a misogynistic society, Mrs. Bennet sets up her daughters, particularly Lydia, for hardships and scorn.
The society Lydia lives in places importance on trivialities, and her parents fail to give her the tools to overcome this, but it is Lydia herself who is punished for their shortcomings. After hearing the news of Lydia’s elopement, Mr. Collins writes to advise Mr. Bennet to “Throw off your unworthy affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offense” (Austen 282). It is common in society, even today, to view the wrongs of women as more serious than those of men, and to blame women even when they are the victim. The reaction of Lydia’s family and peers to her eloping is a clear example of this, as Lydia is the one who is seen as committing a “heinous offense,” even though Wickham is equally if not more culpable than she is. Furthermore, Lydia is never forgiven for eloping, while Wickham is quickly and almost unanimously forgiven for misleading Lydia, and is practically seen as a hero by Mrs. Bennet for marrying Lydia. The Bennets reluctantly welcome Wickham and Lydia into their home after the wedding, where they are quick to judge Lydia but soon forget their dislike of Wickham. The couple’s stay at Longbourn is cut short to prevent Lydia from having a negative influence on her sisters, and under the guise of a job offer for Wickham, Mr. Bennet banishes Lydia to the North; “The day of [Wickham’s] and Lydia’s departure soon came, and Mrs. Bennet was forced to submit to a separation, which, as her husband by no means entered into her scheme of their all going to Newcastle, was likely to continue at least a twelvemonth” (Austen 313). After sending Lydia far from home to another part of the country, Mr. Bennet does everything in his power to keep her separated from the rest of her family, first by vetoing a family trip to Lydia’s new home, and then by denying Kitty the opportunity to visit her sister. Mr. Bennet’s harsher treatment of Kitty following Lydia’s marriage reveals that Lydia’s legacy at Longbourn is one of disappointment and disapproval, a stark contrast to Wickham’s position as the favorite son-in-law.
Although Lydia is not a particularly good role model, she is a fairly empowered woman whose trials expose the absurdity of the era’s sexist practices. Lydia refuses to restrain herself to fit into the image of a docile, modest lady; rather, she is described as having “high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence” (Austen 45). Lydia is described as lively, excitable, and “high-spirited,” the complete opposite of the perfect nineteenth-century lady, who was expected to be docile and willing to allow men near complete control over her life. Lydia’s idea of her own “natural self-consequence” flies in the face of the humility expected of her. Lydia also takes her life and her decisions into her own hands without waiting for her male guardian’s consent by eloping. In the note she leaves for Mrs. Forster, she writes, “There is but one man in the world I love…I should never be happy without him…You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going…for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them, and sign my name Lydia Wickham” (Austen 176). Lydia takes no chance that her father will prevent her from marrying the “one man in the world” that she loves, and so runs off with Wickham without allowing anyone the chance to stop her. She tells Mrs. Forster that she wishes to “surprise” her family with the news of her marriage for a laugh because she knows that her family will take this explanation at face value, owing to their superficial view of her. However, it is reasonable to conclude that Lydia wishes her family to remain ignorant because if they do not know of her actions, they are powerless to stop her. Lydia intends to run off to Gretna Green, where she does not need her parents’ consent to get married; Lydia is also aware that once she has eloped, her family will insist that she marries Wickham to save face. Thus Lydia ensures that she is the one to hold power over her marriage, and not her father. The elopement is a foolish decision influenced heavily by Wickham’s deceit and Lydia’s own naivete, but it is also an example of a young woman taking power over her own life in a time when women were essentially powerless. While Lydia makes this choice freely, she is taken advantage of by Wickham, an older and more cunning man. To Lydia’s peers, this would be seen as the natural consequence of a “feeble-minded” woman making choices of her own. Readers, too, are quick to blame Lydia’s “silliness” for this transgression, before remembering that rational, intelligent Elizabeth was nearly taken in by Wickham’s lies as well — a reminder that even the smartest of women can be taken advantage of. Austen proposes that the problem is not with women like Lydia, but with a society that lauds and easily forgives men like Wickham while damning women who dare to make their own decisions.
Lydia’s elopement and the subsequent fallout expose the absurdity of the courtship rituals of the time, which hold both women and happiness in places of little importance. Though universally agreed that Lydia’s marriage to Wickham is unlikely to lead to happiness in the future, it is the best outcome for her. In a letter to Lizzy, Jane states, “Imprudent as a match between Mr. Wickham and our poor Lydia would be, we are now anxious to be assured that it has taken place” (Austen 261). In the present day and age, Lydia’s parents would likely separate her from Wickham and forbid her from seeing him again to save her from the ramifications of such an “imprudent” match. In the nineteenth century, however, that would be unthinkable, as it would cast doubt upon Lydia’s virtue and ruin her prospects for any sort of match in future. Thus the best outcome for Lydia is to marry a man who does not love her and whom she cannot divorce, which will essentially doom her to a life of unhappiness. The ease with which Lydia’s family agrees to this course of action and their lack of concern for Lydia’s future call into question the practice of valuing of money and reputation (particularly that of an unmarried woman) over actual happiness. Lydia’s sister, Mary, expands upon this line of thinking by saying, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex” (Austen 275). Mary’s speech serves a dual purpose; on one hand, it is a prudent warning to young women first entering the marriage market, while on the other it is a subtle attack on sexist practices of the period. Austen exposes plainly the severity of consequences for young women, for whom “one false step” results in “endless ruin,” compared to the ease with which young men can overcome their missteps, asking readers to question the reasons for this disparity.
Like many women, Lydia Bennet is never given a chance to become more than a stereotype or to truly escape the influence of a patriarchal society. She does not typify feminist ideals by managing to break free of those who would oppress her, but rather by serving as a very real reminder of the destructive effects of sexism.
A Feminist Reading of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an inherently feminist novel that focuses on the hardships suffered by African American women in particular, using Janie as a representative of black women. Throughout the novel, Janie battles problems common to all women, particularly black women, as she experiences different types of love and relationships that eventually lead to her fulfillment as a person.
Janie’s initial perception of life and love is influenced heavily by her grandmother’s pessimistic views. Nanny wants Janie to avoid the troubles she faced in her life, and she believes the only way to do this is to marry Janie off before Janie can come to harm. After Janie begins to show interest in men, Nanny is quick to show Janie the dark reality of how men will treat her and to push her own agenda upon her granddaughter, saying, “Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you. Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate” (Hurston, 20). Nanny has been “made a spit cup” out of many times in her life — being forced to leave the plantation where she lived, raising a grandchild born of rape, and watching her daughter lose her way in life. Any romantic ideals she once held have long since been stamped out, but she sees them in Janie, who envisions marriage as the union between bumblebees and pear blossoms, and wishes to protect the girl’s innocence. Nanny was unable to protect her daughter from the world, and men in particular, and sees Janie as a chance to rectify that failure. Janie realizes that her grandmother’s desire to protect her stems from a larger desire to end her own suffering, but she is reluctant to compromise her future for her grandmother’s sake. Nanny reveals the dismal story of her life to Janie as a cautionary tale, telling her, “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her…but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed” (Hurston, 16). Nanny’s daughter wandered off the highway Nanny made for her, and Nanny is terrified that the same will happen to Janie. She believes that the only way for Janie to “take a stand on high ground” is to marry Logan, who will protect her from harm and provide for her, even if they do not love each other. This pressure to marry for protection and provision is inflicted upon all women, but particularly black women of this time period, who were often the victims of violence such as what Janie’s mother suffered. It is beyond Nanny’s powers to bring all colored women to this high ground, but she is determined to get Janie there no matter the cost.
Janie’s marriage to Logan serves to show her the error of Nanny’s way of thinking and set her on her path to find her own love. When Janie first marries Logan, she intends to stay with him, believing that she will come to love him with time. Nanny tells her that love is irrelevant to marriage, huffing, “Here you got uh prop tuh lean on all yo’ bawn days, and big protection, and everybody got tuh tip dey hat tuh you and call you Mis’ Killicks, and you come worryin’ me ’bout love” (Hurston, 23). Nanny believes that because Janie’s marriage to Logan makes her respectable in the community and protects her from harm, it has fulfilled its usefulness. Janie’s imagining of marriage as mutually fulfilling, romantic, and sweet — like the bumblebees and pear blossoms in spring — is quickly dismissed as fantasy. This marks Janie’s loss of innocence and awakening to the way the world truly is; “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, and so she became a woman” (Hurston, 25). As Janie accepts the loss of her dream, she loses her innocence and is forcefully awakened to the true workings of the world. Thus in trying to protect Janie, Nanny inflicted a different kind of violence upon her by killing her “first dream.” Hurston implies that this violence is foisted upon every young girl when she “become[s] a woman.” The death of Janie’s romantic image of marriage is what pushes Janie to reject the ideas of marriage and love bequeathed to her and begin to search for her own, something every woman must do as she matures.
Janie abandons both Nanny’s notion of love and her husband by running off with Joe “Jody” Starks, whom she hopes will fulfill her fantasy of what love and marriage should be. Jody provides the means for Janie to escape a loveless marriage and attempt to resurrect her first dream. At the beginning of her life as Mrs. Starks, Janie believes that “from now until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (Hurston, 32). Janie returns to her “old thoughts” of “flower dust and springtime” when she elopes with Jody, but she acknowledges that things will be different than she imagined. She has lost some of her innocence and seen the world’s uglier side, but remains naive and too quick to trust. Janie builds up an image of Jody as “a bee for her bloom,” the man who saved her from her “mouldy” marriage to Logan Killicks. She is disappointed again in finding out that Jody is not the man she dreamed of. She first realizes this during Jody’s speech to the town, when he says “‘Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.’ Janie made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn’t too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn’t know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things” (Hurston, 45). As he sets himself up to be Eatonville’s mayor, Jody reveals that he is uninterested in Janie’s intellect or abilities; he “never married her for nothin’ lak dat.” Instead, he is interested in Janie being a respectable wife, separated from life in the town, which is his domain. Janie, like many women, is relegated to the home without any choice in the matter, and is expected to make “her face laugh” and hide her discontent. Once again returning to the springtime imagery of pollen and bloom, Hurston describes Jody’s misogyny towards Janie as “taking the bloom off of things.” Rather than revive Janie’s dreams, Jody will throw the final handful of dirt onto their grave.
As Jody’s wife, Janie is eventually forced to give up her old ideas of love and marriage once and for all, resulting in the loss of the last of her naivete. Janie begins to do so as she becomes more and more dissatisfied with the way Jody treats her. She comes to realize that Jody does not care for her ideas, only for her obedience. After several years of marriage,“time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it. So, gradually she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again” (Hurston, 71). In this way, Janie’s marriage to Jody is just as unfulfilling as her marriage to Logan was. While Logan “spoke in rhymes” to her and play-acted at romance, Jody makes no such display. Janie’s job as his wife is to submit to his will and make him look good so their marriage can “shake hands” with company. The Starks’ marriage is a show for the town, to make Jody more respectable, while Janie is given no respect at all. In a situation many women find familiar, Janie is silenced, allowed to use her voice only to make her husband look better, never to contradict him. Janie is more and more disillusioned with Jody and her marriage through the months, but it is not until he strikes her that the veil is finally lifted. After a carefully prepared dinner that ends up inedible, Jody strikes Janie across the cheek in anger. Janie “stood there until something fell off the shelf inside of her…It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further…She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen” (Hurston, 72). In this instant, Janie realizes that from the moment she ran off down the road with him, she held an image of Jody that was far from the truth. She pictured him as the man who would give her springtime and fulfill her dreams because she was trapped in a loveless marriage and Jody was the way out. After seven years of marriage, Janie realizes that Jody is just someone she “had grabbed up to drape her dreams over,” fervently hoping that he would fulfill them when in reality he was interested only in his own fulfillment. It is this realization that cleanses Janie of her naivety, which clears the way for her to find the “man she had never seen” who would fulfill her dreams.
Janie’s third marriage, to Tea Cake Woods, brings her life full-circle by fulfilling her childhood dreams while also rejecting their childishness. Tea Cake is the opposite of Jody, interested in Janie’s feelings and unwilling to class her off and keep her separate from life. This is clear from early on in their relationship; the first time they meet, Tea Cake teaches Janie how to play checkers: “He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play” (Hurston, 95). Jody had forbidden Janie to play checkers, a game that everyone in town knew and loved, as a way to keep her separated from the others. Conversely, Tea Cake thinks “it natural for her to play,” signifying the vast differences between him and Jody and foreshadowing the major changes to come in Janie’s life. Hurston makes it clear that Tea Cake is the man Janie was “saving up feelings for” through sharp contrasts between Janie’s relationships with him and Jody. Whereas Janie’s marriage to Jody was primarily a show for the townsfolk, her relationship with Tea Cake is characterized by a “glowing inside,” signifying that this relationship is between Janie and Tea Cake rather than those around them. This comparison is carried further through the contrast of the way Tea Cake and Jody treat Janie and view her role as a wife. Jody viewed Janie as a servant and a necessity to make him more respectable. Tea Cake, however, views Janie as someone special that he is privileged to have in his life. He explains this to Janie when comparing her to Nunkie, the young girl trying to win his affections: “[Nunkie] ain’t good for nothin’ exceptin’ tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head. You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die” (Hurston, 138). In her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie is freed from being “set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove” as she was with Jody. While Jody tucked Janie away in the store and the house under head rags and propriety, Tea Cake is quick to include Janie in every part of his life. The freedom Janie experiences with Tea Cake is tempered with her knowledge of less contented times, signifying that the only reason Janie was able to attain her dreams at last is because of the growth she experienced since the day she mused about love under the pear tree.
Through her three marriages, Janie learns enough to truly become a woman in her own right. Janie’s growth begins with a rejection of her grandmother’s beliefs, but as she grows, she also comes to understand these beliefs. She remembers the “high ground” her grandmother wanted her to get to and compares it to the porch-talkers of Eatonville. “[Nanny] was borned in the slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — didn’t keer whut it cost…so I got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished to death up dere. Ah felt like de world was cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read the common news yet” (Hurston, 114). To get up on the “high stool,” Janie marries first Logan and then Jody, both of whom give her status and protection but ultimately keep her from experiencing the world. Jody especially is guilty of keeping Janie isolated from society, constantly insulting her intelligence but not allowing her to “read the common news” and join the town’s conversation. Although this satisfies Nanny’s hopes for Janie, it prevents her from achieving her own dreams. As Janie matures, she realizes that the cost her grandmother assigned her to pay is too high. Ultimately, Janie blames her grandmother for the years she spent under the thumb of men like Jody. Just after Jody’s death, Janie stops to reassess and realizes that “she hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people…But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things…Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon…and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love” (Hurston, 89). Although Nanny loved Janie and tried to do right by her, her what was important to her — protection, status, land and money — was things, not people, and things do not fulfill life. Just as Janie was growing old enough to experience the world and head for the horizon in search of her people, Nanny “tie[d] it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her,” stifling Janie’s growth by shoving her into a marriage. Over the course of the novel, Janie must reclaim her horizon and grow despite the limitations placed on her early in life. The men that Janie marries are important catalysts on this journey, but once Janie has finally learned all that she needs to and created her own outlook on life, she no longer needs them. Hurston uses Tea Cake’s death to symbolize Janie’s growth into a complete person, able to return to Eatonville content with her life.
Having experienced life and love in many different capacities, Janie eventually reclaims her horizon. Her journey was heavily influenced by her grandmother and three husbands, but in the end it was her journey and hers alone. The lessons Janie learns throughout her life are easy for many women to relate to as they read her story while on their own journey, confronting their own versions of Jody, Nanny, and Tea Cake. The power of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God lies in its empowering message to women that is just as applicable to women today as in Janie’s time.
Live and Let Read.
Young Adult (or New Adult) books have long been looked down on in the literary community, but Ruth Graham’s article has created a sort of war on the internet. Graham attacks the YA genre, denouncing it as “embarrassing”, “transparently trashy”, and “far too simple” in one of the most gag-worthy displays of literary elitism ever published. She goes on to claim that “if [readers] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.” Frankly, the entire article makes me want to punch something.
Adults all over the world have praised YA books and their authors, which leads me to believe that they found something worth reading in them. Graham attempts to shame these adults, claiming that they are “better than this” and should be embarrassed for their choice of books. I can’t help but feel that this sentiment is based on the ludicrous idea that teenagers are somehow lesser than adults. Teens themselves may be rash, irresponsible, and annoying sometimes, but that says nothing about the state of their literature. Graham believes that young adult books are meant purely for pleasure, while adult books are “art” and more complex. Well, unless it is assigned or part of your job, reading books is for pleasure. Why shouldn’t books be enjoyable? In a world where happy endings are all but impossible, why should we be denied the choice to read about them?
Contrary to what Graham seems to be saying, a book can be both pleasurable and thought-provoking. I’ve gone on a few rants myself about the over-simplified plots, instalove/cheesy romances, and neatly wrapped up endings of some YA books. However, I’ve read enough YA to realize that not all teen books are like that — and plenty of them are just as sophisticated as adult novels. In the past year alone, I’ve read YA books tackling sexism, racism, teen pregnancy, homophobia, kidnapping, tragedy, terminal illness, and a handful of important historical events. I learned about these things from what felt like first-hand experience through the book’s narrator, even though I haven’t experience all these things. And I’m more sympathetic and less judgmental for it.
Adult books deal with much of the same subject matter (although often in a different context), but YA novels are more straightforward. Graham’s statement that YA books are made for “instant gratification” is, in some ways, correct. In YA, the story starts right away, whereas in adult novels the exposition is often long — and tedious. Maybe I’m impatient, but I don’t want to read through 150 pages before I find out what the conflict of the story is.
Citing Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars as an example, Graham claims that YA readers are “immature” no matter their age. “The heroine of The Fault in Our Stars finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying. Her favorite book ends mid-sentence, which drives her to try and find the ‘real’ ending from its author,” she says, “but mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit.” Can we stop and think about this for a second? Whether a book is written for teens, adults, or toddlers, having it end in the middle of a sentence is going to be infuriating. A book that ends in such a way isn’t just “unresolved,” it’s practically unfinished! I have read plenty of books that end ambiguously and loved them, as have my friends and the dozens of people who have reviewed them. Hazel (the protagonist Graham is referring to) even admits that the abrupt ending of the book is part of why she loves it so much. Graham does not acknowledge the difference between an ambiguous ending, where the story could go a variety of ways, from a mid-sentence ending, where you have no hint as to where the story might have gone. Plenty of YA books “confound and discomfit” — just look at More Than This, The Book Thief, or Speak — and their ability to do so has nothing to do with how they end or which genre they belong to.
Graham also claims that escapism and nostalgia are not valid reasons for reading YA, but I disagree. This argument has more to do with why people read than what they read. If you’re reading nonfiction books, you’re reading to learn. And although there are dozens of genres, if you’re reading fiction, you’re probably reading to escape. Escapism is where many people’s love of reading stems from. We all remember our parents reading us Dr. Seuss as kids, imagining the crazy locales in Oh, Baby, the Places You’ll Go! These bedtime stories were our first taste of escapism, and whether we find it in books or movies or hobbies, we have used escapism ever since our childhood days of make-believe. An argument can be made that the need to escape should have been outgrown by adulthood, but in truth no person is free of the urge to escape, regardless of their age. The various stresses of teenagedom make escape tantalizing, but adults are no less subject to stresses and wanting to be “anywhere but here.” Nostalgia, a different type of escapism, is also listed as a reason for reading YA, and according to Graham, it’s just as shameful. I fail to see her logic. Reading a book you remember from your youth, or one that reminds you of those years, is no different from retelling stories or perusing the photo albums you’ve kept, and no one’s about to shame you for that.
Opinions belong only to their owners, and Graham has a right to hers. I take more offense to the ways she insults YA fiction and its readers than her dislike of the genre. The YA and adult genres are not all that different. They both tackle tough subjects and allow for escapism. Books introduce readers to new situations, people, and ideas, independently of where they’re shelved in the bookstore. If a book is written well, people of any age can enjoy it — and should be able to without those like Graham looking down on them. Grown-ups who read YA aren’t hurting anybody, they’re just enjoying a good book.
So, Mrs. Graham, could you please get off your high horse and let us read?