Male Attitude in Hurston’sTheir Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee


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Male Attitude Towards Women in Hurston’s Novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee

"‘Aw naw they don't. They just think they's thinkin'. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don't understand one.'"(71) Joe Starks to Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God
"‘That shows the difference between me and you. I see one thing and can understand ten. You see ten things and can't even understand one.'"(261) Jim Meserve to Arvay in Seraph on the Suwanee

While reading these two novels by Zora Neale Hurston, I noticed several metaphors, ideas, and lines that she uses in both texts. I think that the almost parallel lines quoted above are particularly telling of the way that these two novels relate in their depictions of male attitudes towards women and the relationships that exist between the husband and wife characters. Janie's marriage to Joe Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Arvay's marriage to Jim Meserve in Seraph on the Suwanee both operate under the rubric of the male figure's ideas about what marriage and women should be and do. Within both of these marriages, the husband feels his wife is a possession that is to be provided for and cherished, yet not necessarily to be communed with. Joe embodies this sentiment throughout his marriage with Janie, placing her on a kind of pedestal where she can be seen, but not heard. Jim establishes his marriage under similar pretenses and verbally reiterates them throughout the novel, yet seems to evolve past them in a certain respect as he urges Arvay to take an active role in their love. In their patriarchal positions of authority, both Joe and Jim see themselves as wise, as "understanding ten things," whereas they view their wives as stupid and ungrateful, as unable to "understand even one thing."

We can infer Joe's attitude towards women and marriage from several statements that he makes to Janie throughout their relationship. While he courts his future wife, Joe explains himself and his intentions: "‘Ah'm uh man wid principles. You ain't never knowed what it was to be treated lak a lady and Ah wants to be de one tuh show yuh. Call me Jody lak you do sometime'"(29). He then situates Janie's subservient and silent position within the marriage: "‘mah wife don't know nothin' ‘bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat.

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"Male Attitude in Hurston’sTheir Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee." 123HelpMe.com. 16 Jan 2018
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She's uh woman and her place is in de home.'...He strode along invested with his new dignity,...unconscious of her thoughts"(43). As the marriage progresses, Joe's conception of women, and Janie in particular, come to light: "‘you need tellin'...Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don't think none theirselves'"(71). Joe's thoughts depict his disgust not only at her ignorance, but at what he sees as her ungratefulness as well: "she was sullen and he resented that. She had no right to be, the way he thought things out. She wasn't even appreciative of his efforts...Here he was just pouring honor all over her; building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world and she here pouting over it!"(62). Therefore, to Joe, having "principles" includes "pouring honor" on a "lady," or providing a wife with material necessities, yet even this act of "pouring" bespeaks his assumed dominance, his position above her from where he drenches her with his own liquid. He also establishes a controlling "place" for this lady in relegating her to the home and oppressively equates her intellect with "chillun and chickens and cows," or immature children and animals. Thus Joe feels that he must think for her, seeing as how he, unlike children and animals, can "understand ten things."

We can surmise Jim's almost identical notions concerning women and marriage in a similar fashion. As he tries to convince Arvay to marry him he reveals what he expects of her:

‘Women folks don't have no mind to make up nohow...Lady folks were just made to laugh and act loving and kind and have a good man to do for them all he's able, and have him as many boy-children as he figgers he'd like to have, and make him so happy that he's willing to work and fetch in every dad-blamed thing that his wife thinks she would like to have.' (25)

Later in their relationship he enforces his position of ownership over his "mindless" wife: "‘You're my damn property, and I want you right where you are, and I want you naked. Stand right there in your tracks until I tell you that you can move'"(216). Like Joe, he also expresses resentment over a perceived lack of gratitude in Arvay: "‘you never have had the feeling to even go down and see what I was doing, or trying to do, and you never have said once that you realized that I was scuffling like that to place you higher up'"(265). Thus Jim demands subservience in his wife as she must take the passive role having "a good man do for" her in terms of thinking and money making, and take the active subservient role in order to "have him" children and "make him" happy. Jim also clearly deems his wife an objectified possession that he wants "naked" or defenseless under his rule and motionless except under his command. Just as Joe "builds" Janie a "high chair" to sit in, Jim attempts to "place" Arvay "higher up." Yet this elevated stance is, in truth, one of inferiority in the way that it cuts the woman in it off from a self possessed, equalized interaction with her surroundings. Therefore, the "things" that Joe and Jim seem to "understand" include how to oppress their wives.

The parallel quotes that begin this paper both occupy pivotal moments in their respective novels as they demarcate significant changes within each marriage. Directly following Joe's assertion of how many "things" he "understands," the "spirit of the marriage" is said to have "left the bedroom and [taken] to living in the parlor"(72). Jim's similar declaration precedes his literal separation from Arvay. Apparently "understanding" all those "things" could not help them to save their marriages.

The domineering, supposedly knowing force of these male characters plays a vital role within each of their perspective novels, yet it is the way that the two female characters divergently react to this dominance from within their positions of supposedly understanding nothing that differentiates the two marriages and the messages of the two novels. Janie ultimately refuses to submit to Joe's brand of domination as she finds her voice, in essence telling him that she understands more things than he does, at his death bed. Arvay, however, finds fulfillment at the end of the novel only through succumbing to Jim's wishes, through finally understanding only one thing: how to be what he wants her to be. Although Janie is later dominated in a somewhat similar fashion by Tea Cake and Jim's sentiments about love do hint at a kind of equality, this positing of how many things are understood by the two female characters seems to establish the novels' stances towards dominance. Their Eyes Were Watching God thus seems to promote self-actualization, whereas Seraph on the Suwanee seems to advocate compromise.



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