In the early 1930s in America, gender roles drew a distinctive line between men and women. For a black woman in the south, her role was not only subordinate to both white male and females, her role in the relationship with her black male partner was of inferior status. The black woman was to work and obey her husband, while he was the breadwinner for the family and head of the household. It was accepted by society that the male’s role was to be strong, aggressive and bold and his wife was to be obedient and often silent in decision making. In our society, gender roles are a range of behaviors and attitudes that are appropriate and acceptable for both men and women (WHO). Clearly, in the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston uses traditional gender roles and their function within the relationship between Joe and Janie to highlight the struggles of women as Janie emerges as a black female hero as she finds her own voice.Hurston portrays the suppression of Janie’s voice through the gender roles crafted by society.
During that time period, women lacked a voice in society because they were viewed as property and had no authority. The stereotypes of society deem their job to be staying at home, cooking, cleaning, and being the overall caretaker of the family. Hurston exclaims “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but man wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’.
Ah never married her for nothing’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (Hurston 43). The authority that men asserted during that time was shown through this quote because they did not allow women to have a voice and express their opinions. Joe clearly stated, “She’s uh woman and her place is in de home,” and this implies his acceptance of an idealistic women in society at that time. In addition, as Janie’s voice was repressed, Hurston portrays the struggles of women through Janie’s broken spirit.
As Joe continues to control Janie by his actions, it gets to the point where she no longer reacts or even cares about what was happening. Hurston exclaimes, “The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul.
No matter what Jody did, she said nothing” (76). Her true emotions are hidden under everything as she imagines her life with someone different than Joe. Janie is no longer in love with Joe because of his commanding nature; this causes her soul to detach from her body and live a life full of hatred and regret. She regrets marrying him, but she also believes that because of her age, she would not be attractive to anyone else. As Janie attempts to care for Joe, he is often harsh and mean: “Shut up! Ah wish thunder and lightnin’ would kill you! Ah know it. And now you got tuh die tuh find out dat you got tuh pacify somebody besides yo’self if you wants any love and any sympathy in dis world” (87). Although Joe was cold and distant to Janie, she still wants to take care of him and be with him knowing that he was near his final stages of life, but when Janie tells Joe about his predicament, he only lashes out at her and treats her like she is nothing and wants her to die.
In a sense, Joe represents freedom to Janie at the beginning of their relationship because she wants to leave Logan and have a new life, but as he nears death, he is only a prison and keeps her depressed and regretful for many years. Joe becomes ill, and Janie’s broken spirit leads her to think about death and the eminent death of her husband. She believes her life will be changed and perhaps her spirit will be reawakened.
Consequently, as Janie’s broken spirit is caused by Joe’s arrogance and controlling behavior, another aspect is the isolation she has from the rest of the town. Through the isolation of Janie from the town, Hurston portrays the struggles women faced due to gender roles. At the beginning of their marriage, Joe treats Janie with respect and buys her small trinkets, and Janie perceives Joe as a proper man who has a great ability to talk with strangers. Janie says, “He didn’t want her talking after such trashy people.” But Joe responds, “You’se Ms. Mayor Starks, Janie.
I god, Ah cant’t see what uh woman uh yo’ stability would want tuh be treasurin’ all dat gum-grease from folks dat don’t even own de house dey sleep in” (54). Joe views the townspeople as “trashy” and “gum-grease,” and believes that Janie should not converse with them because he views himself and Janie as a higher class who should not mingle with the townspeople. He feels this way because he buys the whole town and is elected the mayor, but also because in his eyes Janie is viewed as a trophy wife – a young, attractive wife regarded as a status symbol for an older man (Dictionary.com). In Joe’s eyes, Janie is merely property, because he uses her beauty to increase his social status.
This could be seen as hypocrisy because Joe talks with the townspeople on a daily basis, but he forbids Janie from communicating with them. The isolation causes Janie to resent Joe and hate her marriage to him because she is not able to talk with anyone and has to just work by cooking, cleaning, working in the store, and completing various other chores tasked by Joe. There is a mule in the town of Eatonville, which is irritated by the men because they feel that it is very fun to mess with it. After Joe buys the mule in order for it to live a peaceful life, it becomes a symbol of pride for the whole town and becomes the main subject for stories by the townspeople. The role of the mule is parallel to the role of Janie’s life with Joe bringing the reader back to a statement from Nanny at the beginning of the novel, explaining the black woman’s role in the world: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see”(14).When the mule dies and Janie wishes to attend the funeral for the mule, Joe bans her from going by saying, “Why, Janie! You wouldn’t be seen at uh dragging’-out, wouldja? Wid any and everybody in uh passle pushin’ and shovin’ wid they no-manners selves? Naw, naw” (69)! Joe believes that Janie should not go to the mule’s funeral because he feels that she should not attend events that are beneath her because she needs to maintain her status as the wife of the mayor. In the eyes of Janie, she does not care about the social status because she just wants to associate with other people and have fun.
She does not agree with Joe in the whole matter that if she associated with the the townspeople than her reputation will be tarnished. As Janie is isolated from the townspeople, her voice is taken away at the same time. Therefore, Hurston highlights the struggles of black women by using traditional gender roles and their function within the relationship between Joe and Janie in the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Janie Crawford perseveres through many struggles and setbacks and breaks free from the traditional gender role that subjugates her to men becoming an equal independent women, and a hero for other women.