Gender Identity/Male-Female Roles and Power Relationship. In a discussionof characters from "The Awakening" by Despite the fact that there are numerous differences existent in the novels The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Light in August by William Faulkner, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, there are some poignant similarities between these three works of literature. They were all written in the years directly preceding or occurring subsequent to the arrival of the 20th century, and they all deal with issues related to race (albeit extremely indirectly in Chopin's book). Moreover, all of these pieces chronicle definite challenges presented to women due to notions of gender and society that were pressing during this historical epoch. Some of the more salient issues affecting women during this time period, such as marriage and motherhood and the degree of autonomy (or dearth thereof) women had in living their lives is explored in the issues relating to major characters in each novel. A thorough analysis of the principle protagonists within each of these works reveals that these women were able to defy the mores of their day related to gender and its limitations, and were able to exercise a degree of freedom in how they lived their lives despite these circumspections.
This thesis readily applies to Edna Montpellier in Chopin's masterful narrative; the wife and mother ultimately forsakes the conventional gender roles ascribed to her as a wife and mother in pursuit of a full life of art, passion, and a romance that thrills her very being. Her identity was formed in part as a reaction to the typical stereotypes she was supposed to embrace as a married woman of means and society in the final years of the 19th century. Mrs. Montpellier swiftly found that she was dissatisfied by demurely assenting to her husband and dedicating her entire existence to the rearing of her children. Instead, a chance encounter with an exceptional piano player helps her to see that defying these social norms and exploring her own options as a woman, a painter, and a lover, is more fulfilling. The subsequent quotation, which takes place after her husband has rebuked her and she continues to defy him, alludes to the impact that Mrs. Montpellier's iconoclastic behavior would have on her characterization.
She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant… She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted…Of course she had…But she could not realize why or how she should yielded, feeling as she then did (Chopin)
This quotation implies that Mrs. Montpellier's rebellious behavior is attributed to an act of volition. It is important to realize that this quotation takes place after the young woman has heard the wonder of the piano player's music for the first time. However, her response to her husband's remonstrance will result in her eventually having an extramarital affair, leaving the home her husband provided for her, and leaving her children with relatives so she can explore an independent life of sensation as an artist. Such independent living -- which was highly aberrational during the time in which this tale is set -- is directly related to the societal mores that Mrs. Montpellier's husband exemplifies, and which she has decided to defy.
Interestingly enough, the type of independence that Mrs. Montpellier pursues is almost nothing compared to that which the principle female character (Lena Grove) in Faulkner's novel wholeheartedly embraces. In fact, Grove's actions are certainly more defiant than Mrs. Montpellier's. Faulkner's tale begins with Grove in the midst of her pregnancy. However, she exhibits extremely unusual behavior by traveling to a town in Mississippi in order to find the father of the child. In doing so, she is exceeding the boundaries of many social conventions of the time in which this novel was set. Not only did she appear to bare her child out of wedlock, but she is also enduring the stigma of having a fatherless or bastard child. What is most assertive about Grove's own particular volition, however, is that she is open challenging these circumstances by proactively looking for the father of her child -- while she is pregnant and might be better suited in some domestic environment. This sort of assertion of autonomy, of contesting one's fate, is an anomaly in the town in which this novel takes place -- which the subsequent quotation strongly suggests. "The town believed…that bad women can be fooled by badness…But that no good woman can be fooled by it because, by being good herself, she does not need to worry anymore about hers or anybody else's goodness" (Faulkner 13). This passage demonstrates the fact that the townspeople (who are indicative of virtually all of the people during this epoch) merely stratify women into two categories: good or bad. Bad women, perhaps, were able to do what they wanted and defy social conventions. Good women, however, certainly could not. Yet Grove, who is beneficent in her noble pursuit of her husband, supersedes these social conventions by exercising her own autonomy while still preserving her virtue. Doing so proves that she is a strong, independent woman during a time period in which such attributes were unacceptable and rare in women.
It is of critical importance to realize that the assertion of independence and autonomy that characterizes the female characters in The Awakening and in Light in August certainly applies to the protagonist of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie. Janie's own situation is somewhat the opposite of Grove's: whereas the latter was looking for a husband and father, Janie spends the majority of her time resenting and looking to leave various men that are her husband. She is married three times in this work of literature, and each time becomes severely disenchanted with her husbands primarily due to gender roles and the lack of freedom that this institution -- marriage -- provides. In fact, Janie only truly feels good about herself when she has freedom from her husbands, and is able to live according to her own individual wants and needs without subverting her will to someone else's. Still, society in Eatonville Florida dictates that women need men and, that in the case like Janie in which a woman was with a husband (or husbands) and is no longer so, than there is something innately wrong with her. The subsequent quotation, in which the people of Eatonville speculate about Janie's return there without her latest husband, emphasizes this point. "Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? -- What he done with all her money? -- Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain't even got no hairs" (Hurston 2). It is critical to note that this passage occurs early on in the book, in order to demonstrate to the reader what society expects of a woman -- to remain domesticated with a man -- and its disapproval of someone who defies such conviction. Hurston, for her part, then spends the vast majority of the novel illustrating how such conventions simply do not apply to Janie, who is much happier when she is liberated from the presence of a man. The implication of the aforementioned passage, of course, is that the townspeople's sentiment is merely part of the oppression that Janie liberates herself while also liberating herself from her husbands.
Perhaps the ultimate impact that gender impact has on the characters from these three novels is best indicated within Chopin's novel, and its conclusion in particular. Mrs. Montpellier's identity was largely formed in reaction to the conventions which society had regarding the role of women in relation to marriage, children, and the dearth of freedom associated with these things. Therefore, it is quite revealing that…