Society’s Predetermined Views of Women
Modern society possesses a continuously repeating habit of holding females back from their dreams, desires, and their true selves. This culture lets men only rise and do as men wish while simultaneously permitting women to falter and fall. This used to be a much more frequent occurrence in the past, but is still a scary reality that remains today. Through The House of Mirth, Wharton can convey to her audience society’s cutthroat habits towards women, and their continuous wish to gossip. They solely promote the negative qualities of each other, instead of embracing the positive. Her main character, Miss Lily Bart is stuck in a rut, in a high class world that only cares about money and social class, and cares nothing about actual feelings, least of all love. If we then shift our focus to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston can utilize the feminist perspective in both very similar, but also contrasting ways to Wharton. A main difference is the class difference, as her main character Janie Crawford is much not among an elite class like Miss Lily Bart aspires to be a part of. If anything, Janie is considered one of the lowest forms of social class during this time, being an older African American woman. These two protagonists must show true grit to work past each of society’s views of gender, love, and class to create their own outlook towards life. Ultimately, both can find new perspectives on life, separating themselves from the world around them, but meet their demise in different ways.
Starting with House of Mirth, we can look at those main themes of gender, love, and class to explain why women are held back. Looking first to gender, this elite class view’s woman who wish to ascend and become upper-class women as solely meant to be ornamental or good-looking, and nothing else. As a young woman, especially one without capital, Lily can never live the life of a Selden or a Percy Gryce, as she does not have the freedom that the men are allotted. Instead, she has to find a potential match that can guarantee her future. If we look at the main protagonist Lily and her main candidate for marrying. Gryce, he is a young millionaire with plenty of capital, but he is a completely boring individual. Since he is male, he has large amounts of freedom. Also Lily’s words regarding her pursue of Jack Stepney exemplify this as she says, “All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him; whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance…” (Pg. 78). Lily aligns with society’s views here in this scenario as she does not care about the potential dull life she may have with him. She is strictly looking to absolve her debts to create her freedom.
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This world does not care that with the hopes of a better life, this ornamental outlook forces women to prostitute themselves on the marriage market. Simply women are forced to see their position economically as being more prized, than their position emotionally. Marrying in reality is the sole way women are allowed to move up in this world. This is truly something completely unfair to woman and shows a complete lack of feelings. But for Lily this sort of thinking has existed since she was born. “Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency” (Pg. 53). As you can see from this quote, she has grown up with this thinking in mind, that marriage brings money, not love. Her mother did also have a certain passion for money that she previously had been ashamed of.
Love is something that is almost completely ignored and non-existent for many of these characters in the story. To look at a true example of this, there is a contrast between female characters to show what marriage has the potential to bring. Let’s compare Lily to Bertha Dorset and Judy Trenor. Since Bertha and Judy are already married when we are introduced to them, they are not exactly subservient or affectionate to their husbands. They are able to be free and even ignore any sort of economic dependence that may be holding them back. But now since they joined this society where they lacked previously for economic helplessness, they are raised for higher levels of gossip. Both Bertha and Judy seemingly have more freedom and power than their boring spouses. This is something that maybe leads to Bertha’s hidden relationship with Selden. Men are a game to Bertha, as she already has money and can gamble it away on card games, or gossip away on people. Gossip is the main form of entertainment in a world full of loveless marriages. “That stupid story about her dress-maker was bad enough- it would have been so simple to tell Rosedale that she had been taking tea with Selden!” (Pg. 34). The whole novel is one of social ascension as it’s all about being able to climb the social ladder.
The novel focuses heavily on gossip and on the superficial features of individuals. Lily only see’s rich or poor. She does everything that she can to ignore her feelings toward Selden. But something to keep in mind is, it takes wit to flirt, as you either flirt with someone who has interest in each other or it’s a prelude to something else. “The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden…” Lily and Selden are afraid to love each other in a loveless world.
Lily is in constant fear of how she is viewed by society and what they think of her, but this ultimately leads to her demise. The novel essentially becomes the story of a young woman’s destruction, Miss Lily Bart, by a social system that maintains that women cannot move up like the opposite gender can. They are only allowed to remain tame, innocent and pretty. But as this was mentioned before, it is not quite the case with all female characters. The role of female in male dominated societies is a repeating theme throughout both of these books. Wharton’s fictional reality causes as much male waste as female waste, yet it’s the females who are noticed for every little potential mistake. The males are ignored and let off the hook.
Lily did previously conform to group identity, but we see her slowly move away from this and be her person. It is interesting to note her evolution away from society’s thinking. She also chooses to forget that people gossip in this society and lets Rosedale take her to the opera. Rosedale, once viewed as a complete outsider to every character, he slowly becomes Lily’s one true friend. (Pg. 169). Her reputation becomes tarnished because of gossip. Lily has the option to use Bertha’s letters as blackmail but chooses to not let society define her and how she acts. Simply put, her position emotionally becomes more prized than her position economically. When Lily has economic stability and is able to pay her debts, she feels a sense of unmatched liberty, but that quickly turns into a realization that she has no money. With this realization in effect, and her coming to terms with her feelings for Selden, she takes sleeping pills overdosing in the process. The next day Selden came to another realization that he loved her. A big question that is left unanswered is done Lily commit suicide? Was it possibly over a loveless world?
In our other book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, our first impression of this book’s society is one of a superficial level as men instantly notice Janie’s physical features describing them as “firm grapefruits”. Again, this culture remains consistent like the previously mentioned book’s stance, that women hold a place only as ornamental objects.
Now through her story, Janie goes through three marriages, seemingly ranging from loveless to completely in love and ranging from following Nanny’s and Janie’s advice the most, to then following it the least. In both books, the structure of the story develops to allow the main female protagonist to persevere past a loveless society. Janie is able to do this and falls completely in love with Teacake. Yes, she does suffer at the hands of Logan, Jody and Teacake, but she becomes emotionally stronger after each marriage. For Nanny, Logan represented being a security provider and a successful farmer. “You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine.” (pg.31). Janie here is talking to Logan on the roles of sexes. But Janie quickly drifts away from these views as she views her marriage with Logan as a dull and uninteresting daily life. This is very similar to how Lily felt when she briefly considered marrying Percy Gryce knowing full well that she would live a dull, uninteresting life if married to him. Janie too just like Lily struggles to understand her inner self and decide what the overall purpose of love is. “Did marriage compel love like the sun?” (pg. 21). “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (pg. 25). She realizes getting married to Logan Killicks did two things. It did not make her fall in love with him and it did not make her into a woman. This quotation implies that being disappointed in love is a normal part of becoming a mature woman.
The female search for self-awareness is a reality in both books, and that is clear through each book’s sexist views. Janie is looking for a deeper kind of female fulfillment in a male dominated world. Again, a woman is judged on pre-determined gossip and her potentially unconventional relationship to Teacake. It is a combination of society’s oppressive views and the repression of Janie’s feelings and desires that hold her back from her goals.
To marry out of society, not out of yourself, is a false thought. It is a lesson that Janie finally figures out when she meets Teacake. “She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points” (pg. 96) She is actually attracted to him and following her feelings. When she thinks about asking Hezekiah about Teacake, she immediately gets it in her head that she’ll think wrong of the questions and say he’s too young for her. But this thinking is wrong and what she feels is truly what she feels. Later on when they go to Jacksonville it’s essentially a fresh start from the society they previously knew. They’re going to get married in a place that doesn’t have any pre-judgements about them. How Teacake makes her feel is evident in this quote. “Once upon uh time, Ah never ‘spected nothin’, Teacake, but bein’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come ‘long and made somethin’ outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together” (Pg. 167).
Just like Teacake himself, his porch has the same effect. “Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got, so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. Because she loved to hear it, and the men loved to hear themselves, they would “woof” and “booger boo” around the games to the limit” (pg. 134).
In this book we can still focus on the main themes of love, gender and class, but also introduce a new element that was barely mentioned in the previous book, race. Nanny says, “Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything” (pg. 14). Nanny believes whites have all the power. She explains the constraints on black women to Janie. “De ones de white man know is nice colored folks. De ones he don’t know is bad niggers” (pg 172). A quote that is all too real in its explanation of how whites view African Americans. In another instance Teacake makes a joke about race and states how it, “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ bout de Jim Crow” (pg. 171). How interesting it is that Janie’s pursuit of love takes place in the rural South.
Teacake in this book is essentially our book’s Lawrence Selden. Conflict between communities wishes for a woman and her freedom. Confidence to deviate from society’s traditional roles. If we look at her last marriage Janie received from Teacake “wine, flowers, and blood” (xiv). Because of choices involving Teacake she has more freedom than others. Janie took three marriages leading to experiences of three societies that help to shape her. “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the world and draped it over her shoulder” (pg. 193). As the novel closes, Janie is content. She has had the chance to live and love. She has achieved her dreams and has found herself in the process. She is at peace with herself as she has experienced love.
The most significant comparisons between these two books is the relationship that gender roles play in both stories, and the relationship each have to marriage. Both of these societies view women as objects of physical attractiveness, and both had their main female protagonists learn through self-discovery that love is more important than money. In our first world we see gender as something for social and economic gain. A female essentially gets married to set herself up for life. Lily is just starting to look for her first marriage. Our second world differs in that Janie is an older woman who experiences three marriages. The first and second for economic gain, and the last for love. Both female protagonists seek to redefine the role of love in their lives, but also how quickly that love can die.