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Mules and Women

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Submitted By shahyankee
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“Mules and (Wo)men”
In the post-civil war era, although discrimination continued, blacks were essentially free and attempting to forge and secure their newfound citizenship. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston depicts a small black community named Eatonville in central Florida during the 1920’s, trying to create their own place in society. The novel illustrates the pervasiveness of society’s patriarchal values, where women and their intelligence, especially black women’s intelligence was equated to that of “chillun and chickens and cows”(Hurston 71).
Janie, the main protagonist, grows up in this oppressive patriarchal society, but still believes that she deserves a life defined by self-actualization and emotional fulfillment. Hurston powerfully portrays a black woman’s unconventional journey of self-love through effective use of literary techniques such as metaphor and personification.
Throughout the novel, Hurston uses natural imagery to metaphorically depict Janie’s growing awareness about marriage, men and desire. The reoccurring symbol of the pear tree reflects Janie’s feelings throughout the novel. For example, in Janie’s youth she observes and experiences the bees’ interaction with the pear “tree in bloom” (Hurston 11). Her soliloquy about the interaction she witnesses represents a sexual connection full of erotic energy, passionate interaction, and blissful harmony. In response to what she has seen, and because she was raised to believe that a physical connection equated to a mental one, Janie even blurts out, “So this was marriage!”(Hurston 11). Thus, she begins to confuse inner peace and happiness with romance and sex, concluding that marriage will bring about sensual fulfillment. According to Kendall, “The experience becomes a symbol to Janie of the ideal relationship, one in which passion does not result in possession or domination, but rather in an effortless union of individuals”(Kendall 1). Janie’s ideals and her distance from them during her relationships, is framed through “the pear tree in bloom” metaphor, which is carried throughout the novel.
This progression begins with her first husband, Logan Killicks, who her grandmother forced her to marry for financial security. According to Janie, the idea of marriage to Logan is “desecrating the pear tree”(Hurston 14) fantasy because although wedded to him she feels no desire. She keeps on waiting for “the bloom” to appear in her marriage, and complains to Nanny, “Ah wants to want him sometimes”(Hurston 23). Hurston describes Janie’s first realization that marriage and love are not synonymous when she says “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” (Hurston 25) Janie’s newfound awareness that “marriage did not make love” accompanies her recognition of the patriarchal oppression women experience in marriage. Before even growing up, Janie learns her expected place in society, when Nanny tells her black women are “de mule[s] uh de world” (Hurston 14). Nanny’s personification rang true because in her time period and the periods before women were constantly objectified, physically and sexually abused, and controlled by the men around them. In the novel, the personification of black women as “the mules of the earth” comes to symbolize both their oppression and stubborn resistance to patriarchy. “Muliebrity” by definition, refers to the state or condition of being a woman, or womanhood. Ironically, the term begins with “mule” and reveals how the female population is obviously looked at as inadequate to men. Although, less prevalent today, the idea of women’s inferiority to men continues to persist, and was especially widespread during Janie’s time. For instance, Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, has no interest in her as a person at all. He solely views her as an object to be used in the bed and kitchen, and does not believe she should have a say in anything. This is completely exemplified when he says “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (Hurston 31). Logan was continuously rude to her, abusive of her, and treated her like his property, or, his mule. And although Janie grew up learning to expect to be treated as “de mule uh de world,” being financially secure and stable in a marriage was not enough for Janie who still desired to be self-actualized and content. Her persistence in pursuing her ideals led to her going with Joe Starks, the man who despite the fact that he does not “represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees,[…] spoke for far horizon[....] change and chance” (Hurston 29) to start his little town known as “Eatonville.”
As the story advances, Janie does in fact feel more romantically connected to Joe Starks, but he is controlling; he continually silences her, and eventually begins physically abusing her. At first, she feels excitement that someone as sophisticated and business-minded as Joe feels interested in her, but like Logan Killicks, he fails to see her as a person. Joe Starks begins to constantly order her around, speak for her, make her tie her long hair up, and essentially tries to silence her completely. When he hits her extremely hard in the store one day, she reveals that “she had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be”(Hurston 72). Once again the metaphor of the pear tree in bloom symbolizes the growing disdain Janie feels for her husband. Unlike the other women she’s surrounded by, however, Janie is persistent, strong-willed, and opinionated despite the male oppression she experiences. While the other women just silently accept the abuse, Janie always, eventually finds her voice and liberates herself.
In the novel, the only character that Janie is directly linked to is Matt Bonner’s mule. Like Janie, he is abused, mistreated and ridiculed. He is kicked to the floor, silenced, and ill-treated by everyone in the town. On the other hand, the mule is extremely stubborn and doesn’t just succumb to what the townsfolk want him to do. As Kendall argues, “Janie identifies with the mule, which remains stubbornly independent despite its master’s efforts to beat it down”(Kendall 3). In a similar manner, Janie has several “masters” who actually physically and verbally dominate her. Although the society in which she lives attempts to tell her she has no choice but to suffer, she refuses to settle because she believes she deserves more. Thus, the “mule imagery […] is used not only to silence Janie and keep her in her place […]; it also […] function[s] as a key to her growth and freedom from silence”(Haurykiewicz 3).
This freedom from silence commences just before Joe dies when she literally talks him to death on his deathbed and deepens and develops after she meets her true love, Tea Cake. Her newfound love not only treats her with respect and adoration, but also teaches her to hunt and fish, activities which are usually reserved for men. In fact, for the first time in her life Janie is encouraged to speak her mind; she actually feels like Tea Cake’s equal. After a short period of time, Janie follows both her heart and him to the everglades, where she appears happy, contented, and fulfilled. Unlike her other two marriages, Janie feels emotionally, physically, and mentally attracted to Tea Cake, thus, she finally achieves her pear tree fantasy, comparing their romance to “a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring” (Hurston 106). In this moment, Janie directly associates Tea Cake with the sensual energy that is stirred up within her when recalling her teenage pear tree experience.
Though passionately in love with Janie, Hurston illustrates through Tea Cake’s possessiveness that he was still a product of the patriarchal society in which they lived. In a moment of insecurity about her love for him, Tea Cake displays this possession by “slapp[ing] her around a bit just to show her who was boss”(Hurston 147). This image bears similarity to when owners whip their mules while riding them, to exercise their power. And although Janie loves Tea Cake just as much in return, after he is bitten by a rabid dog and in a fit of madness tries to kill her, Janie exerts her own power and chooses her life over his. Although regretful about having to kill Tea Cake in self-defense, his death actually signals Janie’s arrival at true womanhood, or muliebriety. Prizing self-value above all, she “has come full circle in her development. She now knows who she is and has found "peace." (EXPLORING novels 1).
Even though it takes her a long time, practically her whole life, at the end of the novel Janie truly develops a voice of her own. She is freed from captivity, abuse, and denigration just like Matt Bonner’s mule when it dies; but unlike him, she is alive and thriving. Janie essentially moves from being harnessed by mule reins to standing freely and powerfully behind them. As Haurykiewicz asserts, “Janie’s story of personal growth is one that travels from mules to Muliebrity”(Haurykiewicz 1). Throughout all of her struggles, in this alternative love story, Janie eventually comes to find out that the greatest and most ideal love relationship is with her self. Desperate to resolve the contradiction between an actual marriage and a physical connection, and to realize what an emotionally fulfilled life feels like, Janie comes full circle on her journey of discovery, telling her best friend Pheobe, “you got tuh go there to know there” (Hurston 192).
By the end of the novel, “She no longer has to seek for meaning outside of herself in the world [because] she has found it within herself.” (EXPLORING novels 1). Even in this male-dominating society that demotes woman’s worth in purely sexual and domestic terms, Janie finds her inner-strength, uses it, and destroys this oppressive male ideal. Ironically, as a girl she hoped for happiness in marriage underneath the pear tree, but finally experiences profound inner-peace and love, alone as a woman. The symbol of the pear tree functions as the spark of curiosity that sets Janie on a quest which results in this “muliebrity.” After being physically and emotionally treated like a mule for years and years by different men, Janie is finally liberated and achieves true bliss in her marriage to herself.…...

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