All posts by sarahfreebus

Roles of Race and Gender in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston explores the effects of race and gender on developing one’s identity. There is often a discrepancy between personal identity and the identity formed exogenously by members of society, which makes it difficult to develop a true understanding of oneself. In Hurston’s novel, Janie is able to move past the opinions others have of her and become the woman she wants to be, but not before she is subjected to the limitations placed on her as a result of being a black woman. Hurston’s symbolic use of the mule, a pear tree in blossom, and Janie’s hair illustrate the development of Janie’s womanhood and independence, as well as her ultimate triumph over her domineering husbands and the constrained society in which she lives.

Normally, when one thinks of race and discrimination, the focus is on one race putting another down. However, in some cases, members of the same race can be just as discriminatory and unsupportive of one another. Hurston explores this idea of inner-race discrimination in her fictional depiction of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville serves as a way for black people to escape from the racism present in the rest of the United States (Patterson 34). However, this enclave of racial separateness is not lacking in discrimination. Upon the arrival of Joe Starks and Janie to the town, several members of the all-black community question Joe’s aspirations. One such member, Amos Hicks, voices his doubts by saying that “us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother,” and that’s why any sort of progress is unlikely (“Their Eyes” 48). Furthermore, he says that though the common belief is that the white man keeps the black race from progressing, it is really the entire black community that keeps any one of its members from moving forward (“Their Eyes” 48). It is either the belief that the proverbial white man would not allow the black man to progress or it is being stuck in their oppressive past that keeps the black race from accepting any attempts by one of their members to advance in society.

In actuality, white people are rarely present in the novel. Much of Janie’s tale takes place in Eatonville, which is by its nature an all-black community (“Their Eyes” 35). The white people who are present tend to fade into the background, such as the women who make up “the white part of the room” during Janie’s trial (“Their Eyes” 223). The minute role of white people in the story parallels the inferiority of blacks in the rest of society during a time when racial discrimination was prevalent in the United States. During the early 1900’s, which is when this story takes place, slavery was nonexistent, but racial discrimination was running rampant throughout the country. Jim Crow laws were instituted in the South to make life difficult for black people.

Though white people are uncommon in the story, it is not unusual for the black characters to imitate typical white behavior. For example, Nanny wishes for Janie to act out the role of the white woman by marrying a respectable man (“Their Eyes” 20). Nanny felt the effects of the constraining view toward black women – she took care of a white woman’s children, a job that was typical for a black woman – and hopes that Janie will have a life free from burden. Nanny believes the black woman to be the mule of the world (“Their Eyes” 20). The mule motif factors heavily into the entire story and is used to demonstrate the burden that society puts on members of the black minority.

Not only is Janie black, but she is also a woman. Going back to Nanny’s metaphor, the white man orders the black man around, but the black man transfers his burden to “his womenfolks” (“Their Eyes” 19). This first mention of the mule sets the tone for the rest of the story; Janie is a mule in the sense that she must carry the burden her husbands place on her, but she is also beat down by the expectations placed on her by society. Nanny expects her to live an unburdened life, but each of Janie’s husbands in not content with maintaining this ideal (Meisenhelder 63). This is not just a story about racial discrimination; it also describes the plight of femininity, particular that of the black woman. The mule comes to represent female identity, in the sense that both mules and women must be controlled by their owners and husbands (Dilbeck 103). Matt Bonner, a member of the Eatonville community, is criticized for not being able to control his mule and ends up selling it to Joe (“Their Eyes” 70). Janie empathizes with the mule, because both she and it were subjected to a controlling master. Once Joe dies and Janie is free from that control, the mule motif does not reappear in the story, because Janie has been freed from her burden (Dilbeck 103).

Because Eatonville is an all-black community, Janie’s gender plays a greater role in how she is viewed by society. She, and often women in general, has the misfortune of being known only in reference to her husband. Rather than “Janie Starks,” she is called “Mrs. Mayor” (“Their Eyes” 56). Joe Starks is another character who mimics typical white behavior due to the absence of white people within the story. After working for “white folks all [his] life,” he’s ready to “be a big voice” (“Their Eyes” 35). Hurston paints Joe as a “false model of black manhood” by emphasizing his unhappiness to stay within his predetermined role (Meisenhelder 65). Tired of being ordered about, Joe adopts the persona of a white man, subjecting the black members of the community to his command. With a “bow-down command in his face,” Joe fosters economic growth in Eatonville, but mostly for his own benefit (“Their Eyes” 57). Rather than strive to improve the lives of his fellow black men, Joe continues the tradition of seeing black men as inferior, though from an economic standpoint. Because of this sort of oppression, the people of Eatonville debate over whether or not Joe should be able to boss them around; after all, slavery has ended and they have as much of a right to power as he does (“Their Eyes” 58). Still, it’s hard to rise above Joe’s control. The people of Eatonville are offset from the rest of white-dominated America, but they still experience economic inferiority.

Though Joe is himself a black man, he instead exhibits the traits of a white man; everyone else in society is beneath him, especially Janie. When in his presence, Janie compartmentalizes herself to better suit Joe’s expectations of her. She is forced to wear her long hair in a head-rag, because Joe tells her that it isn’t “sensible” to let it hang loose, when really he is jealous of the way other people admire it (“Their Eyes” 66). Janie’s hair becomes a symbol of her womanhood and individuality; it’s what makes her “stand out as independent and powerful” (Dilbeck 103). Her hair is a popular conversation topic, as demonstrated by Janie’s return to Eatonville at the beginning of the novel; the townsfolk talk about “the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume” (“Their Eyes” 4). Janie experiences a discrepancy between her public self and the woman blossoming within her. There is the carefree, independent Janie who lets her hair down, but there is also the Janie who ties her hair back in submission of her husband.

Hurston uses a blossoming pear tree to symbolize Janie’s transition from budding sexuality to womanhood. Before Janie became a wife to anybody, she was just a young girl who spent any moment she could lying beneath “a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard” (“Their Eyes” 15). As Janie explores her sexuality, such as by kissing Johnny Taylor and observing the pollination of pear blossoms, she develops a yearning for love and affection. Before Janie can hope to be loved by another person, however, she must learn to love herself. With Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, comes an image of “desecrating the pear tree,” so Janie knows that there is no love between them (“Their Eyes” 19). The pear tree metaphor is later used when Hurston describes Janie’s marriage to Joe Starks; Janie realizes that a husband must love and respect his wife, as a bee respects the blossom it pollinates (Dilbeck 102). It is only after Janie truly embraces her womanhood and individual spirit that she can let love – via Tea Cake, who appreciates every aspect of Janie’s character – into her life.

During Janie’s time with Joe, he puts her high up on a pedestal so that she is inaccessible to the other men who are pining after her (“Their Eyes” 66). When Janie is forced to conceal one of the greatest aspects of herself – her hair – she has no hope of flourishing under Joe’s domineering hand. After Joe dies, Janie goes to the mirror, sees the woman she has become, and tears the “kerchief from her head and [lets] down her plentiful hair” (“Their Eyes” 106). She takes in the image of her true self – wildly independent – but ultimately ties her hair back up again. This time, however, it is her decision to do so. With Joe’s death also comes the death of Janie’s submission to men. Janie “sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world,” because the burden given to her by Joe has been lifted from her shoulders (“Their Eyes” 108). From this point on, Janie decides to live for herself and embrace the power that lies within.

Just as Janie struggles to establish her true identity in the face of societal expectations, Hurston also feels, in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” that she is in possession of two selves. Hurston describes the difference between her colored self, which is how other people define her, and how she views herself. Hurston grew up in the all-black community of Eatonville, but she ventured out in order to attend college (“Colored Me” 940). In the outside world, she feels defined by her outward appearance, specifically the color of her skin. There are times when Hurston feels that she has no race; rather, she is just herself and is comfortable in her own skin (“Colored Me” 942). It is that version of Zora which Hurston wishes the world could see, and not the one that is defined by the labels placed on her by white society. Skin color has come to be used more as an indication of identity than as a simply physical observation, and there are times when Hurston does “feel discriminated against” (“Colored Me” 943). She goes on to say, however, that she does not let herself get angry; rather, she feels sorry for the people who do not try to get to know her for who she really is.

Hurston’s writing outlines racial issues – such as discrimination, its effect on gender roles, and the duality of self – in a way that highlights the conflicts present within a single race. She does not simply pit whites against blacks, as would be customary of the time period in which the story takes place. Hurston’s stance on inner-race discrimination and its effect on developing personal identity is refreshing in that it dispels the idea that discrimination only originates from people of other racial backgrounds. Though Hurston herself has felt discriminated against, she, like Janie, rose above the constrained views of the people around her and embraced the woman she knew herself to truly be. As Hurston describes it, the black woman is the mule of the world, but she also contains the power to throw down the burden placed on her by society and gain control over her life.

 

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora N. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: Lippincott Company, 1937. Print.

Meisenhelder, Susan E. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. Print.

Patterson, Tiffany R. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Hurston, Zora N. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 940-943. Print.

Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Explicator 66.2 (2010): 102-104. Web. 29 April 2014.

Background on George Saunders

George Saunders is a bestselling American author, whose fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism and corporate culture. Though his writing is laced with “tragicomic” elements, critics cannot ignore the moral questions that arise in his works. Saunders is often compared to American author Kurt Vonnegut, who in fact served as an inspiration for Saunders, with his blend of satire, gallows humor, and science fiction.

George Saunders was born on December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, Texas but grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Oak Forest High School and went on to receive a B.S. in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado in 1981. In 1988, he obtained an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University. Saunders’s scientific background has played an important role in his writing. From 1989 to 1996, he worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, a New York based environmental engineering firm. After working with an oil exploration crew in Western Indonesia, he joined the faculty of Syracuse University in 1997 and has been there since. Saunders teaches creative writing for Syracuse’s MFA Program while still publishing his own fiction and nonfiction works. In 2006, Saunders was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship later that year. His nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone, published in 2007, was featured on The Colbert Report and the Late Show with David Letterman.

Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and in 1997, he won second prize in the O. Henry Awards. In an interview for The New Yorker, Saunders said of himself, “I’m a teacher at Syracuse and I write short stories. That’s about it.” Some of his short story collections include: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, In Persuasion Nation, and Tenth of December. Published in 2013, Tenth of December contains ten short stories that appeared in various magazines between 1995 and 2009. One of the stories, “Home,” was a 2011 Bram Stoker Award finalist. The collection won the 2013 Story Prize for short story collections. The book also contains the story, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” the idea for which came to Saunders in a dream.  In the dream, Saunders went to his bedroom window and looked down into his backyard. What he saw gave him “an incredible feeling of happiness,” though the image was that of the Semplica Girls hanging from their microline. Saunders wrote the story as a way to explore why he was so delighted at the sight of human lawn ornaments. He wanted to describe a world in which such a feeling was reasonable and even justified.

Saunders says that “the thing I get really excited about is dramatization.” As crazy and unrealistic as “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” seems, Saunders remained true to the original conception of the story from his dream. The futuristic aspects of the story serve to emphasize a world that is not our own, but, when considering the familiar allusions in the story as well, it is a world that may one day become a reality if humans remain concerned with materialism and competing with one another in matters of possession.

Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

Racial identity plays a crucial role in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif.” The story is about two women – Twyla and Roberta – who became friends when they lived in a shelter as kids. Though they were only together for four months, they developed a bond despite the racial tension prevalent in the world around them, evidenced by the interactions between the girls’ mothers.  As Twyla and Roberta continue to cross paths over the course of the story and their lives, race becomes a major factor in how those chance meetings are portrayed. Even the girls’ memories are laced with racial ambiguity, as each is haunted by the memory of what happed to Maggie, though the varying ideas of racial identity shape the story in opposing ways.

When Twyla and Roberta first meet, one of the first things Twyla says is that her mother wouldn’t be happy with Twyla’s living arrangements (1403). Though Twyla ponders Roberta’s interpretation of the comment, what Twyla really meant was that her mother wouldn’t like her living with someone of a different race. For the majority of the story, the reader must infer the race of each of the girls. It is not outright stated which is white and which is black. All we really know for sure is that there is tension in their relationship. As the two girls keep running into each other over the years, elements of their past bubble up to the surface.

One particular instance that cannot be forgotten – but that is not entirely remembered – is what happened to Maggie in the orchard. The first time Twyla recounts the story, we learn that Maggie fell while walking in the orchard, but the girls didn’t help her. However, each time she sees Roberta, the story becomes more haunting; apparently, not only did Twyla not help Maggie, but she also contributed to the beating Maggie received from the gar girls. According to Roberta, Twyla “kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground” (1413). Though that isn’t how Twyla remembers the event, she can’t help but admit that she didn’t feel sorry for Maggie. She imagined that Maggie was her mother and took pleasure in the fact that no one was coming to Maggie’s rescue (1414). This is another part of the story where race becomes a prominent issue. Both Twyla and Roberta imagined themselves beating up Maggie, who served to represent each of their respective mothers. During the Civil Rights era, it was black versus white. Each side pointed out the other’s flaws and sought to make society to better serve their own interests. Usually, when we talk about civil rights, we don’t think about the conflict just within one group.

I thought it was interesting that the girls imagined beating up their own mothers, because they were focusing on something other than the racial tension of the time. At this part of the story, it didn’t matter which girl was white and which was black; their internal battles were just as important as the conflicts they faced in society. When it came down to it, the problem did not lie in how their mothers viewed each other based on race, but how the girls viewed their relationships with their mothers.  In the four months they shared a room, Twyla and Roberta were able to look past their racial differences and become friends, but they couldn’t forgive their mothers for sending them to the shelter. A person can’t help what race they are, but they can change their behavior. Every time Twyla and Roberta ask each other if their mothers ever changed, the answer stays the same: No. Though race is constant, the girls couldn’t help but hope that their mothers’ behavior was only temporary and resented them when a lack of nurturing became habitual.

 

 

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

Original text:

“The whole is stable within

Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball

Secure on its jet of water” (526)

 

Deformed Text:

Within instability, the whole is stable.

One a pedestal of vacuum, a globe like ours rests.

On its jet of water, a ping-pong ball is secure.

 

In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” John Ashbery writes about Parmigianino’s self-portrait of his reflection. It is conventional to depict oneself in a more realistic manner, but Parmigianino chose to fashion himself a self-portrait true to the nature of a convex mirror; the image is distorted, particularly his hand at the forefront of the image. Parmigianino relies on a physical representation of himself to draw his self-portrait, just as the reflection itself relies on him for its existence. By definition, a reflection is merely a representation of a real object; its meaning is derived from the physical, though it is itself just a likeness.

By deforming this passage of the poem, the concept of dependence is emphasized by restructuring the sentences to each follow an appositive. Appositives are set off from but add meaning to the sentence. For example, Ashbery states that a globe like ours rests on a pedestal of a vacuum. The globe relies on the pedestal to hold it up. Similarly, a ping-pong ball is secure on a jet of water. By setting what is being depended on apart from the rest of the sentence, the reliant nature of the relationships is emphasized. This sentence format illustrates the importance of having a firm base from which to build; however, Ashbery uses dependent relationships that are weak in nature. When one considers the fact that the earth exists with a vacuum, essentially floating in nothingness, the relationship seems a bit more precarious than the deformation would suggest. The appositive, however, is meaningless without the rest of the sentence, just as the earth cannot continue to exist without that which holds it in its place.

Ashbery further outlines the nature of dependence by describing the significance of Parmigianino’s reflection in the mirror. Ashbery depicts Parmigianino’s reflection as the embodiment of his soul, which is a “captive” in Parmigianino’s body as well as in the mirror (524).  The soul is “unable to advance much farther than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524). It is trapped within the confines of the mirror, as well as within Parmigianino himself. Though contained, the soul is able to thrive as long as it has a body to give it life. Containment can be necessary to maintain an entity, such as a mirror reflection, which only exists when the mirror allows it to do so.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – Close Reading Essay on the irony of its title

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot uses pointed digression and extended metaphor to emphasize how insignificant Prufrock feels in the eyes of his peers. Prufrock dances around the idea that no woman could ever love him, but the real problem is that Prufrock is unable to appreciate himself. Drowning in the opinions of other people, Prufrock is keeping himself from ever gaining enough confidence to be successful. Paying too much attention to other people makes gaining any semblance of self-confidence unlikely, leaving one to constantly ponder, as Prufrock does, ‘Do I dare?’ when faced with daunting social interactions.

At first glance, the title of the poem seems to suggest an ensuing tale of a man in love. While it is true that Prufrock may have his eye on a woman, he lacks the confidence necessary to approach her, and this so-called “love song” is really more of a lament regarding the love that never comes to fruition. Prufrock fears that he will misinterpret a woman’s intentions, that she couldn’t actually love him back, so convinces himself that he shouldn’t even try to approach her. These thoughts come from worrying that people are already pointing out his insecurities and flaws, such as that his hair line is receding or that his legs and arms are much too thin (823). These are all just suppositions; Prufrock doesn’t know for sure that people will not accept him, but he lets these reservations keep him from taking chances. Counting out the possibility of victory makes actively participating in life seem pointless. Prufrock thinks that everyone is against him, thus making it difficult for him to even consider mustering enough courage to speak up.

At one point, Prufrock likens himself to a bug pinned to the wall, but it is his insistence that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws” that is of particular interest (824). Crabs are known for their side-to-side motion; similarly, Prufrock also does not move forward, constantly scuttling between one outside opinion and the next. Being burdened by the thoughts of other people prevents progress and the acquisition of self-confidence. By comparing himself to a crab, Prufrock is subsequently implying that he, too, is a bottom-dweller of sorts. Crabs live on the ocean floor, feeding on whatever happens to drift down to them. Just as a crab consumes food, Prufrock consumes every glance and every degrading comment that may come his way. This, however, is no way to live, for it becomes a burden to his psyche.

Prufrock is apt to believe that he is inferior to his peers when faced with their “eyes that fix [him] in a formulated phrase” (823). Constantly surrounded by opinionated people, Prufrock feels like he must live up to their expectations in order to be accepted into society. In a series of digressions, Prufrock first declares that his life has been measured out in coffee spoons, meaning he rates his life based on the company he keeps, or rather the company that is willing to keep him (823). On one hand, this could indicate Prufrock’s inclination to define his life in relation to other people, taking note of all the times he interacts with others. On the other hand, this statement could point to Prufrock’s tendency to overthink. Measuring his life in coffee spoons, Prufrock leads a controlled, careful existence; he ponders extensively on the topic of social interaction, which could include sharing a cup of coffee with someone, and is unlikely to take risks. Living his life on the outskirts of society, Prufrock is like the yellow fog that licks “its tongue into the corners of the evening,” trying to make its way inside, but that ultimately gives up and falls asleep (822). He is an outsider, or at least that is what he thinks he is meant to be, and he is wary of rising above the limitations that are set mostly by himself; instead, he, like the fog, merely gives up and says “there will be time” to later do what he cannot do now (823). Prufrock even further digresses and asserts that he could not be compared to Prince Hamlet, for he doesn’t grant himself that much importance. Instead, he relates to an attendant lord, characterized by a willingness to be an “easy tool” (825). Prufrock does not consider himself as worthy or as entitled as Prince Hamlet; instead, he avers that he would be more than willing to remain on the outskirts and put other people above himself. Prufrock does not feel loved by other people, but still he does not completely address this as a problem in his life.

A love song generally implies a situation in which one person, usually the singer, is in love with another. Prufrock does indeed speak of women who catch his eye, citing their braceleted, white arms and perfume (823). More than once, Prufrock repeats the lines “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (822-823). This gives the impression that Prufrock is standing at a distance and observes the women as they talk amongst themselves. He asks himself if he dares approach these women and strike up a conversation, but through several digressions it becomes evident that Prufrock intends to do no such thing. Rather than address the issue at hand – that is, his ineptitude when it comes to asserting himself and talking to women – he launches himself into digressions on the topics of yellow fog, bugs pinned to the wall, the duties of an attendant lord, and listening to mermaids sing. Prufrock cites the women’s perfume as the cause of his digressions, for he is unwilling to accept the true cause of his avoidance: his own lack of confidence (823).

The last section of the poem, in which Prufrock says he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each,” has a musical quality to it that is reminiscent of a veritable love song. However, the imagery, choice of words, and extended metaphor present in the following three stanzas paint a contradictory picture. Instead of ending the poem on an optimistic note, making it sound like a hopeful love song, Prufrock instead says that he does not think the mermaids will ever sing to him (825). Thus, the “yellow,” or cowardly, behavior that was apparent throughout the poem is not resolved by the end (822). By noting that the mermaids are “riding seaward on the waves,” which would be in the opposite direction from him, Prufrock states his belief that women would rather run from him than return his affections (825). Prufrock romanticizes women and considers himself undesirable to the point where calling this poem a “love song” is a bit of cruel irony. In actuality, it is a lamentation of the love Prufrock does not consider himself worthy of possessing.

As exhibited by Prufrock, worrying about other people’s opinions only serves to destroy any semblance of self-confidence one might possess. Prufrock is consumed by a perceived notion that everyone is constantly judging him. He lets the fears of mockery and social rejection keep him from participating in life. Ultimately, it is not the fear of being rejected by women that keeps Prufrock from taking chances; rather, it is the lack of appreciation he has for himself that makes him deem himself unworthy of social interaction. Unable to believe in himself, Prufrock drowns under the weight of not only perceived societal pressure, but also personal pressure that inhibits him from playing an active role in his life.

A comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

“She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her… She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn herself into Hulga” (O’Connor 1342).

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself” (Ellison 1211).

Both stories feature a character focused on his or her education. The narrator of Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is motivated to attend the town gathering to give a praised speech and is ultimately awarded a scholarship to attend college. Joy, or Hulga as she comes to be named, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and spends much of her time reading. One of the major differences between the characterization of the two is that  Ellison’s narrator seeks praise from other people, while Hulga acts only to please herself. Ellison develops a narrator who “asks everyone” how he should live his life. Throughout the battle royal, he cannot stop thinking about ultimately giving his speech and being praised by the white men gathered there. Constantly seeking recognition and approval from other people prevents one from living a life true to oneself. Being burdened by others’ opinions only serves as a detriment to self-improvement. Hulga realizes this when she can no longer put up with her mother smothering her. Though Mrs. Hopewell expresses dissatisfaction toward Hulga’s studies, Hulga proceeds to earn her Ph.D. and changes her name to further rebel against her mother’s control over her. A name is the fundamental way to define a person. By taking control of her life and changing her name to something she likes better, Hulga exhibits a character trait much different from Ellison’s narrator: self-awareness.

A similarity between the two stories is the objectification of the woman in “Battle Royal” when compared to Hulga being taken advantage of by Manley Pointer. The woman in “Battle Royal” is used to elicit desire in the young men. She is dehumanized when aspects of her are referred to as “the face,” “the hair,” and “the eyes” and when she herself is called simply “the blonde” (1213). She is defined by a sum of her parts, rather than respected as a woman. Meanwhile, Hulga is largely characterized by her artificial leg. Pointer has come to her under the pretense of loving her, but he really only wants to take advantage of her and then steal her leg. While the woman in “Battle Royal” feels disgust toward being characterized in such a way, the same cannot necessarily be said of Hulga (1214). Hulga, on the other hand, feels lost “without the leg” (1352). It is undeniably a part of her and makes her unique. She embraces the presence of her artificial limb and is “as sensitive about [it] as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Both women, however, are used by men who mean to take advantage of such aspects of their persons, and they are thus forced to face the reality that some people do not share their true intentions.

Song for a Dark Girl

“Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

They hung my black young lover

To a cross roads tree.”

From reading the first stanza of Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl,” we know that the poem takes place in the South. From the ensuing description of a lynching, we can assume that this poem is set in the time after the Civil War, when supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan performed public hangings to assert their dominance over the recently emancipated black Americans. This poem has a very ritualistic, chant-like quality to its structure that is reminiscent of normal cult behavior. The repetition of “Way Down South in Dixie” at the beginning of each stanza lends itself to being chanted by the reader. The repetitiveness could also represent the fact that hangings became a common occurrence in the post-Antebellum South, and the structure certainly has a constant rhythm to it. The practice, much like this chant, must have seemed endless to those who feared becoming the victims of such brutality.

In addition to representing a chant of white supremacists, if we consider the parenthetical lines in the poem (such as “Break the heart of me”), we get a glimpse into the mind of the speaker. Though lynchings were becoming common, people did not become numb to their effects. The speaker of this poem has lost her lover and the parenthetical lines serve as the chant of her inner monologue as she grieves. She repeats this line in the first and last stanza, and it acts as a reminder for her to keep feeling some sort of emotion, because losing a loved can seem like the end of the world. She has to acknowledge her feelings constantly, possibly as a way to keep herself sane. Insanity, however, can sometimes manifest itself in strange ways – such as in the performance of odd rituals – which points back to the chant-like essence of the way this poem was written.

“drown” (pg. 825)

In T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker (Prufrock) paints a picture of his self-conscious and unfulfilled existence. He is overly concerned with what other people think of him and constantly worries about how others will view his actions. He internalizes everyone else’s supposed opinions of his character and appearance. He drowns in all the negative thoughts he feels are directed toward him, and he feels threatened by the uncertainty of social interactions. He is tormented by the thought of growing old and being forever alone, but he lacks the confidence to change his ways. He keeps asking himself, “Do I dare?” and his inactivity makes it clear that his self-consciousness has paralyzed him (823).

Though he references “revisions,” meaning changes that he could make in his life, Profrock simultaneously says that his decisions will end up being reversed due to his fear of taking chances (823). Profrock worries that he will misinterpret a woman’s actions and words and then humiliate himself in her presence. Ultimately, Profrock, himself, destroys any opportunity for progressing.  He has “seen the moment of his greatness flicker” and thinks that he might as well not attempt to let his thoughts and feelings be heard, lest a woman laugh in his face (824). Any thought of making himself heard is destroyed by the voices in his head telling him that he is worthless. The “human voices,” or voices of reason, that wake him from his hopeful reverie make him “drown,” or wallow, in self-pity. He will amount to nothing and achieve nothing, but only because he believes both to be true of himself (825).

“But somehow with all their perfections I didn’t easily believe them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur.” (pg. 370)

(From “The Real Thing” by Henry James)

After listening to the Monarchs talk about their past modeling experience, the narrator paints a mental image of the lives they may have once led. He imagines that they were sought after by photographers and admired by their peers, but somehow they have fallen from grace and landed on hard times. In need of money, they come to the narrator’s studio seeking employment. Still, the couple’s own assertions that they had been photographed “immensely” do not quite convince the narrator (369). Stating that he is governed by the principle of not associating with amateurs in his business, his most obvious response would have been to turn them away without a second’s hesitation. Clearly, they haven’t had any actual experience, strengthened by the fact that they do not still possess any photographs of themselves. 

Hiring Mr. and Mrs. Monarch is a contradiction to the narrator’s beliefs; he knows them to be amateurs, yet he hires them nonetheless and spends countless hours trying to make them suitable for his projects. Arguably, his time could be better spent using models who actually fit the parts, but the narrator desperately tries to move the Monarchs around and make them fit into his artistic visions. Why would the narrator spend so much time on a couple of amateurs unless he saw some potential in them? It’s not entirely convincing that he saw something budding in their characters; it is more likely that he felt sorry for them and wanted to help them through this rough patch in their lives. Though the Monarchs cost him time and effort during their time in his studio, the narrator’s attempt to make the situation work is an admirable one, especially when he admits that he was “content to have paid the price” (383).