The Handling of Gender in Jane Eyre and Things Fall Apart

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In every culture, there are many distinct roles that must be fulfilled by the member of each society.”One such role, arguably the most prominent, is gender. Gender roles are demonstrated to people as soon as they become a part of this world. The ways people treat newborns according to their sex greatly influences the process of teaching a child the articulate workings of a culture” (Wickingson, 1). “Male and females learn a set of rules, behaviors, attitudes and rights in accordance with their sex. When these attributes of enculturation are applied specifically to a male or female, gender is created.” (Wickingson, 1)

In the books, Jane Eyre written by Charlotte Bronte and Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe, the illustration of gender roles and how these roles are reinforced and challenged in their specific society is overwhelming. Jane Eyre is based on British culture and Things Fall Apart is based off Nigerian culture. Both societies both display similarities and differences in how gender is handled. In this essay, both books will be discussed based on gender and how this is reinforced in terms of the division of labor and the treatment of women and also how gender rules are challenged within these distinct cultures and then compared.

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Things Fall Apart takes place in an Igbo village in Nigeria. Through the story of Okonkwo, his clan and family we are able to see clearly the rules of gender within this society played a major role in Okonkwo’s life as well as other characters in this story. In Igbo society men were considered strong and the women considered weak. In Igbo culture, women were expected to be the caretakers of the home, doing jobs such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. Despite being considered as weak, women within this society were endowed with qualities that make them worthy of worship, like the ability to bear children. Men on the other hand, were expected to be strong, masculine and dominant and if they did not fulfill expectations, they were considered weak.

Jane Eyre takes place in the 19th century in rural England, Victorian era. The ways in which gender is handled here is very similar in most societies where the males are superior to the women. In this book, the main protagonist, Jane, is forced to contend with female oppression and inequality the society in which she lives in. Jane also proceeds to challenge Victorian prejudices against women with her strong beliefs in gender and social equality. Many tried to discourage her from this path but she kept her head held high and continued pursuing her passion. Men were also viewed a specific way in this society as well. Bronte depicts men and masculinity as gruff, mysterious, and ill-tempered, however, ironically as the plot moves, Rochester, the man Jane later falls in love with, was the complete opposite of this and was rather more heroic and beautiful.

Okonkwo is the main protagonist in Things Fall Apart. His entire life is based upon masculinity. In this novel, there was one particular crop used to symbolize masculinity at that was yams. Okonkwo states “Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe, 15). He believed, “Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”(Achebe, 21) This states that growing yams serves as a man’s capabilities as a provider and a masculine figure. Achebe clearly provides that is not only the physical activity of farming that makes someone a rich, powerful and masculine man but specifically the growing of yams. “His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe, 15). We therefore see that there is clear distinction between “feminine” crops and “masculine” crops.

Okonkwo makes it loud and clear that men are higher and greater than women and that even certain a crop could not be grown by women because it was the “king of crops” and kings would obviously be the men. Women would plant their “women crop” in between the men’s yams, projecting that women are always working in between the huge shadows of the men. An example in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where men are overshadowing mean is in the justice system. This occurs when a ceremony, a trial between Mgbafo, and her brothers against her husband, Uzowulu, and his family. This ceremony is naturally for men but the women would look from the fringe of the crowd. There here show that women are never at the front but always behind the men like a shadow. Mgbafo here, is not allow to speak for herself, her brother did the speaking for her demonstrating that men dominate the government system.

One of the most conspicuous tools used to identify the gender roles of a society is through the analysis of its division of labour. Labour is usually divided between age and gender. It specifies the tasks that are required of each sex, demonstrates a society’s expectations, and defines the overall roles that people must live up to as being members of that society. (Wickingson, 2) In Things Fall Apart, the Igbo society’s division of labour is mostly influenced by gender. Here, the women of Umuofia are expected to prepare food, clean, raise children and any other household chores. For instance, during the Feast of the New Yam, as a part of the preparations, the women “scrubbed the walls and the huts with red earth until they reflected light before painting the walls with colourful designs.” (Achebe, 37), Just as the men are expected to do heavy labour, earn money and fight for the clan when necessary.

Women were expected to cook and prepare food on time for their husbands and children. One example of this is when Okonkwo came home, expecting a hot meal and a warm hut, or obi, and instead finds an empty, cold obi. This made him extremely angry and he beat her. This scenario represents that women were expected to be prompt and well organized for their husbands.

In Jane Eyre, the division of labour was also based on your gender, age and also social class. Jane was a governess. During the Victorian era, a governess was a young educated woman who moved in with an employer’s family to teach daily lessons to the children that lived there. The expectations of governesses were to mimic motherly behavior and become the protector and caregiver of the children (Bell 264). Clearly here we can see that domestic works were the main jobs society saw that women were ideal for. A governess was also viewed as an outsider because Victorians believed that they did not fit into a family or society since they were not truly a member of the family but not truly a servant either (Amies, 537). This shows that even as having a job as a governess, you were still looked down upon in some form in society. Basically women could not have had a comfortable job despite the social class they were from, once you were female, you had to deal with the critics of society. Through the gender construct, the idea of masculinity is applied to all aspects of Igbo life, including how women are treated by men, in particular, their husbands. It states in the book, “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (Achebe, 53).

In Igbo society, not only women were seen as weak but they were also treated unfairly and they were not allowed their own freedom and were just seen objects and were expected to cook, clean and make babies. Okonkwo always physically abused his wives, he never showed close affection to them because in this society showing affection was considered weak as according to Achebe, “To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (28). An example of how women were treated in Igbo society is demonstrated in Chapter 4 where during the “Week of peace” Okonkwo noticed that his youngest wife, Ojiugo, had left her hut to braid her hair and didn’t cook any dinner. For neglecting her duties, his anger caused him to beat her and by doing this, he disrupted the peace of the sacred week. The elders and members of society saw this as a sin, however they were mostly concerned about this sacred week rather than how Ojiugo was treated. This goes to show that women were inferior and unimportant, even to a mere observance. If she had gotten injured from being beaten, it was of no concern to anyone as society only cared about the “Week of Peace.”

In the Victorian Era, the treatment of women was also very poor. The superiority and dominance that men had over women was extreme.For instance, Bronte displayed the poor treatment of women in the novel when Mr. Brocklehurst, considered to be the typical man of the Victorian era, treated the girls at Lowood School very badly. The girls were given poor clothing to wear and very little meager food to eat. “The scanty supply of food was distressing” (Bronte 109) He also wanted the girl’s hair cut off. The haircuts here showed how the girl’s feelings are ignored (Fyfe, 7) Ms Temple’s silent anger and fake smiles towards this situation demonstrated as a woman she had no power to confront Mr. Brocklehurst and had to do as he says regardless of what she thinks. “Miss Temple passed her handkerchief over her lips, as if to smooth away the involuntary smile that curled them”(Bronte, 118) Mr. Brocklehurst can be seen as an example of the mindset of men at that time, and how men treated women.

The novel shows extensively, the treatment of women. In this time period, when a man and women got married, the men in a way took ownership over the women. She became his property and personal item and they had to listen to their husband’s every command. Edward Rochester, a man that exemplifies the typical attitude of men in the Victorian era. He indeed showed this by trying to trick Jane into a false marriage by not telling her about his previous marriage with Bertha. He also tried to buy her over with gifts and nice clothes. He tried to objectify her. This shows women were never actually free, married or not, they were always oppressed.

Within both novels, the role of gender was also challenged in each specific society. Starting off with Things Fall Apart, an example where the gender roles were challenged in this novel can be found in the characterization of Okonkwo’s father, Unoka. As it may be known already, in Igbo society, men were expected to be strong and masculine and dominant of their family and children. Weakness in men was very much looked down upon in this society. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, however, was the complete opposite of this expectation. In this society, Unoka’s physical appearance was seen as uninspiring as “He was tall but very thin and had a slight stoop. He wore a haggard and mournful look except when he was drinking or playing on his flute.”(Achebe, 55) He was also against war and could not stand the sight of blood. This made him seem to be a weak coward which were trait that were unacceptable for a man to possess in Igbo society. However, Unoka did not care for any of these, he enjoyed himself to the fullest and loved music regardless of what society thought. As Achebe states “He was very good on his flute, and his happiest moments were the two or three moons after the harvest when the village musicians brought down their instruments, hung above the fireplace. Unoka would play with them, his face beaming with blessedness and peace.” (4) Okonkwo’s extreme fear of becoming like his dad emphasizes how unacceptable and looked down upon this “feminine” behavior was unacceptable in Igbo society.

In Jane Eyre, Jane was the complete opposite of what a woman was supposed to be in the Victorian era. In this era, women were expected to be submissive to men, gentle and obedient, something Jane was not. An instance where a role of gender is challenged is where Jane refused to marry Rochester, despite her being so in love with him. She thought about how much of her freedom would be taken away from her if she proceeded with the wedding and also the fact that Rochester was already married to Bertha Mason, pushed her away even more as she did not want to live as Rochester’s mistress and his object. Jane seemingly wanted to prove that women’s happiness does not always lie in getting married to a rich, handsome guy. Her response to this situation showed this. Jane realized that she had married Rochester, even though he would be at fault, her reputation and future would be ruined by this marriage. Jane’s goal was to become an equal and a mistress could never be an equal of her lover. (Fyfe 27) After a lot of thought, Jane decided to leave Gateshead because she prizes her independence and self worth more than her love for Rochester.

In conclusion, Things Fall Apart and Jane Eyre both tackle the issues on gender roles in specific societies. Both novels present how women were treated as weak, inferior and object to the males. The women were also beaten when they did not do what was expected of them and also viewed in the eyes of society as rebellious. They were also seen as only caretakers and child bearers and they could never measure up to be what a man can be. The issue of gender inequality still occurs in contemporary society, where women are looked down upon and certain roles and responsibilities are expected of a specific gender. However, these issues are now being rebelled against in modern day more freely than it could have been back then where there are many feminist movements that fight for equality.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
  2. Achebe, Chinua. ―An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness‖. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. 1-20. Print.
  3. Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, pp. 5 – 16
  4. Amies, Marion. “The Victorian Governess and Colonial Ideals of Womanhood.”Victorian Studies 31.4 (1988): 537-65. JSTOR Journals. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
  5. Bell, Millicent. “Jane Eyre: The Tale of the Governess.” The American Scholar 65.2 (1996): 263-69. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 9 October. 2019.
  6. Brontë, Charlotte. 1847. Jane Eyre. Planet PDF. 1897. Planet PDF, n.d. Web. 9 October 2019.
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  11. Cao, Diana. 'Things Fall Apart Chapter 5.' LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 3 Nov 2013. Web. 19 Oct 2019.
  12. Cao, Diana. 'Things Fall Apart Chapter 9.' LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 3 Nov 2013. Web. 19 Oct 2019.
  13. Fyfe, Paul. 'Jane Eyre Themes: Gender Roles.' LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 22 Jul 2013. Web. 18 Oct 2019
  14. Fyfe, Paul. 'Jane Eyre Chapter 23.' LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 22 Jul 2013. Web. 18 Oct 2019.
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  19. Wickingson, Danielle. “The Gender Roles of Things Fall Apart.” 12 July 2011.
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