The feminism of Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy: a critique of the limitations of the female sphere through performative gender roles.
Critics have explored how The Living Is Easy represents and examines other important African American literary themes as well: the Great Black Migration, mother-daughter relationships, and relationships between sisters. (2) But in focusing on the overt themes of West's novel, some critics have overlooked a somewhat hidden discourse, the feminism of the novel: West's complex portrayal of Cleo, who, along with her racial denial and class elitism, is angry and frustrated over the limitations and restrictions on women's lives. (3) In fad, West herself commented to Lynn Karpen on the often overlooked feminist dimension of her novel: "You see, no one knew what to make of my heroine, because the word 'feminist' had hardly been invented yet" (11). Through the character of Cleo, West offers a critique of the American patriarchal society with its long-established dichotomy: an unlimited public/business sphere for men and a limited private/domestic sphere for women. West subversively pursues this feminist critique by al lowing her female protagonist deliberately to cast off limiting feminine gender traits (passivity, domestic interests, and cooperation) and to instead "perform" masculine gender traits (aggressiveness, competitiveness, and business/economic interests). (4) By closely analyzing the text with regard to performative gender roles, one discovers that, although West does employ and explore several familiar themes and plot devices--marriage, the domestic sphere, and the community of women--it is her unique representation of Cleo that significantly changes these positive configurations into negative ones.
In addition to these themes and plot devices, through West's examination of gender, she refigures another literary convention: the tragic heroine. As critics point out, Cleo is a "tragic black heroine" because of her racial denial in the pursuit of class elitism; however, as this essay will demonstrate, she is also a "tragic heroine" because of her absolute gender denial in the pursuit of societal power. Although Cleo rightly rejects negative feminine gender traits--passivity, cooperation, and the limiting domestic sphere--at the same time she denies herself any of the positive "human" attributes that are associated with these roles: a loving relationship with any of her family members, a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband, and the confidence to stop controlling her world and instead to live truly in that world. Consequently, this leaves her a fragmented human being, a tragic figure.
It is at the end of the novel, however, that West transforms the "tragic heroine," a gender-defying woman who is typically defeated by novel's end. In doing so, The Living Is Easy is not simply another novel that shows what happens to a woman who dares to defy gender roles and spheres. In analyzing the ending of the novel here, I disagree with several critics who view Cleo as a tragic heroine who has neither gained knowledge nor experienced personal growth throughout the novel. Instead, I view the conclusion as open-ended and optimistic, with Cleo integrating positive masculine and feminine gender traits into her female body. As a result, she will be able to rebuild her life as a woman and as a human who has reached a new level of self-definition, beyond limiting, binary gender definitions.
To understand West's feminism in The Living Is Easy, it is important to recognize how a patriarchal society values and devalues certain gender attributes. As Ann duCille points out,
... the sins of oppression for which many critics believe the text condemns Cleo are the same virtues of aggression for which men are praised and promoted. Pride, strength, willfulness, subterfuge, authoritativeness, manipulation, craftiness, even deceit are the stuff of which tycoons are made--the tactics by which corporations prosper. Such men society calls successful, savvy; such women it labels grotesques, bitches, Sapphires, jezebels. (114)
In short, patriarchal society values masculine gender roles only when they are performed by males. For example, Robert Bone describes Cleo's behavior as "manipulative, domineering, and unscrupulous" (187). Since Cleo is performing masculine gender roles, she is perceived in negative terms; however, a man exhibiting the same behavior would be praised for being daring, clever, and assertive, and for showing good business sense. Bone even goes so far as to categorize Cleo's "masculine" personality as "neurotic need" or behavior (188). The term neurotic was frequently assigned to women who stepped outside the acceptable parameters of feminine behavior. As Rodgers confirms, over and over again West's protagonist has been deemed by certain critics as a character who performs "negative embodiments of womanhood" (166). However, comments that simply label Cleo as a negative woman or as a neurotic woman overlook what Patricia Hill Collins says is the bigger picture--dominant society's role in defining the limiting fema le sphere against which Cleo is fighting (174). In other words, white men have unfairly constructed a totally separate feminine sphere in which women such as Cleo should remain.
One positive result of West's creating a "masculine," black, female protagonist in the late 1930s and 1940s is that Cleo's complex figure rises above the frequently portrayed literary stereotypes of black females, who tend either to be depicted as passive, cooperative, maternal "Mammies"--portly, single black women with no families of their own who serve as a combination nanny/maid to a white family--or as non-maternal, highly sexual "Jezebels," who are usually destroyed by their level of sexual activity. (5) However, rather than a rigid binary, these types of representations constitute tendencies in the representation of black women, tendencies that African American women authors have struggled to overcome in portraying complex female characters. One way they have done this is by particularizing female characters, endowing them with the sort of specific and idiosyncratic traits that make them "mixed" and even "fallible" characters--neither "good" nor "bad," merely human and real. For instance, Zora Neale Hur ston's Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God inherits her grandmother's "mammy" ideology, yet moves from husband to husband in a "jezebel-like" fashion. Yet, by the end of the novel, she has become what Hurston would refer to as a "bodacious woman," able to defend herself through signifying (versus Jody) or with a gun (versus a rabid Tea Cake), yet willingly submissive to the man she loved and strengthened by her memories of him. West, too, employs strategies of gender mixing and particularization, including her imbuing Cleo with personal flaws: for example, Cleo's racial denial, her misguided desire for class status, and her need to rigidly control her world, including her family members. But in West's protagonist Cleo, there is neither the maternal trait of a "Mammy" nor the overt sexuality of a Jezebel. Cleo as an adult is portrayed as non-maternal and non-sexual. Her gender attributes are "masculine" traits like independence, competitiveness, a business-like view of the world, and her "moving up in the wo rld" through an assertion of power.
In the second chapter, West uses a flashback that is central to understanding the formation of Cleo's personality. The reader is introduced to eleven-year-old Cleo, whom West describes as already wanting to escape her limited female/domestic sphere and act like a boy. Cleo's inner consciousness says, "At home, there was nothing to do except stay around. Away from home, there were trees to climb, and boys to fight..." (12). As a child, before her feminine gender role is solidified by her family and society, she is aware that she has individual power. While riding a horse, she thinks to herself, "She felt no fear, feeling only the power beneath her and the power inside her..." (14). At eleven, Cleo "wasn't afraid of the biggest boy or the fiercest dog, or the meanest teacher. She could sass back. She could do anything" (15-16). (6) Young Cleo projects herself as "masculine," therefore, going a step beyond play-acting like a "tomboy." Cleo's masculine projection is so thorough that, when her younger sister, Char ity, looks at Cleo riding a horse, she sees a shining prince on a snow-white charger. The prince rode toward her, dazzling her eyes with light, coming nearer and nearer, leaning to swoop her up in his arms" (17; italics added). Cleo perceives and projects herself as a powerful male prince.
Why does a female child think of herself and portray herself as "masculine"? In childhood, these actions and thoughts of Cleo's might be seen as just being tomboyish. In her study of tomboyism in American culture, psychologist Janet Hyde explains that "tomboyism...is considered a stage to be outgrown because girls must learn to replace active 'masculine' behaviors with passive 'feminine' behaviors" (74). But merely labeling Cleo a tomboy overlooks a larger issue in society: power. Men have power in the world, women do not, and Cleo wants power. For example, Mary Helen Washington recognizes that, "in these chapters which flash back to her childhood, Cleo openly questions the paternalistic rules that deny her power and autonomy" (348). As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes, in another context, a character may function "to redress an imbalance of power" (166). As a child, by performing masculine attributes, Cleo is attempting to seize the social power that is denied to females. It is this "masculine" or "tomboy" po wer that Cleo is not willing to give up, even when she reaches adulthood. West shows us young Cleo's realization of the dilemma of grown-up girls (women) losing power--"all her terror of the future, all her despair at knowing that nothing lasts--that sisters turn into wives, that men take their women and ride away" (22). In realizing that "men take their women and ride away," Cleo sees the danger in women being taken as mere objects, with no agency or power of their own. Gloria Wade-Gayles notes that these childhood passages "foreshadow Cleo's later aversion to imprisonment in the woman's sphere" (No 163). By later portraying Cleo as a female adult who acts out "masculine" gender traits, West portrays one of the few ways that a female can retain power as an adult. Girls turning into women are taught to be "feminine" or "passive," thus losing their power, but a boy becoming a man is taught to be "masculine" or "assertive," thus gaining power.
Some critics, in their search to understand the origins of Cleo's "problematic" (i.e., non-stereotypically feminine) personality, misread the importance of gender roles in Cleo's childhood and often turn to the mother-daughter relationship for clues. Cleo's mother gives her more discipline than the other girls because Cleo rejects stereotypical feminine roles: "Mama didn't know what made Cleo so wild. Cleo got more of her attention than all of her other children put together. God help her when she grew up" (23). Any daughter will certainly be affected by the relationship she has with her mother, but the maternal discipline Cleo receives is not the entire reason for her motivations and manipulations in adulthood. Robert Bone neglects the importance of gender roles and societal power when he says that Cleo's "deepest motives...spring from her relationship to her mother. The dethroned eldest child, she wants desperately to be loved best, and this neurotic need sets the pattern of her adult personality" (188). Wa de-Gayles notes that Bone's use of the term neurotic to describe Cleo's personality is "steeped in sexism when it is used to describe female behavior that is out of line with cultural expectations" (No 162). Judith R. Berzon, however, echoes Bone's theory when she claims that "Cleo's need to control is neurotic..." (185). I would argue that Cleo's personality and behavior are not the result of individual psychological causes; her behavior is the result of a larger societal issue--an unequal patriarchal society in which women suffer. In fact, it is because Cleo's mother understands all too well how a patriarchal society will treat a "masculine" adult female that she disciplines Cleo. She acts to protect her daughter, not out of misdirected maternal love.
At the age of fourteen, Cleo has her first experience of being denied her own individual choice or power, simply because she is perceived as a helpless girl. She is sent from her rural Southern home to the urban North. In Cleo's journey from South Carolina to Massachusetts, West depicts an example of a larger historical narrative, that of the historical Great Black Migration. Lawrence Rodgers acknowledges that "the Great Migration novel was a fully developed form with its own explicit, generic conventions by the time that West wrote The Living Is Easy" (167). (7) But it is only within the context of the migration plot of The Living Is Easy that Rodgers directly addresses how gender affects this novel and Cleo's "migration." West, he observes, "refigures this convention entirely, subsuming the need to migrate not in the oppression of race but in that of gender. Cleo is portrayed as too free, too wild in the South, and when she comes of age, her mother sends her north with a white spinster..." (168). Cleo's "mi gration" is a forced one due to her sex; as a female, she has control exerted over her, not by her. West combines an historical literary narrative with a female protagonist to show how being a female can be oppressive. Cleo is sent north to a white spinster in order to protect her "virginity"--the only asset that society would grant a female, black or white, at that time. Her mother thinks sending Cleo north is "an answer to [hen prayers" because "she didn't know what minute Cleo might disgrace herself. The wildness in the child might turn to wantonness in the girl" (24). Here again, her mother only sees Cleo as a powerless "female," unable to protect herself or assert herself, and takes Cleo's agency out of her hands. (8)
Cleo mistakenly thinks that going north will be "an adventure," something positive; she thinks she will "go to night school." But again, as a socially and economically "powerless" female, her power proves illusory when the white spinster, Miss Peterson, decides "against permitting her to walk down darkened streets alone. There were too many temptations along the way in the guise of coachmen and butlers and porters" (25). It is at Miss Peterson's that Cleo learns how to construct her outside--her "female" social mask, her feminine manners--while her inside, her assertive, aggressive "masculine" gender waits to later exert itself. Cleo realizes that "this was the period of instruction that was preparing her for adulthood. Yet she knew she was not changing. She was merely learning guile" (28).
Upon reaching adulthood, Cleo once again performs "masculine" gender roles. One of the most interesting situations in which West clearly depicts Cleo's "masculine" gender is within the institution of marriage, the very place in many novels where the gender roles of masculine and feminine are traditionally drawn and rarely crossed. Even within her marriage, Cleo will not give up her individual power and perform stereotypically passive feminine gender roles. Cleo, and her husband Bart, in many ways, exchange gender roles. Cleo is represented with the more "masculine" gender attributes, such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, business-sense, and the desire for power, not love. Bart, on the other hand, is seen acting out the more stereotypically "feminine" gender traits, such as affection for their child and deep feeling (thus the reference to "all that was sentimental in Bart's nature" ). Although the exchange of performative gender roles is not in itself destructive, their marriage becomes a battle of will s, not a mutual relationship based on love and respect. Adelaide Cromwell writes: "Each partner seek[s] from the other what is not forthcoming. Cleo always wants more money than Bart can give or will give her, and Bart always wants more affection and warmth than Cleo can or will give him" (358). As a result, Cleo is locked into protecting her individual power, even in her sexual life.
Wade-Gayles argues that Cleo's "sexual disinterestedness is overt--a display of power--and she makes no excuses or apologies for it" (No 161). West writes:
When Cleo was twenty, their sex battle began. It was not a savage fight. She did not struggle against his superior strength. She found a weapon that would cut him down quickly and cleanly. She was ice. Neither her mouth nor her body moved to meet his. The open eyes were wide with mocking at the busyness below. There was no moment when everything in her was wrenched and she was one with the man who could submerge her in himself. (35)
Since Cleo does not acknowledge her sexuality--either as a young girl or even as a married woman--the positive result is that she never runs the risk of being destroyed either morally or physically by her sexuality, the literary fate of many black women. West never allows Cleo that dangerous possibility; Cleo must remain a fighter. Even when Cleo conceives a child, Judy, it is portrayed as Cleo's "losing" a battle, losing her will: Cleo "conceived a child on a night when her body's hunger broke down her controlled resistance" (35). However, the Cleo who avoids a sexual tragedy is also a Cleo who is an incomplete human being, and thus a tragic figure. For while she correctly refuses to conform to negative feminine gender roles (passivity, cooperation), she also neglects to embrace the positive ones, like giving and receiving mutual love and sex in her marriage.
Another place where West depicts Cleo as performing "masculine" gender roles that then subvert tradition is within the dichotomy of the public/business sphere of men and the private/domestic sphere for women. West describes Cleo's awareness of such a dichotomy: At the market center, she "felt a sharp distaste at the surge and clamor around her that made her pause at every store front where a man might come charging out of a doorway to brush aside any women or children who stood in the path of commerce" (70). Cleo does not want to be in a domestic sphere--a choice she expressed as a child--she wants to be out in the male-dominated economic sphere, the "path of commerce." Cleo's longing for this business world is overt:
Here in the market was all the maleness of men. This was their world in which they moved without the command of women....Cleo...was jealous of all the free-striding life around her. She had nothing with which to match it but her wits. Her despotic nature found Mr. Judson a rival. He ruled a store and all the people in it. Her sphere was one troublesome child, who gave insufficient scope for her tremendous vitality. (70-71)
Bart keeps Cleo firmly in her domestic space, as his "Queen of the Porch." When she jokingly tells him at his fruit market, "'Don't you bid too high,'" he retorts, "'You worry your head about woman affairs. I'll do the rest of the worrying'" (81). He treats her condescendingly, like a helpless child, which in turn fuels Cleo's assertive "masculine" gender that is struggling to break free and find a place to assert its power. (9)
Cleo is painfully aware that her "domestic sphere" is not so rewarding as a man's economic sphere: "When men spoke, she knew that their worlds were larger than hers, their interests broader. She could not bear knowing that there were many things she didn't know; that a man could introduce a subject, and she would have to be silent" (140). Wade-Gayles writes, "The dichotomy of man's world and woman's place burns anger into Cleo's soul..." (159). So, banished from Mr. Judson's store and the business world, Cleo is left to assert her powerful, "masculine" gender in the only space open to her, her domestic space, her home. She is left with feelings of rebelliousness against a patriarchal society with its male business world and separate female domestic world--a system that denies opportunities for a woman's self-definition.
By showing Cleo's resentment of her limited domestic sphere, West is showing how urban middle- and upper-class blacks who are modeling themselves after the dominant class--upper-class whites--make the same mistake in their treatment of women that upper-class white men do. They treat their wives and sisters as passive "beauty objects" and place them up on pedestals, where they have no power and no self-definition. Cleo would be happier if she could handle Bart's accounting books for him, finding an outlet for her business sense and giving herself some self-definition beyond the home. Instead, she is banished to her domestic home by a white male-dominated society that Bart emulates.
So it is within her limited domestic sphere--the walls of her home--that Cleo decides to assert and perform her "masculine" gender, her power. West reveals Cleo's plan: "She would show Mr. Judson that she could take a house and be its heart. She would show him that she could bend a household of human souls to her will" (71). Cleo constructs a "household of human souls" that she can have power over. "As long as I'm the boss of the house," she muses, "I don't care how many people are in it" (71).
Here West, with her masculine-acting female protagonist, subverts another type of literary narrative--the community of women. A typical community of women is circular and communal, and their association is based on mutual female love, friendship, and respect. Examples can be found in, for instance, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. But with Cleo forming this community of women, it instead becomes a power-structured, hierarchical "business" that she can own and run, not the "feminized, communal matrix" that critic Lawrence Rodgers sees (161). Cleo's home is Cleo's "business"; it is her "store." She exclaims, "'It's my house! ... He [Bart] runs his store, I run my house without interference'" (184). Ann duCille emphasizes that "it is important to note that West's portrait is not simply that of a matriarch. Cleo would be king, not mother" (114). Her home is her hierarchically structured kingdom, the opposite of a true circul ar community of women.
Cleo uses her assertive, "masculine" gender attributes to create her domestic kingdom, where she will rule. First, she manipulates Bart into letting her three sisters come for a visit, then ruthlessly destroys their marriages so that her sisters and their children have to stay. Without the financial support of their husbands, Cleo's sisters are now economically dependent on Bart's money. Cleo is happy controlling her sister's lives, since it is the only area in her life over which she has control and power. And her sisters let her control them: "'Cleo's our eldest. It's right she sets herself over us'" (159).
Cleo's daughter Judy recognizes that her mother is actually the authoritative, masculine one in the family when she says, "'Cleo was the boss of everybody. It was like she was the boss of the house. Papa wasn't'" (202). Cleo's need to control through power is even evident in her parenting role. She is not represented as a maternal, gentle, loving mother: "To her a child was a projection of its mother, like an arm which functioned in unison with other component parts and had no will that was not controlled by the head of the women who owned it" (86). Cleo sees Judy as an object that she owns and controls in her family "business." Here again, in her desire to own and control people as though they are assets in a business world, Cleo denies herself the capability to love and be loved in her own family.
Adelaide Cromwell explains Cleo's unique position in her forced "community of women," that she is not simply another black female stereotype--the black matriarch:
Cleo is not reminiscent of the familiar black women in American literature. She controls ... but she is not really a matriarch. Others accept her control as much from their weakness as from her strength, and she does not control through love, as many black matriarchs do. For her, any expression of love is weakness .... As a strong, determined, controlling, beautiful woman...Cleo is new to black literature. (360-61)
Within communities of women, Cleo represents the difference between hegemony (a positive community) and coercion (a negative community); Cleo acts out coercion. Cleo is not positively represented as a "strong, determined, controlling" woman. A family is not a business; it is a home that should be run out of mutual love and respect. She is locked into performing positive "masculine" gender traits such as aggressiveness and competition, but in the wrong places, with the result that these roles become negative to her self and to her family.
Therefore, despite Cleo's successful restructuring of gender--she becomes a strong, dominating, "masculine" female--she does not triumph in the end, despite having created a domestic "empire" for herself. The plot of the novel begins a downward spiral for Cleo and for everyone she has controlled and manipulated: her husband, her daughter, and her sisters. Cleo's decline can, I believe, be attributed to more than her "mistakenly look[ing] to high living" (Rodgers 170). It is also more complex than the obvious economic reason: Bart's business failing due to the onset of World War I. Cleo's social and economic decline toward the end of the novel is complex. West's novel does more than "recall many other stories that warn against a multitude of perilous evils associated with urban life" (Rodgers 165), and it is more than just another novel that shows what happens to a woman who dares to defy gender roles and spheres.
In choosing to act out only "masculine" gender attributes in negative ways, Cleo ignores and refuses any of her positive "feminine" attributes. She, in effect, becomes an incomplete individual, a "tragic" figure or heroine cut off from "human" attributes like loving, caring, and living. Cleo cannot merge her "masculine" side with a "feminine" side, and she recognizes early on in the novel that she is indeed fragmented, referring to this as her "perversity" and refusing to "face the knowledge that she [i]s incomplete in herself" (36). This is an underlying reason behind Cleo's wanting and needing her sisters with her. It is not just because they look like her mother and remind Cleo of the rural South, but because they represent the feminine attributes that Cleo cannot perform for herself; in their proximity, she will try to live off their femininity.
West describes Cleo's inner gender struggle as "spiritual suffering and immeasurable frustration" (22). She desires the positive "masculine" gender attributes, and acts these out, but denies herself any of the positive "feminine" gender attributes, even though these attributes are essential for anyone seeking to live a complete, fulfilling female life. Without them, she cannot enjoy love and satisfying sex within her marriage, friendship with other women, maternal love for her daughter Judy, or love and respect for her sisters, whom she seeks, instead, to dominate and control. Mistakenly thinking that all feminine attributes are signs of weakness, Cleo fails to recognize that they are essential elements of a full life. She cannot see that she can be both feminine and masculine in her gender representation, even though she is a woman.
The only time that Cleo felt complete was when she was a child, when she could be both feminine and masculine, in the gender construct of a "tomboy." Therefore, when West uses flashbacks in Cleo's consciousness to her childhood in the South, it is not primarily to depict her affection for the rural South and her sisters; rather, the flashbacks represent her longing for the time when she could be both feminine and masculine--when she was complete, when she felt the "full joy of being alive" (11), and "when being alive was a wild and glorious thing" (143). As an adult, Cleo consciously wills her mind back to her Southern childhood: "In a moment, she would slide into the lovely pool of her lost innocence. Down, down, she went, feeling the freedom of a wild bird plummeting through time and space. She was hurrying back, falling faster and faster..." (144), "down she went into her well of remembering" (155). A telling section in the novel occurs on Christmas Day, when the adult Cleo feels "something was missing in the room.... The thing was a sense of oneness. Now some part of her felt severed, her self-identity with her child" (222). Cleo has severed her "gender" completeness, what she felt as a child, and is stuck in her monolithic "masculine" gender role. Cleo's inner struggle between being what she perceives as "good," or masculine--strength, power, and domination--and what she perceives as being "bad," or feminine--love, tenderness, and nurturing--is shown by West's portrayal of Cleo's inner consciousness. However, Cleo never shows her inner struggle to any family member or friend.
West begins depicting Cleo's inner struggle as early as chapter one, but within the context of the racial and social struggles that Cleo encounters, these instances can easily be overlooked or misconstrued as insignificant to the text as a whole. The first depiction of her struggle with acknowledging any feminine gender attributes is in the flashback section to Cleo's childhood in which she "wouldn't cry and show remorse" (15) when Mama gives her a beating for misbehaving. Early on, Cleo sees crying as being a negative "feminine" attribute. She gives up "feminine" kisses from her father and instead insists on his giving her a copper, a sign of material power and male-power: "Time was, he gave them kisses for toting his bucket. But the day Cleo brazenly said, 'I don't want a kiss, I want a copper...'" (18).
Time after time when Cleo is with Bart, she struggles between power and control, on the one hand, and succumbing to "feminine" gender attributes. West shows this struggle to her readers: "For a moment tenderness flooded her. But the emotion embarrassed her" (8), and "she tore herself away from him lest she reveal her understanding and return his tenderness.... She turned and fled from his love" (81). Cleo even hides any sign of being "feminine" with the children: "She did not want the children to have a close view of the naked face of her happiness," and "if she let her heart go, it would flood..." (221).
Does Cleo ever merge her "masculine" gender and her "feminine" gender? Does she stubbornly remain locked into performing only limiting and sometimes destructive masculine gender roles and thus succumb to being another "tragic heroine" by her choices of racial denial and gender denial? Many critics interpret the novel as depicting a tragic ending for another rebellious heroine. (10) On the other hand, Ann duCille analyzes the ending as open-ended: "Tomorrow is another day whose outcome is ambiguous. The novel closes on a solitary Cleo, left alone to stew in the destruction she has wrought" (114). Yet duCille does not seem to give Cleo the potential to rebuild her life. Although Farah Jasmine Griffin analyzes the text as a Great Migration Novel, she interprets West's ending as being even more optimistic for Cleo: "She stands at the end of the novel as determined and forceful as she is when we first meet her. Like a sepia Scarlett O'Hara, she promises to move beyond her momentary troubles and to rebuild her life " (84).
Evidence of a newly defined Cleo who is capable of rebuilding her life is depicted in the last line of section one: "Mama would have been as sad and lonesome without Pa as she--and slowly her stubborn heart yielded--as she would be without Mr. Judson" (280; emphasis added). Cleo realizes that the love her Mama showed for Papa was something beautiful, not something ugly and a sign of weakness, as she muses "had love been the real essence of Mama's beauty?" (284). She yields her rigid control and allows her heart to love: a human attribute. Now in touch with her loving and nurturing side, she slowly begins to loosen her control over her sisters: "Gently she loosed Charity's clinging fingers from the rail.... 'But I want you to go. Charity, go, for God's sake, go'" (313). Cleo encourages Charity to achieve some measure of independence by obtaining a job.
When Charity and Cleo open the door, just as Cleo's inner-self has been transformed, her outer urban world is transformed: "The sun streamed in, the trolley wires sang, the spring birds lifted persuasive throats, the budding trees stretched out their green arms. The world outside swung in its orbit of light" (313-14). Cleo, in allowing herself to begin feeling and caring instead of merely controlling, transforms her urban world to one of rural beauty, the feeling of her childhood completeness, and now she has begun to feel completeness as an adult. She is even ready to be a partner to Bart instead of a domineering wife: "Today she wanted him to know that they pulled in harness together" (343). But Cleo's transformation comes too late for her husband, who tells her he's leaving to find work because his business is ruined and that she's "the boss now," what the old, incomplete Cleo would have wanted (344). She struggles to show him her new, complex self: "She lifted her face to his, scanning his eyes for some r esponse, her own eyes luminous with tenderness." But "he was gone. The front door shut softly on her manlessness" (346).
The ending of the novel is purposefully ambiguous, giving Cleo the possibility for rebuilding her life. Her sisters still live with her, and although they are more financially self-sufficient, they can begin to love the new Cleo. More importantly, she will be able to love them in return. And the possibility of Bart's coming back remains. There is hope at the end, even in Cleo's call for love on the last page of the novel: "Who is there now to love me best? Who? cried her frightened heart" (347). Being frightened is not being in control; Cleo is relinquishing control and is now capable of loving. And she realizes the emptiness of financial rewards: "Blindly she gathered up the money, tucked it between her breasts, but her heart was not comforted" (347). The final paragraphs of the novel end on an optimistic note. Most importantly, Cleo recognizes her human need for love, and her "heart began to beat strongly. 'Make Tim [her nephew] love me best of all the world. Of all the world,' it commanded" (347). Wanting the love of a male child is not a tragic flaw for this transformed heroine. A protagonist whose "heart beg[ing] to beat strongly" as she opens her heart is not succumbing to a tragic ending as a "tragic heroine." This description signifies a new beginning for Cleo, and the possibility is there for her to go on and rebuild her life, guided by human attributes: caring, loving, nurturing, and yet being strong and determined when the need arises. The ending of West's novel is positive with regard to Cleo's achieving gender completeness--both masculine and feminine--making her a complete, complex female. For then, the terms of Cleo's life will be the living is easy--easy because she is now a whole person.
Adelaide Cromwell notes the importance of The Living Is Easy because it warns blacks--as a group--of the danger of repeating their mistakes if they do not know their history (362). She refers to the mistake of racial denial in the pursuit of class status. In the same sense of community and audience for West's novel, there are two more groups to whom she is speaking: patriarchal society and women. First, she speaks to our patriarchal society--with its rigid dictum of separate spheres for men and women and corresponding enforced gender roles--emphasizing the need to expand and blur the boundaries and categories of male/female and masculine/feminine. West also speaks to the community of women--black and white women, women of all races--warning us not to fragment ourselves, to embrace both positive masculine and positive feminine gender attributes in being complete and multi-dimensional females.
In calling attention to what I perceive as West's subversive feminist discourse in her overt satire of early-twentieth-century black Bostonians, I hope to add another layer of reading to The Living Is Easy--one that enhances the work and adds to its complex nature and content. Adding the term feminist agenda to Dorothy West's first novel--for its depiction of gender roles in critiquing the patriarchal dichotomy--can only help raise awareness of the richness of her work, and consequently raise this text to the level of recognition that it very much deserves.
(1.) Critics such as Robert Bone, Edward Clark, and David Littlejohn analyze the novel as simply a satire of the Boston black middle class.
(2.) Farah Jasmine Griffin analyzes the novel as an example of an African American migration narrative. She observes that "West begins the project of providing an alternative to Wright's absolute dismissal of the black Southern past; she also provides another source of possibility of the South in the city--it can be a source of inspiring resistance" (87). West's novel embraces the rural South as a source of completeness for transplanted middle-class blacks. Another critic who analyzes the novel as a Great Migration Novel, Lawrence Rodgers, believes that it is a "revision of earlier [male] migration novels" (165). He adds that the novel "refigures this convention entirely, subsuming the need to migrate not in the oppression of race but in that of gender" (168). Cleo is sent north to protect her virginity from lower-class Southern black men.
Gloria Wade-Gayles, in "The Truths of Our Mothers Lives," and Mary Helen Washington focus on the mother-daughter relationship. Wade-Gayles refers to Cleo as an example of the superstrong black mother who does not bond with her daughter (8-9). Washington examines the autobiographical nature of this mother-daughter relationship: "In her [West's] identification with her mother's sensibility--her ironic view of pretentious blacks, her ability to satirize their foibles, her magnificent storytelling gift--West's creative imagination comes alive" (345).
Eva Rueschmann analyzes the importance of the relationship between Cleo and her three sisters. Rueschmann says other critics "neglect to dissect the complexity of the sister bond in the novel, focusing instead almost exclusively on the mother-daughter relationship" (126), and she suggests that "the sisters in this novel represent the past and heritage that Cleo denies for the sake of her social ambitions, yet to which she is inescapably drawn" (127).
(3.) For identifying this feminist theme in West's novel, I am indebted to the work of Gloria Wade-Gayles, Mary Helen Washington, and Ann duCille.
(4.) Here, I disagree with and expand upon Ann duCille's explanation that Cleo is merely "trapped in the wrong body and locked into the wrong sex/gender role, as much a victim of biology and sociology--of genetic miscasting" (114). duCille seems to suggest that gender attributes are biologically inherited, or that a male body must have masculine attributes and that a female body must have feminine attributes. I however, follow Judith Butler's theory that gender is performative; Cleo consciously chooses to act out masculine gender roles even though she is a female. Butler suggests that gender roles can be chosen or even denied. She argues that, "when the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one" (6).
(5.) A literary (and film) example of the black "Mammy" stereotype is found in the famous character, called "Mammy" no less, in the novel and film Gone With the Wind. Examples of the sexualized black female, the "Jezebel," who is usually physically or morally destroyed, can be found in part one of Jean Toomer's Cane (1923). For further reading, see Anderson.
(6.) Critic Robert Bone also recognizes the fact that, even as a child, Cleo represents atypical "feminine" gender attributes--he calls them her "dominant personality traits" (188). He mentions the child Cleo in connection with other masculine gender traits: "tremendous vitality, wildness, and daring" (188). But Bone doesn't analyze why a female character is acting out "masculine" gender attributes.
(7.) However, as Farah Jasmine Griffin points out, "While West's novel is an especially significant migration narrative, it is not the first woman-authored migration narrative. It is preceded by Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Marita Bonner's short stories" (83-84).
(8.) This is similar to what occurs between the grandmother and granddaughter in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. To try to protect her young granddaughter's virginity, Nanny takes Janie's agency of decision away and forces her to marry a stable, older man.
(9.) This is again similar to Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, where Janie's second husband relegates her to the stereotypical feminine sphere--"The Queen of the Porch."
(10.) Judith Berzon explicitly labels Cleo as a "tragic figure" who sacrifices everything and everyone in her neurotic need to control (179). Berzon writes, "At the end of the novel, Cleo looks pathetic in some ways and tragic in others. While she has been mistaken or blind about many things and people in her life, she shows the capacity to learn. Like most tragic figures, she learns about these things--especially about herself--too late" (186). Wade-Gayles refers simply to Cleo's "downfall," with no mention of her having the strength and determination to "rise" up again (No 164). I argue that it is not too late for Cleo to rebuild her life as a complete, complex women who has gained true self-definition.
Anderson, Lisa M. Mammies No More: The Changing Image of Black Women on Stage and Screen. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1997.
Berzon, Judith. Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. New York: New York UP, 1978.
Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identify. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Clark, Edward. "Boston Black and White: The Voice of Fiction." Black American Literature Forum 19 (1985): 83-89.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Cromwell, Adelaide. "Afterword." West 349-64.
duCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Ferguson, SallyAnn H. "Dorothy West." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1945. Ed. Trudier Harris. Detroit Gale, 1988. 187-95.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Who Set You Flowin'?": The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Hyde, Janet. "Tomboyism." Psychology of Women Quarterly 2 (1977): 73-75.
Karpen, Lynn. Rev, of The Wedding, by Dorothy West. New York Times Book Review 12 Feb. 1995: 11.
Littlejohn, David. Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes. New York: Grossman, 1966.
Rodgers, Lawrence. "Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy and the Ideal of Southern Folk Community." African American Review 26 (1992): 161-72.
Rueschmann, Eva. "Sister Bonds: Intersections of Family and Race in Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun and Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy." The Significance of Sibling Relationships in Literature. Ed. JoAnna Stephens and Janet Doubler Ward. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1993. 120-31.
Wade-Gayles, Gloria. No Cystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Pilgrim P, 1984.
-----. "The Truths of Our Mother's Lives: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Black Women's Fiction." SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 1 (1984): 8-12.
Washington, Mary Helen. "I Sign My Mother's Name: Maternal Power in Dorothy West's Novel, The Living Is Easy." Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. New York: Anchor, 1987. 344-53.
West, Dorothy. The Living Is Easy. 1948. New York: Feminist P, 1982.
Pamela Peden Sanders is a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, where she has written extensively about Dorothy West. Her area of specialization is late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, with a special interest in American women writers; her dissertation focuses on the American female Bildungsroman.
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|Author:||Sanders, Pamela Peden|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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