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Two Novels of Female Identity

The human body is a significant image on both symbolic and literal levels in two novels, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. In both books, the body, especially for the female protagonists, is significant because it is the vessel of both imprisonment and identity. The body is literally the means society uses to judge the ethnic female as inferior. However, in both books, the protagonists' bodies are also the means to freedom or at least survival and self. Symbolically, the human body represents the individual's material destiny in and connection to the world; the body is the symbol of the material world and all of the problems and opportunities which that world holds, especially for the female.

Kingston remembers her mother's midwifing experiences with respect to the body as individual destiny. She refers to a child born without an anus: "I pictured a naked child sitting on a modern toilet desperately trying to perform until it died of congestion" (Kingston 86). She remembers also that the role of a midwife at times included killing female babies by "turn[ing] her face into the ashes" (Kingston 86). In other words, in both cases, the individual is limited, defined, left to die, or even killed outright simply because he is born with a defect or she is born a she. In large part only because of her body, Kingston in her life experiences the special and intense prejudice reserved for ethnic females---both from her own people and from the dominant white majority.

The same mixed curse/blessing of the body exists in Hurston. The body is a marker of experience: "The years took all the fight out of Janie's face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul" (Hurston 92). But the body is also vessel for the soul that transcends the body's suffering:

The day of the gun, and the bloody body . . . came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner of the room. ....

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Two Novels of Female Identity. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 01:45, January 31, 2023, from