Comparing the Culture of “Bread Givers” and “The Eyes Were Watching God”
Family is a major foundation of the human structure. Through this structure, much of our comprehension of life and its complexity are attained. Another important aspect of our foundation is culture. Culture is a set of shared beliefs, thoughts and behaviors that are usually learned within specific social groups. While our backgrounds and skin tones may give us a physical distinction, from a cultural standpoint we’re often mirror images of each other. The similarities of cultures are seen in the stories “Bread Givers” and “The Eyes Were Watching God”. The main characters in these stories are of different ethnicities, however their traditions are comparable.
Both characters are from impoverished families and the cultures are predominantly male dominated. Bread Givers is the story of Sara Smolinsky, a young Jewish girl growing up in New York City in the early twentieth century. In the story “The Eyes Were Watching God”, Janie Crawford is an African American girl growing up in Florida. From a traditional standpoint, the culture attempts to play an important role in the lives of Sarah and Janie. Every major decision is usually made by the parent, which is usually a direct derivative from their respective cultures. In Janie’s case she lives with her grandmother, but as you will realize does everything equally to what a man normally does.
Sarah’s father enforces his set of beliefs unto his daughter by telling her who she should love and marry. Her father uses Judaism to impose his will, but Sarah rejects this notion. She refuses to accept the Torah’s idea that without a man, a woman is “less than nothing” (Bread Givers, 205). Janie’s Grandmother, Nanny also believes that men are the dominant of the sexes. Just as Sarah’s did she tells Janie who she should marry. Upon believing Janie‘s ready for marriage, she says “youse got yo womanhood on you….A wants to see you married right away” (p.30). As stated ethnicities are dissimilar, however according to the text it’s obvious the parents believe they have the right to choose mates for their offspring.
The set of shared beliefs are striking as two women struggle to liberate themselves from natural customs. It’s as if women are looked down upon in both cultures. It’s interesting to see Janie’s grandmother, a female, yet relinquishes power to men. She believes a man should be the principal caretakers of the woman. She states, “Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, its protection” (p.32). Nanny is seen here expressing her thoughts, saying not only Janie needs a man, she also need to be under his wings. It’s clear to see whether consciously or subconsciously, Nanny completely disregards the aspect of independence. In her mind, she thinks she’s doing what’s best for Janie. Even though she’s a woman she does not try to empower Janie, she wants her to carry on the customs of the culture. According to her beliefs a woman is not fit enough to do it by themselves, they need a man to empower them.
To reiterate, culture is a set of shared beliefs, thoughts and behaviors that are usually learned within specific social groups. This shared belief of male dominance reverberates in Sarah’s traditions as well. Sarah’s father states, “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women…Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men” (p.9). Sarah’s father dehumanizes his own daughter by saying she’s nothing without men. However from his perspective, he’s doing what’s best for her. Sounds familiar? Well it is a reoccurring theme, and according to her father he’s doing his best and what’s been done for each generation.
As the story unfolds, both women search for happiness on their own; not wanting anyone to provide for them. The same cannot be said about Sarah’s mother and Nanny. After Nanny was freed from slavery, she did not set out to find herself or become mentally free. According to her “A got with some good white people and come down here in Florida to work and make the sunshine on both sides of the street for Leafy”(p.36). It’s fair to say she wanted to do best for her daughter Leafy, but as seen throughout the story her mentality is still engrossed with dependency on men. She does not display the independence aspect as Janie does, which proves she still believes that without a man a woman cannot make it on her own.
Sarah’s does not firmly stand behind her daughter, she supports her husband. She does however says sarcastically, “And woe to us women who got to live in a Torah-made world that’s only for men” (p. 95). It’s as if she’s mocking the Torah, she knows it’s a male dominated culture but she does not put up a strong fight against that fact. With this said, she does not defy her husband. Does this make a good wife or a bad mother or vice versa? Well she’s caught between a rock and a hard place, but she settles. She does not do anything out of the ordinary to help liberate her daughter much less herself.
The two cultures mirrored each other with family, the roles of men/women, religion and the enforcement of traditions. Sarah and Janie are both poor, but have hungry hearts. Both women share similar customs, and stereotypes, yet strive to become strong independent women. It’s fair argument to say they try escaping their respective cultures differently. Sarah found herself through school and working. Janie wanted to choose the one who she wants to love and marry. On the other hand they both have the same intentions; the intent to rid the characteristic of dependency while searching for self.
One would expect the family, the foundation of the human structure to carry out certain beliefs or ideas. In these cases the culture is more dominant than individual beliefs. The way a specific group grasp a particular concept seemed for feasible than an individual belief. Sarah and Janie for instance were not interested in the ideologies passed on to them. Rather than discussing this differences and try to rationalize some solution, they were ridiculed by their respective cultures. To go against the culture you would be labeled as a black sheep. Are you kidding me, culture? This defines one? So what is self? True that culture helps shape us as individuals but the inevitable is we become someone, we become self. It’s very possible that a struggle can exist between “culture” and “personal belief”; therefore the right to choose should not be taken away from us. With that taken away, then self is taken away.