Academic journal article African American Review

The Feminism of Dorothy West's the Living Is Easy: A Critique of the Limitations of the Female Sphere through Performative Gender Roles

Academic journal article African American Review

The Feminism of Dorothy West's the Living Is Easy: A Critique of the Limitations of the Female Sphere through Performative Gender Roles

Article excerpt

Dorothy West's first novel, The Living Is Easy (1948), is easily identified as a "satiric picture of Boston's 'counterfeit bourgeoisie,' its black middle class," and as a novel that "indicts black society artificially modeled on false white values" (Rodgers 161). (1) Indeed, the obvious major themes in the novel are racial denial and class elitism, topics that West knew well. The Living Is Easy is semi-autobiographical; West grew up in Boston in a middle-class family in the early 1900s, and several characters in the novel are based on real-life family members and acquaintances, primarily her mother and father as the fictionalized characters Cleo and Bart.

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. …

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