Self-esteem is confidence in one’s own worth or abilities or self-respect. Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston and Jefferson from A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines both struggle with establishing a positive self-esteem or a sense of self-worth. Both characters get so overwhelmed by the supremacy of someone or something around them that they doubt their own power, thus, creating a feeling of doubt for themselves and the voice that they have. In order to gain a sense of high self-esteem, a person must endure points of self-doubt.
The societal stereotypes associated with African Americans create an unrealistic idea about how men and women of their race can think or act. Because Janie is an African American woman in the early 1900’s, she was considered to be inferior, usually in comparison to a male counterpart. Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband says to her in the midst of a fight, “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (Hurston 86). Logan does not think anything more of Janie than a helping hand. This goes to show African American women’s role in society, for it was to be in the background or in their husbands shadow in order to assist or give moral support. Janie is presented with overbearing husbands that believe nothing of her such as Logan Killicks. Because of this, she is given little to no freedom over what she can think or do. This contributes to the lost confidence the reader sees in Janie. Jefferson is presented with a similar problem. Jefferson is an African American man who is found guilty for a crime he did not commit in A Lesson Before Dying. In contrast to a gender stereotype as in Janie’s situation, the group of people restricting Jefferson from saying or thinking what he wants is a racist, white society. African Americans were subject to being in the shadow of white men in the time period of the novel like Janie was in comparison to her male equivalent. Jefferson’s defense attorney describes Jefferson as mindless and incapable of doing anything more than pulling corn for that was the mindset of the society. They viewed him as lesser or inferior as Janie’s husbands viewed her. Through this, both characters endured many points of self-doubt.
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Another common issue throughout both novels is the equating of both Janie and Jefferson to an agricultural animal. Throughout A Lesson Before Dying Jefferson is compared to a hog while Janie is indirectly compared to a mule throughout many parts of Their Eyes Were Watching God. When Jefferson was on trial, his defense attorney, as stated previously, indicated that he was not intelligent enough to organize anything of the caliber of the murder. That Jefferson was not a man, he was only an animal or a hog. The reader sees this mentally break Jefferson. At a single point in the novel, Jefferson gets down on his hands and knees and eats out of a basket using only his mouth as a hog would. At this point, Jefferson is at his lowest mental state. Furthermore, the reader sees Janie at her lowest mental state when her husbands take away her voice. Janie deals with this for several years. She is not allowed to speak her mind but is permitted to work wherever and whenever her husband needs her. When Janie reluctantly accepts this role as the mule, she become doubtful of herself and her voice, “the years took all the fight out of Janie’s face”. After a while she did not believe she had any fight in her soul. Janie tries many times to break out of her negative mental state such as when Janie makes men in front of her store laugh. Joe responds to this by getting angry and slapping her. Janie is subject to the idea of a mule; she is to be silent but hard working. She was not directly identified as a mule as Jefferson was but the animal symbolized her role throughout the novel. This animal comparison breaks down both characters and makes it hard for them to cope. It puts them in an extremely low mental state.
By the end of the novels, both characters break out of this negative mental state and become more confident in themselves. As Jody Starks is on his death bed, Janie finally realizes she’s worth more than what he has been telling her. Now that he is almost gone Janie realizes she no longer has any restrictions and is striving to be the most individual person she can be in order to avoid a similar situation. She looks at herself in the mirror after Joe dies in front of her and gains a great deal of confidence back. Jefferson, on the other hand, does not gain confidence on his own but receives help through others and their words. At the end of the novel, Jefferson gets brought a radio. He starts hearing things like he is a hero and is a representation of the African American race as a whole. When Jefferson finally goes to the chair, instead of being depressed and angry because of why he is there, he is prideful and proud of what he is standing for. He thinks of himself as a man for the first time in the novel. He would not understand that as well and he would not have had so much confidence in himself if not for the points of self-doubt. He pushes himself to overcome his overwhelming fear and obtain that pride because he no longer wants to go to his execution as a coward or a hog. Both Janie and Jefferson overcome their self-doubt and become stronger individuals because of it.