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Close Reading of Eva’s Man through the Lens of Wendy Brown

Sarah's picture

            In reading Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones, it is interesting to note the paradox of a writer telling the story of a character marked by silence.  Eva often refuses to answer questions asked by many people in her life, and the narration of the story (which is from Eva’s perspective) often switches back and forth in time, leaving the reader often feeling confused and disoriented.  However, although we may label Eva’s character as silent/silenced, there are still 177 pages devoted to telling us her thoughts and memories.  How do we reconcile thinking about Eva as a silent/silenced character while acknowledging the book gives us an account of many parts of her life?  In critically examining Eva’s Man through the lens of Wendy Brown’s work about politicizing trauma, it is at times difficult to hold together Jones’ action of writing the novel and Eva’s action of choosing when to speak or stay silent. 

            In her piece about politicizing trauma, Brown offers two means of addressing the pain of trauma: incessantly speaking of the trauma, or being silent and placing the trauma in a pond where drowned things live, which is a reference to a poem by Adrienne Rich (Brown , 91).  As previously stated, Jones’ writing the book and Eva’s speech/silence can be viewed through different lenses using Brown’s work.  For example, it seems as though the written novel may be seen as an approach to incessantly talk about the trauma that Eva faced.  Brown warns of temporal danger in this: “identifying ourselves in speech condemns us to live in a present dominated by the past”.  By creating a permanent document, a published novel, Brown has created the possibility for speaking of Eva’s trauma endlessly; each time the book is read, it is in dialogue with the reader about the trauma Eva experiences.  Eva’s silence, on the other hand could be interpreted as placing her experiences in a pond where drowned things live.  Eva’s unsaid live there because, according to Brown, some words are unable to live and flourish when put in front of the harsh light of day; they must stay in the pond as a means of preserving them.  Eva never outright explains her silence, but maybe that is because she feels it is not worth it to speak, for even if she speaks she may not be understood. 

The reason for Eva’s silence may be subjective, but since she is the person who called the police and then returned to the scene of the crime one can assume she isn’t “pleading the fifth” or using silence to prevent incrimination.  She confesses to killing Davis, but is silent, or at least vague, about her motive.  It is possible Eva felt her silence was “shelter from power” (Brown , 86).  She could be put in prison, but she could not be forced to speak.  Brown describes this silence as “not enforced from above but rather deployed from below: refusing to speak is a method of refusing colonization, of refusing complicity in injurious interpellations or in subjection through regulation” (Brown , 97).  Although Brown claims her essay is neither a “defense of silence nor an injunction of silence” (Brown , 84), because she demonstrates many benefits of silence, one may conclude that Brown would support Eva’s choice to be silent, even if Brown herself, like all readers, aren’t able to fully grasp the motive behind it.

            Although Brown may support Eva’s silence as a character, she may have mixed feelings about Jones’ writing the book altogether.  She may be frustrated be Eva’s portrayal as a victim, but reassured by the complexity of her having agency and expressing sexual desire, while concurrently being a victim.  Critic, June Jordan, did not see this character as complex, but rather a perpetuation of stereotypes of black women; she stated the novel provides "sinister misinformation about ...young black girls forced to deal with the sexual, molesting violations of their minds and bodies by their fathers, their mothers' boyfriends, their cousins and uncles....perpetuate ‘crazy whore’/’castrating bitch’ images that long have defamed black women in our literature”.  Brown supports a lot of Jordan’s issues with the novel.  For example, Brown warns how “speaking out” can have this effect of reinforcing stereotypes: “confessional discourse…extends beyond the confession individual to constitute a regulatory truth about the identity of the group: confessed truths are assembled and deployed as ‘knowledge’ about the group.” (Brown , 91)  Brown also warns against the dangers of labeling a woman’s experience as a “sexual violation” because this may “reiterate rather than repeal this identity”.  In sum, Brown might warn against novels like Eva’s Man because sharing this kind of story perpetuates stereotypes of black women and women in general. 

            Brown’s work includes a discussion of the recent phenomena of our confessional culture and describes a recent cultural shift of private matters becoming public.  Although Eva’s Man was written in 1976, it seems the same issue is still present in the novel.  Several people casually ask or make statements about Eva’s sex life, including her cousin asking her is she has had that “man meat yet”, Miss Billie’s daughter Charlotte asking her if she has been with a man, and Davis saying, “You ain’t been getting it, have you?” (Jones, 7).  From a reader’s perspective, one may feel uncomfortable in learning about Eva’s sexual experiences/abuses; one may feel that he/she is violating Eva’s privacy or being given too many explicit details about such a private aspects of Eva’s life. 

            Although Wendy Brown claims she does not intend to promote silence over voice, her examples all tend to favor and demonstrate the benefits of silence.  Through her lens, one can see why Eva’s character should be respected and even commended for a silence, especially in a world that tends to encourage “breaking the silence” and “raising your voice”.  Pragmatically, however, I wonder, what Eva’s silence does for her? If she spoke to the psychiatrist about her past experiences with men, she may benefit from that (such as receiving a shorter jail sentence, or feel emotionally more stable after expressing herself).  Although Wendy Brown would argue against this, Sweeney argues that Brown’s argument, which intends to be inclusive, still excludes populations such as female prisoners, which include Eva’.  Maybe I am completely missing the purpose of Wendy Brown’s essay and  am overly affected by a culture that pushes “speaking out”, but maybe this culture is pushed because there are often benefits for the speaker.


Brown, Wendy. "Freedom's Silences." Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. 83-97.

Jones, Gayl. Eva's Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.



Anne Dalke's picture

"Beyond Wendy Brown"

you were the first one to notice, during our discussion of the "tacit dimension" last Thursday, that the "paradox" of both/and (understood, in meditation, not as a conflict, but as "competing tendencies residing in a state of simultaneity: they are always at the same time separate and united, this and that") was relevant to (and solved the conundrum of?) our discussion of Eva's Man. Also, since that discussion, we've been having a rich, rich conversation on-line about moving "beyond Delpit": that is, beyond the binary construction of either/or--of thinking that each of us is either privileged or not, w/ access to the codes of power or not--and into the complexities of being simultaneously both in-and-out, interpolated and occupying.

I wonder if these emerging new perceptions about simultaneity change your thinking about your argument here (it certainly changes mine!).  You begin by naming the "paradox" (by which you mean "contradition") of telling a story of silence. You do a neat job of setting up Brown as a reader of Eva's Man, trying to figure out whether the novel, 1) as a permanent, published document,  is an example of incessant speaking or, 2) as a record of silence, is (in Rich's terms) "placing Eva's experiences in a pond where drowned things live." You think, after some reflection, that Brown would question the publication of the novel, and support Eva’s choice to be silent--both because "sharing this kind of story perpetuates stereotypes of black women," and because "readers may feel that they are violating Eva’s privacy." But you end w/ the counter position: that our culture "pushes 'speaking out'" because doing so benefits the speaker. Pragmatically, you hazard, Eva’s silence does nothing for her.

All this is nicely done, and--so clear to me, since last week's in-class and on-line discussions--also trapped entirely within the binary that presumes one must choose either silence or speech, that valuing one means de-valuing the other. What happens to your argument when you come @ it from the binary-refusing positions of Kalamaras, Butler and Dalke? When silence and speech are both valued, simultaneously, when speech may be a form of interpolation, silence a form of occupation?