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Silence in Eva's Man

The Unknown's picture

Gayl Jones places Eva in Eva’s Man in a dysfunctional family, demonstrating how the chilling experiences of sexual abuse Eva struggles with and witnesses around her, frames and influences her later relationships and interactions with men. Jones’ centers an African American womyn's exploration of her fullest and most complex definition of herself in a society that marginalizes and silences her identity and in a culture that devalues her race and gender. Jones addresses how femelle hysteria and irrationality is constructed in the first few sentient encounters a womyn has with the sexist, unjust, and repressive society and specific communities she lives in. The reality of injustice and abuse is so prevalent and piercing that it can only result in hysteria, or femelle destructiveness and the use of brutal force.

From the beginning of the novel, Eva’s relationship with the police and other people who have power is characterized by silence. This silence is echoed in Eva’s interactions with other characters, especially those who have inflicted wounds on her body, which are still healing. She is silent around, but also seems silenced by those who have emotionally and physically injured her. Though Eva’s silence and unwillingness to explain herself is partially a result of trauma, Eva also uses silence to maintain agency in an environment where her power is constantly being taken away from her. Jones sets-up a dichotomy where Eva controls different situations through her silence, which is impassioned and involuntary and yet also intentional and telling. She is silenced both by the abuse inflicted upon her and the meanings ascribed to that abuse, which is determined by police, psychiatrists, and abusive men.

There are no secure spaces for the womyn to be free and for them to not only express their grievances, but also to find any sense of comfort in their lives. The spaces they maneuver through are structured to continue their own violence and sexual abuse. The womyn experience the home and marriage as the physical perpetuation of sexual abuse and servitude. Notions of bondage are preserved in the power dynamics and gender roles assigned to womyn and men in sexual relationships and familial structures throughout the novel.

Eva’s Man is the account of a femelle who has been identified as mentally ill after she poisons, kills, and subsequently bites the penis off her lover. Eva is then placed in a psychiatric prison in upstate New York for murdering Davis. In the psychiatric prison, Eva refuses to speak or offer a comprehensible and easily understood explanation of why she murdered her lover so brutally. Eva’s expression of femininity is inherently a form of resistance. She rejects more conventional language and approaches to conveying her story and the past.

Throughout the novel, the first-person narrative switches from one setting to another abruptly, sometimes on the same page. These scenes are tied together through repeated lines of dialogues in various situations. The scenes throughout the novel interweave flashbacks, mingling memory and imagination or possibly delusion. After Eva is placed in a psychiatric prison, she must painfully try to describe the reasons that led to her placement in this facility in Eva’s Man by Garyl Jones: “I tell the psychiatrist what I remember. He tells me I do not know how to separate the imagined memories from the real ones”(Jones 10). It seems beyond her capacity to tell a linear account of any specific memory or strain of memories because one instance cannot be separated from her other experiences. Eva struggles to make sense of a past that seems in many ways too traumatic to relive and scrutinize. At the same time, her understanding and incorporation of the past or lack there of is limited by the language and forms of expression available to her.

            Eva’s deeper questions, confusion, and shame surrounding her own past is deeply rooted in the structures that keep black womyn from achieving success. Her agency is greatly limited by racial and class structures that continue to keep her cycling through abuse.  Eva struggles with navigating her choice and lack there of in interpreting and understanding her silences that are rooted in her traumatic past of sexual and physical abuse.

            All through Eva’s Man, Eva is urged to relinquish a piece of herself to others, most often sexually, and she repeatedly confronts situations in which men take advantage of her and she feels defenseless. The psychiatrist, Davis, Tyrone, and many others urge Eva to communicate and respond to/with them. They seek to understand and interpret her complexities that are hidden in her silences. Their forceful encouragement for her to formulate her thoughts into words demands that Eva remembers and revisits her past traumas.

At the same time, a fierce silence endures inside Eva. This silence is deeper and more complex than her chosen and forced silences when interacting with other characters. As stated in Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones, Eva recounts, for example, Freddy Smoot staring into her eyes before he resolves to rape her: “I didn’t know what he’d seen in my eyes, because I didn’t know what was there” (120). The process of traumatic “memory work” or making sense of her past is inherent in her struggle to explain her “truth”. Silence sometimes seems easier than the pain that is invoked in memory work. Her silence often articulates how paralyzed she is in situations and how heavily these traumatic events impact her. Eva’s language and forms of expression are complex and often include conflicting ideas.

Eva complicates the language she uses and seeks to change to describe the silences in her past traumas: her father’s rape of her mother, Eva’s abusive, pleasurable, and restricting relationship with Davis, and Moses Tripp’s violent sexual attack on Eva, among other painful memories. Eva retains agency by withholding parts of the truths of her past. Eva in Eva’s Man by GaylJones describes her relationship with language as an “othering” mechanism that further silences and isolates herself: “She’s been in trouble before. When she was seventeen she stabbed a man. She wouldn’t talk then either, wouldn’t say anything to defend herself” (70). The detective and captain arrive at Eva’s hotel room after she murders her lover, Davis, and they begin to analyze and assume Eva’s actions. Their assumptions further silence her as she struggles to find the language to write and explain such a complex and violent story of her past that culminates in the murder of her husband. The language she struggles with, inherently limiting as well as socially constructed, both determines and denies her the meanings and avenues of expression of her trauma. She cannot make sense of her present situation without revisiting and questioning what led her to commit this violent act, though this process is fraught with tension and pain. If she cannot fully articulate and in many ways reflect upon and analyze her past traumatic experiences, can she grow and change from them?

Throughout the story, as the reader learns more about Eva, beginning with her childhood, he/she/they come/s to the realization that Eva’s and other characters’ male-femelle relationships are grounded in the male objectification of the femelle. During Eva’s adolescence, there is a pivotal traumatic incident that merges many experiences of objectification and violence; Eva’s witnessing what for her is the literal dismembering of her mother by her father. Gayl Jones describes in “Eva’s Man” how Eva’s father demonstrates his masculinity through physical and sexual violence: “Then it was like I could hear her clothes ripping . . . 'Act like a whore, I'm gonna fuck you like a whore.' 'You act like a whore, I'm gonna fuck you like a whore.' He kept saying that over and over. I was so scared. I kept feeling that after he tore all her clothes off, and there wasn't any more to tear, he'd start tearing her flesh” (37). Eva’s father sees Eva’s mother’s lover waiting around their home and consequently rapes Eva’s mother in retaliation and as an assertion of his own dominance. Eva’s father exerts authority and seeks to control Eva’s mother through violence. Eva’s mother’s affair shows her refusal to confine to her gender role, by questioning her husband’s authority and control or lack there of over her.

Eva recalls her father’s sexual violence committed against her mother in the psychiatric prison. Eva’s father defines and manipulates Eva’s mother’s sexuality through this as well as other abusive acts. Eva’s father’s abuse of her mother uncovers the greater patriarchal structure that permits and sustains the naming and objectification of womyn and the sexual violence inflicted upon them throughout the novel. The silences surrounding Eva’s mother’s rape serve to normalize and reinforce male dominance as a necessary evil that womyn must endure.

Eva is outraged at men’s continual dominance over womyn. Throughout Eva’s Man, womyn respond to their constant abuse by resisting, submitting to, and questioning their lack of agency over their own safety and their personal pursuits of happiness. Gayl Jones in Eva’s Man portrays how the division of gender is represented through the silences surrounding Eva’s father’s rape of Eva’s mother: “I didn't hear nothing from her the whole time. But how he was tearing that blouse off and those underthings. I didn't hear a thing from her” (37). Eva’s father claims ownership over her mother by raping her after Eva’s father sees Eva’s mother’s lover in their kitchen. Eva’s mother withholds her reasoning for having an affair until the end of the novel thereby rejecting the realm of language that evaluates her based on patriarchal expectations. Eva’s mother’s unwillingness to discuss her affair gives her a certain level of freedom and independence. Eva and her mother’s silence help control their situations and the meaning or lack there of assigned to different moments in their traumatic pasts.

Eva struggles to explain and make sense of this scene of her mother’s abuse by her father. Not only does the reader not hear or understand the meanings these womyn and others ascribe to the abuse they confront throughout the novel, but when they do try to defend or explain the violence inflicted upon them, they are silenced, misunderstood or ignored. Eva uses silence as a tool to explain and complicate her and her mother’s trauma. Eva’s silence makes the inherent struggles to draw meanings from trauma visible. The womyn’s silences further complicate the various meanings of these womyn’s experiences with sexual abuse and their reactions.

Gayl Jones does not necessarily want her readers to understand Eva’s silence and Eva might not have access to why and where she decides not to speak. Eva does not appear to have complete control over her short answers to the questions people demand responses to throughout the novel. Gayl Jones complicates Eva’s past in Eva’s Man by foregrounding Eva’s emotions and thoughts about Davis holding her as a sex hostage for four days in a hotel: “Eva, why won’t you talk about yourself?’ I said nothing. He laid me down and sucked on my belly” (67). Though Eva stresses Davis’ attempts to sexually and emotionally dominate her, she also complicates her story by foregrounding her conflicting feelings of sexual entrapment and sexual thirst. Eva both desires, fears, and feels trapped by Davis.  

Eva refuses to speak upon being arrested and taken to the asylum by the authorities after she castrates Davis. She refuses to simply explain why she killed Davis and bit off his penis when others torment her with questions that command her to give a reason for inflicting violence upon Davis and as well as other men she violently defends herself against. She refuses to respond to the investigator’s, policeman’s, or psychiatrist’s intrusiveness and continuous probing about the most personal facts of her life. In Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones, various men she encounters ask intimate questions in an attempt to identify what makes her different: “Even now people come in here and ask me how it happened. They want me to tell it over and over again. I don’t mean just the psychiatrists, but people from newspapers and things” (4) Eva prevents the psychiatrist in the asylum from “normalizing” or easily explaining her. Eva’s silence resists simple explanation. She refuses to let the psychiatrist understand her by remaining silent, withholding the truths she is still formulating about her past. Eva chooses silence as a method of maintaining her virtue when confronted with the guise of the punitive brutality of institutions. In the mental and correctional institutions, Eva is urged to be aware of the ways she resists conforming to prominent expectations of womyn that are constructed by society. These institutions do not use the femelle discourse, which would possibly incite another, more full explanation of her past traumas.

Eva’s silence when questioned about the motive for removing Davis’ testes is strongly influenced by Eva’s father’s sexual violence against her mother in the scene described above. Eva’s silence also demonstrates men’s sexual and linguistic power over womyn’s voices. The castration of Davis and the subsequent assumptions about Eva and her past made by police, psychiatrists, and others in Eva’s Man written by Gayl Jones, reveals the sexual and linguistic control of men over womyn throughout the novel: “A woman like you. What do you do for yourself? I got the silk handkerchief he used to wipe me after we made love, and wrapped his penis in it… What kind of woman can it be to do something like that?” (129, 131). The allegorical meaning of her brute force reveals the subjection of womyn by men. Eva symbolically places Davis in a subordinate position by stripping patriarchy from its arrogance and pride: the penis. Eva is a defiant womyn who resists patriarchal norms and expectations by remaining silent when others try to document and interpret her story and silences.

Eva’s rebellious act and her subsequent silence reflect society’s portrayal of womyn as empty, and void of words and dialogue. Following Eva’s castration of Davis, Eva is declared mentally ill by society’s restrictive structure, and specifically its punitive institutions. This labeling makes her violent acts more accessible to scrutiny and censorship. The mental institution desires a clear and concise explanation of the crime that she committed, which is to traumatizing for her to contrive.

Eva rarely responds to Davis. Sometimes she seems to choose her silence and yet in other moments she seems overcome by the confusion and complications of comprehending why someone would rape her, what his intentions were, or why she has experienced so much emotional violence from her mother’s lover, her cousin Alfonso, and her husband.

Eva recounts multiple occasions where she remains silent when she is pushed to explain her character by many different people. During these instances, Eva is pushed to talk about her sexuality and sexual encounters. While Eva is pushed or coerced into being sexually intimate with many people in her life, all of these interchanges necessitate a profound level of closeness between her and the people who scrutinize her past. Eva’s physical figure has been abused and occupied on multiple occasions, but the act of compelling Eva to divulge aspects of her traumatic narrative against her will is also a kind of assault. Eva’s chosen silence serves as a method for her to preserve her privacy and shield herself from undesired scrutiny as well as a method of protecting herself from further emotional and physical attack.

      Works Cited

Jones, Gayl. Eva's Man. Boston: Beacon, 1987. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

The Unknown--
I know that this was a difficult essay for you to write: trying to analyze the ‘gendered silences’ in a novel so rife with them, and so resistant to explaining them, was a challenge, which you sum up well in your final observation, that “Eva’s silence resists simple explanation,” as well as in your initial paragraph, where you say that her silence “is impassioned and involuntary and yet also intentional and telling.”

Eva’s silence may be political, and resistant; it may also be the result, as you say, of her being paralyzed by trauma. Perhaps the deepest moment of your essay is the one where you acknowledge that “a fierce silence endures inside Eva,” one she testifies to when Freddy Smoot stares into her eyes: “I didn’t know what he’d seen in my eyes, because I didn’t know what was there.” This seems testimony to Eva’s lack of self-knowledge, her own inability to say who she is, what she wants and needs. You make her mother’s abuse by her father the core of this paralysis, although you acknowledge multiple other sources as well.

You end by saying that the act of “compelling Eva to divulge aspects of her traumatic narrative against her will is a kind of assault. Eva’s chosen silence serves as a method for her to preserve her privacy and shield herself from undesired scrutiny as well as a method of protecting herself from further emotional and physical attack.”

Yes to all of this. Perhaps also of help, and relevance, are some of what Jones herself said about this novel:

* “I generally think of Eva's Man as a kind of dream or nightmare, something that comes to you, and you write it down."

* "One of the things I was consciously concerned with was the technique from the oral storytelling tradition that could be used in writing ....The book has layers of storytelling. Perceptions of time are important in the oral storytelling tradition in the sense that you can make rapid transitions between one period and the next, sort of direct transitions."

* "I was and continue to be interested in contradictory emotions that coexist  . . .  I think people can hold two different emotions simultaneously."

* Responding to June Jordan's criticism, that the novel gives "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 .... [and] perpetuate ‘crazy whore’/’castrating bitch’ images that long have defamed black women in our literature,"

* Jones responded, "I put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define women's characters .... Right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the things that interest me with 'positive race images' ... For instance, how would one reconcile ... neurosis or insanity with positive race image?"

That “myths and perceptions” actually “define our characters” makes me think of the beginning of our fishbowl last week: “no experience is pretheoretical.” Hm….