Laura Sook Duncombe’s previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns for The Butter can be found here.
Hey there gal-pals! We’ve missed you! Hope all who celebrated had a safe and happy Fourth of July. We’re so excited to be back here with you for LLCF!
Greetings. I am Artemis, goddess of the hunt and chastity. Along with my sister, Aphrodite, we are your hosts for the cage fight. Rules are simple: 5 rounds, one point each round. Whoever gets the most points wins. And all fights must be fair.
In honor of the Revolutionary War, we’ve matched up two much-loved protagonists, one from each side of the Pond. They will duke it out for their country’s honor—but remember that when women are celebrated, everyone’s a winner! I’m so jazzed to introduce Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dorothea from George Eliot’s Middlemarch!
Janie has been through a lot in her life. She’s the second-generation daughter of rape, raised by her grandma after her mother runs off. She marries three men, and all of them do her wrong in different ways. She keeps chin up through abuse, poverty, and even a hurricane!! Janie is a tough broad who never gives up on herself or what she wants. Super brave even when things go horribly wrong, she’s a Gryffindor for sure.
Dorothea, raised by her well-meaning aunt and uncle, is very shut off from the world. She is idealistic and bright, but lacks a lot of practical knowledge. She is constantly hungry for knowledge and yearns to make a difference in the world, though she’s not entirely sure how to do that or what that really means. She grows up a lot in the course of the book, but there’s always a smart, good-hearted woman at the core of who she is. It’s a tough call, but Dorothea is a Ravenclaw.
Winner: Janie. She outlasts a hurricane—she could totally take Dorothea (especially at the beginning of the book!)
Round Two: Sidekick
Janie, like so many women in the LLCF, has to go at it alone for much of her life. She’s raised by her Nanny, who loves her but doesn’t really get how smart and self-reliant Janie is. She wants to marry Janie off so she’ll have the respectability of a legitimate marriage, but she picks an old dude who really wants a housekeeper, not a wife. So, right church wrong pew Nanny! Nanny also dies pretty early on, leaving Janie alone and friendless.
Dorothea actually has a pretty nice family. Her uncle, while comical, does love and support her. Over the course of the book, she makes many friends. Her true sidekick is her sister, Celia. Celia is bubbly and joyful where Dorothea is severe and sober. She prompts Dorothea to lighten up a bit (just wear Mom’s jewels, already! It’s okay! They look pretty on you!) and clues her in on a suitor’s attraction. Celia is worldly-wise and does her best to help Dorothea see some things as they really are. Even though Dorothea doesn’t always follow Celia’s advice (to her peril), she knows that she’s there.
Winner: Dorothea! A sister is the best sidekick there is, right sis?
Round Three: Love Interest
Janie has three husbands, but she only ever loves one—Tea Cake. Oh, Tea Cake! He’s dreamy and strong and young and hot and he loves Janie very much. She’s initially worried that he wants her for sugar mama purposes only, but he wins her over. Although his end is tragic (SOBS) and their love is far from perfect (hello, jealousy much?), he really does love Janie—something nobody has ever done before.
Dorothea…oh Dorothea. She marries Casaubon, an old, grandfatherly man who really wants a secretary to help him work on his dreadfully long, terribly boring book. Dorothea thinks she loves him, because she doesn’t really know what love is, and she ends up trapped in this loveless marriage. She eventually falls for the rakish artist Will Ladislaw, but because of some draconian prenup, if she marries him she loses her fortune. She marries him anyway, shocking everyone. I never really liked Ladislaw. She’s too good for him. I don’t know why I like this book so much.
Winner: Janie. Tea Cake literally puts his life on the line to save her—that’s true love!
Janie, for all her awesomeness, does spend an awful lot of time being married. She’s looking for love, but she lets men define her over and over. Not until the end does she ever truly get to be herself. I want to take Janie on a gal pal’s weekend and get her a mani-pedi. I want to do yoga with her and help her find the goddess inside. I want so many things for Janie!
Dorothea has so many flaws, which is part of what makes the book so good. None of the characters are two-dimensional: everyone’s both a saint and a sinner. Dorothea’s biggest flaw is her naïveté. Her one choice to marry Casaubon dictates the course of the rest of her life—it is a long, hard road before she finds happiness. She learns about life the hard way; if she had just listened to Celia a bit more she could have been spared so much unpleasantness.
Winner: Dorothea. You want to slap her during the book way more than you ever want to slap Janie.
Round Five: Happy Ending?
Technically, Janie’s ending is way better than it could have been (she narrowly avoids jail), but oh man, TEA CAKE. Janie will find her way back to joy, but she has suffered so much and seems to have so little to show for it. The whole story is a frame—she literally ends up back where she started. You aren’t worried about her—you know Janie will end up on top—but the tragedy of what she’s gone through weighs heavy on the reader’s heart.
Dorothea, in the end, is a happy wife and mother. I don’t know why this feels so unsatisfying but it does. She’s given up so much to be with Ladislaw, and it should be romantic that she risked it all for love, but there’s an air of pointlessness around it. Virginia Woolf once said that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” so maybe that’s why the ending doesn’t seem happy as much as realistic. It’s a very strange book. It’s much beloved, for many reasons, but there’s a lot of feelings here, people, and not all of them are good.
Winner: Janie. It’s heavy and sad, but there’s a sense of rightness—like she’s finally where she’s meant to be, unlike the lingering malaise that hangs over the end of Dorothea’s story.
Winner: USA! USA! USA! Go Janie!!! Like the majestic women’s soccer team, you have represented your country with strength, beauty, and power. Wahoo!
What do you think, ladies? Do you find Middlemarch as strange yet compelling as I do? Who else would you like to see cage fight?
Until next time, gal-pals.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.