What truly defines an individual’s personality? Some might believe that your identity is defined by how you feel about yourself. Aristotle believed in something more concrete: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, a fictional novel by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie Crawford was on a quest to find what it really meant to be her true self in which she traverses the treacherous terrain of her through three marriages. The same idea of character and actions is reflected by Eugene Achike in the fictional novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Several illuminating scenes throughout the two narratives prove one thing to be true – individuality is not a mere idea of yourself or your potential. Through the characterization of Janie and Eugene, the authors demonstrate that everyone is defined by their own actions, whether those actions are constructive or destructive.
Through her willingness to think apart from the majority, especially in choosing her third husband, Janie reveals her level of independence. After the death of her former and second husband Joe Starks, Janie is left with a choice of who she would marry if she would even marry again. As a woman of remarkable social status in Eatonville, she could of married whomever she liked. As a result, when Janie and Tea Cake make an appearance together at a town picnic, the town instantly starts to question why, “out of all the men she could get,” she was “fooling with somebody like Tea Cake” (Hurston, 110). Because Janie is willing to break the traditional norms of marrying in the same social class, she shows that she is choosing to act according to her own individual preferences. Her actions also label her distinctiveness and differing perception; she is independent of the townspeople’s collective image of how a widow ought to act right after her husband passes. Janie explains to Pheoby, “Us is goin’ off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake’s way” (Hurston, 114). “Goin’ off somewhere” implies that Janie is leaving the town for good to start a new life. At the same time, the act of going off somewhere is symbolic on another level. Janie is running away not only from the town, but also from the town’s way fixed mindset and way of thinking; this running away from what is considered the norm revisits once again Janie’s personality. This outside influence in regard to marriage is not the only time in the novel Janie endures it. Earlier, her Grandmother forced her hand in marrying Logan Killicks. The only difference is that this time she refuses to be molded by others’ expectations of her rather than blindly take orders which she makes clear when she declares, “Ah done lived Grandma’s way now Ah means tuh live mine” (Hurston, 114). Hurston includes Janie’s life choices similar to these to allow the reader greater insight into the main character’s personality. For Janie or anyone else, a person’s actions speak volumes about their attitude and character.
Eugene Achike is yet another example of patterns of action describing entire personality. For Papa, his negative actions overshadow the rest of his actions and inner thoughts and paint him as a cruel father to Kambili. When Kambili and Jaja get home from their first trip to Nsukka, Papa learns that Papa-Nnukwu, a heathen, was in the same vicinity with the children. With mixed emotions, Papa has Kambili sit in the bathtub while he pours scalding water on her feet, saying, “This is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin” (Hurston, 194). This frightening scene is the most violent punishment Papa has given so far to Kambili. Cruel, brutal, heartless, merciless, harsh, and inhumane – all character traits that are brought to light in this scene. The manner in which Papa burns Kambili’s feet is with the same emotion one would carry out a cold-blooded murder. His reasoning and judgment, which are seen through his actions, also depict his personality. Papa tells Kambili, “Everything I do for you, I do for your own good” because he actually believes giving Kambili hell will effectively save her from it (Hurston, 196). During this abusive act, Papa is not punishing Kambili because he’s furious. Rather, he simply decides this punishment is the justified consequence for staying in the same home as a heathen. It is important to note as well that Papa states, “Kambili, you are precious” before punishing her (Hurston, 194). Tears also streamed from his eyes as he poured the water from the kettle. Despite his words and emotions, actions speak louder and bring out more of his character. Earlier in the novel, Papa beats Mama and mistreats her to the point where she has a miscarriage. His cruel actions are repeated without the same sentiment. The author uses Papa’s characterization to show that actions speak louder than words. No matter how many times Papa expresses his love for his family or cries when harming them, his actions define him. In Papa’s case, cruelty describes the severity of Papa’s actions and himself as a person as well.
A person is defined by and is always the sum of their actions, as can be seen by the characterization of Janie and Eugene. Janie chose to think for herself. Every decision she made was according to her own standards and she thought apart from the crowd. No better quality describes her then independent. Eugene cared for his family very much. However, his harsh methods of punishment when he physically harmed those he loved highlighted nothing but cruelty. What Aristotle wrote over two thousand years ago has not lost a trace of relevance in today’s society. It’s up to us to turn inward and decide what kind of person we want to be, then let our behavior and attitude reflect that. Because ultimately, we are no better and no worse than the entirety of our actions.
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