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Essay: Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Miguel Street

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  • Published: 15 June 2021*
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  • Words: 2,076 (approx)
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  • Tags: Feminism essays

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It has been said about V.S. Naipaul’s novel Miguel Street that “One of the recurrent themes… is the ideal of manliness” (Kelly 19). To help put into focus what manliness is, it is important to establish a definition for masculinity as well as its opposite, femininity. Masculinity is defined as “Having qualities regarded as characteristic of men and boys, as strength, vigor, boldness, etc” while femininity is defined as “Having qualities regarded as characteristic of women and girls, as gentleness, weakness, delicacy, modesty, etc” (Webster). The charcters in Miguel Street have been ingrained with the pre- conceived notions of the roles that Trinidadian society dictates for men and women. Naipaul not only uses these notions to show the differences of the sexes, but takes another step in telling anecdotes of characters showing their anti- masculine and anti- feminine features. This will lead to the discovery that our definitions of masculinity and femininity prove that those characteristics apply to the opposite sex in which the women often act like men, and the men often act like women. All of this will be discussed through looking at both male and female characters in the book as well as the boy narrator of the book.
Finding examples of manliness are found with great ease considering that 12 of the 17 stories in some way deal with the theme of manliness (Thieme 24). It doesnt take long before the first example, a carpenter named Popo, is introduced. In the chapter titled “The Thing Without A Name” we are told that “Popo never made any money. His wife used to go out and work and this was easy , because they had no children. Popo said ‘ Women and them like work. Man not made for work” ( Naipaul 17). This attitude immediately makes Popo stand out from the rest of the men of Miguel Street. Hat (a character that will be discussed later) deems Popo as a “man- woman. Not a proper man” (Naipaul 17) because Popo’s wife makes all the money. From this brief description of Popo, the reader quickly learns as to what makes a man manly on Miguel Street. Popo has no children which questions his virility. It is also important to notice that Popo’s wife has no identity except that of being Popo’s wife. We only first learn of her name, Emelda, through a calypso. An illusion is created that Popo’s wife is just another one of Popo’s possesions. “Popo’s Wife” sounds no different than Popo’s tools or Popo’s car. Popo’s wife leaves him, and this change affects him as well as how the other men look at him. Now “He smelled of rum, and he used to cry and then grow angry and want to beat up everybody. That made him an accepted member of the gang” (Naipaul 18). This even forces Hat to admit that Popo “is a man, like any of we” (Naipaul 18). This change makes him closer to the others, merely because he drinks and desires to beat up people. Later in the chapter he is sent to jail for stealing furniture, which upon his return, “He came back a hero. He was one of the boys” (Naipaul 21). Jail is yet another form of what makes a man more popular and more manly.
Morgan, the pyrotechist, differs from Popo in that he has 10 children. Morgan also beats his children regularly. But yet he is not well liked on Miguel Street. He is a tiny man, who tries very hard to be funny, but is only laughed at not laughed with. He is married to a Mrs. Morgan, a big spanish woman, who like Popo’s wife is only identified as being someone’s wife. One night, Morgan is caught by his wife sleeping with another woman. The fighting is heard by most on Miguel Street and they can see that Mrs. Morgan is doing the beating this time. She is heard saying, “Leave the light on. Come, let we show the big hero to the people in the street. Come, let we show them what man really make like. You is not a anti- man , you is real man. You ain’t only make ten children with me, you going to make more with somebody else” (Naipaul 70).
As the narrator says , “For the first time since he came to Miguel Street, Morgan was really being laughed at by the people” (Naipaul 71). The sarcasm in Mrs. Morgan’s ‘real man’ statement, shows an example of how Morgan is seen by even his own wife as an example of anti- masculinity in his weakness, while Mrs. Morgan shows her anti-feminism in her strength.
The chapter about Hat, is the second last one in the book, which makes this character unique. He is the only one to who we have already gained a character sketch of. Just like the narrator, Hat has been involved in most of the chapters. Hat’s character provides us with a kind of spokesperson for all the people on Miguel Street. It’s his comments that stay ingrained in the reader’s mind when thinking of other characters. Such an example of this is the already discussed character, Popo, being called by Hat a “man woman”. To the narrator, whom is fatherless, Hat is “very much a surrogate father figure” (Thieme 28).
It would appear that Hat is the ideal man. He is not married, does not condone hitting, and appears to be self sufficient. As the narrator says, “He was self sufficient, and didn’t believe he even needed women. I knew of course that he visited certain places in the city from time to time, but I thought he did this more for the vicious thrill than for the women” (Naipaul 160). He is also a smart man. When he takes 12 of the kids from Miguel Street to a cricket match, he made people believe that they were all his. Becuase of this he recieves admiration of the people around him, as well as gets a discount on beverages because he orders so many. But just like the other characters his ‘ideal man’ status is somewhat of a illusion. From one of his trips away from Miguel Street, he brings back a woman named Dolly. Dolly has her own identity because she is nobody’s wife. Perhaps that means she has yet to become someone’s possession. Dolly eventually leaves Hat for another man, upon which Hat finds her and beats her so bad he ends up in jail.
While going to jail and beating should be still considered manly things, the narrator loses a little respect for Hat. As one critic has said, ” Thus Eve and the serpent enter the narrator’s Garden of Eden revealing Hat to be a mere corruptible mortal, dependant upon women, and not the manly, handsome, and cool British Hollywod hero after all” (Kelly 20). In the final chapter the narrator who is now 18 has gone thorugh his own transformation. Losing Hat as a father figure could be attributed to this. The narrator is “drinking like a fish, and doing a lot besides” (Naipaul 166). His defence to his mother is, “Is not my fault really. Is just Trinidad. What can anyone else do here except drink? ” (Naipaul 167). His mother is encouraging him to leave Miguel Street so that he doesnt get stuck here. As one critic has pointed out, “…virtually all the characters of Miguel Street seem paralysed by their environment” (Thieme 21).
It’s important to see the the narrator is quickly becoming like all the other men on Miguel Street. All the drinking and womanising is something that can only be avoided by leaving. The narrator’s mother sees this and singlehandedly saves him from becoming like Hat, George (another drinker and abuser) or any of the other permanent residents of Miguel Street. Although the mother taking charge of the narrator’s future takes place at the end of the book, it is a good starting point to discuss the feminism and anti feminism on Miguel Street. The mother is the one who beats the narrator, and takes charge on her son’s future. She gets him out of there on a scholarship to study drugs. Obviously all turned out well, as the book is written in perfect english.
The narrator appears to be the only character who has fully comprehended the english language in spelling and grammar, because the only mistakes are when quoting other characters in the text. It can be said that since the narrator had no father, his mom was forced to be a mom and dad to the narrator, but the same cant be said for Laura. In the chapter titled ‘The Maternal Instinct”, we are introduced to Laura a woman who has had eight babies with seven different men. She is the ideal anti feminine character in the book yet she also seen as “the representative of all the island women, doomed to their broken dreams, frustration and hopelessness. Their poverty and dependency have the appalling quality of deadly genes passed down through the generations” (Kelly 21).
Her ability to raise these children on her own, has garnered the respect of others on Miguel Street. She has kicked the men out, not the more typical problem of the men walking out. It’s important to notice that even Hat says respectful words of her, “Man, she like Shakespeare when it come to using words” (Naipaul 85). When the latest man, Nathaniel stays around to be the father of two of her children, he tries to be macho with the other men on the street. He would say to others, ” Women are just like cows. Cow and they is the same thing” (Naipaul 86) and “Women and them are like a good dose of blows, you know. You know the calypso: Every now and then just knock them down. Every now and then just throw them down. Black up their eye and bruise up their knee and then they love you eternally” (Naipaul 87).
Not surprising, Nathaniel macho appearance is an illusion to the others. As Naipaul later says, ” Nathaniel was lying of course. It wasnt he who was giving the blows, it was Laura. That came out the day when Nathaniel tried to wear a hat to cover up a beaten eye” (Naipaul 87). Naturally this discovery made Nathaniel fall out of favor with the others. Another moment where Laura conveys some of her anti feminism is how she deals with being a grandmother. One of her children, Lorna is pregnant, but eventually commits suicide. Laura expresses little emotion to this tragedy, saying “It good. It good. It better that way” (Naipaul 90).
She may be correct, but her stolid view on her own daughter is something one would expect from the sex with more “strength”. One critic when talking about Miguel Street and its men and women relations said “Relations between men and women serve as the barometer with which the community measures the maintenance of its codes, but its fluctuations also reflect the intervention of class, and to a degree, race , in their modulations, which ultimately remain consistent with the colonial paradigm of social relations” (Mustafa 42).
I think a lot can be looked into that matter. We expect how men and women should act, but yet in Miguel Street it ends up being all about illusion. This doesnt apply to the secondary characters of the novel, as they serve their purposes of being the stereotypical men and women of Trinidad and in this case, Miguel Street. But the main characters never turn out to be who you initially think they are. Laura, Emelda, Mrs. Morgan and the narrator’s mother are examples of women who take charge in their homes. They work, they beat and raise their children, and take on the roles of being the masters of their homes. Hat, Popo, Morgan, Man man (who only acts like he’s crazy), and Big Foot (who as big as he is, is really a wimp inside) are examples of the illusion that men are the superior ones of Miguel Street. Only a shallow read could see that otherwise. When all is said and done it is the women who carry the qualities of “strength, vigor and boldness” while the men have the qualities of “gentleness, weakness, delicacy” although definitly not “modesty”. On Miguel Street, the only male quality the men have is the lack of modesty, the rest is all illusion.

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