This doctoral thesis discusses representations of African American female embodiment in selected works by Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison to show how these representations consider the process of self-actualisation of the female characters in the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Color Purple, and Beloved. Self-actualisation is the process by which the fictional female characters achieve a fully realised subjectivity and obtain an audible voice in the societies in which they live.
In these works, the body, initially shown to be fragmented, is transformed by the development of the female mind, spirit, and voice. The thesis considers the patterns and devices chosen by the authors to show African American female embodiment as key factor in the depiction of African American women development. At first, women characters have a fragmented body with no audible voice. For different reasons and in order to survive, the female characters must move on from this fragmentation by embarking on a journey towards self-actualisation.
Three thesis chapters illustrate differing modalities of the female body: the sexual body, the familial or sisterly body, and the maternal body. In these chapters, I analyse how the novels depict the development of body and voice to illustrate the achievement of agency in society.
In relation to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I discuss the sexual body; in relation to Walker’s The Color Purple, I discuss the lesbian body and sisterhood; finally, in relation to Morrison’s Beloved, I discuss the maternal body.
This thesis examines representations of embodiment and therefore sees voice and body as inseparable in achieving fully realised subjectivity. Defining the female Black voice and body as primarily marginalised and almost inaudible and invisible at the beginning of the three novels, this thesis shows how female characters move from marginalisation and fragmentation to centredness and wholeness, eventually reaching self-actualisation.
In the thesis, I identify parts of the body that are fundamental to the process of female development for these authors and discuss the depiction of the female voice and female vocalisation. I discuss and explain terms such as voice, embodiment, and self-actualisation as fundamental components of the progress from social marginality to centredness.
African American and French feminists contribute the theories and terms I adopt to relate to the development of African American women in the novels by Hurston, Walker, and Morrison. Adopting a theoretical framework drawn from Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Kevin Everod Quashie, Barbara Christian, Barbara Johnson, bell hooks, Hortense J. Spillers, Barbara Smith, Lynda Koolish, Carla Kaplan, and Hazel V. Carby among others, I read the novels as fundamentally concerned with the issues faced by Black women in a society dominated by white, patriarchal structures. In examining the relationships between characters’ inner lives and their bodies, I aim to show how the women characters gain a rich selfactualisation of body and voice by engaging in relationships with the opposite sex and their own sex, and by developing maternal and sisterly relationships in order to succeed.
Lastly, I argue that the female characters appear to have more in common than simply gender. These African American women live in, fight against, and survive a privileged maledominated society. They comprehend the necessity of using their body and voice with the aim of undertaking an interior development.