Robert Morgan’s novel Gap Creek is the story of Hank and Julie Herman and their struggles in life and marriage through things like poverty and natural disaster. It deals with marital issues as well as with issues of finances, death and family loyalty in relation to gender roles. Gap Creek could be considered a simple chronicle of the couple’s struggle to prosper and make their lives better on a poor country farm, but it is also an examination of the gender roles of Hank and Julie.
Gap Creek is an illustration of the traditional roles and voices that men and women have in marriages and in life and of what happens when they are forced to step outside of those roles for the benefit or survival of themselves and their families. The character of Julie represents a woman fulfilling male roles out of necessity but struggling to retain her identity as a woman. Julie Harmon’s voice is the one that the reader hears the loudest because she is the character that tells the story.
The book deals with the inner and outer strength of the characters against life obstacles and even though Julie is the primary female character her strength and self worth or identity are often displayed through physical strength and manual labor. The jobs that Julie is given to do are left to her because the women around her take for granted that she is as physically strong as a man and capable of doing them. Julie sacrifices a lot of her own wishes and her femininity as the manual laborer first for her own family and later for Hank.
From the beginning of the novel Julie’s masculine traits are evident, making her emotionally and physically stronger than her own father. She seems resentful of being the family member that is counted on to do most of the outside farm work: “I seen what I was going to have to do. I resented it, but I seen what had to be done” (Morgan 12). Although this statement is made about chopping wood, it is also the attitude that Julie has towards all of the responsibilities she has been given, from the work on the family farm to sitting up at night to care for her dying father.
She is strong enough to handle it, so she has to do it. Julie is resentful of her masculine role in the family partly because none of her other sisters are willing to help out. She talks about how one of them is too busy cooking and baking and another is dressed in lacy dresses and won’t get her hands dirty. These are things that Julie should also be experiencing as a woman, but has set aside to embrace her farm hand duties. She recognizes that by taking on all of these typically male duties and responsibilities that she is sacrificing some of her female identity.
She tells her sister, “I hope no man ever sees us working like this…because he would never think of us as ladies…I don’t want to be looked on like a field hand” (Morgan 34). She does display some typically female traits but is quick to set these aside to assume her role as the strong one in the family. Her feminine emotions conflict with her male role. She cries and mourns her little brother when he dies, but then she has to help her father carry the body home because he isn’t strong enough to do it himself. Because of her sense of family obligation, Julie struggles with conflicts between her feminine identity and her masculine life roles.
Julie’s gender role conflicts are internal when she’s still living at home with her parents but they become external when she marries Hank and moves to Gap Creek. In many ways Julie is still left to fulfill the domestic household roles that would usually fall to a man, like chopping wood and butchering hogs, because she is once again emotionally and physically stronger than the men in her life. The widower they rent the Gap Creek property from, Mr. Pendergast, is old and sick, leaving daily farm chores for her. Hank is gone working every day so she has to be the capable responsible worker she was for her own family.
Later Julie’s outer and inner strength is shown to be superior to that of the men around her when she saves each of their lives. She pulls Mr. Pendergast from a fire and she keeps Hank from killing himself when the property is damaged in the flood. She doesn’t resent this strength the way she did with her family, but she does recognize it as being outside the normal balance of male and female roles. She knows she is again fulfilling roles that should be taken by men rather than her. She says, “It was strange to think that I was stronger than Hank.
He was wore out and I still felt like fighting” (Morgan 336). She realizes that in spite of Hank’s physical size and strength, she is stronger than him in many ways. Julie’s masculine roles and traits conflict with Hank, who seems to rely on her for household duties he can’t fulfill while still wanting to be viewed as the dominant male in the household. He repeatedly tells her that he will be the one to make important decisions for the family when she tries to offer her opinions and he hits her the one time she acts on her own and mistakenly gives their savings away to a con man.
He calls her dumb and insults her for not being able to describe the man better. He is as angry at her for doing something without asking him first as he is for her losing their money. Julie acknowledges that part of her role as a wife is “…to make Hank feel good about hisself, to make him feel strong and in charge of things” (Morgan 231). Because she follows this expectation of a wife whenever Hank is around, she ends up doing all the physical labor that Hank can’t do but he still feels like he’s the stronger one. There are two key events in the novel when Julie uses an inner strength that is uniquely female.
The first of these is when Julie begins attending church after the flood. She does this as much to meet other women as she does for religious reasons. Hank doesn’t want to go and holds her back for a while, using his discouragement over their poverty and his job loss to convince her that church and God won’t help them. When she does finally get him to attend but he still tries to hold her back. She is walking up the church aisle to devote herself to God and she describes, “I think Hank reached out to hold me back…but I was doing what I had to do” (Morgan 368).
She goes through with it because it is what she feels like she must do for herself, not for him. She finds peace in attending church and after making friends with some of the women in the congregation she says, “I felt like a human being again. A woman has to have a woman friend to talk to” (Morgan 374). She rediscovers a part of herself that she has neglected when she communicates with other women instead of just the men in her life, and the women give her a satisfaction that the men can’t.
Julie attends church to reclaim part of her feminine identity that she has lost to Hank and to her marriage. Giving birth to her daughter is the second event where Julie recognizes power within herself that is completely feminine. While she is in labor she realizes that, “This is the work only I can do. This is work meant for me from the beginning of time” (Morgan 424) and after giving birth she finds that, “I was so tired I couldn’t hardly stand up, yet I felt stronger than I ever had before” (Morgan 427).
These thoughts that she has during labor and delivery show how she comes to realize that not all of her strength is the masculine kind she’s been forced to have. She sees that there are elements to her inner and outer strength that only a woman can have. Julie and Hank Harmon each represent traditional male and female roles of strength and subservience. Much of their struggle comes when Julie is forced to step outside of this traditional role and Hank continues to act as though she hasn’t been.
Their struggles with money and land is representative of their inner struggles to be respected for the work they each do, to assert their individual gender strengths and to be considered equal in their efforts and worth. Gap Creek represents the struggle between being what one’s gender says one should be versus what life circumstances forces one to become. Julie Harmon represents women everywhere who wear the pants in the family because they have to and find themselves struggling not to lose their identity as women in the process. Works Cited Morgan, Robert. Gap Creek. Thorndike: Thorndike Press, 1999.