«This essay explores gender equality in the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The novel portrays how males, without any effort, are ...»
This essay explores gender equality in the novel The Color Purple by Alice
Walker. The novel portrays how males, without any effort, are automatically
accepted as the head of their household, their children and their family’s
finances. The women, on the other hand, have to fight hard to claim equality. In
my essay I demonstrate how Celie, the protagonist in Walker’s novel, is an
oppressed person in the beginning, hardly knowing her own self, but through
friendship with other women characters she becomes a strong, confident woman, claiming her independence.
In my first chapter I examine how Walker marvelously exhibits Celie’s lack of identity and how a women’s voice is silenced in a male-dominated society.
Walker portrays female strength in three very different characters in the novel:
Sofia, Shug Avery and Nettie. Each of them has a different influence upon Celie, but they all take part in helping her finding her identity, as I demonstrate in the second chapter. Sofia’s independence and strength help Celie to recognize how weak she is but Shug Avery’s kindness and love build her up and help her gain belief in herself. She gets to know, and accept her own body and it initiates her desire for selfhood. Shug awakens Celie’s desire for identity and opens her eyes to what a terrible man her husband is. By connecting to Shug both physically and emotionally Celie claims independence from him. In Celie and Shug’s love for each other they find strength to stand up for themselves and claim equality.
Celie’s relationship with her sister Nettie is influenced by their lack of communication with each other for years. However, Nettie’s will to learn and later teach inspire Celie’s individuality. Celie’s relationship with Shug is by far the most significant friendship of the three.
In the last chapter of my essay I consider how Celie eventually gains full individuality by establishing a company that sews pants. She starts “wearing the pants”; that is, she takes control of her own life but does so in collaboration and acceptance of others..
Table of Contents Introduction
1. Celie: A Survivor
2. Influence from Strong Women in the Novel
2.1. Sofia: Outspoken and Powerful
2.2. Shug Avery: An Independent Woman
2.3. Nettie: Appetite for Learning
3. Wearing the Pants: Celie’s Self-Realization
Introduction The novel The Color Purple is the best-known work of author Alice Walker. The story takes place in Georgia in the 1930s and follows the protagonist, Celie, as she faces mental and physical abuse from the men in her life. The story tells of how she slowly overcomes her hardships to become a strong and independent woman. Qiana Whitted notes that the story is somewhat influenced by Walker’s own life as she grew up on a farm in Georgia, like Celie, and her family struggled to make enough money for her to go to school, like Nettie. Walker was the youngest of eight children and her father was a farmer, though better at math than sharecropping (Whitted 2014). Sedehi, Talif, Yahya and Kaur point out that a common view in Walker’s youth was that there was no need for black girls to be educated as they would have no use for their education (1328). This motif appears in the novel when Celie’s stepfather sees no reason for Celie to learn to read or write.
According to Maria Lauret, Walker had a strong relationship with her mother when she was growing up. Walker’s mother always found time to tell her stories even though she was extremely busy working as a maid and taking care of her own home. Walker’s mother was a good role-model and showed by her example that whatever she put her mind to, she was able to do. Walker looked up to her mother and took on the role of a storyteller as well. Unlike the closeness she experienced with her mother, she did not have a good relationship with her father and brothers (6). Lauret says the relationship was distant and negative, marked by sexism and violence (6). Lauret also tells of Walker when she was eight years old and her two brothers were playing with an air gun. One of them shot her in the right eye and after that she was blind in that eye. She also got severe scarring that came to influence her immensely (7). “The blinding makes her feel like an outcast, but it also causes her to grow up fast and to study the relationships she sees around her, through observation and reading, but also through writing poems” (Lauret 7). As a result, Walker did well in her studies and later received a scholarship to attend university, according to the Encyclopædea Britannica (“Alice Walker”). Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple and the book was later made into a controversial, but extremely popular, film.
In the novel, Celie has an exceptionally difficult youth. She is raped by her stepfather and ordered to manage a big home. Her stepfather gets her pregnant twice but takes both the babies away from her and makes her quit school. He then marries her off to an abusive husband. As a young girl Celie has everything taken away from her, her mother, her sister, her chance of going to school and her innocence. Celie’s life changes when she meets Sofia, her strong-willed, powerful daughter-in-law. Sofia stands up to the men in her life and lets no one tell her what to do. This makes Celie see how weak and powerless she is. When she gets to know Shug Avery, a famous singer and a known tramp, she learns to stand up for herself. Shug builds her up and gives her strength and confidence.
She also experiences love and sexual pleasure for the first time with Shug. Late in life, Celie also gets inspired by her beloved sister, Nettie, who she thought was dead. Celie realizes her talent in sewing and starts her own company and moves away from her abusive husband. Her company blooms and eventually her husband asks her forgiveness and helps her in the company.
In this essay I will study the character of Celie in interaction with other characters: how she evolves from weak to strong. In the first chapter I consider why she does not feel equal to men early on and simply strives to survive all the abuse in her life. The friendship that Celie has with other women characters in the novel makes her more assertive and helps her to find her own identity – to accept herself as she is – as I demonstrate in the second chapter. Finally, in the third chapter I discuss how Walker demonstrates how important it is for Celie to be able to wear the pants; that is to gains authority and control in her own household – and in her own life.
1. Celie: a Survivor
The book begins when Celie is fourteen years old, writing a letter to God. Her stepfather has raped her and threatened to kill her mother if she tells anyone but God (Walker 11). Celie is quiet at first, afraid of voicing any of the bad things that have happened to her, so she takes to writing, as she has to put her emotions in some kind of words. At first, all that Celie knows is how to stay alive. In her letters she describes how she changes her body into wood so that she cannot feel the pain of the rape, as her defense mechanism kicks in. “He beat me like he beat the children. [...] It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man” (Walker 30). Celie does not understand what is happening to her as she knows nothing about sex.
Her ignorance of her own body is apparent: “A girl at church say you git big if you bleed every month. I don’t bleed no more” (Walker 15). Daniel W. Ross also points out Celie’s ignorance; “even such a personal knowledge as menstruation comes to her by second hand” (71).
Celie gives birth to two children by her stepfather. He takes the babies away from her shortly after their birth and she thinks he has killed them. He gives them up for adoption, however. Her stepfather finds another wife after Celie’s mother dies, but he still continues to rape her. Celie’s main concern is to protect her younger sister, Nettie, from their stepfather: “I ast him to take me instead of Nettie while our new mammy sick” (Walker 17). She manages to save Nettie from being raped by their stepfather. The deep love she has for her sister is influential throughout the novel.
When Celie is about twenty years old her stepfather marries her off to Albert, who has just lost his wife. Albert’s first choice was to marry Nettie but their stepfather says she is both too young and too smart and should become a schoolteacher. He says terrible things about Celie: “She ugly. He say. But she no stranger to hard work. And she clean. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain’t gonna make you feed it or clothe it. [...] Fact is, he say, I got to git rid of her. She too old to be living here at home” (Walker 18). Meanwhile Celie lies in her bed and hears the whole thing, as she has been crying after just being raped by her stepfather.
In the few months it takes Albert to decide to take Celie for a wife, Nettie teaches her everything she learns at school. Celie was forbidden by her stepfather to go to school when she first became pregnant, even though she loved going to school. The reason he gave her was that she was too stupid to learn anything. So all Celie hears growing up is how ugly, stupid and worthless she is. All she knows is how to survive. What keeps her alive is her deep love for her sister Nettie and her way of channeling her emotions through her letters to God. Sedehi, Talif, Yahya and Kaur explain the importance of the letter-writing by pointing out that although Celie is not able to communicate with other people she vocalizes her miseries in a series of letters that she uses to express her horrible life (1328).
Albert, Celie’s new husband, becomes highly abusive of Celie, both physically and mentally. It is no wonder that she develops a fear of all men. Guo Deyan observes that she unresistingly places herself under the domination and authority of men (84). This fear of men and of God is shown by Celie’s lack of naming men in the story: “In a male-dominated society, women’s voice is silenced. Before her awareness of identity is awakened, Celie does not dare to speak out the names of those men who strongly command authority over her” (Guo 86). Celie finds a way around this by calling men Mr. ___ in her writings, omitting their names. She calls only a handful of men by their real names in her journals and Guo believes it is for the simple reason that those men could not preside over her (86). Sedehi, Talif, Yahya and Kaur also comment on this, commenting that because Celie was only a child when she was raped, she hates all men and has a great difficulty communicating with them or enjoying sexual relationships. In such a society women are considered “the other race,” inferior to men (1328-1329).
When life gets too hard for Nettie at home she flees to Celie and Albert’s house. Celie and Nettie have a short but wonderful time together but Nettie is
shocked by how badly Albert’s children treat her sister:
Don’t let them run over you, Nettie say. You got to let them know who got the upper hand.
They got it, I say.
But she keep on. You got to fight. You got to fight.
But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive. (Walker 26) Nettie has already found her independence, thus encouraging her sister, but Celie is far from it yet. The only thing she is worried about at the moment is staying alive since her living conditions are severe.
At first Albert is really nice to Nettie, as he is trying to get into her pants, but when she does not submit to his niceties he forces Celie to get rid of her.
Nettie understands and does not blame her sister. Before she leaves, she promises to write to Celie. Celie feels terrible about kicking her sister out so in order to help her she tells her to go and find the black reverend and his wife, who is the only black woman Celie has ever seen with money. More importantly, she has Celie’s lost daughter, Olivia. Celie had just recently seen them together at the market and recognized her daughter straight away even though she was now six years old. This is where Celie starts fighting for her own identity, now that she has something to fight for: Her own daughter and her relationship with her sister. Slowly but surely she starts realizing her own strength through her relationship with Nettie and later with other strong women in her life.
2. Influence from Strong Women in the Novel
Celie is well into her adulthood when she encounters any extraordinary women besides her sister Nettie. After living on the farm under the abuse of Albert and taking care of his misbehaved children, she begins to find her own identity through her new friendship with Sofia and Shug Avery. Deyan Guo says that Celie gradually learns to appreciate her selfhood under the wholesome influence of strong female characters, but at the same time men tend to deny women’s existence as equal beings (85). Late in the novel, she is also influenced by the letters she finds from her sister Nettie.
2.1. Sofia: Outspoken and Powerful
Celie’s first glimpse of female existence beyond that of the battered wife or slave is through Sofia, the big and outspoken wife of her stepson Harpo. Celie puts her trust in God and the afterlife, but Sofia thinks differently, and slowly Celie begins to understand new possibilities in life. Celie writes about this in one of her letters where she documents her conversation to Sofia: ”You ought to bash Mr. ___ head open, she say. Think bout heaven later. Not much funny to me. That funny. I laugh. She laugh. Then us both laugh so hard us flop down on the step. [...] I sleeps like a baby now” (Walker 47). This totally new thought of bashing Albert’s head open is completely foreign to Celie. When she realizes the possibility through Sofia’s words, she finds it quite comforting; so much so that she sleeps better after that conversation.
Walker describes Sofia as “soldier-like” (31) and as “amazonian” (68).