Women, it seems, tend to consistently get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Men sometimes feel the need to discriminate against women to feel like they have a sense of power. In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, the female characters are continually oppressed. From the very beginning of the novel, the main character, Celie, along with the other female characters, is discriminated against because she is an uneducated black woman in the southern region of the United States. In the time period and region of the country in which this novel is set, it was socially acceptable for the men to show the women who were boss through violent actions and condescending words. As a result, many women in that time period were abused, emotionally scarred, and injured. Through the oppression and discrimination of society on females in southern America in the mid-1900s, Alice Walker reveals that humans can gain independence, despite the hatefulness and discrimination of others.
The mid-1900s were notorious for sexism. Taken from my own knowledge, sexism is defined as an individual believing that the opposite gender is completely inferior to their own. In the time period in which this novel is set, sexism was a common act acted upon by females from males, especially in the southern region of the United States, where the population was primarily African-Americans. The males would repeatedly beat and rape their wives to show them who was boss, and feel no guilt whatsoever because that is what was socially acceptable. It was not until the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900’s in America, in which women gained the right to vote, that the men decided to back off.
And since those rights still only applied to white women, in the region of America where this novel is set, the movement had no effect on the actions of males towards females. Because black people still had no rights, the black males believed that they could oppress black women. Throughout this novel, every female character is condescended upon by the male characters- Celie by her father and husband, Squeak and Sofia by Harpo, and Shug by Celie’s husband.
Throughout the novel, feminist viewpoints and gender role reversals are used to reveal the womanist background, and ultimately reveal a major theme. For instance, Celie’s independence which she eventually gains from men causes her to become happy (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 56). Near the end of the novel, Celie makes pants for a living, as a successful business. As the orders start piling up, Celie writes “Then Shug want two more pair just like the first. Then everybody in her band want some. Then orders start to come in from everywhere Shug sing. Pretty soon I’m swamp” (Walker 213). Pants are a universal symbol for masculinity. Celie’s pants-making shows that she is becoming more isolated from men, becoming more masculine, becoming more independent. The pants “allow her a creative expression and suggest Celie’s liberation from men on an economic as well as a physical level” (Kellman 2610). Walker effectively employs gender role reversals throughout the novel.
Harpo and Sofia reverse gender roles the most obviously out of anyone else in the novel. Sofia wears pants while repairing the house and working at a job, and Harpo enjoys housework such as cooking and cleaning, which was traditionally a woman’s work in the home (Winchell 46). Celie “hire[s] Sofia to clerk in [their] store” (Walker 280). This causes Sofia to become much more independent, gaining power that she previously lost while working as the mayor’s wife’s housemaid. Meanwhile, as she gains power, Harpo blends into the background and takes on the woman’s role in the home, revealing Walker’s feminist viewpoint. The gender reversal shows how when a woman takes a man’s role in society, she can find happiness, and also Walker’s opinion that men should more often take the woman’s role to understand more about women. They also show “that there can be respectful relationships between black men and women” (Kellman 2610). The gender reversals represented throughout this novel reveal the extreme sexist views of southern America in the depicted time period, in comparison to the character’s original gender roles.
Celie’s relationship with Shug helps to reveal that with independence comes happiness. Shug believes that God is an “it”, just like Celie originally thinks Shug to be an “it” (Rollyson 4700). Celie writes than “when I dream, I dream of Shug Avery. She be dress to kill, whirling and laughing” (Walker 6). Shug is basically God to Celie, because of her ability to control evil and her power to change Celie’s life (Rollyson 4699). Her neutral gender representation to Celie comforts her, and causes Celie to love herself. The fact that Shug is God to Celie, and that Shug is female, helps Celie to become certain of herself.
Celie never has felt any affection for a man, be it her father or her husband. She feels affection for the first time when she bathes the ailing Shug (Winchell 42). As Celie is bathing her, she thinks that she has “turned into a man” (Walker 49). This sudden show of affection, compassion, and physical feelings for a woman shows a gender reversal in Celie. Sexism of the time period is revealed because Celie does not feel oppressed by Shug, a woman, like she does by every man in the novel. Because Shug is female, Celie does not fear her, and learns how to feel compassion. The female-female relationship between Shug and Celie underline the discriminatory morals towards women in southern, black America in the mid-1900s.
Celie’s viewpoint of God reveals the sexist society that southern America once was. She imagines God to be a man, because she is afraid of men, and she wants to be a proper, God-fearing woman (Winchell 41). Celie describes God as “big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wears white robes and go barefooted” (Walker 194). This is how Celie views God after studying the Bible, and because of it, she fears God as she fears all men. Her view of God as a man shows how Celie is afraid of men in general. As Celie gains her independence, she changes her view of God to one within herself (Winchell 41). Celie not only fears God because she sees him as a man, but hates him because of it. She says to Shug that “the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know.
Trifling, forgitful and lowdown” (Walker 194). The fact that she views God as a man alone causes her to become bitter with God. To her, God is scum because of all the things he let her experience- rape, forced marriage, and losing her sister, to name a few. She believes that God is punishing her, just like she believes all men punish her. If Celie had viewed God as a woman instead, she might not have hated God at all. However, Celie becomes accepting of God after she hears Shug’s point of view. Shug says that “God ain’t a he or she, but a It,” and goes on to explain that she “believe[s] God is everything… everything that is or ever was or ever will be” (Walker 195). When Celie accepts God as a neutral being, she gains her independence. She feels like a weight has been lifted off her chest- a weight composed of fear. Celie’s religious views in this novel depict the sexually hostile environment that was present in the mid-1900s in southern black America.
The actions of men in this novel reveal the oppressing morals of the time period. For example, Squeak’s rape by her white uncle reveals how white men could basically do anything to black men without getting in trouble (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 55). Harpo gets angry about the rape and states “My wife beat up, my woman rape… I ought to go back out there with guns, maybe set fire to the place, burn the crackers up” (Walker 95). This is akin to how white slave masters would rape their black slaves in times when slavery was legal in the United States. Squeak is being oppressed by a male, who is white, nonetheless. This action was quite common in southern black America. Another instance is the fact that Harpo calls his woman Squeak, not by her real name. Celie tells Squeak to have people call her Mary Agnes (Ciccarelli &Napierowski 61).
Celie writes, “Harpo say, I love you, Squeak. He kneel down and try to put his arms round her waist. She stand up. My name Mary Agnes, she say” (Walker 97). After this incident, Harpo has more respect for her. Before this happened, Harpo regularly condescended her, and she felt like there was nothing she could do about it. Squeak was being oppressed by Harpo, but Celie’s advice helped her to change her personality. Lastly, Albert hiding the letters to Celie from Nettie shows how men oppressed women (Bloom 71). Celie hates him so much for it that she does not know “How [she’s] gon keep from killing him,” and when Shug advises against that, Celie remarks, “Naw, I think I feel better if I kill him” (Walker 144). Though Celie “agrees with her oppressor in the idea that a woman should only obey, work, and be silent,” (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 61), this act is unforgivable to her. Throughout the novel, the male characters actively discriminate against the female characters, which underlines the morals of society in southern black America in the mid-1900s.
The language of the letters depicts how black women in the South were not allowed to receive an education. Celie, who speaks in “black folk English”, lets “life in the world of a poor, black, rural sharecropper family unfold” (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 52). Her language is choppy and her grammar is very poor. Her father punishes her for supposedly winking at a boy in church, but Celie states “I don’t even look at mens” (Walker 5). Celie’s “black folk English” brings the reader closer to the character’s experiences (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 56). Celie’s father refusing to educate her reveals how she is oppressed by men. While Celie’s language reflects her lack of education, her sister Nettie’s standard English shows that she received a better education than her sister (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 56). Her sentence structure is much more formal. In a letter to Celie, she says that the language the Olinka tribe speaks is “very different from the way we speak English, but somehow familiar” (Walker 148).
The way that Nettie writes is much more different than the way that Celie writes in terms of diction and grammar. However, Nettie’s letters are less intimate than Celie’s because of her use of standard English and the fact that she did not suffer nearly as much as Celie did (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 56). This is because Nettie is not quite as emotional as her sister, as she has not been through as many emotionally scarring events as her. Nettie is not in southern America like Celie is. Therefore, she is allowed an education, and ends up better off. The language of the novel “not only…. Enhance[s] the story-telling qualities of the novel, but the changes in Celie’s language also illustrate her emotional growth” (Kellman 2609). In the beginning of the novel, Celie writes that her father had “kilt [her first child] out there in the woods. Kill this one too, if he can” (Walker 2).
Her restriction is shown by her poor language. But by the end of the novel, she writes “Thank you for bringing my sister Nettie and our children home” (Walker 285). Celie’s letters to God reflect who she is, and how she changes from submissive to independent (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 55). The language she develops illustrates her happiness. By the end of the novel, she is no longer restricted by men, and she focuses on receiving a better education. The language used in this novel reveals the fact that black women in southern America could not receive an education because the men would not let them, which Walker believes was an unacceptable condition for women to live in.
Through Celie’s transformation, it is revealed that women in this time period were not sexually independent and free from men, and were continually oppressed. For example, by the end of the novel, Celie is in a pants-making business. By this point, her independence is beginning to develop from underneath her shy, meek disposition. She makes pants to keep her mind off of murdering Albert, which is a symbol of their gender reversal (Winchell 47). These are much stronger thoughts than she used to think about people she disliked, and she is thinking them because she finally understands that she is allowed to. As Celie sews, she holds “A needle and not a razor in my hand, I think” (Walker 147). The creativity is essential to her survival and transformation from a submissive housewife to an independent businesswoman (Bloom 45).
If she was not keeping herself busy with this creative project, her thoughts would be much more dangerous and murderous. Celie does not become independent until the end of the novel, which is when she finally reaches an audience (Rollyson 4699). Her audience is her sister Nettie, who Celie now knows is alive and well. Celie did not find that out until she had taken the letters from Albert’s safekeeping. His action of hiding them angers her greatly, but Celie eventually forgives him. She writes “I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time. And you alive and be home soon. With our children” (Walker 215). The knowledge that she can finally communicate with someone she loves without fearing judgment causes Celie to become confident with herself.
Nettie’s “faith in Celie, shown through years of unanswered letters, coupled with Celie’s reciprocal faith, even after Nettie’s supposed drowning on the return ship, underscores the kindred spirit of the long-separated sisters” (Kellman 2610). If Nettie had not been persistent with her letter-writing, Celie would have remained passive, because she would not have wanted to write to anyone, for she would have believed that no one was listening or paying attention to her. Celie’s transformation illustrates “Walker’s desire to project a positive outcome in life, even under the harshest conditions” (Ciccarelli & Napierowski 48-9).
As the female characters in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple are consistently discriminated against, the sexist morals of society in southern black America in the mid-1900s are revealed. In the time period that this novel is set in, it was socially acceptable for the men to condescend their wives, mothers, and sisters, once they were old enough to get married and own land. They would beat their wives if they misbehaved, they would rape their inferiors just because they could, they would take advantage of a woman’s intelligence. The fact alone that Celie is utterly afraid of the male sex illustrates this truth. Every single one of the female characters in this novel is discriminated against so often that it scars them.
Celie and Squeak are raped, Celie and Sofia are beaten, and Shug is condescended upon by Mr.___. Sofia is sent to jail just for speaking up for herself; if she had been a man, she would not have been imprisoned. The entire time, the men do not act like there is anything out of the ordinary. They act this way because of the time period; if this novel had been set in present time, they would not have the same views and feelings towards women. This novel reveals that people can gain complete independence even through the harsh, oppressing, hatefulness of other people.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea, 2003. Print. Charles E. May, ed., and Frank N. Magill, ed. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. 2nd ed. Pasadena: Salem, 2001. Print. Ciccarelli, Sheryl and Napierowski, Marie Rose. Novels for Students. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Print. Johnson, Claudia Durst. Women’s Issues in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Print.
Winchell, Donna Haisty. From Being Dominated to Taking Charge. 39-50. Kellman, Steven G, ed. Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Volume 6. Pasadena: Salem, 2007. Print. Rollyson, Carl, ed. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Volume 9. Pasadena: Salem, 2010. Print. Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Harvest-Harcourt, Orlando, 2003. Print.
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