AP English Literature and Composition
Feminism in The Color Purple
The Color Purple, a novel written by Alice Walker, deals with the treatment of women in the early to mid-1900s and how women were not recognized as independent citizens but as possessions. In this time period, it was not uncommon for women to be beaten, degraded, and treated as slaves on a daily basis; as Harpo says, “the woman s’pose to mind” (Walker 66). In fact, this kind of behavior was actually considered respectable by other males. Male dominance is the leading role in this novel and takes many forms, the most prominent being sexual aggression, such as Celie’s encounters with her supposed father, Mary Agnes’ assault with her white uncle, and Nettie’s come across with Mr.____, also known as Albert.
Celie is mistreated by her “father” in the beginning of the novel to satisfy his needs while Celie’s mother was sick/ dead. Celie believes that she has to endure the sexual encounters in order for Pa to leave her siblings alone. This shows Celie’s compassion for others and her will to protect the ones she loves. Celie becomes pregnant twice with her father’s children, both of which he sold. Even with Celie being kind and compassionate, she still ends up in a marriage that is arranged by her father. Mr.____ marries Celie because he needs a wife to cook for him, clean his house, and tend to his children. Celie is treated as a slave all of her life just to please the male population, and is basically used as a sexual partner. Celie says to Mr.___, “Just do his business, get off, go to sleep” (Walker 81), showing that she did not enjoy the sexual encounter, as man and wife should, but feels used and forced. These feelings are made clear when she states, “Never ast me how I feel, nothing” (Walker 81).
It is expressed many times throughout the novel that “men s’pose to wear the pants” (Walker 278), but Celie breaks that mold by the end of the book and makes pants for men and women, showing independence and freedom from male dominance. Making pants shows her bravery, because men and even some women could judge her and feel disgusted with her making women wear “men’s’” clothing, but Celie wants to be independent. Sofia, in the beginning of the book, wears “a old pair of Harpo pants” (Walker 64), symbolizing that Sophia is independent already, and is wearing “the pants” in the relationship. When Harpo tries to hit her, Sofia beats Harpo, which is switching the gender roles in this time period. Women were made to be obedient to their husbands, and Sofia is strong, independent, and carefree; she does not depend on a man to fulfill her duties. Sofia does all the work on the outside and inside of the home, showing her equality to men, while Celie does not acquire these traits until almost the end of the novel, after leaving Mr.___.
Double standard are prevalent in this novel because the preacher of the town judges Shug Avery’s loose lifestyle, but does not comment on the lifestyles of most men. Shug is a liberated woman, even though she is judged by the church goers of Atlanta. Her career as a blues singer gives her the freedom that most women in this time period do not get to experience, because they are forced to stay home with their husbands to cook, clean, and be complete slaves to the male population. She is also sexually liberated as she has multiple affairs with both genders, and feeling no guilt or restraint, something that was not accepted in the 1900s. She also has a strong belief in God which connected her to Celie, and taught Celie that God is in spirit, not in physical form. Celie once believed that God was white, which Shug said was a stereotype, and that God could be anything and could be anywhere. It was Shug that liberated Celie to become the woman she desired to be. Shug teaches Celie how to be sexually, financially, and emotionally independent, as she treats Celie as a sister, friend, and lover. Shug possess the characteristics of equality by her integrity as a person, and teaching Celie how to become equal as well.
Some of the women in the novel have learned to fight for themselves, and to fight the sexism this time period possesses. Sofia is powerful spiritually and physically, as she can and does fight for what she wants and believes in. The consequences of Sofia fighting for her beliefs and standing up for her rights, gets her almost beat to death and thrown in prison by a group of officers for talking back to the white mayor. Sofia gets out of prison only to be the mayor’s servants for many years in return. Sofia and Mary Agnes have a strong connection, not because of Harpo, but because of Mary Agnes’ sacrifice for Sofia’s freedom from prison. Mary Agnes endured rape so Sofia could leave the cold jail cells and enter into the home of the mayor, and when Mary Agnes chased her dreams to be a singer, Sofia is the one that offers to watch her children.
The roles of masculine and feminine temperaments are addressed in this novel, as Shug is described by Albert “more manly than most men” (Walker 276), but Celie also states that Shug possesses the qualities of independence, honesty, and integrity, which are valid for women as well as men; gender should not dictate perception of the characteristics to make a decent human being. Women were thought of as below men in this time period, and were thought of as dishonest and useless outside of the home. Celie making pants shows how women can be independent and that women can make a living without a man’s help.
The novel’s message is that women must stand up to the unfair treatment they receive at the hand of the male population and that women must stick together in order to break such a stereotype. The women in this novel, even the women who have love interests in the same man, bind together to support and sustain one another throughout the novel. The bond these women possess is a sisterhood, not a friendship, and is very important in the role of Celie and Shug, who possess the role of sisters and lovers.
Albert hides Nettie’s letters to Celie as a way to control her, which was one reason Celie broke free from being obedient and became independent. Celie is enraged that Albert has hidden such special letters from her sister, and realizes if she stayed with him, he would continue to do so. After Celie leaves Albert, she begins a relationship with Shug, but after Shug leaves Celie for a younger man, Celie comes back to her home in Atlanta, inherited after her father’s death. Celie and Albert begin talking and building a friendship and Celie realizes that after she leaves, Albert hits an all-time low. He did not know how to cook, clean, or take care of himself when Celie left because he realized how dependent he was on her. In this instance, it is obvious that the male dominance stereotype is broken, and that women are seen as equal beings, at least through Albert’s eyes. As a character, Albert changes for the better, asking Celie to take his hand in marriage, for love this time, not because she was forced too. Celie respectably declines, because she loves Shug but would like to keep Albert’s friendship. In the end, women’s equality and social stereotypes are broken and women live in an equal world.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple: A Novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. Print.