Overcoming Oppression in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Women have been fighting to have an equal amount of rights as men throughout history. We have been thought of as property as well as simply being thrown to the side without much consideration in discussion. We have had to fight tooth and nail against men who care little about a woman’s opinion. This behavior has only changed a small amount over time. When the word ‘feminism’ is thrown around in conversation there are one of two ways it can be thought of. We can think of women overcoming oppression and fighting for gender equality or we can think about the negative connation it has been given. On the negative side people view feminists as women wanting to be ‘higher and mightier than men’. Those people think that we want to be better than men and when it becomes extreme, they think they have a right to tell us what we can and can’t do with out bodies or with our abilities. In the modern world these two sides are constantly being talked about and fought over. What I believe should be the received and accepted definition of ‘feminism’ is the former thought rather than the latter. We must think about women wanting to be equal to men in order to be able to achieve their goals in a world that is mainly controlled by the patriarch, and not as a group of people who wish to have grander views than their counterparts.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is received as a feminist text. The story is about a young girl named Celie and her fight to overcome the oppressive life she has been given. Celie writes letters to God and to her sister, Nettie, who she becomes separated from when they are young girls. In an article by Bülent Cercis Tanritanir titled “Letter-Writing As Voice of Women in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook And Alice Walker’s The Color Purple”, it is stated, “In letter-writing, Celie uses the pen not only to confirm herself, not only to bridge the gap between self and other but often to rewrite the self, presenting a personal self-definition that refutes, replaces, or complements the identity” (2). This rings true to Celie’s situation due to Celie finding her identity through writing about her life whether it is to God or to her sister, which occurs in the novel. To understand how oppressed the main character was in the novel it must be noted that Celie is married off to a man twice her age that abuses her mentally and physically. The letters that Celie writes take the reader on a journey that shows how strong the bonds made in female friendships can be and how they can lift one person to gain confidence in themselves despite whatever awful situation they have been placed in. Through writing these letters and forming relationships with females in her life, Celie is able to find strength to overcome her fears as well as finding a second form of self-expression in making pants for her self and other women. This is what I aim to prove throughout this paper, which other scholars have not touched fully upon. The result of all that Celie has gone through leads to her making pants to have a way of regaining control in her life that she did not have for a very long time. The majority of articles that already exist establish that Celie was capable of finding herself through letter writing, but they do not address that this form of self-expression led her to finding another form of self expression through clothing making. My line of argument stems from the research I have done giving no result as a whole.
At the beginning of the novel Celie is a young girl of about fourteen who has already had to bear two children and have them taken away from her. This along with her need to act as mother to her own siblings forces her to grow up and lose any control she might have had in her childhood. The man she believes is her father abuses her both physically and mentally, telling her that she is ugly and undeserving of many things. At the end of the novel Celie is approximately fifty years old and has made a life for herself through her business of creating pants, and her major summon of self power to denounce the need for men at all in her life (Walker). Celie is able to perceive her desires and grow by acknowledging that she is a person who needs things that she would never herself to think of needing or deserving. This transformation in her person is accomplished through rebellion and friendship. In McKever-Floyd’s article, it is asserted that “Letter writing, the vehicle to Celie’s liberation and the reader’s entrée into the inner working of her life, constitute a ritual of rebellion.” This form of rebellion is also the first of two forms of self-expression that Celie is being familiarized with. The opening lines to her first letter are words that her ‘Pa’ has told her, “You’re going to do what your mammy wouldn’t” and “You better tell no one but God” (Walker 3). So what Celie does is just that. She tells God through letters that her life is hell on earth, and this is her form of rebellion, which later transforms into a bigger form of rebellion. Through letter writing Celie is finally telling others, particularly women that come into her life and teach her how to grow, that her life is miserable. From the beginning of this story Celie has it engrained in her mind that she is below men and that she must fear them. This fear is further progressed by more details in Celie’s letters, such as the fact that her Pa scorns her as “…evil and up to no good” (Walker 16).
As time goes on Pa remarries which lessens the strife in Celie’s life, and a man known as Mr. begins to come around with intentions to marry her sister, Nettie. Celie believes this is a perfect way for Nettie to escape the life they’re living telling her “…Marry him, Nettie, an try have one good year out your life” (Walker 7). Pa tells Mr. to take Celie instead. Men do not please Celie, since being raped when she was a child; the only thing that men do to Celie is scare her and upset her. Celie cannot be happy in a marriage to someone who originally did not even want her. She does not have the ability to communicate positively with the opposite sex or enjoy a sexual relationship with a man. In Celie’s mind her only outlet is to write about her experiences, and even then she feels like she is still missing something (McKever-Floyd). This is Celie’s chance to get away from Pa, but also marks her entrance into an abusive marriage. Nettie runs away from home and stays with Celie and Mr. for a short while, which happily and unhappily disrupts this new life. This disruption leads to Nettie being banned from her sister’s new home and in making a promise to Celie that she will write her. Nettie responds to this command with “Only death can keep me from it” (Walker 18). Celie never receives any letters from her sister and her only conclusion is that she is dead. McKever-Floyd asserts this occurrence as part of Celie’s transformation; he says that this process is one of Kenosis, which is emptying, and Plerosis, which is filling. Celie ultimately decides to empty her life of various things and this idea that her sister is dead begins the need to live a life where she is making relationships with other women around her, that moment is when the filling commences.
Towards the end of the novel Celie denounces men as a whole and decides to live a life where they have no say in the things that she does. With the help of Shug, Celie is able to figure out that Mr. had been hiding the letters Nettie had been sending her for a very long time. She finds these letters and claims that she’s going to stop writing her letters to god because “The God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful, and lowdown” (Walker 199). In an attempt to help Celie with these angry feelings that she never allowed herself to feel or express verbally or in action, Shug lets Celie know that she will do what she can to help. To start off she helps her put the letters in order and to read them; Celie find out that her sister is alive and well in Africa with missionaries. These missionaries just so happen to have adopted Celie’s children who she believed her Pa had gotten rid of all those years ago. The filling is enhanced with this knowledge because it gives her a reason to live and to keep fighting against everything that is keeping her down. Celie continues this by finding love in a relationship with Shug who makes her feel safe and secure due to knowing how Mr. treats her and knowing about her family life when she was a child. Celie helped to nurse Shug back to health after Mr. brought her to their home sick and frail at the beginning of their marriage. Shug is able to assist Celie in the process of filling her life with good and a different form of God that Celie had never thought of. In another essay about change in Celie, Catherine A. Colton asserts that Shug is the one who really helps Celie realize that God is not who she made him out to be. Shug tells Celie “God is everything” (Walker 202). Shug continues with this thread by telling her of her own experience of not having a mother and that feeling things is okay, because feelings are a part of everything. It’s okay to feel like you are a part of everything and not just a part of the lonely life you are living.
Celie continues the Plerosis that McKever speaks of when she understands what Shug is saying about noticing things such a, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it (Walker 202). This new knowledge that Celie gains allows her to find the confidence she had been lacking to stand up to Mr. She tells him that she is moving to Memphis with Shug, and he responds with “Over my dead body” (Walker 206) as well as asking her what is wrong. She retorts by saying “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (Walker 207). Mr. can only muster what sounds like a motorboat to Celie. Colton makes the comment in her essay that “His ability to verbalize decreases while Celie’s newfound power is increasing” (Colton 37). This climactic event allows Celie to realize that she has the power to stand up to those who oppress her and say what is on her mind. At another moment in the novel Shug tells Celie that
“Man corrupt everything. He on our box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everything. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, a man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to get lost. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock. But this hard work let me tell you. He been here so long, he don’t want to budge. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it” (Walker 204).
As soon as Celie is able to realize that she can fight them even with a measly rock, she is able to conjure up the strength to throw it. She is able to conjure up words that she can spew and fight with.
When it comes to female relationships in the novel, they are there to aid Celie in realizing that she has the confidence and support she needs to do thing alone. There is the sister relationship between Celie and Nettie, the friendship and intimate relationship that occurs between Shug and Celie, and other friendships such as the one between Sofia and Celie. These ties between the women help Celie gain confidence, as well as giving the other women the ability to also learn new things about themselves. In an essay by Courtney George, there is an extensive discussion between how the women in this novel are capable of working together to take over the oppressive men that try to control the things they do. These women work together to make themselves equal to the men who counter their views or fight against them. One prime example of this is Sofia, who is Celie’s stepson’s wife. Harpo is Sofia’s husband and he wants to be like his dad in the manner that he can get Celie to do what he wants. Mr. beats Celie into understanding that he is the one who calls the shots in the marriage and the household while Harpo can’t get Sofia to do anything he wants. One day Harpo talks to Celie and Celie suggests that he beat Sofia, when he tries to Sofia fights back. This is the first woman in the story to stand up against the man in her life. Sofia confronts Celie by saying that “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles… I loves Harpo, but I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me” (Walker 143). This confrontation leaves Celie feeling terrible for meddling as well as simply hurting someone who was her friend. Sofia sticking up for her self is something that Celie is jealous of. Celie can’t do this because she’s never known how, she has always let people walk all over her and it is all she has ever known. Sofia has had to stand up to her abusers whether they were men or women. “Sofia retributively deals back the violence that is committed against her” (George 136) this is a lesson that Sofia inadvertently teaches Celie. Some may say that Celie could have simply told herself to act like Sofia, but when you’ve been talk your entire life that you are nothing compared to a man then you can’t simply change that state of mind on your own. That is why these female bonds allow Celie to acknowledge that she does have the capability to do what she wants. She can choose to follow the advice that is given to her, which she does end up doing, or she can remain in the shadows of those who believe are better than her and allow them to have control over her life. In the friendship that Celie forms with Shug, Celie finds someone that she can trust. At the beginning of the novel Shug understands that Mr. beats Celie. She tells Celie that she won’t leave “until Albert (Mr.) won’t even think about beating” her again (Walker 72). This support system that Celie has gained gives her confidence in being able to be alone with people who originally put her down and made her feel like garbage. By having the ability to be alone in her life Celie knows that she is destined to accomplish many things on her own.
By being someone who stands up for her self, Carla Kaplan dubs Celie a heroine in her essay titled “Somebody I Can Talk To: Teaching Feminism Through The Color Purple”. Kaplan says, “Walker gives us a heroine whose story works transformative magic…” (Kaplan 128). This is a very accurate description of Celie. Celie transforms from someone who cannot even muster the strength to stand up for herself, to someone who curses her own husband and leaves him unable to speak. Some of Celie’s most powerful words in Walker’s entire novel are “I’m poor, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here” (Walker 207). Celie’s declaration of being present in the world is astounding for someone who has been through what she had gone through. Before Celie even makes this loud statement, Mr. is taunting her for leaving to Memphis with Shug. Celie tells Mr. that “Until you do right by me, everything you even dream about to fail… every lick you hit me you will suffer twice…” (Walker 206). With Celie’s final words to her husband she leaves her old life and is the hero of her own story.
The last idea that supports my thesis is that Celie creates things as the story progresses. She writes letters, making curtains, helps someone make a quilt, and ends up making a business of making pants for women. The creating of these items helps to join the women together in making something they can call their own as well as say to others that they created. In Catherine E. Lewis’s article titled “Serving, Quilting, Knitting: Handicraft And Freedom in The Color Purple”, it is said that “The women realize similar results from their fettered lives, the result being the creation of salable items to effect economic and psychological empowerment” (Lewis 3). This is exactly what Celie does, she realizes that she shares some form of relationship with the women in her life and when they are making something, whether it be a cloth item or a dinner, they are bonding together and reinforcing the friendship that they have. After Sofia confronts Celie about telling Harpo to beat her, the two women talk over cutting pieces of fabric. “Me and Sofia work on the quilt. Got it frame up on the porch” (Walker 62). This quilt becomes an emblem of unity amongst the women. Celie and Sofia make the quilt out of shared materials and even Shug donated old dresses into the effort. Lewis makes a comment that the quilt gives the women a sense of sorority that they can always look back to in time of need. These bonds that the women share help Celie grow in confidence and give her even more to create things by her self. With the help of Shug, Celie is able to embark on a new outlet for her rage and is able to turn this outlet into a way to escape her husband’s dominance. During the time period in which Celie’s story is set, men were the ones who exclusively wore pants. In a conversation between Shug and Celie, Shug tells her that they ought to make her some pants to which Celie responds with “’What I need pants for? I ain’t no man. Mr. not gonna let his wife wear no pants’ ‘Why not? You do all the work around here. It’s a scandless, the way you look out there plowing in a dress. How you keep from falling over it or getting the plow caught in it is beyond me’” (Walker 124). This starts endeavor of the pants. The women would read Celie’s hidden letters and sew together. By having this friendship with someone who is familiar with her husband, Celie has the approval of someone else to chase after her dreams. Not only does she make the pants for herself because it is a logical thing for her to do and to have, but because she has the sense that it will give her a way to overcome one little thing in her life.
In another essay about women’s handiwork and The Color Purple, Jennifer Martin makes the claim that Celie’s life is in a sense a quilt. There are all these pieces that are essentially scraps that need help being put together. The help comes from her life being unfortunate and needing to be put together by people who come into it. Mr. is a big character who begins the bringing together of the friendships because if it were not for him, then the women who Celie becomes very good friends with would not have come into her life. “Quilting for women is a means of creative self-expression through improvisation” (Martin 1). Martin is correct; this means of making something for Celie became an emblem of unity for her and the other women that she works on it with. This sense of unity works to combine all of her friend’s combined efforts to give Celie the confidence that she deserves throughout the entire novel.
In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, women tolerate sexism, and gender discrimination. They unite together to form bonds of sisterhood and friendship that have the ability to lift others up and transform their lives. These women are able to realize their talents and their dreams, and sum up the courage to chase after them. As Kaplan asserts “By giving authenticity to female subjectivity there should be some ways to change women’s view of themselves and males’ view of women, there should not be any preconception of women’s subjectivity” (Kaplan 130). The way that women can change how they view themselves is through other women. We must join together in sisterhood and friendship to overcome the oppressive patriarch, as does Celie in this novel. Through thick and thin, Celie has friends who help her and build her up. In this novel, Walker provides the opportunity for females to learn how to defend themselves and gain individuality. Celie is able to do all these things and develop a role in society that is not dependent on anyone but herself. Through the connections within female friendship Celie is able to regain control in a life where she had lost every ounce of it. This control leads her to overcome by making pants. Pants the not only represent her denouncement of men, but also represent the friendships that she has worked so hard to create. Through healing and learning and doing what we love, we all can overcome whatever oppressive hand is being laid atop our lives.