Alice Walker’s Depiction of Female Characters in ‘the Color Purple
Discuss this statement with reference to the critical anthology Throughout literature there has been an array of female portrayals, most prominently those in 19th century fiction, who didn’t work unless driven to it by necessity. Instead, the focus of interest was on the heroine’s choice of marriage partner, which would decide her ultimate social position and exclusively determine her happiness and fulfilment in life, or her lack thereof.
However, when Walker published her novel The Color Purple, she rejected the traditional stance of the woman in literature and opted to create a novel that would empower black women who felt like they were rejected from the mainstream publications. When looking at a novel which is so focused on women we must ask ourselves, what sort of roles do the women play and are they associated with particular themes because of how they are portrayed.
Rather than simply write in a manner which is a reflection of her environment, Walker intends to speak out against it through creating characters who in no way conform to the traditional constrains that are presented in female characters throughout literature. By doing so she (as do her characters) is speaking out against a patriarchal society which has put pressure on women to conform to society’s expectations of what women should be.
Through her writing Walker presents a divide between traditional literature and her novel, something which is most prominently shown through her use of black American vernacular (BAV). Through giving Celie a voice through this form of non-standard English, Walker makes Celie seem like more of a real person more so than a character who is narrating a series of events throughout the novel as we are able to hear Celie’s voice when reading, something which juxtaposes the fact that this voice she has is marginalised by the men around her who act as her oppressors.
Through having Celie write in BAV and non-standard English, Walker is making a political statement; as if to say that BAV is just as valid in literature as standard forms of English are which were created by white, middle class males aiming to force it upon those who aren’t white, middle class males. Through her novel, Walker is rejecting the norms of society and not only giving a voice to the black race, but more specifically giving a voice and credibility to black women, one which is marginalised not only in this novel, but in society as a whole.
The first line of the novel, and Celie’s letters, begins not with Celie’s voice, but with the man she erroneously believes to be her father saying: “ You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”. Through opening the novel in this way Walker highlights the power that men, particularly Fonzo holds over Celie at the beginning of the novel. This sense of fear is then continued into the next line of her letter which begins, ‘I am fourteen years old.
I am I have always been a good girl. ’ The fact that Celie corrects herself indicates to the reader a lack of belief that Celie holds in herself, as well as her yearning for an education which she has been denied by Fonzo. The forcefulness of Fonzo’s character has meant that Celie has had to grow up far beyond her years despite the fact mentally she is still young as shown in her lack of understanding of the rape to which she is subjected to: “then he stick his thing inside…and now I feel sick”.
One key theme that is introduced in the novel is that of the sexual politics. This idea of sexual politics is something which runs throughout the whole novel as it magnifies the fact that there a patriarchal systems put in place to demoralise the women and make them feel like they are second class citizens within their own homes and lives. This idea of women being seen as second class citizens and second to the men in the novel isn’t only shown in Celie’s narrative, but in Nettie’s narrative also.
In one of her letters to Celie, Nettie says, “The Olinka do not believe that girl’s should be educated. A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something…the mother of his children”. This shows just how big a role sexual politics plays throughout the narrative as these thoughts aren’t only expressed in America with Celie; she is expected to look after Mr.? children; but also in the isolated community of the Olinka tribe.
Walker wants her reader to recognise that female subjugation is not restricted to the southern states of America, but is present across the world. Furthermore, the sexual politics within the novel are again highlighted through the way that Fonzo, Mr.? and then later Harpo treat their women. The women in the novel, in particular Celie, are seen by these men as being slaves or servants who are their to do the bidding of men whilst they enjoy life, as if the women have no rights or free will of their own.
We are exposed to this harsh reality when Fonzo ‘gives Celie away’ to Mr.? , ‘She ain’t no stranger to hard work. And she clean…she can work like a man’. The way that Fonzo describes Celie holds likeness to how slave auctioneers would sell off potential slaves to potential slave owners. However, in spite of this cruel treatment at the hands of men, Walker is keen to show her readership that regardless of the hardships that women face, they can find comfort in strength in one another.
A clear example of where we see this female camaraderie is shown through the metaphor and role of the quilt which symbolises the bond that these women gain through the adversity and violence that is around them. Walker structures her novel so that we begin by seeing, in the form of the young Celie, the devastating and horrific effects that patriarchy can have on women, however, as the novel progresses she goes on to present an almost ideal world which can exist when women work together and reject the values of male-dominated society.
We initially see this being shown through Shug and Sofia, two characters who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and act out against the patriarchal society that is put in place throughout the novel. In the novel Sofia is the one character who is removed the furthest from what the critical anthology describes as being a typical woman in literature. Sofia holds masculine tendencies which are brought out in the forcefulness of her character when she fights back with Harpo after Celie tells him that he should beat her.
However, despite being portrayed as a strong character who Walker may want her readers to look up to, her strength, pride, natural indignation and masculine tendencies eventually land her in prison. Like the other women in the novel, in particular Celie, this leads to her becoming an oppressed and beaten woman; it’s as if Walker is trying to warn her female readers that it is somewhat perilous for women who carry these traits (strength and independence) as men will inevitably attempt to break their spirit and determination.
As well as Sofia, Shug is a character who conforms in no way to what is expected of her; something which is shown through the way that she embodies the female stereotype in literature of being an ‘immoral and dangerous seductress’; a characteristic which holds similarities to characters such as Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as they both use their sexual prowess and skills of seduction to gain acceptance from men rather than respect themselves.
Walker introduces Shug to the novel not only as a character who speaks out against the harsh patriarchal constraints that are put on women, but also as a symbol of liberation, not only spiritually but sexually also. Walker highlights this in the sexual relationship she creates between Shug and Avery. Throughout the novel we see that Celie has no attraction to men, ‘I lay there thinking of Nettie while he on top of me’, however, she revels in the opportunity to care for Shug, ‘I wash her body, it feel like I’m praying.
My hands tremble and my breath short’. This is a prime example of how Shug liberates Celie both spiritually and sexually through Celie’s use of religious connotations when washing Shug. Despite the fact that Celie addresses her letters to God who she identifies as being male, she sees Shug as being a holy entity on earth who has allowed her to find who she truly is.
In terms of Celie’s personal development throughout the novel, Shug is probably the most important character as it is her who enlightens her in terms of finding her sexuality, learning to appreciate herself, as well as making her feel like she’s a human being; something which men, for the vast majority of the novel, try to eradicate. The novel The Color Purple is one of epic proportions; be it in terms of its range of characters, treatment of the passage of time or its range of geographical settings.
However, what seems to be Walker’s greatest achievement is her intended empowerment of women. Through creating a piece of literature which presents women in roles which are in stark contrast to the roles in which literary female characters have traditionally been cast in, she is not only providing a message of positivity to her female readership but is also illustrating the unacceptable way in which cultural devices within society such as literature can often be used as instruments of ensuring the continued subjugation of specific social groups.
Walker has been praised by many for her ability to capture the sense of female subjugation and emancipation of the time, with critics like Richard Wesley praising her for her ability to “expose a country’s dark secrets”. However, whereas some have praised her, others like Robert Towers have criticised her for the novels continuous feminist train-of-thought and her inability to plot and structure what is clearly intended to be a realistic novel.