Female Relationships and Gender Roles
Sexuality and God
Celie’s process of finding a voice and self-fulfillment
In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
-- Anne-Marie Kimmes
For just over two hundred years, the concern to depict the quest of the black speaking subject to find his or her voice has been a repeated topos of the black tradition, and perhaps has been its most central trope. As theme, as revised trope, as a double-voiced narrative strategy, the representation of characters and texts finding a voice has functioned as a sign both of the formal unity of the Afro-American literary tradition and of the integrity of the black subjects depicted in this literature (Gates 29-30).
In his article “Color me Zora: Alice Walker’s (Re)Writing of the Speakerly Text”, Henry Louis Gates Jr. talks about The Color Purple in connection with other novels by black authors (especially Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston) whose characters are all looking for a voice throughout the story. The theme of finding a voice seems to be very characteristic of African-American writing. Tamar Katz points out that “The Color Purple remains, above all, [...] a novel about the instruction of Celie and her coming into consciousness (69). And, speaking of The Color Purple, Diane Gabrielsen Scholl also clarifies that
[t]he novel is [...] the story of Celie’s changing fortunes [...] as Celie gradually overcomes the oppressive conditions of her despised situation, achieving in the end the prosperity and family security she has longed for (109).
Walker emphasizes throughout the novel that the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings is crucial to developing a sense of self. According to Carla Kaplan, Celie “in some way hinges on her ability to narrate her life story and to find an audience fit to hear and understand it (181). She argues that Celie does not exactly need to find a voice but rather learn how to use it:
Walker, in fact, does not really represent Celie as “finding” a voice. Even in her most oppressed state she is able to express herself by writing. It is the process of developing that voice, orienting it toward her different audiences, that is really at stake. Above all, Celie needs to learn to use her voice to resist oppression. She must be convinced that resistance and contestation are not incompatible with fulfillment and satisfaction. Making this convincing, [...], proves a very difficult task (Kaplan 185).
In the course of this paper I would like to show how Celie gradually overcomes her situation as an oppressed and finds and uses the voice that brings her freedom and happiness.
Initially, Celie is completely unable to resist those who abuse her. As a young girl, she is constantly subjected to abuse and told that she is ugly. Celie does little to fight back against her stepfather, Alphonso. Later in life, when her husband, Mr. , abuses her, she reacts in a similarly passive manner. Remembering Alphonso’s warning that she “better not never tell nobody but God” (Walker 11) about his abuse of her, Celie feels that the only way to persevere is to remain silent and invisible. She decides that this is the best way ensure her survival. Celie is essentially an object, an entirely passive party who has no power to assert herself through action or words. Her letters to God, in which she begins to pour out her story, become her only outlet and means of self-expression. However, God is a distant figure, who she doubts cares about her concerns. Celie writes in her first letter to God:
I am fourteen years old.I amI have always been a good girl.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts for the fact that Celie places her present self (“I am”) under erasure by saying that it is a “device that reminds us that she is writing, and searching for her voice by selecting, then rejecting, word choice or word order [...]” (39). Because Celie is so unaccustomed to articulating her experience, her narrative is initially muddled despite her best efforts at transparency.
Female Relationships and Gender Roles
Numerous times, other women tell Celie that she must learn to fight back and therefore encourage her to use her voice. “You got to fight. You got to fight”, Nettie tells Celie when she sees how Mr._’s children ride roughshod over her. “You’ve got to fight”, Nettie writes. “I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is how to stay alive”, Celie replies. Mr.’s sister Kate also tells Celie to fight: “I can’t do it for you. You got to fight them for yourself.” But Celie sees no sense in fighting: “I think about Nettie, dead. She fight, she run away. What good it do? I don’t fight. I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.”
Celie eventually latches on to Shug Avery, a beautiful and seemingly empowered woman, as a role model who gradually helps her to speak up and assists her in the process of developing a sense of self. Despite Shug’s unpredictable nature and shifting roles (she moves through a whirlwind of different cities, trysts, and late-night blues clubs), she remains Celie’s most constant friend and companion until the end of the novel.
Shug Avery is a sultry blues singer who first appears as Mr. ’s mistress. The first impression of Shug is a negative one. She has a reputation as a woman of dubious morals who dresses scantily, has some sort of “nasty woman disease,” and is even spurned by her own parents. However, Celie immediately sees something more in Shug. When Celie looks at Shug’s photograph, not only does Shug’s glamorous appearance amaze her, but Shug also reminds Celie of her “mama.” Celie compares Shug to her mother throughout the novel. Unlike Celie’s natural mother, who was oppressed by traditional gender roles, Shug refuses to allow herself to be dominated by anyone. Shug has fashioned her identity from her many experiences, instead of subjecting her will to others and allowing them to impose an identity upon her.
The Color Purple concerns a universe in which many characters break the boundaries of traditional male or female gender roles. Traditionally masculine traits such as assertiveness, sexual gratification, and physical strength are present in female as well as male characters. Sofia’s strength and sass, Shug’s sexual assertiveness, and Harpo’s insecurity are major examples of such disparity between a character’s gender and the traits he or she displays. Sofia’s assertiveness and strength are virtually unsurpassed by any of the male characters, whereas the nurturing and care that Harpo displays toward Mr. could be considered feminine. This blurring of gender traits and roles sometimes involves sexual ambiguity, as in the sexual relationship that later develops between Celie and Shug.
Disruption of gender roles also sometimes causes problems. Harpo’s insecurity about his masculinity leads to marital problems and his attempts to beat Sofia. Likewise, Shug’s confident sexuality and resistance to male domination cause her to be labeled a tramp. Throughout the novel, Walker wishes to emphasize that gender and sexuality are not as simple as we may believe. Her novel subverts and defies the traditional ways in which we understand women to be women and men to be men.
However, though Shug’s sexy style, sharp tongue, and many worldly experiences make her appear jaded, Shug is actually warm and compassionate at heart. When Shug falls ill, she not only appreciates, but also reciprocates the care and attention Celie lavishes upon her. After Shug moves into Celie and Mr. ’s home, Celie has the opportunity to befriend the woman whom she loves and to learn, at last, how to fight back. Shug not only becomes Celie’s friend but also eventually her lover, all the while remaining a gentle mentor who helps Celie evolve into an independent and assertive woman. As Shug’s relationship with Celie develops, Shug fills the roles of mother, confidant, lover, sister, teacher, and friend, among others. Shug’s maternal prodding helps spur Celie’s development. Shug does not at first appear to be the mothering kind, yet she nurtures Celie physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
In Shug and Sofia, Celie finds sympathetic ears and learns lessons that enable her to find her voice. Gradually, Celie recovers her own history, sexuality, and spirituality. In her article “Romance, Marginality, Matrilineage: The Color Purple” Molly Hite explains the importance of strong female relationships which overthrow traditional gender roles:
In the development of the story, Celie […] acquires a voice and becomes a producer of meanings, while Shug and Sofia, articulate all along, increase their authority until it is evident that female voices have the power to dismantle hierarchical oppositions that ultimately oppress everyone and to create a new order in which timeworn theories about male and female “natures” vanish because they are useless for describing the qualities of people (98).
However, although Walker clearly wishes to emphasize the power that narrative and speech have in asserting selfhood and resisting oppression, the novel also acknowledges that such resistance can be risky. Sofia’s forceful outburst in response to Miss Millie’s invitation to be her maid, for instance, costs her twelve years of her life. Sofia regains her freedom eventually, so she is not totally defeated, but she pays a high price for her words.
Throughout The Color Purple, Walker portrays female friendships as a means for women to summon the courage to tell stories. In turn, these stories allow women to resist oppression and dominance. Relationships among women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a world filled with male violence. Female ties take many forms: some are motherly or sisterly, some are in the form of mentor and pupil, some are sexual, and some are simply friendships. Sofia claims that her ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters. Nettie’s relationship with Celie anchors her through years of living in the unfamiliar culture of Africa. Samuel notes that the strong relationships among Olinka women are the only thing that makes polygamy bearable for them. Most important, Celie's ties to Shug bring about Celie’s gradual redemption and her attainment of a sense of self.
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- Celie Alice Walker Color Purple Wives Mothers Harlots Work Toni Morrison Miriam Mathabane June Jordan