Male Domination and Female Resistance

The Oppression of Women in Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple"

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

44 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Male Domination: The Oppression of Women and their Response
2.1. Celie and Alphonso
2.2. Celie and Albert
2.3. Sofia and Harpo
2.4. Mary Agnes and Harpo
2.5. Conclusion

3. Making a Quilt - Creating a Network: Female Resistance
3.1. Celie and Shug
3.2. Celie and Sofia
3.3. Sofia and Mary Agnes
3.4. Conclusion

4. The Cycle of violence: Origins of Male Aggression
4.1. Albert and his father
4.2. Albert and Harpo
4.3. Conclusion

5. Conclusion

6. References and Further Reading

1. Introduction

Of course, the [whites] oppress us, they oppress the world. Who’s got his big white foot on the whole world? The white man, the rich white man. But we also oppress each other and we oppress ourselves. I think that one of the traditions we have in Black Women’s literature is a tradition of trying to fight all the oppression. (Walker, Sojourner 14)

(Christophe, p. 102)

The question of domination and resistance has been one of the major problems in interpersonal relationships ever since. Whereas there are diverse forms of domination and oppression, the issue of females being dominated by men is one of the most crucial to Alice Walker. Consequently she focuses on black-on-black violence between the characters in her novel The Color Purple. Often criticized for not dealing with the problem of racism and discrimination of African American by their white fellow-citizens in the first place but concentrating on the disproportion between the sexes, Alice Walker aims at the creation of equality between men and women due to the fact that it is important to her to strive for a solution of the problems she experiences in her immediate environment, namely black communities, first: “I mean to deal with the guy who beat you up in your house and then see who’s beating you up on the street. (Sojourner 14)” (Christophe, p. 102). Only by solving the problems that exist between African Americans a strong community that can overcome greater issues as discrimination by whites can come into being.

To create awareness of the fact that the discrimination most African Americans suffer from also exists within their own community, Walker deals with the oppression of women in black communities rather than with racism. Nevertheless there are significant similarities between racism and the treatment of women to be found in her novel. The fact that a group of human beings is considered to be less valuable and thus can be dominated by a supposedly superior group is the same in racism and slavery as in the oppression of women. The concept of a relationship between a person who dominates and a person who obeys underlies the relationship between master and slave and some of the relationships between the male and female characters in the novel alike. These parallels will be dealt with as well as with the way the female characters try to resist. First the interpersonal relationships between dominant men and suppressed women, and thus one of the main themes in The Color Purple, shall be constituted and then it shall be elaborated on the bonds between the female characters.

Although the focus of this paper shall be on how oppression is exercised within the novel as well as on the solidarity between women as source of their strength to fight back, it shall also contribute to the understanding of possible sources of the aggression of men against women. What has to be kept in mind while considering every single relationship is that all characters and events are represented and told from Celie’s point of view. She is the protagonist of the epistolary novel The Color Purple and it is through her letters that every event is reported and each person is characterised. Thus the way in which the characters are presented is very subjective, one-sided, and influenced by Celie’s personal opinion.

The basis for this paper is formed by the Oxford Companion to African American Literature, writings by feminists such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins and other works dealing with the subject matter. It is intended to relate the consideration very closely to the novel The Color Purple by letting the characters speak whenever it is possible rather than aiming at an abstract elaboration on the subject.

2. Male Domination: The Oppression of Women and their Response

There are many relationships between men and women represented within the novel. This chapter, however, shall focus on the most important ones in which the oppression of women can be seen. Therefore each relationship shall be elaborated on separately in order to find out how men treat women and how these women respond to that treatment. Thus it will be of interest how men try to oppress women and whether they succeed or not.

2.1. Celie and Alphonso

At the age of fourteen Celie makes an experience she is not able to understand and that immediately puts an end to her innocent childhood. She is raped by the man whom she by then considers to be her father. Due to his wife’s refusal to fulfil her conjugal duties as a consequence of her recent giving birth to a child, Alphonso lays hands on his stepdaughter, who by that time is an inexperienced young girl whose whole life is about to change because of the abuse she has to endure. Hoping to find an explanation she turns to God, who is the only one she can turn to terrified by the threat of Alphonso to “[…] tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” (Walker 2004, p. 3[1] ). The fact that Alphonso calls Celie’s mother mammy provides a first insight into how he thinks about women as this word implies the thought of “[…] the turbaned, sassy, protective "mammies" who (according to the movies) ruled Southern plantation kitchens, as well as most of the rest of the plantation house affairs” (Rose) and thus create a connection to slavery. He threatens Celie to make her submit to his will. Nettie mentioned that “[…] you [Celie] said your life made you feel so ashamed you couldn’t even talk about it to God, you had to write it, bad as you thought your writing was” (p. 117). Left with nobody to turn to for guidance and help but God she starts writing down her experiences, which seems for her the only way to let out her inner thoughts and feelings. Notable is the fact that Celie is not complaining in her letters to God but she needs someone to talk to.

Furthermore it becomes obvious that Celie blames herself for what is happening. In her first letter she makes clear that she thinks she must have done something wrong to deserve the punishment of God. By crossing out the words “I am” and rewriting it into “I have always been a good girl” (p.3) she apparently states that she supposes to be guilty of something although she does not know of what. Her mother constantly insulting Celie for not being good enough to keep the household is an additional proof for Celie that she is the one to blame. She turns to God to get an explanation why she deserves it to suffer so much. In other words Alphonso’s abuse leaves Celie utterly confused and alone thinking that she cannot do anything to protect herself.

When her mother gets ill Celie is the one who has to take over all of her duties, additionally to complying with Alphonso’s wishes, and even has to take care of all of her brothers and sisters. At the age of fourteen Celie is literally forced to become a woman and it is put an end to her innocent childhood with the brutality of the man who is supposed to protect her. “Celie’s trust in the family is betrayed, yet her father still relies on her loyalty to protect him from her mother, who confronts Celie about her pregnancy” (Hubert, p.10). The home, which should be the place of refuge for a child, becomes Celie’s prison of violence and abuse. And of course she never even thinks about the possibility that what Alphonso does to her might be wrong. This is probably due to the fact that Celie is Christian and thus believes in and obeys the fourth commandment of the bible saying that one has to respect and honour one’s mother and father.

As if the ongoing abuse by her stepfather and the mother-role Celie has to fulfil were not enough to bear, she soon gets pregnant and ones again has no clue what is happening to her. Alphonso forbids her to go to school and Celie cannot understand why. The only thing she and Nettie realise is that “ […] I’m all the time sick and fat” (p. 12) but Alphonso puts an end to the discussion about going to school by saying “[y]ou to dump to keep going to school […]” (p. 11) and thus prevents her access to education, which is crucial for leading an independent life. Celie has no idea about pregnancy and giving birth and so much the bigger is Celie’s astonishment when she gives birth to a child. To prevent herself from the anger of her mother and having the threat of her step-father in mind she tells that the baby is God’s not at least due to the fact that Celie “[…] know[s] no other man […] (p. 4) which underlines her youthful inexperience. It is s great conflict within Celie to feel like and actually still to be a child on the one hand but to be treated like a woman with all the duties of an adult on the other hand. Short time after becoming a mother Celie has to cope with the next shock in her live. Alphonso takes her new-born baby away from her while she is sleeping. His taking away the child without saying anything to Celie makes clear that he considers the baby to be his possession as well, with which he can do whatever he pleases, and it is a further refusal of human treatment towards Celie who is once again condemned to helplessness. Celie assumes that he has killed it and from now on she lives in the supposition that she lives under one roof not only with her torturer but also with the murderer of her child. Due to the fact that her mother has died she is left utterly alone and totally at Alphonso’s mercy.

She gets pregnant again but this child is taken away from her as well. This time she believes that Alphonso has sold the child to a couple she does not know. Once again there is a connotation of slavery in the act of selling an unwanted baby as many slaveholders sold the children they had with their slaves in order to make profit and to protect their reputation. Celie’s reaction to this dramatic incident might be a little confusing at first sight as

“[…] we hear this young woman confess to happiness that this extraordinary, inhuman act of "salvation" has, in fact, happened to her baby. This is Walker's way of emphasizing the fact that life with Fonso is a deadly nightmare.” (Smith).

And Celie is more than glad to have her child out of that nightmare so that there is only one person left she has to worry about: Nettie. She recognises that her stepfather is losing his interest in her due to her appearance with mother-milk running down her body, which is also an outer sign for her loss. As Alphonso starts to show an increasing interest in Nettie it becomes obvious that Celie’s motherly love which she can not realise in her own children is transferred to her younger sister for whom Celie feels responsible: “I see him looking at my little sister. She scared. But I say I’ll take care of you. With God help.” (p. 5). She does everything to please Alphonso, for instance dressing up like her stepmother but he beats her for this appearance “[…] but he do it to me anyway” (p.9). She even gives Nettie the advice to marry her suitor to get her out of Alphonso’s reach because, like a mother, Celie only has Nettie’s best interest at heart and believes and hopes that she is better off with marrying Mr ___ than with living in the constant risk of being abused by her father. Another thing that becomes obvious in Celie’s following letters is that she has lost an important female attribute due to the repeated sexual abuses by Alphonso, namely her ability of getting pregnant which is shown by her statement that “[a] girl at church say you git big if you bleed every month. I don’t bleed no more” (p.7). What is a loss for Celie is some kind of positive argument for Alphonso when he tries to talk Mr_____ into taking his oldest daughter Celie instead of marrying Nettie because he makes clear that “[y]ou can do everything just like you want to and she ain’t gonna make you feed it or clothe it.” (p. 10). The fact that he refers to her former pregnancies by saying: “She spoiled. Twice” (p. 9) underlines that “[m]otherhood is a dirty word in Fonso's mouth; he has no feeling for Celie's (and other women's) sensitivity.” (Smith). After all that Alphonso has done to Celie he makes clear that he has no use for her and “[…] got to git rid of her […because…] she a bad influence on my other girls […]” (p. 10). Thus he implies that Celie is a promiscuous girl who got pregnant without being married and now is a potential risk due to the fact that her sisters might imitate her allegedly sinful behaviour. Furthermore, to make sure that nobody believed her if she would tell the opposite of his story, he lets Mr______ know that “[s]he tell lies” (p. 10), although this is not necessary because Celie has already resigned herself to her apparently unavoidable fate and is no threat to the reputation of her father. She has imposed silent passivity on herself.

The cruelty of the relationship between Celie and Alphonso - actually Celie’s first contact to a man - is very influential in her future feelings and behaviour towards men. Alphonso misuses his naturally higher position, which he has as an adult man towards a girl in his authoritarian position as a father, to impose his will on Celie. In view of the conditions under which Celie had to live while being an adolescent it is understandable that “I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.” (p. 7). With regard to Alphonso one has to say that “[t]o this man, the women of The Color Purple are interchangeable, used for sex and then for work” (Hubert, p. 10). Thus he is married three times and even turns to his stepdaughters to satisfy his needs. He substitutes an “exhausted” woman with a “fresh” one because what counts for him is that his wishes and needs are satisfied no matter by whom. When Celie is out of reach for Alphonso due to her marriage with Mr_____ he turns to Nettie who consequently fleas from home to protect herself. Although Celie is never able to fight Alphonso for herself she hopes that justice is done unto him and he gets what he deserves as she states: “When they [Celie’s brothers] git big they gon fight him. Maybe kill […]” (p. 18). As she is caught in passivity she relies on others to do what she cannot but hopes for. The experience of sexual abuse by a person that Celie normally should be able to trust in becomes a silent companion in her live because she is not able to tell anybody. It is only when she meets Shug that she can release her secret and thus deal with her past.

When Celie finds out that Alphonso is not her real father she feels the need to see him again, which shows that the abuse had such a high impact on her that she could not forget it throughout so many years, and she “[…] offers Fonso an opportunity to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Fonso, however, has no apology for Celie; time has not altered his character.” (Rose). Instead of regretting what he has done to her he lets his new wife admire him for raising children that were not his as if his kind of care had been an act of humanity. Moreover he has the audacity to state that “[a]ny man would have done what I done” (p. 164) which illustrates that he is not aware of what he has done to Celie but sees himself as the saviour of children who otherwise would have had to grow up without a father. But Celie is not able to contradict him but remains silent as always in his presence. She does not have the strength yet to release the pain and anger she must feel while meeting the tormentor of her childhood.

The fact that Alphonso again is married with a girl that is younger than fifteen and who depends on him because he owns the land her parents live on only adds to the perception that it is normal for Alphonso to have sexual relationships with young, inexperienced, and controllable females.

One day Celie is told that her stepfather has died and that she is his heiress but “[…] anything coming from him, I don’t want it” (p. 220). The first thing Celie thinks receiving this news is that he has been killed showing that this is still what Celie thinks he deserves, but he died during being in bed with his wife which underlines that he has not changed until death. He died just the same way he lived, namely satisfying his needs by taking advantage of a young, dependent woman. As he was not willing to change he ironically died by having sex with his wife, which might be a metaphor for the fact that if men do not change their sexist behaviour towards women it is this behaviour that has no chance to last and might kill them.

Alphonso’s death is synonymous with Celie’s finally getting a real home symbolising the compensation of her betrayed wish of having a loving family. It is a place that from the beginning was entitled to her as the house never was Alphonso’s possession but belonged to Celie’s mother. “[T]he quick cedar smoke exorcism that she and Shug perform is a simple and powerful way of showing that Evil (of which Fonso is the most dramatic personification) has been purged from her life.” (Rose).

Nevertheless Celie has not been able to stand up to Alphonso while he was still alive. It is his sudden death that seems to be the punishment for his deeds. To put it in a nutshell one can say that the abuse and oppression has an influence on Celie’s future relationships to men in so far as, since she has learned so young of age that she has nothing else to expect of men than violence and disrespect, she believes that all men are alike and not able to change.

2.2. Celie and Albert

The relationship between Celie and Albert is the most important representation of black-on-black violence in the novel. Celie is an object to Albert, which he purchases in some kind of trade with Alphonso in which “[…] he appraises her from horseback, much as he would reckon the worth of a farm animal, and then he decides to take her--after Fonso reassures him that a cow is included in the bargain” (Rose). She is a substitute for his murdered wife supposed to care for his children and doing the housework. And as he considers her as his possession he believes that he can do with her whatever he pleases. Caught in this loveless marriage Celie is confronted with nothing more than a continuation of what she has already experienced throughout her childhood. In the face of a dominant master-like husband, she has to fulfil the role of some kind of servant or slave always being at his disposal and, if not working or caring for his children, satisfying his sexual needs. Although other women tell her that she has to fight in order to improve her situation and to make Mr_____ recognise that he cannot treat her that way, Celie stays passive wondering “[w]hat good it do? I don’t fight, I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.” (p. 22). This she does by pretending not to be a living human being but “I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man.” (p. 23). How bad the situation is for Celie becomes obvious as she states that living this way with Mr____ and his children is worse than being buried to her. Although Celie is described by others as the perfect housekeeper and stepmother so that Mr____ “[…] couldn’t have done better if he tried” (p. 21) she still does not get respect or at least appreciation for what she does but treated as non-valuable object instead of a person: “He look at me. It like he looking at the earth.” (p. 21). Thus Celie is constantly reminded of Alphonso who has treated her the same way. This disrespect is even intensified when Albert expects of Celie to help him dress up for meeting his mistress Shug Avery. This underlines that he does not consider their marriage as a worthy relationship but rather sees his wife as his servant or even as his slave whose emotions can be neglected. But Celie is already used to his interest in other women because Mr___ uses every chance to flirt and even in church “Mr_____ sit back by the door gazing here and there. The womens smile in his direction every chance they git. He never look at me or even notice.” (p. 42).

When he prepares himself to meet his mistress Mr_____ asks Celie for her opinion about his look and Celie is so surprised that she cannot answer immediately because this is the first time that her husband seems to care about what she thinks. Thus one can guess that they never had a real conversation because Mr____ was never interested in what Celie had to say, which is caused by the fact that he considers her as property instead of a human being with own thoughts and feelings. He is also not interested in what Celie thinks when he finally brings his mistress in their house and makes his wife care for her.

Celie on the other hand does not consider Albert as an equal partner as well but as an authority. She adapts the perception of their relationship as it is defined by Albert. She does not call him neither by his first name nor by his family name but just Mr_____. This form of address seems appropriate for a servant talking to his/ her boss but not for a wife talking to her husband and implies the subordination of Celie, a position that ensures Albert’s domination and keeps her from facing him at eye level. Celie does not have the strength to release her anger but literally swallows it so that […] after while every time I got mad, or start to feel mad, I got sick. Felt like throwing up. Then I start to feel nothing at all” (p. 40). This repression is the same she had already suffered from when she had to endure the abuse of her father and was forced to keep it a secret.

So far the relationship between Celie and Albert was based on violence and fear. But the bond between Celie and Albert is strengthened when Albert's father arrives and is outraged because his son has put up Shug Avery in his house. Although Albert tells his father in Celie’s presence that he always has and will love Shug she feels united with him as she shares his feelings and thus the rejection of Mr_____’s father and his opinion. Their common wish to defend Shug causes that “[t]his the closest us ever felt” (p. 53). It is Celie’s love for Shug and her disinterest in Albert that make her ignore the affair between the both of them. Still she is treated like a slave by Albert. The connotation of slavery is once more underlined when Mr____’s property is called plantation on Harpo’s advertisement for his nightclub “Harpo’s of ____ plantation” (p.69). This puts emphasise on the fact that Celie lives on a plantation without even recognising it. As she works there her live parallels that of a slave.

It is only after Celie reveals to Shug that her husband beats her and Shug confronting Albert, that it is put an end to the domestic violence. Out of a sudden Albert even seems to care about Celie’s needs as he bothers to improve their sex life which has been compared to going to the toilet by Celie beforehand. But “ [h]is doing so, however, seems more of an effort to please Shug than it does to please Celie.” (Rose). Due to the fact the he acts out of an obligation he feels towards Shug who had criticised him for his behaviour towards Celie but not because his attitude towards his wife has changed, he fails.

When Celie finally finds out that Albert has hidden the letters her sister Nettie has written Celie’s anger is released. Due to not receiving a single letter in so many years she thought that the only person she ever loved besides Shug was dead. The fact that Albert has done this to her hurts her more than all the abuse she had to cope with for so many years. It is literally the straw that broke the camel’s back and causes an unbearable rage in Celie so that the only thing she can think of is to kill Albert. But Shug keeps her from committing murder to protect her from the consequences. “Clearly, Albert has structured his life around deliberately punishing both Nettie and Celie--for Nettie's rebuff long ago and for Celie's not being either Nettie or Shug.” (Rose) but he does not really understand what he does to Celie and pretends to be unsuspecting: “I thought you was finally happy, he say. What wrong now?” (p. 180). In the face of so much cruelty and knowing that she can rely on others to support her, Celie decides to leave Albert.

When she reveals her plan to Albert he reacts like a little child telling Celie that she will not be able to live without him. Out of spite Albert claims that “[…] nobody crazy or backward enough to want to marry you […]” (p.186) not considering that he has married Celie. But Celie is unstoppable and the anger she has held back for many years empowers her to finally stand up to Albert and explodes in a sweeping blow as Celie also takes the opportunity to call Harpo to account when he tries to interfere. Albert tries to keep Celie from leaving by saying “[o]ver my dead body” (p. 180) but his threats do not have power over her anymore. That is why he sees his only chance to get her to give up her plan in attacking her confidence and thus he defines her the following: “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.” (p. 187). Sartre once said that “[i]nsofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on the qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.” (Christophe, p. 103). Keeping this in mind and recapitulating the life Celie has led so far only one conclusion can be drawn namely that Celie has been Albert’s slave. “For Mr_______, Celie is what he wants her to be; and to the extent that he interprets his wife’s being and controls her existence, she exists only by and for him, not for herself” (Christophe, p. 103) but now Celie has the power to free herself from the wrong appraisal of herself which Albert always tried to make her believe in. Moreover she even puts a curse on Albert and leaves him stuttering because she has silenced him as he has always silenced her. Her proclamation “But I’m here.” (p. 187) is her final liberation and shows that her self-esteem has awoken. She knows that she is a valuable person that deserves to be treated with respect.

Left by his wife and his mistress Celie’s curse starts to work and Albert turns into a wrack within a very short time. His bad conscious lies heavy on his mind: “[T]he worse part was having to listen to his own heart.” (p. 203). He is dependent on his son who has to take over what Celie has done before. It becomes clear that it is Albert who cannot live on his own and not Celie as he has predicted. His situation only improves when Harpo can make him compensate for what Celie had to suffer from by sending her all of Nettie’s letters. This is the turning point in Albert’s character. He finally realises that he has done many mistakes and that he himself is the one to blame for what has happened to him. While Celie has the hope for the return of her sister and children for Albert there is nothing left to hope for and he has nobody whose there for him.

Celie’s leaving is the turning point not only in her life but in Albert’s life as well. Her change is even visible in her appearance when she returns so that even Albert does not recognise her at first. Albert who just knew a submissive slave-like Celie is surprised by the strong, independent woman that she is now. Celie has succeeded in losing herself from the definition Albert had out onto her beforehand. It is this new strength and the memory of Celie’s curse and anger the day she left him that cause Albert to feel what Celie during their marriage had to endure so that when they meet again for the first time “I [Celie] look in his eyes and see he feeling scared of me. Well, good, I think. Let him feel what I felt.” (p. 201). Her change has not made her forget how her husband has treated her. But she slowly recognises that Mr____ has changed as he shows compassion for Sofia and her sick daughter Henrietta.

“You know, he say, you use to remind me of a bird. Way back when you first come to live with me. […] And the least little thing happen, you looked about to fly away. […] I saw it, he said, just too big a fool to let myself care.” (p. 229). He was so influenced by the ideals he had learned from his overpowering father and by his own ego telling him to oppress a weaker person to show his masculinity. But he is not the only man by whom Celie has experienced violence so that she points out that “[…] men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.” (p. 230). All men are alike to Celie because each and every man in her live has treated her and other women in the same oppressive way. Up to now she has not experienced that a man changed in his attitude towards women. The more astonished is she when she experiences that Albert starts to be compassionate about Celie because she has been left by Shug due to the fact that he can relate to that feeling. For the first time he shows that he cares what she thinks and feels underlining the alteration in Albert. This empathy makes Celie feel closer to Albert than she has ever felt before and again it is their shared love for Shug that unites the both of them so that Celie gets the impression that “Mr____ seem to be the only one understand my feeling.” (p. 235). The man that never cared about her and for whom she never was more worth than dirt now more and more her confidant. That causes Celie to get over the hate she once felt for him: “I don’t hate him for two reasons. One, he love Shug. And two, Shug use to love him. Plus, look like he trying to make something out himself.” (p. 236).

But now they are not only united in their love for Shug but become friends and start to work together. Celie starts to teach him how to sew:

“What is traditionally women’s work, seen as degrading for men, is here propagated as work done by people who like to do it rather than as being gender specific. It is also work that expresses the possibility of communication, and work that can lead to a common goal.” (Thielmann, p. 74)

Through sewing together like Celie has already done it with Shug and Sofia Mr____ is included in her network of love and support. The fact that she has to teach him how to do it makes clear that Albert has to work on himself in order to become a contributing member in Celie’s quilt. By sewing together Celie teaches him to question the gender-roles he always believed in and Albert appreciates Celie’s attention and that she shows him what tolerance is. He starts to realise that “[t]he more I wonder, he say, the more I love. And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.” (p. 256). This is also the time in which Celie and Albert consider each other as equals, which can be seen in Celie’s finally calling Mr____ Albert.

The circumstance that their relationship has changed dramatically is also visible when he defends her against other men and calls Celie ‘lady’. While in the past he did not even seem to realise that Celie is a woman he now treats her with the politeness and respect a woman deserves. Due to him seeing her in a different light now he even asks her to marry him. But although Celie recognises that he is a different person now she refuses his proposal by saying “[n]aw, I still don’t like frogs, but let’s us be friends […]” (p. 257).

All in all one can say that it was Celie’s breaking out of her silence that did not only enable herself to change but had a renewing effect on other people’s lives such as Albert’s as well. When she broke her silence, criticized Albert’s behaviour, and made him face the consequences the basis for the oppression of women, namely silent acceptance, was destroyed. It enabled Celie and Albert to redefine themselves and start their lives anew. The alteration both of them went through even allowed them to forgive what has happened and become friends.

2.3. Sofia and Harpo

On the contrary to the marriage between Celie and Mr_____ the relationship between Harpo and Sofia is based on love. But before they can be together they have some obstacles to overcome. Sofia’s father holds the opinion that Harpo is not good enough for his daughter because his mother caused a scandal by having an affair and being killed by her lover afterwards. Nevertheless Harpo and Sofia manage to be together due to Sofia’s pregnancy although Mr_____ tries to interfere by insinuating that Harpo is not the father of Sofia’s unborn child. Instead of defending the woman he loves Harpo stays totally passive, but Sofia shows that she can speak up for herself and does not need Harpo to supply her but has a sister on whom she can rely. She underlines that Harpo is no independent man yet anyway as “[h]e still living here with you [Mr___]. What food and clothes he git, you buy.” (p. 32). Moreover she tells Harpo what to do thus showing who takes the lead in their relationship: “Naw, Harpo, you stay here. When you free, me and the baby be waiting.” (p. 32).

In the beginning of their marriage both Sofia and Harpo feel comfortable with how tasks are distributed between them. But Mr___ disapproval and Harpo’s wish for the respect of his father make him question his relationship as it is. Although Harpo, according to Celie, seems to be proud of the fact that his wife has her own will and is not afraid to contradict him and although he appreciates to be able to do what is considered women’s work as “[…] he love the part of housekeeping a heap more ’en [Sofia]” (p. 57), his ego cannot stand the fact that he is not considered to be a man by his father and he starts to imitate his behaviour towards Celie in order to get respect. Henceforth Harpo beats Sofia to make her submissive and to force her into obeying his orders; a quality that Harpo misinterprets as a sign of love. He tells Celie that “I want her to do what I say, like you do for Pa” (p. 60) and although Celie tries to make Harpo understand that she does not obey Mr____ because she loves him but because she is scared of him Harpo does not see the point. She tries to show him that he should be lucky because he has a good and loving wife but as his father is his role model he wants to have the same kind of relationship that he has.

But Sofia, on the contrary to Celie, does not stay passive but fights back. “I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me” (p. 39) – a statement that shows that Sofia loves and respects herself so that she will let nobody treat her that way. The renunciation of her love is preferable to relationship based on violence and oppression. Due to Sofia’s physical strength Harpo as no chance in beating her. In spite of his repeated tries to make Sofia obedient Sofia keeps the upper hand and Harpo starts to force-feed himself in order to become big and strong so that he is superior to his wife and can finally defeat her. But the only consequence resulting from his constant eating is that “[h]e begin to look like he big” (p. 59). At the same time Sofia wears his old pants and does men’s work. This undermines Harpo’s masculinity and shows that his wife is manlier than he is. Sofia still is the boss in their relationship. This causes Harpo to take advantage of every possible opportunity to show his wife that he is the man in their household. Even when they are in bed together he is more competitive than affectionate like he used to be. This has an influence on Sofia because “[o]nce he git on top of me I think bout how that’s where he always want to be. […]. The fact he can do it like that make me want to kill him.” (p. 63). Due to Harpo’s alteration so that he cannot think of anything else than making his wife submissive causes Sofia to leave him. Although she still loves him she feels that she deserves better than that. Furthermore she becomes tired of fighting, as she has already had to fight when she was a child. She does not want it to live this way for the rest of her life. She recognises that she cannot change him and that “[h]e don’t want a wife, he want a dog.” (p. 62). Although Harpo is about to lose the woman he loves he does not admit that he has made a mistake but lets his wife leave without trying to hold her back or even saying anything at all. Being on his own now he lives on as if nothing has happened. He converts the house that has been home to him and his family into a nightclub and he who “[u]sed to be a homebody, now all the time in the road.” (p. 66). Sofia on the other hand finds help in her sister who lets her and her children live in her house.

After a while Harpo and Sofia meet each other again when Sofia visits Harpo’s jukejoint. Although they are no couple anymore and each of them has a new partner Harpo still tries to have influence on Sofia. He tells her that “[a] woman need to be at home” (p. 78). He still calls her his wife and seems to be more interested in Sofia than in his new girlfriend. Although he does not say anything it seems as if he does not want her to leave again: “[Sofia] try to pull away from Harpo grip. He hold her tight.” (p. 78). But still he cannot apologize for what he has done and admit his mistake. Thus Sofia prefers staying with her new boyfriend who may be strong enough to be superior to Sofia but who does not use his strength to oppress her but considers it to be his “[…] job to love her and take her where she want to go” (p. 78). This is something that Harpo does not understand. He still thinks it is worth striving for being the one in a relationship who has control over one’s partner. It is not comprehensible for him that a man lets a woman have her will to make her happy.

When Sofia is arrested for insulting and beating the wife of the white major Harpo once again is totally powerless and cannot help her but has to leave it up to his new girlfriend Squeak to free Sofia. This powerlessness finds its zenith when Sofia tells Harpo that he is not the father of their last child. In this situation Harpo is totally emasculated and left with nothing to say at all.

The relationship between Harpo and Sofia changes after Celie has moved away. As Harpo starts to show interest in his father who needs support although he has never supported him, Sofia’s feelings for Harpo revive. From now on she can see something else in him than a man who needs to suppress others to feel manly and is willing to forgive him. Harpo has learned from his father’s negative example what can happen to him if his only business is how to gain control over other people. He does not want to end up lonely but is willing to change to win back Sofia. Nevertheless there are some sexist ideals left in him that are visible in statements like: “But peoples use to men doing this sort of thing [carrying the coffin at the funeral of Sofia’s mother]. Women weaker, he say. People think they weaker, say they weaker, anyhow. Women spose to take it easy. Cry if you want to. Not try to take over.” (p. 196). But he slowly realises that Sofia can make decisions that concern her on her own because as Harpo puts it “ […] you think your way is as good as anybody else’s. Plus, it yours.” (p.197). Thus he also accepts that she starts to work to contribute to the income of the family. What Harpo would have considered as threatening his masculinity in the past is now something he tries to respect because “It seem to make her happy. And I can take care of anything come up at home.” (p. 254). Finally both of them are able to do what makes them happy although their activities may be considered as offending against gender-roles by others. And even Harpo admits that he has made mistakes in the past: “Well, you got me behind you anyway, say Harpo. And I loves every judgment you ever made. […] Everybody learn something in life, she [Sofia] say.” (p. 255).


[1] Quotations that are taken from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, paperback edition (first published 1982); London: Phoenix, 2004, will just be marked by declaring the page number throughout this paper.

Excerpt out of 44 pages


Male Domination and Female Resistance
The Oppression of Women in Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Department of English and North American Studies)
Anglistik/ Amerikanistik
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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621 KB
Alice Walker, oppression, women, Celie, men, restistance, domination, color, purple
Quote paper
Antje Bernstein (Author), 2007, Male Domination and Female Resistance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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