Racial and gender oppression in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple"

Authorial background, intentions and public criticism

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2016

14 Seiten, Note: 3,0



1. Introduction

2. Oppression of women in The Color Purple
2.1. Sexism
2.2. Racial Oppression

3. Authorial background, intentions and public criticism

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

The Color Purple is one of the first novels that deals in detail with the oppression of African-American women. On the one hand it has been the first book by a female African-American writer that received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has until today been part of the canon of the African-American women’s literature, but on the other hand it also has been criticized for the negative portrayal of men. In this term paper I want to analyze the intentions of the author Alice Walker to write about the theme of female oppression.

At first I exemplify the two occurring forms of female oppression, sexism and racism, by the main characters of the novel. By regarding the numerous interviews Alice Walker has given concerning her writings and by regarding her biography, I will outline her intentions and determine whether she wrote about female oppression due to her own experiences with the theme or whether she had other motives.

2. Oppression in The Color Purple

One of the major themes in The Color Purple is the oppression of African-American women by African- American men and the racial discrimination of them by the society. Oppression can be defined as the “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” (http://www.merriam- webster.com/dictionary/oppression). In the Color Purple this power is mainly exercised by men over their wives. It is represented by the violence and sexism husbands and fathers use in their household against children and especially women to maintain their position of power. This oppression of the other sex is best shown by the character of Celie, who bares the psychological and physical violence by her husband Mr._ for as long as she can. Additionally characters like Shug Avery and Sofia have to deal with oppression throughout their whole life, but somehow manage to fight against it.

2.1. Sexism

Sexism refers to the oppression of one sex by the other based on the traditional stereotypes of sexual roles. It is the “discrimination against people on the basis of sex.” (http://www.yourdictionary.com/sexism#websters) In the Color purple this discrimination of a person based on sex is represented by the character Celie. Already in the beginning of the novel the young Celie is silenced after being raped by her stepfather. He tells her to keep the secret to herself: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It`d kill your mammy.” (Walker 1991, 3) She is not only physically oppressed by her father by repeatedly being beaten and raped, she is also forbidden to speak about her shame. She obeys his order and therefore writes only to God in letters to be able to tell at least somebody about what happened to her. (Hooks 1993, 284) In the first sentence she crosses out “I am”. She does not erase is, but writes next to it “I have” (Walker 1991, 3), which shows that she is unsure of her status as a subject. (Berlant 1993, 211) She repeatedly questions her status as a subject in the novel. When her stepfather marries her to Mr._ the talk between them, which she tells God of, sounds like a business negotiation over property. (http://digitalcommons.auctr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1774&context=dissertations) Her stepfather says: “She´d come with her own linen. She can take that cow she raise down there back of the crib. […] She can work like a man.” (Walker 1991, 10) When she is treated badly at the house of Mr._ by both him and his children, she does not know how to oppose the behavior of the others. Like an object she is passive and therefore cannot fight against her husband. When her sister Nettie tries to support her and asks her to fight back, she says: “But I don`t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive.”(Walker 1991, 17) Even though she tries to bare the violence by her husband, Nettie sees that her sister Celie does not really live: “It`s like seeing you buried.” (Walker 1991, 18) Even though she realizes that she is treated like an object by her husband, she only reflects it in her letters to God, but does not even think of possibilities to fight him. When Mr._`s sister Kate tells him to buy his wife new clothes, it seems to Celie as if he sees her not as a subject, but as an object and something one can refer to as an “it”, because it is not worth the status of a person. When he looks at her, it seems as if he looks right through her: “It like he looking at the earth. It need something? His eyes say.” (Walker 1991, 20) After being beaten several times by Mr._ she herself pretends to be an object to protect herself. “He beat me like the children. […] I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie you a tree.” At this point she tries to escape the painful situation and depersonalizes herself by trying to become inert. She pretends to be something else than herself ”to transcend [her] situation by transforming [her] reality”. (Christophe 1999, 101) She is unable to determine her own life and therefore does not feel herself as an organic whole. (Weiss cited by Christophe 1999, 104) For Mr._ Celie is someone who is there to satisfy his needs. She has to take care of his house, the children and to satisfy his sexual needs. He completely determines her existence. This patriarch opinion is even supported by his sisters, who visit the family: “When a woman marry she spose to keep a decent house and a clean family.” (Walker 1991, 19) Their opinion reflects the stereotypical notion in the society of the early 20th century that women have to take care of the household. Women who did not fulfill the moral expectations of the society at that time were often sidelined. A person who does not fulfill these expectations of the community is Shug Avery. She is sassy and always speaks out what she thinks. She is promiscuous and speaks openly about her sex life. She does not fulfill the moral standards of the community members. When she, for instance, becomes sick, nobody in town wants to take care of her. Not even her mother or father take her in. In church people gossip about her and even the preacher describes her as the worst example of how a person should act. Celie writes to God: “Even the preacher got his mouth on Shug Avery, now she down. […] He talk about a strumpet in short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin. Singing for money and taking other women mens. Talk about slut, hussy, heifer and streetcleaner.” (Walker 1991, 40) Shug Avery is only recognized for having sex with men. She is desired by men as a sex symbol, but when she cannot fulfill this role as a sex symbol anymore, she is outcast by the whole society.

In Mr. `_s opinion the husband is the head of the family, the family patriarch, and therefore has the right to decide over the lives of the others. He exploits his wife and his children for the work on the fields. When the cotton on the fields has to be picked, he leaves the work to them: “No reason for me [to work]. His daddy say. You here, ain`t you? He say this nasty.” (Walker 1991, 27) The patriarch hierarchy within Mr._`s family can be compared to the hierarchy that developed after the end of the Civil War within the new system of share-cropping. After the Civil War the U.S. government abolished slavery and replaced it by share-cropping, a system in which former slaves were able to work and live on the land of a landowner. While within slavery landowners and overseers had the right to punish men and women in order to keep the discipline, the sharecropping system was ruled by the husbands of the family. The cropper had to give a certain amount of his crop to the landlord. Therefore the whole family had to work hard to be able to give him the requested amount. Even the children and women had to work on the fields. To keep up the work discipline and to manage the workload, husbands often forces their families to work in the fields. The cropper Thomas Ferguson for example agreed in his contract to “control (his) family and make them work and make them behave themselves.” (http://scholarworks.uno.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=soc_facpubs) The share- cropping system gave the men control as family patriarchs and therefore also the possibility to oppress the ones under them. In the early 20th century some of the share-croppers were able to buy their land from the landlords. The patriarch opinion of the African-American men nevertheless could not be as simply abolished as the share-cropping system. This is best shown by the example of the relation between Mr._ and his son Harpo. The patriarch opinion of Mr._ that a man should have power over his wife and children is passed on from one generation to the next one. When Mr._`s son Harpo asks his father why he beats Celie, Mr._ answers “because she`s my wife”. (Walker 1991, 22) He passes on the opinion that it is allowed for husbands to physically oppress their wife by violence and that there has to be no reason for this violence. When Harpo marries Sofia, a strong and proud African-American woman, Mr._ tells him to beat her in order to gain control over her: “Wives is like children. You have to let`em know you got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.” (Walker 1991, 34) When Harpo beats Sofia, she, other than Celie, does not stay passive in the role of the oppressed. She fights against Harpo and leaves him with the help of her sisters. Mr._ also passes on the opinion that only women work in the household and that men do not have to do such work. When Mr_´s sister Kate visits the family, Harpo refuses to help Celie with the housework: “Women work. I`m a man.” (Walker 1991, 20)

It is the bond between women that embodies the possibility to liberate oneself out of the oppression by men. When Celie meets Shug she is, for the first time, able to speak with a person about what happens to her. She tells her that Mr._ beats her and that her father raped her when she was young. By the love of Shug Celie becomes a subject again. She realizes that she is someone, because she is desired by somebody else. She discovers her own sexuality and consequently herself as a person that lives: “My life stop when I left home, I think. But then I think again. It stop with Mr._ maybe, but start up again with Shug.” (Walker 1991, 72) With the help of Shug, Celie is able to fight the oppression by Mr._. When Celie and Shug want to go to a juke joint sing, Mr. tries to keep his patriarch power over Celie. He expects her to stay at home and therefore uses the traditional stereotype that women have to take care of their homes and stay in the house. He tries to restrict her social life and insists that “women don`t go to places like that. […] My wife can`t do this.” (Walker 1991, 64) With the help of Shug, Celie goes to the juke joint anyhow in the end and takes a first step out of her oppression. Shug also helps her to find out what happened to her sister Nettie after she left the house of Mr._. When she tells her that Mr._ hid the letters by Nettie from her, she liberates herself out of the oppression by Mr._. During a family dinner at Independence Day she frees herself from the dependence of her husband. She holds a knife against him and tells him: “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 1991, 170) Without the help of Shug she would not have been able to free herself from Mr._. She lets Celie live at her house and without her she would not have had a place to live. After Celie leaves Mr._, he finally realizes what he has done wrong to Celie. When Shug leaves both of them, they feel connected to each other and become friends. “Here us is, I thought, two old fools left over from love, keeping each other company under the stars.” Mr._ as well as Celie go through a transformation in the end. Celie turns from a dependent, oppressed woman into an independent woman that leads her own business with a store and her own house. Mr._ changes from a tyrannical, violent and sexist oppressor to an understanding friend of Celie. He even helps in the household in the end. He helps her with sewing pants for her business, a work that is generally considered to be women`s work. The chain of inherited sexism seems to be broken at the end of the novel. Mr._`s son Harpo works in the household and seems to like it. He comes back together with Sofia. When she starts working in Celie´s store, he even says: “What I`m gon mind for? It seem to make her happy. And I can take care of anything come up at home.” The lines between the traditional roles of the sexes is blurred in the end. Women like Sofia and Celie work in stores and have their own business, while men work in the household.


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Racial and gender oppression in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple"
Authorial background, intentions and public criticism
Universität Rostock  (Anglistik)
Black History in America
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
racial, alice, walker, color, purple, authorial
Arbeit zitieren
Katharina Pangritz (Autor), 2016, Racial and gender oppression in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/511783


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