English / Alice Walker Presents The Female Network As A Key Theme In The Novel ‘The Color Purple’. Discuss

Alice Walker Presents The Female Network As A Key Theme In The Novel ‘The Color Purple’. Discuss

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Autor:  anton  01 January 2011
Tags:  Walker,  Presents,  Female,  Network
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Alice Walker presents the female network as a key theme in the novel ‘The Color Purple’. Discuss

‘The Color Purple is a novel which deals with what it means to be poor, black and female in the rural South during the first half of the twentieth century#,’ a period defined by the patriarchal society in which women were uneducated and kept oppressed by the male dominated society. Walker uses the female network to teach the reader that through unity, strength and support of other women the female characters are able to rise, stand up to the men that keep them oppressed and begin to live.

The character of Celie is central to the female network; through Celie Walker has aimed to present a process of emancipation of a woman, body and soul, from the domination of men.

The novel is written in the form of letters ‘In using the epistolary style Walker is able to have her major character Celie express the impact of oppression on her spirit as well as her growing internal strength and final victory. This novel spans two generations of one poor rural black family , interweaving the personal with the flow of history; and the image of quilting is central to its concept and form. But in the Color Purple, the emphases are the oppression black woman experience in there relationships with black men (fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers) and the sisterhood they must share with each other in order to liberate themselves. As an image for these themes two sisters, Celie and Nettie, are the novel’s focal characters. Their letters, Celie’s to God, Nettie’s to Celie and finally Celie’s to Nettie, are the novel’s form.’#

She sees and portrays a world from the inside outward: she uses the eyes of Celie, a surname less, male-dominated and abused woman, who records her experiences in letters.

Celie writes her story in her own voice. She tells her life as only she knows it; a girl, merely a child, raped by her stepfather whom she believes is her natural father.

Celie finds herself beleaguered and victimized by what Todd describes as the ‘Scheme of patriarchy.’ Laying claim to the ‘right’ of pater familias. Albert attempts to impose a pattern of dominance and submission on his wife and children. ‘He beat me like he beat the children’ writes Celie, ‘It all I can do not to cry.’ Advising his son Harpo, Albert declares, ‘Wives is like children . You have to let ’ em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do better than a good sound beating.#’

When Nettie escapes from her stepfather she comes to live with Celie and Albert. Because she rebukes Albert’s amorous attentions, however she is forced to leave, and is not heard from for many years. Celie later discovers that Albert has been intercepting Nettie’s letters from Africa where she has gone with a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine who have adopted Celie’s two children. Albert’s unsuccessful attempts to expropriate or conceal Nettie’s letters suggest again, Walker’s intention to subvert male efforts to suppress black woman in life as well as letters. Over and over again , Celie accepts abuse and victimisation. When Harpo asks her what to do to control his wife Sofia, Celie, having internalised the principle of male domination, answers, ’Beat her#.’ When Celie next sees Harpo ’His face is a mess of bruises.’ Sofia , then, becomes Celie’s first model of resistance to sexual, and later, racial subjugation. Cheeky and rebellious Sofia is described as an “amazon of a woman.” She scorns rigid gender definitions and prefers fixing the leaky roof to fixing the evening dinner. Moreover as Harpo quickly learns , Sofia gives as good as she takes. ‘All my life I had to fight,’ Sofia explains to Celie, “ I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” Not only does Sofia resist Harpo’s attempts to impose submission, she is also jailed for “sassing” the mayor’s wife and knocking the mayor down when he slaps her for impudence.

Unlike Sofia however, “Celie submits to a system of beliefs and values which reinforce conventional notions of race, class and sex-and relegate her to a subordinate status. Celie submits to male authority because she accepts a theology which requires female subjugation to father and husband. Having been taught to “honor father and mother no matter what,” Celie “couldn’t be mad at [her] daddy because he [her] daddy.” She suffers Albert’s abuse for the same reason “Well, sometime Mr.____ git on me pretty hard, I have to talk to old maker but he is my husband. I shrug my shoulders.#”

“Old Maker” is for Celie, “big and old and tall and graybearded and white.” In linking her notion of divinity to a white male figure, Celie accepts a theology of self-denial. It is a theology which validates her inferior status and treatment as a black woman in a racist and sexist culture. Not only does she devalue herself but she attaches little value to a world which reflects her image as “black…pore…[and] a woman . . . nothing at all.”

If Albert separates Celie from Nettie he introduces her to Shug Avery his former mistress. Celie moves from a relationship with a stepfather who is sexually abusive to a relationship with her husband who exploits her labour and sex, to finally, a relationship with Shug Avery, who loves her, teaches her the reverence and mystery of her body, and the means of earning a livelihood through her own industry and creativity.

Opposite Celie in every way, Shug has the reputation of a high living adventurous, independent blues singer, whose life-style gives her greater freedom than Celie’s more conventional status. Yet when Celie nurses and coaxes Shug back to health, the two woman become intimate friends instead of rivals. Unlike the men who have subjugated Celie, Shug seeks neither to control nor possess her. Celie subsequently forms a relationship with Shug which evolves from a maternal, to a sororal, to an erotic attachment. Shug initiates Celie into an awareness of her own sexuality and an appreciation of her body-for despite the fact that she has had two children, Celie remains a “virgin” in that she has never shared a loving relationship. Until Shug introduces her to the beauty of her own body, Celie remains devoid of any sense of self-esteem or self value:

[Shug] say, Here take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it, have you?


She say, What, too shame even to go off and look at yourself?

And you look so cute too, she say laughing…

You come with me while I look, I say

And us run off to my room like two little prankish girls, you guard the door I say.

She giggle. Okay, she say. Nobody coming. Coast clear. I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips are black. Then inside look like a wet rose.

Celie ’s passivity and self-indifference are transformed into receptivity and responsiveness first to Shug, then to herself:

It a lot prettier than you thought, ain’t it? She say from the door:

It mine I say. Where the button?

Right up near the top she say. The part that stick out a little.

I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe.#”

If her own body has been devalued by the men in her life, Celie not only discovers her own sexuality in the relationship with Shug, but she also learns how to love another. The recognition of herself as beautiful and loving is the first step towards Celie’s independence and self acceptance. If Celie however, becomes more self-reliant, Shug becomes more nurturing and caring. In the course of the friendship, both woman are transformed.

“Unlike Celie, who derives her sense of self from the dominant white and male theology, Shug is a self-invented character whose sense of self is not male inscribed. Her theology allows a diving, self-authorised sense of self. Shug’s conception of god is both imminent and transcendent.” Shug rejects the scriptural notion of God: “Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white….When I out I thought God was white, and a man I lost interest.” Describing her god as “it,” Shug explains that God “god aint a he or a she.” God, for Shug, is not only someone to please, but to be pleased: “I think it pisses god off if you walk by the color purple somewhere and don’t notice it.#’

Celie begins to revise her own notions of god and man and her place within the scheme of patriarchy when she discovers, through the agency of Shug, the cache of letters which Albert has concealed from her. Not only does she discover that her sister and children are in Africa, perhaps separated from her forever, but that her real father had been lynched and her mother driven mad. These calamities and misfortunes shatter Celie’s faith in the “big…old…tall…graybearded” white man to whom she had been “praying and writing.” “He act just like all the other mens I know,” writes Celie, “trifling, forgetful, and lowdown.” Resisting the authority of a patriarchal god as well as that of her husband, Celie learns to assert herself in both writing and speaking. When she recognizes that “the god [she] has been writing is a man” who does not listen to “poor colored women,” she begins to address her letters to sister Nettie.#

Writing thus becomes, for Celie, a means of structuring her identity-her sense of self-in relationship to her sister, and by extension, a community of woman. The subsequent letters between Celie and Nettie stand as a profound affirmation of the creative and self creative power of the word. Because the letters, due to Albert’s expropriation, are never answered it is apparent that they function primarily for the benefit of the writers, rather than the recipients.

“Celie (like her creator, Walker) writes herself and her story into being. Moreover, the transformation of the letters represents and parallels, to some extent, the growth and change in the lives of the writers. Not only do Nettie’s letters become more formal didactic in style as she is educated in the manners and mores of the Olinka tribe, but Celie’s letters become longer and more sophisticated as she articulates a more reflective and complex sense of self. The correspondence between Celie and Nettie attests to the power of literacy and at the same time, reinforces the motifs of community and female bonding that underlines the novel.#”

Celie’s defiance of Albert is both a mark of increasing literacy, as well as a milestone in her journey toward maturity and independence:

“Mr____ start up from his seat . . . He look over at me. I thought you was finally happy, he say. What wrong now?

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.#”

Sewing and quilting are occupations in the novel in which woman-and sometimes men-participate. Sofia, Shug, and Celie all share in the art of quilting. Both Sofia and Shug contribute to making a quilt (“Sister’s Choice”) by donating patching material to Celie. It is both utilitarian and decorative art, and, equally, important, represents the collective and collaborative labour of women. Although associated with women and women’s culture quilting is an art particularly associated with the culture of rural, black, working-class women. It is a fitting emblem of the bonding between women.#

Both Celie and Shug have doubles in the novel. Celie and “Squeak” Harpo’s mistress, duplicate each other in some measure: both are victims of rape and incest by black and white men respectively. Sofia and Shug also function as doubles: both resist the conventional submissive and obedient roles expected of women, thus subverting the system of patriarchy. Tiring of Harpo’s attempts to control and dominate her, Sofia leaves and Harpo takes up with Squeak, who is submissive to him as Celie is to Albert. When Harpo begins to lose interest, however, Celie, under Shug’s tutelage realises that squeak has surrendered her right to self-entitlement by giving up her real name , Mary Agnes.#

The women in the novel forge bonds In other ways as well . Celie accedes to the violation of her body in order to protect her sister Nettie from the sexual advances of their stepfather. Squeak (Mary Agnes) , with her own body, secures Sofia’s release from jail. When Squeak decides to pursue a career as a blues singer, and leaves with Shug, it is Sofia who promises to care for Squeak’s daughter while she is in Memphis. Even Eleanor Jane, daughter of the white mayor’s wife (for whom Sofia has been forced to work as a maid) prepares special foods as a curative for Sofia’s youngest child, who is victim to a rare blood disease.

Each of these relationships, however, forms the part of a vaster network of communal relationships in which female bonding is the dominant connecting link. Challenging the hierarchal power relations exercised between men and women (and by implication, whites and blacks) are the relationships among the women based on co-operation and mutuality. Women share the children, the labour, and at times, the men. Ultimately it is the female bonding which restores the women to a sense of completeness and independence . The relationship between Celie and Shug, on the one hand, and between Celie and Nettie, on the other, exemplify the power and potential of this bonding.


Achebe, Chinua - ‘Things Fall Apart,’ (Heinemann, London, 1958.)

Alan, Tuzyline, Jita - ‘Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review.’ (Ohio, University Press, 1990.)

Bloom, Harold – ‘Alice Walker: Modern Critical Reviews’ (New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.)

Brown, Anne – ‘Alice Walker Reviewed’ (Washington, Swinley Publishing, 1991.)

Gates, Henry Louis - ‘Writing the subject: Reading The Color Purple.’ (Meridian Publishing, New York 1990)

Walker, Alice – ‘The Same River Twice: Honouring The Difficult. Alice Walkers account of the film production of A Color Purple. (Texas, P and S Publishing 1998.)

‘The Color Purple’ [Videorecording] Directed and produced by Steven Speilberg – London BBC 1995.

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