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FEMINIST THEMES IN ALICE WALKER’S THE COLOR PURPLE

Format: MS WORD  |  Chapter: 1-5  |  Pages: 65  |  1427 Users found this project useful  |  Price NGN3,000

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CHAPTER ONE

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

This Chapter serves as an introduction into the main study which gives an understanding of the feminist themes in Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’.

1.1       Background to the Study

Feminism is a movement that fights against the oppression of women. Within the feminist movement is a group of African-American women who fight against oppression, with emphasis to the treatment of females and stress how race and womanhood cannot be separated. This particular kind of feminism movement is often referred to as black feminism. Both African-American men and women have faced oppression in terms of race, class, and ethnicity. The difference between race and ethnicity is the fact that ethnicity is determined by cultural factors such as nationality, language and culture, while race is determined by physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair type (Betancourt, 631). The concept of oppression entails “any unjust situation where, systematically and over a long period of time, one group denies another group access to the resources of society” (Collins, 4). Race, ethnicity, class and gender are inextricably linked together, and even though African-American men have also been the victims of oppression in American society, there is an extra dimension of oppression for African-American women, since they also face oppression in terms of gender, but in a different way than African-American men have.

Feminism represents the important social, economic, and aesthetic values of the times which is especially concerned with the problems or rights of women. Friedan states that Feminism refers to a diverse variety of beliefs, ideas, movements, and agendas for action. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is “British author and critic Rebecca West remarks. Feminism is concerned with the marginalization of all women: that is, with their being relegated to a secondary position.” (Guerin 196) Feminism as a concept seeks to better the lot of women who are perceived to be sidelined by men in the prevailing scheme of things in the society. It also views issues from the woman’s angle. Putting it in other words, feminism alleges that woman as “the other” of man, has (since the genesis of human beings) been at the receiving end of society’s injustices such as oppression and suppression. Feminism thus aims at to establish or assert equality between men and women in a world which it regards as male-oriented. (James 89).

In the chaotic ebb and flow of human affairs, Alice Walker sees writing as a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the immediate world around her. Her recognition of misogyny and exploitation of the environment as parallel forms of male domination, undoubtedly takes an ecofeminist stance. The book shows Walker’s commitment to the cause of black women as well as to the cause of nature. She has openly declared her love of nature, which is one of the reasons why, she does not commit suicide. Walker’s writing is suffused with a concern for the environment. Walker reproves that the earth has become the nigger of the world and will assuredly undo us if we do not learn to care for it, revere it, and even worship it.

The book reveals the struggles faced by women to gain their own recognition as separate individuals that deserve fair and equal treatment both in America and in Africa. Male dominance is the norm in both regions. As Albert says "Men pose to wear the pants". It takes various dimensions from sexual aggression to religious abuse to domestic violence to mention but a few. In the very first letter, Celie tells of the abuse she suffers at the hands of the man she believes for a long time is her father.  The book reveals how Mary Agnes was raped by the white uncle whom she approached for help to get Sofia out of prison and Mr (Albert) also tries to force Nettie to submit to him before she leaves the house after fighting him off. Celie's sexual encounters with her husband, Mr- are sordid and unloving just do his business, get off, go to sleep" As Shug remarks, Celie "make it sound like he going to the toilet on you. Physical violence also seems to be a common occurrence, even in relationships which quite loves, like that between Harpo and his wife Sofia. He beats her because "the woman’s pose to mind." It is a respectable thing for a man to do to his wife, in his view.

Throughout The Colour 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.

Almost none of the abusers in Walker’s novel are stereotypical, one-dimensional monsters whom we can dismiss as purely evil. Those who perpetuate violence are themselves victims, often of sexism, racism, or paternalism. Harpo, for example, beats Sofia only after his father implies that Sofia’s resistance makes Harpo less of a man. Mr. is violent and mistreats his family much like his own tyrant like father treated him. Celie advises Harpo to beat Sofia because she is jealous of Sofia’s strength and assertiveness.

Women are exploited very seriously, especially Celie, who is married off to Albert to look after his children and is expected to work on the farm and submit without objection to all of Albert's demands and those of the children. She is also meant to accept Albert's affair with Shug Avery, which extends even to him sleeping with her under the same roof. In fact men are permitted to be promiscuous but women dare not. Notice how the preacher attacks Shug by implication because of her loose lifestyle, but men are allowed to behave as they wish. The novel's message is that women must stand up against the unfair treatment being melted to them and that they must do this by helping one another. The women in the novel, even those who have interests in the same men, nevertheless band together to support and sustain one another throughout the novel. The bond of sisterhood is important, both literally in the persons of Nettie and Celie, Sofia and Odessa and metaphorically in the persons of Mary Agnes and Sofia, Albert's sister and Celie, Tashi and Olivia and of course Shug Avery and Celie, who embody the twin roles of sisters and lovers in their relationship.

Some of the women in the novel have learned to fight for themselves. Sofia is powerful and physically strong. She is not subservient and has great strength of character as well. She can and does fight for what she wants, but of course her aggression results to a dreadful experience at the hands of the police after she dares to reply the white mayor, and her subsequent sentence to drudgery as the mayor's servant lasts for many years. The bond between her and Mary Agnes is stronger than their mutual claim on Harpo's affections. Mary Agnes has to cope with rape for the sake of Sofia in order to get her out of prison, the time when Mary Agnes goes off to be a singer, Sofia helps her to look after her child.

Shug Avery is obviously considered to be the most "liberated" among all the women in the book although she also has her own story to tell, by suffering verbal attack from the church elders as a result of her lifestyle. Her career as a blues singer enables her to experience much more freedom than the other women whose lives are bound by home, work and child care. She is also much more sexually liberated than many other females, having numerous affairs and enjoying her sexuality with no restraints or false guilt. Shug liberates Celie in many aspects of her life, guiding her into sexual, emotional and financial independence. Shug possesses equality because of her own integrity as a person, and she passes this on to Celie. It is no accident that the enterprise which gains Celie her independence is, paradoxically, a "woman's job"- sewing - but the product is trousers, for women to wear. Masculine and feminine temperaments are also addressed in the novel. The assumption of the book is that people are weak and strong, and gender should not dictate perceptions of qualities which are essentially human.

                Feminism is a prominent theme in the novel however it is important for  the reader to bear in mind that Alice Walker prefers the term ‘womanist‘ for a black feminist commenting that ‘womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender’. Walker’s purpose in the novel is to show the ill treatment black women have endured, especially in the early twentieth century, in the southern United States and also in Africa and to show how they have struggled to free themselves. The injustice of white supremacy in the old South is forcefully demonstrated, especially in the suffering of Sofia, but more space and emphasis are given to men’s injustice to women, regardless of race, and to the gumption of the women who rebel. In contrast to the victims of male brutality, Shug Avery is a heroic figure, in Celie’s eyes, deserving the colour purple because she has won her independence and will not be any man’s ‘mule’. She lives as she sings, boldly; and is indifferent to ‘how people talk’ – that is, to the prejudiced gossip and slander of a patriarchal society. Like Sofia she has learnt to fight, but more effectively, without using fists, and she teaches Celie to do the same.

The theme of emancipation is present throughout the novel, Celie and Nettie progress from a state of near-slavery to independence and the power of self-expression. Nettie, as a wife and teacher, Celie as a clothes-designer and business woman, needing no husband. The novel asserts that all women are sisters. Comforted and strengthened by Shug, Celie is ready to fight Albert when the discovery of the letters reveals the depth of his guilt. Only Shug can restrain her meek though she has been until now from killing him. When she first curses and leaves Albert, Shug gives her a home in Memphis and helps her to launch her own business. The scene described in Letter 74 shows Celie, Shug, Sofia and Mary Agnes (who has already proved her sisterhood with Sofia), uniting to assert their independence from the men.

1.2       Theoretical Framework

Oppression in terms of sexuality is not only described in feminist theory. This concept can also be identified in fiction, especially in historical novels written about the 19th and early 20th century. Accounts of sexual assault of black women in literature, both in non-fiction and fiction, are related to black women’s sexuality, as they mirror the society of the time in which the story takes place. One of these works of fiction that has themes related to sexuality is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Walker, an African-American author and feminist, touches upon issues such as sexual assault, also by African-American men, and the way African-American women dealt with that. The reception of Walker’s book involved some masculine bias. Merely the fact that Walker is a female author already sparked some hostile reactions from the public both black and white, let alone the fact that sexual assault by African-American men was portrayed. Although The Color Purple is a work of fiction and not reality, beside the fact that this work was controversial and influential, Walker’s The Color Purple describes events that mirror US society in the time that the story takes place, which is why it is an

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