Color of Oppression in ‘The Color Purple’
Women in Old South
Violence and Oppression
Rape as obligation
Ignorance as control
Women as livestock
A Woman’s Place
Violence as the daily routine
Violence as a manly obligation
Bruises as a symbol of oppression
Dreams Never Mentioned
Freedom vs. fear
Beating as social obligation
Freedom within vs. freedom without C. Conclusion
The Color of Oppression in ‘The Color Purple’
Alice Walker gives the reader a glimpse into the minds of her characters through her unique expository style. Through the eyes of Celie and we discover that violence is a means of control. Violence is a part of the cultural experience of the African-American woman in the south (Magill, Kohler, and Mazzeno). It is a way of life to them with roots that run deep into heart and soul of gender differences in the Old South. This research will explore the culture of violence, as seen through the eyes of Celie, Sophia, and the other women in the Color Purple and how it reduces the women in the story to nothing more than livestock. Using evidence from the book, it will support the thesis that violence from a man to a woman was not only tolerated, but was expected and that women were regarded as nothing more than livestock.
Violence and Oppression
The first incidence of violence appears when her own father rapes Celie. Celie describes it like this, “He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never git used to it. And now I feels sick every time I be the one to cook.” (Walker, Part 1, pg. 11). This quote demonstrates several points about the acceptability of violence. The first is that Celie can expect the violence to continue. This is not a one-time occurrence. Celie is expected to “git used to it.” This quote also suggests that this type of behavior is expected and a part of being a woman. It has been suggested that this scene is a reenactment of the heroine Philomela and that Walker is referring to this archetype in this scene (Cutter, p. 161).
Celie does not understand what is going on and does not understand morning sickness. She id kept ignorant about the most practical matters of life. All she has been allowed to learn is subservience. Even the facts of life have been kept from her. She will learn by experience. Through violence, Celie is learning the hopeless course that her life will take as she grows up.
When Celie gives birth to two babies by her own father, they are taken from her and sold in town. Celie is led to believe that the infants are killed. This is to make certain that she does not try to look for them later. It also demonstrates the extent to which people are considered property and women are treated more like livestock in this culture. Celie’s father shows absolutely no compassion when he sells his own grandchildren. She is being treated like a brooder, not his daughter.
Violence against women is treated as a normal part of the daily routine. When Harpo asks his father how to control his wife, the father’s response is, “Well how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (Walker, Part 1, pg. 42). Women in the South were taught that they had a certain place in life and theirs was subservient to the man. In the South, black women were forced to be subservient to all white persons, even other women (Salzer, p. 8). Racism still existed, even though the Civil War had ended. Black women were not officially slaves, but they were still treated as such.
Men could speak openly about abuses toward women, but women did not dare reciprocate. When Sofia was asked to clean house by the white mayor’s wife, she replied, “Hell no.” The mayor then slapped Sofia. Sofia punched him in response. Sofia was arrested and abused almost to the point of death. Her purple bruises stood as a testament to other black women as to what would happen to them if they stepped out of line.
When I see Sofia I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm, it stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can’t talk. And she just about the color of an eggplant” (Walker, Part 2, pg. 87).
In this case, the color purple is used as a symbol of the oppression of the black woman. Because a black women hit a white man, Sofia was put in prison. After she got out, she was made to work as a maid for the mayor’s wife for another 20 years. Black women were not allowed to defend themselves in any manner and had to take their beatings. Fear was the major tool used for the oppression of black women in the Old South. Their purple bruises were the outward symbol of their oppression.
Dreams Never Mentioned
The black women in the south had to chose between their need for freedom and self-determination and safety. Celie puts it best, “I don’t say nothing. I think bout 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” (Walker, Part 1, pg. 29). The black woman may feel the need for freedom, but they understand the risk that these notions entail. They may feel it, but fear may keep them from realizing their dreams. They learn to censor their dreams and ambitions to meet society’s mold for them. A black woman’s place in life was predestined before her birth.
Violence takes its place as an acceptable part of culture and a tradition that is passed on from father to son on Celie’s wedding day. On the day that Celie married Mr. ____, she is beaten. Mr. ____ teaches the tradition of violence to his children. One child throws a stone at Celie’s head, something learned by imitating Mr. ____. Wife beating was considered manly and proper in this rural culture (Salzer, p. 8). Harpo is embarrassed that he does not beat Sophia, and when his father chastises him, he goes home to make amends. However, Harpo ends up being the one with the bruises. Sophia will not relinquish control and refuses to take the subservient role. This is an embarrassment and source of public ridicule and scorn for Harpo for his apparent inability to control his wife in the proper manner. This makes him less of a man in the eyes of the surrounding culture.
Throughout the novel, Celie remains the perfect, subservient role model for the Black women. This is juxtaposed against Sofia, who exemplifies what they all may feel inside, but do not show. In the end, when Celie find Nettie’s letters written to her and hidden by Mr. ____, she too thinks of violence, demonstrating the inner turmoil that these oppressed women must harbor. Celie begins to see her own beauty, which begins a transformation within her (Byerman, p. 321). Celie is the heroine of the story because she must overcome the mental anguish of the beatings, yet remain the perfect wife and woman according to the rules of the dominant culture (Bloom, p. 181).
In conclusion, evidence from the book supports the thesis that violence from a man to a woman was not only tolerated, but was expected and that women were regarded as nothing more than livestock. This issue remains a central theme in the book and paints a picture of a south that was highly stratified culturally. The Color Purple is used throughout the book to signify the oppression of black women in the culture of the Old South. Walker uses Celie as a picture of the perfect woman who knows her place. She uses Sophia to show the degree with which black women had to suppress their feelings, even if they were right.
Bloom, H. Alice Walker’s the Color Purple. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House. Place of Publication: Philadelphia. 2000. pp. 181.
Byerman, K. Desire and Alice Walker: The Quest for a Womanist Narrative. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1989. p. 321.
Cutter, M. Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker’s Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in the Color Purple. MELUS. 2000. pp. 161.
Magill, F., Kohler, D., and Mazzeno, L. Masterplots: 1,801 Plot Stories and Critical Evaluations of the World’s Finest Literature. African-American Literature Series. # 47. Salem Press. 1996.
Salzer, L. Race and Domesticity in ‘The Color Purple.’ African-American Review. Spring 1995. pp. 1-18. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_n1_v29/ai_17276622 Accessed March 24, 2009.
Walker, a. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.
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