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Vol 1 Issue X April 2014


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Islamic Azad University, Iran

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Research Directions
Volume 1 | Issue 10 | April 2014

ISSN:-2321-5488

Research Article

CONCEPT OF FEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER'S 'THE


COLOR PURPLE': AN ANALYSIS
Rajendra Thorat
Head, Dept. Of English, Venutai Chavan College, Karad, Satara.

Abstract:
American women began their study of the stereotyped characterization of
women in men's writing in 1960s. Mary Elman, in Thinking about Women (1968)
discusses stereotypes of women in literature written by men and alternative and
subversive points of view in some writings by women. But the more fierce attack on the
male literary tradition was made by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1970). She explores
how women are dehumanized in the novels of male writers like Henry Miller, Norman
Mailer, Jean Genet and D. H. Lawrence. According to her, patriarchy is the sole cause of
women's oppression where women are subordinated by the male, and they are assigned
an inferior position. She argues that 'sex' is biologically determined but 'gender' is a
psychological concept which is cultural identity.
KEY WORDS:
Color Purple' , Analysis , characterization , literature .
INTRODUCTION
Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1978) speaks about the contributions of female
writers in literary history. As pointed out in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Showalter
identifies four models of difference which are as follows:
The biological model is the most extreme; if the text somehow mirrors the body, this can reduce
women merely to bodies. . . . Showalter's linguistic model of difference posits women speaking men's
language as a foreign tongue; purging language of sexism is not going far enough. . . . Showalter's
psychological model identifies gender difference as the basis of the psyche, focusing on the relation of
gender to the artistic process. It stresses feminine difference as the free play of meaning outside the need for
closure. Showalter's most important contribution has been to describe the cultural model that places
feminist concerns in social contexts, acknowledging class, racial, national, and historical differences and
determinants among women, but offering a collective experience that unites women over time and space__
a binding force. (199-200)
Showalter uses the term gynocritics for feminist criticism which studies women as writers. The
other feminist works which represent gynocriticism are Patricia Spack's The Female Imagination (1975),
Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1976), Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about
Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978), and Barbara Christian's Black Women Novelists (1980).
Ellen Moers analyzes the 'feminine' metaphors in the nineteenth century fiction in her works. She
finds women writers quite interesting as she reads them as a woman. Patricia Meyer Specks concentrates on
sexuality in personal life. She addresses issues like adolescent development, self-perception, passivity and
independence in her discussions. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guar in The Madwoman in the Attic: The
Women Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (1979) focuses on the existence of a female
aesthetics. 'However, they also draw on the BeauvoirMillett vein of feminist criticism in stressing the
evidence in Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and others of the pain and effort
produced by the struggle against traditions that regarded women as inferior and passive and at the same

CONCEPT OF FEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER'S 'THE COLOR PURPLE': AN ANALYSIS

time as angels, monsters, or both (Harris 92).


Another notable contributions to the American feminist criticism are Anis Pratt's Archetypal
Patterns in Women's Fiction (1981), Elizabeth Meese's Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of
Feminist Criticism (1986) and (Ex)Tensions: Re-figuring Feminist (1990). Pratt discusses archetypes and
similarities of novels including political ideologies and lesbian experience. She is sensitive to issues of
class and race. Meese opposes and warns against the dangers of factions within feminist criticism. The
revolutionary writing about feminism and theology was done by Mary Daly in her Gyn/Ecology: the
Metaetics of Radical Feminism (1979), Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984), and Beyond God
the Father (1986). Daly vigorously exposes what she sees as 'the misogyny that lies at the core of JudaeaChristian tradition, and in her later work concludes that it is not possible to reform patriarchal society, and
argues instead for a separate women's culture'(Qtd. Alexander 3). Thus American feminists are mainly
concerned about images of women. They see reading of a feminist as a communication between the life of
the writer and the life of the reader.
BLACK FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS:
It is essential to understand what is meant by the term 'black feminist consciousness' very clearly
before analyzing Walker's idea of womanism. The word 'black' denotes the race and feminist means a
person who knows that the exploitation is caused by patriarchal hegemony and that one is ready to end that
hegemony to reconstruct the lives of women and to build a society based on nondiscrimination. Hence, one
is also prepared to struggle to redress the situation so as to bring racial, social, sexual and economic equality
for the black women. Since most of the black male writers have failed in depicting black women's genuine
and authentic life, many black women writers come to the forefront to depict their own, real, genuine and
authentic selves. Their writing is an outburst of the voices long suppressed and suspended by the
victimizers. The consciousness of victimization is immediate and revelatory, it allows women to discover
what social reality really is (Bartky 254).
A feminist is one who is awakened and conscious about woman's life and problems and feminist
consciousness is the experience in a certain way of certain specific contradictions in the social order.
Feminists believe in transformation of the society for better future and dislike intolerable things. It is on
the day that we can conceive of a different state of affairs that a new light falls on our troubles and we decide
that these are unbearable (Sartre 531). To transform this, power should play its role.
Feminists, who value women's experience and potential, have re-read 'women's novels' with new
perspectives and have found a wealth of psychological, social and political insight. Feminist consciousness
is the experience in a certain way of certain specific contradictions in the social order. Feminist
consciousness turns a fact into a contradiction, and often, features social reality. Thus, women
understand what they are and where they are in the light of what they are not yet. Thus, they comprehend
their world and also what it is not and the world that could be if changed. Feminist consciousness is a joyous
consciousness of one's own power, weakness and strength.
In this connection Simon de Beauvoir rightly says, 'the humanity is male' but for the black women
the 'humanity is white and male.' As they suffer from racial and gender oppression, they differ from both the
white women and the black men. The black woman has to struggle for equality both as a woman and as an
African American. Thus their experiences gained from the living as African American women stipulate
their sensibility called black feminist sensibility.
The overall social status of the black is lower than any other social group; hence they are supposed
to bear the attacks of sexist, racist and classist oppression. As a group they have not been socialized to
assume the role of oppressor. White women and black men can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men
may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as oppressor or exploiter of women. Black
women without institutionalized 'other' that they may discriminate against, exploit or oppress often have
lived different experience directly challenging the prevailing classist, sexist, racist social structure and its
concomitant ideology. This lived experience shaped their consciousness and changed their attitude
different from their oppressors. Bell Hooks has rightly pointed out it is essential for continued feminist
struggle that black women recognize the vantage point of their marginality that gives them and make use
of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and
create a counter hegemony(58).
According to Sandra Bartky, feminist consciousness is a consciousness of victimization. To
apprehend oneself as a victim is to be aware of an alien and hostile force which is responsible for the
blatantly unjust treatment of women and for a stifling and oppressive treatment of sex-roles; it is to be aware
too, that this victimization in no way earned or deserved, is an offense (254).
Feminist consciousness is an understanding that one is victimized as a women as one among
Research Directions | Volume 1 | Issue 10 | April 2014

CONCEPT OF FEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER'S 'THE COLOR PURPLE': AN ANALYSIS

many, and in the realization that others are made to suffer in the same way that one is made to suffer lies the
beginning or a sense of solidarity with other victims. It is a joyous consciousness of one's own power of the
possibility of unprecedented personal growth and of the release of energy long suppressed. In this manner,
it is a consciousness both of one's weakness and strength.
All African American women share common experience of being black women in a society that
denigrates women of African descent. They had to fight on many frontsagainst white patriarchy, against
white women's racism and against sexism of black men. This commonality of experience suggests that
certain characteristics and themes will be prominent in black women's stand point. The interrelationship of
white supremacy and male superiority has thus characterized the black women's reality as a situation of
struggle- a struggle to survive in two contradictory worlds simultaneously, one white, privileged, and
oppressive and the other black, exploited, and oppressed (Canon 30).
Black feminist criticism is establishing norms to examine the distinct cultural values of black
women writers to prevent their being subsumed into 'universal' literary studies dominated by male or white
writers. Black women writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Naylor and
many more write to shape their experiences and to reclaim both their history and self-image battered by
their three enemies: racism, classism, and sexism. Black women writers usually offer a wider critique of
patriarchy in their struggle to find themselves and validate their language.
The black women's ability to forge the individual unarticulated, yet potentially powerful
expressions of everyday consciousness into an articulated, self-defined, collective stand point, is a key to
black women's survival. It is an attempt towards self-definition to indicate who one is, what one is and what
one would like to be? The black feminist consciousness indicates the black woman's self definition. Thus,
for the black woman, struggle involves in embracing a consciousness that is simultaneously Afro-centric
that reveals the black perspective and at the same time feminist.
By being accountable to others, African American women develop more fully human, less
objectified selves. Sonia Sanchez points this version of self by stating we must move past always focusing
on the personal self because there is a large self. There is a self of black people (Qtd. Tate 134). Rather
than defining self in opposition to others, the connectedness among individuals provides black women a
deeper, more meaningful self-definition. Black feminist consciousness is awareness on the part of the black
women about their oppression, plights, position and positive and negative aspects of life to change the
patriarchal, racist and sexist social order to restore the equality of human beings irrespective of sex, race or
class.
Thus the two terms, black feminism and womanist consciousness are concerned with the struggle
of the black women against racism and sexism who are themselves part of the black community's efforts to
achieve equality and liberty. She is, Walker says, purple -purple with rage, purple as restored royalty, purple
blossoming wild in an open field. Therefore, according to Walker, womanism is an empowered form of
feminism just as purple is a bold and empowered version of lavender. Purple as a color is regarded as a
symbol of the indomitable female spirit and an encoding of the joyous vitality of the female spirit. In short,
Walker is one who is committed to the survival whole of the black women in the highly charged, sexist,
classist and racist society of America.
The Color Purple:
Like Mem and Meridian, Celie in The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker's most celebrated novel
which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Fiction, struggles in life for survival.
The novel depicts the life of a black girl, Celie who despite poverty, illiteracy, physical and mental
exploitation transcends her plight through self awareness to gain respectable place in the American society.
Celie first writes letters to God to help her to survive the spiritual, emotional and physical abuse she suffers
at the hands of her step father, Alphonso and later on her husband, Mr.____.
The Color Purple depicts in an epistolary manner thirty years of a struggle in the life of Celie, a poor
Southern black woman who is victimized physically and emotionally both by her stepfather and her
husband, Albert. While in her teens, Celie is repeatedly raped by her stepfather, who sells her two children
she bore of him. Celie is eventually placed into a loveless marriage with Albert, a widower who for the next
three decades subjects her to beatings and psychological torment. Celie writes letters describing her ordeal
to God and to her sister, Nettie, who escapes a similar fate by serving as a missionary in Africa. However, in
the company of Albert's mistress Shug Avery, a charismatic singer, she gains self-esteem and the courage to
leave her marriage. Shug is even responsible for Celie's reunion with her children sold by her stepfather,
Alphonso and with Nettie at the end of the novel. She begins her journey from powerlessness to the state of
full empowerment and from self-abnegation to self-recognition.
Walker also chronicles the oppressed and miserable lives of the black women Shug and Sofia who
Research Directions | Volume 1 | Issue 10 | April 2014

CONCEPT OF FEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER'S 'THE COLOR PURPLE': AN ANALYSIS

are the victims of highly charged rapist, sexist and male-dominated society of America. They fought
valiantly to gain respectable position and place in society. All the women folk in the novel have to suffer at
the hands of their men folk. It describes the ill treatment given to the black women by their men. At the
same time the novel highlights the awareness among the black women about their self status and rights.
The Color Purple tells us a story of two women in love with one man. The character of Shug Avery,
a dynamic singer whose real name is Lillie but is called Shug, is a transforming force in Celie's life. Walker
knows very well that she was writing a story of two women who marry to the same man. What completes
the love triangle in all its symmetry is Celie and Shug's love for each other. Womanist consciousness is
clearly seen in the relationship between the Celie and Shug.
Walker's idea of womanism is ingrained in the novels under discussion. For her the term involves,
in bonding of women as a continuation of the struggle for self-definition and affirmation that is the essence
of African American means. She portrays a galaxy of black women who love other women as being
whole or round women and have concern in a culture that oppresses entire black community. Women in
these novels--Margaret, Mem, Josie, Meridian, Celie, Nettie-stress the sense of solidarity and sharing, the
sense of community, that brings about blossoming in self and society. They demonstrate consciousness of
their continuous exploitation and slavery due to color and gender. Like Sula who quests for creating her
own self and coming to terms with her identity as a black and female in Toni Morrison's Sula, they fight
valiantly against their oppressors to quest their identity in sexist and classist society of America. Ruth,
Meridian and Nettie believe in change which is essential for the survival and harmony in society. They
show indomitable female spirit and vitality that help for their empowerment. As a result they become selfreliant and challenged their men that they can survive without them.
3. IV. Comparative perspective:
The study of the first phase novels in the light of the thematic statement reveals Walker's womanist
ideology that is committed to the survival of the black women everywhere in the world. Women characters
in these novels struggle hard to quest their identity and ask for freedom and self-respect. Womanist
consciousness is reflected in the man-woman relationship where man always tries to marginalize their
counterparts. In the portrayal of husband-wife relationship, husbands are shown as atrocious human beings.
Walker depicts black men who are poor, illiterate, oppressive and doing traditional work of sharecropping
or working on the fields of white men. Grange in The Third Life of Grange Copeland victimizes his wife
Margaret by beating and abusing her for no reason. He even wants to sell her in order to free himself from
the debt of a white man named Shipley. His son, Brownfield also follows the footsteps of his father and
beats his educated wife Mem as and when he likes without having knowledge of what she does for him and
their family. Albert, Celie's husband in The Color Purple, beats her like he beats his children and doesn't
treat her as a human being. He even doesn't look her in the face: He looks at me. It like he looking at the
earth(TCP21). Men depicted by Walker are drunkard and immoral having extramarital relationship and no
sympathy to their suffering wives.
CONCLUSION However, reversal of gender roles is seen in the couple Sofia and Harpo, a son of Albert whose face
looks like a woman's face. He truly enjoys woman's works like cooking and washing dishes, while Sofia
does a field work and traditional man's work. They fight constantly like two men getting Harpo the worst
of beating. Perhaps Walker shows this kind of irony in order to predict the reversal of roles that is likely to
take place in the near future.
Some of these oppressive black men undergo a metamorphosis when they realized their follies in
the course of time. Grange Copeland repents for what he has done to Margaret and determines to provide
utmost facilities and security to his granddaughter Ruth, the child of the future. He even kills his son
Brownfield and prefers to go in jail hoping that she will be free and happy in his absence. Brownfield
compounds one of the greatest sins in Walker's fiction that is the refusal or inability to change. Ironically, his
death makes possible the completion of change in the life of Ruth, his daughter. Albert too changes in the
end and gives utmost love to all. Albert discovers reflection which makes him a defined person who can
accept the responsibility for his mistakes and the suffering he has caused to his wife. His apparent
psychological return to roots, though inadequately motivated, is primarily a portent of a healing process.
Truman, Meridian's husband in the novel Meridian, changes when he realizes his mistake of marrying a
white marcher woman Robinowitz looking at her color. Being womanist Meridian wholeheartedly forgives
him and allows him to stay with her.
As a part of womanist strategy, Walker shows sexual and emotional bonding between black
Research Directions | Volume 1 | Issue 10 | April 2014

CONCEPT OF FEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER'S 'THE COLOR PURPLE': AN ANALYSIS

women against patriarchal tyrannies. It can be seen in the intense emotional longing and readiness to
sacrifice for each other between two sisters, Celie and Nettie. Celie's offering herself sexually to her
stepfather to save her sister from being raped by him is one of the touching examples of womanism.
Women show a persistent tendency of falling into a bond of mutual sympathy and admiration. They are
portrayed as women helping oppressed black women to come out of their depression. Shug provides
economic cooperation by teaching Celie the art of sewing. Thus she helps her to be independent and selfreliant. Josie assures Grange to provide utmost security and love to Ruth after his imprisonment for killing
his son, Brownfield. Josie is generous enough to sell her Dew Drop Inn in order to save Grange from his
debt. Despite the shabbiness, brutality and humiliation, the women refuse to be meek and submissive and
question for their rights.
Women characters depicted in these novels are highly influenced by the myths in the past.
Meridian is highly inspired by the story of the Sojourner Truth that commemorates the atrocities inflicted
on the black women during the time of slavery. Her story encourages her to throw herself actively in the
Civil Rights Movement that aimed to bring equal rights and opportunities to the black women in all walks of
life during her college days. Meridian divests herself of immediate blood relations- her child and parents- in
order to align herself completely with the larger racial and social generations of blacks. She has created
fusion with her generation of activist and older generation of oppressed black. Her personal identity has
become a collective identity. Nettie's commentary through her letters from Africa on the Olinka people's
discrimination against their men suggest the fact that gender oppression pervades the entire world of black
men and women. Afro-Americans as well as Africans confine women to the care of children, and among the
Olinka, the husband has death power over the wife. If he accuses his wife of witchcraft or infidelity, she can
be killed (TCP172).
The epistolary form used in The Color Purple is suggestive of lesbian sexuality within the
framework of lesbian feminism where the letter means the female body, and correspondence between two
women is suggestive of lesbianism. With reference to Nettie's letters, Wendy Wall observes that Albert
intercepts them because he fails to seduce her, and that he rapes her language because he fails to rape her
body (264). According to Terry Eagleton the letters come to signify female sexuality that folded secret
place which is always open to violent intrusion(54). Linda Abbandonato describes the novel as a womanist
text and states: By adopting the crazy quilt, the craft of her forefathers, as the structuring principle of her
fiction, Alice Walker places herself within a tradition of a black creativity (300). Thus these novels are
exquisite examples of her womanist consciousness that enabled her to chronicle black women's journey to
self-recognition.
REFERENCES1. Abbandonato, Linda. 'A View from Elsewhere: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the
Heroine's Story in The Color Purple, PMLA, Vol.106 (1991), pp.1106-15.
2. Digby, Joan. From Walker to Spielberg: Transformations of The Color Purple, Novel Images:
Literature in Performance, Ed. Peter Reynolds, London: Routledge, 1993, pp.157-74.
3. Mainino, Wirba Ibrahim. The Problem of Language in Modern Feminist Fiction by Black Women:
Alice Walker and Calixthe Beyala, New Literature Review, Vol. 37 (2000), pp.59-74.
4. Feminist Readings / Feminists Reading, 2nd ed., London: Prentice Hall, 1996. Mills, Sara. Authentic
Realism, Mills and Pearce, pp.56-90.
5. Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, Oxford:
Clarendon, 1991.
6. Warhol, Robyn R. How Narration Produces Gender: Femininity as Affect and Effect in Alice Walker's
The Color Purple, Narrative, Vol.9, No.2 (2001), pp.182-87.
7. Waugh, Patricia, Practising Postmodernism Reading Modernism, London: Edward Arnold, 1992.
8. Winchell, Donna Haisty, Alice Walker , New York: Twayne, 1992.

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