Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gender in The Color Purple

In The Color Purple, Sofia succinctly sums up one of the novel’s major themes regarding marriage: “He don’t want a wife, he want a dog” (64). Here, she exposes the root of the problem and her conclusion is dead-on. Just a couple of pages earlier, Harpo proclaims “I want her to do what I say, like you do for Pa” (62). That is, he wants Sophia to obey him as a dog would. Yet I’m not entirely convinced that Harpo actually knows what he wants. He does not seem to recognize that his marriage to Sophia is far more fulfilling than his father’s marriage to Celie, and he thus doesn’t bother to question why. If he paused for a moment to reflect, he might realize that it is Sophia’s strength and her ability to challenge him that makes their marriage satisfying. Instead, however, his idea of a “good” marriage is based on the warped marriages that surround him – including his father’s – and this ultimately leads to the demise of his and Sophia’s relationship.

What truly interests me is the apparent role reversal that makes Sophia and Harpo’s relationship functional in the first quarter of the novel. Indeed, Sophia is portrayed as relatively masculine, while Harpo is somewhat feminized. In a telling passage, Sofia says “To tell the truth, he love that part of housekeeping a heap more ‘en me. I rather be out in the fields or fooling with the animals … But he love cooking and cleaning and doing little things round the house” (59). The inclination in each toward tasks generally associated with the opposite gender allows the two, however subconsciously, to be more sympathetic toward one another. Though the typical gender roles are perverted, in comparison with Celie and Harpo’s father’s conventional marriage, this perversion proves rather positive. The catch, however, is that it only functions within male ignorance. While Sophia seems aware of the reversal from the start, once Harpo becomes aware of it and attempts to “fix” it, their marriage begins to fall apart.

Another component of this role reversal includes Sophia’s ability to fight. In an important conversation with Celie, Sophia tells her “I loves Harpo … But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me” (40). This is the major difference between Celie and Sophia: Sophia fights where Celie does not. Sophia’s ability to fight allows her to preserve her dignity; once Harpo starts to abuse her, Sophia stands up for herself and, ultimately, leaves. She refuses to be subordinated to Harpo. Yet the fact that Sophia ends up in jail reveals that such behavior was viewed as a threat to society at that time.

That Sophia’s mentality is much more modern is clear. Today, girls are taught to fight back against boys. They are taught that “anything boys can do girls can do better.” At Guilford, I’ve noticed that the girls who are “starters” on the National Academic League team are the girls who challenge the boys; the girls who aren’t afraid to make their voices heard. The other day I was quizzing one of the girls when a boy interjected and provided the answer: “Boise is the capital of Idaho, duh.” I then sat back and fought a smile as she delivered a formidable lecture on manners. She told the boy in less-than-polite terms that just because she didn’t answer right away didn’t mean she didn’t know the answer, and there was no need for him to be so rude. The boy crossed his arms and began to sulk. Inwardly, I was cheering her on; outwardly, I had to break up their fight. Though my role forced me to be diplomatic, this incident left me confident that the status of women has improved since the time in which The Color Purple was set.

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