After finishing The Color Purple some hours ago now, I must agree with Laura’s post—I have had tremendous difficulty even wrapping my head around this book. I feel emotionally drained, perplexed; it’s like working backwards to find the source of a problem.
I think the largest issue that stuck out to me, the one that I am just beginning to wrap my head around, women’s oppression. Women are routinely married off to strange men, it seems, and beaten into submission. Their thoughts are unwelcome, and it seems as though men have an entirely misogynistic attitude. Celie is repeatedly sexually abused, by her stepfather as well as her husband, and belittled; she becomes increasingly scared of men, not even writing their names—including her own husband’s—in her personal letters. She is only comfortable in the company of other women, and only becomes aware of her own sexuality with another woman, Shug Avery.
Celie repeatedly calls herself ugly and dumb—internalizations of what she is told by several characters, namely her stepfather and husband—and grows to idolize women who are unlike herself, though they are not immune to oppression and abuse. Sofia, whom we see grow close with Celie throughout the first half of the book, is constantly fighting with her husband, unwilling to give up her independence, and eventually gets herself in serious legal trouble for standing up to herself against the mayor and his wife. Shug, Celie’s idol, friend, and lover, is presented as a strong woman of the world who doesn’t care what anyone thinks; yet, even she is called a slut and a sinner behind her back, and accusations of her having venereal diseases run wild. It seems as though the idea of a woman standing up for herself in the face of oppression of any kind—spousal, moral, sexual, religious—is unacceptable.
And throughout the novel, we see women doing little to stop this cycle. When Harpo tells “Mr. ______” and Celie that he can’t get Sofia to “mind” him, both “Mr. ______” and Celie herself tells him to beat her. When Shug arrives at Celie’s house, she looks Celie up and down: “You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it.” Women are perpetually bringing each other down when they are jealous, though it just enables the misogynistic cycle. Even mothers allow their girls to participate in these ways.
The relationships between women in this book are not as cut-and-dry as that though. It seems to me that women need each other, and that they recognize this. They are always together, because they do not love their husbands, who generally want nothing but to control and dominate them. Together, the women can commiserate about their circumstances, even if they can’t change them. But at times, women get jealous of each other, and want nothing more than to bring another woman back down to their level of suffering—like in the case of Sofia and Celie. Mothers—like Celie and Nettie’s mama—don’t seem to even want their girls to think that there could be another reality, as if it would be less painful for them somehow to endure their oppression without knowing there was a way to be liberated. Or, perhaps, they don’t know what that liberated reality would be like, because they have not known it.
These issues remind me specifically of two things. First, thought it may sound silly, the issue of jealousy among women leading them to hurt each other reminded me of the movie Mean Girls and my sister’s blossoming high school life. In this movie, for those of you who haven’t seen it, girls begin vicious rumors about each other, which erupts ultimately in physical violence. This tearing apart of each other is called “girl on girl crime”; I think this is definitely going on in The Color Purple, as well as in day-to-day life. While the girls at my sister’s high school are certainly not being traded off to marriage like cattle or abused by husbands, they still find reasons to commit these acts of “girl on girl crime”—most of them stemming from low self-worth, something very much so at work in The Color Purple. (Like in the example above of Celie telling Harpo to beat Sofia because she is jealous of her fighting spirit.)
The second instance of these issues in the real world that comes to mind is the women I encountered at the Caroline Center last fall. All of them were oppressed in some way; for each and every woman, walking through our doors for GED tutoring was a struggle. What shocked me most was against whom they were struggling.
One woman, Shea, was typically exuberant, quick with a joke, and ready to learn. But when she showed up one chilly morning, there wasn’t a hint of smile on her face. As we took attendance, one of the head teachers, Sister Marta, sat down to talk to her. Within minutes, Shea was crying. She said that her mother didn’t want her to come; she told her that every hour she spent studying for the GED, she was losing money (by not working instead). Shea tried to argue with her mother that she needed to study and take the GED because without it, she would never be able to get out of the situation she was in—a single mother living under the poverty line—but her mother wouldn’t relent. Unknowingly or with full intent, her mother was dooming her to the prison of poverty and, among other things, economic oppression.
My heart went out to Shea that day, and to be honest, it’s never come wholly back to me. I think that may be why The Color Purple struck me so hard, why I was emotionally drained even hours after reading it—because in Celie I saw a woman I once knew, and in the partially female-spurned oppression, I can see the seemingly innocuous “girl on girl crimes” my sister lives through every day. Though our backdrop is certainly different, I don’t think anyone would argue that we are past the issues of women’s oppression that are presented in this book. And that should disturb all of us.