The Varying Experiences of African American Women in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple Applied to Feminist and Queer Literary Theory
Alice Walker's The Color Purple is a novel that applies the epistolary technique to convey historical and contemporary African American female issues. The historical context of The Color Purple is never specifically stated; however, the reader may imply that the historical period rests between 1910 and 1950 based on some of the occurrences such as Celie’s father’s lynching and the implementation of Jim Crow Laws. Exploring women's issues is a consistent characteristic in Alice Walker's thematic writing scheme in her novels, essays, and poems. Walker employs the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery in The Color Purple to explore the nature of a lesbian relationship in the midst of a patriarchal driven society. This gives the text a perspective that falls within the realm of Showalter's gynocentric sphere of the feminine experience while giving leeway to interpretation from a Queer literary perspective. By utilizing the epistolary technique with Celie and Shug's female characters in The Color Purple, Walker is able to illustrate the African American lesbian experience in an oppressive society, explore abuses to African American women, explore varying perspectives of lesbianism, and illustrate the perseverance of the African American feminine nature within Showalter's gynocentric Y zone of experience.
Feminist and Queer Theory
In Feminism Meets Queer Theory, Elizabeth Weed asserts that evaluating literature that incorporates marginalized characters and their sexualities has to encompass a varying perspective that takes the discourse of marginality into account. Regarding Black female sexualities, Weed states that readers must bring reading strategies to the surface of their critiques that reveal the impact that marginality has on sexuality. Weed further asserts that readers should take into account Black women’s desires for females and males simultaneously,bisexuality. She also asserts that Black female sexuality has to be viewed from a different perspective than White female sexuality when associated with discourse of marginality asserting that dominant discourse will vary from marginalized discourse. She goes on to utilize Shug and Celie’s sexuality in The Color Purple as an example of female sexuality that must be viewed from a marginalized discourse oriented perspective. Using this perspective, Weed views the Black female sexuality in The Color Purple as aligning with both lesbian and heterosexual sexual desire (150). Contrary to Weeds assertion is the fact that Celie does not have a sexual relationship with a male that aligns with her sexual desire for Shug. Furthermore, in seeking sexual openness outside of her marriage, she does not align herself with any other male for sexual contentment. When she does have sex with Mr., she does not find it pleasurable; therefore, her sexuality does not simultaneously align with heterosexuality. When taking Shug’s character into account, one recognizes remnants of the sexual alignment to which Weed references; however, the heterosexual nature of sexuality does not totally align with Shug’s sexuality either. Shug has to grow into attachment to males in the heterosexual sense, and before she does, she does not possess the attachment to her male partners in the true sense of hegemonic heterosexuality. As a matter of fact, she is referred to as a slut in terms of the hegemonic heterosexual world, and the fact that she has control of her own sexuality is unacceptable in the male dominated hetero world.
Shug and Celie
The Epistolary Form
At the beginning of the novel, Celie is portrayed as a young girl who has absolutely no say over her life. Her father determines when she has sex for the first time by rapping her, so the experience of self-sexual exploration is stolen from Celie. The right to protest her rape is taken from her because her mother is sick, so she does not want to cause her any pain. Therefore, Walker has to find a way to give Celie a voice within the chaos of her life. By utilizing the epistolary form, Walker gives Celie a voice and a form of protest to the oppressive conditions of her life. Within the context of letter writing, Celie is able to express how she feels without the physical abuse that is connected to her even expressing an opinion. When she initially arrives at Mr.’s house, she says that she cannot stop his little girl from crying because combing her hair is causing her pain being that it has not been combed in a long time. This is the first time that she expresses any dissent with that which she is instructed to do, and she is immediately physically punished for it.
Writing letters has been a dominant form of communication for quite some time. Technology has recently changed the predominant stance of letter writing as a form of communication. According to Ruth Perry, writing letters has traditionally been a keener form of passing information than the news media. Furthermore, the voracity of letter contents have rarely been questioned due to the nature of the communications. Perry also takes into account the universality of the letter writers, for writing and sending a letter has traditionally been an inexpensive venture. This universality also forms realistic views of various matters (Perry 13). Of course, Celie’s epistolary letters are not mailed; they are meant to enhance her own mental well-being, a coping mechanism of sorts. However, the letters give her an avenue with which to express herself regardless of gender, economic background, or literacy. The authentic emotions and experiences that she documents in her letters mirror the authentic nature of the historical letters to which Perry refers. For instance, when Celie initially sees Shug naked, she finds an outlet for her feelings in the way of writing a letter. She writes: “First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). The first time Celie sees shug naked is the first time she has any sexual tenacity for another human being, and she does not have the confidence to openly state this to anyone in her world. However, these feelings are genuinely documented in her letters. Of Shug Avery, Celie writes, “He love looking at Shug. I love looking at Shug. But Shug don’t love looking at but one of us. Him. But that the way it spose to be. I know that. But if that so, why my heart hurt me so?” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Here the reader sees Celie presented by herself, and there is credence in her observation of herself because it is not flattering. Celie explicates society’s view of sexuality in her words, and she admits that she is not following those prescribed guidelines by admitting her attraction to Shug. She also paints herself in a less than flattering manner with the admittance that she is jealous of Shug’s attraction to Mr. Celie is open and honest in her entries regarding herself; she does not have issues with admitting her faults or her sexual affliction. Her sexual attraction to Shug is an affliction because it is clouded by societal expectations.
The Epistolary Form Waged Against Male Domination
Perry also notes the history of letter writing with specification to the Enlightenment Age and the expansion throughout Great Britain of Puritanism. These two movements stipulated the need for truth in expressional artform. She asserts that letter writing contributed to realism in art. This realism stems from the realistic language that is usually employed in letter writing; therefore, the romanticism that usually accompanies novels disappear in authentic letter writing (Perry 75). Walker captures the authentic nature of letter writing with her utilization of dialect in The Color Purple. Furthermore, she gives Celie credence as the protagonist by employing the epistolary technique.
Women tend to be the dominant writers when it comes to epistolary form. According to Katherine Jensen, women writers enacted the re-establishment of epistolary form with the modern novel. Jensen refers to these female writers as epistolary women; however, she also notes her perspective regarding the risky nature of such writing for women. In her opinion, it is dangerous to present the inner-workings of the female mind to the world in such form because male critics tend to trivialize the nature of such female driven writing formats to epistolary novels that primarily deal with love letters (Jensen XIII). As a result, male critics would often conclude that female writers do not possess the literary skill to compose a true novel and could only compose these fictional letters that are full of romantic emotions (Jensen 11). In other words, the consensus among the male critics was that women were not capable of producing literature with complete character development and plotlines that made a masterful piece of writing; on the contrary, they could only produce lovelorn letters that came easily to them because of their affinity for such emotions towards men. According to Jensen, epistolary novels that focus on a woman’s love for a man confirms the sexual domination that women appear to be privy to in the sense that the female is viewed as the object of pining over men, begging to be loved, and lacking emotional control (35). Walker wards off this perception in the sense that she utilizes the epistolary form to document a females self-discovery that spans from early womanhood to adulthood. Celie’s character does not romanticize her relationship with Mr. She in fact uses letter writing to document the oppressive nature of his very existence. The romanticized nature of the female epistolary form is somewhat evident in her documentation of her relationship with Shug Avery. This is apparent in Celie’s description of her first kiss with Shug: “Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). This line puts the reader in the mind of a classic romance novel; however, the line supports a simultaneous protest to such novels because it is presented as a description of a kiss between two women. Furthermore, when Celie’s sexual interaction with Mr. is sprayed against the backdrop of her feelings for Shug, she is able to fantasize in order to cope with his violations of her body. The following is a description of sex with Mr. after she realizes her attraction to Shug: “I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it. I put my arm around him” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Just as a proverbial bored housewife may do in a romance novel, Celie uses the fantasy of sexual interaction with Shug to transition a sexual relationship with Mr. The reason this is a transition is because thinking about Shug allows her to attempt to enjoy a sexual interaction that she has traditionally thought of as someone “going to the toilet” on her. In response to Celie feeling conflicted about her sexual interaction with another woman, Shug tells Celie, “God made it. Listen, God love everything you love-and a mess of stuff you don’t” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). This is all that Celie needs to hear to accept their interaction. There is no inner-discussion as to whether it is true or not. The fact that it is the perspective of the woman she loves is a good enough explanation for Celie. The fact that this relationship is romanticized to some degree in the novel crosses stereotypical barriers related to women and relationships because it explores romantic lesbianism.
The letters in the novel act to severe the silence to which Celie is sentenced. Her required silence is representative of the silence required of women as a whole in a patriarchal oppressive society. The gatekeepers expect women to be silent in an oppressive society, and in Celie’s case, her gatekeepers are males. According to H. Porter Abbott, Celie’s epistolary letters align more with personal documentation or diaries. Abbott takes this stance due to the evidence that suggest that these letters are not meant to be read by others. Abbott points out that there is a difference between epistolary writing and diary novels although they are rooted in similar premise. They both contain letters; however, one is meant for personal consumption, and the other is meant to be shared. Evidence of the diary intent of Celie’s writings appear in her addresses to God illustrating that she does not intend to receive responses to these letters from other human beings (Abbott 10). One example that illustrates that Celie does not intend for her writings to be read by others is found in the following line: “Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Here Celie is asking for God to make sense of her life and transmit this understanding to her. Abbott goes on to assert that, but for the focus of the writing, in essence epistolary entries and diary entries are the same kind of writing (10). When taking The Color Purple into account of Abbotts understanding of the difference between epistolary letter writing and diary writing, one has to consider the variance of isolation to which the character is exposed. In Celie’s case, she is in an abusive relationship in a male dominated environment. Every male with which she has come into personal contact has abused her in some manner. Abusers tend to isolate their victims as a control mechanism, Mr. intends to isolate Celie. Perry does not quibble with the semantics of epistolary form; however, Perry does assert that a requirement of epistolary form does incorporate character isolation where the character is in essence forced to look within oneself for emotional development and growth (117). The reader observes Celie’s transformation into one who writes in order to develop emotionally in the novel.
Alice Walker is no doubt a female writer who brings female issues to light in a patriarchal oppressive society. Walker has often been the object of negative criticism by the male hegemonic literary tunnel for attacking issues such as rape and domestic violence. In Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness, Elaine Showalter deciphers a woman’s existence as a writer in a patriarchal dominated society. A part of looking at the female writer’s existence in such a society includes investigating the perceived psychological variances in relation to literary creation and how those variances impact women writers. Feminist psychoanalysts study variances in female writing. They look for the writer’s specific psychology in relation to the feminine writing style. They also study linguistic variety in relation to femininity to determine whether a writer’s style is psychologically formulated or if the style is self-formulated. Showalter goes on to summarize Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. She emphasizes their quotation that avers that female writers create with a sense of loneliness. This loneliness is attributed to the social alienation that women writers experience in relation to a patriarchal society that oppresses females or fails to understand their interpretations of the world. Furthermore, the female writer is nervous in regards to her need to connect to other women in relation to her artistic creation while avoiding the alienation of her male audience. As a result of these precursors, female writers are often shy and withheld due to their adaptation to a patriarchal dominated society (195). Alice Walker has been criticized against the backdrop of the literary precursors that Showalter provides. With this backdrop, male critics have referred to The Color Purple as a man hating novel that gives the perception that Black males are violent and dismissive towards women. For instance, Ishmael Reed said that The Color Purple portrays “the life of poor, rural southern blacks as it was experienced by their womenfolk” while portraying Black men as “sexual criminals” (Reed). The sadness of this criticism rests in the fact that Walker does incorporate some of her life experiences into The Color Purple; therefore, regardless of the threat of being criticized as being antagonistic towards a patriarchal dominated society, she creates her characters without apprehension or regard for what society may or may not think of her as a female writer. She illustrates sexuality in Shug and Celie without paranoia for how she may be perceived in relation to her own sexuality. This places her in the realm of Showalters Y zone of the true feminine experience.
The male hegemonic society does expect women to act in a particular manner, and this is evident in The Color Purple. Shug is a character who is created as a demonstration of protest to how women should act. By leaving home early, openly asserting her female sexuality, and asserting her independence, she is protesting the male dominated structure of society to which she is intended to bow. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler delineates that the way in which specific genders conduct themselves has nothing to do with actual gender identity. The way in which one acts in society is often a matter of performance. One performs to the expectations that society sets for specific genders (25). Butler’s perceptions reveal that gender has nothing to do with who a person is truly in relation to identity. In The Color Purple, the reader observes the patriarchal standards of gender that are set by the hegemonic society in regards to women. In the following quote, Celie illustrates the drastic nature of a woman’s existence in such a society: “He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Here Walker emphasizes the drastic nature of the male domination in this community by illustrating that the woman are not even treated like children; they are treated as less than children because they are viewed as devoid of any identity at all. Walker further snubs this hegemonic male domination by depicting two female characters who leave the gender expectations behind in relation to their interactions with each other. There is a dominant personality that is seen in Shug when compared to Celie; however, this dominant personality is not constructed in the sense of imitation of a male persona or to make Shug appear butch. Mr. illustrates the male society’s perception of Shug as an imitation of men because he sees any strength in a woman as being manly: “Shug act more manly than most men... he say. You know Shug will fight, he say. Just like Sofia. She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what. Mr. think all this is stuff men do. But Harpo not like this, I tell him. You not like this. What Shug got is womanly it seem like to me. Specially since she and Sofia the ones got it” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Her dominant personality is actually constructed to protest against the hegemonic society in which she lives and relates. Mr. equates the sense of having one’s own identity with being male, for the women in his environment are viewed as things to be owned and controlled. The irony of his ideology is that he is most attracted to a woman who is the opposite of the societal female gender expectations to which he adheres.
In the Historical Dictionary of Lesbian Literature, Meredith Miller explores the true and societal perceived meaning of lesbianism. She illuminates that the word lesbian has its origins in the Greek language and that Neoclassicism leads to the term lesbian being used to label women who are involved in sexual relationships with other women. Within this meaning, family structure is not taken into account, and there is no cohabitation requirement for the said women. In fact, most of these women are said to live with men. Furthermore, lesbian behavior is associated with being a lewd behavior in relation to the classic definition. Miller avers that this is because the word is rooted in male definition, so the idea of sex without the male sex organ is unthinkable. She goes on to state that the original definition of lesbianism is very limited and does not account for any women interacting with one another in a manner other than sexual or living without male control. Miller goes on to state that lesbians are lesbians because they are born lesbians; however, she notes that lesbian literature rarely invests in the idea of being born lesbian. She then goes on to cite Virginia Woolf as a woman who may have had a salacity for other women and have lived with a husband for years without passion or sexual enjoyment. She further exemplifies the poet Sor Juan De La Cruz. Sor Juan De La Cruz’s poetry focuses on her conflicted love which is for that of a woman. Her conflict rests between her love of her religion and the woman. Miller makes note of these women to illustrate that the traditional definition of lesbianism does not account for all instances of actual lesbianism because the lesbian existence is viewed from a male perspective (Miller xxvii). Miller states that it is difficult to find literature that invests in a lesbian relationship that is free of the patriarchal male dominance. She asserts that contemporary literature that explores lesbianism generally incorporates the women’s economic dependence on a male counterpart. She also posits that this phenomenon crosses female social boundaries including class and race which provides a backdrop for protest literature that is attempting to break free of these constraints. According to Miller, the sexual practices and gender expectations for Black men and women remain more complicated within the context of this patriarchal dominated structure (Miller xviii). Regardless of the varying levels of complication in relation to sub-demographics, literature against the aforementioned backdrop does provide a premise for unification in the construction of lesbian literature that disproves the traditional definition of lesbianism and promotes the freedom of lesbian relationship depictions that escape the umbrella of social and economic male domination. In relation to The Color Purple, Allison explores varying aspects of lesbianism and bisexuality including the sexual and nonsexual nature of what it means to be a lesbian or bisexual woman under the premise of male domination in the social, economic, and physical sense.
Alice Walker also gives a voice to the Black lesbian community through Celie. One of the most prolific aspects of her incorporation of Celie’s sexuality is that she does not allow for opposition or conflict for it in the text. Furthermore, Celie only questions her sexuality in the context of male societal views; however, as mentioned earlier, the only thing that she needed to feel comfortable with her relationship with God is Shug’s assertion that their sexuality could not be bad because God made them to have those feelings. An even stronger illustration of female sexuality without regret or apology is Shug Avery’s character. The following quote is an illustration of how Shug relates when it comes to sex:
She ast me, Tell me the truth, she say, do you mind if Albert sleep with me? I think, I don’t care who Albert sleep with. But I don’t say that. I say, You might git big again. She say, Naw, not with my sponge and all. You still love him, I ast. She say, I got what you call a passion for him. If I was ever going to have a husband he’d a been it….You like to sleep with him? I ast. Yeah, Celie she say, I have to confess, I just love it. Don’t you? Naw, I say. Mr. can tell you, I don’t like it at all. What is it like? He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep. She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why, Miss Celie. You make it sound like he going to the toilet on you. That what it feel like, I say. She stop laughing. You never enjoy it at all? she ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy? Never, I say. Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin. (Walker, Kindle Ed.)
Shug does not apologize for her relationships with men; furthermore, she does not express shame or regret for having sex with a man to which she is not necessarily emotionally bound. She also encourages Celie to take control of her own sexuality in stating that if she has never enjoyed sex she is a virgin. In essence, this statements work to remove the physical and aleve the emotional control that rape has had on Celie’s life. Within the context of this emotionally free female character is also her love for women; her bisexuality is not apologized for or presented in a shameful manner either.
Lesbian and bisexual women are a marginalized group within the African American community. When they are accepted in the community as a couple, it is usually not done under the relationship’s true nature. For instance, there have been Black female couples who lived in the African American community among heterosexuals with the outward understanding that they are just very good friends. In Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Bell Hooks emphasizes Michel Foucault’s perception that discourse has the power to shape the world in which it is composed. She asserts that discourse has the power to create a space of literary resistance for marginalized groups (in this case Black lesbian and bisexual woman) (145). To qualify Foucault’s notion of discourse and space, Hooks embosses Black female protests in general by noting Black Women’s formation of home environments that allows for a sense of security in a world that blankets Black women with the insecurity of indignity (42). These homes act as sanctuaries for Black women to protest against the patriarchal oppression of the world, and they serve as places to encourage alliances between women (Hooks 146). This notion is apparent in The Color Purple when considering the circumstances under which Celie and Shug develop such a close friendship. However, the solidarity that emerges from their friendship and the protest actions that they end up taking within the home are essentially ironic in the context of the patriarchal oppressive nature of the environment. In essence, Celie and Shug build a female safehaven within the confines of an oppressive society and much more an immediate oppressive space created by Mr.
According to Louis Gates, Celie’s character finds the dominance that she lacks in her own life through writing these letters (249). In essence, she dominates the other characters’ lives by determining their voices in the letters. Their voices do depict their characteristics. For instance, the voice attributed to Mr. does depict his controlling and abusive nature; however, Celie gains a slight sense of freedom over his existence within the context of the letters that she writes. This is Walkers form of protest against male hegemony in relation to using epistolary letter writing.
This freedom that Celie experiences through her writing actually crosses over into her own life eventually in that her voice begins to have an impact on her main oppressor, Mr. The following illustrates Celie’s newfound control in response to Mr. calling her ugly: “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). According to Gates, Mr. is portrayed as an abuser who purchases his wife for a cow at the beginning of the novel; whereas, at the end of the novel, the reader experiences Celie’s impact on Mr. in that he begins to change his life to reflect the goodness in Celie’s character (176). Celie takes control of her surroundings and the people who are in her immediate company in the end. Once she truly finds her own voice, it overpowers Mr.’s voice. This event is indicative of the societal female voice that has the ability to overpower an oppressive society with persistence.
When some people read The Color Purple, their immediate reaction is that Celie and Shug are just very good friends. Some readers and critics shy away from the lesbian/bisexual aspect of the novel. On the contrary, there is evidence in the text that their relationship spans beyond the circle of female friendship. The following is an illustration of a relationship that incorporates both love and sexual desire: “She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul me off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprised. I kiss her back, say, um, too” (Walker, Kindle Ed.). Here it is evident that this is a romantic relationship between two women; furthermore, the relationship goes beyond the surface, for this is the first time Celie is ever told that she is loved in the novel. Jacqueline Bobo provides an analysis of the novel that looks at various conflicts regarding The Color Purple; however, she does not address the lesbianism or bisexuality in the novel. Instead, she asserts that the conflict that the novel induces is solely related to racial discrimination and gender oppression (Bobo 340). The fact is that the critics appear to ignore the sexual relationship that emerges between the two women in the text. This is surprising because of the fact that Celie even finds a sexual existence attributed to her relationship with Shug Avery. Without this relationship, all sexual interaction that she experiences is oppressive and abusive in nature. The simple act of hugging manifest itself in her relationship with Shug, and the reality of human touch is only evident in her relationship with Shug. The fact that critics tend to ignore the importance of their relationship can be attributed to the phobias related to discussing and exploring same sex relationships. This is not to say that the race and gender issues are unimportant; however, these issues should not be solely explored to downplay the importance of the relationship between Shug and Celie.
Walker’s novel employs the epistolary technique as a form of protest that illustrates a Black woman’s path of self-discovery in the middle of a male dominated world. Her novel brings several issues to light including rape, domestic violence, and sexuality. Walker stands as a woman who is often criticized for her portrayal of men in the novel; however, the dissent to her depictions could be better spent protesting those abusive elements that she highlights. The relationship between Celie and Shug is the object of fear in relation to critics and readers alike at times; however, ignoring the existence of lesbian and bisexual relationships will never lead to an understanding of female sexuality. This gives the text a perspective that falls within the realm of Showalter's gynocentric sphere of the feminine experience while giving leeway to interpretation from a Queer literary perspective.Walker’s novel is one of the few that explores female sexuality on various levels and should be employed as a guide to fostering understanding as opposed to being buried under the apparent race and gender issues that are also evident in the text. The Color Purple is a comprehensive fictional documentation of issues that have and still impact the African American community and, in a broader sense, even the community at large.
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Miller, Meredith. Historical Dictionary of Lesbian Literature. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2006.
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Reed, Ishmael. “Complaint by Ishmael Reed.” Home. The New York Review of Books, 21 Oct.
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© 2014 Dr Harris' Perspective
Alicia on February 19, 2015:
I really enyejod reading The Color Purple too, although it's been years now. One of those, must see before I see the movie books. I'm glad you enyejod it so much, Wendy!
Daniela on February 17, 2015:
OMG Ruthie! We are on the same wavelength today. I'm wriintg a blog about how stereotypes can be used to a writer's advantage as a red herring' to purposefully mislead readers because of the reader's preconceived notions. One of my examples? Celie from The Color Purple!