Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’ centres around the life of a young girl named Celie as she grows up in a male-dominated African American community in the early 1900’s where domestic abuse, incestuous rape and chauvinism had been rampant. The treatment of women, especially women of colour, is obtrusively portrayed through constant objectification and abuse of almost all the female characters present in the novel. They are drawn as child bearers and labourers for men, acted out by Celie. Walker, however, deconstructs these social scriptures to pave a way for emancipation as Celie is empowered through the encouragement of other women characters as she comes into contact with the outside world.
The very beginning of the book starts with the illustration of rape and objectification of women, showing how deeply ingrained and initial it is that a fourteen-year-old girl is presented as a replacement for sex when her ‘mama’ isn’t able to give it to her step father. Sex, when expected from the female gender, is shown as servitude to the male gender, irrespective of the age or relationship of the female to the male, ‘You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t’. The extent to which this abuse is normalised and customary is presented in how because she was sick and couldn’t give it to her husband, Celie’s mother was OK with Celie being molested, ‘My mama she fuss at me an look at me. She happy, cause he good to her now.’ When Mister comes to ask for Nettie’s hand in marriage, Alphonso, Celie’s step father, tells him to take Celie instead, and describes her through what she can do as a wife, calling her ‘spoiled’ because she had two children by Alphonso, but highlighting her other attributes as one would characterise a servant, ‘She ain’t no stranger to hard work. And she clean… You can do everything just like you want to and she ain’t gonna make you feed it or clothe it.’ When he decides to see her, Celie is made to turn around for him so that he could see her physical features to decide whether he would marry her, all the while sitting on his horse. The difference between them physically portrays Celie’s inferiority in this world of male dominance as well as how she is ‘sold’ in a way to Mister, as he takes her in because of her ability as a housekeeper.
The first day she comes to Mister’s house, she is instantly abused by his boy but we see Celie being calm about it which stresses the normality of abuse in her life. But change is first brought out when Harpo, Mister’s son, brings in Sofia as his wife and she presents the empowered female generation which stands up against abuse – a person who changes Celie’s idea of meek submission to male violence. This is presented when Harpo asks Celie what he could do to control Sofia, who refuses to accept the female identity of subservience and servitude expected from her, Celie replies that he should beat her. When Sofia asks Celie why she said that, Celie admits that she might have been jealous of Sofia having control in both her marital and societal role. Her acknowledgment that there is a woman power which can be imposed on the male gender presents the gradual rising up of Celie’s liberation from a patriarchal society.
However, it was Shug Avery who truly evoked Celie’s sense of female identity by allowing her to discover herself as more than just a sex object and a wife to a man. Shug represents the seductive and independent woman who does not care what others have to say about her, and finds power through her sexual identity being both an entertainer and a singer. Shug also represents the stereotypes placed on the woman gender, where everyone enjoys her promiscuity and free nature but when it comes to helping her, they turn their backs where we find her being casted out by society when she’s sick, ‘Shug Avery sick and no one in this town want to take the Queen Honeybee in.’ Celie also idolises Shug, even before she meets her where she keeps a provocative picture of Shug which had slipped from Mister, and when Shug comes in sick to their house, Celie goes out of her way to make her feel comfortable, all the while staying in the shadows. In the scene of the bath, we find a bond forming between Celie and Shug as Shug discloses all her hardships to Celie while she brushes her hair, creating an atmosphere of both intimacy and closure.
Shug slowly strips away the layers of oppression and hurt that have been closing up Celie’s identity. Having lost her own identity while withholding societal stereotypes, Celie is entered into a world of self-discovery and empowerment, where Shug helps Celie find indulgence and pleasure in herself. In a very intimate scene of theirs where Shug tells Celie to hold a mirror to her vagina and actually see it, we find Celie rediscovering her ideals where she understands sex is not beholden to violence and submission, but can also be powerful and pleasurable. This very scene becomes the starting point of self-transformation for Celie as she comes out of her victimised and oppressed self to a reawaken identity.
Celie’s true emancipation comes when she discovers that Mister had been hiding Nettie’s letters from her, which forms the climactic moment of the novel as Celie breaks away from the locked down version of herself to a rebel, beating her husband and leaving him. God, to Celie, is the intangible figure of love and empathy while Nettie is equated to a tangible figure. Thus, when she realises that Nettie has been replying to her and that her faith in God and Nettie was not lost, she is able to break free from the bonds of servitude and chauvinism, earning both freedom and spiritual emancipation. It is, therefore, with Nettie that Celie comes out from her shell and becomes the woman she had desired to become.
Towards the end of the book, Celie inherits her father’s property which allows her financial emancipation and stability to live completely on her own terms with Shug. We find women standing up for each other as Shug and Celie do patchwork to have a decent livelihood. They come out of the dark world of male dominance to live on their own and enjoy a life devoid of judgement and oppression to rediscover their own power. But, Walker presents a contradiction in the case of Sofia who is brought down by the Mayor’s wife, a woman, as she is taken to jail and forced to become her servant because she had ‘sassed’ her publicly. Therefore, it is both women who take each other up by standing together through all adversaries, but it is also women who can bring each other down because of authorial imposition. Walker highlights how, in a world with a cruel dichotomy between genders and authority, it is us who can both pull each other or bring each other down.