Female Relationships in The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Critical Analysis

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Throughout Alice Walker’s novel ‘The Color Purple’, she successfully communicates the importance and power of strong female relationships in several forms, so much so that it quickly becomes the main foundation of the plot. She frequently reminds the reader of the arduous battle that women living in a patriarchal society have to fight daily to gain some form of personal identity, and the liberating improvements that come as a result of women uniting against the oppressive and phallocentric behaviour of men throughout the novel. The narrative of the novel highlights the struggles and brutalities of everyday life for a young African American woman in the early 20th century. The protagonist, Celie, has been subjected to constant abuse from a very young age by the men in her life, and this means that all of the loving relationships she has in the novel, both romantic and platonic, are with women.

The structure of ‘The Color Purple’ as an epistolary novel makes the tone very confessional, allowing Celie to express her feelings to the people she trusts through the privacy of a letter. The ambiguity of Celie’s sexuality, provoked by the seemingly romantic relationship between herself and Shug Avery, emphasises her toxic preconceptions of men and the level of hatred she feels for them. “I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.” What Celie says here could refer to both her friendships and sexual relationships with women. Her whole life she has been so severely oppressed by men that even the qualities one searches for in a sexual partner can only be found in women. In Celie’s head, women don’t possess the same harshness as men, and the female friendships that develop throughout the novel affirm the idea that Celie finds comfort and optimism through these relationships. Celie’s questionable relationship with the sultry blues singer, Shug Avery, becomes the starting point in the evolution of Celie’s character into a more independent and assertive woman. The singer, who falls ill and is taken in by Mr. ____, is initially blunt and impolite towards Celie. It is only when Celie takes on the role of nursing Avery and aiding her recovery that the two women become close companions and, eventually, intimate lovers.

The development of this friendship is extremely significant in the protagonist’s journey to a life free from male oppression as Shug begins to teach Celie about her body and about other ways of living beyond the control of men. Even before the reader meets Shug, she is idealized by Celie as the woman she longs to be, self-reliant and unrestricted. In the sixth letter of the novel, Celie is shown a picture of Shug by her mother. “Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw.”. Later on in her life, Avery comes to town and Mr. ____ goes to see her perform. “ Lord, I wants to go so bad. Not to dance. Not to drink. Not to play card. Not even to hear Shug Avery sing. I just be thankful to lay eyes on her.” The longing and desperation that Celie expresses here in letter 14 is reflective of the lack of strong female characters in her life, and the yearning she feels for the company of another woman, as well as possibly foreshadowing the sexual relationship that forms between the two later in the novel. At various low points in Celie’s life, Shug is a figure of moral support. For instance, when Shug reveals to Celie that Mr. ____ has been hiding letters from her beloved sister, Nettie, whom up until this point was believed to be dead, she is overcome with emotion and has to contain herself for fear of killing her husband out of anger. On top of this, shortly before Celie, Shug and Harpo’s new woman, Squeak, leave to go to Tennessee, Celie finally releases her built up rage, cursing Mr. ____ for his many years of abuse. “I curse you, I say.” “I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.” These surprising bursts of outrage show a growing sense of bravery in Celie’s previously passive personality. While in Tennessee, Shug becomes the encouragement Celie needs to establish her own business of designing and sewing pants, thus providing her with her own source of income. Furthermore, when Celie discovers that Alphonso is not her biological father, she is deeply affected and begins to lose some of her faith in God, but Shug helps her to reimagine God in her own way, rather than the traditional image of the old, bearded, white man. Now much more independent financially, spiritually and emotionally, Celie finds herself able to fend for herself in situations she previously couldn’t.

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All of these events demonstrate the impact Shug Avery has on the shaping of Celie’s character, and the importance of her presence in allowing Celie to resist oppression and dominance. There is a secure family bond between the characters of Celie and her sister Nettie. This loving bond is further strengthened by the horrific life experiences the two women have shared. Their childhood spent together was far from favorable, the pair being emotionally and sexually abused by their father. Despite this, Celie remains protective of her younger sister throughout. “I see him looking at my little sister. She scared. But I say I’ll take care of you. With God help.” This special relationship is extremely significant in regards to the uprising of females against their male oppressors, and in my opinion, it is made ever stronger by the separation of the two women from each other. “But God, I miss you, Celie. I think about the time you laid yourself down for me. I love you with all my heart.”. When they are reunited at the end of the novel, both characters have developed immensely, yet what remains the same is their immeasurable love for one another.

One of the female friendships which is perhaps more unusual, yet still contributes considerably to the progress of the protagonist’s character is that of Harpo’s wife, Sofia, and Celie. Near the beginning of the novel, it becomes apparent that Celie feels jealousy towards Sofia because she is a more strong and independent character. Eventually, this jealousy results in Celie advising Harpo to beat his wife, and consequently she is challenged to be a stronger individual when Sofia accuses her of being weak and submissive. From this point onwards, these negative feelings evolve into a valuable companionship that is characterized by female empowerment. Sofia can very much be seen as a role model for Celie throughout the novel due to her strong-willed nature and individualism. Her character is the epitome of independence and self-reliance, which is unusual considering the context of the story at a time where women, especially those of colour, were expected to depend on men for their survival. Feminist criticism comments on this idea. “The context in which the novel was written was the increasing importance of the feminist and Civil Rights movements, yet black western women found themselves marginalized in both narratives. (The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Women’s Press, 1982, Review by Harriet Elizabeth)” Sofia does not fall victim to this stereotyping, as she breaks conventions, refuses to be dominated by either her husband or her father-in-law, and demands that Harpo helps with such things as the housework. When Celie and Mr. ____ encourage him to beat his wife, his attempts typically result in more injury to himself than Sofia, due to her unusual physical strength. “Sofia look half her size. But she still a big strong girl.”.

The atypical features of Sofia’s character are largely influential in the evolution of Celie into a more self-sufficient female, demonstrating the idea that women don’t always have to be inferior to men, and that a reversal of roles is possible. It could be argued that Walker does not intend to portray female relationships as a means of resisting male oppression. Instead, one might say that women are friends with other women simply due to circumstances. The sufferings of life in a phallocentric society, resulting in male dominance and abuse, is something all of these women have in common, and therefore it becomes a source of comfort for them to confide in each other as there is nobody else who can relate to their situation. In other words, the women feel obliged to form these bonds with other women as a way of temporarily escaping the male oppression they face. This implies the idea that these relations don’t necessarily strengthen their character or significantly improve their quality of life, and that men have absolute control over even the friendships women experience, and females are not ultimately free to live the lives they desire. In conclusion, it is evident that the connections we see being made between female characters throughout Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ are fundamental for the growth and development of women searching for a more liberated way of life. We are able to witness, particularly through the eyes of our protagonist, Celie, the vast impact one female figure can have on another. At the very end of the novel, when Celie is reunited with her sister, we can see the final outcome of her treacherous journey, from being a submissive, defenseless product of abuse to becoming a respectable, capable and uncontrolled female who no longer feels she has to endure the ruthless restraints of male oppression and dominance. “I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen.”

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Female Relationships in The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Critical Analysis. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-relationships-in-the-color-purple-by-alice-walker-critical-analysis/
“Female Relationships in The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/female-relationships-in-the-color-purple-by-alice-walker-critical-analysis/
Female Relationships in The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-relationships-in-the-color-purple-by-alice-walker-critical-analysis/> [Accessed 15 Apr. 2024].
Female Relationships in The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-relationships-in-the-color-purple-by-alice-walker-critical-analysis/
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