Feminism in ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘A Room of Ones Own’: Analytical Essay
Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. A plethora of literature explores the theme of feminism such as its rise into society, both Alice Walker and Virginia Woolf are acclaimed feminist authors with there texts ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘A room of ones own’ being two highly explored works of feminist literature.
Both texts explore the theme of “feminism”, with Walker writing from a black women’s experiences in America during the 20th century in “The Color Purple” contrasting Woolf “A Room of One’s Own” which tackles feminism from a white women’s perspective. With the narrator throughout “The Color Purple” being Celie, speaking in first person through a series of private letters she writes to God and latter, to Nettie. Due to this epistolary writing style it helps us delve into the rawness and un-filtered manner of the diary entries, aiding us into truly understanding the heinous abuse, oppression, and derogatory actions women had to go through in a pre-feminist society. Without this implemented throughout the book the rise of feminism would have lacked justification as this style of writing presented the harsh reality of life for women, therefore, opening the reader’s eyes to the injustices. “A Room of One’s Own” which is a constructed essay off two papers Woolf had written in 1928. Her essay is constructed as a partly fictionalized narrative of the thinking that led her to adopt this thesis. She dramatizes that mental process in the character of an imaginary narrator (‘call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance’) who is in her same position, wrestling with the same topic. Woolf uses this technique to convey the sense that this narrator is women as a whole, with the reader being able relate to the narrative, men understanding their oppressive behaviour, and women realising the worth they have in society. This almost parallels “The Color Purple” with each narrator evoking a deeply personal perspective but at the same time propagating the message through two entirely different situations.
A major theme I delved into was “Womanism vs Feminism” with both books being regarded as top feminist texts however they are worlds apart. “The Color Purple” had a huge cultural impact with Alice Walker describing the book as not feminist but womanist “Walker stated that white feminism was only relevant for white women, but that in her opinion, black feminism did not satisfactorily express what she referred to as the ‘spirit’ of black women. Thus a woman of colour is described not as ‘feminist’ but ‘womanist’”, describing womanism as supporting women as a whole, not just the privileged white women, which had been greatly criticized due to modern feminism being primarily led by middle class white women meaning racism and sexism that black women experienced was not being adequately addressed by the mainstream feminist movement due to prevalent racism in society during those times. “Alice Walker’s text ‘The Color Purple’ reconciles feminism with the concerns of the black community” showing the text as something more than surface level feminism but unifying all women no matter their; race, age, class, and sexuality. Walker’s womanism resonated positively with many critics, “Alice Walker’s text “The Color Purple” reconciles feminism with the concerns of the black community”. Walker does this through Celie, she is purely a victim; repeatedly raped by her father, her children are taken away from her and she is sold into a marriage to a man who uses her as a servant. Due to this constant abuse she becomes emotionally numb to life reflecting how black woman accept their role in society as essentially nothing: there is no point in feeling anything because their life isn’t theirs. “Then after while every time I got mad, or start to feel mad, I got sick. Felt like throwing up. Terrible feeling. Then I start to feel nothing at all”. These quotes show how the rise of womanism was needed for black women in society not only to give them rights but to rediscover themselves due to the constant abuse causing them to essentially not feel anything anymore “I start to feel nothing at all” almost as though they are not a person but an object used for sex, bearing children and house work . A room of one’s own takes the stance of woman’s education rights in 1929 exploring a less explicit subject of feminism compared to “The Color Purple” almost reflecting the difference in what white woman are fighting for compared to black woman. Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of the constraints they face and their relative poverty: “In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century” the essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free, and in quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face. In one section Woolf invents a fictional character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare gifts would have been denied the opportunity to develop them “Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic”. This metaphor truly reflects how woman have been given no opportunities in education with great minds being pushed aside due to gender. The critics acknowledged Woolf breaking gender stereotypes “First of all, Woolf tells us at the beginning of the book that she couldn’t study in Oxbridge just because she’s a woman. […] In the house, women have a huge amount of things to do such as food, cleaning the nurture of the children”. Reflecting women’s role in society at the time, education not being a priority compared to having kids and taking care of them, Woolf opposes this ideology throughout the book. Woolf does this by showing “the fact that women cannot appear in history, or the scarcity of the appearance of women in history” implying how this needs to change. However some critics infer that differences between men and women causes the inequality and that men should not be blamed for this, “It is true that women fall behind men in some fields, so it is inevitable for them to produce new things in the academic field instead of blaming the opposite sex for this situation” on the contrary Woolf is expressing how men are stopping women from making these developments with the start of the book explaining how women cannot study at Oxbridge or even sit on the grass there with “it is true women fall behind men in some fields” signifying how women only fall behind men in the sense of physicality not intelligence with this inequality only being present because men had prohibited women from studying meaning this statement is not valid as if women had been in full time education since the same age men in society were, this difference between the two genders would be essentially non-existent. Therefore, it is not “blaming the opposite sex” in a sense it is making their oppression known so it can be stopped.
Both books represented male dominance but with ‘The color purple’ taking a more violent route compared to ‘a room of one’s own’ reflecting male dominance through education and history. Walker sets ‘The color purple’ in a black rural southern community which is extremely patriarchal, due to this the black male characters enforce their dominance over the women as they believe they are inferior to them, they do this in mainly a violent and oppressive manner with it taking the form of sexual, physical and emotional abuse therefore with the women being degraded in all aspects with whom they live with it makes them fearful, worthless ad inferior. Throughout the novel this is presented through this idea of male dominance being implemented into society “Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr._______ say, Cause he my wife”, showing that the men that partake in this abuse in a sense do not realise what they are doing is wrong due to the societal norm of it in this community. This is shown through Harpo mistakenly thinking by beating his wife Sofia, she will obey him and believes it is right to do so; “Harpo want to know what to do to make Sofia mind. He sit out on the porch with Mr._________. He say, I tell her one thing, she do another. Never do what I say. Always backtalk. To tell the truth, he sound a little proud of this to me. […] You ever hit her? Mr._________ ast. Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass. Well, how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating. Sofia think too much of herself anyway, he say. She need to be taken down a peg. I like Sofia, but she don’t act like me at all. If she talking when Harpo and Mr._________ come in the room, she keep right on. If they ast her where something at, she say she don’t know. Keep talking. […] Beat her. I say”. This dialogue between Harpo, Celie, and Mr._____ signifies the implemented view of male dominance in society, with Celie (a woman) telling Harpo to beat his wife Sofia. A key aspect being “Harpo want to know what to do to make Sofia mind” even with nothing being wrong with the marriage between Harpo and Sofia he wants to exert his dominance and make her abide by his rules showing how men in society do not want a wife but someone to control. “naw suh, he say low, embarrass” also indicates how the societal social norm is to beat your wife and if you do not you are seen as weak/less of a man explaining why Harpo was embarrassed about not beating Sofia. However, critics condemned this stance Walker took, “The book ignited outrage, particularly among black men, who felt insulted by it and contended that Walker had reproduced stereotypes of black men as both predators and buffoons”. This critical view epitomises why Walker portrayed black men in this way, as not only were black women being oppressed by white men and women but by their own race: signifying the vast injustice black women had to live through. Mr.______ portrays this through during his discussion with Harpo about beating Sofia he says “Sofia think to much of herself anyway, he say. She needs to be taken down a peg”. This reflects how black men at the time viewed women; worthless and by a male figure exerting dominance on her will show who is in charge and the lack of rights she has. Inferring because black men were being oppressed by society their masculinity was fragile/threatened and the only way they felt as though they could gain it back was being in control of something: black women, summarising how deep rooted and invalid these inexcusable actions were.
Woolf takes a different stance on tackling male dominance, not showing it in a physical and violent way but demonstrating he dominance men have over English and education as a whole. As I mentioned in the paragraph before women were prohibited from studying at Oxbridge with these types of implementations put in place the notion of education being dominated by men was inevitable as women were given merely no chance to explore further into education after formal schooling if they were even “privileged” to having an education. Woolf’s father who was in line with the thinking of the era, believed only the boys of the family should be sent off to school to receive an education. Considering the extent and how much of an effect these inequalities have on women in society, she discovers she had not been thinking objectively but with anger. Although ‘one does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man,’ she is aware that anger disrupts what should be a clear and rational mind. However, it also appears that the men in power, the ‘professors,’ are also angry. Men in society aggressively insist upon the inferiority of women, with Woolf believing that the professor is in fact ‘not concerned with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. With them explaining that without confidence we are but “babes in a cradle” patronising women as weak and needing support from the superior gender; men with the quickest way to gain this quality is simply by “thinking that other people are inferior to oneself”. Thus, Woolf expressing the analogy that the professors (men) degradation of women as a “looking glass” effect, as women serving to reflect man “at twice his natural size”. Sharing that if women put a stop to this “looking glass” effect men will no longer power over women with their “natural size” being equal to women as soon as this is gone women can flourish in education without the feeling of being inferior or men being viewed as very much superior, symbolising almost a tinted view being taken down exposing the reality that men and women are equal. Critics applauded Woolf’s explanation of male dominance in education/English “The deeper significance of the theme of male dominance in Woolf’s essay is that whoever writes “the story”, i.e. the broad narrative of social change that is written in history books, has the power to redefine others by forcing the reader to view them through a certain perspective. She is both attempting to show how men have written history by placing women in a separate, inferior space and demonstrating how skewed these men’s perceptions are when viewed from an outside perspective” this critical analysis perpetrates how male dominance was normalised in society and the re telling of history because that’s how men had written it, if a story is written from one perspective the story will not be accurate but if the education system is based on these distorted perceptions they will be seen as fact, with male dominance not being discriminatory but as the way of life as that’s how it was always written in history. Woolf questioning this written work infers the chain reaction of this notion of life being doubted and changed.
The Color Purple” implements the graduality of Celie finding her voice symbolizing women as a whole especially black women raising up against their oppressors. Walker shows this in many different ways firstly the novel’s very first words alert us to the prohibition against speech served on Celie by her father: ‘You’d better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.’ Thus, Celie writes, addressing her letters to God because she has no one else to write to and because she knows she must never tell no ‘body.’ But even then, Celie addresses her letters to the orthodox Christian God, another version of the father. In short, Celie’s language exists through much of the book without a body or audience, just as she exists without a self or identity. Finding the courage to speak is a major theme of The Color Purple, but the novel also suggests that speech cannot come from the hollow self-identity that Celie presents early on but from the experiences and strong female figures she had throughout the novel, that liberated her in different ways. Shug Avery was justifiably the biggest force in transcending Celie; sexually, emotionally, and physically. Women were continuously oppressed by men in between wars, and Celie was certainly a victim of this, however, Celie admires Shug for being different, and tries to follow in her footsteps, it starts with small steps, however, it is a positive influence on Celie’s self-belief. Shug and Celie’s relationship are responsible for Celie’s sexual awakening, as this is the first affectionate relationship that she has had. Celie tells Shug “nobody ever love me”. This short simple sentence sums everything up for Celie and suggests that she is looking for love and comfort after all of her hardships. The relationship is more about love for Celie, that is why some critics received the text thinking that the relationship was more maternal, Celie even says “us sleep like sisters me and Shug”, this simile shows that it is a more familial love, someone to protect Celie. Along with her sexual awakening, her growing independence is a result of her relationship with Shug as she ends up leaving Mr____ and moving to Memphis independently, and doesn’t hold back when she tells Mr____, she calls him a “lowdown dog”, this derogatory insult shows how Celie’s fear of men has disappeared due to her influence from Shug. Celie even threatens Mr__ by saying “us together gon whup your ass”. The use of the first person plural pronoun “us” shows that Celie feels like she has a family and people to defend and help her, she finally feel a part of something that she didn’t have before, and this self-belief and confidence is because Shug entered her life. Celie’s independence is also shown through her Trouser Business, fighting the odds of being a black woman, she manages to create her own successful business and be self-sufficient, without a need to rely on a man to live. Celie says “I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time”, the repetition of the possessive verb “got” shows how much Celie has earned now that she has left her husband, her life is now so much richer in happiness, as well as materialistically.
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