The portrayal of women in The Color Purple has been controversial

Topics: Books

The novel ‘The Color Purple’ has conveyed much controversy over the way women are presented. Some have argued that it is of the ‘struggle of redemption and revenge’ while others see the marriage of the novel as going beyond plot and character to protest against oppression. Women in the novel are victims of violence as men are the dominant ones over women in the southern American states. This leads to women bonding together by supporting, talking and protecting one another.

Mel Watkins sees “The Color Purple” as “the friction between the black men and women” we can see from the start of the novel that men are the dominant in the relationship and society with women.

Celie says that Pa “beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church. ” Women are presented as weaker and they have to totally obey the men, the men assert their power and gain total control. However in the Southern states of America black male were also dominated by a superior race, the whites.

The male would feel the need to exert some kind of power on the weaker as they have no power in society, so black male tend to dominate women or children as they are weaker. Watkins goes on to explain that one of the themes of the novels is “the role of male domination in the frustration of black women’s struggle for independence. ” Yet we see the independence of women in characters such as Shug and Sofia, but this independence pays a price.

Get quality help now

Proficient in: Books

4.7 (348)

“ Amazing as always, gave her a week to finish a big assignment and came through way ahead of time. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Celie’s independence is frustrated by Pa, in the beginning Pa takes away Celie’s children, Nettie and her education her frustration is shown as she says “I don’t have nothing”.

We see in one of the letters how Nettie educating Celie “Us both be hitting Nettie’s schoolbooks pretty hard” they believe that in order to gain independence and freedom they need to be educated. But again we see Pa taking this away from Celie, first by forcing her to marry Mr therefore separating her from Nettie. Secondarily when Pa took Celie “out of school when she got “big” Pa takes away Celie’s chance of a future. When Celie finds out that “pa is not” their “pa” Celie feels resurrection and rebirth because she finally confronts her past that Pa had also taken away from her.

Another character who we see frustrated by the struggle for independence by male domination is Sofia, Harpo’s wife. The critic Mel Watkins describes Sofia as a character “whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives”. This is true as we see the presentation of women as victims of violence and we see Sofia as a victim of the abuse of men and the whites. We see Celie telling Harpo to “beat” Sofia like Mr does to Celie. The lack of bonding with Celie in the beginning causes friction between the two women.

This establishes how women communicating and bonding help them protect each other. Sofia’s independence is frustrated when she is beaten for answering “Hell no” to Miss Millie, the white Mayors wife and refusing to work for her. She is so injured that “she can’t talk” she is put “to work in a prison laundry” she hates it there and “dream of murder sleep or wake” this frightens her friends to take action. The women in the novel laugh together and survive through humour, when Sofia has to work for Miss Millie after the ordeal she and Celie joke ”

This the first giggle I heard in three years. The women triumph over violence as in Sofia and squeak’s lowest point they grow and develop as “6 months after Mary Agnes went to get Sofia out of prison, she begin to sing. ” We see how Sofia’s attempt to be equal to men and whites fails because, in the society independence is not accepted for women. Therefore Sofia learns from Celie and adopts her passive approach to surviving this male and white dominated society. “Miss Celie, I act like I’m you” Sofia has learnt that you don’t have to be passive all the time in order to survive this show how women share their experiences and learn from each other.

Dinitia Smith sees the women’s lives as “so extraordinary in their tragedy, their culture, their humour and their courage that we are immediately gripped by them” this is true in Sofia’s character as she also survives with the support of her friends and through humour and courage. She meets some tragedy because of her culture and the power of whites but is revived by her friends and humour, Sofia “can make a dog laugh” her humour in her character helps her resist this ordeal.

This verifies that support from women helps the women endure and Sofia believes that life must be lived by her own terms to achieve fulfilment but it comes at a price. What Sofia believes in, that independence in society comes at a price is illustrated in Shug. Shug has unlike other women characters fulfilled her dream and gained independence with her singing. Although she has a better lifestyle than the other women she pays a price as she is scorned by society “a woman in church say she dying” her lifestyle is difficult to sustain, as travel does not look after her.

This shows the segregation of whites and blacks, sometimes blacks were not allowed to eat or use the same toilet facilities as whites. Shug is seen by her parents as a “tramp” and her “mammy say She told her so” she is and outcast in the community and within her own family, as she has a reputation for scandals. Her singing is also directed to the whites so it is like she has “sold” herself to them, earning no respect from her family and community. Shug has gained independence in the society through her singing for the whites and in the photo when Celie first saw Shug you can see how Shug’s world contrasts to Celies.

Celie’s world is isolated and she doesn’t have much experience of the outside world so when she sees this picture of Shug she is fascinated by it. Celies life reflects most of the lives of women in the Southern American states. They don’t travel and stay at home to serve the men, whereas Shugs life is different as she has gained the independence that Watkins say that the women in the novel are trying to gain. We can see the independence of Shug as Celie describes her with “furs” showing her wealth and glamorous lifestyle.

Her stance in the photo also revels her independence she is standing with “her foot up on somebody motocar” it shows she’s bold and open as it is a sexy pose that women like Celie would not think of doing. Shug is seen by Watkins as a woman who has “pride, independence and an appetite for living” this acts as a catalyst for Celie, as Celie holds great regards for Shug and regards her as a role model “I think what colour Shug Avery would wear”. We see the importance of Shug when Celie writes, “For the first time in my life, I feel just right” with Shug, she feels complete for the first time since her miserable childhood.

Women in the novel bond with each other to protect one another. For example the time Kate defends Celie and orders Harpo to “git that bucket and bring it back full” this indicate how women defend Celie as oppose to men who abuse her. Watkins illustrates how “Celie frees herself from her husbands repressive control bolstered by her contacts with other women and by her affection for her younger sister”. We see the theme of sisterhood reoccurring between the women throughout the novel.

Literal sisterhood between Nettie and Celie and we see how their love is reciprocal, they talk, share and educate each other in order to gain some independence this contrasts to the relationships with men. Men “don’t say nothing” this is shown in characters like Mr and Pa they don’t maintain a close relationship, whereas the women communicate with each other. There is also a sisterhood between women such as Shug and Celie. The symbol of the “quilt” which the Sofia and Celie make together has symbolic importance as this shared activity between the women reflects female unity.

The bonding between women in the novel is significant as Dinitia Smith says that when Celie moves to Memphis with Shug is where “she learns to live and love. ” This is the period where Celie learns to love and is freed from her dependence of Shug “Just cos I love her don’t take away none of her rights”. Whereas the period when Celie is with Mr, she is isolated and restricted to do new things. Shugs importance in Celie’s life is shown as she initiates Celie to do new things, she brings Celie a lot of “first time” experiences. Celie says “first time somebody made something and name it after me”.

This indicates to us that Shug gives Celie confidence so she learns to be more active than passive and brings a great development to Celie’s character. Their relationships also show that bonding between women help them learn which contrasts to the men. Celie’s sister Nettie shows how women can escape from the society but in other parts of the world there is still a segregation and mistreatment of women. The women show the importance of communication and as Nettie leaves she tells Celie to “write” this repetition clarifies the importance of communication.

Yet we see Mr hiding the letters preventing the sisters from doing so frustrates communication, this indicates how Men separate people and women unite each other. Smith sees “The Color Purple” as a novel about the “struggle between redemption and revenge and the chief agency of redemption Walker is saying is the strength of the relationships between women. ” The women in the novel struggle with redemption and overcome this by their support and friendships for each other, but I don’t see novel is about “revenge” as in the end the men and women reconcile. Shug redeems Mr and Celie “our eyes meet.

This is the closest us ever felt” Shug unites them and brings a development in their relationship. The idea of reconciliation is also illustrated when Nettie finds out Pa is not their real father and therefore redeems Celies soul. Shug says to Celie ” Us each other’s people now” after they visit Pa, this marks a development in Celies life as she no longer retreats to the world she feels nothing. The men are also reconciled, Mr changes he starts “to work real hard” and we see a change in his character than before, he “talk” which shows a significant difference in him.

We see Mr overcome his past and defeat oppression. There does not seem to be as much hate and anger from the women that indicate they want revenge from the treatment of the men. They don’t question the dominance of men, as are the men by whites in this society because this is part of the society in which they live in. The women do not seek for revenge but try to overcome this by clinging to and protecting each other. I think the women in “The Color Purple” represents the strength Alice Walker admires which are endurance, spirit, survival and inner strength.

The novel also seem to be a protest against oppression, the story is like a fable in which Walker is trying to put a point across to people about the way blacks and black women are treated in the Southern states of America. We see the characters triumph over adversity and achieve independence Celie shows this towards the end as she overcomes injustice, by leaving the men and seeking her path to independence. Mr also overcomes oppression as he reconciles and changes his attitude. Smith suggests it is about the “revenge” of women but we see the Mr and Celie reconcile and therefore they beat domination together.

On one level the novel focuses on the experiences of black women in the early twentieth century. On another level the characters and their encounter are shown as individuals who triumph over oppression The women in the novel are presented as victims of violence; they unite with each other and bond by communication. These characteristics are represented in most of the characters such as Sofia overcoming the mayors wife by the support of her friends and Celie frees herself from Mr. This bonding helps women support and protect each other against oppression and likewise help the men when they learn to bond.

Cite this page

The portrayal of women in The Color Purple has been controversial. (2017, Oct 11). Retrieved from

The portrayal of women in The Color Purple has been controversial
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7