In the novel ‘The Colour Purple’ power is represented differently throughout. One way in which this power is shown is through men in the novel. At the beginning men dominate and are depicted as a higher authority figure to women, it seems the men rule the women’s lives. However we can also argue that women are equally strong whilst others evolve into more powerful figures.
Power through sisterhood is demonstrated through the fact that Shug gives Celie companionship, something Celie may not have felt since she was separated from her sister Nettie. Through Celie and Shug’s relationship Celie has gained strength in herself and has been shown to stick up for herself. We see this when Shug announces she is taking Celie and Mary Agnes with her as Celie stands up to Albert. This shows us Celie is learning to become independent. This represents one aspect of female power in the novel and it also shows that by having friends to support them these women are able to leave their “lowdown dogs” behind and with the belief in themselves they can build their own future. Female solidarity is shown where we see Celie’s protection for her mother and sister Nettie. Although she has no real proof on whether Nettie is alive and well, she never stops believing she will one day be reunited with her sister. From this we can see that if men had the will power and strength the women do in the novel, they would be able to make their hard and miserable life easier and more bearable. Celie after everything she has been through and all the misery she has been put through by various characters mainly male’s, she still has hope and can see a brighter future for herself and to be reunited with her sister and become a family.
The love shared between Shug and Celie was getting closer and more passionate. Shug’s feelings for Celie to us seemed true even though she had male sexual partners Celie still seemed more important to Shug than any other of her male partners. Andrea Stuart expresses that Celie doesn’t mind that her lover Shug comes home with a husband. She only cares that Shug is back with her, “the existence of a husband is irrelevant to what is important, the relationship between the two women”. Albert did not have a clue to what was going on between the two of them. He could understand they had become good friends in the time they had spent together and therefore wanted to sleep in the same bed but not once did he suspect them to have a sexual relationship. He put too much trust into Celie and Shug letting them be together alone for such a long time that Shug turned Celie into a more confident character, someone that has her own voice and can speak up for herself.
Celie shows her strength again in the novel when she sacrifices herself to a traumatizing experience in order to protect and prevent her sister being raped. Alphonso abused Celie and she didn’t want the same to happen to Nettie, “I ast him to take me instead of Nettie”. Thinking Alphonso may not want her instead of Nettie she trys to seduce him, “I tell him I can fix myself up for him. I duck into my room and come out wearing horsehair, feathers, and a pair of our new mammy high heel shoes. He beat me for dressing trampy but he do it to me anyway”. Celie here shows her willingness to protect her little sister from the pain and suffering she had previously encountered, in order to save Nettie being sexually abused she puts herself through it again.
Walker highlights the lack of power experienced by many poor black females living in the southern states through the character of Celie. She comes from a black background which therefore disadvantages her because in the time the novel was set being a black female was quite low down, they were still being treated like slaves due to her being black but also female as in those times the male role dominated. Celie was therefore used to accepting some racism from the whites. This is shown when she goes into town and bumps into her baby and her step mother in a store where the clerk was rude and showed no good manners to them. He speaks in an imperative tone, “girl you want that cloth or not? We got other customers sides you”. Celie also wrote about black on black racial insults. One example is when Albert’s sisters came round to visit and they described Albert’s first wife as “too black”. Lighter skin was seen as more beautiful then darker skin. Squeak after being raped by her uncle Bubber Hodges, asked Harpo “do you really love me, or just my colour” Squeak thought it was because of her light coloured skin due to the fact she is mixed race that Harpo was attracted to her and not because he truly loved her. Here power was shown through skin colour and Walker highlights how deeply racism is embedded for example when the critics say she is writing against black people showing their racism.
Andrea Stuart and Mary O’Conner both think Celie is only a victim of men in the physical world. Stuart states that “men are relegated to the periphery of female consciousness” Celie being a black women she was not only a slave to slavery but she was also a slave to the male authority, when slavery was abolished Celie saw the opportunity to free herself from the traditions that men come first.
From reading the novel it could be said that the first half is concentrated on how men hold the power over women. This view is supported by Stuart who highlights the exploitation of black women by black men. However I do not agree with this view. I don’t think the focus is jus on gender itself although it does play a part, but I think their sex and colour was also brought up. During the novel we see that males dominated females and white families were classed as more important than black families. This was caused by the time in which the novel was set in, slavery had been abolished however it was still in peoples minds and we see it still carried on in some areas of the novel. One example of this is when Alphonso is almost selling Celie. He barters by adding a cow to the deal and points out her positive sides, “she ain’t no stranger to hard work, and she clean”.
Celie has the power to move on and almost start life again, partly through gaining financial power. This is portrayed to us when Celie leaves with Shug and sets up her own business making pants for women, which had only started as a hobby. However Celie made it work for her, she started making money and became independent as she was making her own money now. “I am” as Mary O’ Connor quoted an extract by Gates, “Celie writes herself into being”. This shows a change amongst Celie showing she believes in herself whereas before at the beginning of the novel she crossed “I am” out and replaced it with “I have”. Celie making trousers may have given here this power because they are often looked at as a symbol of freedom for women.
Within the context of the time period in the novel, women wearing trousers would have been looked upon as rebellious which itself gives that person a form of power. This however was not true for Albert; after Celie left him he became a mess. He locked himself in the house and Harpo had to go and get him out. Albert, probably shocked that Celie had actually left him later became a changed man who Celie began to like as he was into all kinds of new things like nature. We also find Albert used to sew with his mother, something Celie and Albert now have in common. He says people used to laugh at him and Celie said, “well, nobody gon laugh at you now…here help me stitch in these pockets”. We now see that Albert has started to respect Celie and doesn’t just look at her as his own property, “took me long enough to notice you such good company”.
Mary O’Conner says that Alphonso’s exhortation towards Celie at the beginning of the novel gave her a way out. He threatens Celie that she cannot tell anyone what he had done to her apart from god. He tells her she can tell god but no one else or he will kill her mother, “you better not never tell nobody but god. It’d kill your mammy”. Through the threat from Alphonso, Celie may feel he has power not only over her but also over her loved ones as her mothers life is at risk, as shown by O’ Connor “speaking would be an act of murder, a matricide. By giving Celie the right to write to god he had given her a way out and saved her from becoming insane or mentally ill. Although she cannot tell another person, she has someone to confide in and to share her problems with.
The threat from Alphonso supports Stuart’s perception that men are “mostly troublesome, sometimes cruel.” Alphonso here has shown a psychological strength because by threatening her, he’s forced her into not speaking to other people about any of her problems and teaching her to keep all her problems to herself. However he is not aware that Celie writing to god allows her to offload and share her problems with someone other than herself. O’ Connor says that Celie’s “existence to be denied” this explains that in her rape experience and also in the fact that she has a lack of voice she is therefore not able to share her bad experience with anyone. However I think she is able to express her feelings through writing so is therefore giving herself a voice and existence which goes against what O’ Connor states.
Walker shows Alphonso’s psychological power over Celie in the beginning of her writing letters. Celie crossed out “I am”. This is almost as if she is crossing herself out. She changes it to, “I have always been a good girl”. It seems that Celie is taking the blame for what Alphonso has done to her. This is the first time we see an authority figure abuse Celie which reinforces male dominance in her life. The rape not only shows physical power strength and power but also emotional authority, due to Celie’s naivety, for his own pleasure.
Another time in the novel in which we see Alphonso’s power over Celie is when he is trying to get rid of her by marrying her off. However it’s more like he is selling her as they barter, he even throws in a cow. This again relates back and shows how black females in this time period were still being treated as slaves. O’ Connor tells us her “feminist analysis is interested in the voices”, as it’s a male dominated conversation where Celie only gets in a few words on a highly important decision which can affect her whole life. Here Alphonso shows his total power over Celie and the fact that not only does he control her life now, but he also controls her future and how or who she will spend it with. The fact that she cannot decide herself who she wants to marry takes all control away from her. Throughout this Celie’s voice is absent, and even when its important decisions about her own life she still seems to have no voice.
Religion to the lives of the people in the novel was not the sanctuary it might have been according to Mary O’Conner, “Alphonso gave Celie one way out…perhaps the result of some dialogical residue of his Christian culture”. However Celie received a beating after church, “cause he say I winked at a boy in church”.
The colour purple itself is a symbol of violence which runs throughout the novel as it’s the colour of bruises. However it can also portray authority as it’s the colour of royalty. Walker symbolises power through this quote, “womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender”. This tells us Walker thinks womanism as a stronger form or feminism as the colour purple is brighter than lavender. Shug tells us that the colour purple is everywhere and that God has used this colour to portray beauty, “I think it pisses God off if you walk pass the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it”. It can also be said that God’s love for this colour made black people in this complexion as in one of Nettie’s first letters to Celie when she arrives in Africa she talks about the Senegalese peoples skin, “So and so is blacker than black, he’s blueblack”.
Celie’s getting married and it looks as if she’s getting away from Albert and also from the abuse and suffering. However we find it’s going to be the same life for her its just a different set of male’s throwing and shouting abuse at her, “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.” We can see how unhappy Celie really is, she explains she try’s to make herself like wood so that they cannot affect or hurt her anymore.
Another section of power in the novel is the physical domination of the women. Celie being a black woman is disadvantaged as not only is she looked upon as a slave but she is also dominated by the male authorities in the novel. She suffers at the hands of men. We can therefore argue that the emancipation proclamation of the post civil war era freed men but not the women because the male authority then saw the woman as their slave which is how Celie is treated by both Albert and Alphonso, we see this when Albert does not get off his horse to meet Celie but also speaks about her in third person, “He’s still on his horse. He look me up and down.” This shows us his power over her.
Alphonso treats Celie like a slave. He shows no respect towards her, from this we can learn that men are not in Celie’s heart which is why I agree with what Andrea Stuart says, “Rather like the weather, men are part of women’s (usually) hostile environment, a perennial force to be dealt with daily, but not the centre of their emotional existence.” Another male figure that dominates over Celie is Albert. The main and the most obvious way we can see Albert dominates is that Celie does not call him by his name, she calls him Mr. This gives us evidence Albert controls the relationship. This again links back to slavery as slaves would not call their master or owner by their first name. When Albert went to see Celie he did not get down from his horse showing more power due to the fact he is higher and therefore in a higher position than she is, “He still on his horse. He look me up and down.”
Another view of Celie as a slave is the fact that no loving relationship exists, it seems like Celie is there to cook, clean, look after the kids and Albert’s needs, so therefore he just uses her, “Mr clam on top of me, do his business.” She says “do his business”. From this we see it’s for Albert and that Celie is being used like a piece of meat and gets no pleasure out of it, “He abuses her physically and verbally, humiliates her publicly, and is responsible for her decades-long separation from her much loved sister Nettie”. Celie doesn’t say anything she lets Albert get on with it, Mary O’Connor says, “Celie’s voice would seem to be absent from this account of male voices around her.” I also agree with Mary O’ Connor at this point in the novel, I think Celie had lost her voice from the time Alphonso had told her to write to God but not to tell anyone. However later in ‘The Colour Purple’ we find that Celie with help from Shug regains her voice, takes a stand and calls Albert by his name and threatens him. She later leaves with Shug and her full confidence back.
Albert acts totally different in the two relationships he is in, with Celie he dominates and controls the relationship however in the relationship Albert and Shug share he is the opposite. Shug controls what happens and Albert does anything she tells him to. This also shows us the difference in character of Celie and Shug, Celie is easily controlled but Shug is a strong character. One critics view is “some women wear pants; and some of the men wear dresses.” Mary O’Connor is telling us that in some relationships women can rule and have the men listening to what they say and do as they tell them, this is defiantly true for Shug. We also see that when Albert is with Celie he wears the pants but when he’s with Shug he would appear to be wearing the dress.
Another relationship where the woman dominates is between Sofia and Harpo. Sofia has total control over their relationship, she holds the power and it seems Harpo hates this. On the other hand it may not be that he hates it but the pressure from society forces him to act in certain ways. Tony Brown says, “Love has been drained out by the brutality of a society panic-stricken over black masculinity”. This gives us the idea that culture is the main reason for the need to hold power. Harpo is an example of this violence in society, for example when his mother was killed by her boyfriend in front of him. He associates being dominant as a way of asserting himself. He wants the power in the relationship because he has seen the way his father holds the power in his relationship with Celie. We know Harpo wants the power as Sofia tells us “once he git on top me I think bout how that’s where he always want to be.” Harpo confides in Celie and asks what he should do, Celie tells Harpo to beat Sofia to gain control. This advice is surprising but coming from Celie can be understood because she has suffered abuse all her life and she is used to it. It’s all she knows and therefore she believes it’s normal.
Power and the placement of it is also shown in the African part of the novel and it is through these tribes we are able to compare Celie with the traditional African way of life. The Olinka’s, one of the main tribes that are introduced to us, hold the power of life and death over their wives. The men are also looked upon as better than women in the tribe. The structure of power in that who holds it and who doesn’t in the tribe is also shown in Celie’s life through her being raped and that fact she is not able to enjoy sex with her partner Albert, “I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it”. The fact that she cannot enjoy it may be cause by Celie’s feelings and emotions towards male’s as she has been abused by them all her life. This is supported by Stuarts view that “men are never the source of emotional sustenance or long term happiness for women. However this is does not seem true for Shug as she looks happy with her male partners, this may be because she always seems to have control over her relationships.
In conclusion I can say that in the beginning of ‘The Colour Purple’ it is the men who hold all the power, however as new characters’ are introduced it is slightly more balanced as Shug and Sofia speak there mind and stand up to any man. Also later Celie and Squeak both stand up for themselves, they take control of the situation but also take away the power from the men and hold it themselves. At the beginning of the novel Celie writes to God, she then starts writing to her sister Nettie, this shows a change in her and in the end all her hopes pay off as she breaks away from her abusing husband and lives with her family; her sister Nettie and her kids with Shug.