Questions be running back and forth through my mind. Feel like snakes. I pray strength, bite the insides of my jaw.
The Color Purple
In The Color Purple the silencing of women is critiqued highly. This is an appropriate fixation due to Celie’s race and gender in relation to her passivity. As many critics recognize, the protagonist is silenced by her friends and family alike. What is interesting is that not only do both men and women silence her, she silences herself. She has been conditioned by her step-father from age fourteen to refrain from questioning the actions of others and focus on questioning herself. She is inhibited regarding her speech and actions through victim-blaming. Alfonso sexually and mentally abuses Celie with this warning: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” (11). From this point on she lacks personal conviction, as most young people would after the same situation. However, the misplaced blame is so exaggerated that Celie’s questions cause her to feel devilish and weak, which leads to a struggle with her sexuality.
The dismissal of Celie’s intelligence and overall humanity causes her to continue silencing herself. Even though she is unhappy she knows how to live in an abusive environment. She knows how to survive. Celie is silent for an entire spring when Mr.____ takes his time in deciding whether or not he wants to take her as his “wife.” From the context, it seems the two characters don’t speak to each other at all during this time, so Celie has not actively objected to the exchange. In this silence, she remains weak. Others realize Celie’s silence and avoid dealing with situations as she does. Mr. ____’s sister, Kate, remarks “You’ve got to fight them Celie, I can’t do it for you” You’ve got to fight them for yourself” (21). Although Kate barely knows Celie, she has witnessed her weaknesses and calls her on them. Celie is afraid to leave after her experience with losing Nettie. Even Shug Avery, her future lover tells Celie that “she ain’t got no good sense” (42).
On her wedding day, Celie is chased around the house and brutally hit by her husband’s children. Despite the blood and frustrating persistence to be a good mother. She doesn’t cry and attempts to find strength in her silence. This effort is troubling not only because young children have already learned that physical abuse is acceptable, but because her forced stoicism is her only strength. Imagine if she would have cried. Would Mr. ____ have beaten her or thrown her out because she couldn’t care for his children after a single day?
This small strength is not as strange to me as Celie’s ability to give wonderful advice and protection to other women while remaining submissive for most of her life. She immediately recognizes that Nettie does not deserve to be taken away by Mr. _____ because she is a smart young girl. However, she is confused by Sophia’s bold behavior so much that she encourages Harpo to beat her. In Celie’s mind the problems that Harpo has are very simple. A woman in insubordinate, so you beat her. At the same time, Celie marvels at Sophia’s boldness. She says she’s jealous of Sophia, but the problem is deeper at this moment in Celie’s life: This woman is too independent and the balance is off. No one knows how to deal with her. I don’t think she starts to understand Sophia’s character until she meets Shug Avery. She notices a difference between a man’s love and necessity for a woman. She realizes that they don’t have to come from the same place, and more importantly, it is possible for a man to love a woman at all.
Because Celie has never had the opportunity to become attracted to a man, she begins to consider women at a relatively early age:
He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church. I may have got somethin in my eye but I didn’t wink. I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.
Celie doesn’t admit to (or realize) the possibility of a romantic relationship with women until her experience with Shug Avery, but she definitely trusts them exclusively from her teenage years on. Her father’s abuse and lack of conviction would account for confusion with sexuality. There is certainly no form of sexual education during this time, even if Celie remained in school long enough to receive it, and there was no opportunity for a healthy introduction to what sex is until Shug abruptly asks her about her sex life with Mr. _____. This scene is jarringly playful due to Shug’s initial laughter and the schoolgirl-eque examination of Celie’s genitalia. Because sexual intercourse is a painful and involuntary experience for Celie, she never considered the possibility that it could be enjoyable for a woman. It is disturbing that for at least 20 years of her life, this woman did not question the act of sex. How did she not even mentally ponder the fact that something so searingly painful for her was the source pleasure for multiple men in her life? The silencing is so deep that critical thinking barely scrapes through Celie mentally, let alone verbally.
Consider this quotation: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power” (Oscar Wilde).
If this is true (which I think it is) does Celie know this? What would she think about this quote if she were to hear it?
What do you think about Harpo? His mother was killed by a “boyfriend,” and a scandal broke out after her death. He doesn’t initially beat Sophia and only does after Celie suggests it. Did he think the violence was okay because another woman encouraged it? His character is puzzling…
Celie really respects Sophia and Shug. She recognizes their strength and knows they have both suffered some of the same things she has. Why does she either encourage violence against them (Sophia) or submit to them (Shug)? She doesn’t seem to be able to adopt the strengths that she admires.