In Toni Morrisons, The Color Purple, Celie shows the extremes of feminine injustice when repeatedly describing herself as being viewed as unattractive along with continuously being sexually assaulted. In the beginning, Celie does not resist or fight back, thinking that the abuse she is enduring is normal and warranted. Morrison writes about how two different black women (Shug Avery and Sofia) have individually faced sexism and use their experiences to help Celie evolve. Through a feminist lens, the reader can see that, at this time, all women had similar experiences, but there are some who persevere and gain agency, while others fail to do so.
At the very opening of the book, Celie is shown being brutally assaulted by her own father at the age of 14. Since almost every man in her life has shown her nothing but disrespect, it is no wonder Celie is terrified of them, which shows how much power men held over women at this time. With the opening paragraphs of the book depicting a graphic sexual assault, the reader is able to understand that the act and concept of it have been normalized. Instead of attempting to push back, Celie shows just how normalized it is when saying that she just has to “get used to it” (Walker 1).
Almost every woman mentioned in this novel has had a similar experience to Celie: some form of abuse and objectification from a man. Women seem to only be useful for children and work. This dehumanizing ideal is spoken by the newly introduced Harpo when he says, “Women work. I am a man” (Walker 21). At this point in the book, Harpo is quite young and is already attempting to objectify women. When Harpo marries, he is shamed by his father for not beating his wife. He then proceeds to ask Celie how he should handle the situation, and she tells him to “beat her” (Walker 36). This shows that not only have men regularized assault but so have the women who have endured it.
When Shug Avery is introduced into the story, she is depicted as stunning with a strong sense of independence (the exact opposite of Celie’s description). She comes and goes as she pleases: “June. June a good time to go off into the world,” she says, spontaneously choosing when to leave (Walker 74). Shug Avery presents herself with this innate confidence, but the reader finds out that she had a rough upbringing. Similar to Celie, Shug was sexually abused by her father at a very young age but was able to escape and make her own life, a blessing Celie never received. It is very untypical to see a character like Shug Avery in this time period since she is a rich and famous black woman. Shug serves as a role model for Celie: a secure, individualistic woman willing to challenge the patriarchy.
Shug is not only someone Celie looks up to but also her lover. This makes Shug’s opinion that much more valuable. She teaches Celie to have pride in her sexuality and sexual identity. Celie has been shown nothing but hurt and craves the love she has been denied, and with Shug Avery, Celie is able to realize her self-worth. Since Celie is very religious, she views sexual pleasure as a sin, but Shug is able to convince her that “God made it” and “God loves everything you love” (Walker 53). Because of the strength Shug already holds in herself, she is able to mentor Celie and help her evolve.
Another person who helps Celie grow is Sofia, Harpo’s wife. Sofia is one of the most inspiring characters in the book but also one of the most naive. When Sofia first marries Harpo, she goes into the relationship wanting and expecting a partnership but instead gets an abusive one. In opposition to Celie, Sofia fights back, and she fights hard by literally “throwing him over her back” when attacked (Walker 37). She tells Celie that she, too, was abused by her father but still says that if Harpo beat her again, she’d “kill him dead” (Walker 40). This statement awakens something in Celie and teaches her a little something about female empowerment. Even though Sofia is admired and prides herself on her fierce persona, it is the reason for her downfall. This resistance is shown when she is asked to work for the Mayor’s wife and replies with a “hell no,” showing that she is not willing to give up her freedom for money (Walker 85). This response leads her straight to jail, where her dignity and strength are completely beaten out of her.
When Celie goes to visit Sofia in prison, Sofia says to Celie, “I act like you. I jump right up and do just what they say” (Walker 88). This is a huge character shift; she goes from courageous to coward. It’s as if Celie and Sofia have switched roles; Sofia trades her strength for Celie’s weakness. Once Sofia is released, she becomes the most submissive of them all. She looks after her Husband’s mistress’ kid and follows all commands given to her. Not only is her strong feminist side stripped away, but by being forced to work for the Mayor’s white wife, she loses the dignity she once had in her race. Sofia has come to the sad realization that she must succumb to the patriarchy and let men control her if she wants to make it out alive.
Both Shug Avery and Sofia influence Celie by teaching her, intentionally or not, ways to gain power and self-respect. They help her realize that she is worthy of happiness and empower her to never fall to a man’s feet. Their moments of strength and their moments of weakness serve as examples and lessons to help Celie claim her identity.
With the guidance of these two women, Celie matures immensely. The moment the reader is able to truly identify Celie’s growth is when she is able to forgive her ex-husband, Mr.___, someone who once had zero to no respect for her. She has overcome her fear of men and is now able to even consider one to be a friend, saying, “he begins to be somebody I can talk to” (Walker 276). At the closing of the book, Celie is depicted as a respected woman with more freedom than she had ever thought possible.
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