Study Guide

The Color Purple Women and Femininity

By Alice Walker

Women and Femininity

Letter Five
Celie

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. Maybe cause my mama cuss me you think I kept mad at her. But I ain’t. I felt sorry for mama. Trying to believe his story kilt her. (5.1)

In Celie’s mind, men have a kind of meanness that women don’t possess. Women, though they may scream and swear, are not harmful in the way men like Pa are. Pa, and later Mr.__, set up a strong distinction in Celie’s mind between women and men.

Letter Twelve
Harpo

Harpo, she [Kate, Mr.__’s sister] say. Harpo the oldest boy. Harpo, don’t let Celie be the one bring in all the water. You a big boy now. Time for you to help out some.

Women work, he say.

What? she say.

Women work. I’m a man.

You’re a trifling n*****, she say. You git that bucket and bring it back full.

He cut his eye at me. Stumble out. I hear him mutter somethin to Mr.________ sitting on the porch. Mr.___________ call his sister. She stay out on the porch talking a little while, then she come back in, shaking.

Got to go, Celie, she say.

She so mad tears be flying every which way while she pack. (12.28-35)

Mr.__ and his son see women essentially as servants, or slaves, meant to work while men enjoy life. Though some women try to band together and support each other, many men in this novel try to prevent them from supporting each other.

Letter Thirteen
Harpo

Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr._______ say, Cause he my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for—he don’t finish. He just tuck his chin over the paper like he do. Remind me of Pa.

Harpo ast me, How come you so stubborn? He don’t ast how come you his wife? Nobody ast that.

I say, Just born that way, I reckon.

He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. 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. (13.1-4)

Harpo and Mr.__ treat women as if they’re children and, perhaps, worse than children—as if they have no will or rights of their own.

Letter Seventeen
Sofia

She [Sofia] say, How you, Mr.______?

He don’t answer the question. He say, Look like you done got yourself in trouble.

Naw suh, she say. I ain’t in no trouble. Big, though.

She smooth the wrinkles over her stomach with the flats of her hands.

Who the father? he ast.

She look surprise. Harpo, she say.

How he know that?

He know. She say.

Young womens no good these days, he say. Go they legs open to ever Tom, Dick and Harry.

Harpo look at his daddy like he never seen him before. But he don’t say nothing. (17.26-35)

Mr.__ has a double-standard regarding sexual behavior between the genders. While it’s fine that Harpo has been sleeping with girls, Mr.__ clearly thinks that Sofia having sex and being pregnant is "trouble" and that she’s sleazy.

Letter Sixty-Two
Nettie

The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.

What can she become? I asked.

Why, she said, the mother of his children.

But I am not the mother of anybody’s children, I said, and I am something.

You are not much, she said. The missionary’s drudge. (62.3-7)

Nettie learns that women are not thought of very highly in Olinka culture. To the Olinka, a woman’s only importance is with respect to the men in her life. Nettie, on the other hand, sees women as having inherent value.

Olivia

Why do they say I will be a wife of the chief? asks Olivia.

That is as high as they can think, I tell her.

He is fat and shiny with huge perfect teeth. She thinks she has nightmares about him.

You will grow up to be a strong Christian woman, I tell her. Someone who helps her people to advance. You will be a teacher or a nurse. You will travel. You will know many people greater than the chief.

Will Tashi? she wants to know.

Yes, I tell her, Tashi too. (62.13-18)

Nettie tries to help Olivia to look higher than simply becoming a wife and mother, and not to accept prescribed gender roles for herself.

Letter Sixty-Three
Nettie

Tashi is very intelligent, I said. She could be a teacher. A nurse. She could help the people in the village.

There is no place here for a woman to do those things, he said.

Then we should leave, I said. Sister Corrine and I.

No, no, he said.

Teach only the boys? I asked.

Yes, he said, as if my question was agreement.

There is a way that the men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa. (63.14-20)

Nettie recognizes that to the Olinka, her only value is her position with respect to men. Nettie is valuable because she can educate boys. In addition, the Olinka men, just like Pa, are very interested in maintaining their dominance over women by denying females education and by speaking down to them.

Letter Seventy-Five
Celie

I curse you, I say. What that mean? He say.

I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.

He laugh. Who you think you is? He say. You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all. (75.9-12)

Mr.__ uses his usual tactics in an attempt to oppress Celie. Essentially, he thinks women are worthless, and therefore the sins that he has committed against her don’t matter.

Letter Eighty-Seven
Mr.__

Sofia and Shug not like men, he say, but they not like women either.

You mean they not like you or me.

They hold they own, he say. And it’s different.

What I love bet bout Shug is what she been through, I say. When you look in Shug’s eyes you know where been where she been, seen what she seen, did what she did. And now she know. (87.90-93)

Mr.__ and Celie discuss how Sofia and Shug, regardless of their gender, have managed to carve out a unique identity for themselves.