[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Dixon considers how the male characters in The Color Purple shape the protagonist, Celie, throughout her life. According to Dixon, in her novel, “Walker demonstrates that a man’s violent, abusive, and sadistic behavior, intended to control and restrict a woman, can often actually contribute to a woman’s growth and development.”]
A woman changes when she loves and is loved. When there is nobody who cares for her she loses her spirits and the charm is gone. Love draws out what is in her and on it her development decidedly depends.
Vincent van Gogh
In The Color Purple, set in the deep South around the 1900s (Chambers 54), Alice Walker pursues a more intense development of the African-American woman than in The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian. According to Barbara Christian, “The emphases are the oppressions [African-American] women experience in their relationship with [African-American] men … and the sisterhood they must share with each other in order to liberate themselves” (“The Black Woman Artist” 52). Mae G. Henderson points out that “in The Color Purple Walker demonstrates the necessity for each person to struggle against unjust oppressions, whether it is in the home, in the community, or in a radically hostile society” (70). The women, therefore, in The Color Purple are more determined to survive and overcome their oppressions, and some of the men appraise their lives and are reformed at the end of the novel.
Although Walker places the African-American woman at the focal point of the fiction, the male characters play crucial and significant roles in the development of Celie’s character and in her final transformation. Mister or Albert, the only names that Walker gives him in the novel, is the most important male character in Celie’s development. However, Celie writes about other male characters who affect her character. Through their brutal behavior, the men ironically contribute to Celie’s growth and development, permitting her to define her own womanhood. Therefore, this chapter will demonstrate that the men, inevitably, play decisive and important roles in Celie’s growth and development. It will explore, also, the hypothesis that although men abuse Celie in an effort to dominate and victimize her, their abuse actually enables Celie to assert herself, overcome their oppression, and move toward contentment and independence.
This chapter is divided into four parts. Part one examines Celie’s first life with the male character, Fonso, and how his abuse sets the stage for her “rite of passage” into one level of womanhood. Part two examines Celie’s second life in the novel with Mister and shows how his abuse has the unintended effect of contributing to her development. Part three briefly discusses Celie’s third life in Memphis, Tennessee, and, finally, part four discusses Celie’s fourth and final life in the novel and how Mister’s reformed behavior directly contributes to her final stage of development—contentment and independence.
In Celie’s first life in The Color Purple, the first male character whom the reader learns about is Fonso. Fonso lives in rural Georgia in the 1900s. When he appears in the novel, he is a married adult with stepchildren. He is a poor, Southern African-American man who is virtually uneducated and, even “though racism …” according to Frank W. Shelton, “gets little attention in the novel” (382), Fonso, like Walker’s other male characters in her earlier novels, lives in a white American social structure that dictates his entire attitude. These limitations, once imposed on his life, do not allow Fonso to know his full potential, to know himself, or even to know, evaluate, or develop important values in his life. The distorted values cause Fonso to develop a poor self-concept and an extremely low self-esteem. He is powerless and possibly humiliated by his condition in life. He feels limited and restricted. In reprisal for his own oppressive condition, Fonso feels the need to be dominant and aggressive in his family, which leads him to physically, sexually, and psychologically abuse the women with whom he comes in contact in the novel. Fonso, however, like Brownfield in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, never changes or reforms his abusive behavior toward women in the novel, and he eventually destroys himself by his own selfish acts of sexual indulgence.
The first evidence of Fonso’s abuse of women begins with Celie’s mother. Fonso attempts to force Celie’s mother to engage in sexual intercourse with him shortly after she has had a baby son, Lucious, and at a time when she is seriously ill. However, Fonso is rejected by Celie’s mother, and such rejection and restriction by his own wife render him impotent in his control of the situation at home. He feels even more powerless and frustrated, and his manhood—defined primarily through sex—is seriously threatened and violated:
Last spring after little Lucious come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say it too soon, Fonso, I ain’t well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by, he pulling on her arm again. She say Naw, I ain’t gonna. Can’t you see I’m already half dead, and all of these children.Celie’s mother’s refusal to engage in sexual intercourse with Fonso leads Fonso to begin to feel the need to reestablish his control and male domination within the family. To insure that his control is never violated again, in any way, he realizes that he must intensify his control of women in his life. Therefore, to further demonstrate his disapproval of Celie’s mother’s rejection and restriction and the resulting threats and violations of his manhood, Fonso rapes Celie, his stepdaughter, to fulfill his sexual desires and to reestablish his male domination in the family: “She [Celie’s mother] went to visit her sister doctor over Macon. Left me to see after the others. He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say ‘You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t’” (1).
(Walker, Purple [The Color Purple] 1)
As a result of reestablishing his male domination in the family, Celie, the protagonist in the novel, becomes the second female whom Fonso abuses. When the action begins, Celie is portrayed as a lonely, isolated, and abused fourteen-year-old girl who lives in southern rural Georgia. At that early age, and unlike Meridian in Walker’s second novel, Celie is not in control of her own life or of her own body; her stepfather, Fonso, is in control, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse overpowers Celie from the age of fourteen to early adulthood. He forces and frightens her into sexual submission, the consequences of which are two pregnancies; Fonso further abuses Celie by immediately taking her babies from her. He restricts her by forbidding her to tell anyone of the brutal rapes that he inflicts on her young body, and he dishonors her when he becomes attracted to her younger sister Nettie. Celie is no longer sexually attractive to him; she is not a virgin; she is worthless to him. He tells Mister: “She the oldest anyway. She ought to marry first. She ain’t fresh tho. … She spoiled. Twice. … And she a bad influence on my other girls” (9). Fonso shows his continued lack of character by finding and marrying a girl Celie’s age. His new wife, now that Celie’s mother is dead, can do what Celie cannot do—bear children.
Fonso’s abuse, intended to control and restrict Celie, paradoxically begins to contribute to Celie’s initial stage of development. Celie begins to fight back and to begin her journey toward identity, development, and independence. First, Fonso’s abuse causes Celie to develop an alternative relationship with God. In God she finds a refuge. He is not abusive. He is understanding, loving, and caring. Therefore, she begins to write letters to God because He is the only One to whom she can turn to tell her troubles. As an illustration, during her first life and in her first letter to God in the novel, Celie recounts the physical and sexual abuse that Fonso inflicts on her when she is only fourteen years old and, as Keith Byerman points out, “It makes clear the source of her trouble (162). Celie writes to God:
First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never git used to it.
Secondly, Fonso’s abuse inspires Celie to become attracted to women because she is not afraid of them. Therefore, when Fonso believes that Celie winks at a boy in church, he beats her, but Celie writes: “I may have got something 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” (6). As a consequence, and throughout her first life, Celie’s attraction to women gains strength when she sees a picture of Shug Avery, a woman with whom she will develop a very powerful alternative relationship in her journey toward independence in the novel. Celie is drawn to Shug because like Eddie in Walker’s Meridian, she is different and a sanctuary where she can protect herself from the brutality of men.
In addition to forcing Celie to find alternative relationships with God and women, Fonso’s abuse pushes Celie to thwart Fonso’s attempt to abuse her sister’s developing womanhood. Intent on protecting Nettie from Fonso, Celie devises a plan to save Nettie. When Mister asks Fonso for Nettie’s hand in marriage Fonso refuses to permit the marriage. His second wife, like Celie’s mother, is too ill to have sex frequently, and Fonso is determined to keep Nettie to fulfill his own sexual desires. Therefore, to protect Nettie, Celie offers her hand in marriage to Mister because the marriage to Mister will eventually provide Nettie an escape from Fonso. Fonso, who is now extremely disenchanted with Celie’s life around the house, does not know Celie’s plan of escape and, therefore, offers Celie, not Nettie, to Mister. Because Nettie will have a way to escape Fonso’s abuse, it is Fonso’s action—further intended to restrict and limit—that enables Celie to escape her first encounter with male oppression and to move to a second life in which she will continue her journey toward self-actualization.
During Celie’s second life, Mister is the next male character whom the reader meets. Walker does not provide the reader with information about his childhood other than a description of an early sewing experience with his mother. As he grows into adulthood, the reader learns that there are times when he is happy. He loves to dance and to laugh. As an adult, as Mae G. Henderson points out, “If Mister has inherited from his father, Old Mister, the farm which belonged to his grandfather, the white slaveowner, he has likewise inherited from Old Mister the values of ownership … bequeathed by the white slaveowner” (69). Mister tells Celie later in the novel about his first wife and how he and Shug “messed over” (277) her. These problems came as a result of Mister’s father’s refusal to allow him to marry the woman of his choice. He was also denied the woman of his choice by Fonso, who refuses to allow him to marry Nettie. Instead, he is forced to marry Celie, whom he treats brutally until she rebels and leaves him.
Because Mister is denied the woman of his choice, he takes on the values he inherits from his father. He becomes a womanizer and a child-abuser. Mister beats women because it makes him feel dominant and aggressive, in control of the situation and the decisions that are made; he no longer feels victimized and powerless.
Consequently, Celie becomes his servant, and Mister exercises full control over her. He controls her by dictating her life and forcing her to obey his commands. Celie is forced to work in the fields and in the house and to take care of Mister’s unruly and intractable children. Mister invariably beats her and reduces her womanly status even in the presence of his own children. According to Robbie J. Walker, “… Celie realizes that her marriage to Albert [is] devoid of love and mutual respect, a marriage motivated only by the desperation of a widower seeking a mother for his children left motherless when his wife was killed by her lover …” (414).
Mister further abuses Celie by acknowledging his desire for other women. When Celie’s sister, Nettie, comes to live with them, Mister praises Nettie, not Celie, for her beauty: “That’s a real pretty dress you got on, he say to Nettie. She say, Thank you. Them shoes look just right. She say, Thank you. Your skin. Your hair. Your teefs. Everyday it something else to make miration over (18). However, when Nettie refuses to submit to him sexually, he forces her to leave, and consequently separates Celie from her sister for more than thirty years. In addition, Mister does not conceal his infidelity with his mistress, Shug Avery, from Celie.
Besides abusing Celie and showing a desire for other women, Mister sexually exploits Celie. He makes her his convenient sex-partner and forces her into sexual submission. Mister, however, does not use sex to control Celie. Rather, he uses it to satisfy his own sexual pleasure. Consequently, he is brutal, unaffectionate, and insensitive to Celie’s emotional needs, and therefore he never brings her to a full sexual awareness. Celie writes: “Most times I just pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep” (81). As a result of this abuse, Mister, according to Frank W. Shelton, forces Celie to “retreat into a numb, unfeeling state and drastically curtails her emotional life” (384).
Although Celie is in a withdrawn and restrained emotional state, Mister’s marriage to her provides her an opportunity to develop several close relationships with a male character in the novel: Harpo, Mister’s oldest son. Initially, Harpo dislikes Celie because he refuses to accept her as his mother. However, as the plot develops Harpo begins to confide in Celie. As his counselor, Celie offers him what little wisdom she has garnered from her years of abuse by the men in her own downtrodden life. Celie writes: “I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her [his wife] to make her mind. … Beat her, I say” (38). Harpo’s conversation with Celie provides Celie with a catharsis that allows her to begin to release and eliminate her own tensions and emotions. As a result, Celie discovers that she can not only write her feelings and aspirations, but she can also express them orally. Besides, Harpo’s relationship with Celie permits her to visit his jukejoint and to come in contact with other people in the community.
Equally importantly, Mister’s marriage to Celie brings her in contact with Sofia, Harpo’s wife, with whom Celie develops a close relationship. When Celie mistakenly advises Harpo to beat Sofia, Sofia angrily confronts Celie for giving him such advice. As a result of this confrontation, the women are able to resolve their differences, and a close relationship ensues. They involve themselves, according to Byerman, in “the folk arts of dozens and quilt-making” (61). When Celie tells Sofia how cruel and brutal Mister is to her, Sofia seriously advises Celie: “You ought to bash Mister’s head open. … Think bout heaven later” (44).
Although Mister’s control and abuse force Celie to retreat into an unfortunate emotional state, it is his rejection of her that eventually contributes to her growth. Mister rejects Celie by bringing Shug Avery, his mistress, into their home. Although Mister’s inviting of Shug into their home is intended to further abuse Celie by replacing her in her own home, his action actually produces an opposite effect. That is, instead of forcing Celie and Shug to become bitter adversaries, the situation allows them to become intimate friends (Henderson 72). Much of this intimacy, on Celie’s part, comes as a result of the abuse inflicted on her by men, forcing her to reject heterosexual relationships. It is this rejection of heterosexual relationships that leads Celie to accept an alternative relationship, free of violence and abuse, with Shug. Thus, Mister’s rejection of Celie, like Fonso’s denunciation and rejection of her, contributes to Celie’s growth and development. Mae G. Henderson points out that:
If Albert separates Celie from Nettie, he introduces her to Shug Avery, his former mistress. Celie moves from a relationship with a stepfather who is sexually abusive to a relationship with her husband, who exploits her labor and sex, to, finally, a relationship with Shug Avery, who loves her.
Shug Avery, who is known as a notorious person in the community, helps Celie to grow and to develop. Celie has heard of Shug and has seen a picture of her long before they meet. However, their physical and emotional relationship begins as Celie helps Shug to recover from her illness. Susan Willis notes that:
Unlike the monstrous inequality between husband and wife, theirs is a reciprocal relationship—Celie giving of herself to heal the sick and exhausted Shug (even thought Celie’s husband had for years been enamoured of the singer), and Shug giving of herself, patiently and lovingly teaching Celie to know the joys of her own body and to follow the intuition of her mind.Most importantly, Celie begins to discover her own body as she is involved in a relationship with Shug. Daniel W. Ross notes:
Celie has no desire to get to know her body until the arrival of her husband’s lover, Shug Avery. While serving Shug in the traditional female capacity of nurse, Celie feels her first erotic stirrings and associates them with a new spirituality … Celie’s stirrings foreshadow her discovery, under Shug’s guidance, of a new God that allows her to love sexual pleasure guiltlessly. Shug introduces Celie to the mysteries of the body and sexual experience, making possible both Celie’s discovery of speech and her freedom from masculine brutality.This introduction to the mysteries of her body and to her new sexual experience leads Celie to inspect her own body. Consequently, Shug gives her a mirror and encourages her to look at herself. When Celie looks at herself she sees three personal details of her body: “the hair that shielded her vagina from view, her black lips, and, finally, her feminine beauty, symbolized by a rose” (Ross 71). As a result, Celie begins to accept the beauty of her body and herself (71).
Through her relationship with Shug, Celie discovers many missing letters from Nettie, a fact which reveals another form of Mister’s cruelty, but which leads Celie to show her strength. Celie becomes outraged with anger as she and Shug discover the letters Mister has concealed and kept from her for many years. From the letters Celie learns of her past, her sister, her sister’s husband, Samuel, her own children, and Africa. She learns that Fonso is not her biological father. Her biological father was lynched because he was an aspiring dry goods store owner who threatened the business of the local white merchants by taking their African-American patrons. The abominable lynching drove her mother insane. Celie learns that her own children, Olivia and Adam, whom Fonso took from her in their infancy, are living with her sister in Africa.
When the letters further reveal Samuel’s unselfish and charitable deed toward her sister and her own children, this gives Celie a more urgent reason to survive and fight Mister’s male domination and abuse until she is reunited with her family. She is overjoyed to hear that her sister and her children are alive and that Samuel has cared for them and has even provided an opportunity for her children to receive an education. That is more than Mister has done for his own children. Samuel’s exemplary generosity lifts the painful burden of the whereabouts of her children and her sister that Celie has been bearing for nearly thirty years. Samuel’s generosity also sends peace to her disquieted feelings and thoughts.
As Celie reflects on how Mister has concealed so much information from her, her resentment and hatred of Mister increase and, as a result of his concealing Nettie’s letters and of the many years of abuse inflicted on her, she rebels and confronts several situations in her life. She confronts Fonso and tells him that he is not her biological father: “I feels so sick I almost gag. Nettie in Africa, I say. A missionary. She wrote me that you ain’t our real Pa” (187). She crushes Mister’s ego by avenging herself for Mister’s cruel behavior. She openly degrades and embarrasses him: “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (207). She renounces and rejects God because she feels that He has rejected her, as have the other men in her life: “I don’t write to God no more. … I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown” (199).
Therefore, instead of writing to God Celie develops another alternative relationship, this time with her sister in Africa, to whom she begins to write. Finally abandoning her strong desire to kill Mister, Celie moves to Memphis, Tennessee, with Shug Avery. Susan Willis notes that in Memphis, Celie “… comes to support herself—not by means of wage labor, … but by means of learning a trade—which is both artistic and necessary. She designs and sews custom pants (88). Thus Mister’s abuse, intended to restrict and control Celie, pushes her to a third life where she moves toward identity and independence through her own productivity and creativity. Kimberly R. Chambers writes that
… as Celie’s history progresses and her sense of self develops, so too does her sense of God. This God is a God in time who comes right on time, one who shows the possibilities for enjoyment, for growing younger. A new sense of timelessness emerges, only now not timelessness as endurance but as promise. The novel reveals that in time there are opportunities to recover what was believed to be lost, and the chance to keep alive a tradition of patient endurance which witnesses the dignity of the human condition in time.Ross also observes that this assertion directed toward her freedom is very startling because Celie’s life has been subjected to systematically violent and abusive male dominance during which she has been unable to speak to others about the source of her troubles with Fonso or to correspond with her sister, Nettie, while she is with Mister (69).
While Celie is developing her own creativity in the art of sewing, reforming her life, and feeling free of male brutality in Memphis, Mister is gradually reforming himself in rural Georgia. Ironically, in this process it is Celie’s independence from male brutality that leads Mister to transform himself. Mister begins his transformation by reflecting and questioning his past life of neglect and abuse of his first wife, Annie Julia, Celie, his second wife, and his children. Mister realizes that he has allowed the joy in his life to pass him by, and he feels only regretful misery regarding his abuse of them and the life he has lived. In fact, as he questions the need to love, to suffer, and to be African-American men and women, and as he questions his knowledge of his own environment, it does not take him long to realize that he has learned nothing:
Anyhow, he say, you know how it is. You ast yourself one question, it lead to fifteen. I start to wonder why us need love. Why us suffer. Why us black. Why men and women. Where do children come from. It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t hardly know nothing. And that if you ast yourself why you black or a man or a woman or a bush it don’t mean nothing if you don’t ast why you here, period.In addition, Mister tells Celie about his theorem of reflection and how it leads to love:
I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder, To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder … the more I love.
It is during this period of pondering and reflecting on his past life that Mister becomes enlightened. This enlightenment helps him to discover himself and, eventually, to love himself and others around him. Like Grange Copeland in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Mister accepts his responsibility for his years of neglect and abuse and assumes some responsibility for nursing and caring for his sick granddaughter, Henrietta. As a result of nursing and caring for Henrietta Mister develops patience and understanding of others, but of his family in particular. He knows now that he can care for them, and, consequently, reforms his violent, abusive, and sadistic behavior.
Therefore, when Celie returns to rural Georgia from Memphis to live her fourth and final life in the novel she learns that Mister has been depressed and has suffered but, most importantly, has changed. In addition, Celie finds out that Mister works in the fields, cleans his house, cooks, and washes dishes just like a woman, and he is not hasty to judge but is more understanding of people around him.
Mister’s changed behavior deepens his understanding of others, and it is this understanding of others and the rejection and isolation in his own life that enable him to identify with and understand the thoughts and feelings of Celie as she is rejected in her fourth and final life by Shug Avery. Celie feels rejected by Shug because Shug is in love with Germaine, a nineteen-year-old blues player. However, Mister helps Celie to understand and overcome Shug’s rejection by counseling her:
Amen, he say. Then he say something that really surprise me cause it so thoughtful and common sense. When it come to what folks do together with they bodies, he say, anybody’s guess is as good as mine. But when you talk bout love I don’t have to guess. I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can’t be halted just cause some peoples moan and groan. It don’t surprise me you love Shug Avery. … I have love Shug Avery all my life.
As a result of Mister’s counseling and his demonstration of concern for Celie, both Mister and Celie reach a supreme plane of spirituality through love and forgiveness. Celie, who has learned to love and to forgive, forgives Mister for his past record of abuse of her and realizes that he has redefined his manhood and reformed himself. Celie writes to Nettie:
After all the evil he done I know you wonder why I don’t hate him. I don’t hate him for two reasons. One, he love Shug. And two, Shug use to love him. Plus, look like he trying to make something out of himself. I don’t mean just that he work and he clean up after himself and he appreciate some of the things God was playful enough to make. I mean when you talk to him now he really listen, and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said Celie, I’m satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man. It feel like a natural experience.As a result of Mister’s transformation, Celie is enabled to make her final transformation. Celie now knows that she is free of the burden of Mister’s abuse and of all men. She feels contented and independent:
Then the old devil put his arms around me and just stood there on the porch with me real quiet. Way after while I bent my stiff neck onto his shoulder. Here us is, I thought, two old fools left over from love, keeping each other company under the stars.
Celie’s transformation at this juncture in the novel helps her confidently to define and accept her own sexuality and womanhood. She is sure that she and Mister—Albert, the name she finally calls him—can be friends only, even though he has asked her to marry him again, “this time in the spirit as well as in the flesh” (290). Celie, however, refuses him. Moreover, Celie resolves the conflict in her mind about Shug: “If she come, I be happy. If she don’t, I be content. And then I figure this the lesson I was suppose to learn” (290). As a result, Mister and Celie develop a closer, friendlier, and more fulfilling relationship. Celie, like Mister, accepts her new life of contentment and independence, as she eagerly waits to be reunited with her sister and her children at the end of the novel. Kimberly R. Chambers writes:
… as Celie’s history progresses and her sense of self develops, so too does her sense of God. This God is a God in time who comes right on time, one who shows the possibilities for enjoyment, for growing younger, and the chance to keep alive a tradition of patient endurance which witnesses the dignity of the human condition in time.
In The Color Purple, Walker demonstrates that a man’s violent, abusive, and sadistic behavior, intended to control and restrict a woman, can often actually contribute to a woman’s growth and development. First, a man’s behavior may cause a woman to search for alternative relationships, because there are alternatives for women who are constantly abused and rejected. Secondly, the novel demonstrates that a man’s abuse may force a woman to revolt and to join forces with other women, and it is this revolt and networking that can bring a man to himself. Thirdly, a man’s abuse may cause a woman to leave or escape to a more productive and creative environment in which she can redefine her identity and accept her “rite of passage” into a world of independence and freedom. Finally, the novel demonstrates that when a woman leaves a man, he frequently can begin to reflect and to reevaluated his life and eventually to have a conversion that enables him to transcend his violent, abusive, and sadistic behavior and to contribute to a wholesome and productive relationship with a woman. Thus, the novel ends with such a conversion and a transcendence when Mister contributes to humanly profitable relationships with Celie and others in the novel. Henderson writes that “The novel ends on a theme of reunion between lovers, family, and friends, symbolizing on a personal level, the psychic reintegration of personality differences and on a social level, the reconciliation of gender differences” (79).
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