Women in 'The Color Purple' and 'The Handmaid's Tale'
|✅ Paper Type: Free Essay||✅ Subject: English Literature|
|✅ Wordcount: 4748 words||✅ Published: 10th Aug 2017|
[NM1]“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” [NM2]This quote from Alice Walker encapsulates the premise of her novel ‘The Color Purple‘ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Both novels aim to educate and enlighten their audiences to the psychological effects of female subjugation. Walker and Atwood utilise a myriad of literary techniques, and the power of the female first-person narrative; illuminating to all readers the victimisation and suppression of women in patriarchal societies and households. Walker’s quote is reflective of the protagonists in both novels; only when they think they have no power, is when they are truly powerless.
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This theme can be ascertained from the opening epistles of ‘The Color Purple‘, the reader is immediately lambasted with the psychological effects of persecution on the protagonist, Celie, at the hands of her father, Alphonse. Walker’s deployment of the first-person epistolary structure subconsciously precipitates for the reader becoming Celie’s emotional muse. Walker forces us to see Celie’s undistorted emotions in the truest form possible as ‘Celie’ writes her letters for God, not an audience, allowing the letters to reflect her emotions, unplagued by an America burdened by institutional racism and patriarchy. Thus, the letters highlight the psychological effects of sexual and societal subjugation, undistorted by the environment that submerges her. Walker presents African-American homes as parallel to white households, with the dominant male asserting power over the women and children, comparable to how the African-American’s were treated by the racist white society of 1930s America. Walker adheres to the traditional literary representation of African-American women in the novels inauguration, representing Walker’s protagonist, as a victim of her society and environment. Psychologist Charles L. Proudfit, published, ‘Celie’s Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker’sThe Color Purple.‘, labeling Celie as having gone through the typical thought process a child abuse victim. Celie’s first letter opens: “Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl.” Celie crosses out “I am”, changing the auxiliary verb to “have”, self-justifying her subjugation, believing the abuse is deserved and her treatment is justified. The auxiliary device is jarring to the reader as Celie believes only God will see the letters, yet she doesn’t feel that she is a “good girl”, despite being the most divine character in the novel, epitomised by Walker naming her Celie, a derivative of ‘caelum‘meaning ‘heaven’ in Latin. The crossing out “I am” reaffirms Proudfit’s analysis, she no longer believes that she is a “good girl”, but rather a tainted stain on the fabric of society; reiterated by the usage of the past tense, surrendering the prior image she had of herself. Walker’s presentation of Celie suggests that she wholeheartedly believes that she is deserving of the abuse. Celie does not respond with rage to her subjugation initially, bowing to the agonistic authority of her ‘Pa’ stating, “sometimes it bees that way.” Subsequently, validating the abuse she is receiving by crossing out her past self-image, replacing it with the new solemn view point. The understated nature to the mentality change highlights the damaging psychological effects of the subjugation of women, a clear reference to Walker’s driving quote. Celie thinks she has no power; but in reality, Celie has more power than anyone truly knows. Walker includes this to show that only when a woman gives up her power is when she is actually powerless, illuminated through the structure and deployment of specific language devices evoking a poignant response from both contemporary and contextual audiences.
Comparably, in Margaret Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the ‘women’ are subjected to incomprehensible oppression. In the dystopic, fundamentalist administration, Gilead, the female characters are stripped of the individualism that truly makes them women, their identities quashed and cut to fit the roles the government established to continue their patriarchal agenda. Atwood presents the abrasiveness of Gilead as a microcosm of everyday society in conjuncture with ‘The Color Purple’ being representative of domestic life. Atwood’s heroine, a female assigned as ‘Offred’, had the onerous burden of being a Handmaid; assigned as a surrogate to elitist, Serena and Fred Joy (alias, The Commander.) In her placement, Offred lost all freedoms she enjoyed pre-Gilead, replaced with set meals, activities and as a prerequisite of her role prearranged sexual intercourse sessions. Despite showing the dreadful conditions of Gilead, allegorically this can be interpreted as a social commentary from Atwood, representing patriarchal abusive relationships. In these ‘relationships’, the misogynistic figure controls every facet of life with abuse not exclusively physical. Instead, affecting every aspect of the recipient’s life, entailing financial and most destructively, mental abuse, with real and Gileadean society modelled around the idea that, “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze”. Represented further by the prearranged ordinances of the Handmaids, akin to Celie, the Handmaids and the people stuck in real abusive relationships they cannot escape. Correspondingly, in many abusive relationships the recipients begin to think what they are facing is ‘normal’ per se, rather than fighting, accepting their suffrage as something to be expected; represented initially in both novels. Subsequently, relinquishing all power that they held reinforcing the idea of Alice Walker, psychological subjugation stretches into every single part of our lives, no matter where you go, you can never escape your own mind. Prior to Gilead establishment, readers see Offred character as a rumbustious spirit, breaking free from societal norms, seen in Atwood’s analeptic digressions from her unconventional relationship, meeting Luke at cheap hotels for sex. However, when delivered to Gilead she forgets the power that she holds, her perseverant psychological state is disintegrating with the threat of ‘the Colonies’ reinforcing to the reader the idea Offred must mentally shackle herself adhere to the limitations of life established. Reflecting to the audience that authoritarian subjugation has the power to inflict so much fear that we strip ourselves of the desire to fight for the liberty and freedom that we know is right. Highlighting the contrast between the protagonists, Offred is aware of her subjugation and is unable to rebel against it due to the potential backlash. Contrastingly, Celie, as aforementioned appears accepting of her role as deserved, or inevitable; alternatively, Offred preaches passive resistance taking liberation from the psychological onslaught. This can be ascertained by the description of her existence as theatrical: ‘I stand on the corner pretending I am a tree.’ Here, Walker presents to the reader the resilience of women in the face of patriarchal subjugation, and reflects the quote of Walker. Offred refuses to give up her power as can be seen from the choice of verb ‘pretend.’ Suggesting, as a woman she has not changed psychologically due to her subjugation, rather she must appear changed to survive; separating herself from the image expected of her, never losing sight of how she perceives herself despite the indoctrination she is subjected to. Atwood encapsulates this by the comparison to a tree, trees perceiver throughout history, standing, unmoving, dependant on humans for preserving its life, exactly like Offred. Alternatively, others readers may interpret this as, despite not being able to escape physically from its surroundings but can soar upwards above the small, damaging thoughts of man; and survive unchangingly preserving its own identity, flourishing and blooming in the process. This is where we can see Offred, she conforms to the regime, but does not allow it to define her changing her self-perception, separating her physical and mental self. Offred understands she is just playing a role; analogous to a tree, despite all that is going on around her she is able to stay strong and unwavering in her quest to survive. The only way she can do this is by maintaining her mental strength and thus her power, despite the depravity circulating around her. Consequently, Atwood presents to the reader that Offred, despite not being a conventional literary hero -submitting outwardly to the regime- is unquestionably powerful, inspiring people in comparable real life positions, reinforcing the idea via tree imagery that by maintaining psychological strength she can never be felled.
As aforementioned, Walker presents Celie in accordance with the traditional representation of African-American women in literature: timid, weak. Nevertheless, she undergoes a psychological transformation becoming an empowered woman, when she builds her relationship with the psychologically liberated Shug Avery. Prior to Avery’s arrival, Celie idolises her second to God alone. Shug becomes dependant on Celie whilst she nurses her, temporarily allowing Celie to feel equal to someone. In the process, Shug fills Celie’s emotional void she was deprived of, when Olivia was taken, Celie works on Shug “like she a doll or like she Olivia.” Walker’s diction, utilising the common noun ‘doll’ produces connotations of childhood and play. Therefore, its prevalence in the sentence could represent that Celie has been deprived of a childhood due to the subjugation she encountered, but now she has Shug as her dependant, she appears psychologically liberated. Accordingly, Walker’s syntax metaphorically represents to the reader the evolution of Celie’s character development. This interpretation is reinforced by critic and psychologist Daniel W. Ross’, ‘Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple.‘ Ross identifies the doll as a transitional device for girls developing in childhood, preparing for the nurturing roll that they will experience as future mothers. A modern reader may not interpret it this way as in the 21st century not all women want to grow up to have children. However, when published in 1982 this was the norm of society, especially within the context of a 1930s African-American community in the South. With Ross’ interpretation and understanding of Walker’s intentions, one can see that when people have the support to break free they do. Celie has clearly begun to employ some of the psychological growth stunted in her childhood, Shug’s presence and later friendship acts as a tool for Celie enabling her to continue maturing despite the subjugation targeted against her by Mr.______.
In conjunction with Walker, Atwood portrays the psychological effects of subjugation on Offred as decreasingly damaging, with her resilience against the regime. The structure of Offred’s internal dialogue as a palimpsest of past events embodies the idea that Gileadean attempts to indoctrinate psychologically, but has failed control their private cognitions. This theme is shown in Offred’s description of the ‘Lilies of the Valley’ and its previous function as a theatre, “Students went there a lotâ€¦ women on their own, making up their mindsâ€¦ We seemed to be able to choose, then.” Atwood’s analepsis represents to the reader despite the subjugation encountered in the patriarchy, a better way of life exists, almost as a vision of higher reality, identically to the role God and Nettie play for Celie. Despite these flashbacks being painful for Offred, by forcing herself to remember she keeps her power and the tenacity for survival. Atwood uses these flashbacks to show Offred rebelling against the indoctrination as early as Chapter five setting a precedent for the rest of the novel, and for people in real life situations comparable to Celie. Chapter five is when Offred becomes aware of her subjugation and wants to fight it, following an encounter with Japanese tourists, “We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed.” This shows immediately quickly from the start of the novel, the weak can be indoctrinated, if you are not strong and don’t maintain your mental strength in the subjugating surroundings you will fall. Nevertheless, Atwood presents Offred as a macrocosm of all women with the idea that a woman always has the power to think no matter what situation she is in. We can see this with the realisation that follows Offred’s quote “I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.” [NM3]This quote explicitly highlights Offred’s psychological development, from accepting the ideas promoted in Gilead to an outright rejection of the philosophy of the role females are supposed to undertake. The punctuation of this quote acts as an audible and visible barrier between the mind control of Gilead and the mental liberty that Offred desires. Atwood tactfully uses the colon in place of a comma to show the separation between her desire to think and the actual thoughts that she has. Atwood’s presentation allows the reader to see the cognitive functions of her brain, rejecting the indoctrination that she had received at the red centre. Also, extenuating how far society has affected her that it takes time and effort to come to a judgement that she previously associated with on a material level. By opening this door, Atwood presents the idea that having made this initial rebellion, she is reclaiming her power and can move on to reject other elements of society. Shunning Aunt Lydia’s ‘freedom from’ in favour of having the ‘freedom to’, and thus we can see a decrease in the psychological effects that the authoritarianism has on her. Hence, Atwood’s reinforcement of Walker’s theme, when one becomes mentally liberated from subjugation they gain the metamorphic ability to transform into an unstoppable entity with the power to continue your personal insurgence.
Celie’s psychological development, isn’t dependent on Shug alone, she also learns to live alone and function as an independent woman; comparable to Offred, just in a different society. Walker portrays Celie as conquering her subjugation gaining her freedom from the patriarchal society by taking control of her own life but not sacrificing her femininity in the process, as being strong and feminine two things often not mutually associated. Celie takes up sewing, traditionally a matriarchal chore for women who are confined to a domestic setting. But, Walker takes this and turns it into an outlet of expression, creativity and freedom as well as a lucrative business in the process, profiting on femininity. Despite being unrealistic that an African-American girl could make this monumental shift in her life, it should be remembered that these are not explicitly ‘real’ people but rather representations of a wider narrative that the authors want to convey. When this is considered the deus ex machina is powerful symbolism representing, when women are psychologically liberated from subjugation anything is possible for anyone, promoting an idea of female expressionism and psychological advances. We gain this understanding as it exemplifies Walker’s own beliefs on feminism and equality as she is a firm believer that femininity doesn’t mean subjugation. Reflected by Celie’s deliverance from subjugation through associating with female characters and partaking in feminine hobbies. If Celie gained her psychological strength by taking on something characteristically male, with men the reader would not have the same veneration towards Celie, breaking from societal convention. In a society dominated by men Celie’s unique femininity flourishes, showing that women do not need men to succeed highlighting the importance of female cooperation and bonding. Professor Mae G. Henderson reinforces that its “female bonding which restores a women’s sense of completeness and independenceâ€¦ [Celie] exemplifies the power and potential of this bonding.” Celie’s business is metaphorical in the need for female empowerment, it’s her business and female bonding that has freed her and now she is gaining success Walker reflects this in her mental state. Therefore, the business acts as an important symbol in Celie’s psychological development. No longer does she feel she deserves the abuse described by Proudfit, comparably to Offred she’s striving to create a better tomorrow for herself, reclaiming her mental power lost in her subjugation.
Atwood concludes Offred’s journey from victim to rebel through the cassette tapes. These recordings prove to Atwood’s readers that Offred’s consciousness and ability to remember her life prior to Gilead enables her to live on, never relinquishing the past. Whether Offred witnessed the fall of Gilead is left ambiguous, but she proves the regime didn’t take her psychological strength. The tapes metaphorically represent her ability to be heard above the government, the indoctrination of the Aunts and the fear of ‘The Eyes’ all unsuccessful in their psychological subjugation of Offred. Atwood presents that the attempts to psychologically subjugate Offred was never as strong as the desire of women to overcome the problems they are faced with. Similarly, Celie’s final letter shows the extent to which her character has developed across the breadth of the novel. The novel ends with the realisation that although her generation is growing older, the reunion with her children and Nettie has made her feel younger than ever; providing psychological closure for the absence of childhood that she has endured. Now she can appreciate the virtue of youthfulness that was stripped from her at the start of the novel. Walker opened with a quote from Alphonse, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” Readers can see that in the opening parts of the novel Celie adheres to this subjugation and her letters are never titled to anyone other than God, showing how her voice was suppressed by her ‘father’. However, by the end of the novel Celie is talking to all things on earth and otherworldly breaking secular liminality “Dear God. Dear stars, Dear trees, Dear sky, Dear peoples, Dear everything.” Therefore, we can wee that Walker concludes her novel similarly to Atwood; with both protagonists overcoming the psychological effects of their subjugators by allowing their voices to be freed. Howbeit, where the authors differ is through the legacy their characters leave behind in their messages, both can be seen as mutually optimistic consisting of the fall of Gilead, and a jubilant Celie reunited with her family, giving Celie’s tale a conclusive ending. But, Atwood’s shows, whilst undeniable victories have been made for feminism, society is still misogynistic, ascertained from the language used by Professor Pieixoto being almost identical to that being used in Gilead. Thus, whilst presenting the idea that when one woman is freed from the subjugation the next shall follow; it’s still the job of her readers and to keep on fighting as society, despite becoming a long was is still patriarchal is not the answer reinforced by the fact that Offred rejected her mother’s activism and consequently we are never sure if she enjoys liberation. The authors, via the protagonists take us on a subconscious journey through society with the first-person narrative. Allowing the reader to gain a personal insight into what the individual stories represent, and the best way that the authors can do this is through psychological evaluation. As the brain is something we can never escape, both authors aim to educate the reader on the effects that subjugation has and how by coming together; women can defeat this and triumph against any challenge.
Critical evaluative application
- Presents a critical evaluative argument with sustained textual examples.
- Evaluates the effects of literary features with sophisticated use of concepts and terminology.
- Uses sophisticated structure and expression.
- Exhibits a critical evaluation of the ways meanings are shaped.
- Evaluates the effects of literary features and shows a sophisticated understanding of the writer’s craft.
- Presents a sophisticated evaluation and appreciation of significance and influence of contextual factors.
- Makes sophisticated links between text and contexts.
 The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin, p. 173.
 Later revealed not to be the biological father but at this stage of the novel all the reader and Celie know alike is that he is ‘Pa.’
 //leading to criticism from many Critics as they believe that Walker gives an unrealisitic interpretation of African-American men making them seem barbarous.
 Valerie Sweeney Prince, Burnin’ Down the House: Home in African American Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005
 Charles L. Proudfit, Celie’s Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, JSTOR.
 Alice Walker, The Color Purple, Hachette UK, google books,p. 6.
 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jhPGJeTIIisC&pg=PA182&lpg=PA182&dq=heroine+celie&source=bl&ots=D1Y9ayFzjA&sig=y2h-11mMOkKSFBJu_FiyItjcYxA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjQnO2t4cfSAhWJA8AKHSULDs0Q6AEIPjAI#v=onepage&q=heroine%20celie&f=false come back to
 Charles L. Proudfit, Celie’s Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, JSTOR. P. 17.
 P. 174
 Alice Walker, The Handmaids Tale, Random House,Â New York. P. 30.
 Color purple pg. 42.
 HT pg. 40.
 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/09/alice-walker-beauty-in-truth-interview “women, at this point, are comfortable referring to themselves as guys, and basically erasing their femininity at every opportunity. I don’t get it.”
[NM1]AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression. 26.7%
AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts. 26.7%
AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received. 21.9%
AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.Â 14%
AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations. 11%
[NM2]Handmaids tale society is so oppressive
See Libby Barton for essay title
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