Alice Walker’s The Color Purple tells the emotional and spiritual journey of Celie, a poor black woman living in the American South during the early 1900s. The story begins when Celie is only fourteen years old, and readers learn that Celie is being physically and sexually abused by her father. He tells Celie, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” (1). Thus, we follow the next twenty years of Celie’s life through letters addressed first to God then to her sister, Nettie. Throughout the story, readers face the brutal realities of abuse, which build layer on top of layer, which link one after another, endlessly.
On page 16, Celie re-accounts a discussion with Nettie over how their stepmother, “the other little ones,” and the boys will get on in a house with their father. Nettie has run away and worries about the rest of her family’s survival. Between Celie and Nettie, the conclusion that the boys would probably be fine. “When they git big they gon fight him. Maybe kill.” This exchange is interesting as it automatically assumes the physical violence the boys will inevitably fall to. Not only will they fight, but they are hypothesized to kill. Rather than finding an ulterior mode of survival, physical abuse is the boys’ obvious answer, according to Nettie and Celie.
When Celie becomes wife to Mr. ______, she becomes mother to a slew of mostly nameless children. One of the children who does have a name, though, is Harpo, the oldest son. We learn that Harpo is “no better at fighting his daddy back than” Celie (27). Mister not only physically abuses Harpo, but emotionally as he degrades and derides him. Through this abuse, Harpo, though “strong in body,” is “weak in will” and scared. Celie notices evidence of emotional trauma as she describes Harpo’s eyes as “sad and thoughtful” and says that “his face begin to look like a woman face” (27). Because The Color Purple highlights spousal hardships faced by African American woman, comparing Harpo to a woman accents the weakness he feels. This abuse manifests itself in his later years. He becomes confused when his wife, Sofia, will not listen and wants “to know what to do to make [her] mind” (35). He ultimately listens to his father, who tells him, “Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (35). Harpo had never held the upper hand in any situation. His father’s violence against him laid the foundation for the abuse Harpo wants to commit. He wanted to feel powerful, because he never had before.
Harpo’s wife, Sofia, has even dabbled in the cycle of violence and abuse. On page 40, she says “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles.” This shows readers (and Celie) that Sofia is no stranger to abuse. It is clearly written that Sofia faced violence against her from all male members of her family. However this abuse led to Sofia’s own conception of strength. While Sofia is, indeed, brave for her strength, anger pools out of her in waves. She made a mess of Harpo’s face, covering it in bruises, and later on physically attacks the mayor’s wife. Through violence and a continuation of anger, Sofia felt empowered even though her situation itself was not fixed.
Within the novel, readers see so many examples of a cruel continuation – a cycle – of abuse that seems to go on indefinitely – infinitely. However the situations that cause the abuse are never directly addressed. There are characters that are beaten down to feel like they are nothing, so they stand only to beat someone else down. Walker, though, shows us that this is not the solution. Knitted within the framework of this violence, readers can find compassion, love, and the end of the cycle through the art of creation.
When Shug Avery first stays with Albert and Celie, she behaves cruelly towards Celie, who, in return, shows only genuine love and admiration for the other woman. Suddenly, every violent dynamic is changed. Shug Avery’s original jealousy transfiorms into what can be considered the healthiest and most positive expression of love (towards Celie). She begins to sing again – creating music, rhythm, and sound to express both her anger, hurt, and love. There are other moments readers see love and creation take the place of anger and violence. Harpo invests his time into opening up a business, telling “Squeak” that he truly loves her for her and not her color. Squeak, in turn, says “My name Mary Agnes,” and she begins to sing even though she was sexually assaulted by her uncle (97). Prompted by love, she finds a firm identity and a creative outlet in music. Finally there is Celie, who not only expresses every emotion through the writing of her letters, but also begins to sew rather than kill Albert for hiding Nettie’s letters. “Remember that. Thou Shalt Not Kill” says Shug to Celie, “Everyday we going to read Nettie’s letters and sew” (144-147). Rather than letting her anger towards Albert take over, Celie holds “a needle and not a razor in [her] hand” – creating rather than destroying all thanks to the loving encouragement from Shug (147).
In a way, this presentation of violence/abuse reminded me of O’Reilley’s The Peaceable Classroom where O’Reilley discusses the cons of negative-reinforcement strategies, claiming the abuse shown to students will be emulated in their later years. At my previous week of service-learning, the usual teacher for my class was absent. In her place was a young man I had not seen before. When students were allowed to read their own “fun books,” I heard one student, Jonathan, reading loudly. The substitute teacher scolded him a few times before walking over and shutting the book. He told Jonathan that he was not allowed to read at all if he could not do it silently. Jonathan was angry and confused. He tried to explain to the substitute teacher that he had to read out loud. The substitute teacher responded in what I thought could be considered a harsh tone and walked away. Jonathan raised his hand to ask me for help, but the substitute teacher told him to do it on his own. As I walked away, I noticed a dejected expression on the young boy’s face. At the end of the hour, Jonathan no longer needed my help and was able to read silently.
A little while later, though, he harshly scolded the girl next to him for reading out-loud. Jonathan shhh-ed and told her to stop bothering him. It may not be a direct parallel to the vicious attacks depicted in The Color Purple, but I saw the way a small child reacts to cold, negative critiques. In order to make himself feel better, Jonathan reacted towards the other girl as severely as his substitute teacher had to him. Despite his success, despite his newly acquired ability to read silently, he perpetuated negative acts.
I am not a teacher and have not taken education courses. I cannot rightly say what would have been the best method to teach the student. However I can wonder about other ways that the scene could have fallen out. What if the teacher had softly explained that Jonathan reading out loud was a distraction – what if I had been allowed to help? Would Jonathan have then helped the little girl next to him? I cannot say for sure, but Walker’s comments about abuse in The Color Purple have certainly led me to speculate.