Explore thesignificance of female relationships within a strongly patriarchal society asdepicted by Alice Walker in The ColorPurple and Maya Angelou in I Know Whythe Caged Bird Sings.
The maintheme I will focus on in comparing TheColor Purple and I Know Why the CagedBird Sings is the importance these writers express in regard to femalerelationships to help women flourish in a patriarchal society. The femalerelationships depicted in both texts show how these bonds create empowerment ofthe female characters and how they help each other to overcome their strugglesagainst the brutality of society. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that covers the early 20thcentury, during which factors such as racism, sexism, female oppression anddomestic abuse were very much thriving in Rural Georgia thus, femalerelationships were needed to confide in one another. As such, Angelou’sautobiography is set between the 1930s to 1950s, and shows that femalerelationships matter in the still-patriarchal society in which she findsherself in, to an extent that her self-esteem was at its lowest from all theimmoral impacts of racism, sexism and abuse she has experienced in herlifetime.
Both authors are influential figures in theCivil Rights era, as their work is a reflection on how people of colour werediscriminated upon and treated unfairly in society. By examining these texts, it willbe possible to explore how both prominent women of colour preach the messagethat women need other women to support each other to discover their true,independent selves. Walkerpresents the bond between two sisters as one way in which Celie survives theharshness of the patriarchal society of the Southern states of America in theearly 20th century. Walker’s choice of using sisters who can drawstrength from each other contrasts with IKnow Why The Caged Bird Sings asAngelou’s autobiographical work did not allow her the luxury of being able tocreate sisters who could support each other. However, she does highlight theimportance of siblings providing support through the characters of herself andher brother, Bailey Jr. Gross refers to Angelou’s “few years of almost completesilence” when “she continued to speak to her brother Bailey” which proves thatin the strength of their relationship, despite the trauma she endured thatprompted a vow to not speak, she still decided to communicate with her brotherand it “served her well” 1 . Angelouintroduces her influential connection with her brother in chapter 4 of theautobiography by contrasting herself with him through physical beauty.
Angeloudescribes herself as “big, elbowy and grating” (page 24), whereas, Bailey was “small,graceful and smooth” (page 24). Maya evidently has self-esteem issues becauseof the hurtful words many have pointed out. The term “elbowy”, not being an actual word, confirms this is anadaptation to hearing others around her constantly say it to her and therefore shehas mirrored the word. This forces the reader to understand how Maya is degradedto believe she is undesirable. Angelou goes on to say their playmates describedher skin a “shit colour”, incontrast to her brother having “velvet-black skin”. (page 24). The use of the adjectives”velvet-black”, illustrates a deluxe texture with a sense of richness andcleanness to his skin whereas, the bland use of Maya being a ‘shit colour’ notonly shows the outrageous offense and blatant disrespect intended towards her,but, also displays an image of uncleanness, dirt and foul smells to mind. In1930-1950, these degrading terms demonstrate the ignorance of the ‘playmates’and how they divide one skin tone in two complete opposite adjectives for theaim of hurting one, and praising the other.
Angelou purposely provided the rawworded truth through these upsetting, repulsive words, ultimately impacting Maya’sself-image as it is constant, and from family members and very revolting wordsthat should not be said to anyone, especially a child. However, through all ofthis, their bond is endless and admirable as Maya believed ‘he loved me’ whichcould reassure Maya that she is not as foul as people say she is because of herbrother’s love for her. In The ColorPurple, although the sisters Celie and Nettie are separated for most partof the novel, they still write to each other because of their bond and believein each other’s wellbeing. Celie continuously looked out for her sisterfrom the beginning to the end because of the care and compassion of Nettie’swellbeing. Celie witnesses their stepfather “looking at (her)little sister”, but she reassures Nettie that she will “take care of (her)” whichallows the reader to see that Celie does have strength inside of her when it comesto people who matter to her. This is important in this era as this conveys thetwo females in the novel to believe in each other and it helps Celie getthrough her life feeling that Nettie is alive.
This bond helps her get throughit therefore, emphasising the importance of the mutual love and respect theyhave for each other in their sister relationship.Structurally,from the beginning of the novel, to midway, Walker inputs a religious referenceas Celie starts her letters with ‘Dear God’. The power held over her is immenseas this is done because her father threatens her to ‘not tell nobody but God.’.This beginning sentence straight away establishes the male dominance within thehousehold. Celie is being silenced over her father’s traumatic abuse and soCelie believes ‘God’ is who she can confide in. Being religious was the norm in1930’s society as many people attended local churches and believed in God, sowriting letters, forces the reader to believe Celie feels more assured when shewrites to God, almost like a prayer.
As Celie discovers her beloved sister isalive, she refers to her letters as ‘Dear Nettie’. Walker intentionally doesthis for the reader to witness the change in Celie as she grows as a person in mentalstrength. Through the structure, from start to end, Walker purposely showsCelie constantly developing in diverse ways, for instance, her grammar. At thebeginning of the novel, Walker portrays Celie as being extremely illiterate,gripping the reader to have difficulty in reading the novel. This is areflection on the segregation in America which caused many young, black peopleto remain uneducated being unable to read or write because of most schoolsbeing opened to white people only. This discrimination establishes the norm forboth Celie and Maya to understand from an early age, where they belong insociety because of the unfair treatment of other people based on their skincolour and gender. Similarly, Vivian Baxter, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made a passing comment on how shecannot read.
However gradually, in TheColor Purple, Celie’slanguage becomes more articulate from her extended range of vocabulary as sheis able to write full sentences without any grammatical mistakes. This shows her becoming much stronger mindedas she has learnt to be literate. Walker allows the reader to follow Celie asshe becomes a stronger female with much more self-esteem knowing she has herlittle sister again. In I Know Why theCaged Bird Sings, for Angelou, her chapters are written from memory as shetries to recall the big points and the very details of her life. Therefore,some other her chapters are long and short depending on her memory of her life.
She details a huge proportion of her life from childhood, as early as she canremember, to when she gives birth to her only child into 36 chapters. Through these chapters, similarlyto Walker, we see Maya’s growth in mental strength through these chapters asshe grows up in life. The first chapters reflect the segregation of society andintroduces inequality because of her gender and race. Throughout theautobiography, she is a victim and it seems like she is never in control, untilthe time she runs away, it is only then that she finds she can be her ownperson and be independent. Who she is at the end compared to the beginning is astrong-willed individual who has come to peace with herself.In both texts,there is an occurred trauma that is a part of the significance of therelationship between female figures. In IKnow Why The Caged Bird Sings, at just aged eight, Maya is sexually abusedby her mother’s lover, Mr Freeman. Angelou includes this obscure act in herautobiography because of the important outcome that occurred.
First off, this destroysMaya’s identity and self-confidence, which also left her physically drained andcaused her to black out. As Mr Freeman is murdered, Maya decided she “had tostop talking” as she believed her words might “poison people”. The use of alliterationforces the reader to get a sense Maya’s thought process, as she thinks her speechis a problem and she is going to eliminate this problem by not speaking becauseshe does not want to harm people. It also connotes abandonment as no one likesto go near poison and it is deadly. The noun ‘poison’ can also be unstoppablein comparison to Maya believing her lies are unstoppable.
Maya graduallyovercame her fear of speech from her friendship with Mrs Bertha Flowers. Thissignificant female friendship showed a blossoming of Maya’s identity as shelearns to become literate because of Mrs Bertha Flowers encouraging literatureonto Maya. It also helps Maya in slowly piecing herself together again andgiving her a new identity which boosts her little confidence.
This, of course,became central to Angelou throughout her life as she became a writer and alwaysacknowledged the kindness Mrs Flowers showed to her. Critic Anita Sethi states that”Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help ofMrs Bertha Flowers”.2Similarly, in The Color Purple, Celieis sexually abused by her stepfather (who she believes is her real father).This occurs at the start of the novel and impacts Celie massively as shebecomes emotionally and physically isolated from everyone. Later, in the novel,she breaks down in front of Shug when she tells her of the abuse and because ofher close, female relationship with Shug, she is helped to overcome this fearof men. Itis interesting that both Celie and Maya draw strength from beautiful women.Once Celie first hears of Shug Avery, she is confused and asks, “What is it?”but after she was shown a picture, Celie was stunned Shug “was a woman”,describing her as “The most beautiful woman.” (page 8).
Walker forces the lackof portrayal for coloured women because Shug Avery was quite known, nevertheless,Celie did not know of her existence. This emphasises Celie being lonesome andisolated from the world as she is out of touch from reality because of hertraumatic experiences as these have hindered her to care about new things. Shughas admirers from both men and women and has respect from Mr ____, as they usedto be lovers. Black women were admired too but sadly, it was mostly the womenwho were considered beautiful. Shug goes on to become Celie’s prominent representationof all the things a woman can achieve, whilst being her lover and devotedfriend. Walker expresses Shug’s constant assistance in urging Celie to become astronger, more confident version of herself through her teachings. Similarly,in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,Vivian made Maya feel “struck dumb” with her “red lips” and “white teeth”. Vivian’s”smile widened her mouth beyond hercheeks” (Page 65) which expresses she is overcome with joy to see herchildren after such a long time.
This was described through Maya’s visualrepresentation of what she can see in front of her which, describes Vivian asthe most beautiful woman in her world. This contrasts to Maya’s own standardsof beauty as in the beginning of the autobiography, she visualises herself with”long and blonde” hair, that she can “straighten” and a set of “blue eyes”(page 4). This description is a stereotypical, white female’s appearance andwas a standard appearance. However, now that she has looked upon her mother’sappearance with admiration, perhaps her beauty standards have altered. Maya still is conscious of her own appearancebecause of the way she describes herself. Vivian uses her beauty to capture theattention of men with quite a bit of money, which is a smart thing to dobecause of the class systems which stem through how much money a person has,and if this be the way Vivian can make money, then she will. Angelou knows her”Mother’s beauty made her powerful” (page 220), and this power made Vivian”unflinchingly honest” (page 220). This forces the reader to grasp Vivian as anintelligent woman to an extent, because she deliberately uses her beauty forpower.
It also shows Vivian’s persona as blunt because of her forward honestyshe voices to people, but also displays she is a strong female who Maya canlook up too in ways of sticking up for herself.Inboth texts, there is a mother and daughter relationship shown, and theimportance of these female figures in their lives. The significant thing to comprehendis the absence of the mothers in both Maya’s and Celie’s lives. In The Color Purple, Walker presents thedanger of poor motherhood through the abuse from Celie’s mother that sheendures. Although, she is only mentioned a few times and passes away fromsickness at the beginning, she used to “cuss” Celie all the time, which showsthe reader, the toxic relationship Celie had with her mother. Still, Celie saysshe is not mad at her mother, instead she “felt sorry for mama” because shebelieved her stepfather’s lies killed her and so understands her mother’sanger. However, in I Know Why the CagedBird Sings, Maya has two mother figures in her life; Momma and VivianBaxter. They are both strong and supportive women who have different values.
Vivian is Maya and Bailey’s birth mother, and Annie Henderson (Momma) is theirgrandma who took care of them for much of their childhood. Angelou portraysMomma as a role model to Maya because of her strong belief in God and that sheowns the only store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas. Her store is asymbol of success as it is a business owned by a black woman in the mid-twentieth- century America, known for segregation. Angelou states the store”looked like an unopened present from a stranger.
“. This simile conveys the primeimportance the store means to her as it feels like a present to her. In The Color Purple an equally vital component of Celie’s empowermentis her newfound economic independence through the help of Shug.
She urges Celieto create her own business designing pants with her financial aid therefore,helping Celie build up her future and a means of self-sufficiency. Similarly,Maya becomes the first black, female streetcar conductor which was quite a historicmoment as this is a first. She got this job because she pursued it relentlessly.Celie has taken sewing, traditionally a domestic chore, and turned it into aninstrument of independence. Walker presents the relationship between Shug andCelie one that progressed in time because upon first meeting, Shug calls Celie “ugly”to her face, then gradually, their relationship turns into friendship then finally,to lovers, which awakens Celie’s sexual desires. Shug declares Celie a virginand renames her Miss Celie, giving Celie a new identity in both a figurativeand a literal sense.
Shug’s pronouncement of Celie as a virgin and the new nameShug gives Celie are critical to Celie’s empowerment to tell her own story andto her sense of self because it helps her understand that she is in control ofher life now and she chooses to be who she wants to be. She also explains theconcept of virginity being something that only you control, and it is not aphysical factor. They do have a complicated relationship as Celie is Mr ____’snew wife and Shug is Mr ____’s mistress, however, they end up putting thatbehind them to focus on their relationship together. To conclude, Angelou herself describes who shewas “owed” to was “Momma” because of her “solemn determination”, “Mrs BerthaFlowers and her books”, “Bailey” and “his love”, Maya’s mother and her “gaiety”and finally, “Miss Kirwin and her information” (page 233). Through hardship andsuffering both these female protagonists had to endure the raw brutality ofsociety. The female relationshipsthroughout their lives that have helped them in overcoming barriers and findingpeace with themselves.
They help each other to prosper and grow both physicallyand mentally in a prejudiced society trying to put women in place. CriticWalker-Barnes states that The Color Purple is “the story of people who learnto resist the forces of racial and gender oppressions”3which I agree with immensely as the female characters break down the genderstereotypes and aspire to their maximum potential. Bibliography Gross, A Robert (2014) “NEWSWEEK’S ORIGINAL REVIEW OF MAYA ANGELOU’S ‘I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS” Sethi, Anita (2013) “The Guardian I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – Review” Barnes-Walker, 28861 RobertA Gross 2 Anita Sethi3Walker-Barnes