Feminist Language in Sapphire’s Push
In her novel, Push, Sapphire challenges the conventions of patriarchal literature through use of language, characterization and archetype, as well as deviations in the traditional, patriarchal novel structure. One of the major elements in Sapphire’s revision of the paradigm of the conventional novel is the placement of the female figures in the forefront as opposed to the background, by presenting images of assertive and sharp-tongued women as opposed to docile and discreet ones and by having male characters fill more submissive roles. The most obvious example of an emphasized female character is that of Precious Jones, the protagonist of the story. The story, which takes us through Precious’s woeful life is told mostly through her inner monologue, which is murky and encrypted with her vernacular and illiteracy. Part of the story is told through her writing, which increases gradually in proficiency as Precious learns more and more at the alternative school to which she is enrolled. Precious is a large, imposing figure, weighing in at well over two-hundred pounds. Though she expresses being quiet and alienated by her peers and abusive parents, if provoked she can also be highly aggressive and defensive. Such an example can be seen in the line, “’I ain’ going nowhere mutherfucker till the bell ring. I came here to learn maff and you gon’ teach me.’” (5, Sapphire). Precious is not particularly desirable to men, and she is comfortable with vulgarity as part of her everyday speech, as she tells us “Boy say I’m laffing ugly. He say ‘Claireece is so ugly she laffing ugly.’ His fren’ say, ‘No, that fat bitch is crying ugly.’” (12 , Sapphire). This is hardly the kind of female character one would expect to empathize with in a more male-oriented novel. The fact that she is portrayed as redeemable via education makes her characterization all the more radically different from the convention: “I took the TABE test again, this time it’s 7.8. Ms Rain say quantum leap!” (139, Sapphire). Not only is Precious the opposite of a docile, comely and reputable female figure, she is saved by learning and not the love of a prince like that of Cinderella. Precious’s teacher, Blue Rain, is another example of a prominent and assertive woman. However, Rain’s prominence is portrayed by her authority as a teacher and as a positive and encouraging force in Precious’s intellectual and emotional flourishing. Rain tells Precious “I think your first responsibility has to be yourself. You should not drop out of school.” (70, Sapphire). The same can be said about Precious’s comrades at the alternative school. Characters like Rita, the ex-prostitute, Jermaine, the lesbian and Rhonda, the disowned daughter each play an important role not only in helping Precious strive for greater things, but as examples of marginalized, brutalized and ostracized women who are able to use a place of education to overcome their various social and personal adversities. Examples can be found in the girls’ personal stories, like Jermaine’s, when she tells us “I saved myself. Am still saving myself.” (Harlem Butch, Sapphire). Even the arch-nemesis of the book, Precious’s mother, plays a strong and influential role. On top of the horrid forms of abuse ‘Mama’ allows her daughter to endure, she also acts as the most vivid and recurring reminders of all of Precious’s trauma and pain: “Mama quiet. Mama say; ‘Carl had the AIDS virus.’” (85 ,Sapphire). It was ‘Mama’ who allowed Carl, Precious’s father, to commit his crimes, and so Precious blames her for inexcusable weaknesses and her displacement of blame for Carl’s actions onto her daughter. The flipside of this is that the male roles are filled by more submissive or fleeting archetypes. Precious’s father, Carl, although he plays an integral role in the formation of Precious as a character, is only alluded to in memory or as the subject of conversation: “Carl come over fuck us’es. Go from room to room, slap me on my ass when he through, holler WHEE WHEE! Call me name Butter Ball Big Mama Two Ton of Fun. I hate hear him talk more than I hate fuck.” (35 ,Sapphire). Push doesn’t provide any scene where the father is addressed in the first-person during Precious’s “recovery”. Instead, we are given a portrait of him through antecedent action or allusion. He does not have the same dominant presence that Mama or Precious do. A fleeting character like Mr. Wicher, who plays a positive role, is another example of this very idea, as Precious tells us “He a skinny little white man about five feets four inches. A peckerwood as my mother would say.” (4 ,Sapphire). Not only is Mr. Wicher intimidated by Precious in person, but after we meet him at the beginning of the book, he is hardly mentioned since. He opens Precious up to mathematics and is a gentle figure, but he is submissive in her presence, and he is absent when she is expelled from junior high, courtesy of the female principle of the school, Mrs. Lichenstein. The only recurring prominent male figure in the book is Precious’s son, Abdul, who is an infant and so is dependent upon his mother, which is clear when Precious tells us “The sun is coming through the window splashing down on him [Abdul], on the pages of the book. It’s called The Black BC’s. I love to hold him on my lap, open up the world to him.” (139, Sapphire). She even begins the process of educating him before the ending of the book, reinforcing the idea that Precious is the purveyor of knowledge and education to her son. Role reversal is a technique employed by Sapphire in Push which helps to demonstrate the challenge Sapphire poses to the old conventions of novel writing. Her use of characterization takes old archetypes of submissive women and assertive men and completely overturns them, making the men submissive and less prominent, and the women assertive and proudly prominent. Sapphire is able to contrast gender roles by emphasizing one and almost eclipsing the other. As opposed to the writer of a conventional, patriarchal novel, Sapphire has placed the male figures in service to the female figures, thereby breaking some of the assumptions made about gender in patriarchal novels. Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print.