The Significance of Female Relationships Within Patriarchal Society in The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Explore the significance of female relationships within a strongly patriarchal society as depicted by Alice Walker in The Color Purple and Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The main theme I will focus on in comparing The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the importance these writers express in regard to female relationships to help women flourish in a patriarchal society. The female relationships depicted in both texts show how these bonds create empowerment of the female characters and how they help each other to overcome their struggles against the brutality of society. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that covers the early 20th century, during which factors such as racism, sexism, female oppression and domestic abuse were very much thriving in Rural Georgia thus, female relationships were needed to confide in one another. As such, Angelou’s autobiography is set between the 1930s to 1950s, and shows that female relationships matter in the still-patriarchal society in which she finds herself in, to an extent that her self-esteem was at its lowest from all the immoral impacts of racism, sexism and abuse she has experienced in her lifetime. Both authors are influential figures in the Civil Rights era, as their work is a reflection on how people of colour were discriminated upon and treated unfairly in society. By examining these texts, it will be possible to explore how both prominent women of colour preach the message that women need other women to support each other to discover their true, independent selves.

Walker presents the bond between two sisters as one way in which Celie survives the harshness of the patriarchal society of the Southern states of America in the early 20th century. Walker’s choice of using sisters who can draw strength from each other contrasts with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as Angelou’s autobiographical work did not allow her the luxury of being able to create sisters who could support each other. However, she does highlight the importance of siblings providing support through the characters of herself and her brother, Bailey Jr. Gross refers to Angelou’s “few years of almost complete silence” when “she continued to speak to her brother Bailey” which proves that in the strength of their relationship, despite the trauma she endured that prompted a vow to not speak, she still decided to communicate with her brother and it “served her well” [1]. Angelou introduces her influential connection with her brother in chapter 4 of the autobiography by contrasting herself with him through physical beauty. Angelou describes herself as “big, elbowy and grating” (page 24), whereas, Bailey was “small, graceful and smooth” (page 24). Maya evidently has self-esteem issues because of the hurtful words many have pointed out. The term “elbowy”, not being an actual word, confirms this is an adaptation to hearing others around her constantly say it to her and therefore she has mirrored the word. This forces the reader to understand how Maya is degraded to believe she is undesirable.

Angelou goes on to say their playmates described her skin a “shit colour”, in contrast to her brother having “velvet-black skin”. The use of the adjectives “velvet-black”, illustrates a deluxe texture with a sense of richness and cleanness to his skin whereas, the bland use of Maya being a ‘shit colour’ not only shows the outrageous offense and blatant disrespect intended towards her, but, also displays an image of uncleanness, dirt and foul smells to mind. In 1930-1950, these degrading terms demonstrate the ignorance of the ‘playmates’ and how they divide one skin tone in two complete opposite adjectives for the aim of hurting one, and praising the other. Angelou purposely provided the raw worded truth through these upsetting, repulsive words, ultimately impacting Maya’s self-image as it is constant, and from family members and very revolting words that should not be said to anyone, especially a child. However, through all of this, their bond is endless and admirable as Maya believed ‘he loved me’ which could reassure Maya that she is not as foul as people say she is because of her brother’s love for her. In The Color Purple, although the sisters Celie and Nettie are separated for most part of the novel, they still write to each other because of their bond and believe in each other’s wellbeing. Celie continuously looked out for her sister from the beginning to the end because of the care and compassion of Nettie’s wellbeing. Celie witnesses their stepfather “looking at (her) little sister”, but she reassures Nettie that she will “take care of (her)” which allows the reader to see that Celie does have strength inside of her when it comes to people who matter to her. This is important in this era as this conveys the two females in the novel to believe in each other and it helps Celie get through her life feeling that Nettie is alive. This bond helps her get through it therefore, emphasising the importance of the mutual love and respect they have for each other in their sister relationship.

Structurally, from the beginning of the novel, to midway, Walker inputs a religious reference as Celie starts her letters with ‘Dear God’. The power held over her is immense as this is done because her father threatens her to ‘not tell nobody but God.’ This beginning sentence straight away establishes the male dominance within the household. Celie is being silenced over her father’s traumatic abuse and so Celie believes ‘God’ is who she can confide in. Being religious was the norm in 1930’s society as many people attended local churches and believed in God, so writing letters, forces the reader to believe Celie feels more assured when she writes to God, almost like a prayer. As Celie discovers her beloved sister is alive, she refers to her letters as ‘Dear Nettie’. Walker intentionally does this for the reader to witness the change in Celie as she grows as a person in mental strength. Through the structure, from start to end, Walker purposely shows Celie constantly developing in diverse ways, for instance, her grammar. At the beginning of the novel, Walker portrays Celie as being extremely illiterate, gripping the reader to have difficulty in reading the novel. This is a reflection on the segregation in America which caused many young, black people to remain uneducated being unable to read or write because of most schools being opened to white people only. This discrimination establishes the norm for both Celie and Maya to understand from an early age, where they belong in society because of the unfair treatment of other people based on their skin colour and gender. Similarly, Vivian Baxter, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made a passing comment on how she cannot read. However gradually, in The Color Purple, Celie’s language becomes more articulate from her extended range of vocabulary as she is able to write full sentences without any grammatical mistakes. This shows her becoming much stronger minded as she has learnt to be literate.

Walker allows the reader to follow Celie as she becomes a stronger female with much more self-esteem knowing she has her little sister again. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for Angelou, her chapters are written from memory as she tries 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 can remember, to when she gives birth to her only child into 36 chapters. Through these chapters, similarly to Walker, we see Maya’s growth in mental strength through these chapters as she grows up in life. The first chapters reflect the segregation of society and introduces inequality because of her gender and race. Throughout the autobiography, she is a victim and it seems like she is never in control, until the time she runs away, it is only then that she finds she can be her own person and be independent. Who she is at the end compared to the beginning is a strong-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 the relationship between female figures. In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, at just aged eight, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s lover, Mr Freeman. Angelou includes this obscure act in her autobiography because of the important outcome that occurred. First off, this destroys Maya’s identity and self-confidence, which also left her physically drained and caused her to black out. As Mr Freeman is murdered, Maya decided she “had to stop talking” as she believed her words might “poison people”. The use of alliteration forces the reader to get a sense Maya’s thought process, as she thinks her speech is a problem and she is going to eliminate this problem by not speaking because she does not want to harm people. It also connotes abandonment as no one likes to go near poison and it is deadly. The noun ‘poison’ can also be unstoppable in comparison to Maya believing her lies are unstoppable. Maya gradually overcame her fear of speech from her friendship with Mrs Bertha Flowers. This significant female friendship showed a blossoming of Maya’s identity as she learns to become literate because of Mrs Bertha Flowers encouraging literature onto Maya. It also helps Maya in slowly piecing herself together again and giving 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 always acknowledged 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 of Mrs Bertha Flowers”. Similarly, in The Color Purple, Celie is 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 she becomes 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 of her close, female relationship with Shug, she is helped to overcome this fear of men.

It is 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.” Walker forces the lack of portrayal for coloured women because Shug Avery was quite known, nevertheless, Celie did not know of her existence. This emphasises Celie being lonesome and isolated from the world as she is out of touch from reality because of her traumatic experiences as these have hindered her to care about new things. Shug has admirers from both men and women and has respect from Mister, as they used to be lovers. Black women were admired too but sadly, it was mostly the women who were considered beautiful. Shug goes on to become Celie’s prominent representation of all the things a woman can achieve, whilst being her lover and devoted friend. Walker expresses Shug’s constant assistance in urging Celie to become a stronger, 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 her cheeks” (Page 65) which expresses she is overcome with joy to see her children after such a long time. This was described through Maya’s visual representation of what she can see in front of her which, describes Vivian as the most beautiful woman in her world. This contrasts to Maya’s own standards of 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”. This description is a stereotypical, white female’s appearance and was a standard appearance. However, now that she has looked upon her mother’s appearance with admiration, perhaps her beauty standards have altered. Maya still is conscious of her own appearance because of the way she describes herself. Vivian uses her beauty to capture the attention of men with quite a bit of money, which is a smart thing to do because 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”, and this power made Vivian “unflinchingly honest”. This forces the reader to grasp Vivian as an intelligent woman to an extent, because she deliberately uses her beauty for power. It also shows Vivian’s persona as blunt because of her forward honesty she voices to people, but also displays she is a strong female who Maya can look up too in ways of sticking up for herself.

In both texts, there is a mother and daughter relationship shown, and the importance of these female figures in their lives. The significant thing to comprehend is the absence of the mothers in both Maya’s and Celie’s lives. In The Color Purple, Walker presents the danger of poor motherhood through the abuse from Celie’s mother that she endures. Although, she is only mentioned a few times and passes away from sickness at the beginning, she used to “cuss” Celie all the time, which shows the reader, the toxic relationship Celie had with her mother. Still, Celie says she is not mad at her mother, instead she “felt sorry for mama” because she believed her stepfather’s lies killed her and so understands her mother’s anger. However, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya has two mother figures in her life; Momma and Vivian Baxter. They are both strong and supportive women who have different values. Vivian is Maya and Bailey’s birth mother, and Annie Henderson (Momma) is their grandma who took care of them for much of their childhood. Angelou portrays Momma as a role model to Maya because of her strong belief in God and that she owns the only store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas. Her store is a symbol 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 prime importance the store means to her as it feels like a present to her.

In The Color Purple an equally vital component of Celie’s empowerment is her newfound economic independence through the help of Shug. She urges Celie to 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 historic moment 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 an instrument of independence. Walker presents the relationship between Shug and Celie 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 virgin and renames her Miss Celie, giving Celie a new identity in both a figurative and a literal sense. Shug’s pronouncement of Celie as a virgin and the new name Shug gives Celie are critical to Celie’s empowerment to tell her own story and to her sense of self because it helps her understand that she is in control of her life now and she chooses to be who she wants to be. She also explains the concept of virginity being something that only you control, and it is not a physical factor. They do have a complicated relationship as Celie is Mister’s new wife and Shug is Mister’s mistress, however, they end up putting that behind them to focus on their relationship together.

To conclude, Angelou herself describes who she was “owed” to was “Momma” because of her “solemn determination”, “Mrs Bertha Flowers and her books”, “Bailey” and “his love”, Maya’s mother and her “gaiety” and finally, “Miss Kirwin and her information” (page 233). Through hardship and suffering both these female protagonists had to endure the raw brutality of society. The female relationships throughout their lives that have helped them in overcoming barriers and finding peace with themselves. They help each other to prosper and grow both physically and mentally in a prejudiced society trying to put women in place. Critic Walker-Barnes states that The Color Purple is “the story of people who learn to resist the forces of racial and gender oppressions”[3] which I agree with immensely as the female characters break down the gender stereotypes and aspire to their maximum potential.


Read more