Patriarchy in ‘The Color Purple’ – critiquing the critique

In describing The Color Purple (1982) as a ‘womanist’ fiction, thereby following the ethic of “women who love women —and sometimes individual men— sexually and/or nonsexually” and “feminists of colour” (Walker, 1983 in Berlant, 1988), Alice Walker effectively declares her work a critique on patriarchy and racism, of which the former will be the focus here. The ways in which Walker exacts her critique centre on several subversions and a proposed alternative model. Primarily, the subversions involve the breaking of silence through language, Black Vernacular English (BVE), laughter and song (Tucker, 1988; Hite, 1983; Abbandonato, 1991) and the use of the feminine, personal narrative forms of quilting and epistolary (Selzer, 1995; Berlant, 1988; Abbandonato, 1991). Additional subversions include the usurping of the conventional hetero-normative love story (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991) and showing how men can also suffer under patriarchy by being forced into a gender role to the exclusion of what they may prefer, for example Albert’s youthful enjoyment of sewing (247).  As contrasted with the grim beginnings of the story, Walker also critiques patriarchy implicitly by offering us a happy ending couched in a redefined, alternative view of how the world could be. This alternative model centres on the linguistic reappropriation of female anatomy and sexual desire (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991); the ‘disgendering’ and decentralising of God (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991); and how male acceptance of the fluidity of gender roles ultimately brings happiness and balance (Selzer, 1995; Hite, 1983). This discussion will balance these factors against the contentions of critics that the critique is intrinsically flawed and will conclude in Walker’s favour.

Hite argues that Walker uses the “Afro-American motif of ‘finding a voice’… to decentre patriarchal authority”, allowing women to alter meanings through “articulating and appropriating the dominant discourse” (1983:265). Celie starts the novel by erasing herself from the present[/-tense] when she writes ‘I am’, and subsequently attempts to build herself up from this “site of negation”, a burden shared by all women who try to forge an identity noncompliant with the cultural scripts of gender and sexuality entrenched in patriarchy and manifested through a man-made language (Abbandonato, 1991).

Reaffirming what Tucker calls “language as power” (1988:82) and “[a]ware that ‘the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house’ (Lorde, 1999, in Abbandonato (1991:1108), Walker succeeds in offering a different view of the world in part through Celie’s rejection of Standard English (SE). Despite Darlene’s advisement to adopt the ‘proper’ mode of speech (194), Celie finds her voice and her self-worth whilst still writing her letters and ‘speaking’ in BVE. According to linguistic relativity, the language we use shapes our perception of the world (Whorf, 1956), so for Celie, talking in SE means that “pretty soon it feel like [she] can’t think” (194). Of course, SE is also an allegory for patriarchy, both of which she ultimately rejects, reflecting “only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind” (195).This non-conformity shows her resistant position outside the dominant system. Furthermore, “Celie’s vitality is privileged over Nettie’s dreary correctness” Abbandonato (1991:1108) and thus SE’s position as linguistic exemplar is challenged.

Redefining female sexual anatomy (“shifting emphasis from lack or hole of patriarchal representation,” Hite (1983)) permitting female sexual pleasure (Shug’s redefinition of the word ‘virgin’ (Hite, 1983)) and re-envisioning a genderless, colourless, pantheistic God who “love all them feelings” (176) are all done linguistically and collaboratively between women —Celie and Shug— and threaten “patriarchal control over women’s bodies” (Hite, 1983:226) and minds. This collaboration is symptomatic of the novel’s ‘quilting’ narrative, achieved via the collaborative epistolary of Nettie and Celie. The story is the synthesis of many voices —not just one— Walker is merely the ‘medium’ (262). This is a firm rejection of the patriarchal view of the author as godlike, single source of all information and meaning (Abbandonato, 1991:1108).

bell hooks, for example, cxritcises The Color Purple for its emphasis on gender issues over racial ones believing that the focus on sexual oppression damages the racial agenda of the slave narrative tradition it is clearly drawing from (1990, in Selzer, 1991). Considering how pervasive inter-racial issues are in the novel, this criticism may be damning on a racial front, but it serves as an affirmation of the critique of patriarchy. This is not to say, however, that there are no detractions from the critique. Harris found little to applaud in the novel at all, likening it to a compendium of “political IOUs” (1984:160), but while the novel does address a lot of salient and controversial issues, they do not serve to weaken the gender critique, in fact, as Berlant (1988) points out, in some instances the racial issues serve to enhance/reinforce the gender issues, such as the lynching/rape parallel. Harris, however, damns the gender critique along with the racial one. Firstly, she criticises the use of a male narrative model to critique a male system,

“Celie will break her bonds and take symbolic vengeance on those who will attempt to hurt her… as other heroes triumph over the forces that attempt to destroy them in their youth… The fabulist/fairy-tale mold [sic] of the novel is ultimately incongruous with… its message…” (1984:159-60).

While it is clear to see the typical hero story in Celie’s, rather than condemning the use of a male form for the transmission of a feminist message, it can be understood as another subversion – a male form used inside the female form or indeed as a fusion of the two.

Secondly, Harris argues that ‘between the lines’ the novel affirms that Celie’s (and by extension all women’s) “… patience and long-suffering… passivity… silence in the face of, if not actual allegiance to, cruelty… secrecy concerning violence and violation…” (Harris, 1984:160) will lead to a happy ending, essentially reiterating the demand for female silence inherent in patriarchy. Harris argues that Sofia is “beaten, imprisoned and nearly driven insane precisely because of her strength” (1984:157), which effectively conveys the message ‘woe betide women who stand up for themselves’; Sofia may be alive and reunited with her family by the novels’ close, but she is far worn down. Harris believes this inaction destroys the critique from the inside out, but what action could Celie have successfully taken until she had support and somewhere to go? When these criteria are met, she does act. Harris is also critical of the African sections of the book. However, they actually serve to highlight women’s inequalities across cultures, for example being denied education. Furthermore, that Nettie reaches the same conclusions in Africa— about things such as God— as Celie does in America also reinforces Walker’s critique.

Inversely, does The Color Purple go too far the other way in portraying a totally matriarchal society? After all, there is only one example of a ‘good’ (and unchanged) man who exists under the new regime, Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack. As Harris points out, “…all the bad guys are dead or converted to womanist philosophy.” Really, though, that is the point: the only way for the oppressed to be happy is to eradicate all the oppressors or convert them. Moreover, by presenting a fairy-tale element to the final Edenic (Hite, 1983) utopia where everyone is happy Walker emphasises the difference between the patriarchal status quo and her new vision, thus enhancing the critique.

From the beginning of the story where patriarchy’s pervasive, quotidian oppression of both women and of men is shown to keep everyone by-and-large miserable, to the ending with a re-envisioned, redefined world in which the characters are happy, The Color Purple successfully critiques patriarchy and shows how language can be as equally the instrument of freedom as it has been the instrument of captivity.

© Geo. S. Willis

To cite this post in Harvard style:

Willis, G. S. (2011) Patriarchy in ‘The Color Purple’ – Critiquing the Critique, The Third Word. Available from:


Abbandonato, L. (1991) “A View From ‘Elsewhere’”: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine in The Color Purple, PMLA, Vol. 160, NO. 5 (October 1991), pp. 1106-1115. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Berlant, L. (1988) Race, Gender and Nation in “The Color Purple”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4, (Summer, 1988), pp. 831-859. Available from: Accessed 19th February 2011.

Harris, T. (1984) On The Color Purple, Stereotypes and Silence, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1984), pp. 155-161. Available from: Accessed: 19th January 2011.

Hite, M. (1989) Romance,, Marginality, Matrilineage: Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring 1989), pp. 257-273. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Selzer, L. (1995) Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple, African American Review, Vol. 29, No, 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 67-82. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Tucker, L. (1988) Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: Emergent Woman, Emergent Text, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, Black Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1988), pp. 81-95. Available from: Accessed 19th February 2011.

Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, thought and reality, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. Available from: Accessed 25th February 2011.

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