The aim of this paper is to compare great struggles women face in their lives as presented in ‘The Colour Purple’ by Alice Walker and ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou. The terms of comparison will include the plot, the themes, the settings, and the language/symbolism used in the two novels.
While the novel are different in their form, ‘The Colour Purple’ written in the form of letters and ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ being an autobiography, their thematic preoccupations are essentially very similar. The central issue addressed in both novels is the one of racial discrimination; coupled with sexism and poor social and economic conditions, it makes the lives of female characters of both novels almost intolerable. However, women in the novels find their own ways to consolidate their spiritual strength and go on with their life projects. Their ability to overcome the feeling of inferiority because of both gender and racial considerations made them stronger and more wholesome personalities. In ‘The Colour Purple,’ black women are never perceived as equals entitled to the same rights and liberties. Black women are abused in a variety of ways and constantly ridiculed. In ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ episodes of racial when the protagonist encountered racial discrimination are depicted in great detail. A woman Maya works for call her ‘Mary’ for convenience. At a graduation ceremony, she learns that blacks are supposed to be either athletes or servants. When taken to a dentist, Maya hears him saying that ‘my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s’ (Angelou, 1997, p. 189).
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One of the themes explored in great depth in both novels is the issue of childhood rape. Such a traumatic experience at early age affects female emotional development in a profound way. In ‘The Colour Purple,’ Celie is sexually abused at the age of fourteen by a man she thinks is her father. Maya was even younger, only eight, when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. It was a very traumatic experience for the girls that were unprepared for such a blatant manifestation of brutality from the side of older men, especially taking into account that these mean came from their closest surroundings. In ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ the protagonist’s emotional suffering is deepened by the feeling of guilt as her molester stands before the court and is subsequently murdered by criminals suspected to have connections with Maya’s family.
Contrasting the two novels that both explore different aspects of objectification of women, ‘The Colour Purple’ delves into the practice of forced marriage that has wrecked fates of women for centuries. Alphonso marries Celie off to an older widower who already has several children. The fact that he is referred to as «Mr. ___» hints that any other male might have been in Celie husband’s place, and there is not even a sign of at least reciprocal sympathy in their relationship. In fact, Celie’s husband initially wanted to marry her younger sister, Nettie, and made advances to her forcing the girl to flee. Mr. ___ abuses Celie both physically and emotionally, so the girl’s spirit is broken. Her role is reduced to taking care of the house and rearing children that are not even her own.
However, both novels address the issue of resistance and endurance. In ‘The Colour Purple,’ Sofia can be regarded as a symbol of resistance. In defiance of the humiliating treatment by her husband and Mr. ___, she dares to resort to physical violence to defend her dignity. When she realizes that the situation cannot last any longer, she leaves and takes her children with her. However, Sophia also embodies the senseless of resistance in the world dominated by white males. When she aggressively declines the offer to work as a mayor wife’s maid and returns a slap, she is charged with hitting a white man, taken to prison, and sentenced to twelve years of work for the mayor. Maya’s and Celie’s stories are that of endurance. It takes time for Maya to learn how to stand up for herself, and Celie’s life is ‘undeniably horrible, but she perseveres, ostensibly because she has no idea that life can be different from what she’s known’ (Crispin, 2003, para. 3).
What gives the stories an optimistic color is the protagonists’ successful quest for emotional intimacy. Celie find a true friend when her husband’s lover, Shug, comes to live with them. Shug eventually takes Celie’s side and helps her to discover what happened to Celie’s sister, Nettie. Maya Angelou finds intimacy in the relations with her older brother who dares to stand up for her when she is offended and ridiculed. After the rape incident, she ceases to speak to anyone but her brother, so Bailey becomes the whole world for her.
One more interesting theme explored in ‘The Colour Purple’ is the one of female solidarity. It is first discussed when Mr. ______’s sister Kate shows sympathy for Celie and advices not to tolerate his brother’s abusive behavior. Another incident that addresses this issue takes place when Squek, Harpo’s new girlfriend, attempts to free Sophia from the prison, despite the fact that they lay claims to the same man. The theme is further developed as Celie, Shug, and Squeak all realize that they have suffered enough abuse from men and relocate to Tennessee. Given the support of her friends, the protagonist of ‘The Colour Purple’ starts a successful business and lifts herself out of poverty. This plot development suggests that women can be economically independent from men; it also precipitates the liberation of women that happened in the second half of the past century. Celie’s social position is further strengthened as she inherits the property of her stepfather.
Maya’s story is also the one of social and economic empowerment. In San Francisco, after living with other homeless children for a month, she takes up a job of a streetcar conductor to become the first black person in the city to have such public service job. Given economic security and a certain social position, she gains confidence in her future.
Another recurrent theme in both novels is the value of family. Neither of the protagonists experiences happy childhood in a functioning family environment. Maya and Bailey were forsaken by their parents at an early age and live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) and their uncle.
The message both novel send is that any family arrangement, even a dysfunctional one, provides necessary support for the protagonists in times of crisis. At the end of ‘The Colour Purple,’ Celie forgives her husband and resolve the relationship. He is now willing to help Celie with her business. Furthermore, Sophia and Harpo marry again; Samuel and Nettie come to acknowledge their feelings towards each other and unite after Corrine’s passing away.
The value of motherhood is a theme closely associated with the previous one. Although parenthood seems to be a traumatic experience for the protagonists as Celie’s children are taken away from her upon birth and Maya is hardly physically and emotionally prepared to deliver a baby, they both come to admit their roles as mothers. Maya graduates from high school despite her pregnancy and finds confidence and inspiration in her new role. It takes years for Celie to discover that her children are actually alive. However, at the end of the story, she comes to see them again. In fact, Celie would have known about her sister and children’s conditions but for Mr. ___ hiding Nettie’s letter from her. This is another manifestation of grave human rights abuses black women had to suffer in those times since privacy of correspondence is among fundamental liberties. Celie also learns that Alfonso is her stepfather, while her biological father was murdered by a mob because of being too successful as for a black man.
While America is presented as a country where the rights of women and minorities are being constantly violated, ‘The Colour Purple’ points out that the situation of women in other regions of the world is equally miserable if not worse. Celie’s son falls in love and marries an Africa girl, Tashi, who has to suffer humiliating procedures of female genital mutilation and facial scarification.
The theme of lesbian love is explored in both novels, yet from different angles. Attraction to women is a natural thing for girls who feel threatened and forsaken in the male-dominated world. Relationships with people of their gender seem to offer them necessary comfort and consolation. Looking at the dynamics of relations between Celie and Shug, the protagonist of ‘The Colour Purple’ is astonished by how free and independent a woman can appear and is slightly afraid of Shug. Yet when Mr. ___’s lover sides with her and starts protecting her from Mr. ___’s abuse, she falls in love with the first person in the world to treat her with care. These feelings endure throughout the story, and when at the end of the story Shug decides to leave her for a young man, her spirit is nearly broken again.
The role played by Shug in ‘The Colour Purple’ is played by Mrs. Bertha Flowers in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ who helps Maya to open up to the world again and appreciate works of poetry and literature. Later in the adolescence, Maya also doubts her sexual orientation and thinks of herself as a hermaphrodite. Unlike Celie, she fails to accept her orientation and sleeps with a teenage boy to dispel her apprehensions.
As concerns the literature devices employed in the novels, both of them have a symbolic title. The title of ‘The Colour Purple’ is explained through Shug’s talk with Celie about faith and God when she tells that ‘it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it’ (Walker, 1990, p. 203).
Shug explains Celie that God also wants to be love, and that is the reason why he creates wonders that surround them. This episode strengthens Celie’s tumbling faith.
The title of Angelou’s novel is taken from the poem ‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar:
‘The caged bird of her title symbolizes all black women who, despite great adversity and oppression, live with dignity and strength’ (Hagen, 2007, ‘Literary Qualities,’ para. 3).
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the two novels explore a variety of similar themes, namely racial and gender discrimination, childhood rape, family and parenthood, lesbian love, and social and economic empowerment.—————————————————————————–
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