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Perspectives and Themes: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret

Atwood and Colour Purple by Alice Walker

Understanding the current predicaments women face each day worldwide, here two texts
have been chosen, one being dystopia literature and the other being a literature about black
women’s exertions and troubles. Referring to the chaos the women went through in both the
texts the words, predicaments, exertions and troubles are an understatement to what
happened. Here the writer has chosen the two books, Colour Purple by Alice Walker, and The
Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both of them are acclaimed writers, Alice Walker is a
Pulitzer Prize winner and Margaret Atwood is the famous Canadian activist who has written
novels like Alias Grace. Before understanding the reason why the writer took up these novels
to talk about them, it is of paramount significance to know about the outline of each of the
books listed above. The Handmaid’s Tale, setup in dystopia is a fiction which tells the
readers to assume that The UK has overthrown the US and has full control over The Republic
of Gilead. All the women there are not allowed to use their birth names but the possessives of
another man. For example:- The main character is Offred, which goes on to suggest that she
is Of- Fred, which means she belongs to Fred, she is her handmaid to produce children for
them. She is the one who goes into flashbacks and contrasts them with the conditions now.
She is the narrator in the novel. Though there is a double narrative in the novel which we can
unravel in the contrast in the essay later. In Colour Purple, we meet Celie who is a black girl,
and every night she is raped by her father constantly, even though he has a wife. Both women
are aware of the plight but are left with no choice but to suffer. Celie has been impregnated
by her father twice and she has been, once a girl and once a boy, both of whom have been
sold in the market or killed in the woods. Celie’s mother who could not contest through these
issues died and Celie’s prettier sister, Nettie’s hand is asked for in marriage by Mr. X, to
which her father does not consent to and sends the uglier sister as she refers herself, Celie to
get married to him. Mr. X has a very sensual lover called Shug Avery and treats Celie as a
sexual object. He sometimes also decides to prey on Nettie whenever she is nearby, so Nettie
flees but keeps writing letters to Celie to which she cannot respond because Mr. X hides
them. Shug Avery falls sick and is taken into Mr. X’s house and Celie works as her caretaker
and Shug Avery detests her for a long time but finally sympathises with her, and Celie finds a
budding sexual chemistry growing between them. Shug and Celie find a deeper connection
which is greater than this oppression from men and decide to fled to Tennessee and succed,
where Celie sets up a tailoring business, which is not so ambitious but feeds her well. Also,
from the letter she learns that Nettie had united with a couple who adopted kids. Suddenly
Corrines falls sick and introspect the familiarity of the children with Nettie. Nettie luls her to
sleep and death before she cleanses this in Corrine’s mind that they are actually the illicit
Children of Alphonso and Celie. Celie is relieved to find out that both of her children are
alive and are being taken care of. Samuel and Nettie’s son Adam gets married to Tashi and
she goes through the oppressive practise of circumcision. Now that we know how both the
stories go, it will be easier for us to trace the historical context, as well as to understand why
these books have been chosen. Both of these books talk about the predicament that women
face because of their geographical location, patriarchy and rituals and practices. These books
not only highlight the historical perspectives and ways women have been ostracized and
raped for years in the name of religion and rituals. It also focuses on solidarity, sisterhood and
finding contentment from queer relationships, which is far away from heteronormativity.
These two books struck a chord in the market and in the hearts of the people because it is far
from normalcy, and which by now should be implemented in the system because institutions
are constantly trying to keep a hold on us and control, just like in the Handmaid’s Tale we see
that the state tries to control all the fertile women. It is a breakthrough novel because it tells
women to rise in solidarity against patriarchy, state machinery and make their dissent visible.
In the book colour purple we see that the women in Georgia cannot lead simple lives because
they are blacks and are doubly oppressed, than the white women there. Along with that they
follow their in tribe tradition of circumcision of the clitoris, so that the women cannot have an
orgasm, which again trivialises women’s sexual pleasure and also questions their autonomy
over their sexual needs. It also raises questions on religion and marks a new perception of
God for Celie who keeps writing letters to God in hope that Gode will someday come to save
her, it questions the very basis of Christian belief that she undergoes within herself, if God is
actually there or is he/ she an abstract concept. Celie always writes her letters to a he God,
which the writer thinks is an indication towards Jesus Christ, which also might be a semiotic
that God can only be in the form of a male and can never be seen as someone as a woman,
gender fluid is a matter which is a farce for women like Celie who have been oppressed by
men and women day in and day out.. Thus, these two books have been of great historical
significance as we all have read about the black slavery and how black women are not only
oppressed within their own community, but also from the white community, who need to be
doubly saved. The writer is using the word saved here, because all they have is hope and any
life apart from the lives they are currently living in the novels, would be suitable for them.
They have no idea what is there in the outside world because they have been always
constricted within a male dominated sphere.

A theoretical mapping of the following two books will be to develop an apprehensive


understanding of how feminism, queer sexualities and tribal patriarchy is practised in both the
books. We will be looking into The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood first, where we
see that the women are forced to have babies of senior officials, we see all the handmaids are
apologetic and kind towards each other and practise solidarity amongst them. We can also
trace Offred’s character that has a sensual sexual relationship with the driver Nick, which is a
sin, but she choses to sleep with him and seeks autonomy over her sexual pleasure. Also,
when she is locked up in the room she finds that there is a quote ‘Don’t Let The Bastardes
Grind You’, which tells her that there was a handmaid here before, and that gives her
motivation to go on in the dystopia world. Also we see that Moira, has an intense sexual
relationship with a lot of men and women at Jezebels’, which is supposed to be the stripping
and drug club for the senior officials. Moira was once a handmaid; here we see how Offred
helped her escape from their business of mothering children for officials. Here we see
sisterhood playing a big role because she helps her, even though knowing the dire
consequences it will have on her if found out. Moira also chooses her own sexuality and
makes a compromise between the two options, either to do sex work or stay entitled to those
officers to make their babies. She was better off at Jezebels’, as reported by Offred when she
went out with the officer she was assigned to, called Fred to Jezebel’s.

We see in Alice Walker’s Colour Purple, how Shug grows emotionally closer to Celie, even
though they both are very apart in personalities, one thing that always binds them together is
that both of them are fighting through the sexist oppression as Bell Hooks said, in Feminism
is for Everybody. (Hooks, 43). They also are fighting against the oppressive male domination
Mr.X thinks that they deserve. Even Nettie though not being very vocal runs away from the
clutches of Mr.X and takes a decision to be financially independent so that she can escape
from the physical indignation that Mr.X puts on her and finally runs away. Queer Sexuality is
an important theme in the book Colour Purple because we see that how Shug Avery, a very
sensual singer at the bar who is the mistress of Mr. X, and here is Celie, ugly as called by her
rapist step father and low on self esteem since childhood, these two women bond over sex, as
Celie finds sexual company with women very therapeutic and soothing, because of her past
experiences with men, like her step father and Mr. X. It clearly depicts that it is a threat to
men when women bond with women, or take part in their emotional underpinnings, just like
Mr. X felt deceived when Avery and Celie decided to go to Tennessee. Lastly, we see how
tribal patriarchy is found in Colour Purple, as Tashi has to go through a clitoral circumcision
before getting married to Adam, according to the African tribe culture. It can hence be
concluded that women cannot look forward to their own lovers and family for protection,
which is a unique trait in most black working class cultures unlike white households
according to Sylvia Walby in her article, Private and Public Patriarchy. (Walby, pp- 12)

It is astonishing to see how all the female characters in both the novels can be seen in the
same light, if we look at both the texts under the influence of two quotes. For instance from
The Handmaid’s Tale taking an extract we realise how autonomy and freedom is restricted
for all the women characters in both the books and how there are similarities in their feelings.
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” (Atwood, pp-
23). On similar lines we see in Colour Purple, a similar kind of quote justifies the same, “The
most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” (Walker,
pp- 6). We see that the themes might be similar in themes; the women characters are very
diverse in their natural behaviour. For example Celie is a very young 14 year old girl, who is
very low on self esteem and has been treated as a sex object since a very small age. Whereas,
we see the women in the Republic of Gilead do not believe in God, like Celie believes in. All
the women in the novel are rebellious except for one whose eye get snatched away because
she was questioning ideas of God, while being given in a lesson on how to be a good
Christian handmaid. WE also see the diversity because of their colour. Women in Colour
Purple are black and hence are doubly oppressed, not only within the white community, but
their greatest oppressors are those who belong to their own community, as the theory
expanded by Franz Fanon on Neo- Colonialism suggests in his essay Frantz Fanon's The
Wretched of the Earth in Contemporary Perspective. (Fanon, pp- 193).

There are differences between the perceptions because of the social locations of the texts and
the time that has been mentioned in the novels. The handmaid’s Tale is a near future,
fundamentalist dystopia, which talks of all the progressive ideas which have already taken
place in the world, but due to the annexation of the US by the UK, there have been now
multiple number of myriad changes which are nowhere close to the new world. Also, there is
stark difference in the setting of the book Colour Purple, the setting is during the early 1900s
when there was rampant existence of racism and subordination for women and especially
black women. Hence, however different the setting maybe, similarly the location, we need to
understand that women in both the novel go through precarious forms of patriarchy, and rise
up with the help of solidarity and sisterhood.
References

Hooks, B. (2016). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross
MacDonald School Resource Services Library.

Walby, S. (1990). From private to public patriarchy. Women's Studies International Forum,
13(1-2), pp.91-104.

Atwood. M (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. McClelland & Stewart

Walker. A (1982). Colour Purple. Harcourt. 13 (1-2)

Fairchild, H. (1994). Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth in Contemporary


Perspective. Journal of Black Studies, 25(2), 191-199. Retrieved from
http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784461

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