The absence of women in literature in itself has been a questionable trend. Women poets, novelists, and playwrights have long been known to men, the most famous, of course, being William Shakespeare. One often hears phrases such as ‘the Father of English Literature’ or the ‘Father of English prose’. However, what role do women play in such a male dominated sphere is a question which has gained much momentum in more recent years in the wake of the Feminist movement. The female figure has often been associated to oppression and their voices silenced. In her novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker and the other women of the novel are found in similar circumstances is oppressed and her voice silenced by the men in her life, including her father who from whom she has birthed two children who have been taken away from her1. Furthermore, Celie her hand in marriage has been given to an undeserving, mentally and physically abusive man. Although men have the upper hand in The Color Purple, the narrative is about breaking the silence and this is achieved by Celie finding a new God and claiming her own voice which leads to her independence.
Female writing has long been silence across countries and continents. Even though female writers wrote, hardly any would get published. Eminent female writers such as Emily Dickenson is known to have written nearly 1800 poems, however, only a handful of them were published in her lifetime2. Apart from Europe, female writers were a rare breed in Africa too. In Nigeria, female writing was once only limited to three or four writers (Nwapa, Sofola, Segun, and Emecheta)3. Until recent years, female writing was a rarity conspired against by historical antecedents.
Any discussion on female silence in the creative world serves as an immediate provocation for a discussion on feminism and female voices in literature especially works which have given a voice to female characters if not female writers themselves. Similar to the oppression and gender inequality faced by Celie in Walker’s novel, Sybylla in Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career, is subjected to much inequality and oppression when wanting to fulfil her career goal as a writer. Sybylla is forced to fulfil her gender roles as a girl and take care of her family which comes in her way of becoming a writer.
When taking into account the silence of female writer, it is important to consider re time and age when certain female texts came into being. In the works of Emily Dickenson, for example, there is a clear challenge of the Puritan thought in which she grew up and was often exposed to4. Dickenson both challenges Puritanism in her work while effectively removing herself from it as well.
The opening warning in Alice Walker’s Color Purple where Celie’s stepfather threatens: “you better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” 5 are similar opening lines to Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior where her mother warns: “you must not tell anyone…what I am about to tell you” 6. These continue to indicate the forbidden voice of women not just in creative writing and the creative field in general but also in society where women were encouraged to simply stay quiet and not voice their opinions. It was from this where the feminist movement came in to being and transformed the politics of storytelling for women. Furthermore, being a women of colour in an America society results in not just oppression from female figures at home, but oppression from the general society and the government at large7. In apolitical context, female voices were suppressed, however, being female and being a woman of color adds on the element of racism along with sexism and thus making it a lot harder for such women to emerge in their creativity.
The ‘Color purple’ signifies as Celie’s colour of identity. It serves as a symbol for an identity crisis and struggle for self-esteem due to ages of oppression. Being a woman of colour, Celie’s struggle for identity is a lot more complex, especially as a woman of colour constantly told what to do by the men in her life. Preserving the tradition that authenticate and authorize the way of life for women has long come in the way of women finding their voices in creativity and in society. In some families such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s, as child of an immigrant family, is often finds herself torn between the old way of life, the new landscape, and language8.
One sees a continued identity struggle in Sybylla’s character who struggles with being identified as either a woman or a man. The issue with Sybylla is that she refuses to endorse any imposed gender roles and unified model of identity. Hence, the identity of women is foregrounded in texts which is often also fund pasted together with feminie subjectivity. The struggle of identity differs with each text, while Celie struggles with self-esteem and her African ethnicity, Sybylla has an identity crises in terms of her gender and gender imposed roles which she struggles to deal with. It is when Sybylla moves to stay with her grandmother where she has the freedom to explore music which helps develop a better self-esteem and where she develops higher self-confidence.
Faith and God played a key role in the works and uprising of women. The last work of Franklin’s My Brilliant Career is “Amen”. This can also be considered as misguided Christians who misunderstood the text and have since grown to oppress women for their own selfish benefit. In Celie’s story too, one read: “She ugly. He say. But she ain’t no stranger to hard work. And she clean. And God done fix her.” The turning point comes when of the characters challenge established norms and patriarchal religious teachings for women as being submissive.
Celie loses her faith when she learns that Albert had hidden Nettie’s letters for which she accuses God for being asleep. She grows up, there are stark difference between her thoughts and her own view of God against the teachings of the Bible. This is when she adopts a ‘new God’ from which she gains strength and hopes to stand up for herself. Celie eventually turns to the African religion after she and Samuel realise the compromising nature of the efforts of Chrirans missionaries in their efforts of converting Africans9. In this ideology, the women are oppressed and made to follow the men in their lives. Hence, eventually, being faithful to such a God would being silent in times of injustice inflicted by the men in one’s life.
From the very beginning of each novel, it is made clear who the silencers f women voices are. It is men. Be it the father, or other men in society but it is men who make rules for women to follow and defying these rules had heavy consequences. When Celie is told not to ‘tell anybody but God’ she is being silenced about the abuse she is exposed to by her stepfather. Moreover, the patriarchal religious teaching is what holds Celie back from taking a stand in front of her abuser and wrong-doers.
The modern sense of self is strongly identified even in marginalized communities Modern Arab women are gradually growing to identify their own voices, such as Abu Khalid as a contemporary Arab woman poet developing their own poetic style and tradition in the modern world.
In The Color Purple, Sofia shows strength even while facing both racial and female oppression. Sophia beats up the mayor in self-defence, she also beats Harpo and stands up for herself when Harpo attempts to beat her because he thinks she is not being a good girl and is not being obedient 11. Even in the works of Emily Dickenson, it is only when she challenges the Puritan way of life and though and her questioning of the Church does she begin to write. Silence is broken when women writers and women who aim o establish a creative niche challenge the established order and the deepest and most rooted order being that of religion.
In an earlier poem by Emily Dickenson writes: But – if I stained my Apron – / God would certainly scold”12which essentially indicates that cultural teachings and religious voices told young women not to gather their own fruits, or roll over their skirts to reach high trees in order to achieve what they desired. The key flaw and the most limiting obstacles in the away of limiting women’s creativity religious and cultural teachings which silence not only the voices of women but stop them from obtaining their wishes and desires in fear of being sinful.
It is no wonder, then, that Dickenson would describe herself as being wicked – because she went against the teachings of the Bible and that of the society and followed her own curiosity and desires. For decades, women have been supressed by men, in all domains of life and this reflects even in literature or other creative purists. Be it the absence of female writers of female figures in creative spaces, or the representation of female characters in society, women have always been painted as subordinates of men, as one’s who are looking to be saved by men. This is again seen in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where Mrs.Bennet is constantly on the lookout for a ‘suitable’ man for her daughters. In fact, the opening line of the novel itself: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."13clearly indicates this fact.
Women writers and women in the creative filed have not coming into being by being encouraged and motivated by men and society at large but they have rather had to fight for basic human rights and recognition. Equal rights are yet too be granted even in the 21st century, however, there are men and women, as Delmer quotes Simon in Afrrev Ijah’s journal that: “those women or even men who fight to change the position of women, in liaison with and yet outside the class struggle, without totally sub-ordinating that change to a change in society”14
Women authors have grown to be vocal over the years, especially on the theme f silence as it has affected not just women authors but women in society at large. Women in the artistic and creative world have been silenced as much as women in the real world have. The comparison and analysis in this essay concludes that the religion and faith has had a deep role to play in the continued silence of women and how the change of belief and the defiance of the established order is what has produced the finest of women writers that the world experiences today.
The novels and works cited in this essay demonstrate the core teachings taught to young women on being silent and how women turn to writing to vent out, to be unusually vocal on the theme of silence . Multiple issues come into play when it comes to the silence of women, one such issues is the role of being a woman of color which further adds a factor of racism in the world which affects a woman’s self-worth and self-identity. Women like Walker, Abu Khalid, Dickenson, Franklin, and many others continue to be the voice of marginalized and oppressed women and continue to give a voice to the silenced and voiceless.
Afrrev Ijah. ” Responding to the Challenge: Feminist Consciousness in Breaking the Silence: An Anthology of Short Stories”, An International Journal of Arts and Humanities 1, no.4 (2012): 46-56.
Brittany Pereira. “The Strength of the Black Woman Revealed in The Color Purple”, Accessed 15 June, 2020, https://prezi.com/togld8-prujd/the-strength-of-the-black-woman-revealed-in-the-color-purple/
Codruţa Mirela Stănişoară. “Alice Walker’s Colors of Identity,” Journal of Literature and Art Studies 6, no. 9 (September 2016): 989-995. Crossref-it-info, “God, religion and spirituality”, Accessed 15 June, 2020, https://crossref-it.info/textguide/the-color-purple/42/3294
Geoff Nunberg. “The Enduring Legacy Of Jane Austen's 'Truth Universally Acknowledged', Accessed 15 June, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2017/07/25/538609475/the-enduring-legacy-of-jane-austens-truth-universally-acknowledged#:~:text=%22It%20is%20a%20truth%20universally,in%20want%20of%20a%20wife.%22
King-Kok Cheung. “"Don't Tell": Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior”, PMLA 103, no. 2 (1988): 162.
Marcia Kutrieh. “The Speaker/Self in Fawziyya Abu Khalid’s Poetry”, Damascus University Journal 2, no. (٣+٤),٢٠٠٤
Martin Greenup. “The Glimmering Frontier: Emily Dickinson and Publication”, The Cambridge Quarterly 33, no.4 (2004): 345-362
Sau-ling Cynthia Wong. “Filiality and Woman’s Autobiographical Storytelling”, in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, ed. Sidonie Smith.
Wendy Barker, “Emily Dickinson and poetic strategy”, Western Sydney University Library, Accessed on 15 June, 2020, https://www.cambridge.org/core
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