The role of women
has nearly always been, until recent times, one of oppression
. They have been relegated to the home, assumed as inferior
, patronized and infantilized by men, and unfairly treated as a different 'category' of human being
. Throughout the majority of developed human societies, this record of patriarchy
has remained consistent. Both the novel The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
and The Color Purple
by Alice Walker
address women characters who live in times before the resurgence of woman empowerment
. They must struggle not only with their own personal obstacle
s, but with the expectations and requirements of an unjust, and sometimes dangerous culture surrounding them. Hester Prynne
both have a personal sadness imposed on them by society and the people around them, Celie overcomes and triumphs against those who wish to keep her subservient with Shug
's aid, while Hester outwardly submits and is unable to escape, eventually complying fully to the Puritan
Hester Prynne's isolation and sadness stem from her guilt of sin in society's eyes. No one wishes to associate with a sinner, "Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend on earth who dared show himself" (Hawthorne 57). The overriding Puritan doctrine dictates that Hester must be exorcised from the community to maintain religious purity of their 'heavenly kingdom' on earth. Her fallen status causes the society she inhabits to impose its wishes on her and build a wall separating her from the normal community. "In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it" (Hawthorne 59). She is made a spectacle. The scarlet letter she is forced to wear to identify herself becomes a token of the exile society throws her into, "When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter, -- and none ever failed to do so, --they branded it afresh into Hester's soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand" (Hawthorne 60). The scarlet letter is the method in which society makes its will known. It constantly grates at Hester's spirit and exposes her to harassment and ridicule. Beyond even this, her fall from grace is considered a natural tendency for a woman, "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statue-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray" (Hawthorne 38). The onlooker to Hester's punishment voices the sentiment that without careful guidance and the threat of brutal punishment, women will not be able to control themselves and sin by nature. Someone beside her in fact voices the sentiment behind her statement, objecting, "Is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows?" (Hawthorne 38). Society expects Hester to become a sinful woman from her submission to adultery, and punishes her brutally. The scarlet letter she wears as her punishment becomes a personal burden that she must carry according to society's wishes, the mark of her isolation and sadness.
Celie also feels this loneliness and isolation, which comes not as a result of any sin or fall, but because of her own tendency to submit to others' will and refuse to defend herself. Sofia remarks about her, "to tell the truth, you remind me of my mama. She under my daddy thumb. Naw, she under my daddy foot. Anything he say, goes. She never say nothing back. She never stand up for herself" (Walker 43). Celie is like Sofia's mother in that she will not defend herself against Mr. ___________ and takes the role she's expected of in society. When Mr.__________ thinks she deserves punishment, he does not refrain from hurting Celie, "Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr._________ say, Cause she my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for—he don't finish" (Walker 23). By society's standards, it is acceptable to beat one's wife. The exercise of violence is even expected of a husband as the proper treatment of a women. Celie does not resist this horrible treatment at the beginning of the novel, "He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don't never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man" (Walker 23). Celie's husband treats her like she's just another child who he can abuse and dictate his will to. He thrusts her into fear and uncertainty. His treatment forces her to harden herself, to become unfeeling. The isolation and sadness of being always required to bury her feelings and be submissive is generated by society's expectations of a woman as characterized by Mr.__________.
Hester outwardly accepts the role society has given her, and though inwardly possesses the same resistance to this role as Celie, she never brings it to the open and passes the rest of her days doing what is expected of her. She becomes the very model of a submissive, Puritan woman, "Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change. It might be partly owing to the studied austerity of her dress, and partly to the lack of demonstration in her manners. It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut of, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine" (Hawthorne 112). She undergoes a transformation from a beautiful young woman to an austere, Puritan example of restraint and self-punishment by wearing course dress and binding up her hair beneath a cap. Devoting herself to service, she puts others' needs always before her own. "It was perceived, too, that, while Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world's privileges, -- farther than to breathe the common air, and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labor of her hands,-- she was quick to acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man, whenever benefits where to be conferred. None so read as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty; even though the bitter-hearted pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly to his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could have embroidered a monarch's robe" (Hawthorne 110). Her devotion to charity and submission to her punishment indicate to the community that she is willing to accept the oppressive environment they construct around her. She does exactly as she is told. Only Hester knows that beneath the facade of Puritan penance she is still a resistant, unreformed woman, "Standing alone in the world, --alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected, --alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable, --she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind" (Hawthorne 112). Her disconnection from the rules of the world only exists in her mind, but it is a natural part of her character. She must suppress it and endure the torments of the letter and burden of her charity. She conforms to Puritan society's expectations, gaining herself only sadness and isolation in the process.
Celie, in contrast to Hester, is blessed with the gift of Shug's love, which allows her to overcome the expectations of her husband and the people around her. Shug tells her that she shouldn't allow herself to be beaten. This begins a process of inner empowerment. Later, when they first discover that Mr.________ has been holding back Nettie's letters, Celie for the first time acknowledges her rage, "Naw, I think I feel better if I kill him, I say. I feels skickish. Numb, now" (Walker 151). Her desire to murder her husband out of anger at him is a reflection of her gradual self-awakening. For the first time, she wants to resist him and assert herself for the injury he has done her. At the dinner-table later, she directly addresses him and calls him to task, "You a lowdown dog is what's wrong, I say. It's time to leave you and enter Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need" (Walker 207). In this triumphant moment, she expresses all of the repressed hatred she has towards Mr.________ and overcomes the expectations of her as a woman, seeking for justice instead of acceptance. The men are flabbergasted by this blatant violation of social norms. "Well, say Grady, trying to bring light. A woman can't git a man if peoples talk. Shug look at me and us giggle. Then us laugh sure enough. Then Squeak start to laugh. Then Sofia. All us laugh and laugh" (Walker 208). All of the women know that this conception of them is wrong and misogynistic. Celie's resistance to Mr.________ empowers them all to laugh in the face of their oppression.
Although Celie and Hester share similarities in the personal sadness they are forced to carry under the dictation of society and those around them, Celie is able to beat her sadness with Shug, while Hester remains trapped under its oppression despite her inward resistance. The disparity between the two novels' approaches to the women's transformation is a reflection of their themes. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a story which many interpret to espouse an orthodox Puritan doctrine of permanent fall. It does not espouse a renewal and rebellion of Hester against society. Such a sentiment would not have been acceptable at the time Hawthorne wrote his novel, when patriarichal attitudes towards women were still held by most men in society. The Color Purple, in contrast, was written as a post-feminist novel of female empowerment and triumph. Its progression shows Celie evolving from a subservient, conventual woman to a powerful, equal woman. All of the main characters of the book are affected by this journey in one way or another, and all of then fight against it. The different intentions of the two books' authors is what allows the outcomes of Hester Prynne and Celie to be so widely separated.
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