The Beauty of Strong Female Relationships in Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’

Celie narrates her life through letters to God, where she lays out her journey from her traumas to when she finds a sense of empowerment. As a young girl she is abused and raped by her father, and after giving birth twice her father takes away both babies and lets her believe they’ve been killed. She also loses her mother and when the widower, Albert, comes over to their house wanting to marry her younger sister Nettie, her father refuses and offers the “ugly” and uneducated Celie instead.

It is an abusive and unhappy marriage, where she spends all her time looking after Albert and his litter of children. Nettie stays with them for a little while but Albert’s interest in her causes her to flee, for so long that at some point Celie believes she’s dead.

Celie forms a bond with the woman her husband is in love with – Shug. There is also her step-son’s wife Sofia. As the story progresses, we see how the passive Celie learns how to assert herself and change the tone of her personal story. The friendship she has with these women become a good place of refuge, she finds ears that listen, voices that encourage and their presence and the bonds they share play a role in her growth and confidence.

The Color Purple is a significant and vital book which explores themes which have been and are still necessary to be heard. There is the strength of self-expression, language and how one can assert themselves, eventually freeing themselves through finding and using their voice. Race and oppression are also big themes of the story, as well as abuse and the distorted beliefs about relationships between men and women.

The form of letters to tell the story, along with the rural English Celie uses, help create a genuine narrator, one we can feel for and journey with. It’s an impressive book, keeps you turning its pages and has such a strong and powerful message to share.

The book was adapted into a film in 1985, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, Danny Glover, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, and other incredible actors.

Living with a sense of alienation and self-destruction in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

College student Esther Greenwood receives a scholarship to go work for a magazine in New York for a month. She and eleven other girls live in a women’s hotel and although the sponsor wines and dines the girls, as well as shower them with gifts, for Esther, it’s all unsatisfying. She battles with self-identity, melancholy, and views of femininity.

After the end of the programme she spends the rest of the summer with her mother.

From then on she becomes more unstable than ever and thoughts of suicide increasingly gnaw at her brain. After an overdose of pills, she awakes at a hospital and eventually ends up at a private psychiatry hospital. Through different kinds of therapy methods she improves and in the end, is due to start her winter semester at college.

The struggle with mental illness is deeply explored in the story through the journey it takes us from Esther’s battle, breakdown, and recovery. There’s something biographical about it too, as Sylvia Plath committed suicide not too long after the publication of The Bell Jar. The novel parallels her personal experiences.  

Sylvia Plath – Britannica

The novel also makes a critical observation of the expectations imposed on women in the 1950s in America. The roles laid out for women were so restricted and we see this in Esther’s anxiety, unhappiness, and lack of fulfilment.

The Bell Jar also brings to the surface, the difficulty in understanding oneself, and the occasional inability to recognise oneself. The disparity between how one presents themselves to the world and their inward experiences can cause great challenges in how one builds self-identity and result in a disjointed sense of self.

This is Plath’s only novel and it is a strong and honest one. Although the main character is female and the themes in it deeply explore issues concerning women at the time, it can be read and applied to anyone, as all kinds of people can see themselves in the issues that it scrutinizes.  

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

“This is the story of a real woman.

– Nawal el Saadawi

They are coming to take her away in the evening and by morning she’ll be dead. Firdaus tells the psychologist as they sit on the cold floor in her cell, without a shred of fear in her. The story she’s about to tell her holds in it all the bricks that have paved the way to this point, where she has fully accepted her death penalty – point zero.

She is from a peasant family, with neglect and cruelty running through its veins. When her mother dies her uncle takes her to Cairo where she goes to school. Eventually, she completes her secondary school, and when his wife decides she’s now a burden they find a way to rid of her.

The years become a series of people disguising exploitation, cruelty, and abuse with temporary kindness and salvation. A coffee shop owner who takes her in but ends up locking her in his flat every day, returning to force himself on her, as well as inviting friends to do the same.

A female procurer who introduces her to the idea of being harder than life, seeing herself and knowing her value. She takes her in and pimps her out to one man after another while making money off her.

A police officer who gives her an ultimatum – to have her arrested or work out an “agreement” with her.

A man who sleeps with her and pays her money she’s never in her life held in her hand. A moment that opens her eyes to the realisation that she can choose whom to sleep with and to choose her price. Until the words of another man make her quit prostitution to seek a life where she can be an honourable woman, with an honourable job.

A man who teaches her that love can humiliate her more than prostitution could. She learns that in love she had let her guard down, given without a cost, while in prostitution she could give and name a price, get something in return.

Quote form Woman at Point Zero

A realisation that every woman is a prostitute and that she’d rather be one who names her prices, one with more freedom than the employee who prostitutes herself for praise, a raise or the delusion of respect, or the wife who is under the harshest system of men’s cruelty and deception.

Her return to prostitution becomes the last chapter before her imprisonment, where she learns that she was not as free as she had imagined she’d be when a pimp with strong connections comes into her life. She takes drastic action, an action that exposes all the men’s ugly reality. And so they cannot let her live.

In this haunting novel, Nawal el Saadawi writes without restraint. Woman at Point Zero is a story about the depth of inequality and injustice that girls and women are marked with upon birth.

We see this throughout the character’s life. When a daughter died in the family, her father would carry on with his life, eat and go to bed as usual. If a son died, he’d beat up his wife. When Firdaus finishes secondary school and despite the fact that she’s done exceptionally well, second in the school and seventh countrywide, her fate is still in the hands of others – the old abusive man she’s married off to, the men who use her body, insult and beat her up, the men who make decisions all her life.

It’s a bold novel, a story that exposes the roots that many societies proudly sit on. The brutal treatment of women echoes loudly from these pages. This short and poetically written novel is timeless, it’s a story that cannot be contained within the borders of Egyptian society but rather has its claws all over the world, in all kinds of societies, religions, communities, traditions, households, and individual women’s lives.

Firdaus is everywhere.