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Jim Beggs

ENGL 766 - Dr. Jim Cahalan
Final paper

Perceptions of Power: Discipline and Punishment in Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices and
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

Kate O’Brien’s bildungsroman The Land of Spicesdeals with the topic of homosexuality

only briefly in the narrative. In an elliptical passage, a young Helen Archer caught Etienne and

her father “in the embrace of love” (165). The reference to homosexual intercourse led the

Censorship of Publications Board to ban the novel. While the Censorship of Publications Act of

1929 makes no clear reference to the Catholic Church’s influence on the censorship of books, the

concepts for the language of the act came from the church. Also, the specific reference to the

banning of references to “unnatural prevention of conception” betrays the Catholic Church’s

influence on the legislation. The novel itself demonstrates the influence the Church had on

people primarily through education. The process through which the laws on homosexuality, such

as the Censorship of Publications Act were enforced were more complex than the legislature

passing a law and someone burning the books. The Land of Spices did not directly deal with

these levels of discipline and punishment at any rate. The novel offered the opportunity to

examine how individual people exercised power and produced a certain reality. In addition to

the punishment of homosexuals, the novel dealt with how Ireland disciplined women’s bodies.

Later in her life Mère Marie-Hélène, Helen Archer, would change her view of how she punished

her father for his sin against his family.

The formation and activities of the Censorship and Publications Board had an interesting

history. A brief discussion will help direct this article away from being a mere piece of boiler

plate bashing Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church--however much they had merited a

bashing. The Minister of Justice of Ireland in 1925, Kevin O’Higgins believed the state did not

need a formal apparatus for monitoring publications and banning them if necessary. According

to the Irish National Archives, however, O’Higgins faced a wave of pressure from the “public”
that disagreed that Irish censorship laws were inadequate to stamp out obscenity and moral

corruption. O’Higgins appointed the Committee on Evil Literature composed of three lay people

and two clergy (one from the Catholic Church and one from the Church of Ireland) to collect

evidence and make a recommendation. The Committee concluded that laws were inadequate to

protect Ireland from moral corruption, and the Ministry of Justice appointed the Committee on

Censorship of Publications (Quinlan). Many religious and social organizations presented

evidence to the Committee on Evil Literature, but the fact that the general public pushed for a

formal censorship mechanism was a notable one. The push most likely came in support of the

formation of an “Irishness,” and to prove that the Irish state had the power to regulate its own

affairs. The enforcement of the bans required the participation of the public as relays of the

state’s power.

A different kind of discipline and punishment took place in Alice Walker’s The Color

Purple. In the 1930s, African American men and women faced discipline from the state and

whites in order to maintain their political disenfranchisement under Jim Crow. Walker’s novel

especially focused on the discipline of women and their bodies usually in violent ways. The

violence on the body violated Foucault’s finding that a great shift had taken place in criminal

justice after the eighteenth century, from inflicting punishment on the body to reforming the soul.

Why does Walker’s narrative contradict Foucault’s findings? The answer lied in race and the

lower socio-economic status closely linked to it. With increasing political enfranchisement,

white women such as Helen Archer had the legal means to redress their grievances. Political

empowerment laid farther on the horizon for African Americans and Africans.

The horde of heartless nuns were absent from O’Brien’s novel. The abusive nuns were

there, but Mère Marie-Hélène through the course of the novel more clearly realized the links

between politics and religion and how the notions of discipline and punishment from both
harmed the relationships within her life. Michel Foucault advocated minimizing negative

language about the repressive effects of power. Rather than strictly repressing people, the

decision makers created a system of norms and coercion that produced a certain kind of reality.

The reality that Anna and Helen lived in included the politically powerless bodies of women. A

number of factors played into Helen’s decision to enter the religious life. She never expressed

sexual interest in any men, so that limited her professional options. Even if she attempted to

have a career of her own, she would be expected to marry. The religious life allowed her to

pursue her religious vocation, which she seemed earnest about for the most part, and educate and

mentor younger girls without having the peer pressure to marry. Her experiences of both the

religious and personal life would change in the course of the novel, however.

Early in the novel, Helen, as the superior of the order’s convent in Ireland, wrote to her

superior in order to be relieved of her duties and be assigned somewhere else. She blamed

herself for her inability to understand Ireland and her own weaknesses of character. Specifically,

she cited the irresistible rising tide of nationalistic ideas that are “narrow” and “textbook in

nature” (302). O’Brien illustrated how the nationalism affected how people regarded Helen, the

English head of a French convent in Ireland. The parents of the children who the order educated,

some of the nuns themselves such as Mother Mary Andrew, and even the otherwise kind priest

Father Conroy regarded Helen with a high degree of suspicion. Father Conroy’s discussion with

Helen was an attempt to influence the Order’s pedagogy. He wanted a shift from training girls to

be “suitable wives for English Majors and Colonial Governors” (97). Both Father Conroy and

Helen acknowledged that the Order exerted significant influence on the girls it educated by the

time they left its shelter for the world. Father Conroy saw the opportunity to produce women

who would be the wives of Irishmen and “meet the changing times.”
I expected to find the most horrific part of the novel in the “Marks” chapter where each

girl stood before the entire school and had her performance for the past week publicly evaluated.

Foucault devoted a significant amount of time to discussing the role of the examination in

establishing a “norm” and producing “docile bodies.” He listed the five functions it provided:

relation of the individual to the whole, differentiates between individuals, measures

quantitatively the nature of individuals, introduction of the constraint of conformity, and creating

the limits of the abnormal (182-83). The regimentation of the daily schedule, examinations, and

devices such as the paperweight established a system that maximized the application of

individual bodies at school work. The entire process was appropriate and is still used today.

Unless students are extremely lucky or wealthy, the workplace will reproduce the same

strictures, and the education merely served as due preparation for entering the home or the

workplace. The public examination of the “marks” had the ability to shame, yet no one could

recall life changing consequences such as expulsion: “no one ever remembered it to have

happened” (76). A little later, Helen shockingly admitted “ that in her nine years as a teaching

nun, in Vienna, Turin, and Cracow, she had never deducted a solitary mark from the maximum of

any pupil” (80). Her reluctance to use punishment at a crucial moment threatened the system of

power, but she considered the marks more of a measure of the other nuns, who usually deducted

the marks. Her forbearance troubled her somewhat.

The need for discipline and punishment and Helen’s own distaste for it due to her

relationship with her father caused the internal conflict. Helen’s religious education taught her

that homosexuality was a sin, and that moreover, since he had had sex outside of marriage, he

had committed adultery. O’Brien wanted the reasons for Helen’s entry into the religious life to

remain a mystery, so she never adequately explained the reasons, until the passage that earned

the book a ban. In the “Vocation” chapter, O’Brien wrote that Helen admitted the reason “to no
other human being” and described the incident that produced the decision as a shock in a neat

piece of free indirect discourse (19). Ideally, a punishment should clearly link to the crime to

ensure that the offending parties realize they must amend their conduct and that others learn from

the mistake. If Helen believed that her father’s sexual act destroyed the familial bonds, she

destroyed her bond with her father by turning her back on her life and her relationship with him.

She entered the convent. On the interpersonal level, Helen’s punishment for her father failed, as

he remained totally unaware of the injury he had inflicted on her. On the larger level it

succeeded in reinforcing the norm of sexuality within heterosexual marriage.

Helen spoke of the pure hate she felt for her father for years. By the time her father was

old and dying, however, she came to realize that punishment for her father was a bad reason to

enter the religious life. She reaped rewards from the decision, but she experienced some

cognitive dissonance between the hatred she felt for her father and the love and respect that her

religion commanded her to have for her father. Instead, it was her father who forgave her. In the

novel, the personal, the political, and the religious were entangled in postcolonial Ireland. The

cause at the time was to produce an independent Ireland and religion and education provided the

means to that end. As an accomplished writer, O’Brien would have been well aware that

homosexuality was a taboo topic in Ireland. The fact that the book became banned only

underscored how Irish and Catholic culture coerced people into the heterosexual norm through

discipline and punishment.

Overall, the thematic of the novel was primarily ambivalent in its judgments towards the

institutions of the novel. Only in its feminism does the novel truly seem progressive in the face

of the perhaps somewhat conservative established social order of Ireland. Mère Marie-Hélène

herself described the Bishop as progressive in an early passage in relation to his attitude toward

the order’s pedagogy. Progressive, in this sense, meant getting the school behind the cause of
Irish nationalism, a cause that the Reverend Mother did not understand and privately expressed

some contempt for. The Bishop seemed to have the similar chauvinistic attitude toward women

as Father Conroy: “He believed in education--up to a point, or when they seemed worth it--of

women. He said that, when they had brains, which was seldom, these tended to be fresher and

more independent than the brains of men” (265). In a truly revolutionary move, Mère Marie-

Hélène cites the Bishop as the winning salvo in her war with Anna’s grandmother over Anna’s

scholarship to the University College. She perhaps slightly misrepresented the Bishop’s opinion

when she agrees that the Bishop “expects” Anna to take the scholarship because she has “won”

it, in the sense that she earned it (276). Mrs. Condon, Anna’s grandmother, acknowledged that

she failed to keep up with current trends. O’Brien showed that there were people more

conservative than even the Bishop, who as a church official and man would have been more

educated than Mrs. Condon. Until she encountered a more progressive opinion from a respected

church authority, she did not consider changing her point of view on the education of women in

Ireland. Education and worldliness figured as remedies for the myopic nationalism of Irish

characters in the novel.

I disagree on a minor point with Clare Wallace, that “the characters who espouse Irish

nationalism in the novel, namely the Bishop and Father Conroy, are portrayed without

sympathy” (22). The Bishop’s support for Anna showed his somewhat progressive nature. Mère

Marie-Hélène quickly repented of her harsh attitude toward Father Conroy after he gracefully

handled Anna’s question of what adultery was. The moment was crucial, because he could have

permanently traumatized the girl and totally distorted her view of sexuality. His response was

conventionally Catholic, but it was preferable to the infamous retreat sermon in James Joyce’s A

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Mère Marie-Hélène was a worldly women, so to speak, having been born in England,

raised for a time in Belgium, and then living and working in Italy, Austria, France, and Poland in

the pursuit of her religious vocation. Wallace attributed the ambivalence of the text to Mère

Marie-Hélène’s development of an “ethos of ‘detachment of spirit’” (18). Although a common

concept among contemplatives, Wallace described it in secular terms, that of seeing oneself from

the outside. As the Bishop mentioned, the Saint Famille was not a contemplative order, but the

Reverend Mother surely would have encountered the concept at some point in her religious life,

if not her earlier education. Certainly she benefited from the religious life and enjoyed it despite

its troubles. O’Brien would later pen a biography of the mystic St. Teresa of Avila, published in

1951. Instead, the text’s ambivalence arose from the Reverend Mother’s own realization that she

had judged her father too harshly and estranged herself from him. Also, she realized her own

complicity in the programs of the Catholic Church to censure homosexual activity and the

subordination of women to men. She had lived her life convinced of the rightness of her hatred

for her father, but a number of changes in her circumstances caused her point of view to change.

Mère Marie-Hélène’s relationship with the young Anna Murphy probably produced the

biggest change on her in the novel. She noted similarities between herself and Anna, calling her

a “mirror” of herself. They were both intellectually gifted, but had troubled home lives. Anna’s

parents were poor, her father the stereotypical Irish alcoholic, and so her grandmother financially

supported her and the rest of her family. Helen lost her mother when she was young and had her

world turned upside down when she discovered her father’s homosexuality. Breen pointed out

that O’Brien used the language of psychological trauma to describe Helen’s mental state in the

days after the discovery. Rather than stand up to her father and confront him, or stand up to the

Church’s teaching on his sexuality, she submitted to the neat morality the Church packaged for

her and cut herself off from her father. Anna demonstrated a similar passiveness in her
confrontation with Mother Mary Andrew over the examination which was to win her Emulation,

as Wallace pointed out. Helen exorcised her own timidity into something productive after her

encounter with Anna’s grandmother. Allowing Anna to witness the confrontation might have

affected her own passiveness as well. In Anna, Helen sees the potential that she turned her back

on because of her own acceptance of the Church’s attitude toward her father. Her acceptance of

the life within the convent was also mostly ill-suited for her talents and demeanor, but it served

the purposes she desired at the point in her life when she made the decision to enter the convent.

Helen ultimately came to regard the religious vocation as a “strange thing” (258). The

title of the novel alludes to the George Herbert poem “Prayer.” For him, prayer is the “land of

spices, something understood.” Her entry into the land of spices only really occurs near the end

of the novel when she reconciled with her father and experiences a real spiritual awakening

through mostly secular means. When Anna expressed distress over dealing with the grief from

the death of her brother Charlie, rather than say a prayer, the Reverend Mother advised Anna to

recite the poem she had memorized and recited for the Reverend Mother when she was younger.

The moment and advice was significant since Helen’s father Henry was a man of letters who had

worked in the field of literature and had schooled Helen in it. She had fled from that life in an

attempt to punish her father, but she saw the value in it after her father’s death. While Helen was

not at the side of her father’s death bed, their low-key reconciliation occurred, perhaps

posthumously. The lack of the key emotional moment that readers expected led to the criticisms

of the novel as emotionally distant.

The kinds of coercion demonstrated in the exercises of power in The Land of Spices

contrast sharply with the deployment of power in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. While the

efforts to establish and maintain a norm of heterosexuality and Irish identity caused negative

effects, no one stood in mortal danger due to the punishments meted out to them. The great shift
in punishment came about at the end of the eighteenth century, when the focus of legal

discourses moved from men’s bodies to their souls. Despite the shift in criminal justices

discourses toward affecting men’s souls, the body remained the site of trauma and punishment in

The Color Purple. The main factors to account for the differences between the two novels were

the socio-economic statuses of the main characters. The Land of Spicestook place up until 1916,

and the campaigns of the suffrage movements within the novel attested to the fact that women

were not fully enfranchised voters until 1928. Nevertheless, Helen Archer enjoyed a substantial

education and managed to enter a profession that provided for the basic needs of her survival

without the support of a husband. Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s novel attended school

until she was forced to leave when she became impregnated after her step-father raped her.

The rape served as a kind of discipline to prepare Celie for her life serving the needs of

her husband. Her stepfather said: “You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t” before he raped

her. When she cried, he “start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it” (1). The

first of many beatings that Celie mentioned came in the first few pages of the novel, establishing

the pattern of punishment that would continue for the majority of the rest of her life. Cheung

saw the shutting up of Celie as imparting a disability of speech, while the narrative transformed

that disability into a “felicity” (162). The possibility of rape became linked for Celie with other

“wifely duties,” so that she becomes sick whenever she cooks. Her stepfather firmly established

the system of gender difference where men perform certain tasks and women usually fulfilled

domestic tasks. Unlike Helen Archer, who could exercise some control over her destiny and

actually used her choices to punish her father, Celie was more clearly marked as property traded

from her stepfather to Mr. ______ alongside a cow. Frederick Douglass wrote about the

degradation of men and women being traded alongside livestock and Walker clearly invoked the

feeling at that moment.
Celie’s life did not turn around until near the end of the novel, when she experienced the

same kind of self-empowerment and the ability to earn her own living that Helen enjoyed. Her

transformation began when she finally left Mr. _____ and then finally found her vocation in

sewing pants for other people, who enjoyed them enough to evidently pay her for them. Only

through greater independence in her choices in life and her economic prosperity in particular,

could she live her life in a way that she found personally fulfilling. In a letter to her sister Nettie

she wrote: “I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends, and time” (218). The

extreme methods of discipline that Celie overcame in order to assert her own African American

identity made her independence a noteworthy achievement.

How then can readers reconcile modern punishment, which has displaced the older model

that directly altered or destroyed the body, with Alice Walker’s narrative? Why are African

American bodies rather than souls the sites for discipline and punishment rather than their souls?

The answer appeared to lie in the issue of race. The purpose of punishment within The Land of

Spicesaligned neatly with Foucault’s guide that modern punishment directs itself to the subject’s

soul. The purpose of Helen’s decision to enter the convent was to reform her father. She hoped

that he would acknowledge his faults, how he hurt himself and the rest his family and amend his

ways. The discipline of the girls in the school was to “educate our children in the Christian

virtues and graces,” according to Mère Marie-Hélène (97). The history of whites in America

disciplining and punishing slaves certainly played into the punishment of the African American

body in The Color Purple. Alice Walker offered another and perhaps more controversial source

for the discipline of the African American woman’s body.

Nettie, Celie’s sister, took care of Celie’s son Adam while working as a missionary in

Africa. Adam developed a romantic interest in a Tashi, a girl from the Olinka tribe that Nettie

works with. In order to become a woman, Tashi must receive the customary marks on the face
that all women in the Olinka tribe received and also to undergo the female rite of initiation--

female circumcision. The practice has been relatively common in some areas of Africa, the

Middle East, and Asia, but has not been practiced as widely among Anglos. In the novel, the

facial marks and the lack of the practices among Anglos played an integral role in the formation

of an African subjectivity, especially on the terms of opposition to Anglo norms. The facial

marks serve as a visible sign of difference and also a marker of the more private body

modification. In another work Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual

Blinding of Women, Alice Walker more clearly attacked the practice as an attempt to discipline

women’s bodies and affect their sexuality. Celie failed to have an orgasm, despite the times she

engaged in sexual intercourse with Mr. _____, until her sexual encounters with Shug. Celie’s

body became marked from having children, but she did not have her genitals cut like Tashi. But

her experiences with intercourse in her marriage are similar to the effects desired from

circumcision, according to Walker. The poorer and more disenfranchised the person within

Walker’s novel, the more their bodies became the direct target of discipline. The Olinka no

longer had any land to call their own or the plants they traditionally used to build their homes.

They had to buy sheet metal to construct their homes and work for the rubber company in order

to have land to live on.

For Celie, the soul was a private space of resistance against the discipline of men and

whites. As demonstrations of her faith, Celie addressed most of her letters to God and after a

brief crisis of faith, ended each letter with “amen,” making each letter a prayer but also making

each letter a proper epistle. I used the word to specifically refer to the biblical texts. In her

preface, Alice Walker described The Color Purpleas a journey or transformation in personal

faith. Even though men could punish Celie’s body and take the Olinka’s land, they could not

affect an individual’s soul. Walker wrote: “no one is exempt from the possibility of a conscious
connection to All That Is. Not the poor. Not the suffering. Not the writer sitting in the open

field. Not the suffering.” Celie came closest to the experience that Walker described when she

smoked marijuana. While under its affects, Sofia heard a humming, and soon, everyone else in

the room heard it. They tried to find the source of the noise, but do not see anything.

I think I know what it is, I say.

They say, What?

I say, Everything.

Yeah, they say. That make a lots of sense. (224)

Hankinson has pointed out the importance of Celie’s spiritual transformation from monotheism

into a kind of pantheism to her personal growth (320). The passage referred to an altered state of

consciousness that produced non-traditional sources of knowledge--as opposed to analysis,

observation or experimentation. Drug laws and their related punishments disallow the

possibilities of alternative spiritual expression, such as the Rastafarian practice of smoking

marijuana. The institutionalization of the criminal justice system and the prevalence of

surveillance preclude such possibilities, hence Grady and Mary Agnes have to move to Costa

Rica in order to grow marijuana.

In an attempt to deal with discipline and punishment differently, Alice Walker and Kate

O’Brien imagined woman-centered spaces that are structured differently from patriarchal

societies and exercise power in a different way. Celie’s ability to forgive Mr. _____ for the years

of abuse pushed the boundaries of believability for readers. Despite the beatings, the verbal

abuse, and the worst injury to Celie personally, the withholding of Nettie’s letters for years, by

the end of the novel, she can stand beside him on the porch and share the special moment of the

return of her own long lost children and sister. Alice Walker and Kate O’Brien do not desire to

punish the men who have coerced women into submission, instead, they produce an alternative
space where women can labor and support one another and exercise power in alternate ways. In

The Land of Spices, the space was the convent school, where the women had the authority and

guided the girls on the path to maturity. The patriarchal figures of the priest and the bishop

existed, but the Saint Famille enjoyed a great deal of independence. Mère Marie-Hélène herself

was mentored by a woman in the process of her spiritual formation. Only a man could

administer the sacraments, but the most important life lessons were passed between women.

Helen helped Anna to deal with her grief over the death of her brother Charlie while Anna served

as a kind of daughter, giving Helen the experience of the parent-child relationship that had been

destroyed in her own life. The convent space was very much a separate space set apart from

patriarchal influences, the desire for which had its origins in early twentieth century feminist

discourses of “A Room of One’s Own.”

Alice Walker’s The Color Purpleimagined a space where men could be freed from their

need to dominate women. The Mr. _____ at the end of the novel has changed from the

compulsive heterosexual into a man with an interest in sewing (a traditionally feminine

occupation). For most of the male characters in the novel to improve, they experienced some

kind of feminization. Due to compulsive eating, Harpo’s stomach became swollen as if he were

pregnant, and later puts on a skirt He asked Celie to marry him again, but she declined so that

they could enjoy their relationship as friends and not have to fall into the exploitative pattern of

their marriage again. Celie provided employment, a key to her own happiness and success, for

Sofia. Shug returned at the end and all the other people important to Celie were nearer to her at

the end of the novel. Helen never really had a chance to properly reconcile with her father, while

Celie reunited with her family and friends. The most pleasurable intercourse Celie had in the

novel was with Shug, but a lesbian relationship between the two remained a distinct

impossibility due to the setting. Martha Cutter saw Celie’s ability to liberate herself from the
social and linguistic forces of domination, but few things happen perfectly (Cutter 161). The

power for that liberation came from the changes the women realized in the men, essentially

freeingg both genders from the constrictions of patriarchal hierarchies.

Kate O’Brien and Alice Walker showed how power has traditionally been exercised in

Irish and American societies and also entered into the feminist discourses of which course of

action would be best for the empowerment of women. They both believed economic

independence was crucial for a woman’s happiness and that men would benefit from learning

from women. Walker’s novel, however, points out how Foucault’s ideas might not be universal

and blind to race. Through the course of O’Brien’s novel, readers traced the developments of

Anna Murphy and Helen Archer. The methods of discipline and punishment in Kate O’Brien’s

The Land of Spices, within an educated white bourgeois context neatly aligned with Foucault’s

model for modern discipline. Alice Walker’s The Color Purpleshowed how discipline and

punishment was still very much concerned with the African American body, particularly within

the community itself. Even Sofia who spent time in prison and therefore might seem to fit the

Foucauldian model, has her punishment expiated through Mary Agnes’s body. Sofia’s

punishment transferred to her body.
Works Cited

Breen, Mary. “Something Understood?: Kate O’Brien and The Land of Spices.” Ordinary

People Dancing: Essays on Kate O’Brien. Ed. Eibhear Walshe. Cork: Cork UP, 1993

Cheung, King-Kok. “’Don’t Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman

Warrior.” PMLA 103.2 (1988): 162-74.

Cutter, Martha. “Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker’s Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in The

Color Purple.” MELUS 25.3 (2000): 161-80.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. 1977. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random,


Hankinson, Stacie Lynn. “From Monotheism to Pantheism: Liberation from Patriarchy in Alice

Walker’s The Color Purple.” Midwest Quarterly 38.3 (1997): 320-28.

O’Brien, Kate. The Land of Spices. 1941. London: Virago, 1988.

Quinlan, Tom. “Ferreting Out Evil: The Records of the Committee on Evil Literature.” Irish

Archives2.2 (1995). 19 April 2009.


Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. 1982. New York: Harcourt, 2003.

Wallace, Clare. “Judgement in Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices.” Back to the Present

Forward to the Past: Irish Writing and History Since 1798. Eds. Patricia A. Lynch,

Joachim Fischer, and Brian Coates. New York: Rodopi, 2006.