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Historical Context Paper

A Very Rough Draft

Since the beginning of the family structure, domestic violence has plagued

mankind, in different forms and with different reactions from communities over the

years. In her book The Color Purple, Alice Walker explores the effect that domestic

violence can have on a woman. Celie faces a double abuse issue: she’s sexually and

physically abused as a child by her father before he marries her off to Mr. _____, who

physically abuses her by beating her and emotionally abuses her by isolating her. Celie

eventually finds empowerment through her friend and lover Shug Avery, who provides

Celie with love and support, neither of which she’s ever consistently received. Regardless

of the happy ending for Celie, the traumas from her childhood and her marriage plague

her throughout the novel, in Walker’s insightful writings about abuse in the American

south in the early to mid twentieth century. Abuse, be it sexual, physical, or emotional,

from the hands of a parental figure or spouse, can leave a person with very poor self

esteem and feelings of worthlessness, and authorities in the South historically did very

little to help victims of domestic abuse. An understanding of the vulnerability of abused

women that resulted from their degraded self esteem illustrates how the sexual and

emotional abuse Celie suffered at the hands of her father exposed her to further abuse

from her husband and how, alone and devoid of confidence and love, Celie turned to self

assured Shug Avery for stability, affection, and passion.

Authorities in the South historically provided very little aid to victims of child

abuse, which can scar children for the rest of their lives, leaving them with poor self

esteem, various mental health conditions, and warped understandings of their value as a

person. In her book Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy against
Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present, Elizabeth Peck argues the South

was a hostile environment for victims of abuse to seek help and that, while there was

some help for physically abused wives, very little protection was available in the South

for young victim of sexual abuse committed by family members. Peck Adds that the

South was much more hostile towards helping abuse victims than the north. In the South,

appellate courts required corroboration to convict someone of incest, a complication not

required in the North. Peck continues that what little protection there was even faultier

for African Americans—it was biased, and many were too scared to ask for help (Peck).

The sexual abuse that the American South was so reluctant to protect its children from

can have devastating effects as a child. In their journal article “Physiological Effects of

Childhood Sexual Abuse,” M. Rus and A. B. Galbeaza: argue that 90% of people were

abused in their youth, that while they do not realize it because they always accepted it as

the norm, it can still have appalling psychological effects and have a negative impact on

their adult lives. Rus and Galbeaza go on to assert the terrible consequences of childhood

abuse—inability to learn or focus in school, increased likelihood of anxiety or depression,

distrust of men, and low self-esteem in sexual situations, which can include being

dissatisfied with sex. Women, they assert, can suffer from low self-value as a result of

their childhood sexual abuse (Rus).

An understanding of the devastating effects of parental abuse highlight the way

abuse perpetrated upon Celie by her father left Celie feeling powerless, changed her view

of men and women, imparted upon her a fear of man, and made her more susceptible to

spousal abuse. The first line of the novel sets a tone of fear as a result of abuse, in which

Pa threatens Celie that she “better not never tell nobody but God,” adding that “it’d kill
your mammy” (Walker, 1). This sort of threat only adds to a long list of reasons Celie

would be unlikely to seek help, in addition to the near refusal of southern officials to help

victims of incest. Add to that the bias against African Americans in the Southern justice

system, and it is very unlikely that Celie would have gone to the police (Peck).

Nevertheless, Pa frightens Celie into absolute silence and warns her she had “better shut

up and get used to it,” (Walker, 1) demonstrating his power and her lack thereof. Pa

further exerts his power over Celie by keeping her isolated; she does not know any other

men besides her Pa, and therefore accepts their incestuous relationship as normal. Several

years into her abuse, and after Celie has born two children, Pa abuses her physically,

claiming she flirted with a boy, though Celie claims she did not, adding she “don’t even

look at men,” but that she “look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them” (Walker,

5). This fear of men, as Rus and Galbeaza claim, is not uncommon among female victims

of childhood sexual assault, but it did affect Celie well into her marriage (Rus). As Mr.

____ tries to make up his mind about whether he wants to marry Celie at all, he asks her

father if “That cow still coming?” to which Pa replies “Her cow,” demonstrating his view

of Celie’s worthlessness and his approval that she begin her married life with no value in

her husbands eyes, because Mr. _____ sees him getting the cow as a dowry more

important than getting Celie as a wife (11). Pa’s abuse’s influence on Celie’s marriage is

again demonstrated by the lack of pleasure Celie takes in sex with her husband, which

she reveals to Shug as Shug tells Celie about the wonders of intimacy (77).

Spousal abuse can give women a feeling of intense loneliness, which in turn opens

them up to further abuse and also leaves women with a feeling of worthlessness and a

very low self esteem, which can leave them vulnerable to outside influences. In her
article "Alienation and Domestic Abuse: How Abused Women Cope with Loneliness,”

Ami Arocack stresses the prevalence of domestic violence in society and enumerates a

long list of negative consequences, including physical injury emotional harm, including

loneliness, which Arocack claims abused women deal differently with than women who

have never experienced domestic abuse. Loneliness, she explains, can mean being

physically separated from people by virtue of geographical distance, but more pertinent is

"the adverse and painful experience of not belonging, not feeling connected to others or

valued by them" (334) (Arokack) Loneliness is commonly not dealt with and can lead to

negative emotional effects, as well as spiritual and physical consequences. Discussing a

study of how abused women deal with loneliness, Arokach discusses six areas of interest

and they ways in which abused women most commonly deal with loneliness. Abused

women had higher scores on "Self development and understanding,” as well as

"Distancing and denial" and "Religion and faith" (334), scoring similarly to women who

have never suffered spousal abuse on scales of "Reflection and acceptance," in addition

to "Social support network" and "Increased activities subscales" (335)

In their article “Domestic Violence, Personal Control, and Gender,” Debra Umberson,

Kristin Anderson, Jennifer Glick, and Adam Sharpiro assert that people abuse because

they feel they have lost control over themselves and so want to control others, and the

loss of control victims experience can have devastating effects. Lenore Walker dubs this

loss of control part of “battered woman’s syndrome,” and goes on to describe “learned

helplessness,” a situation in which a victim cannot predict the consequences of their

actions, because it depends on their abuser (Umberson, 443). Building on Walker’s

conclusions about the loss of personal control, Umberson, Ande4rson, Glick, and
Sharpiro allege that other consequences of losing personal control include flashbacks

depression, suicide, substance abuse, and bad self-esteem. Studying the effects of

domestic abuse and focusing on loneliness, Ami Arockack adds anxiety, stress, social

withdrawal, and feelings of fear and helplessness in her list of mental effects of domestic

abuse in her article as she argues that physical effects are not the only consequences of

abuse (Arocack).

An understanding of the prevalence of loneliness in domestic abuse sheds light on

Mr. _____’s ability to further control Celie through her lack of protection from any

friends or family. Shortly after her marriage to Mr. ____, Celie describes her abuse in

front of the children and the way in which she closes herself off to pain, noting “I make

myself wood,” adding that “that’s how I know trees fear man” (22). A tree may be

surrounded by other trees in a forest, but they stand apart from each other, rarely

touching. Celie’s comparing herself to a tree demonstrate the isolation she feels. Celie is

lonlier still in her sex life with Mr. _____, which is very one sided. Explaining to Shug

when Shug tells Celie what sex is supposed to be, Celie agrees with Shug’s assessment

that Celie as as indifferent as if Mr. _____ were “going to the toilet on” (77) Celie. Mr.

_____’s desire to please himself and show Celie he does not care about her pleasure

demonstrate her aloneness in the marriage—her husband does not care about her, and her

children do nothing to help. Mr. _____ further isolates Celie by hiding Nettie’s letter,

which would have brought Celie great comfort throughout her difficult marriage. Mr.

_____’s concealment of the letters only heightens Celie’s loneliness—she has no one at

her home or outside to support her.

The vulnerability brought about by abuse highlights how Celie’s abuse and low self-

esteem led to her idolization of Shug and ultimately her turning to Shug for protection

and love. Celie’s initial reaction to seeing a picture of Shug Avery was self-critical; she

remarks that Shug is “bout ten thousand times prettier than me” (6) but she idolizes Shug

from that moment on, striving to act like her. Though she does not enjoy sex with her

husband, Celie remarks that she “I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and

maybe she like it” and that, knowing this, she “put my arm around him” (12). Celie

explains her idolization of Shug while trying to select fabric for a new dress, explaining

that she “think what color Shug Avery would wear” because Shug is “like a queen to me”

(20). By likening Shug to a queen, Celie envisions her not only as someone to emulate,

but as a confident, regal, majestic woman. Celie, with her own lack of confidence, is

drawn to Shug’s abundance of it. Imagining Shug, Celie reflects that she would “just be

thankful to lay eyes on her” (25). Celie wants to see Shug sing not to hear her voice or to

socialize, just purely to lay eyes on her idol, and when she finally meets her, sick and

emaciated as Shug is, Celie describes her excitement as thinking “my heart gon fly out of

my mouth” (53). Over time, Celie nurses Shug back to health and the two begin to grow

close to the point of Shug dedicating a song to Celie, which Celie, incredibly touched,

remarks is the “first time somebody made something and name it after me” (73). For the

first time, Celie feels valued, all thanks to Shug. But Shug provides more than self-value

for Celie: she provides protection from an abusive husband. When Shug is healthy and

about to leave Mr. _____’s house, Celie finally confides in Shug the abusive nature of her

marriage, to which Shug replies by promising not to leave until Mr. _____stops hitting

Celie. Shug also helps Celie value herself again. While Shug teaches Celie about
intimacy and the women’s body, Shug transforms Celie’s vision of herself from ugly to

pretty. Previously describing herself negatively, Celie begins to see parts of herself as a

“wet rose” (78), all thanks to Shug. When Shug, who Celie loves, comes home at

Christmas married she consoles Celie, telling her “if you was my wife, she say, I’d cover

you with kisses stead of licks, and work hard for you too” (109), and Shug provides Celie

with the ultimate release by listening to the story of Celie’s rape, which prompts Celie to

note that she had previously felt “No one ever love me” (112) before, but Shug does.

Domestic abuse is a problem that is still frighteningly prevalent in society. Celie’s

experience, however, demonstrates not only the appalling effects of domestic violence,

but also the power of one person’s choice to intervene and change a life.