Essay: Masculinity in The Colour Purple and Things Fall Apart

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  • Subject area(s): Literature
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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“Indeed, masculinity can never float free of culture: on the contrary, it is the child of culture, shaped and expressed differently at different times in different circumstances in different places by individuals and groups (Berger et al. 1995). Men are not born with masculinity as part of their genetic make-up; rather it is something into which they are acculturated and which is composed of social codes of behaviour which they learn to reproduce in culturally appropriate ways.” (Beynon 2)

John Beynon, in the above passage is emphasising on the fact that ‘masculinity’ is a culturally formulated term and the notion of ‘being a man’ or ‘masculine’ may vary from culture to culture and may evolve over time. The societies in reference here, that is, African and Afro Americans discriminates heavily between the two sexes and places masculinity on a higher pedestal than femininity, which is probably given no recognition at all. However, the way both the societies deal with it may be different but the overarching argument remains the same. In fact, the very positioning of the gender roles in Things Fall Apart is such that if a man fails to meet certain requirements, he ‘falls’ into the category of being a woman. Similar gender hierarchies can be seen in The Color Purple where women are merely seen as objects of male desiring subjects in a patriarchal set up.

In view of the solution posed by Gurnah that the most adequate method of dealing with the lives of the colonised is by looking into their ‘concrete experiences’ rather than heavily depending on the ‘formulaic jargon’ that the critics tend to use without having any detailed knowledge of the context; I would like to deal with both the societies separately emphasising on their unaltered specific stories rather than homogenising their experiences into an ahistorical narrative.

THINGS FALL APART

“Throughout history, human cultures have held notions of what it means to be a man, and what, by contrast, it means to be feminine. These notions may vary from culture to culture and change over time, but they are often an integral part of the culture, sometimes upheld almost manically.” (Lofstedt) In Things Fall Apart, the definition of ‘being a man’ is laid down by the customs of the tribe, and by the protagonist for whom being manly equals to not being effeminate, living up to stereotypical war-like image of a man and making women bow down before his will, essentially, exercising complete control. Okonkwo, the protagonist of the story, epitomises what we call a manifestation of patriarchal misogyny. He is emblematic of what the cultural standards of that society have defined masculinity to be, so much so that he beats his son, Nwoye, to prevent him from expressing tears, which he feels is a feminine trait. The Igbo tribe had place only for brave men who lived up to the stereotypical concept of a muscular, hefty, strong built figure who could defend and prosper. The very name of the clan in full “Umuofia obodo dike” meant “the land of the brave”.

The Igbo tribe’s traditions and customs involved only men at superior, leadership positions while women, the unworthy lot, were reclined to the outer peripheral inactive zone. Women, were treated as commodities that were exchanged or sold off for a bride price. At the very outset of the novel, besides child trafficking of Ikemefuna, his virgin sister is sent from Mbaino to the village of Umuofia to compensate for the loss of Ogbuefi Udo’s wife. This exchange of women like exchange of goods in a market place points towards the space allotted to women in the African society. Even during a wedding function of Obierika’s daughter that Okonkwo attends, the bride’s price is negotiated in terms of the fifty pots of palm wine.

What exactly is the role of a female figure in this patriarchal setup? The women of the Igbo community were meant to do household chores, reproduce and take care of the needs of both the husband and the children. They were not allowed to pose questions but merely follow the orders of the man. While men enjoyed a position of absolute authority, women were expected to show obedience at every step. In an incident where Okonkwo’s youngest wife goes to the neighbour’s house to get her hair braided, Okonkwo on returning home does not find the meal ready which becomes a justified reason for him to beat his wife mercilessly. This shows how women were supposed to be programmed to meet the expectations of the husband or be ready to face the consequences, which could even include their killing by the husband in a fit of anger. “Within the comforts of their own homes, they are still treated as second-class citizens and are subject to being beaten at the will of their husbands. The slightest agitation can elicit a violent and brutal response, and these women have no protection. Furthermore, these displays of violence are normalized, as evidenced in the exchange between Chielo and Ekwefi following her near-death experience. The event is made light of, and Chielo half-jokingly remarks, “your chi is very much awake, my friend” (Achebe 48).” (McNeil)

Even though Okonkwo detests feminity, he likes his daughter Ezinma, but again, he wishes she was born a boy. The purpose of a wife in the Igbo society is outlined by Obierika in reference to his daughter when he says, “She will be a good wife to you. She will bear you nine sons like the mother of our town” (Achebe 89). A woman, her identity was always defined in terms of her reproductive capability. And then, she either became somebody’s wife or someone’s daughter or sister. A female was supposed to be one which had no voice or expression but passively accepted that which was assigned to her by a male figure. The concept of female individuality was completely missing from the traditional practices of Okonkwo’s tribe.

Wives were viewed as assets that defined a man’s position in society, and the children they produced further contributed to the man’s possessions. The dynamics of such a relationship are evident through Okonkwo’s words where he is full of surprise at the distortion of these notions in another tribe. He says, “I have even heard that in some tribes a man’s children belong to his wife and her family” (Achebe 74). The reply which he receives from his friend, Machi, who says, “That cannot be. You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children” (Achebe 74) throws more light on the sexual relations between a man and a woman and how the concept of a woman’s choice did not even exist.

Almost never was a woman’s opinion taken into account. Even in the episode where Ekwefi goes tapping on Okonkwo’s door, choosing him over her previous husband, Achebe’s expression speaks volumes of the kind of role women were designed to fulfil. “Even in those days he [Okonkwo] was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.” (Achebe 94) Even though Ekwefi displays a sense of free will in running away from her marriage into a new chosen one, her very entry into this new relationship is marked by silence, with Okonkwo giving her no opportunity to speak.

A woman’s words held no importance and any man who paid any heed to them became a laughing stock for the entire tribe. Masculinity or ‘to be a man’ meant an inherent martial nature that exercised control on all his possessions, including women. The martial, war-like nature of the man was exalted not just among other men, but among women too, which can be seen when Ekwefi, impressed by the wrestler in Okonkwo, comes running to be united with him, leaving her husband behind.

Irrespective of how war-like a man was required to be, the Igbo tribes did hold killing under certain circumstances as offensive. Killing a person from the same tribe was considered a sin, more specifically, a female crime, an act against the earth goddess. It is interesting how killing of a kinsman was associated with being a female crime and the punishment for which was banishment to one’s ‘motherland’. Every act which was not acceptable by the tribe was associated with something feminine. Okonkwo, along with his family is exiled in Mbanta, his mother’s homeland, for seven years because Okonkwo accidently kills Ogbuefi Ezendu’s sixteen year old son on the very day of his father’s funeral.

THE COLOR PURPLE

In The Color Purple, Walker transcends the traditional boundaries of masculinity even though at the very onset of the novel she portrays hopeless, victimised and powerless women characters; but they come up as strong, independent women towards the end of the novel. Celie, the protagonist of the novel, is told at the very age of fourteen that she must remain silent and never tell anybody about the sexual violence that she has suffered at the hands of her own father, later who turns out to be her step-father. She is silenced from the very beginning by a force that is very strong and hence she cannot defy it and accepts the silence imposed on her.

Celie describes in one of her letters how “he put his thing up gainst my hip & sort of wiggles it around. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying you better shut up and git used to it.” (Walker 3) Alphonso, by trying to physically mute her by choking, is in a way forbidding her to even express the pain that she is going through. Celie is not only physically abused but also tortured mentally.

 Eagleton argues that more than this imposed silence, what women fear most is the awareness of not being heard at all. She says that “when women speak of being silenced they don’t mean that are incapable of adequately speaking language; rather they are referring to social and cultural pressure which undermines their confidence and make them hesitant about speaking.” That is, it is the men who exercise power in the society and oppresses the women by making them bend to that power. The black women, on the other hand, are silenced and oppressed by the white dominant class as well as their male counterparts as seen in the novel. But all woman characters in the novel find a way through it and re-claim their voice, independence and freedom from male oppression in their own way.

Trapped in this power structure dominated by men, women are reduced to mere objects of desire, the objects of male desiring gaze and are used as sex tools. Celie, is repeatedly raped by Alphanso and is impregnated twice. She is also raped by Mr.__ (or Albert), both actually and symbolically. She says, “He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, git off, go to sleep.” (Walker 74) She never felt the pleasure of love making. Shug even tells her that she makes it sound as if he (Albert) is going to toilet on her.

At another level, Mr.__ even tries to confine Celie within the realm of domesticity and hence adds to the degree of censorship imposed on her. He does not only try to keep Celie away from the outer world but also tries to stop the outer world from stretching out and reaching her. He tries to limit her interaction with the outer world and in doing so, hides Nettie’s letter which could have been the only source of happiness to her. The male characters make every possible effort to mute the female subjects and remain the power holding authority. Even Harpo tries to impose his supremacy over Sophia but she mocks him and demands him to do household chores. Moreover, in order to look and be physically stronger than Sophia, he starts eating like a horse so that he could finally beat her into submission. But, unlike Celie, Sophia doesn’t become passive when Harpo tries to knock her down. In fact, she hits him back.

Judith Halberstam, a famous queer theorist breaks away from the traditional approach of masculinity and proposes that masculinity has nothing to do with maleness and in fact, poses female masculinity as an alternative masculinity that has been ignored for so long in patriarchal society. She provide examples of women like Shug Avery and Sophia who tend to have mental as well as physical strength. As Harpo is unable to exercise his dominance over Sophia, he moves into another relationship and finally displays a chauvinistic attitude of superiority when he treats Squeak (Mary Agnes) like a child and uses the language powered by men.

However, towards the end of the novel we see, all female characters emerging as intellectually, physically, socially and economically strong women. They are able to transcend the boundaries created by the ones in power and reclaim their identity as female subject by breaking the silence that had been imposed upon them for ages. The development of the female characters and the merging of the gender roles make the struggle easier and in a way minimizes the suffocating power of men over women.

CONCLUSION

The analysis of both the texts shows that even though the novels in reference, focus on the relationship and power dynamics operating between men and women within African and Afro American society and brings forth the problems faced by the Black Women in both private and public sector, yet their personal experiences are different from each other. Moreover, the way women deal with their problems is also very different.

One thing that we infer from both the texts is that women are treated as second-class citizens and their identity is defined in terms of their reproductive capability. Also, women are exchanged between the men of society as mere commodities. Either they are given in marriage for a bride price or as in case of Celie, are bartered to save the other one. As Simone de Beauvoir says, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Same as masculinity, femininity too, is a social construct where the power holding authority (males) tend to relegate women to an inferior position so that they can maintain their own position in the society.

In Things Fall Apart, gender roles are extremely patriarchal in nature where man is given absolute power but the woman is left to be a mere submissive follower, just like the lopsided relation between the colonizer and the colonized. She is given no recognition at all and almost never was a woman’s opinion taken into account. Even though Ekwefi displays a sense of free will when she comes running to Okonkwo, breaking her previous ties. But her entry into the new relationship is also marked by silence. Similar gender hierarchies continue to occur in The Color Purple, but somehow, the women exercise much more freedom than the women of Umofia village in Things Fall Apart. We already see strong, independent women like Shug and Sophia, in the very beginning and the rest of the women character develop over time. No such development is seen in the women characters of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

The only shared experience of the Black Women is that they are doubly oppressed. They are dominated both by the White Colonisers and their male counterparts. But again, their concrete experiences cannot be generalised as it distorts history and produces a “binarised, generalised model.” (Gurnah 77) In fact, if experiences of Black women cannot be read under a homogenised structure, how can we ever think of reading the stories of those colonised, under the umbrella term of post-colonialism without emphasising on their specific locational cultural context?  

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