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Edith Wharton, Alice Walker, and Women Mentality

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Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence [1] and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple [2] both paint a portrait American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This culture appears to be male, with no room for the female as any manifestation other than a trophy or a servant. However, in both cases an unconventional female arrives to bring attention to the fact that a female culture also exists, no matter how small and unknown.

It is tempting to argue that both novels support the notion of the female culture as being both marginalized and, to a large degree, secret or underground. In The Age of Innocence, the use of a male narrator is crucially important in relation to the idea of a dominantly male American culture, specifically within the novel’s late nineteenth century setting. Clare Virginia Eby describes the novel as one “poised between the Victorian and modern eras which provocatively examines the potential for women’s freedom through a male centre of consciousness”[3]. Certainly, Wharton, although female, uses the voice of the opposite gender, and it is from this perspective that she examines and critiques the marginalization of female culture. Carol Wershoven supports this point as she argues that “[Newland’s] is the sole point of view of the novel, although it is one that Wharton distances herself from by irony and supplements with authorial comment”[4]. This leads us to question the merits of using a male narrator over a female one, providing us with yet another patriarchal voice even in a novel heavy with the idea of the necessary rejection of this patriarchy. An answer to this question is posed by Amy Taubin, who suggests that Wharton is one of multiple authors who aim to “examine the culture in which they came of age from the fictional perspective of insiders, when they themselves were outsiders”[5]. Taubin’s view of Wharton as an “outsider” is one which supports the idea of the othering of females and their culture within a patriarchal American society. Indeed, it is largely conceivable that Wharton chooses to tell her story from a male perspective in order to make her text compatible with a society in which both genders do indeed conceive culture from the same, single, male perspective. Ultimately, the action of transplanting her own views into the voice of fictional male character, allows her to achieve a greater influence over her early twentieth century audience than if she used the voice of a female. Ironically, she subscribes to the expectations of patriarchy in order to dispute and reject it. Eby puts forth a view which aligns with this idea, as she states that “In a moment of rebellion…Newland articulates what no female character could possibly say – “Women ought to be free – as free as we are””[6]. Coming from a woman, this assertion may lack the credibility that a male voice holds within the confines of patriarchy.

Meanwhile in The Color Purple, in sharp contrast to Wharton’s use of a distanced, male voice in The Age of Innocence, Walker utilizes a character whose experiences and societal positioning are more aligned with her own. This alignment comes primarily from the fact that she is a black female who has been born and raised in the deep south of the United States during the twentieth century. However, although the voice of Celie is not spoken from the same immediately male perspective as the voice of Newland, it is heavy with the male influence of Celie’s ‘father’ and husband. This influence is, in fact, so prominent that Celie’s skewed female perspective is once again more in line with the perspective of the males around her than with her own raw, unaltered female views, further suggesting that American culture is indeed universally conceived from the male perspective. For example, she refers to Alphonso as “Pa”, due to the incorrect idea that he has planted in her mind of him being her father. In addition, she also believes herself to be financially dependent on men despite the fact that she is actually the legal owner of her late parents’ house, which she believes to belong to the false “Pa”. The implication of this is that, although men and women do indeed both conceive American culture from the male perspective, for the latter party this is often a result of their blind and helpless manipulation at the hands of men and their lies. They believe culture to be male because it is what they have been conditioned to believe. Richard M. Gula highlights this effect as he argues that “We respond to what we see. It is that simple. But we always see from a certain perspective, from a certain framework of meaning”[7]. Indeed, in the case of American society, this framework can be seen as being the framework of American patriarchy and male culture. However, Gula also suggests that the female perspective of culture is not forever lost, as in realising it has been hidden women can reject the male view of society in favour of their own. He argues that “Celie liberates herself from male oppression only after she removed the cataracts of sexism that had been blinding her”[8]. The “cataracts” of which he speaks are symbolic of patriarchy, and the way in which male culture stands as an obscuring force preventing women from embracing their femininity and the culture which goes with it.

While both novels present a view of nineteenth and early twentieth century American culture as being universally coloured by the dominant male perspective, they also deal with the reasons that the feminine cultural counterpart remains unofficial, minor, and often actually driven underground. The America portrayed in The Age of Innocence is one in which the female voice is silenced just as the male voice is promoted. The prime example of this is the character of May, who can be viewed as a character who has been conditioned to allow her perspective and her preferences to be rendered obsolete in the face of male culture. Eby supports this idea as she argues that “It is May’s “duty” neither to think nor speak nor to think for herself; her duty is to wait until men speak to her, to “have no past”, and to acquire no experience, to remain an undefiled, indeed an untouched, idol”[9]. However, this reference to ‘duty’ suggests that, although oppressed, May is in actual fact neither na?ve nor blind to the lies and indiscretions of her husband. This is evident as May tells archer that he “mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices.”[10] Indeed, it can be argued that May is representative of the way in which nineteenth century American women subscribed to the male perception of culture and society not through manipulation as suggested earlier, but simply because they were aware of societies expectations of their place in society. May is aware of her husband’s betrayal but stays silent in order to remain faithful to the expectations and traditions of marriage prevalent in a patriarchal American society. Slavoj Zizek supports this notion as he states that “far from being an ing?nue blessedly unaware of the emotional turmoil’s of her beloved, she knew everything, yet she persisted in her role as an ing?nue, thereby safeguarding the happiness of their marriage”[11]. This suggests that, rather than understanding herself to be a victim of Newland’s unfaithfulness and acting in accordance with this, she prioritises the necessity to accommodate her husband’s misplaced passion for another woman while continuing to act as the perfect wife. Lois Tyson argues that in Wharton’s novel, “women are represented as marriage commodities who sell themselves to the highest bidder in their attempt to move up the American dream’s socioeconomic ladder”[12]. The implication of this view is that women are not only aware of their oppression and expected submission, but they also use it to better themselves in a society where female achievement and worth directly correlates with whom she marries. It can be argued that Female culture in The Age of Innocence is so minor and unofficial that success can only be achieved through allowing themselves to become pawns for the demands of male culture.

Similarly, in The Color Purple, Celie begins as an entirely passive character. Her rape at the hands of Pa symbolises the destruction of the female at the hands of the male, with her being reduced to serving an instrumental purpose in satisfying his male sexual urges. She is forced to marry Pa, fulfilling the male cultural practise of men choosing their wives with or without their consent. After Celie and Nettie are separated by Mr_ , their relationship is reduced to communication via letters sent by Nettie. This epitomizes the underground nature of female culture as the sisterly relationship is forced underground to survive via discreetly written letters which, although intercepted and hidden by Mr_, are eventually uncovered by Celie. Furthermore, Celie silently and secretly fights back against old Mr_‘s derogatory comments about Shug. Although she mentally pictures a more conspicuous form of revenge as she says “I think about ground glass, wonder how you grind it”[13], she ultimately settles on simply spitting in his drink when he isn’t looking. This epitomizes the notion of a secret American female culture, unable to operate out in the open or to rebel against it. God and religion also play a prominent role throughout the book, as Celie’s narration comes in the form of letters addressed to “Dear God”[14]. However, her understanding of God is one which fits with a nation of male and white privilege, as she pictures him as “all white…looking like some stout white man work at the bank”[15]. Such a male perspective of theology can be seen as a contributing factor of female culture remaining unofficial and underground. In a Victorian society with a long history of Christian values and priorities, it had become expected for women to remain passive not just from a societal point of view, but from a religious one, with the Bible itself fuelling the prevalence of patriarchy for so long that it had become deeply imbedded in the minds of both males and females as being the right, and more importantly the only, way to do things. Furthermore, in buying into the idea of God as a white male, he becomes something of a figurehead for Patriarchal culture, justifying the oppression of female culture by males. The implication is that if God is a white male, then in simply being the closest physically to God, white men possess some divine right to dominance.

Both Wharton and Walker emphasize the female oppression of nineteenth and twentieth century American culture by my making comparable references to other nations. In The Age of Innocence, Countess Olenska arrives fresh from Europe, and embodies the free spirited and socially diverse culture predominant in eighteenth century Europe. When this vision of European society is juxtaposed against America during the same time period, the latter’s unforgiving rigidness of class structure and expectation of gender based roles become all the more visible. Her lavishly European inspired house with a window from which her bed room is visible is described as standing “in flagrant violation of all the New York properties”[16], and highlights the difference between Europe’s sexual openness and America’s prudish sexual double standards which see women expected to remain virginal until marriage. The contrast is further highlighted during Newland and May’s honeymoon. May attempts to “show herself at ease with foreigners [by] becom[ing] more uncompromisingly local in her references”[17]. Her inability to divulge from her staunchly oppressive American customs stands out against the exotically foreign surroundings. She, unlike the women of Europe, has had her sense of culture entirely defined by the society she was born and raised in, without any allowance for individuality or creativity. Walker, on the other hand, offers us a comparison between the early twentieth century United States and the native culture of Africa, the two of which actually appear to be largely similar with regards to the treatment of the female. Indeed, in her letters to Celie, Nettie describes the African tribal practises of genital mutilation and facial scarring, which serve to oppress and control the sexuality of women in a more violent and obvious way than America’s threat of social othering. Nettie’s assertion that “The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated”[18], along with an African mother’s justification that “A girl is nothing to herself, only to her husband can she become something…the mother of his children”[19], emphasizes that women are to learn no culture other than in relation to their expected part in male culture. This is reminiscent of May’s expectation to stay silent and virginal and engage only in the apparently correct behaviours for an American woman. Dave Kuhn supports this idea as he insists that “the use of African culture and ritual to dramatize the universality of the oppression of women is the most significant manifestation of African settings in The Color Purple”[20].

In the two novels, both Wharton and Walker create one solitary female character who stands as proof that, even in the face of oppression and rejection, an underground female culture does exist and endure. However, they also show the negative repercussions for these few women who dare to stray from their subscription to male American culture. In The Age of Innocence, this character is the enigmatic Elena Olenska. Essentially, Olenska does indeed represent the female culture that occupies the small corner of what is thought of as human experience by a Victorian American society. When juxtaposed against the rigid customs of nineteenth century New York, her lack of conformity to these societal expectations renders her an outcast, leading her to be seen as an intruder as she refuses to be bound by expectation, class or gender and instead prioritises her own freedom. Elfriede Poder supports this view as she argues that “Ellen Olenska is “the other” defining a world outside a very specific society and representing a set of values this (patriarchal and capitalist) society actually lacks and refuses to integrate”[21]. Indeed, after arriving in New York Olenska is by all means a social pariah, as evident when the entire guest list to Madame Olenska’s welcoming dinner decline their invitations to socialise with a woman who has not only left her husband, but has also been rumoured to have taken a lover. The snubbing of Olenska by the entirety of New York’s elite suggests that her adherence to female rather than male culture is enough of a threat to American patriarchy that society would sooner look the other way and pretend she does not exist than confront the issues of their own society. Indeed, Olenska becomes a victim of harsh double standards with regards to female versus male sexuality. Newland himself ponders these double standards as he notes that non-martial or adulterous sexual behaviour is seen to be “undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman”[22]. Sexuality stands as a key aspect of female culture for Olenska, and indeed for females in general, but it is supressed by the social expectations of women as virginal creatures who become faithful wives. The women who, like Olenska, retain their sexuality and act on it are forced to either do it in secret or to face rejection and severe moral judgement. Much like Wharton’s Countess Olenska, Walker portrays the minor and unofficial female culture through the character of Shug, who is an embodiment of raw feminine qualities. She rejects the limitations on female sexuality and embraces her desires, in a similar but more extreme way to Olenska. Mr_ vocalizes the same sexual double standards present in Wharton’s vision of New York, as he says that “young womens no good these days…Got they legs open to every Tom, Dick and Harry”[23]. Of course, Mr_ is somewhat promiscuous himself, making advances on his wife’s daughter and having Shug as a mistress, but as a male in a patriarchal society this is deemed far more acceptable. These double standards lead to the othering of Shug, who is labelled with a poor reputation for being indecent. When she is sick, nobody in town other than Mr_ will take her in and society rejects her, much like the way in which Countess Olenska’s welcome party invitations are rejected. Like Olenska, Shug is the object of much social speculation and disapproving gossip such as the rumour that she has “some nasty woman’s disease”, or a sexually transmitted infection, indicating the strong social stigma between female sexuality and promiscuity. The church preacher indirectly refers to her as a “strumpet in short skirts…slut hussy, heifer and street cleaner”[24]. Indeed, she stands as an example of why female culture remains underground. Those, such as Shug and Countess Olenska, who unashamedly adhere to impinged female cultural norms are forced into the outskirts of a patriarchal society which refuses to accept them.

However, despite the seeming rejection and othering of the characters of Shug and Countess Olenska, there is a contrasting sense that these women, contrary to being anomalous stains on the portrait of patriarchy, are pioneers in an emerging openness of a much larger female culture. This is particularly evident in Walker’s novel as Shug draws Celie out from the oppression of patriarchy and victimhood by teaching her to embrace her womanhood. Sanguin supports this as he argues that “Shug plays the role of mentor to a young and na?ve Celie”[25]. Indeed, it is through the influence of Shug and her bold assertion that the male perspective is not necessarily the correct perspective, that Celie ultimately frees herself from the constraints of patriarchy and comes to see the world from the perspective of a liberated female. In contrast to Celie’s description of the “stout white man”[26], Shug tells her that “God ain’t a he or a she, but a it”[27]. Here, she rejects a crucial part of male culture, which is male orientated theism, in favour of her own ideas about God. Bruce Sanguin highlights Shug’s dismissal of the male culture of religion and God as he argues that “Shug, anticipating a postmodernist feminism, has deconstructed the white man’s version of the Christian faith. She has learned to do her own theology.”[28] Indeed, in passing her ideas onto Celie, Shug takes on the role of a religious teacher as she sets her view of God free from its marginalization and its influence begins to convert others. In addition, both Mr_ and The Age of Innocence’s Newland are ultimately more drawn to these women who openly convey their adherence to a female culture. Mr_, in spite of society’s misgivings about Shug’s open sexuality and femininity, openly declares his love for her even telling his father that he “should have married her when [he] has the chance”[29]. This is strikingly similar to Newland’s declaration of love to the countess as he tells her that “you are the woman I would have married if it has been possible for either of us”[30]. The implication of this is that females who do not yield to the force of patriarchal culture should not be rejected by society and seen as flawed or as abominations, but rather be admired for their loyalty to their own feminine natures. Wershoven highlights this rejection of the stereotypical Victorian American female in The Age of Innocence as she argues that “The female intruder becomes part of a romantic triangle in which a [male] hero must choose between a conventional woman, and an intruder who cannot fit into a conventional world”[31]. Indeed, the preference which Newland has for Olenska, and that Mr_ has for Shug, delineates that female culture should not be forcibly entwined with male culture, as their womanly differences make them far more desirable and admirable than females like May who appear to conform to rigid expectations without question. Perhaps, in placing limitations on the uninhibited practise of female culture, limitations are also unintentionally places on male culture, as their desire for true women is left largely without fulfilment. Wershoven underpins this notion as she states that “The women of Wharton’s novel are, with one exception, little girls, never permitted to grow up”[32]. In other words, with the general absence of real women like Shug and Olenska, men are forced to settle for conformist girls like May in order to remain conventional and respectable within the confines of American patriarchy.

Contrary to the idea of female culture as occupying only the smallest corners of human existence, The Color Purple is actually rife with the idea that female culture, although largely underground, is actually much farther-reaching among the American female population than it appears to be. A sense of community can be seen as women help and guide each other in their fight to be truly free. Katherine B. Payant supports this idea as she argues that “pleasures and redemption are achieved exclusively through love and friendships between women. Men in this novel are the enemy”[33]. This is evident in the aforementioned scene in which Celie spits in the drink of old Mr_ for speaking ill of Shug, as Celie secretly fights not for herself, but for another woman who is incapable of defending herself due to her illness. Janet Doubler Ward highlights the importance of the female community for the protagonist as she states that “Celie is highlighted by her female relationships”[34], and Katherine B. Payant supports this as she suggests that Celie “finds independence, hope and finally transcendence through her love of women”[35].The key example of one of these empowering female relationship is the sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. At the start of the novel, Celie is merely a vessel for the wants and needs of a predominantly male culture. In the physical sense, she is raped and sold off to a husband who wants her more as a slave than as a wife. She comes to see sex as something which at best she has little say in, and at worst is used purely as a form of cruelty. However, through her homosexual passion for Shug, she discovers her hidden female sexuality, and leans to enjoy not only the pleasures of her own female body, but of another woman’s body. Furthermore, the relationship between Celie and Nettie is shown to be incredibly strong, as Nettie never gives up on her sister, and when Celie finally discovers Nettie’s hidden letters she finds the strength to walk away from her controlling and abusive husband. The instincts which are specific to these female dynamics not only remain strong inside the oppressed Celie, but so strong that they eventually provide her with the incentive to rebel against her husband as evident when she ponders how she will even “keep from killing him”[36]. In contrast, this sense of community is seemingly far less prevalent in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Olenska, the only female character who truly rejects conformity to the male orientation of American culture, actually shows her preference for male company over female company. This is evident as she spends much of her time socializing with Newland and Julius Beaufort, and little time socializing with any women. Indeed, the other women of the novel are actually shown to be just as judgemental of her non-conformity, if not more so. At the dinner table during unkind gossip about Olenska, Mrs Archer says that it “was in better taste [for Olenska] not to go to the ball”[37], encouraging the othering of the subject of her gossip. However, Countess Olenska does show some loyalty to other members of her gender as she undermines Newland’s male right to marry the woman of his choosing as she turns him down out of compassion for May. This highlights the way in which she refuses to take the happiness away from a fellow female in order to sustain her own, or to uphold the desires of the male Newland. On discovering May’s pregnancy, Olenska’s decision to leave for Europe and entirely cut ties with Newland is an example of her indirect female bond with May. She refuses to leave her alone as a single mother because, as a female herself, she can empathize with the possibility of such a situation.

As oppose to shedding their female virtues in order to integrate into a society centred on the male, the women in The Color Purple are shown to use their feminine traits to fight against the oppression which forces them underground. This is supported by Catherine E. Lewis who argues that “Women’s common experiences that have too long been undervalued, such as domestic and manual labour, can be used to overturn the systems that have imposed and labelled the tasks”[38]. In Celie’s case, a primary example is her sewing, which provides her with a means of channelling her feminine creativity and artistic talent into garments which can be displayed openly. The quilt which Celie and Sofia create can be seen to represent the coming together of the underground female community, as they pull together much like the needle pulls together the pieces of fabric in order to become part of a strong, whole and open female culture. Later, in one of Nettie’s letters she tells how Corrine has also made a quilt as a result of hearing about Celie’s practise of quilting. This supports the earlier assertion that liberated females like Shug and eventually Celie can subsequently free other females and introduce them to their own culture. Nettie describes the pieces of fabric used in the making of the quilt as she tells how Corrine “altered one square of appliqued figures with one nine-patch block”[39]. The patchwork nature of the quilt suggests that, as well as symbolizing the female community, it may also stand as symbolism for the integration of females, and also of black people, into the white male-centric culture of twentieth century America. Much like the different colours and types of fabric displayed in the quilt, the deduction is that both genders should be displayed equally and openly, with female culture helping to make up the patchwork fabric of American society. Another way in which Celie’s sewing serves as a means for fighting back against the male culture eclipsing the female one can be observed as she uses her skills to create a pair of trousers. Indeed, Daniel W Ross suggests that “Celie’s sewing associates her with a select group of female characters in American Literature who use their art not to reveal their shame, as Freud suggests, but to transplant it, placing it where it belongs – on their male oppressors”[40]. Indeed, Daniel W. Ross argues that this female making male clothing overturns the constricted gender roles and asserts that female culture is not subordinate to male culture. He states that Celie’s sewing is used as a means “of binding together the sexes so that both male and female can “wear the pants””[41]. On a more literal level, Celie channels her creative sewing skills into the creation of her own pants sewing business. This progression towards economical self-sustenance stands as proof of female culture breaking free from obscurity, with the fact that her pants are worn by males creating a powerful image of female cultural activities like sewing quite literally emerging to reclaim their place in open society. The sewn fabric covers the male’s genitals, much like patriarchy had once obscured the female community. In The Age of Innocence, although on the surface May appears to be either entirely oblivious to the fact that she is not free, or aware of the fact but accepting of it in order to protect her marriage and carry out her spousal duty as expected of her, she can be viewed as character who actually does fight back just like Olenska, but in a far more discreet and well thought out manner. Like Celie, she uses her imposed domestic duties and expectations to fight an underground war to keep her husband. Primarily, May uses to her advantage the expected female role of motherhood. As Archer attempts to leave her she reveals her pregnancy, drawing him into the unwanted duty of fatherhood. From this it can be deducted that she also used her virginal appeal to entice him into impregnating her even though his heart lies elsewhere. Indeed, the novel’s resolve leaves the audience with the suggestion that May had been intending to trap Newland all along, and her act of innocence is merely a fa?ade. Unlike Celie, who uses her physical female assigned skills and duties, May uses her intelligence and intuition. This idea culminates in the farewell party which May throws for Olenska. On the surface this may appear to be a literal farewell to her as she leaves for Europe, but for May and for Newland it is a celebration of May’s victory. She plays on Olenska’s conscience by revealing her pregnancy which persuades her to leave Newland with his wife and child. Here there is further suggestion that it is not only female culture which is marginalized but also male culture, as just as the women are expected to act as perfect and submissive wives, the men are expected to choose one of these women rather than a more appealing but unconventional woman.

The Color Purple and The Age of Innocence portray nineteenth and twentieth century American culture as being predominantly male only on the surface. Both novels continuously suggest that an extensive female culture exists that is almost as present as its male counterpart. Although this culture does appear to operate underground, with many women participating in the fa?ade of American patriarchy, the unconventional females of Shug and Countess Olenska serve as conduits for the emergence of this culture in a transition from secrecy to open legitimacy. The marginalization of these women seems to occur not because they separate themselves from male culture, but because they do so openly rather than in secret. However, The Color Purple in particular sees this openness of the unconventional woman being passed on to other women as this sense of self-expression and recognition grows amongst the female population of America. In this sense, both novels seem to prefigure the emergence of modern gender equality.


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Sanguin, Bruce. Darwin, Divinity, And The Dance Of The Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity. Kelowna: Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2007.

Taubin, Amy. “The Age of Innocence: Torn between two lovers”. In The X-List: The National Society of Film Critics’ Guide to the Movies that Turn Us On, edited by Jami Bernard, 1-4. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2009.


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