Instruments of oppression


If needles are symbolic of non-violent protest against men and patriarchal male-dominance, then razors can be seen as the opposite. Many slave narratives record that a man’s razor was often used as a way to compel a female slave to submit to his sexual advances.

Walker subverts the image of a razor when Albert’s brother Tobias visits the house to see the Queen Honeybee (Shug) in letter 27 and Shug smiles at him like a ‘razor opening’, then ignores him to sit and sew with Celie.

When Celie discovers that Albert has concealed Nettie’s letters to her (Letter 50), she stands behind him in a moment of pure rage with a razor to his throat. It is Shug who defuses the situation and later persuades Celie to choose a needle to sew trousers, rather than the razor as an instrument of revenge. (Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the novel uses the razor effectively as a visual image.)

Although a razor is not specifically mentioned as the instrument which is used in the ritual mutilation of Tashi, in all probability a similar instrument would have carried out both the facial scarring and the genital circumcision.

The razor, then, can be seen as an ancient means of oppression or retaliation which is superseded by the symbol of the needle and the activity of sewing in The Color Purple. This is a more passive though ironically a much more powerful means of gaining independence and power.

The mailbox, letters and stamps 

Letters were the primary form of communication in the time during which the novel is set, investing them with even more symbolic importance than they would have for a postmodern readership. Foreign stamps indicated access to the wider world, in sharp contrast to America’s rural South.

The mailbox

Although only mentioned briefly in Letter 28, when Shug and Albert walk to the mailbox, this item is an important symbol of both separation and contact between Nettie and Celie. Both sisters write letters to one another that for various reasons remain undelivered for a large part of the novel. Albert’s mailbox enables him to intercept Nettie’s incoming letters to Celie but also signifies a possibility that one day the sisters will make contact again. (Spielberg’s film adaptation uses the mailbox as a visual signifier of the promise - and later realisation - of contact between the two sisters. It also represents the modern world of travel and communication, contrasted to the relatively confined world of the central characters.)

Letters 49 to 51 are the turning point in the narrative. In letter 49 Celie receives a letter that Shug has intercepted, having noticed the foreign stamps on correspondence that Albert was concealing in his pockets. This is later followed by the discovery of all of Nettie’s letters hidden in a trunk, which itself become the ‘second mailbox’ delivering a new dimension of the story.

Figuratively, the mailbox represents Albert’s domination and confinement of Celie. It is a woman who combats this oppression when Shug discovers the letters and returns them to Celie, breaking the hold that Albert exerts over his wife. This is illustrated when Albert directly hands Celie the telegram that bears news about her sister.

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