The Color Purple as a Marxist text

A socio-economic perspective

The Marxist approach to literature relates a literary text to the social, historical, cultural and political systems in which it is created. A Marxist reading does not consider that a literary text stands apart from its writer and the influences that affect the writer. In Marxist theory, every writer is a product of his or her own age, whilst the age is in turn a product of many ages.

Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) states that:

the mode of production of material life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.

In other words, the social situation of the author decides what type of characters, political ideas and economic statements are developed in the text.

Marxist criticism of The Color Purple

There are certain aspects of The Color Purple which might particularly interest a Marxist critic.

The mistreatment of African-American women by both black and white males is a result of the male belief that women are worthless and inferior. A Marxist reading would find this objectionable because men and women should be treated equally.

Celie is exploited by Albert by being made to labour, with Harpo, on the family farm, thereby making a profit for Albert and his father. There is little evidence in the narrative that either Albert or his father, who owns the land, do much, if any, manual work at all, so both his wife and children are treated unequally. On the other hand, the farm provides a living and accommodation for the workers, so we could also conclude that food and shelter are available to the whole family, which conforms to the socialist principle of ‘fair shares for all’.

Marxism is not gender biased and women were expected to contribute to society. It could therefore be argued that a Marxist reading of the novel would be critical of the fact that Celie is removed from school and deprived of education very early in her life. However, the opposite may be said of Nettie, who not only continues her education, but goes on to work abroad to educate African villagers.

Marxists would also approve of the strong sense of community amongst the Olinka tribe with whom Nettie and Samuel live. However, when the village is despoiled by colonial expansion, a Marxist reading would see this as capitalist greed and colonial imperialism. In addition, a Marxist reading would criticise the fact that Olinka girls were not educated because they were female.

Celie’s ‘Folkspants’ business would be seen in a Marxist reading as a capitalist venture and thus contrary to socialist ideology. Even though Celie provides employment for other women, there is little evidence that income from the business is equally shared. Whilst the business improves Celie’s self-esteem, a Marxist reading would be critical because Walker seems to be suggesting that business ownership makes life more fulfilling.

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