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Symbolism And Narrative Voice

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4857 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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This extended essay aims to challenge the categorization of the female protagonists in Alice Walkers The Color Purple and Nawal El Saadawis Woman at Point Zero as “repressed” by examining the question “How is symbolism and narrative voice used by the authors to demonstrate each woman’s struggle with marginalization?” The scope of this essay encompasses two works which endeavor to empower women as it depicts their overcoming society´s norms. The use symbolism and narrative voice by Walker and El Saadawi to portray Celie and Firdaus´ experiences drew me to this particular work. This paper explores Walker and El Saadawi´s use of these literary devices to cast the actual complexity and defiance of their protagonists´ behavior, which overrides generalized nature of marginalization. Both books are an example of the influence caused by female´s struggle with chauvinism in two very different cultures showing it is still a global problem as it is being referenced in two literary pieces from distinct times.

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The essay counts with two main sections, each emphasized in the specific literary device which is aimed to be explored. It acknowledges the powerful effect of the narrative voices and the symbolism on the reader, on how these two devices are intentionally introduced by the authors to strengthen up the intensity of the protagonists’ life situation and by complementing each other they manage to give the character the development it deserves.

Word Count: 230

Table of Contents

Abstract…………………………………………………………………………………………………… 2

1. Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………….. 4

2. Symbolism…………………………………………………………………………………………… 5

3. Narrative Voice……………………………………………………………………………………..10

4. Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………………………..16


1. Introduction

Women´s struggle to overcome oppression has become a major issue over the last 50 years. The subjugation of women has not been an eternal feature of the human society, but it became a product of the development of class society. This struggle is something that two authors have tried to demonstrate, proving there is not only one point of view about it. Still women have fought for their importance and this gets to be evidenced through literary devices of symbolism and narrative voices in “The Color Purple” published in 1982 by Alice Walker, American writer and “Woman at Point Zero” published in 1975 by Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian feminist.

Books are a very efficient method to express an idea or a thought. Who does not have the ability to convey their feelings verbally has the ability to do so in writing, and regardless of the background context of the story (whether based on fact or fiction), by presenting these ideals in a written form, the necessary ingredients will be added to make the writing part of literature, that is why the literary features are as important and relevant as the same thread of the plot. The feminist genre has become a popular form of literature this is why the following question “How is symbolism and narrative voice used by the authors to demonstrate each woman’s struggle with marginalization in The Color Purple and Woman at Point Zero?” is going to be answered. It is important to generate a comparison between these two novels as they have been both written by female authors as stated before and they show the overcome of chauvinism by the main characters, writing about a subjective look into the essential underdevelopment of marginalized characters. Celie from The Color Purple and Firdaus from Woman at Point Zero, are part of these characters, both led by different religions and political borders but with a very similar struggle.

2. Symbolism

The use of symbolism throughout both novels is constantly present. Symbols have as a purpose to communicate a meaning. It is inside any literary piece to generate a deeper meaning in the stories [ [1] ], generally, the symbols are highlighted through the book to support the literary theme, just as shown in The Color Purple and Woman at Point Zero, where symbols play an important role in the overcoming of the marginalization suffered by the main characters.

To highlight in The Color Purple we find sisterhood, the relationship between Celie and her beloved sister Nettie, the one person who is constantly cheering Celie up and motivating her to keep on moving forward. The bond that represents their relationship is quilting. It is directly linked with the theme of sisterhood. Nettie and Celie used to spend their free time (their free time meant the time none of them were serving for their dad or generally doing household work) together laughing and sewing old pieces of curtains in order to make one single quilt.

The idea of sewing up different pieces and making them part of one same whole, represents unity. The union between this two sisters, were leaning on each other formed a particular engine, especially used by Celie, to continue on with her life.

The color purple itself is the most evident symbol in the book. Purple may have many meanings and they all fit into the story of the book. Every different meaning ties up the thread of the story and guides the reader through the characters struggle showing them all the process until they overcome chauvinism. In the first place, Shug Avery is the person who points out the concept of the color purple to Celie [ [2] ]. Shug, tells Celie how God does small things for people, like creating the color purple just to make them happy and give them pleasure in their lives, he wants people to notice the beauty of his own creations, to love his creations. As Celie learns to love life throughout her whole development in the fight to reach her happiness, she learns to love her inner self, well just as the color purple is a very small but important creation she finally recognizes the beauty she carries with her and decorates her bedroom in her own home with the color purple.

The bruises on Celie´s beaten face throughout her pitiful life, the pain she has gone throughout her life has been showing off through the bruises in her face as she was being beaten up by her father and husband. Still all these bruises never stopped her from achieving her independence, the bruises just made her stronger. [ [3] ]

Last, the color purple is not as common as other colors; the actual color was discovered with the secretion produced by some mollusk found around the cities of Tyre. By being so rare and hard to find, it became a symbol of royalty because only the very wealthy people could afford it[ [4] ]. In relationship to the book, Celie associates the color purple and longs for a purple dress[ [5] ], well wearing it would make her feel more confident but overall, more powerful. The same color suffers en evolution as the development of Celie´s struggle is being exceeded. At the beginning, Celie did not consider herself to be treated as royalty, though at the end, as she feels more confident, she decides that purple should now be the color that represents her.

Clothes are a major symbol through the book. Pants, are another important factor. In the 1930´s, pants were not common amongst women; they were only used by men while women were only allowed to use fancy dresses or long skirts. This is why pants are the greatest symbol of women´s liberation from the confines of a dress. When Celie decides not only to wear them, but to start her own business on them, she becomes freed from gender stereotypes. Therefore they represent liberation from patriarchy and sexism, as well as economic independence, where women show they can also have success without the help of men. Trousers are the main symbol in relationship to the overcome of struggle, they are the last symbol shown in the book letting the audience know how this change is Celie´s last and ultimate achievement.

The letters to God are also important, as the tale is being told primarily through Celie´s own letters. Due to her isolation and despair, she initially addresses these letters to God. God is at first a confidant. Throughout the story, Celie by discovering the letters from Nettie that Mr__ had hidden from her: “Now that I know Albert hiding Nettie´s letters, I know exactly where they is.”[ [6] ]. This helps her regain confidence and hope, by feeling she does have someone else to lean on and she was never forgotten making her change the recipient of her letters to Nettie.

After the whole story has concluded, the last letter written from Celie is once again addressed to God, the starts, the sky and every other one of his creations thanking him for all her achievements, showing the last phase of her struggle, the recovery.[ [7] ]

In Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus, a young woman waiting to be executed in an Egyptian prison, narrates the events and relationships that led her to become a prostitute and murder her pimp. El Saadawi’s perspective frames the story as she visits Firdaus in jail and feels overwhelmed by her strength.

Money is one of the book’s greatest symbols as it creates a game between the parallelism of its own value and Firdaus; well “a man does not know a woman´s value. She is the one who determines her value.” [ [8] ] Firdaus was told by Sharifa that “the higher you price yourself, the more he will realize what you are really worth, and be prepared to pay with the means at his disposal. And if he has no means, he will steak from someone else to give what you demand.”[ [9] ]

On her own, she learns that her body has a monetary value to men, and gets advantage of the fact that pleasure was something men desired, meaning that for the first time, men depended on her. The more she built and strengthened her self-esteem, the more confident she felt, and the more confident she felt, the more she would charge and higher the price of her service. In fact the real symbol comes to be ´price´ as it is what really categorizes something or someone´s value.

Still the part of her narration with more symbolism is when Firdaus tears up the money and demonstrates money has no power over her anymore. The prince will then declare her a total princess, outside the reach of money. Being a prostitute means developing a job, and money is its remuneration but Firdaus wants more than just being paid for her “job”, she wants to be recognized as a strong woman.

Firdaus´s school certificates are also a symbol during her overcome. Books have accompanied her since she childhood; her first encounter with books was thanks to her uncle as he secretly taught her how to read. He was the first person who initially shows interest in the young Firdaus and tries to guide her towards a better future. Reading helped her realize that there is more than just her small and poor village. Later on, as she moves with her uncle she starts school and achieves not only her school certificate but gets much academic recognition.

Being a scholar made her self-esteem rise, she was proud of what she had achieved by herself with no one else’s intervention, “I have a secondary school certificate, and I want to work” [ [10] ] she claimed. She knew her certificates would mean her departure to success.

Finally we can find one of the biggest symbols throughout the book; eyes. Eyes are constantly mentioned and highlighted in the story. As Firdaus´s story starts to develop, she emphasizes in the fact that eyes always seemed to “gaze upon her”.

At the beginning, the images of the eye could be interpreted as something trivial, physical. But, as she mentions the eye that always looks upon her, and the story keeps progressing and she becomes more mature to at least distinguish from what is right and what is wrong, the image of the eye starts to refer as the conscience that is constantly reminding her about her occupation. This brought also the meaning and interpretation of a new symbol feared by Firdaus, the feeling of someone watching over her.

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Another important point is the cultural relationship between eyes and the Muslim religion. Women are not to show their eyes to strangers, and it is prohibited for them to downright into the eyes of their husbands and fathers, they should lower their eyes in sign of respect and admiration. Women that are still into the orthodox tradition should stay under the hijab to observe from there the outer world. [ [11] ][ [12] ]

The change the image of the eye suffers can be seen as the change in Firdaus´s outlook in life. As she grows up and understands the rules of society, her outlook on life switches from optimistic to hopeless. Still, at the end they show themselves again as widely open and confident.

Both books contain these symbols to enhance and intensify the real meaning of this whole struggle by these women who have learned how to fend for themselves. These authors may coincide in the use of similar symbols, but the way in which Celie and Firdaus overcome their obstacles is completely different considering the variety of situations that surround them. It is their cultural differences what protrude amongst both characters and derives the other factors. In order to successfully communicate to a wide audience, we must recognize the fact that things carry different symbolic meanings to different cultures. Economic independence for example, is crucial in both characters but the means of obtaining this independence is completely different due to the cultural and systemic possibilities given to both women. This economic independence is symbolized with the obtention of money through prostitution in Woman at Point Zero and with pants in The Color Purple. While Firdaus has to go through social humiliation and lack of self-respect, Celie goes through a low self-esteem and a more stigmatized oppression from men who do empower over her with more facility than what men managed to obtain from Firdaus as the story progresses.

3. Narrative Voice

Narrative voice is the persona telling the story; the persona develops from the personality and attitude of the narrator, which are expressed by the narrator´s choice of words and incidents. These in turn depend on the point of view of the story. The point of view goes hand by hand with the narrative voice; it is what makes emphasis in the personality of the character meaning that it would show the development of the character along the story. [ [13] ]

An interesting characteristic of The Color Purle, is the fact that the first person narrator will introduce the events in letter forms. As it has been mentioned before, the first half of the book is told completely from Celie´s point of view as she addresses letters to God in some diary form to let God know about everything that surrounds her. As the book opens, Celie is clearly a victim; her narrative actually begins as a result of her victimization. Her father tells her to hide from everyone the secret about him raping her, telling anyone but God. This was the initial motor for Celie to confide God about her struggles. As she is being emotionally, psychologically and physically isolated, she is immerse in the idea that she has no one who cares about her, this is why she also leans on God.

Celie´s point of view gets to be interesting. Unlike her sister Nettie, she is an uneducated woman as she has been forced to quit school around the age of fourteen to attend her pregnancy, pregnant by her own father. Her lack of education is demonstrated with her shortcomings in grammar and spelling but this does not cover the fact that she is still telling a powerful story; “She ast me bout the first one Whose it is? I say God´s. I don´t know no other man or what else to say. When I start to hurt and then my stomach is moving and then that little baby come out my pussy chewing on it fist you could have knock me over with a feather.” [ [14] ] The previous quote demonstrates a perfect example of Celie´s lack of education mixed with the intense situation she had to go through. Both factors as they are combined generate a much bigger impact on the reader as he gets immerse in a story where there is not only an educational problem but a tragic narration driving the reader to think of how the same lack of education may have caused to damages to Celie as she has no other guide other than her own ignorance.

As Celie discovers her sister Nettie never stopped writing to her, but it was Mr.___ who hid the letters from her, she changes on the recipient of her letters; still there is nothing artificial about her writing “style”. The reader can always identify a pervasive and enduring quality of honesty throughout her letters. “When I told Shug I’m writing to you instead of God she laugh. Nettie don´t know these people, she say. Considering who I been writing to, this strike me funny” [ [15] ] writes Celie to Nettie.

Celie gains confidence as she knows she does have someone watching over her and even though God is somehow left aside, he does not lose importance, Celie just gets overwhelmed by the fact that her new discovery would have seemed something impossible. The previous quote indicates her happiness, happiness achieved for the first time in a very long period of time. This evokes hope amongst the audience and reflects the characters emotion.

From this event on, the book makes a certain turn and the reader will continue on knowing about her story but not throughout the letters addressed to God, but this time in the letters between Celie and Nettie. Nettie, however, is an educated woman, her grammar and spelling are correct and she discusses more complex topics in the letters. Still, it does not compare to how powerful Celie´s story is.

In Woman at Point Zero even though the first person narrator persists, the story is differently told. The narrative point of view is used to inform the reader of the political and socio-cultural context of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves, due to the fact that it is not only a story but it is based in a real life situation. The voices vary not from character to character but from character to psychiatrist, who represents the voice of the author.

El Saadawi´s narrator starts by fulfilling the role of a psychiatrist who introduces the story of Firdaus. As the psychiatrist, she is looking forward to portray the traditional oppression of women, in this particular case she works on the oppression embedded within the Islamic traditions as well as the lack of gender equality.

Firdaus´s story begins to be embedded in which we think is El Sadaawi´s life. “I felt somehow that my research was now in jeopardy. As a matter of fact, my whole life seemed to be threatened with failure. My self-confidence began to be badly shaken, and I went through difficult moments”[ [16] ] The quote not only lets the reader know about her situation but corroborates the fact that she was there just to compliance with her work as a psychiatrist.

As Firdaus agrees to see her, she now becomes the listener, Firdaus becomes the narrator. The psychiatrist gets immersed in who is supposed to be her patient´s story, a new twist occurs, and the person who seemed to be vulnerable despite her wealthy economical position and social class; she expresses love and admiration for Firdaus who opened her eyes: “The power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as a child that has not yet learnt to lie.”[ [17] ]

The psychiatrist writes this after hearing Firdaus´s story and watching her be escorted towards her execution. As she feels light-headed, Firdaus has convinced her that what surrounds her is a lie and, lies must be destroyed, this leaves her within the dilemma of thinking whether if her whole life has been an illusion or pure and simple reality. She also realizes that Firdaus is not in prison because authorities fear she will kill again if released, but because they fear the truth that she now possesses. Killing a pimp is not her real crime, exposing the hypocrisy and powerlessness of the leaders and princes she so despises, is. She now stops playing the role of the psychiatrist, and changes to play the role herself as a human being.

Firdaus´s story is purely more complex. Her story arises from silence, from her initial refusal to speak. This presence of the voice, which is meant to be experienced as the voice of a real person rather than the one of a fictional character, is the mark of a desire not to be silenced or defeated, a desire to impose oneself on an institution of power, from the position of the marginal.

Firdaus was able to discover how “Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.”[ [18] ] Men´s imposition over women was just being developed with the excuse of a culture and a religion, but that was not to be allowed anymore.

Life taught her the significance of being a woman inside her society. Her eyes went wide open over the fact that it was no obligation for women to yield over men, but it was women´s obligations to have the courage of standing up against them and stop that believe once and for all. She is constantly expressing these emotions with resentment, an outraged tone evoking compatibility between the reader and the character through imagery.

In her outcry against men´s dominance, she exposes the multiple forms of hypocrisy and control used to gain authority over women. She hated men who tried to give her advice, or told her that they wanted to rescue her from the life she was leading, she said they saw themselves in some kind of chivalrous role.[ [19] ]

Indeed, all those who supposedly rescue Firdaus, men and women alike, end up using her for their own purposes. Though her life made her look as a victim, her tone as she tells her story does not show either sorrow or gloom, but anger and bitter. As it pertains to both books, The Color Purple and Woman at Point Zero, narratives are expressed in two different forms, private letters as demonstrated with the first book and a traditional storytelling based on a real life event, still both done in first person narrative.

The differences between the two main characters are protruded with the tone that both authors imply. Celie is never seen as anything else but a victim, even though she achieves her independence at the end of the story her image only changes from victim to surpass, while Firdaus despite the difficulties always knew who she was, pointed to where she was going and demonstrated it since the beginning of the story as she stated: “I knew that women did not become heads of state, but I felt that I was not like other women”. [ [20] ]

About the authors’ intentions, both embed their books with their life. Alice walker pretends to demonstrate not only the marginalized life of the characters she created but of black writers such as herself through the written word. The story itself is a representation of what Walker´s ancestors went through in the eighteenth century.[ [21] ] On the other hand, Nadal el Saadawi not only narrates a real life story but in the same book she connects it to her life and describes how she felt while living the moment. Here is where the relationship with both authors varies; Walker recreates what should have been the life of her family some years ago to feel close to her history while El Saadawi makes a direct connection and gets herself involved. Here, the cultural differences are not much of a factor influencing the authors to achieve their intentions, as narrative voices point out the outcry of two characters who aim for the same achievements.

4. Conclusion

Both literary techniques complement each other to give the character the development it deserves. It is through the narrative voice and the first person that the character is expressed in its entirety to set free to a set of oppressed emotions in which the characters may find themselves immerse. Whether in writing as Celie did, or verbally as Firdaus, whose story was later on transferred to paper, the tranquility of both women is caused by the release of these feelings.

With symbolism, the author looks to supplement those repressed emotions to give a deeper meaning to their struggle and give more validity to the achievements of these characters. Through these symbols the reader can be aware of the development of the characters as the story goes along, the more the symbol gets highlighted, the more important it is. The symbol is an essential element, which also integrates the background context of both, the author and characters to interpret the significance of they´re development and demonstrate the author`s intention.

Word Count: 3971


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