Compare the ways in which the writers of your two chosen texts portray inequality. In your answer, you must consider relevant contextual factors. (30 marks)
‘The Colour Purple’ by Alice Walker and ‘What Maisie Knew’ by Henry James are strikingly different, not only in terms of their time setting (they are set nearly a century apart), but also in their geographical setting (one being set in the UK and the other in the USA). The above notwithstanding, the two novels share a rather unmatched similarity, especially with regard to the way Walker and James portray the theme of inequality in terms of gender, race, age, race, religion, politics and socio-economics; and they do so mostly through their manipulation of the characters, setting, form and language.
In both ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘What Maisie Knew’ males are portrayed as being dominant to their female counterparts in that they seemingly hold the authority over the women in their families. As a case in point, Celie is forced into a marriage by her stepfather, “Pa”, to Mr_____. Pa’s authority over Celie is captured through the series of imperatives “move up” and “turn around” used by Pa as he showcases Celie to Mr______. Walker therefore portrays the dilemma of the patriarchal society in which the novel is set, whereby women had no voice and no control over their lives. However, in “What Maisie Knew”, although males are presented as dominant over women, particularly in their access to greater opportunities, it seems that women have some power over he men. This can be seen through the relationship of Mr Beale and Miss Overmore whereupon despite Beale’s belief that “the child should be put at school”, Miss Overmore can persuade him otherwise through her rhetorical question “What am I supposed to be at all, don’t you see, if I’m not here to look after her?” This rhetorical question is significant in that it shows Miss Overmore’s defiance of Mr Beale’s decisions, a luxury which Celie does not have. Miss Overmore’s defiance as portrayed by Henry James reflects the place of women in Victorian Era, as captured in most literary works of that time, , Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and Thackeray's ‘Vanity Fair’, being a good case in point, with their depiction of extraordinarily strong women.
The theme of gender inequality and the dominance of men over women is further portrayed in both novels through the economic superiority of men over women, due to their access to better opportunities. In ‘The Colour Purple’, flourishing enterprises are owned by mostly men, for instance, Celie’s real father who is described as “a well-to-do farmer,” that “owned” his “own” property, the repetition of the verb “own”, signifying his economic independence, something that the women in the novel don’t have and for that reason are oppressed by their male counterparts. However, seemingly even the superiority of the African American men in ‘The Colour Purple’ is limited as they too are inferior to their white counterparts, a situation that reflects the reality of deprivation faced by African Americans in the south even after the abolition of slavery. It would be in the reader’s interest to remember that although no longer slaves, many black people remained on the land, working as sharecroppers and growing crops even though the land they worked remained under the ownership of their former white slave masters. Like Celie’s father, Maisie’s father, Mr Farange is portrayed as economically superior to her mother, having been “destined in his youth for diplomacy” and so could travel the world, the abstract noun “diplomacy” depicting Mr Farange’s economic independence, a glaring contrast to Ida for whom there is no mention of economic independence and who throughout the novel’s length is seen with an array of men that are assumed to be her benefactors. Ida’s lack of economic independence would have been understood by contemporary readers, as during the 19th century, models for the ideal women concentrated mostly on taking charge of educating their children and running their households.