Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker's Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in the Color Purple

By Cutter, Martha J. | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker's Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in the Color Purple


Cutter, Martha J., MELUS


The ancient story of Philomela has resonated in the imaginations of women writers for several thousand years. The presence of this myth in contemporary texts by African American women writers marks the persistence of a powerful archetypal narrative explicitly connecting rape (a violent inscription of the female body), silencing, and the complete erasure of feminine subjectivity.(1) For in most versions of this myth Philomela is not only raped--she is also silenced. In Ovid's recounting, for example, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who then tears out her tongue. Philomela is finally transformed into a nightingale, doomed to chirp out the name of her rapist for eternity: tereu, tereu. The mythic narrative of Philomela therefore explicitly intertwines rape, silencing, and the destruction of feminine subjectivity.

Contemporary African American women's fiction contains allusions to this archetypal rape narrative. In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, for example, Pecola Breedlove's rape by her father Cholly causes a fragmentation of her psyche. Pecola's attempts to tell of her rape are nullified by her disbelieving mother, and by the novel's conclusion her voice is only exercised in internal colloquies with an imaginary friend. She flutters along the edges of society, a "winged but grounded bird" (158). Similarly, in Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, after Lorraine is gagged and brutally gang raped, she becomes both insane and unable to speak of her rape. Finally, she is left with only one word, a word that echoes back to Philomela's "tereu, tereu," the word she attempted to use to stop her attackers: "Please. Please" (173).(2) Rape is thus a central trope in these texts for the mechanisms whereby a patriarchal society writes oppressive dictates on women's bodies and minds, destroying both subjectivity and voice. Or, as Madonne Miner puts it, "Men, potential rapists, assume presence, language, and reason as their particular province. Women, potential victims, fall prey to absence, silence, and madness" (181).

For writers such as Naylor and Morrison, the myth of Philomela graphically illustrates the way a patriarchal society censors and erases women's voices. More damaging, perhaps, Philomela's story also indicates that if women find other methods of communicating, these alternatives lead only to more violence and an even deeper silence. After her rape Philomela is imprisoned in a tower of stone, but she manages to weave a tapestry (or in some accounts a robe) depicting Tereus's actions. She sends this artwork to her sister Procne, who "reads" this text and understands its import. Buried within this myth of patriarchal subjugation, then, there is a subtext that focuses on how women can "speak" across and against the limits of patriarchal discourse. However, the myth's final message seems to be that women's alternative texts fail to transform in any lasting way the social or linguistic forces of patriarchal domination. Procne's response to her sister is to first consider killing Tereus, whom she calls, as translated by Humphries, "the author of our evils" (149, emphasis added). Instead she kills her young son Itys, roasts and grills Itys's flesh, and serves this "feast" to her husband. When Tereus apprehends what has happened, he attempts to destroy both Philomela and Procne, but the gods intervene, transforming all three characters into birds.

The structural pattern of the myth (and its warning to women) seems clear; as Patricia Joplin explains, the myth fixes "in eternity the pattern of violation-revenge-violation.... The women, in yielding to violence, become just like the men.... The sacrifice of the innocent victim, Itys, continues, without altering it, the motion of reciprocal violence" (48-49). More importantly, the myth also instantiates an endless cycle of linguistic violence against women: violence (i.e., rape) leads to silence (the tongue is torn out); attempts to break this silence through assertions of an alternative feminine voice (the tapestry) lead only to more violence (the killing of Itys), and finally, to a more complete and final silence (the death of the characters and the loss of their human voices). …

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Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker's Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in the Color Purple
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