A symbol of freedom and liberty, individuality yet togetherness; the American Flag has presented an image of America for decades. Ever since Francis Scott Key wrote his poem about the “broad stripes and bright stars,” the United States of America has been marked with this simple, yet lucid icon of peace and sovereignty. Symbolism in literature plays a bigger part, one that relates an object or ideology to stress a connection to a more discrete or unclear picture. Alice Walker, a novelist, utilizes many symbols to depict the struggle of young African American women to find and rid themselves from captivity.
Through many images, Walker allows for recognition between specific symbolic portrayals and the main ideas of the novel. In her novel, The Color Purple, Alice Walker uses symbolism to express the transformation of oppressed women in a segregated society from total constraint to self-empowerment and newfound identities. Through the neglected character of Celie, Walker depicts a reconstruction from weakness to authoritative behavior using symbolism. Because she is a woman, Celie is very under-appreciated and not expected to become anything substantial in society.
At the beginning of the novel, Celie allows this image of being a “mule” to control her life. She describes how she is “another piece of wood”(30) to numb herself from the painful life she lives. However, later in the novel, Shug Avery, a singer whom Celie becomes very close with, tells her to live with freedom and independence, as well as love and passion. Eventually, this guidance turns her to sewing, a symbol introduced to describe Celie’s sense of pride, accomplishment, and individuality. When Mr. ________, Celie’s husband, comes to visit her while she is sewing, he asks “what was so special bout [her] pants”(276). She says that “anybody can wear them”(276), except Mr. ________ replies that “men suppose to wear the pants”(276). New to her personality, Celie snaps back and says, “So”(276)? Before her newfound identity, Celie would have never talked back to Mr. ______, now called Albert, because she would have been abused. She has come to the realization that she is not one that needs to back down to “hierarchy” because of race and gender.
Through this journey toward self-actualization, Celie distinguishes a personality with voice and freedom, thus, much different from her past, imprisoned lifestyle. Similarly to the path of Celie, Squeak, an abused character in the novel, learns that she needs to act upon her uncle’s sexually abusive behavior. The reader changes his/her perception of Squeak when she begins to sing, an activity symbolizing power and voice. Her lover, Harpo, discusses her distinct path to reaching this feeling of self-confidence by stating that “[Squeak] sit in the corner a year silent as the grave.
Then you put a record on, [she] come to life”(100). She develops voice, a characteristic most women lack during this time period. Like Celie’s use of sewing, Squeak’s utilization of singing gives the reader a new depiction of character. These specific representations correspond to each individual’s journey to break free from the wrath of these men, and live a life of confidence and fortitude. Furthermore, Walker not only presents symbols as a way to interpret transformations, but also to display identity, specifically in the characters of Celie, Squeak, and Shug.
Color, thus, is one symbol that is explained to fully develop ones sense of selfhood. At the beginning of the novel, Celie shops for clothing, and while shopping she “think what color Shug Avery would wear”(22). Celie looks for the bright colors, the reds and the purples, however is shut down and forced to buy a color that she may not particularly enjoy in the long run (22). Her sense of entitlement seems to be tarnished and her lack of individuality is clearly portrayed. However, Shug “wears a skintight red dress”(54) reflecting her strong personality and extreme sense of independence.
When Celie begins her transition to freedom, she learns about the importance of color. She returns from her visit in Memphis wearing “little red flat-heel slippers” (220), displaying a sense of uniqueness and individuality that is newly portrayed to the reader. In addition to color, Walker uses names in the novel to symbolize the identity of characters. Moreover, Squeak is given this nickname during the novel, proving how insignificant women’s voice is throughout the story.
Celie tells her to make people call her by her real name, however, she doesn’t seem to understand because she is so used to not talking back to the male figures in society and telling them what to do (86). It is evident that she lacks self empowerment; a specific sense of power. Later, she is raped by Harpo, pushing her over the edge. She forces him to call her by her real name, Mary Anges, which symbolizes a feeling of power and authority. Another name that is introduced throughout the novel, is God.
Celie writes her letters to God in a very personal way, as though God is a man, a white man reading her every word, yet not concerned with her prayers. Shug talks to Celie and displays her feeling of God by saying that “[She] believe God is everything…Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it”(197). Due to Shug’s ability to guide and lead Celie down the correct path, Celie learns to believe that God is not a figure or a man, but yet an essence, a feeling; he is everywhere.
She begins to write her letters not only to God, but also to the stars and the trees and the sky, depicting that God is in everything and in everyone. This sensation, passed on by the guidance of Shug, proves that she has moved in a direction of knowledge and passion, toward self-actualization. In the novel, The Color Purple, Alice Walker uses the characters of Celie, Squeak, and Shug to display the common themes of transformation and new identity through the literary device of symbolism.
Symbolism in literature acts as a depiction of a broad topic; it is a useful tool to help display a wide range of ideas or beliefs. Walker forces the reader to understand that the symbols she uses do not just represent one idea or one focus, but many themes such as the development into a new person, the transition to gain a new identity. These symbols help portray a sense of individuality and power, just as the American Flag does for the citizens of the United States of America. Its powerful image gives way to the greater idea it presents: liberty and entitlement.