The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a short novel set in the Southern States of America during the 1920’s. The main character in the book is a black girl named Celie who writes letters to God in a diary form about her unusually traumatic life. Celie’s writing letters to God is known as an epistolary form, because letters to God or in a religious context are called epistles. Walker’s language, style and choice of letters instead of chapters are effective in many ways, both in telling the story and also in conveying important themes.
Celie’s letters to God are a very effective medium for Walker to convey messages to the reader. They present an intimate view of the character’s thoughts without interference from the author and they convey the shape of events to come with dramatic immediacy. They are all unsigned and read more like diary entries and therefore they involve the reader in more ways than one.
Firstly, the reader connects with the first-person narrator and empathises with her as a mature adult reading a child’s plea for help- “Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me”. Yvonne Johnson comments on this bonding between reader and character- “the reader… has a voyeuristic sense of reading messages and hearing voices that were not meant for public consumption.”
Moreover, the novel requires a reasonably high level of interaction from the reader. Due to the dialect form Walker incorporates into her novel, the reader is required to work out the meaning of certain phrases and must also read between the lines to receive the full intended meaning of a letter.
For instance, when Celie says “I’m big”, some readers may not understand that she actually means ‘pregnant’. Most of the novel, with the exception of Nettie’s letters is written in black colloquial instead of the conventional Standard English. Due to its unconventional style and structure, one critic, Barbara Christian refers to the novel as a “post-modern” form. She regards the novel as both “fragmented and whole”. By this she means each letter can be extracted from the novel and understood independently from the rest of the letters. Walker is therefore encouraging the reader to be an ‘active reader’, more involved in the development and interpretation of the plot. An example of this ‘active reading’ can be found in letter 53. Celie has just discovered Nettie’s hidden letters and the first one describes how Albert tried to rape her. Although there is no date on the letter, we know when it is written just from observing the content- “When I left you all’s house”. Once we ascertain when this letter was written, we are compelled as readers to track back in the novel to that point in time. Barbara Christian adds to this “fragment and whole” observation with another. Her perception of the novel’s structure is similar to that of a quilt, in that each letter is an individual piece and each piece is enhanced by the surrounding pieces. Walker backs this up in an interview- “A crazy quilt story is one that can jump back and forth in time, work on many different levels.”
Some of the advantages from writing in the epistolary style can be clearly spotted in the opening letters.
The first few letters tell us of shocking events such as rape and death. Instead of re-telling these events in a 3rd-person narrator style, Walker writes through the victim of the suffering, Celie. Celie at this point in time is only 14 years old and is clearly confused about the events that she writes about. We can see this from the poor punctuation and grammar Walker writes with. For instance, the second letter opens with a short, sharp, emphatic sentence- “My mama dead”. The lack of grammar coupled with the shocking event being reported is very effective. Because we see the letter as having been written by a 14 year old girl, we sympathise with the character more than if the event were described in detail to us by a narrator. This has a shocking impact on the reader, as we see Celie as being a real person, and not just a character. Her plea for help is an extension of this shock, and our response is one of protection, resulting in a strong parent-child bond.
Mel Watkins, a critic of the novel, observes that “her (Celie’s) letters are written in dialect and from the perspective of a naï¿½ve, uneducated adolescent.” Moreover, this style draws us closer to the innocent Celie. Although this dialect may make it difficult for the reader to follow the events (especially in the first letters), Mel Watkins believes this style is crucial to the novel- “The cumulative effect is a novel that is convincing because of the authenticity of its folk voice.” In this statement, Watkins seems to be also referring to the refreshing style in which Celie writes as well as how this style of writing conveys the story far better than Standard English ever could. I believe she is also arguing that the black vernacular adds realism to a novel set in a ‘folk’ setting.
The language used by Celie to describe her rape has been criticised for its crudeness. One case involved a woman named Mrs Green who, after reading the first few letters, campaigned to have it removed from schools. Walker, however states that to cover up the severity of the rape with milder language would be unrealistic and less effective in conveying the horror of Celie’s situation. Mrs Green further expresses her contempt of the book in a manner that most would consider very racist- she believes the novel “degrades black people by it’s exposure of their folk language.” Her disregard for any other forms of expression within literature other than the conventional Standard English shows her lack of understanding of the dialect that makes The Color Purple so effective as an epistolary novel. Walker puts forward her case for the importance of using black vernacular in a novel such as this within the novel itself. In letter 79, Celie comments on how she is constantly being corrected in her speech by Darlene. Celie then expresses her thoughts about being forced into talking ‘proper’. “Pretty soon it feel like I can’t think.” Walker seems to be arguing that Celie’s identity is contained within her own, unique dialect, and if it is replaced by Standard English, as Mrs Green would have it, her language and therefore her character, loses its essence and life. Mrs Green’s restrictive and narrow thinking is something Walker seems to be challenging through her post-modern format. The nature of the novel’s structure allows the reader to form their own individual opinions, since there is no ‘right’ way to read and interpret this novel’s meaning.
As well as the dialect, another reason for the development of an attachment between the reader and Celie lies in the fact that we follow Celie chronologically through the novel. As almost all of her letters are written in the present tense, we have the same level of knowledge about her current life as she does. We have a huge amount of insight into her thoughts because of her exposing letters. As Yvonne Johnson puts it, “Since Celie seemingly has the same knowledge as the reader; readers have both a sense of immediacy as well as empathy for the narrator.” On top of this, we as readers view the characters in a similar way to Celie due to the fact that we only learn about them from her letters.
Another advantage that comes from writing in the present tense rather than the past- tense is the way Celie’s writing style develops and grows as she does. Consider the differences if we compared The Color Purple to Jane Eyre. Although Jane Eyre spans many years, like the Color Purple, we only get one, constant narrator relaying the events. For this reason, we cannot bond with the young Jane Eyre in the same way as we bond with the 14-year old Celie. Mel Watkins mentions Celie’s maturation in her criticism- “As the novel progresses… and as Celie grows in experience, her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority and the dialect, once accepted, assumes a lyrical cadence of its own.” Celie’s writing style also develops and her use of imagery and wit make her letters an enjoyable read. An example of this imagery can be found in Letter 37. When Celie sees Sofia for the first time after she is arrested, she writes- “she just about the color of a eggplant.” An important point in the novel that reflects this development occurs in letter 47, where Celie retells her experience of rape to Shug. Unlike the innocent and naï¿½ve description of the rape in the first letter, the retelling is clear and articulate- “the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking”. Walker retells this incident to inform the reader of Celie’s maturity and also to re-inforce the bond between Celie and the reader. More importantly though is the way in which Walker reminds us of the incident by retelling it in a way that reveals more information to the reader. Moreover, Shug’s loving and supportive presence contrasts to the atmosphere of fear and insecurity present in the first account. Thus, the reader is affected in a completely new way.
Although most critics agree that Celie’s letters are full of colourful language and at times humour, Nettie’s letters are not held in such high esteem. Many critics refer to them as a weakness in Walker’s novel even though they broaden the reader’s perspective on the novel as a whole. Watkins believes that “If there is a weakness in this novel… it is Nettie’s correspondence from Africa.” She also refers to them as “monologues of African history”, “lacklustre and intrusive”. In agreement with this view, Dinitia Smith, another critic, believes Nettie’s letters to be a weak point in the novel. “Walker’s didacticism is especially evident in Nettie’s letters from Africa”. Although these two views are, to an extent valid, I sympathise more with the view found in “The Heroine’s Story”. “By incorporating Nettie’s letters into Celie’s text, Walker illuminates the contrast between Celie’s spare suggestiveness and Nettie’s stilted verbosity. Thus the expressive flexibility of the black vernacular, a supposedly inferior speech, is measured against the repressed and rigid linguistic codes to which Nettie has conformed.” By contrasting Celie and Nettie’s letters, Walker is challenging the superior position of Standard English. When we read Celie’s letters, we can clearly see her origins and individuality through her colourful dialect, whereas Nettie’s language has lost all traces of ethnicity. I believe that without. Nettie’s letters, Celie’s would not be as appealing. Celie’s and Nettie’s letters contrast and enhance each other just as a light colour enhances a dark colour on a quilt. Another quote from “The Heroine’s Story” further links Nettie’s letters to Barbara Christian’s comments on the post-modern form. “The novel moves freely in time and space, juxtaposing the African motifs with the African American, thus supplying a dialectical commentary on the two cultures.” I believe Walker was fully aware of the blandness of Nettie’s letters, yet used them with the intention of contrasting Nettie’s “bleached white” world with Celie’s very colourful world.
Walker’s choice of letters instead of chapters further assists her in her storytelling when it comes to time. With letters, Walker can break up the time span of the novel as irregularly as she wants to. This freedom primarily encourages the reader to be more active as previously discussed, but it also lets Walker jump from significant events without having to lead the reader from one to another. This is especially shown in the first 6 letters, which, although relatively short, span 6 years of time. In letter 2, Celie is pregnant for the first time, yet in letter 3 years have obviously past, as she has given birth twice.
At this stage in the novel, Celie only writes when she is facing extreme adversity. The first letters are pleas to God for help, or written prayers, but as the novel progresses, we see a change in Walker’s style. Her letters slowly turn into forms of written expression reflecting her thoughts. This is shown in the way she includes mundane events and conversations in some letters- “Me and Sofia work on the quilt. Got it frame up on the porch.”
To add to the effectiveness already created by her epistolary style, Walker uses and develops images that are connected to the main themes of the novel.
Celie’s language is in dialect form and is therefore unconventional compared to other novels. Most of what she says is day to day relating of events, but occasionally, Walker plants clever images in her novel. The imagery employed by Walker is also unconventional compared to established Western word associations. This is exemplified in letter 35, when Celie looks properly at her vagina for the first time with Shug. In Celie’s culture at that time, a female’s genitals were regarded as dirty and ugly, yet Celie described them in a fresh, new way- “inside look like a wet rose.” When Walker uses the image of a rose in this way, it may sound strange to us as Western readers. Our education has, on many occasions in our lives, dictated to us that roses should be associated with love- particularly the spiritual side of love. However, the image is used perfectly in this context and this alternative way of using imagery adds to the effectiveness and colour of Celie’s language. Because Celie has been bought up with little education, her language is not hindered by these traditional conventions of imagery, whereas Nettie’s is.
Finally, the main image Walker threads throughout the entire novel is that of the colour purple. Walker uses the colour purple as a platform for each of the main themes she is trying to raise. These three themes are Sexism, Racism and Religion.
When Celie thinks about how Shug would dress, she thinks of the colour purple- “She like a queen to me so I say… something purple.” Celie is a poor black woman and therefore only dreams of ever owning expensive, regal, purple clothes. In the male-dominated society she lives in, Celie is her husband’s servant and has no possessions of her own. Here, purple symbolises independence and financial security which are things Celie desires. Shug is her role model in this respect. Celie achieves this independence when she runs Folkspants unlimited and makes purple and red trousers. The colour purple is then used again by Walker when Sofia is battered and bruised- “she just about the color of a eggplant.” This symbolises the racism, but moreover, the complete contrast between Celie’s ideas of victims and triumphant women. It is this contrast that acts as the thread running through the entire novel. Finally, when Celie and Shug are looking to the future and pondering on the issue of Religion, the colour purple symbolises their new-found life of happiness and appreciation of God’s creation. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Shug says in letter 75. Walker seems to have named her book “The Color Purple” to give a collective name for the main contrasting themes of oppression and complete independence.
In conclusion, Alice Walker’s narrative techniques are highly effective in communicating her story and themes across to the reader. Her use of letters and therefore first-person narrative draws the reader close to the narrator. The reader empathises with the narrator and her tribulations. Also the shocking language used in the opening letters, affects the mature, adult reader, who feels a desire to answer Celie’s plea for help. Walker’s use of dialect makes the book colourful and full of character. It also makes the novel easy to read and understand due to the fluidity of the language. The dialect also re-enforces the bond between reader and narrator due to Celie’s naï¿½ve use of language. Celie’s style develops in complexity as the novel progresses. This is shown by Walker in the form of short, blunt sentences in the first few letters and then complex images later on in the novel. Moreover, Nettie’s letters, although criticised by many, add a broader perspective to the novel, whilst challenging the status of Standard English. With The Color Purple being a post-modern novel, Nettie’s letters also encourage the reader to be ‘active’ in piecing together the fragmented letters and filling in the gaps between them.
Time is also used by Walker in conjunction with the epistolary structure of the novel to only focus on the important events of Celie’s life. This makes the novel easy to get through quickly, whilst still being an extremely effective read.
Finally, Walker’s imagery adds colour to the novel. Celie’s developing writing style conveys this imagery and is extremely effective when coupled with her dialect style. Without the dialect style, Celie’s language would lose ethnicity and individuality and would be bland like Nettie’s traditional style of writing. Furthermore, one image in particular, the colour purple is very significant in emphasising key themes. These include Sexism, Racism and Religion. These themes can also be viewed as one all-embracing theme of independence in contrast to oppression. The colour purple is Walker’s most extensive image and for Celie it symbolises happiness, security and faith in God, the recipient of her letters.