How has Alice Walker explored the themes of love and friendship in “The Color Purple”, and with what effect?
Love and friendship are a necessity in life and in growing as a person. Love gives people the ability to connect with and feel for another person on all levels, it also gives us the ability to have and maintain friendships allowing us to be a part of another person’s life. A person without love and friendship has no form of emotion or feeling causing them to question their sense of self, and their ability to form personal relationships.
In the novel The Color Purple, the main theme is that man we as humans often defeat our problems through the nurturing and growth of close relationships. From this, Alice Walker explores numerous themes of love and friendship between vast arrays of characters. One of the main forms that she addresses is the power of strong female friendships. Throughout the novel, Walker depicts this through the women’s needs to tell their stories of hardship, therefore giving these women their chance to survive the constant oppression and dominance forced upon them by males.
The friendships of these women are so strong that they can gain protection, giving them the chance to share love in a difficult world full of male violence and dominance.
However, these female relationships also take other forms involving a certain level of love; such as motherly or sisterly, teacher and student, and even sexual. The friendship between Shug and Celie allows for them to experience all of these forms as Shug often plays the role of mother, teacher, and friend to Celie, yet also aids her sexually, while Celie takes the passive role.
However, Celie too plays the role of mother to Shug at times. At the onset of this epistolary novel, Celie’s world revolves only around colonialism by whites and exploitation by whites and males, however at the outset of this novel, she is an independent woman free of these restrictions and oppressions, because the bond between Shug and Celie allows Celie to defeat her passive behaviour. Their love and friendship begins simply with a picture that Celie has of Shug. Although Celie has not met Shug yet, the power and sense of presence that Shug exudes in the picture gives Celie a whole new idea in life that she has never experienced before, strength of a woman. This picture also allows Celie to become emotionally attached to Shug, which also is a new concept to her, as she has lived her life without emotional connections with other people around her. Whilst falling in love with Shug, Celie is initiating a whole new start to her life, one that gives her the chance to be mothered instead of mothering.
The relationship between the two women also allows for Celie to grow not only emotionally but also sexually. Shug frequently asks Celie questions about sex and when finding that she has never enjoyed or climaxed during sex, or that she does not even know the names of her body parts amazes her. Celie is confused about sex as when Shug is sick and she is bathing her, Celie describes her “black titties” and how she “thought [she] had turned into a man”. The two women eventually make love in which Celie says, “I cry and cry and cry”, this intimacy and love for Shug allows Celie to be closer to and endure Mr. both emotionally and physically, therefore eventually leading to them having a friendship.
The theme of love and friendship is further demonstrated in the relationship between Celie and Mr. It is portrayed as questionable to a modern society, because of the constant exploitation (both physical and emotional) Celie has endured from Mr. At the outset of their relationship there was no love or friendship, Mr simply married Celie because “She’d come with her own linen. And she [could] take that cow…”. It is evident when reading the novel at the beginning that Mr treats her like slave as a white man would to a black man, he also makes her do all of the housework and raise his abusive children and forces her to have sex with him. If Celie does not conform to any of his demands, he beats her, and Celie obeys this and thinks it is her place when “Sometimes he beat me anyhow…whether I do what he say or not.” Nonetheless, as Celie grows closer to standing up for herself, and with the help of Shug, she finds years of letters from her sister Nettie, which Mr has been hiding away. The fact that Mr has deceived her in relation to her beloved sister gives Celie the courage finally to stand up to him and leave with Shug. When Mr tells Celie “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say you nothing at all.” Celie replies, “Until you do right by me…everything you dream about will fail…every lick you hit me you will suffer twice.” This proves that Celie has finally realised that she can control her own life. And upon Celie leaving, Mr decides to change his erroneous ways and becomes a friend to Celie.
This represents the fresh start to and end of Mr’s hold on the relationship between Celie and Nettie’s.
“You took my sister Nettie away from me, I say. And she was the only person love me in the world.”
Celie and Nettie have never stopped loving each other because their sisterly friendship and bond has kept them strong. Celie made it through her hard life with Mr, because her love for Nettie gave her a stronger sense of courage and self, allowed her eventually to realize that men were not there to control and take over her life, and to end her passive behaviour.
On the other hand, the relationship between Sofia and Harpo also helped Celie gain strength to stand above the male dominance. Celie is affected by their relationship because it demonstrates the crossing of typical gender roles. Often Harpo appears to be a feminine and passive man like when he was “crying like his heart gon break”. Yet Sofia is more dominant by “marching” like “going to war” and “working on the roof” while Harpo “hold the baby” and “give it a kiss”. Upon realizing this, Harpo has a need to prove himself as tough by eating excessively, however I believe this to be his feminine side eating for comfort to feel better about himself. The fact that Harpo is feminine, Sofia masculine, and that one feels the need to commit to a role that the other does not, proves the balance between the two, and love they have for each other.
This is further proved after Sofia leaving Harpo when “Harpo sit on the steps acting like he don’t care”. All of the words in this sentence are sharp and monosyllabic, showing that he is cut up and suppressing his true feelings. Later in the novel, as Harpo is making a net, we see a comparison to the previous sewing of the quilt between Celie and Sofia in which they were symbolically making a friendship, he is doing it because he wants to mend his errors and embrace the love again. It is also evident that Sofia still loves Harpo because of the difficulty she had when leaving, and the few significant items she took which I believe contained loving memories.
The effect that Alice Walker gave to the reader when exploring the themes of love and friendship was one of deeper knowledge. As the reader learnt about and began to understand these themes, they could empathise with them because love and friendship are fundamental to survival. Without love and friends we are nothing, and as all of these characters that experienced these themes grew, so did we as readers because we could relate.
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