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Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ is a controversial novel criticised positively and negatively by all walks of life. At first glance, the book affects the reader emotionally, but after a second reading it is clear that there are intellectual layers to the novel, such as women’s rights and race relations. This text can change the reader emotionally and their views of the world in just 261 pages. I believe that although the novel does have some intellectual impact, there is more of an emotional experience to be had – however does this mean that intellectual pursuit for the society presented is futile?
When reading this novel, we are presented with the shocking opening line ‘You better not never tell nobody but God.
It’d kill your mammy’. The language Walker has used here is intended to shock the reader and entice them to read on as the words creating a foreboding atmosphere. In this first letter we meet Celie – a fourteen-year-old black American girl who is raped by who she thinks is her father.
From this age Celie is already used to being repressed by men, but soon after she is forcibly pushed into a marriage with Mr -, who really wants her sister Nettie. When Celie sees that Mr – wants Nettie she tells her to ‘keep at her books’ (page 6) as Celie sees having an education as a way out from poverty and repression. Alphonso (Pa) wants Nettie for himself, but lets Mr – have Celie. He says ‘she ain’t smart…but she can work like a man’ (page 97).
Most women in the novel seem to be looked upon as cleaners, cooks and child raisers – a view that has been encouraged by a patriarchal world.
Celie’s education is terminated because she is ‘big’, so her sister tries to teach her what she has learnt at school. She is devastated when Alphonso says she cannot go to school anymore, but Nettie says that their teacher thinks ‘Celie smart too’ (page 11). However, it could be suggested that Pa sees their teacher (Miss Beasley), an educated women as a threat, but he comments on how no one will marry her, so she had to be a teacher. This perhaps shows that intellectual pursuits are futile in some respects as men fear and shun this type of women, although as Celie develops in her education it would seem a life away from men would be a blessing. However, black women teachers were very important in the community and this letter shows how significant education is.
Although Celie is unhappy about marrying Mr – she realises that Nettie could come to live with them and then they could run away. They both read as many of Nettie’s schoolbooks as they can because they know they ‘got to be smart to git away’ (page 11). In letter 11, Nettie has run away from home and has come to live with Celie and Mr -. Whilst sitting on the porch, Celie thinks of how although Nettie is educated she may still ‘marry someone like Mr – or wind up in some white lady kitchen’. It seems that for all Nettie’s education, she may still end up like every other woman. In letter 12, two of Mr -‘s sisters come to visit and they echo what Nettie had said about Mr – and his children – ‘You got to fight them’. Yet Celie knows from Nettie’s experience that fighting leads to nothing ‘she fight, she run away. What good it do?’ Walker’s use of minor sentences and punctuation help the reader read how it should be said and shows all the natural pauses in a conversation. This vicious circle of repression and staying repressed keeps Celie ‘alive’, but does not allow her the freedom she wants so badly. Celie is not just a character by herself – she represents all women who have been oppressed.
In letter 55 we find out that Nettie is to go to Africa with Corrine (the woman Celie met in town many years ago), her husband, the Reverend Samuel and Celie’s two children Adam and Olivia. Just as Nettie taught Celie in America, Olivia teaches an Olinka girl called Tashi in Africa. Writing is seen as a weapon – a symbol of defiance to men like Mr -, Alphonso and the Olinka men who fear and resent the education of women. Olivia comments to Nettie on how similar the attitude of education is by the Olinka towards girls are to ‘white people at home who don’t want the coloured to learn’ (page 141) and Walker has first hand knowledge of this, as at the time she was educated, she, as a black woman was very much in the minority. Lizbeth Goodman writes that ‘the importance of words, of written and spoken language, as the medium for empowerment is a central concern in the novel.’ This type of intellectual pursuit for the female characters seems to triumph over the oppressive male ones, especially as ‘the female characters, denied access to education and other forms of learning and communication’ (Lizbeth Goodman). Celie (with Shug’s help) finds the letters from Nettie that Albert had hidden and discovers that her sister is indeed alive and well.
The society in which Celie lives in has little opportunity for black women – yet she manages to successfully overcome this obstacle. However, other characters in the novel are not so fortunate. Sofia, Harpo’s wife, is one of the strongest characters in the book, yet her spirit is broken when she is forced to do the one thing she hates most – work for a white woman as her maid. After ‘sassing’ the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie, Sofia ends up in prison. As a child, Sofia was brought up fighting as a ‘girl child ain’t safe in a family of men’ (page 39). Here, Walker highlights the struggle of black women, somewhere where they thought they might be safe – their own home. Indeed, Sofia says ‘I never thought I’d have to fight in my own home’ (page 39) – is Walker saying that a black woman can only be safe in the company of black women? If not for the redeeming characters of Samuel and Adam (and perhaps the transformed Mr- at the end of the novel), then I believe she could well be making the above statement.
The particular form Walker writes in (epistolary novel) ‘is often perceived as a particularly female form of writing with its emphasis on the personal and intimate’ (Barbara Christian). From the very beginning of the novel, we are hurled into Celie’s world where she shares with us her most intimate thoughts and beliefs. As we progress through the text, it is clear that she grows as a writer and an intellectual. Walker chooses to write in Black Georgian English – her choice of diction (e.g. kine instead of kind) and her use of ellipsis (missing out words that make a sentence grammatically correct, e.g. doze on off to sleep) give Celie her own identity. Not only was this a literary choice, but a political one too, and by putting the African American oral tradition into writing she gives it significance.
Having escaped the confines of the society that she was born into, Celie’s sister Nettie has travelled many miles to find a life for herself. Nettie was the more intelligent of the two sisters, and this was picked up not only by her teacher, but by Alphonso himself recognised this – ‘Nettie the clever one in this bunch’ (page 11) and on this pretence he would not let her marry Mr -. It is clear when reading Nettie’s letters the difference in style – the perfect spelling and grammar, the use of a standard English vernacular and the general structure of the letter. Celie uses a stream of consciousness when writing her letters and the only indication of a different person speaking is starting a new line, whereas in Nettie’s letters, thoughts are well ordered and the reader is reminded who is speaking by getting the occasional ‘said Samuel’ e.t.c. These two very different approaches to writing show both sides to the novel – Celie writing in an emotional way and Nettie in an intellectual manner, consequently providing the reader with both aspects of the novel.
Celie also develops her emotions and realises that the way she sees God has changed. In her last letter (page 259), Celie writes ‘Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, peoples. Dear everything. Dear God’. This pantheist view of God – where God is not just ‘big and old and tall and graybearded and white’ (page 175) – he is everything around us, whether it is the stars, the trees or the sky. In the beginning she seems tentative in sharing the details of her life – the letters are short and there is even a crossing out – showing that she is uncertain even about telling God. This enlightenment gives Celie newfound confidence and drive in her life, showing once again that for the novel’s society, intellectual pursuit is not futile.
The ‘Color Purple’ tackles historical issues such as slavery and women’s rights as well as issues from the 1980’s (when it was written) such as environmental concerns and feminism. Slavery was abolished in America in 1863, but still over a hundred years on race relations are as bad, if not worse as they have ever been. Frederick Douglass, a slave in Maryland was taught to read by the wife of his owner. However, when his owner found out he said ‘If you teach that nigger to read…it would forever unfit him to be a slave…it would make his discontented and unhappy.’ Here we see a view which is carried through to Celie’s time – people in positions of power (in Celie’s case white people, Pa and Mr -) oppress the people they have control over to maintain their power. Some of the men in Celie’s life maintain their power over her by refusing her education and by not letting her express herself fully – yet she manages to overcome them and fulfils her intellectual promise.
The issues from the 1980’s seem to have had a profound influence on Walker when writing the novel. The rise of feminism, or womanism (as Walker prefers to call black feminism), prompted her to show how black women have been treated throughout the twentieth century in America and Africa and how they have persevered in their fight for freedom. Throughout the novel the theme of liberation is present and almost all of the characters experience this in their own way. In the beginning Pa treats Celie and Nettie as slaves, but through intellectual and creative expression they have become free. The importance of sisterhood as a stepping stone to freedom is also emphasised.
Another prominent issue from the 1980’s is sexuality. All through Celie’s life she has bad experiences with men, but she ‘can look at women’ because she’s ‘not scared of them’ (page 7). As well as this, her fascination with the singer Shug Avery leads her to start a lesbian relationship with her. The reader may feel uncomfortable with the portal of this type of relationship – indeed it was avoided all together in the film version by Steven Spielberg. In Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of our Mothers’ Garden’, the author comments on the reaction by black ‘activists, psychologists, sociologists and psychiatrists’ on the Spielberg film. It seems that they felt that the film ‘might be used to psychologically harm black people; this “harm” apparently stemming from how the more “sensitive” areas may be filmed’. However, the reader can understand how Celie has been driven into this situation and it is obvious that she gains strength from being with Shug. On the other hand, ‘homophobia does not exist in the novel’ (bell hooks, 1990) and as Celie and Shug can openly have their relationship and not be criticised it can be seen as unrealistic.
It seems that Walker is evidently writing a historical novel which is quite simplistic. A black male critic her ‘”history” starts nor with the taking of lands…but with one woman asking another for her underwear’ (In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens). Walker also either purposely or accidentally uses anachronism when Celie sees a stamp on one of Nettie’s letters which has a ‘little fat white woman’ (page 107) – obviously meant to represent Queen Victoria. However, at any time during the novel Queen Victoria was not on the throne of England. Walker does not really give a detailed sense of time in the novel and perhaps she is showing that these events can happen anytime, anywhere. Indeed, it seems that Walker presents issues from the past and merges them with issues from the 1980’s (which we could at this time call the past as well) to emotionally affect the reader and therefore influence their views – thus the impact of the novel is emotional and intellectual.
Towards the end of the novel Celie begins to make pants (trousers). This pastime evolves into her own business ‘Folkspants Unlimited’ with Shug’s help. Pants are a symbol of women’s liberation as they signify a non-submissive attitude to men – so that they are not the only ones who wear the trousers. Not only do pants give liberation to women, but the setting up of the business too. Celie is now independent – with her own house (after her stepfather’s death), all the land that comes with it and her means of earning money. These resources give her a higher status in the community and perhaps it is this that allows her to talk to Mr – as an equal in the last few chapters and call him by his name – Albert.
The end of the novel has been much criticised – a fairytale catharsis that almost debases the horrors of earlier. The story can be compared to a quilt – lots of patches sown up to complete the finished product. However, much of the novel depends on coincidence and random events such as Corrine dying (so Nettie can marry Samuel) and just when Celie rightly inherits property, Nettie and the others return home. Walker seems to give her characters the happy ending they want, but the lack of realism disappoints the reader as we are prepared for a distressing ending from the beginning. The emotional journey the reader is taken through is left incomplete and looking at the novel as a whole almost has an element of bathos.
However, Andrea Stuart supports Walker’s plot and ending and argues that it should not be read as ‘a realist novel in the ordinary sense’, but as a folk or fairytale in the style of the Uncle Remus stories ‘which advocate tolerance, patience, perseverance and cunning for the underdog’s survival’. Indeed, Celie is seen as the underdog at the beginning of the story and does survive. bell hooks disagrees with Stuart and argues that Walker has gone back to the slave narratives (see page three for an example of a slave narrative) of the 19th Century which intended to tell people the truth about slavery. She also comments that the conditions for black women in the era Walker writes about is exactly as she portrays them and there is no essence of fable involved. hooks does recognise this realism devotion, but remarks that is it betrayed by the ending. I am inclined to agree with hook as I feel she certainly has a better measure of Walker’s intentions than Stuart, yet she also finds the ending as demeaning to the novel as a whole as I do.
In conclusion, the concept that the reader has a more emotional experience of the novel than an intellectual one can be partially justified as on the first reading we are deeply affected by Walker use of pathos when telling Celie’s story. However, on subsequent readings, we begin to see the intellectual and political issues that Walker has woven into her work and the reader can gradually start to amalgamate her views with their own to form an informed analysis of Celie’s society. My conclusion for the second part of the question (i.e. whether intellectual pursuit is futile for the society presented), is somewhat more inflexible than the first part. Celie and Nettie certainly show that pursuing education as well as intellectual ideas and concepts reaps its rewards. Because Nettie learnt to write well, she could send letters to Celie and therefore Celie knew she was still alive; Celie found enlightenment through a new way of looking at God and running her own business. The two sisters have escaped from poverty and repression and the ending is happy -but, does Sofia find happiness from her revolutionary behaviour?
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