From monotheism to pantheism: liberation from patriarchy in Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple.'

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Date: Spring 1997
From: The Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 38, Issue 3)
Publisher: Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,081 words

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Abstract: 

The shift in attitude from traditional Christianity to a pantheistic outlook parallels the movement from oppression to freedom for Celie, the central character in Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple.' Celie is dominated and abused by every male figure in the novel, and she associates a biblical God with fear and violence. Celie's growing love for Shug Avery offers the first reciprocal relationship Celie has ever known, and her final letter to God demonstrates the view that God inhabits all things.

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ALICE WALKER's The Color Purple, in spite of its overwhelming success, has been criticized for possessing a rather superficial, fairy tale-styled ending. T. W. Lewis, for example, avows that the work appears "not as a realistic chronicle of human events but as fable" (485), and, similarly, Trudier Harris notes that "'the issues are worked out at the price of realism'" (6). These are valid critiques, as it is difficult to imagine any character, despite the approximately forty-year time span, arising from such utter oppression into such a state of bliss and restoration, as does Celie. Yet if we as readers can accept this ending--simply overcome our prejudice that such a conclusion is improbable--we can then ask what functions as the impetus for such change. Much critical attention has been focused on the Shug/Celie relationship as the influencing factor in the latter's growth. For instance, Margaret Walsh, who refers to Shug as Celie's "magic helper," declares that through Ms. Avery, "the love inside Celie comes forth, breaking the spell that has bound her" (90). And in like manner, Daniel Ross discusses "the crucial role" Shug plays in Celie's development (73).

However, I would like to suggest another apparently unexplored area that operates in a similar manner, and that is the pantheistic philosophy into which Celie emerges. Celie's conversion from a monotheistic view of God (or traditional Christianity) to a more pantheistic outlook represents and parallels her movement from feelings of oppression under the domination of patriarchy into a sense of connectedness with others and self-acceptance at which she ultimately arrives by the novel's end.

From early adolescence into adulthood Celie associates the biblical God with the men she knows--men who have been oppressive and cruelly insensitive to her. The male-bullying and domination begin for Celie at fourteen when the man she thinks is "Pa" rapes her on at least two occasions, rendering her unable to ever again bear children. The trauma of this event remains entrenched in Celie's mind, causing her to still cry in her adulthood: "Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug's arms. How it hurt and how much I was surprise. How it stung while I finish trimming his hair. How the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking. How he don't never look at me straight after that" (117). This assault developes into an oppressive view of men, particularly of the father figure, for Celie. In the same way that Celie wonders whether her father killed her vanished child (4), she also begins to associate God the Father with the murderer of her children. When her mother asks where the baby is, Celie replies: "God took it." To herself she reflects: "He [God] took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods. Kill this one too, if he can" (3). Subtly and at an early age, Celie's notion of the monotheistic, biblical God also begins to be affiliated with fear and violence, mirroring her conception of her father, and next of Mr. --.

Pa's relinquishment of Celie to Mr. -- differs very little from the way one might relinquish cattle. As Harris notes, Pa essentially "barters her off" (1), when he tells Mr. --:

I can't let you have Nettie.... But I can let you have Celie.

... She ugly.... But she ain't no stranger to hard work. And

she clean. And God done fixed her. You can do everything just

like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed or clothe

it.... She'd come with her own linen.... She ain't smart

either ... but she can work like a man. (8-9)

Pa presents Celie as "less than a whole woman" (Ross, 75), due to what Judy Elsley refers to as her "'enforced hysterectomy" (73). And in the same manner in which Celie is given away, so she is treated by Mr. -- as an animal. Celie is brutalized by Mr. --'s son, while Mr. -- watches with indifference (13), but primarily and consistently she is beaten by Mr. --. "He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man" (23). As Ross remarks, "Celie tries alternately to ignore and to annihilate her body" (70). Celie comes to know these beatings as both arbitrary ("Sometime beat me anyhow ... whether I do what he say or not" [66]) and simply due to her permanent identity as female ("Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr. -- say, Cause she my wife" [23]). Additionally, Mr. -- repeatedly performs what might be considered sanctioned rape. Celie describes to Shug her dreaded sexual experiences: "He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain't there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep" (81). This sex is both in the absence of love and against Celie's will, rendering it a vile act.

It is Celie's interpretation of the biblical God and his commands that breeds her compliance to these abusive patriarchal conditions, for her acquiescence was apparently not an all-encompassing societal norm. Sofia and Shug, who function as foil to Celie's downcast state, are both women who vehemently refuse to be dominated. It is Celie's strict adherence to traditional Christianity, to the God who looks to her "like some stout white man work at the bank" (96), which keeps her locked in the cycle of male jurisdiction. Acting as "a model of Christian behavior" (Harris, 9), Celie explains to Sofia:

Couldn't be mad at my daddy cause he my daddy. Bible say,

Honor father and mother no matter what.... Well, sometime

Mister git on me pretty hard. I have to talk to Old Maker.

But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon

be over.... Heaven last always. (44)

Mr. --, who treats Celie as his slave and hides her sister's letters for several years, represents to Celie a tyrannical male figure. He explodes into an archetype--one in which Pa, Harpo, and all other men are also cast. "I don't even look at mens. That's the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I'm not scared of them.... Most times mens look pretty much alike to me" (6, 16). Celie's earlier experiences demonstrate "that patriarchal society puts value on women only to the degree that they serve the purpose of commodities of exchange between men" (Elsley, 73). Thus, it is not surprising that as an adult, Celie likens the monotheistic Judeo-Christian God, whom she knows to be distinctively male, to the same burdensome traits of all males, as she remarks to Shug: "the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown" (199). This iron-fisted God keeps Celie in constant fear of being punished, bridling her into subordination; because Celie has been discarded by this "old white man" (201), she is left at the bottom of the traditional world's pecking order, as she is black, poor, female, and unattractive. Her resulting low self-esteem paralyzes her, making her a pawn, or as Charles Proudfit puts it, "a passive victim" (23), to the ubiquitous patriarchy that manifests itself both familially and spiritually.

Up to this point in the novel, Celie's life has been one of hopelessness, even longing for death as relief from life's hardships. "Celie has been fragmented into pieces which are given away to others, mostly at the insistence of the men who dominate her" (Elsley, 73). Finally, however, the story undergoes a significant turning point. When Celie discovers the long-obscured truth about her family--that her real father was lynched, her mother was crazy, and Pa was not really her father--she declares to God: "You must be sleep" (183). This is the first step Celie makes in resisting the "'big and old and tall and gray bearded and white" monotheistic God (201). It is at this point that the story takes on a radically new direction even in terms of the narrative device of letter writing. Prior to this stage, Celie's letters were addressed to God, due to the threat made to her by Pa that prefaces the book: "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy" (1). Thus, all these letters are cast with a fearful hue and are written to what is at best a vague entity to Celie. But after the aforementioned declaration that God is asleep in terms of her life, Celie begins addressing her letters to Nettie, underscoring the newly emerging theme of love, connectedness, and restoration, which Celie's bond with Nettie represents.

I must take issue at this point with Diane Gabrielsen Scholl who perceives the novel as having a "radically Christian nature" (255). Indeed, it is only as Celie rids herself of her oppressive man-God figure and emerges into a distinctly non-Christian discovery of God that she finally attains liberation from patriarchy. When Shug teaches Celie that God is in everything, including the flowers, wind, and water (204), and God is in her, and she is inherently connected to everything (203), her sense of fear and of being judged dissolves. Celie learns that she should focus on the creation, not the person of God, as Shug directs: "'My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people.... I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed'" (203). Celie's newfound religion links God with the power of the universe, a very pantheistic notion, and often associated with goddess religions. According to Jung, the positive aspects of the earth and nature--including fertility, growth, and abundance--are associated with "The Good Mother" (Guerin, 152). In Celie's new framework, God is posited as internal, a connecting force of all nature (202), but most significantly for Celie, God is no longer a He, but an it, erasing the male connotations she previously connected with God. Shug describes: "[It] Don't look like nothing.... It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything" (202).

This new philosophy that positions Celie as "being part of everything, not separate at all" (203), fortifies her with self-acceptance and leads her to reject male mastery. When Mr. -- asserts Celie's low status on the white, patriarchal scale--"You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman" (213)--it is the nature-God that literally enables her to speak and fight back. As Celie curses Mr. --, she feels the strength "seem to come to me from the trees" (213). As Mr. -- attempts to reassert his dominance, Celie continues to be spurred on by the air (213), and then the dirt (214), which gives utterance to her ultimate defiance against established hierarchy: "I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook .... But I'm here" (214). Celie affirms that although she does not fulfill the standards set by the male-dominated world which surrounds her, her existence matters.

As suggested, it is only as Celie diverges from the patriarchal family structure and perspective of God that she acquires her first sense of self-acceptance. She resists the imposed negative self-image and develops a previously unprecedented confidence. Namely, she starts her own clothing business, learns to accept Shug's affair with a man, and maintains assurance that Nettle is alive, in spite of a letter's mention of her sunken boat. Most notably, Celie begins for the first time to refer to her nameless oppressor, Mr. --, by his first name, Albert. This change in name reference is indicative of Celie's developing realization of her equality with men, in contrast to her prior feeling of subservience toward them. By finally referring to her husband (from whom she is now separated) as Albert, Celie demonstrates her rejection of the fearful reverence that the formal title Mr. -- commands and places her husband on a level more par with herself. Celie's life rises to such heights that she writes to Nettie: "I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time. And you alive and be home soon. With our children" (222). Coinciding with this newfound optimism, Celie discovers a new sense of unity and communion with the pantheistic God: "I smoke when I want to talk to God. I smoke when I want to make love. Lately I feel like me and God make love just fine anyhow" (227).

Under the masculine violence Celie is made to endure, a survival-of-the-fittest perspective had been implanted in her which pitted her against, rather than aligning her with, other women. When Harpo asks Celie "what to do to make Sophia mind" (327), Celie flatly advises him to beat her, resorting to a familiar hierarchal order system as justification: "Wives is like children. You have to let 'era know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating" (37).

In spite of this external hostility towards other women, internally Celie is magnetized towards them, particularly towards Shug. Watching her bathe, Celie remarks: "I thought I had turned into a man" (51). Yet, in addition to the aforementioned patriarchally-instilled mentality that had set Celie in opposition to Sophia, Celie is also confronted with the moral taboo of homosexuality imposed by the white, male, Christian God. These two machinations--operating with different and yet uniform function--aim to immobilize Celie, so as to prevent her from seeking female refuge.

Celie hurdles both obstacles once again through the strength of her pantheistic god. She is liberated when Shug informs her:

God love all them [sexual] feelings. That's some of the best

stuff God did. And when you know God loves 'em you enjoys

'em a lot more. You can just relax [and] go with everything

that's going. (203)

Believing in this new god that accepts alternative lifestyles and who "'don't think it dirty" (203), Celie is free to venture into a lesbian relationship with Shug that for the first time merges sex and love for her. This relationship evokes so profound an erotic awakening that Celie believes she was "still a virgin" prior to it (81). Although Shug is often credited as the sole source of Celie's newfound physical and emotional nourishment, Celie may not have been receptive to Shug's advances if not for her spiritual reorientation.

Celie's final letter is addressed, "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God" (292). The novel's conclusion emphasizes Celie's discovery that God is in everything, and therefore everything is holy, a concept that defies any sense of hierarchal structure. In contrast to the unbridgeable separation Celie experienced from the remote Christian God who "sit up there glorying in being deef" (200), the ending stresses the connectedness of all existence--of God, stars, trees, the sky, and all people including herself. Celie's movement from monotheism to pantheism parallels her movement from feelings of isolation and inferiority under male authority figures, into a new sense of bonding with other women and appreciation of herself.

Among the many reasons that The Color Purple is considered significant, it should also be noted that the novel reveals a progression in the author's religious development and advocacy. In much of Walker's earlier work, a repudiation of traditional Christianity is evident while a viable replacement is not proposed. For instance, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Grange finally rejects Christianity in the immediate moments before he is shot. While it seems to Grange "'appropriate" to pray, and he even opens his mouth to do so, ultimately he "'could not pray, therefore he did not" (247). Walker unshackles Grange from Christianity, but provides him with no final recourse. Similarly, Dee/Wangero in "Everyday Use" (1973) refuses her mother's Christian lifestyle and even her own white Christian name, only to embrace what Sylvan Barnet calls "an essentially remote heritage" (70). Walker clearly presents the Black Muslim movement in this story as a superficial solution that provides Dee with no "real connection with her heritage" (Barnet, 69). The outcome for these early characters is bleak; while they cast off what Walker exhibits as an oppressive institution, they only progress into a vast void. The pantheistic alternative propounded in The Color Purple represents then a newfound optimism and spiritual furtherance in the ideological framework of Walker's characters.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. An Introduction to Literature: Instructor's Manual, 9th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Elsley, Judy. "Nothing Can Be Sole or Whole that Has Not Been Rent': Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple." Weber Studies: An Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal, 9 (1992). 71-81.

Guerin, Wilfred, et. al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Harris, Trudier. "From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple." Studies in American Fiction, 14 (1986), 1-17.

Lewis, T.S., III. "Moral Mapping and Spiritual Guidance in The Color Purple." Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 73 (1990), 483-91.

Proudfit, Charles L. "Celie's Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker's The Color Purple." Contemporary Literature, 32 (1991), 12-37.

Ross, Daniel W. "Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple." Modern Fiction Studies, 34 (1988), 69-84.

Scholl, Diane Gabrielson "With Ears to Hear and Eyes to See: Alice Walker's Parable The Color Purple." Christianity and Literature, 40 (1991), 255-66.

Walker, Alice. The Color purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

--. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

--. "Everyday Use." In Love and Trouble, New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1973. Walsh, Margaret. "The Enchanted World of The Color Purple." The Southern Quarterly:

A Journal of the Arts of the South, 25 (1987), 89-101.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A19340570