The Color Purple
The Color Purple, Alice Walker's third novel, was published in 1982. The novel brought fame and financial success to its author. It also won her considerable praise and much criticism for its controversial themes. Many reviewers were disturbed by her portrayal of black males, which they found un-duly negative. When the novel was made into a film in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, Walker became even more successful and controversial. While she was criticized for negative portrayal of her male characters, Walker was admired for her powerful portraits of black women. Reviewers praised her for her use of the epistolary form, in which written correspondence between characters comprises the content of the book, and her ability to use black folk English. Reflecting her early political interests as a civil rights worker during the 1960s, many of her social views are expressed in the novel. In The Color Purple, as in her other writings, Walker focuses on the theme of double repression of black women in the American experience. Walker contends that black women suffer from discrimination by the white community, and from a second repression from black males, who impose the double standard of white society on women. As the civil rights movement helped shape Ms. Walker's thinking regarding racial issues at home, it also shaped her interest in Africa. During the 1960s, a strong interest in ethnic and racial identity stimulated many African Americans to look for their roots in Africa. The primary theme of The Color Purple, though, reflects Walker's desire to project a positive Page 49 | Top of Article outcome in life, even under the harshest conditions. Her central character triumphs over adversity and forgives those who oppressed her. This central theme of the triumph of good over evil is no doubt the source of the book's great success.
Alice Walker was born in the rural community of Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944. Most of Eatonton's residents were tenant farmers. When she was eight years old, Walker was blinded in one eye when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun. Having grown self-conscious as a result of her injury, Alice withdrew to writing poetry. She began her college education at Spelman in 1961 but transferred to Sarah Lawrence in 1963. After graduating in 1965, she went to Mississippi as a civil rights activist. There she met Melvyn Leventhal, a white civil rights attorney, whom she married in 1967. The Leventhals were the first legally married interracial couple to live in Jackson, Mississippi. They divorced in 1976. Alice Walker's first novel was published in 1970 and her second one in 1976. Both books dealt with the civil rights movement. The Color Purple was published in 1982 and brought Walker overnight success and recognition as an important American writer. In 1989 Walker published The Temple of My Familiar, in which she used a mythic context as a framework to cover a half million years of human history. In this work, Walker explored the social structure of a matriarchal society and the beginning of patriarchal ones. As in her other works, the author explored racial and sexual relationships. Walker's novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, was published in 1992. Along with novels, Walker has written many collected short stories and books of poetry. Many of her stories have been included in anthologies. An active contributor to periodicals, Walker has had her works published in many magazines, including Harper's, Negro Digest, Black World, Essence, and the Denver Quarterly. Besides her writing career, Walker has been a teacher of black studies, a writer in residence, and a professor of literature at a number of colleges and universities. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Award, an O. Henry Award, an American Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She has one daughter and lives in California.
In The Color Purple, the story is told through letters. The only sentences outside the letters are the first two: "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy." Silenced forever, the main character, fourteen year old Celie, writes letters to God. Her father has raped her, and she has two children, a girl and a boy, whom "Pa" took away from her. Celie's mother has died and Pa is looking too much at her little sister, Nettie.
Mr. wants to marry Nettie but Pa rejects him because of the Mr.'s scandals with Shug Avery, a blues singer. Celie manages to get a picture of Shug and falls in love with her. Eventually, Mr. agrees to take Celie instead of Nettie because Pa offers him a cow.
Once she is in his care, Mr. beats Celie all the time. Meanwhile, Nettie runs away from Pa and comes to Mr.'s house, but when she rejects him, he throws her out. Celie advises Nettie to ask her daughter Olivia's new "mother" for help. Nettie promises to write but her letters never arrive.
One day, Shug Avery comes to town, but Mr. does not take Celie to see her. Harpo, Mr.'s son, gets married to Sofia, a strong brave woman, and when he complains that Sofia does not obey him, Page 50 | Top of Article Celie advises Harpo to beat her. Sofia finds out, and in the conversation that follows, Celie realizes she is jealous of Sofia: "You do what I can't. Fight," she says.
Shug is ill and Mr. brings her to his home. To Celie's surprise, she calls Mr. by his first name, Albert. Celie's love and care make Shug better; Shug starts composing a new song.
Sofia finally leaves Harpo, who turns his house into a juke joint and asks Shug to sing. Shug invites Celie to the performance. Shug sings "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and then her new piece, called "Celie's Song." Celie discovers that she is important to someone.
Before leaving, Shug says she will make sure Mr. never beats Celie again. She also teaches Celie to love herself. By the time Sofia returns with a new man and six children instead of five, Harpo has a little girlfriend he calls Squeak. Sofia and Squeak hit each other in the juke joint, and finally Sofia leaves.
The mayor's wife sees Sofia in town with the kids and asks Sofia to be her maid. Sofia answers: "Hell no" and hits the mayor when he protests. She is arrested, beaten and left in prison. Meanwhile, Squeak takes care of Sofia's children. When she finds out one of Sofia's wardens is her uncle, Squeak tries to save Sofia. She convinces the warden that working for the mayor's wife would be a better punishment for Sofia. The warden forces Squeak to have sexual intercourse with him. When Squeak goes back home, furious and humiliated, she orders Harpo to call her Mary Agnes, her real name. Sofia starts working for the mayor's wife, but she is treated as a slave.
On her next visit, Shug is married. She and Celie have missed each other, and one night, when the men are away, Celie tells Shug the story of Pa and the children. Shug kisses her, and they make love.
One day, Shug asks Celie about Nettie, and together they realize Mr. has been hiding Nettie's letters. They finally recover them from Mr.'s trunk.
Unlike Celie's letters to God, Nettie's letters are written in standard English. The day Nettie left, Mr. followed her and tried to rape her. She fought, and he had to give up, but he promised she would never hear from Celie again. Nettie went to see Corrine, Olivia's new mother, and her husband, the Reverend Samuel. She also met Celie's other child, Adam. Samuel was a member of a Missionary Society, and Nettie decided to go to Africa with the family. First, they went to New York, where Nettie discovered Harlem and African culture. Then, they went to England and Senegal, where Nettie saw what Europe was doing to Africa: robbing its treasures, using its peoples, and impoverishing the land.
Celie reads Nettie's letters and wants to kill Mr. for having hidden them. To help Celie control herself, Shug suggests that Celie make herself a pair of pants and go on reading the letters.
When the missionary group arrived in Africa, the Olinkas thought Adam and Olivia were Nettie's and Samuel's children. They told Nettie the story about roofleaves:There had been a greedy chief who cut down much of the jungle in order to create more farmland. The plants, which provided the leaves for the roofs of the Olinkas' houses, were destroyed, and many people died. The village began worshipping the leaves. When Nettie looked at the roof of her new house in the village, she knew she was in front of the Olinkas' God.
Olinka girls were not educated. Olivia was the only girl at school. Corrine, jealous and worried by the Olinkas' impressions about her family, asked Nettie to tell the children not to call her Mama. Olivia's only girlfriend, Tashi, could not come to school because her parents forbade it.
After five years of silence, the next letter tells Celie that Adam and Olivia had discovered connections between slave stories and African stories. Tashi's father had died, and her mother had let her go to school. A road was now near the village, and suddenly the Olinkas realized it was going to destroy their sacred place. The chief went to the coast to do something about it, but he discovered that the Olinkas' whole territory now belonged to a rubber company.
When Corrine got ill shortly afterwards, she told Nettie she thought Adam and Olivia were Nettie's and Samuel's kids. Though Nettie swore it was not so, Corrine was not convinced. Nettie and Samuel talked about it, and Samuel told her that Celie's and Nettie's real father was not the man they called "Pa"'; their mother had been married before to a man who was lynched by white people. In this way, Celie is freed from the nightmare of believing her children are also her brother and sister.
For the first time, Celie writes a letter to Nettie. She has visited her old house with Shug and Page 51 | Top of Article seen her Pa. Meanwhile, she goes on reading Nettie's letters.
Nettie and Samuel tried to convince Corrine of the real story of the children. She believed them only when Nettie made her remember meeting Celie in town. Corrine smiled to them then but died soon afterwards.
'I don't write to God no more, I write to you (Nettie)," says Celie in her next letter. She sees she has been praying to a white old man. Shug tells Celie she believes God is not a He or a She, but an It. It is everything, and It gets very angry if one walks by the color purple in a field and doesn't notice it.
Shug and Celie decide to leave Mr. together with Mary Agnes, who wants to be a singer. Celie curses Mr. and tells him that everything he did to her, he did to himself. The two women go to Shug's house in Memphis. Then, Shug travels around singing, and Celie starts Folkspants, Unlimited, a family clothing business.
When Celie goes back home to see Sofia and Harpo, she finds Mr. has changed. He cooks and cleans. Now they can talk. Harpo tells Celie his father could not sleep until he sent Celie the last letters he had kept.
The letters say Nettie and Samuel got married in the middle of the Olinka war. The company destroyed the roofleaves. Some of the Olinkas went to the jungle to search for the mbeles, a legendary tribe. Samuel and Nettie travelled to England and in the journey, Nettie told the children their real story. They were eager to meet Celie, but Adam missed Tashi. When they got back to Africa, the Olinkas were so desperate that they had marked their children's faces to keep their tradition alive. Tashi had the traditional scars in her cheeks.
In America, Celie's stepfather dies and she inherits the house. She cleans it of its horror with a ceremony and sells her pants there. Shug goes back to Memphis. Celie is very sad and lonely, and she then hears that the ship Nettie had taken to go home was sunk by the Germans.
But Nettie's letters keep arriving. Tashi, her mother, and Adam all disappeared from the village. Meanwhile, Mr. and Celie are united through heart-break and their love for Shug. Celie discovers that Mr. loves to sew. While they work together, she tells him the Olinkas' version of Adam and Eve's story: Adam and Eve were the first white babies in a black world, rejected because they were different. The serpent represents black people. Whites crush this serpent when they can because they are still enraged. In time, white people will be the new serpent and colored people will crush them. The only way to stop this horror is to worship the serpent and accept that it is our relative.
In her last letter, Nettie tells Celie that Adam and Tashi went to a secret valley where people from different tribes lived together. When they came back, Adam wanted to marry Tashi, but she rejected him. Adam scarred himself to convince her, and then they got married.
Sofia starts working in Celie's store. She is with Harpo again. Mr., who is now called Albert, asks Celie to marry him, but Celie prefers friendship. Shug comes back to them. Celie's last letter in the book is to God, but this time it is Shug's God. Celie is happy: Nettie, Samuel and the children are home at last.
Adam is Celie's son who was adopted by the missionary, Reverend Samuel, and his wife, Corrine. When the Reverend and his family return to America, Celie is reunited with her grown son.
Albert is the widower with four children who buys Celie from her stepfather. Albert treats Celie with cruelty, using her to satisfy his sexual needs and to take care of his children. He really loves Shug Avery, who later comes to live with Albert and Celie when she is sick. Celie appreciates Shug's presence in the house, because Albert treats her better when Shug is around. Albert later in life softens and Celie takes him in as a helper in her business.
Albert's father comes to visit when he hears that Albert has taken Shug Avery into his house. He says many nasty things about Shug and expresses his disapproval of what his son is doing. Albert asks him to leave.
Celie's stepfather. When Celie's mother is sick and dying, he rapes Celie and continues to do so long enough for Celie to have two children, whom he sells to a local missionary and his wife. He Page 52 | Top of Article doesn't tell Celie what has happened to the children, and initially Celie thinks he killed them. Celie later learns that he is not her real father. Her real father was lynched years before by a white mob. Alphonso tells Celie not to tell anyone but God about what he has done to her. He warns her that if she tells, it will kill her mother.
Shug, a blues singer, is the woman that Albert loves. She is a sophisticated and liberated woman. After she comes to stay with Albert and Celie, who care for her while she is sick, she and Celie develop a deep relationship. Shug helps Celie gain self-esteem and teaches her to speak up for herself. She finds the letters from Nettie to Celie that Albert has for years kept hidden away from Celie. Shug also helps Celie get started in her business by encouraging her to sew. Later in the story, Shug returns again to Celie and Albert's home, but this time with a husband. Along with Sofia and Nettie, Shug is a role model who helps Celie change her life.
See Addie Beasley
Nettie and Celie's teacher, who recognizes the girls' intense desire to learn. Their stepfather, Alphonso, is contemptuous of her when she tells him that his daughters are smart.
Carrie is a sister of Albert's who comes to visit. She tells Celie that Celie is a much better house-keeper than Albert's first wife.
Celie is the heroine of the novel. Most of the letters that comprise the book are letters Celie writes to God or, after learning that her sister Nettie is in Africa, to Nettie. Celie does not know about Nettie's attempts to communicate with her until Shug finds the letters from Nettie that Albert has hidden. Through the character of Celie, the author is able to present her message of sexual liberation and self-determination for women. Through Celie's voice, which speaks in black folk English, life in the world of a poor, black, rural sharecropper family unfolds. In the beginning of the story, Celie is a young girl who has been raped by her stepfather, who later sells her to Albert, her husband. Both men treat Celie cruelly and without any regard for her needs or feelings. Celie is forbearing and a hard worker, for which every one praises her. When Albert's mistress, Shug, comes to live with them, Celie becomes liberated from her oppression because of Shug's intervention on her behalf, and because she learns to stand up for herself with Shug's encouragement.
Corrine is the Reverend Samuel's wife. Corrine and Samuel are missionaries who adopt Celie's children. Nettie becomes their helper, and the missionaries leave for Africa with Nettie and the children. When Corrine dies in Africa, Nettie marries Samuel. She and Samuel, along with their adopted children, Adam and Olivia, return to America when war breaks out in Africa. Adam's African wife Tashi also comes to America with them.
Shug Avery's husband, whom she brings to meet Celie and Albert later in the story after some absence from Celie and Albert's home. Shug and Grady return in a sporty car.
Albert's son. Harpo marries Sofia and they have five children. In his relationship with Sofia, Harpo tries to live up to his father's role as the domineering male. Because Sofia is a strong-willed young lady, she becomes disgusted with the way Harpo treats her and leaves him for a time. When she returns with a boyfriend, Harpo is jealous. Eventually, they get back together, but their relationship changes. Harpo accepts her strong character and stops trying to dominate her.
Warden Tom Hodges
The officer in charge of the prison where Sofia is sent after she insults the mayor's wife. When his niece, Squeak, comes to see him in an effort to get Sofia released from prison, Hodges rapes her. Walker uses this scene to illustrate the mentality of racism in the South during the period of the novel. Hodges is the brother of Squeak's white father. Because his niece is black on her mother's side, Hodges has no qualms about sexually assaulting her.
See Shug Avery
One of Albert's sisters. On one of her visits she tells Albert to buy Celie some clothes.
Celie's mother, who is sickly and dies in the early part of the story. When she refuses to have sex with her husband, Albert, he rapes Celie.
The mayor of the town with whom Sofia has a run-in. Sofia is jailed for insulting the mayor and his wife.
The mayor's wife, with whom Sofia has a runin. Sofia insults Millie and is arrested. After serving Page 54 | Top of Article ing her sentence, Sofia is freed only to become the live-in caretaker of Millie's children.
See Albert's father
Celie's younger sister. Nettie is saved from a fate like Celie's because she has been taken in by the Reverend Samuel and his wife Corinne. When they leave for Africa on missionary work, Nettie goes with them. Nettie's letters to Celie are written in standard English to reflect the fact that she received a better education than Celie. In her letters to Celie, Nettie tells her a great deal about Africa, which comes to represent the larger world as well as African-American ethnic identity in the novel. When the Reverend's wife dies, Nettie marries him. She continues to raise his adopted children, who happen to be Celie's by her stepfather. Nettie returns to America and reunites Celie with her children.
Sofia's sister. Odessa takes care of Sofia's children when Sofia is sent to jail.
Celie's daughter by her stepfather. Olivia was adopted by the Reverend Samuel and his wife Corinne, along with her brother Adam, who was also one of Celie's children. Olivia returns to America with the Reverend, Nettie, Adam, and his wife, Tashi, and is reunited with Celie, her birth mother.
See Albert's father
When Sofia returns home after leaving Harpo for a substantial absence, she brings a prizefighter with her. He is her boyfriend, and Sofia uses him to make Harpo jealous.
See Reverend Samuel
The missionary who adopts Celie's children from Albert. Celie does not know they have been adopted. She thinks Albert killed them. The Reverend, his wife, and Nettie, who has been taken in by them, leave with the children for Africa to do some missionary work there. After the Reverend loses his wife, he marries Nettie.
One of the three major female characters in the story who have a positive influence on Celie. Celie sees how Sofia stands up for herself to Harpo and to the white community as well. When Sofia becomes disgusted with Harpo's behavior toward her, she leaves him for awhile. When she returns, she taunts him with her new boyfriend, a prizefighter. Eventually, Sofia and Harpo reunite in a different relationship. When she is insulted by the mayor's wife, she talks back and causes a scene, for which she is arrested and thrown in jail.
Squeak becomes Harpo's girlfriend after Sofia leaves him. When Sofia returns she is quite nasty to her, but she also helps Sofia out when she is jailed for standing up for herself from being insulted by whites. When Squeak intercedes for her with her white uncle, Warden Tom Hodges, she is raped by him.
See Shug Avery
The musician who performs at the jukejoint Harpo has built.
Adam's African wife, who comes to America with him and the rest of the missionary family when they flee Africa to escape hostilities there.
Albert's brother, who comes to visit Shug while she is sick at Albert's house. He brings some chocolate, and they socialize while Celie teaches Shug to quilt.
See Warden Tom Hodges
Sexual relations between men and women in The Color Purple is a major theme. Alice Walker sets her story of Celie's transformation from a passive female to an independent woman within the culture of southern black rural society from the 1920s to the 1940s. In the beginning of the story, Celie is dominated first by her father, whom she later learns is really her stepfather, then by her husband, Albert (Mr.). The catalyst for the character change in Celie is the relationship she develops with Shug Avery, her husband Albert's mistress. Because Celie has been warned by her stepfather, Alphonso, not to tell anyone but God about how he repeatedly rapes her, she begins to write letters to God. It is through the letters that the reader develops a sense of Celie's being, which at first is selfeffacing, but eventually becomes strong and independent.
In the novel there are a number of role reversals that take place between men and women. Harpo, Albert's son, tries to emulate his father and attempts to dominate his strong-willed wife, Sofia. By the end of the story, Harpo and Sofia have reversed traditional male-female roles. Harpo stays home to take care of the house, while Sofia works. Celie and Albert also reverse roles. By the end of the story, Celie is an independent businesswoman, and Albert is her assistant. Celie has also learned to speak up for herself, claiming her house when her stepfather dies. The sexual relationship between Celie and Shug further breaks with the traditional roles of passive women and dominant men that the story challenges. In the relationship between Samuel and Corrine, the missionaries who adopt Celie's children, and later between Nettie and Samuel, Walker presents what could be called a partnership relationship between a man and woman. In these relationships, both the man and the woman share the same goals and work together to realize them. Walker uses the incident between Squeak and her white uncle, the warden at Sofia's prison, to illustrate how sexism and racism were expressed. The warden has no qualms about raping his own niece, which reflects a southern, white, male disregard for the dignity of black women. During the period of the novel, it was a commonly held view among white males that they could do whatever they pleased with black women, a view that many black males shared as well.
Celie's transformation from a young passive girl, who is the object of violence and cruelty from her stepfather and her husband, into an indepen-dent woman with self-esteem is at the heart of The Color Purple. While the ways in which conflicts are resolved may stretch the imagination at times, they are central to the author's view that goodness can triumph over evil. That Celie is able to forgive Albert by the end of the story and take him in as a helper reflects Walker's insistence on the redeeming quality of the human heart. She shows in transformed Page 56 | Top of Article relationships that the worst cruelty committed by one person on another does not prohibit a change of heart. Her view is basically that the conditions under which human beings struggle shape their behavior. Albert had a difficult life and took out his frustrations on Celie. When Celie became self-sufficient, she could easily have turned her back on Albert, but it is not within the frame-work of her character to be uncharitable. In becoming independent, Celie has found happiness. Rejecting Albert would detract from her happiness. Celie's behavior toward Albert reflects Walker's insistence on forgiveness and contributes to the overall religious overtones of the book.
Cultural difference plays a significant role in The Color Purple. Walker effectively uses black folk English in Celie's letters to express the voice of poor, black rural African Americans. Walker presents a clear picture in the book of the economic and social hardships that African Americans faced in the rural south during the early 1900s. She also presents an honest picture of the effects of racial repression. The picture Walker paints of black life is not one-sided. While Celie and Albert are tied to the land and the harsh life it represents, Nettie es-capes into a black middle-class life through her missionary friends. Religion in the South played an important role in liberating many African Americans from poverty. As a spin-off for involvement with the church, literacy and education flourished. Celie is embracing a religious literacy through her letters to God, and in her letters to Nettie she comes to grips with the larger world, including Africa, outside her small community. By making the connection to Africa, Walker emphasizes the importance of African Americans' roots.
Point of View
The Color Purple is written in the first person, and the voice is predominately Celie's, but some of the letters that comprise the book are written to Celie by her sister Nettie. The story covers thirty years of Celie's life from childhood to her maturity as an independent woman. By having Celie write in black folk English, Walker brings the reader close to the quality and rhythms of life that her characters experience. Celie's dialect also reflects her lack of formal education. Nettie, who was formally educated, writes her letters in standard English. They are full of information that becomes a source of knowledge for Celie outside the world of her own small community.
The structure of The Color Purple is the series of letters Celie writes to God and to her sister Nettie. Some of the letters in the book are written by Nettie to Celie. This literary form is called the epistolary novel, a form developed in eighteenth-century England by novelists like Samuel Richardson. A major advantage of this structure is that the reader becomes intimate with the character of the letter writer. With the epistolary form, Walker was able to focus on the inner life of her main character and create a sense of intimacy that may be partly responsible for the success of the book. This technique creates a confidential reading experience. The reader has a chance to read over the character's shoulder and look inside her. Nettie, to a great extent, escaped the cruelty that Celie experienced because she was able to leave home early. The tone of her letters to Celie contrasts sharply with Celie's letters to God. In Nettie's letters, there is much less intimacy. They do not contain the suffering that Celie has expressed in her letters to God. By introducing Nettie's letters, Walker is able to shift her story from Celie's life of despair to a life that begins to have hope. It is through the help of Shug Avery that Celie finds her hope—the letters from Nettie that Albert had hidden from her.
Basically there are four time frames of the novel. In the first period of her life, Celie experiences the misery of poverty and cruelty at the hands of her stepfather. In the second closely-related period, Celie experiences continued cruelty from her husband Albert. In the third period, she awakens to the possibility of self-realization through her relationship with Shug and her renewed contact with her sister Nettie. Finally, Celie has realized herself and has established a life where she has control; she has found the happiness and contentment that come from self-realization. Another period, not directly a part of Celie's life, is Nettie's time spent in Africa. The letters from Nettie serve as a contrast to Celie's life. They also enlarge Celie's perspective and help to universalize her life.
The primary symbol of The Color Purple is found in the title, The Color Purple. The significance of the color purple is that it stands for human hope. It is a miraculous color, when found in
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nature, and one which indicates that the feeling of hope, despite misery, is a miracle of the human spirit.
Black-White Relations in the Rural South
After slavery, the social and economic relations for African Americans remained much the same. While no longer slaves, many blacks remained on the land as sharecroppers. They tilled the soil, but the land was owned by their former slave masters. After 1915, economic opportunities in cities of the industrial North encouraged many blacks to leave the South. Those that remained continued to live isolated from white society. Schools and churches were segregated, as well as housing. There were few opportunities for blacks to establish themselves outside of sharecropping. During the period of the novel, segregation between blacks and whites was enforced legally to the point that blacks had to sit in separate parts of movie houses and drink out of separate fountains, and were forbidden from eating at white lunch counters. The laws that were passed to enforce this segregation were called Jim Crow laws, named after a pre-Civil War minstrel character. In The Color Purple Sofia is victimized by this social policy. When she shows defiance to the white mayor's wife who insults her, she is arrested and given a stiff jail sentence for her actions. The difficulty in relations between black men and women had its source in white male-dominated society. Within white society, men were expected to control the family and had status over women. This attitude filtered into black culture, but the black male, unlike his white counterpart, was humiliated daily for the color of his skin. In frustration, many black males turned their anger towards women. Black women then experienced the double oppression that Alice Walker explores in the novel.
Lynching, murder by a mob, was prevalent in the South from the 1880s to the 1930s. Celie's real father had been lynched in the 1900s because he had established a business that competed with white businesses. White southern businessmen felt economically threatened when a black business took black customers from them. Retaliation by lynching went unchallenged until the United States Congress tried to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937. Southern senators killed the bill by not letting it come to a vote in the Senate.
In their letters, Celie and Nettie talk about God. Celie confesses that she sees God as white, but Nettie replies that being in Africa has made her see God differently. Her African experience has made her see God spiritually rather than in the physical form that is represented in Western Christianity. While most African Americans were either Baptist or Methodist during the first half of the twentieth century, the way they expressed their religion in church was much different from white congregations. Infused into the services were elements from their African roots, particularly a distinct musical style and delivery of the sermon in a moving manner. The congregation answered the preacher at key points in the service, and singing was accompanied with expressive physical movements, like clapping and swaying. The main reason that African Americans were drawn to the Baptists and Methodist churches was that these two denominations had opposed slavery early in American history. By the late eighteenth century, blacks were forming congregations within these Protestant sects. In 1816 religious leaders from the black community met in Philadelphia and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which still has sizable congregations throughout the United States.
Since its publication, The Color Purple has aroused critics to both praise and to sharply criticize elements in the book. Trudier Harris in Black American Literature Forum criticizes the media for dictating the tastes of the reading public. The book "has been canonized," she states. It has "become the classic novel by a black woman," because "the pendulum determining focus on black writers had swung in their favor … and Alice Walker had been waiting in the wings of the feminist movement.…" Page 59 | Top of Article Harris contends that the popularity of the book has been harmful because it has created "spectator readers," and it "reinforces racist stereotypes." Because of the book's popularity, Harris maintains that black women critics are particularly reluctant to find fault with the book, even when they find elements in it disturbing. She also questions the novel's morality, which other critics praise. "What kind of morality is it that espouses that all human degradation is justified if the individual somehow survives all the tortures and ugliness heaped upon her?" The morality other critics find in The Color Purple, Harris feels "resurrect[s] old myths about black women." This critic cites Celie's response to her abuse as an example of the myth of submissiveness of black women. She also criticizes the sections dealing with Nettie and Africa because she feels they "were really extraneous to the central concerns of the novel" and accuses Walker of including them "more for the exhibition of a certain kind of knowledge than for the good of the work." The relationship between Celie and Shug, Harris also felt, was silly. Another criticism Harris has of the book is what she considered its fairy tale element. "Celie becomes the ugly duckling who will eventually be redeemed through suffering," says Harris. The book, she feels, "affirms passivity … affirms silence … affirms secrecy concerning violence and violation … affirms … the myth of the American Dream.…" Anyone can achieve "a piece of that great American pie." Harris accuses the author of preparing "a political shopping list of all the IOUs Walker felt that it was time to repay." In spite of her sharp criticism of The Color Purple, Harris confesses that she is "caught in a love/hate relationship with" it.
Surprisingly, one of the most positive reviewers of the book was Richard Wesley. Writing in Ms. magazine, Wesley says "As an African-American male, I found little that was offensive as far as the images of black men," as they were portrayed in the book and the film. In his review, Wesley sees the character of Mr. emblematic of "male privilege. As long as black men seek to imitate the power structure that crushes them … and as long as black women submit … then the morbid relationship of Celie, the oppressed, and Mr., the oppressed oppressor, will continue to be played out in homes all across America." In his article, Wesley criticizes those who fault The Color Purple for painting a negative image of black males. "Walker is airing dirty linen in public. She is reminding many of us men of our own failures. She is reminding women of their failures as well.… A lot of people do not want to hear that." His strong support of the novel concludes his review. "No one in America—and black America, especially—should be telling writers what they may or may not say. Writers are the antennae of any society. They have to speak when others dare not." Another male writer, J. Charles Washington, writes in Obsidian that Walker is justified in concentrating on female characters, who have been neglected by male writers. It "does not mean that she is anti-male," he says, "but that she has less time and energy to devote to exploring more fully the problems of men or the common causes of the oppression of both.…"
Also writing in Ms., Gloria Steinem finds much to praise and little to criticize in Walker's novel. "… white women, and women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, also feel tied to Alice Walker. The struggle to have work and minds of our own, vulnerability, our debt to our mothers, the price of childbirth, friendships among women, the problem of loving men who regard us as less than themselves … are major themes" of Walker's writings. "She speaks the female experience more powerfully for being able to pursue it across boundaries of race and class," Steinem maintains. She finds the author's storytelling style "irresistible to read." Countering Trudier Harris's criticism, Steinem feels pleasure in "watching people redeem themselves and grow." Its symbolism of purple, Steinem notes, represents "the miracle of human possibilities."
In the following essay, Averbach, a writer and translator with a doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires, talks about Celie's growth as a person and her evolving perception of God as a consequence of this growth.
In The Color Purple, the story is told through letters. It is a novel about an oppressed woman, and the letters are important. Letters have been one of the few means of expression of oppressed women for many years. The author's choice of letters as a form of presentation has a number of consequences. In the first place, the story will be told by the author or authors of the letters: in this case, Celie and, in a small part of the novel, her sister, Nettie. This means the language of the story will be the one used by the person who writes the letter. In The Page 60 | Top of Article Color Purple, Celie's letters are in the language of a black girl who has left school very early in life while Nettie's are in perfect, standard English.
Secondly, a letter is a document with a specific form and, in The Color Purple, the openings of the letters mark the changes in the character. There are only four openings: "Dear God," "Dear Nettie," "Dear Celie," and the long opening of the last letter, which is a variation of "Dear God." We will study the novel taking these openings into account. Before that, though, let's analyze the two sentences which are outside the letters. They appear at the beginning of the book in italics: "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy." They are a strong prohibition to speak (notice the words "not never nobody") given by a powerful man (the father) to a weak child (Celie, the daughter).
From that sentence onwards, Celie understands that she must not communicate her desires, fears and terrors to anybody. She starts writing to God because He is the only thing she has left. The letters will not be read by anyone. They are only a means of self-analysis. God is obviously not there: Celie asks him for signals all the time and does not receive them. In this first period, her life is marked by infinite loneliness. There is no use of the word we. The only small group Celie manages to form is with her sister, Nettie, and when she leaves, Celie is left totally alone. She feels she is buried alive. The most important character around her is her oppressor and he has no name. Mr. is only a role.
Yet, Celie manages to throw a number of bottles into the sea. She tries to communicate certain things, and she succeeds, though she does not realize. For instance, she embroiders the name of her Page 61 | Top of Article child in her clothes: Olivia. The clothes help the child to keep her name, that is to say, to keep her identity, to be herself. This type of communication is not linguistic. It has to do with the activities a woman is allowed to perform in a house (sewing, cooking, cleaning). Celie turns them into a means of expression.
Celie is so immersed in oppression, she accepts the point of view of Mr.: she advises Harpo to beat Sofia. Thus, she agrees with her oppressor in the idea that a woman should only obey, work, and be silent. After this moment of deep humiliation, Celie has the first serious conversation in the book. Sofia comes to see her, furious, and Celie has to explain her attitude. She discovers she is jealous of Sofia's capacity to fight. This conversation is a new beginning for Celie. Both women find a moment of community, they do something together. The pronoun "us" is finally used: "I laugh. She laugh. Then us both laugh so hard us flop down on the step."
When Shug comes to Celie's life (she has seen the singer before in a photograph and has turned her into another God to contemplate from far away), Celie is prepared. Shug does not help her, as Sofia did. Celie has to conquer her with the only tools she has: the feminine activities. She cooks for her, helps her to take a bath, combs her. No words are spoken, Celie cannot face language communication (the order forbids it) but even in silence, she communicates. She gives life. And Shug does what men did not do: she thanks Celie. She dedicates her new song to her, shows her she is important.
In this second period, Celie changes radically. For instance, instead of telling a man he must beat a woman, she starts advising women to defend themselves. She tells Squeak she must make Harpo call her by her real name, Mary Agnes. She even begins to see Mr. in a new light. When Mr.'s father comes to the house and attacks Shug, Mr. and Celie feel united for the first time, and that scene will be developed at the end of the novel when they start talking to each other. Celie is beginning to communicate, but at this moment of her development, she can do so only with women. She has not broken the silence about her father and children yet, but she is beginning to combine nonlinguistic communication with words: "Me and Shug cook, talk, clean the house, talk, fix up the tree, talk, wake up in the morning, talk."
The last period of Celie's education starts when she discovers Nettie had not deserted her. She finds out the first small "we" she had with her sister was a reality. At the beginning of the novel, when Sofia told her she should be furious, Celie could not feel rage. Now, with Nettie's letters in her hands, she is so angry only a creative activity (sewing pants) can keep her from killing Mr. This rage is healthy for her. It makes her stop writing to a God that does not answer: "I don't write to God no more, I write to you," she says. "You" is a real person, who will answer her. The God she was writing to before was a man, and a white man, she realizes suddenly. He was the oppressor: "The God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like al the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown."
Yet, Celie does not abandon the idea of God. She needs to replace it by a less oppressive figure. The new God, provided by Shug, is completely different from the "white old man": "God ain't a he or a she, but a It.… I believe God is everything.… Everything that is or ever was or ever will be.… one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.… I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it." What is important in this presentation of God is the radical contrast of this idea with the American Dream. Celie is discovering something she had already seen in the groups women formed around her, in the solidarity between Squeak and Sofia, between she herself and Shug. She is discovering the interdependence of the world around her ("not separate at all," says Shug), the need to "belong." This discovery explains her words to her husband: "Anything you do to me, already done to you." Until Mr. starts looking around and belonging to the world and caring for it, he is condemned to be Mr. and not Albert. The same can be said of his father, and Harpo and Pa. The legacy of what feminists call patriarchal education (the American Dream) is loneliness.
Now that she can communicate, Celie gets what she needed: company, community, a "we." She gets answers, not only from people, but from God also (unlike the first one, this God speaks). In a very important scene in which she is sitting in the house smoking with Harpo and Sofia to communicate with God, they hear a sound:
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I think I know what it is, I say.
They say, What?
I say, Everything.
Yeah, they say. That make a lots of sense."
Once Celie learns to listen to this God—Everything—she can help others do the same. She helps Mary Agnes, she helps Shug, and what is even more impressive, she helps Mr. Mr. has been a role, a puppet of his father's patriarchal ideas. These ideas stopped him from marrying Shug, the woman he loved. He has repeated his father all his life but at the end of the novel, he discovers himself again. He had always loved sewing, but as everyone laughed at him when he said so (a man does not sew), he had to stop. Patriarchal society forbids him to sew and love, and turns him into Mr. the Man. He needs Celie to become Albert again.
When they become themselves, Celie, Mr., and Squeak become visible to others as they really are. They fight stereotype. Not just one stereotype but many: the stereotype of what a man should be, of what a woman should do, of what a black person is entitled to. This fight has to start with oneself: "Well, we all have to start somewhere if us want to do better and our own self is what us have to hand."
This fight for the self appears in many texts by minority authors. Native, Asian, Latin and Black Americans have felt the pressure of stereotype in their lives and have talked about it in art. In this novel, the pressure of stereotypes is enonnous. The episode of Sofia and the mayor's wife describes one of the fronts of this battle. Nettie's letters about missionaries in Africa describe another. In all these fronts, the battle is in favor of the need to accept the difference in Others and in oneself.
In The Color Purple, this fight is presented through a myth, the African version of the biblical Adam and Eve story. According to this version, black people were the first human beings, and their sin was to hate the Other, the different. They killed all albino children because they were different. Adam and Eve were the first whites they threw out of town, instead of killing. The rejected whites were furious and started destroying black peoples. After crushing colored peoples as if they were serpents, it was predicted, "they [whites] gon kill each other off, they still so mad bout being unwanted. Gon kill off a lot of other folk too who got some color. In fact, they go kill off so much of the earth and the colored that everybody gon hate them just like they hate us today. Then they will become the new serpent. And wherever a white person is found he'll be crush by somebody not white, just like they do us today."
According to the African myth, there is a way to cut this horror, and that is to stop inventing serpents and "accept everybody else as a child of God, or one mother's children, no matter what they look like or how they act." That is why Olinkas worship serpents in Africa. This is the novel's central idea about prejudice and stereotype and difference, three important themes in twentieth century literature. And the only way to bring about the change is to communicate. The Color Purple's conclusion is that first we must communicate with ourselves (our real "I"), then with the rest of the human beings (with whom we will achieve a "we," a community), and then with God (It)—this different God who appears in the opening of the last letter: "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything, Dear God." The travel towards communication is dangerous, especially if one starts it as a prisoner of eternal silence, as Celie does. Nettie's travel is parallel but less complex. The final scene, that of the meeting of the two sisters, represents the recovery of Celie's and Nettie's "we," their home. In The Color Purple, home is something one must fight to find. Celie does not move from her birthplace but she has traveled as much as her sister.
Source: Margara Averbach, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Harris denies that the passive Celie is a progressive character and contends that The Color Purple contains faults in logic which strain credibility.
Alice Walker's The Color Purple depicts a black woman who is sexually abused, verbally dominated, and physically beaten for almost thirty years. As an adolescent, Celie is repeatedly raped and twice impregnated by the man she believes to be her father. That unscrupulous violator sells her children, destroys her reputation while keeping his own untarnished, and barters her off to an older man who uses her as a surrogate mother for his four horrible children and as a receptacle for his passion. After twenty years of enduring abuse after marriage, Celie finds the strength to engage in a lesbian relationship with her husband's former lover, to leave the church and her home, and to start a pant-making business. This brief scenario of the novel traces a remarkable transformation from victimization to entrepreneurship, and it all seems wonderfully affirming. Yet the novel raises many questions about Walker's [portrayal] of black female character and about where it fits in the schema of development she had outlined for her works Page 63 | Top of Article early in her career. Walker maintained in a 1973 interview that some of her earlier victimized women characters were at a sort of "cave woman" level of a process that would take them beyond destruction and into positive images of themselves. Her characters in future works, she said, would no longer go crazy, as Myrna does in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?" or burn themselves up, as Mrs. Jerome Washington, III, does in "Her Sweet Jerome"; rather, they would become the black-eyed Susans who would have found the soil most suitable not only to their survival but to their active nurturing.
A look at some of the women in Walker's earlier works, who, like Celie, are victims of sexual and communal abuse, and who are sometimes victims of their own minds, reveals that Celie is not substantially different from them and that the culmination may be the reaffirmation of many old stereotypes rather than the assertion of a new identity. In Walker's early fiction, to be a victim is to give one's labor for the benefit of others, often to the detriment of one's self. To be a victim is to be the quintessential caring mother, self-effacing under all circumstances where the welfare of children is concerned.…
The world of Walker's early fiction is one in which black people make victims of other black people because of white people. Grange cannot see an end to the life he is forced to lead under the sharecropping system in Georgia, so he destroys his marriage and indirectly destroys Margaret and her child. Brownfield bows and scrapes to the white men for whom he works, but he beats his wife unmercifully. The progression in Walker's world is from external to internal, from male control of female lives to women controlling their own lives. Such a progression, however, is at the expense of realistic portrayal of black female character, a change that culminates in the character of Celie in The Color Purple.…
Celie may evolve within the scheme Walker has set up for her black women characters, but she does so at the price of reliving many portions of the lives of women in Walker's earlier fiction. She is sexually brutalized by her stepfather and exploited as a commodity by him and the man she marries. She becomes more of a sexual object than Mem or Margaret [in The Third Life of Grange Copeland], and she responds to her environment as an object would. Numbed into allowing her stepfather to take her body, she rather feebly rejects the act in her mind. She takes his advice and tells "nobody but God" by writing the letters that provide the form for the novel.
Her initial victimization at fourteen is only the beginning of a series of uglinesses that characterize Celie's life and that show that she shares much with the women who have gone before her. Her status as a sexual object is initially problematic. Celie's sexual passivity, even if it could be stretched into a form of defiance, may suggest some iota of resistance to her situation, but the fact remains that she shares with Mem the sexual violation of her body, which amounts to an obvious lack of control over the most personal, private parts of herself. And she shares with many of the other Walker women the subservience to men. To her stepfather, who might as well be a descendant of plantation owners and other historical and literary males who view women as "chattel," Celie has little value as a human being and, beyond the sexual, none as a woman. She is like the one-eyed mule who is traded off to the buyer who believes that he has at least purchased sound flesh. The attitudes of others toward her, and the attitude of Celie toward herself, suggest that her place in the evolutionary development is not far beyond the level of Margaret and may, in some ways, be below Mem Copeland.
Walker emphasized in her comments on the future progression of black women characters that they would learn to make room for themselves, that they would carve out "a new place to move." That is perhaps the only thing about Celie that seems to fit with Walker's blueprint. Celie, by her own estimation and that of others, is a survivor. How she overcomes victimization to survive is the problem. Anyone can use her, or say anything to her, or commit violence against her, and she will placidly say something to the effect that she is still here. One vivid example of this occurs at the point where Celie's sister Nettie, having run away from home, visits the newly married Celie. To Nettie's insistence that Celie resist the mean children, that she fight back, Celie can only respond: "But I don't know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive." There is a contradiction in a survival that permits these kinds of suppressions of the self as well as a contradiction in how this kind of survival represents a remotely healthy progression for the fictional black woman character.
Celie survives by being a victim, by recognizing that fighting back causes one more problems than not. After Nettie has been forced to leave and Celie thinks she is dead, one of Albert's sisters suggests Page 64 | Top of Article that Celie fight him as well as his children. In response, Celie thinks: "I don't say nothing. I think bout Nettie, dead. She fight, she run away. What good it do? I don't fight, I stay where I'm told. But I'm alive." Her passivity rivals that of many slave women. She will take any abuse to her body and mind as long as she is allowed to stay alive. The emphasis is on allowed because Celie continues to believe that others are responsible for her destiny, that she can have only as much space as they will grant.
Celie's self-effacing stance is given ironic re-inforcement in the novel in the character of her daughter-in-law, Sofia, a black woman who does fight back. For cursing the mayor's wife and fighting back when slapped, Sofia is carted off to jail, then to prison for twelve years; released after eleven and a half years with six months off for good behavior, she has lost her husband, her children, and a portion of her sanity. When the family had visited her in the prison laundry and asked how she was doing, she had said: "Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I'm you. I jump up and do just what they say." Sofia must eventually suppress most of the traits that make her an interesting character, turning from vibrancy to somnambulism, and Celie's formula for survival is mirrored back to her with a vengeance. Still, it is not enough to make her change her behavior.
Celie's notion of woman's place is as old as the history of black women in America. She stays in the home, no matter how ugly and unlivable it may be for her, and she finds comfort in the church and in the preparations, such as sweeping and washing the wine glasses, that she performs for church services. Albert brought her into his home to be wife and mother in the tradition of the mail-order bride—she should take care of his house and his children, be available to him sexually, and be seen but not heard. Although he chases Shug, he does not want Celie to appear in the local juke-joint because wives are not supposed to be seen in such places. Celie accepts her place and submits to the beatings that go along with it; she even tells Albert's son, Harpo, that he should beat his wife Sofia. Somewhere in her feelings, she knows she has given ill advice, but her experience prompts her in that moment to give the advice. When Sofia thinks of leaving Harpo because he will not accept the fact that she refuses to be beaten, Celie says, "He your husband… Got to stay with him. Else, what you gon do?" Celie knows that Sofia is a good wife, just as she knows that Harpo is happier with her (when he did not try to beat her) than he has ever been, yet she advises Sofia to stay even after the attempted beatings. At this stage, the place in the home is all that Celie can envision for women like herself and Sofia.
The only permissible diversion from the home is God and the church. Celie's situation with Albert is so bad that Nettie describes it as a burial. "It's worse than that," Celie thinks. "If I was buried, I wouldn't have to work. But I just say, Never mine, never mine, long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along." Celie has grown up in the church and has attended during both of her pregnancies, so she continues that tradition during the years she is with Albert. In a conversation with Sofia, Celie makes her religious position clear; in the face of her stepfather's abuse, she forces herself beyond anger to feel "nothing at all" because the Bible teaches that one should "honor father and mother no matter what." She does not dwell on Albert's misuse of her because "he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over, I say. Heaven last all ways." It is all very familiar. When the life here gets too difficult and one lacks the strength to change it, one turns to Jesus and heaven. Celie tries to effect a transcendence of her earthly situation that dissolves each time she must undergo another beating from Albert.
Of her role in the church, where the women who have seen her twice pregnant before marriage are sometimes nice to her and sometimes not, Celie comments:
I keep my head up, best I can. I do a right smart for the preacher. Clean the floor and the windows, make the wine, wash the alter linen. Make sure there's wood for the stove in wintertime. He call me Sister Celie. Sister Celie, he say, You faithful as the day is long. Then he talk to the other ladies and they mens. I scurry bout, doing this, doing that. Mr. sit back by the door gazing here and there. The womens smile in his direction every chance they git. He never look at me or even notice.
In the institution that has traditionally allowed even the most rejected and victimized in the black community an opportunity to serve, Celie is a model of Christian behavior. She accepts those spaces in which she can operate without offending and without calling undue attention to herself.
The most vivid instance of the place to which Celie has been assigned and which she accepts without outright complaint occurs upon Shug's arrival at their house. Shug, an entertainer who was in love with Albert years before, and who has three children by him, is brought to their house to recover from a lingering illness. Her mean and condescending Page 65 | Top of Article treatment of Celie during the nursing she provides is only matched by her behavior once she is well enough to move around. She and Albert go about as if they are courting, leaving Celie to think whatever she pleases. The two become lovers again under Celie's own roof. Ridiculous in its conception, the situation becomes more so when Shug asks and is granted permission from Celie to continue sleeping with Albert. The visual layout is itself preposterous. On one side of a wall, Celie lies regretting the fact that she has had no proper sexual initiation and is hardly aroused even by caressing the clitoris Shug has newly pointed out to her. On the other side of the wall, Albert makes passionate love to a woman he has been in love with all his life. The situation is only mildly regrettable to Celie. She does not object to the violation of her home (at times, it seems as if she is pleased that Shug can take care of Albert in ways she cannot). She holds no malice toward Shug for being a luscious slut (one with whom Celie will also fall in love), and she seems to have little sense of the usual decorum involved in human relationships.
Walker can certainly be developing the case that the usual does not apply to Celie and the environment in which she lives, but there must be some kind of logic at work in the novel, no matter how vehemently the reader may disapprove of it. When the characters themselves do not seem to respond to that internal logic, then serious questions arise about the meaning of the work as a whole. For Celie is not merely an animal; she thinks, whether or not she is able to articulate those thoughts, and, though her ability to feel may sometimes appear incongruous, there are certainly things that make her angry, happy, or sad.
So often treated as an object, Celie is put into the position of responding favorably to the first person other than her sister who treats her with the humanity she deserves. That person is Shug Avery. After treating Celie so harshly, and being forced to admire the quiet resignation Celie has in responding to such treatment, Shug's bad treatment turns to good. She comes to view Celie as the survivor she is—in spite of Albert and the rest of the world—and she comes to believe that there must be something special about Celie (Miss Celie, she respectfully calls her).
It is a testament to the good things that Shug evokes in Celie that she is able to enter the lesbian relationship so easily. She thinks only that here is someone who cares about her, not that she is doing something that might be objectionable. She has shown evidence of a traditional moral sense; after all, she had objected, in a way, to the "unnatural" relationship her stepfather had with her. No such value judgment is allowed to enter the relationship with Shug. Celie is allowed to bask in the discovery of the good feelings emotionally and the pleasure of the body she experiences with Shug, for this woman is able to bring out things in her that neither her stepfather nor Albert could. Walker embues the relationship with a forgiving aura of innocence; there can be nothing wrong with this wide-eyed discovery of what it means not only to be human, but to be a woman.
The beauty of this relationship stands in sharp contrast to the ugliness present in Celie's early life and the ugliness she felt was hers. The issue of physical beauty, in fact, is another problem in consideration of the presumably progressive character Walker has created. Black women throughout their history in the United States have been victimized by a standard of beauty alien and inapplicable to them. Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and others have all written of the consequences for the dark-skinned black woman, the one who was not light and did not have "good" hair. That woman suffered from color prejudices originating within the black community as well as from without. Many contemporary writers have written of the need to find identity and value in sources other than a narrow-minded conception of physical beauty. It is somewhat anachronistic, therefore, that Celie judges herself so harshly, by the standards of those around her, for her lack of physical attractiveness. She does not object to her stepfather's evaluation of her because she believes she is ugly. Objective analysis of one's physical features is one thing, but belief that one is ugly is quite another. Celie sees nothing in her environment to contradict her basic feeling of ugliness; she therefore accepts it as gospel. Her response is that ugly people should be seen and not heard; they should work and keep silent and try to make an inconspicuous space for themselves in the grimy little worlds they must inhabit.
From the time that they are children, Celie believes that she is neither as pretty nor as smart as Nettie. Although Nettie encourages Celie toward a more positive self-conception, Nettie soon leaves, and Celie is left with those whose harsh judgments of her looks mirror her own beliefs. Shug's initial reaction to Celie is perhaps what Celie feels is the world's reaction to her. "She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death Page 66 | Top of Article rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain't believed it." What Shug verbalizes is what Celie has felt about her general appearance a few minutes before when she saw the wagon approaching. She puts on, then takes off, a new dress because it "won't help none with my notty head and dusty headrag, my old everyday shoes and the way I smell." Her effort to change is inspired in part by the fact that she knows Shug Avery is a glamorous woman (Celie has worshipped her photograph for years), but it also grows out of a basic inferiority complex about looks. On another occasion when company comes, Celie says she stands "in front the glass trying to make something out my hair. It too short to be long, too long to be short. Too nappy to be kinky, too kinky to be nappy. No set color to it either. I give up, tie on a headrag." Her looks are used to keep her in her place, to keep her from dreaming of being anything other than a mule. Albert learns of her desire to go to Memphis with Shug and is brutal in his comparison of the two women:
Shug got talent, he say. She can sing. She got spunk, he say, She can talk to anybody. Shug got looks, he say. She can stand up and be notice. But what you got? You ugly. You skinny. You shape funny. You too scared to open your mouth to people. All you fit to do in Memphis is be Shug's maid. Take out her slop-jar and maybe cook her food. You not that good a cook neither. And this house ain't been clean good since my first wife died. And nobody crazy or back-ward enough to want to marry you, neither. What you gon do? Hire yourself out to farm? He laugh. Maybe somebody let you work on they railroad.
Partly inspired by jealousy, Albert's outburst shows his regret that it is Celie, not himself, who is going to Memphis with Shug; still, the ugliness directed at Celie overshadows everything else. Even in a calmer mood later in the novel, when he and Celie are somewhat reconciled, he offers essentially the same evaluation of her looks. Celie's whole life is a negation of Albert's evaluation of her domestic talents, yet her response to all of his comments is a lapsing into her usual rationale: "I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here." Even the trip to Memphis does not change her evaluation of her looks. After the wonderful times with Shug, after she sees that things can be different for a woman like herself, she is still overly critical of herself when Shug is unfaithful to her:
Sometimes I think Shug never love me. I stand looking at my naked self in the looking glass. What would she love? I ast myself. My hair is short and kinky because I don't straighten it anymore. Once Shug say she love it no need to. My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman's body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored curly hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh.
Celie's catalog reads as if she had adopted all the stereotyped notions of looks that black women have been unwarranted heir to for centuries in America. She will eventually reach contentment, but that contentment will represent no softening of her attitude toward her physical features. In this area of her life so very vital to self-conception, Celie reflects no evolved state of mind, no substantial change from the majority of her dark-skinned black sisters of the 1930s and 1940s and perhaps a few of those who still devalued themselves early in the 1980s, when Walker published the novel.
Through Shug, Celie does gain a confidence that moves her toward independence. Her confidence increases once she discovers that Nettie, believed to be dead, is still alive. She changes her attitude toward God when she realizes that He has allowed Albert to keep Nettie's letters from her. Resolving to leave Albert, Celie's stance becomes a refusal to be victimized by God or Albert. Her declaration of independence achieves great stature when it is measured against her former, passive existence. That this thing, this object that could be shunted around by almost everyone, finds the strength to extricate herself from her circumstances is truly remarkable. Not only has she been mentally bound, but she has probably never before been more than twenty-five miles away from home. Contemplating a new life, and moving geographically to achieve it, adds a new dimension to the consideration of Celie as stifled character. One of her last conversations with Albert shows the extent to which she has changed and illustrates the effect of that change upon the people who have been closest to Celie; their shock emphasizes how initially incredible Celie's new stance really is. This usually inarticulate woman (verbally, that is) is able to command words that undercut Albert in ways comparable to that of Janie with Jody Starks in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Shug maintains that Celie is going to Memphis with her:
Over my dead body, Mr. ____ say.
You satisfied that what you want, Shug say, cool as clabber.Page 67 | Top of Article
Mr. ____ start up from his seat, look at Shug, plop back down again. He look over at me. I thought you was finally happy, he say, What wrong now?
You a lowdown dog is what's wrong, I say. It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.
Say what? he ast. Shock.
All round the table folkses mouths be dropping open.
You took my sister Nettie away from me, I say. And she was the only person love me in the world.
Mr. ____ start to sputter ButButButButBut. Sound like some kind of motor.
But Nettie and my children coming home soon, I say. And when she do, all us together gon whup your ass.
Nettie and your children! say Mr. ____. You talking crazy.
I got children, I say. Being brought up in Africa. Good schools, lots of fresh air and exercise. Turning out a heap better than the fools you didn't even try to raise.
Hold on, say Harpo.
Oh, hold on hell, I say. If you hadn't tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would have caught her.
Sofia so surprise to hear me speak up she ain't chewed for ten minutes.…
You was all rotten children, I say. You made my life a hell on earth. And your daddy here ain't dead horse's shit.
Mr. ____ reach over to slap me. I jab my case knife in his hand.
Adding a physical articulateness to the longest and the most significant conversation she has had with Albert, Celie goes another step in shedding off the authority that has been placed over her (she still is unable to call Albert by his name). She rejects the role of wife when Albert asks what people will say about her leaving and laughs when Grady, Shug's husband, responds that "a woman can't git a man if peoples talk." It is clearly not a man that Celie wants, a factor that further strengthens her decision to leave.
Surprisingly, Celie's home-bound sojourn in Memphis as companion and lover to Shug seems unliberating, but, taken in its context, it gives Celie a new lease on life. The tasks she has performed for so many years simply because she was expected and forced to do them now become a measure of her love for Shug. Through making pants for Shug, Celie discovers her final declaration of independence. She turns pant-making into a full time occupation and rather quickly becomes a competent, highly patronized seamstress. She establishes Folkspants, Unlimited, and hires a couple of helpers in the business. She even makes pants for the folks back down home, and they in turn spread the word of her good work. The ultimate transformation is complete; she has effaced herself into free enterprise.
Within the context of a consideration of growth and liberation, Celie's pants making is an appropriate and effective symbol. When she wore the first pair of pants, it was a sign that she was breaking out of the role the men in her life had assigned to her. Albert thought it scandalous for his wife to wear pants; Celie defied him and destroyed the power of his attitude over her. Since men have been her most cruel oppressors, it is ironically appropriate that she take something traditionally assigned to them in shaking off the power they have over her. And not only does she shake off that power; she turns it against them by getting them to like the pants she sews. Therefore, they can no longer object to what she wears or how she makes her living.
Celie's survival, without the blare of trumpets, is presented as the progression in the novel. From a used and abused woman, Celie emerges as an independent, creative businesswoman. She moves from being ugly duckling to a figuratively beautiful swan. She moves from being Hurston's mule, the beast of burden, to physical and mental declarations of independence, to a reunion with her children and her sister. She moves from seeing God as the center of her universe to redefining the concept of the supernatural as an "It" that dwells in everyone. She moves from being beaten and used by others to establishing her own business. She moves from being a strait-laced church woman to being a reefer smoker. She moves from the back room of the house in which her stepfather has violated her to sharing a huge house in Memphis with her lover to returning to a house, property, and a store she has inherited. She moves from being Albert's foot-stool to demanding his respect and teaching him how to sew.
Celie is almost archetypal in the transformations she undergoes. In her, black women are visible at various stages in their history and in their representations in literature. As a representative character, Celie presents fewer problems than those that arise in considering her individual case. As a character in evolution, some of the things that happen to her tax credibility; to go from being object to being self-determined is certainly not impossible, but Celie's case raises questions about that process as well as about the evolved state of black womanhood she is portrayed as representing. Despite the fact that Celie "is based on Walker's great-grandmother, Page 68 | Top of Article a slave who was raped at 12 by the man who owned her," Walker's assertion that she "liberated" Celie "from her own history" because she "wanted her to be happy" crystallizes the conflicts at work in portraying Celie as a progressive character.
While it was never suggested that black women had to be dignified in their struggles, it was also never suggested that survival demanded the harshest struggles the imagination can conceive. Celie survives, unlike Mrs. Jerome Washington, III, and Mem, but other Walker characters, such as Myrna, Imani, and the unnamed lawyer killer, also survive.… Celie's path of extrication might be more dramatic than the other three, but ultimately all the women find a new sense of self and act upon that discovery—no matter how unrealistic it may seem.
What makes Celie different is the sensational quality surrounding her life. Walker uses the subjects of incest and lesbianism to add an aura to a story that might otherwise have been rather ordinary. And she uses the rather strained device of Nettie's trip to and letters from Africa to point out African connections between behavior in the Olinka village and behavior among African-Americans in Celie's home town. Incest does perhaps serve to explain why Celie prefers women lovers to men, but the reader must infer that purpose. Celie goes through the somnambulism of her days without consideration of it in any special way; her emotional state is such that few things draw her far out of her passive existence. Her state might just as well have been caused by a lover who was especially brutal to her at an early age. The issue of incest, therefore, is really not as convincingly relevant to the formation of Celie's personality or to the understanding of her situation as it might initially seem. And Walker apparently agrees to an extent with that position by having the "incest" be revealed in a "father" figure rather than a biological father; she inadvertently suggests that this is somehow less startling or that Celie is more prone to transcend the abuse of a stepfather.
The epistolary form of the novel also contributes to what makes Celie different from the other Walker women. As one reviewer of the novel suggests [Gloria Steinem in Ms.], Celie can affirm herself through the act of writing; while others would deny her humanity, she can assert it through the process of creation in the letters. The actual language of the letters, which are written in Celie's folk speech without any attempt at editorializing on Walker's part, is similarly reaffiming; something essential to her personality is given shape on the page. Unfortunately, these very things that make the novel so affirming, from such a perspective, are also in part what make it problematic. Writing may save in the abstract, but it does not prevent Albert from going upside Celie's head. It is a personal, quiet comfort that reiterates isolation and Celie's inability to act in more tangible ways to extricate herself from or change her situation.
While the reader is inclined to feel good that Celie does survive, and to appreciate the good qualities she has, she or he is still equally skeptical about accepting the logic of a novel that posits so many changes as a credible progression for a character. Such a total change of lifestyle, attitudes, and beliefs for a character well settled in her ways as she approaches fifty and the last third of her life asks more of the reader than can be reasonably expected. Readers are constantly tom between their desire to believe and the experience and history that suggest that even a single individual like Celie (even if her representative qualities are ignored) would have more difficulty and more serious wrestling with the spirit to effect the kinds of changes Walker presents, just as they have difficulty accepting the extremity of the abuses in her life. Celie, though interesting, provocative, and un-like many other black women characters in black literature and in Walker's fiction, is nonetheless so like many of them that that kinship overshadows other statements Walker may wish to make in The Color Purple.
Source: Trudier Harris, "From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 1–17.
In the following review, Smith praises Walker for the pungency and tenderness of The Color Purple as well as for its strong characterizations.
As admirers of The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian already know, to read an Alice Walker novel is to enter the country of surprise. It is to be admitted to the world of rural black women, a world long neglected by most whites, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of willed indifference. The loss is ours, for the lives of these women are so extraordinary in their tragedy, their culture, their humor and their courage that we are immediately gripped by them.
Witness the opening passage of The Color Purple, a tale of violence, incest and redemption that Page 69 | Top of Article starts out in Georgia in the 1900s and goes on for about thirty years. Beginning when her mother is laid up in childbirth, skinny, "ugly" 14-year-old Celie is repeatedly raped by the man she believes to be her father:
Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
Celie, who retreats into an emotional numbness that will last for years, has two babies by her "father"; he gives them away. They end up in Africa with Celie's sister Nettie, who works for the missionary family that adopted them. (The novel is a series of letters, first from Celie to God, and then back and forth between Celie and Nettie.)
Celie is married off to Mr.____, a downtrodden farmer who beats her. At night, she parts her legs for him and forces all thought and feeling from her body: 'I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man."
Along comes Shug Avery, a blues singer of legendary beauty. Mr. ____ has been in love with her for years, and when she falls sick, he brings her home to Celie to nurse. Celie and Shug become friends and then lovers. Through Shug, Celie discovers that Mr. ____ has been intercepting Nettie's letters for several years. And from the letters, which Shug helps her obtain, she learns that the man who raped her wasn't her real father. Her real father had been lynched. With the stigma of incest removed, Celie finally stands up to Mr. ____:
You lowdown dog.… It's time to leave you and enter into Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.
I wanted to cheer.
Celie goes with Shug to Memphis, and there she learns to live and love. When her "father" dies, she inherits his farm and returns to Georgia, where she sleeps in a room painted purple—for Walker, the color of radiance and majesty (and also the emblematic color of lesbianism). She is reunited with her children and Nettie, and, surprisingly, she be-friends Mr.____, who has been broken and humbled by Shug and Celie's joint departure. The end of the book finds Celie and her erstwhile tormentor sitting companionably on the front porch smoking their pipes, "two old fools left over from love, keeping each other company under the stars."
Walker can be a pungent writer. When Celie's father-in-law, Old Mr.____, criticizes Shug, Celie, who has been sent to get the man a glass of water, overhears him:
I drop little spit in Old Mr.____ water.… I twirl the spit round with my finger.… Next time he come I put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass. See how he like that.
And sometimes she can break our hearts. When the aging Shug wants to have one last fling with a young man, Celie is so devastated she cannot speak. She can only talk to Shug in writing:
He's nineteen. A baby. How long can it last? [Shug says.]
He's a man. I write on the paper.
Yeah, she say … but some mens can be lots of fun.
Spare me, I write.
No writer has made the intimate hurt of racism more palpable than Walker. In one of the novel's most rending scenes, Celie's step-daughter-in-law, Sofia, is sentenced to work as a maid in the white mayor's house for "sassing" the mayor's wife. In a fit of magnanimity, the mayor's wife offers to drive Sofia home to see her children, whom she hasn't laid eyes on in five years. The reunion lasts only fifteen minutes—then the mayor's wife insists that Sofia drive her home.
The Color Purple is about the struggle between redemption and revenge. And the chief agency of redemption, Walker is saying, is the strength of the relationships between women: their friendships, their love, their shared oppression. Even the white mayor's family is redeemed when his daughter cares for Sofia's sick daughter.
There is a note of tendentiousness here, though. The men in this book change only when their women join together and rebel—and then, the change is so complete as to be unrealistic. It was hard for me to believe that a person as violent, brooding and just plain nasty as Mr.____ could ever become that sweet, quiet man smoking and chatting on the porch.
Walker's didacticism is especially evident in Nettie's letters from Africa, which make up a large portion of the book. Nettie relates the story of the Olinka tribe, particularly of one girl, Tashi, as a kind of feminist fable:
Page 70 | Top of Article
The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother what she thought of this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.
What can she become? I asked.
Why, she said, the mother of his children.
But I am not the mother of anybody's children, I said, and I am something.
Later, Nettie tells Tashi's parents that "the world is changing.… It is no longer a world just for boys and men," and we wince at the ponderousness, the obviousness of the message. At times the message is confusing, too. The white rubber planters who disrupt Olinka society also destroy the old (and presumably bad) tribal patriarchy. Does this mean the white man's coming is a good thing? I doubt it, but I was puzzled.
Walker's politics are not the problem—of course sexism and racism are terrible, of course women should band together to help each other. But the politics have to be incarnated in complex, contradictory characters—characters to whom the novelist grants the freedom to act, as it were, on their own.
I wish Walker had let herself be carried along more by her language, with all its vivid figures of speech, Biblical cadences, distinctive grammar and true-to-life starts and stops. The pithy, direct black folk idiom of The Color Purple is in the end its greatest strength, reminding us that if Walker is sometimes an ideologue, she is also a poet.
Despite its occasional preachiness, The Color Purple marks a major advance for Walker's art. At its best, and at least half the book is superb, it places her in the company of Faulkner, from whom she appears to have learned a great deal: the use of a shifting first-person narrator, for instance, and the presentation of a complex story from a naive point of view, like that of 14-year-old Celie. Walker has not turned her back on the southern fictional tradition. She has absorbed it and made it her own. By infusing the black experience into the southern novel, she enriches both it and us.
Source: Dinitia Smith, "Celie, You a Tree," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 6, September 4, 1982, pp. 181–83.
Trudier Harris, "On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence," in Black American Literature Forum, vol. 18, no. 4, 1984, pp. 155-61.
Gloria Steinem, "Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You: A Profile of Alice Walker," in Ms., June, 1982, pp. 35, 37, 89-94.
J. Charles Washington, "Positive Black Male Images in Alice Walker's Fiction," in Obsidian, Spring, 1988, pp. 23-48.
Richard Wesley, "The Color Purple Debate: Reading between the Lines," in Ms., September, 1986, pp. 62, 90-2.
For Further Study
Richard Abcarian, Negro American Literature, Wadworth, California, 1970.
An early but fundamental commentary on African American literature, its roots and importance. There is a deep discussion of Richard Wright's novel.
Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, 1954.
An early, fundamental source to understand the problem of prejudice, and racism in general, and to help define concepts such as visibility and difference.
Barbara Christian, editor, Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Texto, University of California Press, 1985.
A number of essays about black literature from the feminist criticism perspective.
Arthur Davis and Michael W. Peplow, Anthology of Negro American Literature, Holt, New York, 1975.
A collection of critical essays on early African American literature.
Leslie Fiedler, "Negro and Jew: Encounter in America", in No! In Thunder, Stein and Day, New York, 1972.
An interesting article by a very well-known critic about the relationships between Jews and African Americans in the United States.
Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Power in America, Bantam, 1985, p. 186.
Giddings, a historian, discusses the role of color and its impact on achievement. She offers supporting evidence that African Americans of mixed race (with lighter skin color) had better educational and economic opportunities than those with dark skin color.
Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, editors. Ethnicity: Theory and Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1975.
A study of the relationships between "Self" and "Other," written after some important observations of the sixties.
Jacquelyn Grant, "Womanist Theology: Black Woman's Experience as a Source for Doing Theology," in Encyclopedia of African American Religions, Garland, 1993, p. 1.
Grant explains the concept of womanist as opposed to feminist. A distinction in terminology is made for black women because their struggle for expression has been different from white women.
Bell Hooks, Ain't I Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End, 1981.
Hooks discusses the sexual assault black women endured after the end of slavery and the passive role of black women after World War II.
Charles Frederick Marden and Gladys Meyer, Minorities in American Society, Van Nostrand, New York, 1973.
An early study of ethnic relationships in the United States. The most detailed section of the book is devoted to the problems faced by African Americans in the United States.
S. Dale McLemore, Racial and Ethnic Relations in America, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1980.
A much more advanced study of the subject of ethnic relations in the United States with a big section devoted to African Americans and a deep discussion of cultural versus racial differences and visibility.
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Picador, 1992.
The essential, interesting ideas of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison about African American literature, its roots, purposes and future.
Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, The Female Hero in American and British Literature, Bowker, New York, 1981.
An essential study of women in literature that is very interesting for understanding the position of Celie as heroine in The Color Purple.
Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1981.
This study can be applied to the use of archetypes and myth in The Color Purple.
Elaine Showalter, Towards a Feminist Poetics, Oxford, 1979.
A study about feminist poetic theory, with interesting ideas that are applicable to The Color Purple.
Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, New York, 1983.
A series of interviews with black female authors, including one with Alice Walker. The interviews have a distinctively feminist focus, making them especially interesting to anyone studying The Color Purple.
Fannie Barrier Williams, in Paula Giddings's book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Power in America, Bantam, 1985, p. 114.
Williams discusses the historical attitude of black men toward black women, an attitude that devalued black women and assumed they were not virtuous.