[(essay date spring 1997) In the following essay, Hankinson discusses how the development of Celie's religious beliefs in The Color Purple are instrumental in and indicative of her spiritual growth.]
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 develops 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...