«The Heart of Darkness» in a Multicolored World: The Color Purple by Alice Walker as a womanist text
This paper has become possible thanks to a grant from
The American Councils for International Education (Junior Faculty Development
Program) accomplished at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia,
USA, in 1999-2000.
Alice Walker (b.1944) has been one of the most popular and prominent
figures in contemporary literature since 1970s. Walker reports that her
early education had been "misery". She attended a "shabby
segregated school that was once the state prison and that had, on the second
floor, the large circular print of the electric chair that had stood there"(5,44).
The poverty and misery Walker experienced in her childhood and the rural
Georgia setting provided the background for her first novel, The Third
Life of Grange Copeland (1970). In one of her later novels, The
Temple of My Familiar (1989), some reminiscences of the writer's Georgia
childhood can also be found. In this novel, Fanny and Tanya, a black child
and a white child, grow up together, but are made aware of their differences
by the adults around them. The Color Purple (1982) also abounds
in rural Georgia life details.
Walker started writing poetry and prose in late 1960s. In her writing,
she embraces a variety of issues. Early in her literary career,
she explored the " issue of the spiritual survival of black people
"(4, 450), in particular, black women. In her essay, she wrote, "I
am preoccupied with the spiritual survival whole of my people…I am committed
to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs
of black women"(5, 250) However, eventually her concerns transformed
and became universalized to include the suffering and survival of humanity
as a whole. She has become committed to "causes that go beyond the
black community, seeing blacks as a part of a larger world that we must
save from destruction"(4,450). As contributing editor of MS., she
has spoken out on a variety of women's issues. She has also become involved
in the Civil Rights, animal rights, and antinuclear movements, all of which
she sees as necessary for the survival of the planet and its peoples. In
one of her interviews she responded about her major topics: "hope
for the reformation of and for the survival of the whole human race."
In her essay Saving the Life Thatis YourOwn: The Importance
of Models in the Artist's Life, she writes,
"What is always needed in the appreciation of art, of life, is
the larger perspective. Connections made…where none existed before, the
straining to encompass in one's glance at the varied world the common thread,
the unifying theme through immense diversity, a fearlessness of growth,
of search, of looking, that enlarges the private and the public world."
(5, 5) "There is balance in her thought and in all of her art: balance
between concern for women's reality and concern for the larger universe
to which black women, like all people, are connected"(8, 302).
This "unifying theme" she speaks about is probably
the "saving" of lives through change and redemption. This "redemptive"
quality in Walker's work goes beyond the thematic to the very heart of
her aesthetics. "Even when she writes passionately about problems
that ravage the land and the lives of people, Alice Walker emphasizes the
healing power of love and the possibility of change: change personal, change
in society"(8, 302).
Alice Walker has been widely recognized for her "womanist"
position. "Feminist is only the general category in which Walker's
philosophy belongs, as flower is only the general category for the purple
petunia Walker loves"(8, 302). It does not reflect the specifics that
make her interest in women's reality so distinctive. In the 1970s and 1980s
feminism became, as many authors consider, too bourgeois, middle-class,
academic. The movement often excluded participation, life and concerns
of ordinary women of lower classes, especially black women. Walker thought
it important to involve in feminist movement these women. So, to show distinction
between the "high" feminism and that she wanted to develop, she
introduced her own term to denominate a "black feminist or feminist
of color who possesses strength and persistence for personal development."(5,
XI).However, she has described herself as a "womanist" rather
than a "black feminist", defining "womanish' as "referring
to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior", and a "womanist"
as being "committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people,
male and female"(5, XI).
The term "womanism" has its intellectual roots in
Walker's preface to her famous volume of essays In Search of Our Mothers'
Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). The term comes from the word "womanish,"
which black people in the South use to describe a girl who insists on asking
questions, demanding answers, and speaking in her own voice, in other words,
being "too grown for her own good. "Womanish is the opposite
of "girlish", i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious. "A
womanist, Walker writes, is "responsible. In charge. Serious"(5,
XII). In all her books, Walker values the bonds between women, their culture,
their emotional flexibility and (their) strength"(5, XI).
All Walker's writings reveal "womanist" features. Even in
her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), which
is "ostensibly about a man and his son, it is women and how they are
treated that colors everything"(8,303). It focuses on the misery of
Grange Copeland, a poor sharecropper, starting in 1920s. He is a broken
man, ravaged by fear, humiliation, and self-hatred because he is unable
to provide for his wife, Margaret, and their young son, Brownfield. But
the central theme Walker dwells upon in this novel is the "theme of
destructive relationships between broken men and loyal women"(8,303).
Through many painful experiences, in the end of the novel, Grange devotes
his life to his granddaughter, Ruth, and "nurtures Ruth's womanish
attitude toward life"(8,307).
In her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble
(1973), Walker also writes about a black community composed of individual
black women - "mad, raging, loving, resentful, hateful, strong, ugly,
weak, pitiful, and magnificent…who try to live with the loyalty to black
men that characterizes all of their lives"(8,308). This collection
shows Walker's interest in exploring racism in the South (The Revenge
of Hannah Kemhuff) as well as male insensitivity in black male-female
relationships (Her Sweet Jerome). All these women are self-sacrificing
creatures who live in denial of self, "suspended women"(8,310)
who are used to the pressures of their miserable lives.
It is only in Walker's second novel, Meridian (1976) that a
black woman "gives birth to self"(8,312). Meridian Hill is a
naïve high school student who gets pregnant, drops out of school, marries
her lover and is seemingly doomed to an ordinary pattern of life of mother
and wife. Importantly, Meridian finds sex an uninteresting experience,
but important because it protects her from her fear of men. Walker also
challenges the assumption that motherhood is woman's "sacred calling",
that all women want to be mothers, and that all women function well in
this role. Meridian finds motherhood unfulfilling: "This is what slavery
is like," she says. After some time she leaves for Atlanta to attend
college, and falls in love with Truman Held, a young black revolutionary
who eventually betrays her. She feels used and discarded, leaves Atlanta,
settles in a small Mississippi town to recover from her sorrows. Finally,
she forgives Truman, gains a new sense of herself, and decides that her
"obligation to the struggle for justice is to live and to keep alive
the old songs of her people"(8,314).
Walker's second collection of short stories, You Can't Keep a Good
WomanDown (1981), examines topics that were popular among feminists
of the late seventies: "abortion, pornography, sadomasochism, rape,
and other "unpalatable concerns"(8,314).
All Walker's books prior to The Color Purple( 1982) foreshadow
the novel's issues of racism and sexism, pull together the author's main
ideas about women's life and culture, introduce some experiments in the
black vernacular idiom, some structural innovations. These features will
flourish to their full advantage in The Color Purple. Not accidentally,
the novel is considered a paradigmatic womanist text. For those who are
familiar with Walker's definitions of "womanism", even the novel's
title supports this assumption: "Womanist is to feminist as purple
to lavender"(5, XII)
Though since the 1982 publication of The Color Purple, Alice
Walker has had a lot of accomplishments, she remains best known for this
book. Since its publication, and especially after Stephen Spielberg's "cinematic
revisioning of the novel"(6, 177) in 1985, the novel has enjoyed considerable
success and has become a real bestseller. "Walker's novel certainly
has appealing qualities which generally sell - strongly drawn characters,
a sense that these characters embody the experience of many people, memorable
contrasts between the oppressors and the oppressed, a downtrodden central
character who overcomes…abuse and deprivation to bloom into a strong person,
and, above all, an optimistic, some say a fairy-tale, ending"(6,177).
However, the novel's acceptance by African American community was far
from unanimously enthusiastic. Ironically, written as a healing and redemptive
book, The Color Purple became a catalyst for spirited debate and
fight among African American critics and writers ( Ishmael Reed among others)
who accused Walker of attacking black men. In deliberately doing so, these
critics argued, Walker wanted to gain popularity among white audience.
Her choice of the director for the screen version of her book ( Stephen
Spielberg) also suggested that her main concern was not to tell the truth
about black families and communities but rather to commercialize her literary
To put it shortly, The Color Purple is about being a woman and
black, living in the frame of male civilization, racist and sexist by definition,
being subject to all possible forms of oppression. As Walker writes in
her essay, "a black woman is the mule of the world, because we have
been handed the burdens that everyone else - everyone else - refused to
carry"(5, 237). But also, the novel is about "reclaiming one's
history,…inheritance, language,…and voice…"(6, 183) It is significant
to emphasize that Walker signs herself as "A.W., author and medium"
which means that her purpose has been not only to create literary images
of women, but "to give voice and representation to these same women
who have been silenced and confined in life and literature"(10, 67).
The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a barely educated black
woman, who is raped by her stepfather and then married off to Mr.____ ,
who needs a good worker on his farm. Told by her stepfather that she had
better tell no one but God, about the rape, Celie starts writing letters
to God. The whole body of the novel's text consists of Celie's letters
to God, then to her sister Nettie, and of Nettie's letters to Celie. After
her children by her stepfather have been taken away and her sister Nettie
has been forced to leave (she leaves for Africa with a couple of missionaries),
Celie is totally alone. Eventually, she develops a community, an extended
family, including Shug, her husband's mistress who becomes her close friend,
and others. She overcomes oppression, maintains her independence through
creativity and love. In the end, Nettie and Celie's children come back
home and celebrate their happy reunion.
However easy it is to summarize its plot, the novel is far from simple.
Walker communicates her message through "allegorical overtones"(6,
182). The novel's content and form speak volumes in terms of literary canon.
The Color Purple, nevertheless, refuses to fall neatly into specific
genre categories; it is rather the "blurring of genre conventions"(9,
102). Walker does not merely reiterate the past canons, but rather, in
a post-modern way, reinterprets different genre components for them
to serve a contemporary ideal of "unity in diversity." "Like
a skillfully crafted quilt, The Color Purple incorporates recognizable
pieces of…literary traditions into its own pattern"(9,141), including
slave narrative, domestic novel, epistolary novel, Bildungsromane, fairy-tale,
romance, and even existential novel (9, 102). One more key term that should
be considered for adequate interpretation of the novel is the blues
text which definition adds new dimensions to the novel's synthetic
nature. In terms of the blues tradition, Walker seems to improvise on established
literary patterns which makes her novel a most original piece of writing.
As an epistolary novel, The Color Purple employs a narrative
technique of the eighteenth-century epistolary novels of sentiment (e.g.
Richardson's Clarissa). Such a form is important for Walker for
several reasons. First, it allows an uneducated, black southern woman to
speak for herself. Writing her letters becomes for Celie a means of structuring
her identity, her sense of self. "The progress of The ColorPurple can easily be seen as the process of Celie's writing herself
into being and consciousness, of her growing power and control as a writer"(10,185).
Celie's letters, her growing ability to express her thoughts and feelings
show her spiritual development, mark the way she goes to her independence.
Thus, the novel's narrative structure has everything to do with the novel's
main thematic motifs - of gaining an identity, of rebirth, of survival.
Significantly, in adopting the epistolary form, Walker draws on certain
codes and conventions of the genre: like the Pure but Betrayed Maiden of
the sentimental story, Walker's heroine is a victim of sexual and other
forms of abuse, but she recovers in the end in a happy salvage by her former
abuser(gets her heritage after her stepfather's death). However, Walker
ironically revises the genre conventions in such a way as to turn the sentimental
novel on its head: instead of a "knight" who would come and save
the damsel in distress, it is Mr._____ who arrives to marry Celie and severely
abuse her; besides, she comes to her rescue herself, with the help of other
women, not the "noble" man.
The form also allows Walker to link a formal and western tradition
to an oral and distinctly African American folk expression "Celie's
letters transpose a black and oral mode into a Western epistolary tradition.
Walker's use of the vernacular (Black English) has invested an old and
somewhat rigid form with new life"(10, 68).
Walker considered her book as a historical novel (she writes
about it in her essay Writing The Color Purple). But instead of
a history with "the taking of lands, or the births, battles, and deaths
of Great Men", she writes, "My history starts… with one woman
asking another for her underwear"(5, 356), that is, Walker writes
a "her-story", focusing on women's lives which do not contain
anything "heroic" from the point of view of traditional history.
Walker based the character of Celie on her great-grandmother, a slave raped
by her owner at age twelve. However, by transforming her great-grandmother's
story into one of ultimate redemption and reconciliation, Walker says she
"liberated her from her own history"(7,118). One important feature
of The Color Purple is that it merges history and myth.
The Color Purple presents a socio-historical picture of the
rural South in the twentieth century. No wonder, Walker shows that
racism informs all aspects of black life in the South. The novel reveals
racial tension on every page, by illustrating how "isolated incidents
can set off long strings of racist interactions"(6,119). One of the
novel's subplots tells the story of Sofia who marries Celie's stepson,
Harpo. Sofia has a rebellious spirit, which she exposes in her family life.
When she tried to protect her children's and her own dignity "sassing
the mayor's wife"(1,82) and hitting the mayor in the street, she was
lucky not to be lynched on the spot. It cost her eleven years of prison,
and considerable physical as well as moral damage.
Celie's whole story is based on, or derived from an incident of the
lynching of Celie's real father. This ultimate act of racism defined most
of Celie's early life, making way for her rape by "Pa", the giving
away of her children, her marriage to Mr.____, and her unknowing dispossession
of her home and inheritance.
The effects of a culture dominated by a white racist patriarchy, however,
make itself most felt in relationships between blacks, especially in a
family. As it was already mentioned, Walker's depiction of black men as
being capable of oppressing other members of the community, especially
women, generated a lot of criticism from African-American community, especially
men. Walker focuses much attention on the ways in which black men brutalize
their women. Young women are sexual objects: Celie's body is raped by "Pa",
and her spirit, by Mr.______. Nettie must be clever and work hard to escape
Cellie's bad fortune. Sofia notes that "(a) girl child ain't safe
in a family of men"(1,38). Also, Walker argues, the sexual and economic
oppression of black women by black men is tightly linked. "Pa"
robs his wife and her daughters of their inheritance. One of "Pa"'s
selling points when he marries Celie off is that Celie "can work like
a man"(1,18), and later in the novel Celie is seen to be the only
one working hard on the farm. "Celie is the nexus of all…oppressions
- sexual, physical, social, economic,"(7, 120) a critic writes; we
can only add emotional, spiritual oppression as well.
Including in the novel the African tradition, made available
through the device of Nettie's letters from Africa, Walker pursues several
goals. On one hand, she explores the connection with African cultural heritage,
the roots. In the 1980s, Walker epitomizes the change in attitudes towards
the African heritage among African Americans. In the previous years, many
African Americans wanted to be separated from their African past (African
considered as "savage", "primitive", etc.). By the
time of The Color Purple, a lot of African Americans, on the contrary,
were ready to celebrate this heritage, to emphasize the connection ( "primitive"
arts of Africa became popular, as well as the style of dressing, hair-do,
On the other hand, through the African part of the plot, Walker suggests
the universality of oppression. "The African male order, just like
its American counterpart, denies the validity of female expression; girl
children are not permitted to participate in the education provided by
the missionaries, and they are considered the property of first their fathers
and then their husbands. As a sign of their entry into womanhood, they
undergo a ritual of scarification, which literally marks their role in
In any event, the writer wanted to say by her novel: it's time to transcend
the feelings of guilt, anger, hate on both parts ( African and African
American). It's time for healing, forgiving, reconciliation with the past,
not only in terms of race and class in the United States, but internationally,
in terms of nations and peoples. Placing Nettie in West Africa, and fashioning
her book as a correspondence between the sisters, Walker "created
an internal dialogue, comparing and contrasting, and finally reconciling
poor and middle class, educated and uneducated, African and Afro-American
heritage. From vastly different points of view…the two sisters gradually
come to identical realizations about the nature of life, blackness, and
men and women"(14, 96-97), nature and God.
The theme of oppression and its numerous representations in
The Color Purple, can also be interpreted as an allegory of slavery
(6,183). All early situations of Celie's life are manifestations of this:
her rape by her stepfather is reminiscent of the slavery experience of
the" ownership of one's body by someone else"(5, 235); the "theft"
of Celie's children is closely related with the habit of selling children
off from their mother during slavery; Cellie's marriage resembles the scene
of the slave auction; and her hard work and constant abuse arouse the memories
of slavery; Celie and Nettie's attempts at literacy parallel connection
between literacy and freedom common during slavery. More than that, Walker
"transforms Celie's individual story into an allegory of the black
southern struggle for spiritual liberation and for reconciliation to a
homeland"(7, 115). Thus, The Color Purple can be interpreted
as "both realistic and grounded in a specific sociocultural historical
moment and, at the same time, (as) magical or mythic, signifying beyond
the particular moment in time and place it represents"(7, 115).
Being the blues text, The Color Purple incorporates various
criteria of the genre - in the novel's themes and motifs, in its characters,
in its structure and style. Mary Ellison argues: "An affinity for
the blues enriches the novels and short stories of some of the most impressive
writers in the US. Sometimes the rhythmic style of the blues is emulated,
at others the approach is reminiscent of the blues; occasionally the role
of the blues in the life of a central character is essential and revealing"(13,
171). Considering "the cultural centrality of the blues to African
American life"(12, 125), especially rural life in the South in the
1920s as Walker depicts it, it is small wonder that the writer uses this
form so extensively in her work. "Alice Walker's writing is like a
collective continuing autobiography of black southerners and has the elliptical
yet open style of the best blues"(13, 204). Employing blues poetics
in her novel, Walker gives tribute to her predecessors, Zora Heale Hurston
and Langston Hughes, and similar to them "(affirms) the vitality and
integrity of black folk culture, of which the blues was an integral part"(12,
It is important that Walker's novel and the blues share similar functions
and themes: "the evocation of the particularized, individual experience
rooted in a common reality"(14, 63). If we read The Color Purple
in the context of popular blues texts we'll immediately discern a lot
of themes reminiscent of the blues lyrics which expressed the "real
concerns of the women who sang them and those who regularly listened to
them"(14, 63), among them, "Bad Daddy", "A Good Man
Is Hard To Find", "My Man", etc. The authors of "The
Culture of Southern Black Women" suppose that "there was a kind
of blues for every kind of life experience: there were blues about trains
and sex and food and natural disasters and death and prisons, blues about
love and hate and sad times and happy times, and there were arrogant blues
and submissive blues and blues about the absurdities of life - and there
were independent women's blues"(14, 63). Many of these blues themes
are employed in The Color Purple.
The theme of migration is one of the most popular blues themes
reflecting social experience of African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.
In fact, in all her works, as critics remark, Walker retells a mythic
story of themovement from the South to the North as an ideal
embodiment of freedom, and back to the South for reconciliation. "Walker's
South - North - South pattern grows out of a long-standing African American
literary tradition of movement (where) the North epitomizes liberation…At
the same time, however, the South often implicitly symbolizes home and
a nurturing black community"(7, 116).
The South-North-South movement in The Color Purple is reflected
in the novel's structure (Celie's story). The earliest portions of the
novel parallel slavery. The novel's long middle section parallels the black
community's "lengthy sojourn in the region imposed upon them by slave
owners and continued in the twentieth century by oppressive institutions
such as sharecropping"(7,118). Celie's eventual move to Memphis symbolically
marks the black community's twentieth century migration to the North with
the emphasis both on the economic liberation the North provides (Celie's
"folkpants" business) as well as the threat it presents to black
cultural identity (attempts to change Celie's dialect, etc.). Finally,
Celie's return to the South through her successful business and attainment
of a home represents Walker's argument for black reclamation of a Southern
Celie's story is also a story of gradual evolution which fact connects
the novel with the tradition of Bildungsromane. In the beginning
of the novel Celie lacks power and will to resist brutality imposed on
her since her childhood. All she can do is to survive and persevere: "It
all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you
a tree. That's how come I know trees fear men"(1,22). Celie is a "perfect"
wife, like her own mother used to be, or Sofia's mother is, or the majority
of other women: "She never say nothing back. She never stand up for
herself"(1,39). Celie has no inkling that in her situation she can
fight. That is Sofia's way. Celie, instead, relates, "I don't know
how to fight. All I know how to do is to stay alive"(1,17).
Celie's personal transformation is amazing. It took a long time and
much effort. Linda Tate asserts that the key to her self-transformation
"lies in the ability to take control over defining oneself, naming
oneself"(7,131). Indeed, at the early stages of her story Celie is
devoid of identity; she is "nobody", as Mr._____ puts it: "Who
you think you is?…You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he
say, you nothing at all"(1,204). Celie is totally incapable
of defining herself. She sees herself, both physically and emotionally,
"as living in irreconcilable fragments"(9, 164). She begins her
narrative by writing, "I am" which she then negates by crossing
out, indicating her lack of self-confidence and self-acceptance. "Celie
has been fragmented into pieces which are given away to others"(9,
164). All her life is a series of sacrifices - to Pa's desires, to Nettie's
safety, to Mr.____'s brutality. She has been "torn" into pieces
- torn from childhood by Pa's rapes, torn from her children, torn from
Nettie. She can identify nothing of her own self; she does not feel she
belongs in this world.
Through the narrative Celie must move toward her own self-acceptance
and self- definition. This begins on the day she announces that she will
leave Mr.______ to live with Shug in Memphis. She states, "I'm pore,
I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook…But I'm here"(1,205). Later,
in a letter to Nettie from Memphis, Celie clearly articulates a new and
more positive vision of herself: "I am so happy. I got love, I got
work, I got money, friends and time. And you alive and be home soon. With
our children"(1,213). And although Celie has never signed her letters
before, she does so now emphatically, defining her new identity through
her family relationships, her business, her love, her new place in the
"Your sister, Celie
Sugar Avery Drive,
Memphis, Tennessee" (1,212).
Getting out of the rural South to Memphis opens up a totally new world
for Celie: she meets new people, succeeds in business, and in general has
increased access to the larger world. In fact, not until Celie's move to
Memphis does Walker include references to any world events. In Memphis,
Celie becomes aware of the entire world. From newspapers Celie finds out
that people are "fussing and fighting and pointing fingers at other
people, and never even looking for no peace"(1,208). Not accidentally,
Memphis is chosen as Celie's and Shug's destination where they can express
their creativity to the fullest (among other things, Memphis is known as
one of the blues capitals of the United States).
Her Memphis life represents for Celie not only liberation, but a new
level of self-awareness and self-acceptance. She takes a crucial step in
developing her concept of self through her business, her love for Shug,
her dreams about her own home, visualizing new spaces - physical and spiritual
- for herself"(7, 123).
Yet, in Memphis her attempts at self-definition and self-acceptance
are not fully realized. As Linda Tate writes, the North (Memphis) represents
for Celie not only liberation but potential loss of identity as well. Thus,
her employee, Darlene, tries to "improve" Celie's dialect, to
make a more "refined", which means, different, person out of
her. However, she is different from what she used to be before she left
for Memphis. When she comes visit Sofia and Harpo, she writes: "I
feels different. Look different…"(1,215). Significantly, when she
passes Mr.___ sitting on his porch, he does not recognize this new Celie:
"I pass Mr____ house and him sitting on the porch and he didn't even
know who I was"(1,215).
It is not until Celie returns to the South that she achieves a "wholeness"
of her physical and spiritual existence. It happens when she can reclaim
in the long last her family home in Georgia, along with the farm and the
store she rightfully repossesses after her stepfather's death. It is a
beginning of new life for Celie. Not incidentally, she makes the pilgrimage
back to her home place at a time "like it round Easter"(1,174)
which designates renewal, rebirth, and redemption for Celie.
Celie is happy to have a home of her own. She writes to Nettie, "I
can't get over having a house…I run from one room to another like I'm crazy.
Look at this, I say to Shug. Look at that! She look, she grin…You doin'
all right, Miss Celie, she say. God know where you live"(1,243). "Walker
underscores the deep connection southern blacks and women feel to their
homes,…and the powerful role the reclaiming of the home place in allowing
blacks and women to redefine the terms of their existence in the South"
(7, 126), Linda Tate comments.
In addition to bringing Celie physically home to the South, the final
quarter of the novel also stresses the need of spiritual and emotional
homecoming, the eagerness to make peace with and accept the South. "To
heal itself and make peace with the South, the black community needs to
work toward new definition of the relations between the races and the sexes,"
Linda Tate writes (7,126).
In dealing with these issues, Walker challenges racial boundaries,
portraying new ways for blacks and whites to create a shared sense of community.
Eleanor Jane (the daughter of the woman who had got Sofia into trouble),
for example, takes a step in correcting injustice towards Sofia by going
to work for her. Celie hires Sofia as a clerk in her store to work together
with a white man, so that everyone could be well served.
Walker challenges gender boundaries throughout the novel as
well. Most of the women in Walker's earlier fiction were "self-sacrificing
women resigned to the weary centers and rough edges of their lives. They…internalized
the narrowly defined 'woman's place'…(where there were) no alternatives
to loneliness, exhaustion, and denial of self"(8,310) Such women were
called by a critic "suspended women"(8,310). However, in Walker's
evolutionary treatment of black women, we see the movement from women "totally
victimized by society and by the men" (The Third Life of GrangeCopeland, In Love and Trouble), to the growing developing women
whose consciousness allows them to gain control over their lives (Meridian,
The Color Purple).
Walker's womanism in The Color Purple results in depiction of
various women's characters. Significantly, the women characters in the
novel - Celie, Nettie, Shug, Sofia, Mary Agnes - became involved in a close
sisterhood. In fact, Celie's development into a strong and independent
person became possible because of this sisterhood. Walker portrays a network
of women as being the core of African American racial survival, writes
about "southern black female survival and transcendence"(14,
88). The writer "lays out for us the theme that dominates her work
- continuity and creativity in southern black women's lives"(14, 88).
"Sister's choice" is the pattern of the quilt Celie and Sofia
choose; and this quilt is a symbol of the "female bonding that restores
the women (even brutalized Celie) to a sense of completeness and independence"(8,
320). Women's quilting functions as a way of creating female community
in a world that represses female expression. Significantly, quilts being
a most representative form of African American folk art, "embody the
ideal of unity in diversity…The pieces of a quilt, like individuals
in a pluralistic society, retain their original identities while functioning
as parts of something else…"(9,141). So, the process of quilting acquires
a symbolic meaning: Celie overcomes passive victimization, as a consequence
of her personal development, to construct a pattern of her own choice out
of the shattered fragments of her life.
It is also significant that quilting techniques "reflect a textile
aesthetic which has been passed down for generations among women who are
the descendents of Africans. The asymmetrical repetition of form, off-beat
placement of pieces, variable color schemes, and controlled sense of rhythmic
movement in Afro-American quilts exhibit an emphasis on improvisation
similar to that of jazz and blues, and which is, in fact, characteristic
of Afro-American cultural forms as a whole"(14, 50). Thus, quilting
in The Color Purple is a symbol of women's bonding, creativity,
and at the same time, a manifestation of African American folk culture
the elements of which are so masterfully incorporated into Walker's novel's
structure and style.
Three women in The Color Purple - Nettie, Sofia, and Shug -
particularly go beyond strict southern definitions of Black womanhood.
Nettie's education allows her to escape into the larger world, to
become a missionary. "Stout and bouncy"(1, 81) Sofia demonstrates
"feisty refusal to be controlled by anyone - by whites, regardless
of sex, or by men, regardless of race"(8,317). In her relationships
with Harpo, her husband, she boldly transcends gender boundaries: she works
in the field while Harpo takes care of the domestic chores. They are quite
happy until Harpo's socially determined desire to dominate Sofia first
causes them to fight "like two mens"(1,36), and then leads to
their long separation. By the end of the novel, however, Harpo and Sofia
make their peace, fully accepting each other, regardless of gender conventions.
It is Shug's image and character that tightly connects The
Color Purple with the blues tradition and blues culture
of the 1920s. It is well-known that "the vast majority of the earliest
professional blues singers were women"(14, 62). Shug's life story
fits into many female blues performers' lives. They often chose to pursue
the "itinerant life of a tent show and theater performer in their
attempt to escape the poverty and hardship of black life in the rural South"(14,
Shug represents a "total flaunting of the society's prescribed
roles for women"(7, 127). In Celie's eyes, Shug Avery is the most
beautiful woman she has ever seen. Early in the novel, Celie first sees
Shug's photograph which is reminiscent of Walker's description of a photo
of Zora Neale Hurston, the" Queen of Nigerati", as she used to
call herself, a gorgeous woman: "She bout ten thousand times more
prettier then me. I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like
something tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motocar. Her
eyes serious tho. Sad some"(6). Shug is not only beautiful, she is
worldly, strong, sensuous, and fiercely independent. Shug's role in Celie's
life is hard to overestimate. "Shug is friend, sister, teacher, preacher,
comforter, and gardian angel… who teaches (Celie) a new song of herself
"(8,318). She helps remove the "terrible nothing" from Celie's
life. She teaches Celie how to laugh, how to speak her mind, how to see
herself as a woman deserving of love, how to love herself. It would be
relevant to remember one of Walker's definitions of a "womanist":
(she) loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the spirit. Loves
love…Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless"(5,
XII) When Shug dedicates a song to Celie, Celie writes, "First time
somebody made something and name after me"(1,72)
The blues theme of love, sexuality and freedom of expression
has everything to do with Shug's character and the blues content and meaning.
As Billie Holiday sings in one of her songs, "You don't know what
love is/ Until you learn the meaning of the blues". Shug describes
herself to Celie as being "crazy", like her aunt in Memphis:
" She just like me… She drink, she fight, she live mens to death"(1,
118). Shug Avery is an incarnation of sin for rural religious community.
According to Celie's account, when the community minister chooses to "take
(Shug's) condition for his text", "He don't call no name, but
he don't have to. Everybody know who he mean. He talk bout a strumpet in
short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin. Singing for money and taking
other women mens"(1, 41).
In her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis
comments that "historically the blues person has been an outsider"(12,
124). She further explains that "the most pervasive opposition to
the blues… was grounded in the religious practices of the historical community
responsible for the production of blues in the first place... (The blues)...
blatantly defied the Christian imperative to relegate sexual conduct to
the realm of sin. Many blues singers were assumed to have made a pact with
the Devil"(12, 123). When Shug helps Squeak sing, she remarks that
her voice makes "folks git to thinking bout a good screw"(1,
112). And then she teases Squeak, "What, too shameful to put singing
and dancing and fucking together? …That's the reason they call what us
sing the devil's music. Devils love to fuck"(1, 112). According to
Shug's concept, God loves when people are happy; and what can give a greater
happiness than love?
Stephen Spielberg's cinematic version of The Color Purple presents,
A.Davis considers, a "rather contrived reconciliation between the
blues woman and her minister father ( a character created by Spielberg,
not Walker) in which Shug leads a group of good-time, blues-loving people
from the juke-joint where they were partying on Saturday night into Sunday
morning church services"(12, 124). Shug's voice singing gospel sounds
as sincere and passionate as it does in singing blues. "Any kind of
music make you feel good - blues or church music. It's the sincereness
of it - that's what make you feel good", one of the former blues performers,
Annie Pavageau, once said in her interview (12, 125).
Physical love between Shug and Celie which generated so much criticism
can be, nevertheless, considered not as sexual liberation, but rather as
"the total liberation of women"(8,318). It is "simply an
expression of love between two human beings who happen to be women"(8,318).
Indeed, love can only be a fulfilling experience when the "essentials
of love are in place - trust, compassion, understanding, gentleness, and
friendship"(8, 318-319). Walker does not focus on "lesbianism"
in the novel because Shug's spirituality, and Shug and Celie's spiritual
bonding, is a greater influence on Celie's life than the women's moments
of physical pleasure. Shug is a "feeling, caring person connected
to the universe"(8,319).
This last feature is especially relevant for Celie's metamorphosis.
Shug's most important gift to Celie is a liberating definition of God
and through this, a new conceptof the world. Shug's concept
of God is close to animism of many indigenous peoples, especially Native
Americans and Africans (4, 452).
So, Celie has learnt to share Shug's conception of God as neither male
nor female, black or white. It is exactly how Celie saw God in the beginning:
"He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wears white
robes and (has) …bluish-gray eyes. White lashes"(1,189). Not only
is he white (racist and sexist) in appearance to Celie, but in his attitudes,
too: "…he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of
a step pa and a sister I probably won't see again. …(He) is a man. And
act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown"(1,187).
Shug totally changes Celie's ideas about God. For her, God is present
in all creation: "God is everything…Everything that is or ever was
or ever will be"(1,190). God is not in the Church, Shug explains,
"God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world
with God. But only them that search for it inside find it "(1,190).
This perception of God reflects the author's own concept. Alice Walker
wrote, "I don't believe there is a God…beyond nature. The world is
God. Man is God. So is a leaf or a snake…"(5, 265), God is "in
the color purple in a field somewhere"(1,191). Thus, Walker emphasizes
the "unity and interconnectedness of all life - human, vegetable,
animal"(9, 5) - which can be identified as the holistic view of
life. It is most significant that in the end of the novel Celie is
able to address a letter of thanksgiving to this new God: "Dear God.
Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God"(1,286).
Walker's motif of rebirth, "the regenerate self"(9,3), and
her total redefining of gender roles, results in crucial changes even of
Mr.______'s character. In the end we see that he has revised his attitudes
toward women, gender roles, and human beings in general. As it was already
mentioned, for Walker, nobody is beyond salvation. Mr.____'s early portrayal
as an abusive patriarch turns out not absolute. His devoted love for Shug
indicates that he can love and care for somebody else. Significantly, in
the end of the novel, in his new and healthy, non-sexual relationship with
Celie, as a member of her extended family, her "peoples", he
is transformed from anonymous Mr._____ into "Albert".
His experience teaches him new wisdom: "The more I wonder, the
more I love. And people start to love you back"(1,284). Celie writes
of this new Albert: "I mean when you talk to him now he really listen,
and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said,
Celie, I'm satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural
man. It feel like a new experience"(1,259). It is significant that
in describing his "new experience" Albert says "natural"
man rather than "real" man. "The latter carries the ugly
sound of macho, the former suggests the presence of God, which, according
to Shug, is inside everyone at birth"(8,320).
Thus, Walker's final paradigm is "neither the male/female nor
the female/female dyad, but a variation on the eternal triangle in which
women complement rather than compete with each other, and, at the same
time, share an equal status with the men"(10, 79).
Celie's evolution has become possible through affirmation of oneself
and others. Celie's spiritual transformation from a "tree", a
piece of wood, to a happy and independent person, has occurred through
creativity and love. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker
wrote about generations of black women touched by the spirit of creativity:
"These grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists;
driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the spirits of creativity in them
for which there was no release"(5, 233). Unlike these women in Walker's
essay, Celie and other women characters in The Color Purple have
found the "release" for their creative spirit. All Walker's women
are creators by nature. In their quilts, songs, gardens they realize their
individualities. Shug and Mary Agnes find themselves in music; Sofia and
Celie in their quilts; Nettie in her teaching; and Celie, of course, in
creation of her wonderful "folkpants" which are not just clothes
but emanation of art and free spirit.
"The cultural centrality of the blues"(12,125) in African
American life prompts Walker to incorporate blues poetics into all aspects
of her novel, first of all thematically, starting with its characters (Shug,
Squeak) and its plot. Strictly speaking, Celie's story as well as Shug's
fits neatly into the blues content. For example, Celie's story can be considered
as an improvisation on the theme of at least one famous blues text, A
Good Man Is Hard To Find (Bessie Smith):
My heart is sad and I'm alone, my man treats me mean
I regret the day that I was born and that I ever seen
My happiness has no space left today
My heart is broke, that's why I say
Lord, a good man is hard to find, you always get another
Yes, and when you think that he's your pal
You look and find him fooling 'round some old gal
Then you rave, you are crazed, you want to see him down
in his grave
So if your man is nice, take my advice
Hug him in the morning, kiss him at night
Give him plenty lovin', treat your good man right
'Cause a good man nowadays sho' is hard to find… (12,
It is not accidentally that early in the novel Shug sings this classical
blues song to Celie. Later when Shug dedicates Celie one of her songs,
"Celie's song" is "all about no count man doing her wrong"(1,
Nevertheless, blues are not only songs of loss and misfortune. "The
essence of the blues is as much a sister boasting about her man as it is
her bemoaning his behavior." (15, 24). So, Shug's life-long love affair
with Albert could be perceived as another blues text illustration, My
Man (Billie Holiday). An intent reader is sure to find out
other parallels between the novel's episodes or themes and classical blues
The theme of love, of healing power of love, as it was mentioned,
is one of the core thematic motifs of Walker's writing. Actually, all Walker's
work has been a kind of improvisation on the theme of love which fact again
is reminiscent of the blues poetics. "Everyone wants to be loved",
Shug tells Celie. Celie learns to love people and the world around her
only after she learns to love and respect herself - "regardless".
Celie echoes Shug: "The only way to stop making somebody the serpent
is for everybody to accept everybody else as a child of God"(1,274)."Meanness
kill"(1,222) as it nearly killed Mr.____. Not until he sent Celie
all Nettie's letters he had been hiding from her could he "start to
Telling Celie's story, Walker refers to the "wholeness" one
can achieve when reconciling with one's past and identity. Besides, "wholeness"
implies one more blues feature of Walker's literary text. Actually, Celie's
evolution from a lonely and scared girl to a self-confident and happy person,
also suggests a blues pattern of call and response, of "rejoicing
at a single voice that makes whole a circle" ( 15, 20). It means that
Celie not only finds her place in her community but also helps others,
for example, Albert, to engage in the process of getting themselves together,
of creating a "circle" of individual voices, a whole of community.
In Celie's story, "the values of togetherness, pride, and power which
are also inherent in the blues (15 ,26) are clearly proclaimed. Not unlike
other African American authors of prominence ( Jean Toomer in his Cane,
or Zora Neale Hurston in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) ,
Walker explores in The ColorPurple the modern search for
wholeness, connection of people in an age of fragmentation , alienation,
Walker concludes her novel in a fairy-tale style, with a "happy
end" finale where she "creates a utopic vision of new southern
community"(6,127). The joyousness and happiness in the end balance
the misery and suffering with which the novel begins. Nettie and her family
return to their homeland, their "mothers' gardens", to find integration
into their true community. Celie, reunited with her two children, her sister,
with all her family and friends, celebrates her new world full of love
and happiness. The reunion event appropriately takes place on July 4, Independence
Day. Traditionally, it is a day for white Americans to celebrate their
independence from England; black Americans used to "spend the day
celebrating each other"(1,288). "In a clever twist, Walker uses
this traditionally white holiday to mark the emotional, social, economic,
and spiritual independence of Celie… "(6, 130). By the end of the
novel we believe that "redemption that Walker's characters experience
is possible for all of us. The color purple, an odd miracle of nature,
symbolizes the miracle of human possibilities"(8,321).
Walker's life philosophy is essentially condensed in her novel's title,
The ColorPurple. Along with suggesting a small butterfly
(the color purple) as a symbol of the whole world loved by God, in which
all creation is reflected, the color purple implies a color motif
as well. Let us not forget that Walker chooses to describe her womanist
texts as "purple" in comparison with other feminist texts which
are "lavender" (5,XII), emphasizing the richness of the color.
She is said to love purple petunias. Also, in her short preface to the
1992 edition of The Color Purple, she mentions the color: "this
color (purple)…is always a surprise but everywhere in nature"(1, XI)
The color motif seems to be significant in the film version of the
book. Spielberg's movie opens with a scene in the field full of purple
and lavender flowers. It is rich in all shades of bright colors (red, yellow,
purple) in women's outfits (Shug's in particular). In the final scene,
one of the young women of Nettie's family (either Olivia or Tashi) wears
a gorgeous garment of purple (we see nothing of the kind in the novel's
text). Purple is the color of glory and triumph, of imperial, regal power.
Giving this color to ordinary black women Walker renders heroism to their
lives, their ability to survive, to triumph over oppression and hardship.
Purple is also a blend of different shades (remember Walker's point of
"unity in diversity"). No wonder, Walker loves the color so much;
it suits her goals perfectly in showing the heroine's triumph over her
The Color Purple is full of colors reflecting the color consciousness
in a white society. In the novel itself, the color motif develops eventually,
supporting Celie's emotional and spiritual growth. In early sections of
the book, Celie's life is totally devoid of colors. It is so hard, and
her spirit is so suppressed that she hardly sees the world's beauty. She
starts to perceive any colors at all ( Sofia's bruised body after severe
beating in jail is "just about the color of a eggplant"(1,84)
only after Shug enters her life, first as a photograph of a beautiful woman.
When one of Mr.____'s sisters, Kate, goes with Celie to the store to buy
some clothes for her, Celie tries to imagine what color Shug Avery would
wear; she wants the same color for herself. "She like a queen to me
so I say to Kate, somethin purple, maybe little red in it too"(1,20).
But in Mr.____'s eyes, Celie does not deserve to wear these colors. Mr.___
"won't want to pay for red. Too happy lookin"(1, 20).
Shug Avery, when she first appears in Mr.____'s house, is "dress
to kill", no matter how ill she is: "She got on a red wool dress
and a chestful of black beads"(1,43). For her first show at Harpo's
jukejoint she wears "a skintight red dress"(1,71).
All things associated with happiness and triumph are purple or red,
or of some hue of the colors. Shug dreams about a "big round pink
house, look sort of like some kind of fruit"(1,206). When Shug teaches
Celie to admire her own body, Celei can see its beauty (her intimate part
is of the color of "wet rose"(1,77). Celie's famous "folkpants"
are "in every color…under the sun"(1,209), a glorious improvisation
of her free spirit:: "dark blue jersy with teeny patches of red"(1,210)
for Shug, "a pair the color of sunset"(1,210) for Squeak, "one
leg …purple, one leg…red"(1,214) for Sofia. All of them are "soft,
flowing, rich and catch the light"(1,210).
Also, Walker argues with her parents and grandparents' notions about
wearing bright colors by black women. Dark skinned women should not wear
reds and colors because it suggested Africa (was associated with something
or somebody "uncivilized, "savage"). Black women should
not look "flashy". It also underlined black community's conformity:
to stand out, to emphasize one's individuality was plain dangerous in the
racist society. So, in opposition to this point of view, one may suppose,
bright colors in The Color Purple celebrate Africa, the heritage,
the courage and identity of black women.
Celie can fulfill her dreams about bright colors in her life not until
she feels a happy and accomplished person. Her new home is the home of
her dreams. It embodies the new beauty of the world for Celie. Small wonder,
it is of the brightest colors: "Everything in my room purple and red
cept the floor, that painted bright yellow…(There is)…the little purple
frog…on my mantelpiece"(1,285). So, in the end of the book, Walker
creates for her character, Celie, a world of "the color purple"
which designates her triumph in life, her happiness.
The impact of The Color Purple on African American literature
and culture has been vast and multifaceted. The novel became a staging
ground for Walker's turn to global issues. In her subsequent work (The
Temple of My Familiar, documentary film and book Warrior Marks,
etc.) she is concerned about broader issues of industrialization and its
ruinous effect on traditional folk culture, of global pollution, etc.
The Color Purple was a trigger to introduce Zora Neale Hurston to the
broad audience and generate her cult in African American culture. In a
more general sense, Walker's novel caused a revival of black folk culture,
including women's blues culture. Once again, the writer proved that "blues
is a basis of historical continuity for black people" and that "it
is a ritualized way of talking about (themselves) and passing it on"
(15, 21). In form and content, The Color Purple promoted the blues
as a "model for the creative work of contemporary African American
writers"( 15 , 21).
Thanks to this novel and to Walker's work in general, Southern African
American writing reclaimed its place within the broader frame of Southern
culture, proved its vitality and creativity. Thus, The Color Purple
, "an American novel of permanent importance"(11, 540), can
be rightfully considered not only Walker's personal artistic success, but
a representation of Southern African American women's writing, a classic
text in African American literature, along with Toni Morrison's Beloved
or The BluestEye.
Walker finds that the southern black heritage imposes a powerful obligation
on its representatives: "No one could wish for a more advantageous
heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion
for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and in
abiding love of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for
we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate,
but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love"(14,100). So,
Walker's art allows her readers "To encounter That Which Is Beyond
Understanding But Not Beyond Loving and to say: I see and hear you clearly,
Great Mystery, now that I expect to see and hear you everywhere I am, which
is the right place"(1, XII).
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