Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Elena Shakhovtseva

Far Eastern State University
Vladivostok, Russia

«The Heart of Darkness» in a Multicolored World:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker as a womanist text

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 That is Your Own: 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 Woman Down (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 work.
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 Color Purple 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, etc.).
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 society"(10,62).
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, 123).
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 the movement 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 homeland.
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 world:

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 Grange Copeland, 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, 62).
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 concept of 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):

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, 72).

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 lyrics.
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 improve"(1,222).
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 Color Purple the modern search for wholeness, connection of people in an age of fragmentation , alienation, and exploitation.
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 Color Purple. 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 "circumstances".
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 Bluest Eye.
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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