Magda Ajtay-Horváth Lost and Found Identity in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

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Magda Ajtay-Horváth
Lost and Found Identity in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is one of the most significant novels of the 1980’s, which , by introducing black feminity into the male-centered, black nationalist discourse, contributed powerfully to the re-shaping of traditional Black Aestheticism. Black cultural nationalism and the Women’s Liberation movement mutually gave impetus for each other, being rooted in basically similar ideology. Black women, however, were excluded from both of these movements and liberationist discourses. This double exclusion is ironically expressed by the slogan “all the women are white, and all the Blacks are men”. As M. Dubey states, “Black women’s novel, in the 70’s do not simply oppose to contemporary nationalist discourse on black identity. They imagine black feminity as an absence, and draw attention to the textual effects of this absence” (Dubey 30).

In a number of novels written by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara and others in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, however, the split of the black community along gender lines and the fusion of race and gender issues only made Black consciousness sharper and the literary discourse more complex in themes. A contemporary Black feminist statement defines clearly the relationship between racial struggles and feminist issues, concomitantly marking the differences between white and black feminism:

“Although we are feminist and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization like white women who are separatists in demand. Our situation as black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women, of course, do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with black men against rascism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism” (Einstein 363).

With the appearance of women writers in the 70’s, the male-dominated black discourse focusing on racial and political oppression no longer suppressed the marginalized gender issues and thus a synthesis between the public and the private was achieved and consequently the black intellectual consciousness widened. The female plot presents the inner drive to assert selfhood and a quest for personal freedom within the cultural legacy and the framework of the Black community. A typical example in this respect is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Alice Walker’s heroine Celie and her sister Nettie narrate their life story in an epistolary form which, though it may seem a well-established text-type in literary discourse, still is able to convey multiple meanings and to strike the reader with effective freshness. The novel is actually the collection of letters written by Celie to God, and later, when it turns out that her sister is alive, to Nettie. Nettie, the educated, missionary sister keeps sending Celie letters that are hidden from Nettie for a long time, though finally received by her much delayed. Walker focuses on Celie’s private life story, but Nettie’s letters widen the perspective of Celie’s condition by providing a transcultural, ethnographic description of the Black woman’s situation in Africa.

The first person narration, more specifically the genre of the autobiography, represents a traditional genre with a long pedigree in African-American literature. The very first pieces of Black literature were slave narratives telling the hero’s own life story: Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative Written by Himself, and William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853), considered the first Afro-American novel. The line of autobiographies can be traced through the 20th century with significant pieces of literature like Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novels, and the tradition concludes with Toni Morrison, David Bradley and Alice Walker.

Walker’s use of letters in The Color Purple, as a means of self-revelation and as an intellectual process for Celie’s understanding of both herself and the world, has a long tradition in the context of the African American literature. The style of the novel, however, can be considered a new experimentation within the well-established form. The highly restricted code of the letters, the ungrammaticalities of the black vernacular, the interjections and the short, elliptical sentences all evoke the qualities of verbal discourse. Thus the novel is perceived rather as a monologue than as a piece of a public act, as a stretch of crude, unwritten folklore or popular , oral culture as opposed to a refined text. Even the graphic representation of the very first line containing a correction, a most unusual practice in a printed text ( the present form of the verb is crossed out and replaced with the present perfect form), gives the impression that the reader is witnessing the intimate act of writing, the birth of a most private text. The mere act of addressing God suggests the heroine’s alienation loneliness and marginality: ”long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along.” (26). It is similarly significant that author does not feel obliged to give her heroine a family name either, a sign of stronger identification according to the “nomen est omen” practice. Thus the author of the letters, feeling isolated and ashamed , tells about her exploitation and continuous toil, and desperate attempts to communicate with someone. Thus the vocabulary and the speech-like style are the proper vehicles to convey the oppressive conditions Celie has to face. She is an orphan and as a result of successive rapes by her stepfather she is also the fourteen-year-old child-mother of a son and a daughter. Being the uglier of the two sisters, she is literally sold to a widower who desperately needs a woman to look after his two children and the household. Celie’s own children are soon given to foster-parents, to a couple who later become African missionaries. We cannot help noticing the romantic switch of the story when the reader learns that the missionary couple also take Celie’s sister Nettie along to Africa as a member of their household.

Celie’s narration lacks any reference to the outside world, having its focus restricted to her private life. The family, however is never the safe haven that protects its members against the evils of society, but a male-dominated world full of domestic violence. Not only was Celie’s initiation into sexual experience in the form of rape committed by her stepfather, but sex continued to be a means of oppression in marriage as well, and family life the site of further dehumanizing experiences. At the beginning, however, Celie cannot make too much sense of her experiences; she is rather the passive victim of her environment: “But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive” (Walker 26), “I don’t say nothing. I stay where I’m told. But I am alive” (29). We have to acknowledge, however, that in extreme life situations mere survival can become an act of heroism, as it is in Celie’s case. Initially, the heroine’s relationship towards men, whom she sees depersonalized, as a collective mass, is revealed in her style as well. The husband’s insignificance from Celie’s point of view explains why she never names him for a long decades, only replaces his name with a dash, a blank space. (“Most times mens look pretty much alike to me.”) Male members of the family violate Celie’s dignity, just as much as the white society violates the black community. The lynching of Celie’s father and Sophia’s imprisonment for eleven and a half years for slapping the mayor are clear examples of similar violations.

Celie’s encounter with Shug is a major experience that help Celie in finding her identity, both as a woman and as a useful member of her community. Shug Avery, the lover of Celie’s husband, is admired not only for her physical beauty, but also for her ability to earn a living as a blues singer, enabling her to lead an independent, autonomous life, the type of life that was accepted as a privilige only for the male members of the society. The relationship of the two women becomes more and more intimate, and the tenderness and care manifested between them is in sharp opposition to the rudeness of the heterosexual relationships experienced by Celie. Shug Avery’s relationship with Celie, however, does not remain on the level of lesbian love, but its ultimate goal is to make Celie self confident and to develop her ability to appreciate herself, and to discover whatever is valuable around her, or , using Shug’s terminology, whatever is “purple” in life. It is also this relationship that develops the kind of sensitivity in the heroine that later makes her able to enjoy heterosexual love as well.

It is due to Shug Avery’s influence that Celie leaves Mr___, her husband, and becomes an economically and socially empowered woman. Had Alice Walker ended her work at this point, the novel could be interpreted solely on the ground of feminist ideology. It is also worth noticing that Celie does not remain with Shug, being enchanted by her newly gained position as an independent bread-winner in Memphis, far from her native community. She returns to her family, and what is even more significant, she is able to redeem the esteem of her husband Mr__, and finally to establish a normal human relationship with him.

The fact that the author considers Shug to be a key figure in the novel is emphasized by her association with the color “purple”, the color of life, the polysemous sign, meant to be the main symbol of the book. Shug, by promoting a transformation in Celie’s consciousness and individuality, also becomes the spokeswoman of the “womanist” ideology, a more subtle and more sensitive version of feminism, also called postfeminism, which represents an important issue of the novel.

“I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It. My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling is part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact when it happen, you can’t miss it. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You even notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?” (178-79)

Shug’s spiritual interpretation of God is strongly rooted in the transcendentalist, unitarian concept of God, conceived as an all-pervasive, pantheistic spirit on the one hand , and on the other hand as an echo of Walker’s womanist philosophy, as formulated in her essays collected in a volume entitled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (Walker xi-xii). Firstly the term ”womanism” comprises the “black folk expression of mother to female children”. Secondly, Walker identifies the term with a “woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually”, appreciates “women’s culture, women’s strength and emotional flexibility.” A womanist is “committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist. Traditionally a universalist.” Thirdly, the definition also celebrates sexuality and spirituality, as a womanist is someone “who loves music, dance and Spirit, love and food and roundness, struggle, the Folk, herself. Regardless. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”(12). The intertextual connection between the essay and the passage quoted from the novel is quite relevant.

Considering Shug’s spiritual and abstract interpretation of God, we may state that it completely contradicts Celie’s concrete and materialistic conception of God, whom she has always thought of as a “big and old and tall and graybearded and white” man. Shug, on the other hand, argues in a suggestive way that “ God is inside everybody. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It” (177). The section marks the most important moment in Celie’s spiritual illumination. Following a simple syllogism: God is a white man; white men never listen to black folks; threrefore God never listens to her either, or God is not a white man. By realizing the simple truth of this philosophy she comes to accept Shug’s spiritual concept of god. The importance of this revelation is also marked stylistically with the very first use of “Amen”, a strong assertive formula at the end of the letter. A similar revelation takes place in Nettie’s case as well. Unlike her sister, who takes a journey inside herself, Nettie heads for Africa. Though the two experiences show strong parallelism they also contain a significant opposition as well, in the sense that while Celie’s revelation was of spiritual order, Nettie, the more educated character, experiences an intellectual revelation. “ I have been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing” (179). Nettie experiences an intellectual disappointment concerning her own poor knowledge at the beginning, and the failure of her idealism concerning the role of the missionaries at the end of her journey. “ I hadn’t realized I was so ignorant, Celie. The little I knew about my own self wouldn’t have filled a thimble! And to think Miss Beasley always said I was the smartest child she ever taught! But one thing I do thank her for, for teaching me to learn for myself, by reading and studying and writing a clear hand. And for keeping alive in me somehow the desire to know” (123-24).

The relationship between Shug and Celie is important not only to Celie, but also for Shug, who, with Celie’s help, is able to deconstruct the isolation caused by the prejudices of the black community towards a woman who is able to earn her own living as a bar-singer. The quilt-making scene acquires symbolic value in this sense. The patchwork quilt is a well established, predominantly American archetype in the human culture, emphasizing multiple meanings. It stands for the cooperation of women in performing a socially useful task and also in creating an artistic, beautiful article. It also signifies the ability of women to hand down or perpetuate the sense of belonging together and the desire to remain creators of warmth and beauty two principles indispensible for their communities. The three strong women of the narration, Shug, Sofia and Celie come together and each of them brings her personal skill and personal patch to contribute to the article. This close and productive cooperation helps to demonstrate the role of women in strengthening relationships in order to reconstruct a healthy black community. It is not incidental that it is during this activity that Celie starts thinking about herself in a broader context: “First time I think about the world. What the world got to do with anything, I think. Then I see myself sitting there quilting tween Shug Avery and Mr. ___. Us three set together. For the first time in my life, I feel just right” (61). The patchwork motive and the activity of sewing subtly elicits Celie’s future activity, which will bring her material independence while living away from her family. It should also be pointed out that those who bring their contribution to this archetypal quilt are all strong women, united by sisterly love. Shug and Squeak represent the successful careers open to some black women who are talented enough to earn fame and fortune while passing the spiritual values of the black community encoded in folklore; Sofia stands for the toughest women, fiercelessly fighting for their rights, with an unbelievable sense of righteousness and indomitable character, Nettie symbolizes the intellectuals who tried to fulfill a deep, almost instinctive desire to find and to help their African sisters and brothers; and there are many other minor characters, such as women who raise the children of their relatives, and women who love each other so much that they are even capable of sharing the love of the same man between them.

The other important thread of Walker’s narrative is the set of letters written by Nettie, the educated missionary sister from Africa, where she is working to enhance culture and Christianity among the members of a native tribe.

With her belated discovery of Nettie’s letters written over a period of thirty years, a significant change takes place in Celie. She ceases to address her letters to God; this marks the dissolution of her isolation, a process that had already started with Shug’s appearance in her life. This choice also marks a significant moment in her psychological maturation, consequently bringing about a shift in the style of her writing. She consciously declares to Shug that from then on she will write to Nettie, at the same time realizing that “the God she had been praying and writing to is a man, just like all the other mens she knows. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown”, later adding, “If he ever listened to poor colored women, the world would be a different place.”(175). Along with the gradual alteration of her religious faith, which hitherto meant her only source of energy and consolation as she bore the abuses and hardships of life, Celie’s individuality starts to take shape and her sense of self becomes stronger, a fact that is marked not only by the shift in the addressee of the letters but by the concomitant change of the ending formula. While the letters addressed to God are not even signed, those addressed to Nettie are all consciously signed, either as Celie, Your sister Celie, or “Amen”, an obvious expression of approval. A similar assertion of validation also expresses a strong growth of her self respect, a sign that the heroine is already able to treat her own experiences as something meaningful for others, what is more she realizes that her words can express an authoritative attitude on certain matters. A similar growth of consciousness can be detected in her conversation with Mr_. before leaving for Memphis. Replying to her husband’s remark “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman...” Celie in her remark adds a short, but significant statement, giving a switch to the string of adjectives being attributed to her: “ I’m pore. I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. But I am here” (187).

As the audience of the letters changes from the senseless God to a receptive flesh and blood audience represented by Nettie, so does the voice of the narration shift from a merely passive to a forceful, self-expressing tone. Celie’s fate, typical of a black woman in the first half of the twentieth century (there is only one time specification in the novel, a hint at a German submarine which is destroyed by the British), is viewed in a larger context with the introduction of Nettie’s letters relating her experiences as a missionary in Africa, among the Olinkas.

As an empowered author, Alice Walker manipulates these letters in such a way that her presence remains unnoticed throughout the book. By introducing the letters of a second person, the author is able to present the reader with a second point of view without interfering as a a more objective authority. However, the author is there as a “distanced, controlling third consciousness”(Yarborough 120) who arranges the letters in a certain order. Thus Nettie’s letters clearly present another aspect of the gender oppression existing among the Olinkas: their objection to the education of the girls, their various, painful and health threatening initiation practices. It is easy to realize that the present social condition of black women is deeply rooted in African tribal traditions, where women’s prestige was very low, their only role in society being reproduction.

There is a way that the /Olinka/ men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa. They listen just long enough to issue instructions. They don’t even look at women when women are speaking. They look at the ground and bend their heads toward the ground. The women also do not “look in a man’s face” as they say. To “look in a man’s face” is a brazen thing to do. They look instead at his feet or his knees. and what can I say to this? Again, it is our own behaviour around Pa” (149)

Nettie’s letters argue that black women’s oppression is transcultural. For the readers it is obvious that the legacy of slavery is intensified by the gender oppression of patriarchal family traditions inherited from Africa. It should be observed that the degrading status of black women is presented from two perspectives: which have strong social, political and historical implications: on the one hand from the point of view of Celie’s private experiences, and on the other hand from Nettie’s public vantage point. As Deborah E. McDowell notes “The majority of Celie’s letters represent the private paradigm of the African American female tradition in the novel, and the majority of Nettie's letters can be said to represent the public paradigm” (47). The two perspectives are subtly suggested by the different registers used by the sisters. As Nettie is more fortunate in getting a much wider chance to improve herself, she represents the educated and conscious member of both her race and sex, who sacrifices her life for the cause of black people everywhere in the world by becoming a missionary in the land of her ancestors. Her letters often assume the quality of essays, pamphlets or public speeches when she talks about the indignations caused by her African experiences. These meditations and also the style of the letters reflect social awareness, and give a self-conscious interpretation of the experiences quite opposed to Celie’s lack of ability to understand either the world around her or her own condition. Thus the two kinds of experiences intersect in the two sets of letters to mutually support the underlying message: the universal condition of oppression of Black women.

The act of voicing the hitherto unnoticed voice of the Celie-type black woman was an important step in re-evaluating the role of women in black communities. Just as the acquisition of literacy marks a step toward spiritual and political freedom on the part of the slave narrators, the act of writing or articulating certain experiences brings understanding and spiritual independence to Alice Walker’s Celie, and makes possible the great leap from the incidental and particular to general and universal.

Works Cited
Baker,A. Jr., Patricia Redmond. ed. Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s .Chicago:

The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Bracks, Leon’tin L. Writings on Black Women of the Diaspora:History, Language and

Identity. New-York: Gerald Publishing Inc, 1998.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni

Morrison and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Butler, Robert. Contemporary African-American Fiction: The Open Journey. London:

Associated University Presses, 1998.

McDowell, Deborah E. “The Changing Same”. Black Women’s Literature, Criticism and

Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Dubey, Mahdu. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1994.

Enstein, Zillah R. ed. A Black Feminist Statement in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for

Socialist Feminism. New-York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge

Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New-York: Washington Square Press, 1983.

- - -, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Yarborough, Richard. “The First-Person in Afro-American Fiction”. Afro-American Literary

Study in the 1990s. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Patricia Redmond.

Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989. (105-134)

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