The winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the subject of an Oscar-nominated film by Stephen Spielberg two years later, The Color Purple by Alice Walker is often associated with the struggle of black women to gain self-respect and independence. Written in the form of letters, the novel follows the main character, Celie, who experiences physical abuse and sexual violation at the hands of several males in her life and who learns to use female role models to come to terms with the lack of self-esteem that her negative experiences with men in her childhood and adolescence have created.
Feeling isolated, ugly, and unloved, Celie's only recourse is to talk to God in the hope that the deity will help her change the squalor and cruelty that surrounds her. Despite her pleas in the letter, the promised deliverance by a loving God never seems to come, and eventually Celie decides to address a human in her letters rather than depend on rescue from an absent godhead.
Celie's first negative encounter with men occurs when she falls victim to incest as her "Pa" uses her as a sexual outlet when her mother falls ill. Even when he remarries after Celie's mother dies, the abuse continues until he decides to offer Celie's service to Mr.----, a nearby neighbor. Thus Celie moves from one type of sexual slavery to another, as Mr.---- is more interested in Celie's taking care of his children and his house than he is in loving her and treating her as a real person. Consequently, Celie is sexually unfulfilled, viewing intercourse as a scatological obligation rather than as an erotic pleasure. As the narrative demonstrates she continuously searches for someone who will truly love her for herself and not as a possession.
As time passes, the passive Celie is introduced to several women who she finds to be far more compatible and loving than members of the opposite sex. Sophia, another black woman, who marries Harpo, Mr.----'s son, demonstrates her strength and serves as a powerful role model for Celie by refusing to be dominated and ordered around as most women of this era were. Harpo, following his father's lead, treats his wife as a slave and when she disobeys him, he beats her, urged to do so by Celie, who at this point sees Sophia merely as hard-headed and stubborn, the opposite of the submissive role she believes all women must play. Angered by Celie's betrayal, Sophia tells the protagonist she must assert her independence and stand up for herself if she is ever to find happiness. When Sophia leaves Harpo and begins a life of her own, her actions demonstrate to Celie that females do not need males to find either fulfillment or happiness.
Another role model for Celie is Shug Avery, the blues singer who is revealed as Mr. ----'s long-lost love. Shug, whose job gives her monetary independence and no need to be supported by a man, is the first person who appreciates and sees the positive traits that have been buried deep within Celie's psyche. As Celie nurses Shug back to health in Mr. ----'s home, she begins to discover the beauty that exists both inside herself and inside Shug as well.
Before this,the only other person to perceive Celie's worth was her younger sister, Nettie, but Celie has been stripped of Nettie's love when Mr.---- banishes her from his property early in the novel after she rebuffs his sexual approach. For a long time, Nettie disappears from Celie's life, seemingly forgetting her promise to write and inform Celie of her whereabouts. Eventually, however, Celie discovers that Mr. ---- (now known as Albert) has cruelly hidden Nettie's letters, preventing Celie from knowing that her dear sister was indeed keeping her in loving memory and had gone with a missionary couple to Africa, where she found both fulfillment and success.
While the novel depicts these three female characters as strong, Walker also uses the text to demonstrate how the inequities of gender and race impact the characters. Walker does this specifically by showing Sophia's plight when she is employed by Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, and is forced to submit to the white race's demeaning dismissal of strong personality and independent nature. Sophia is eventually jailed for her feisty opposition to the majority race, but despite beatings and bouts of depression, she ultimately triumphs.
Similarly, Squeak (Mary Alice), Harpo's girlfriend after Sophia leaves him, is shown as weak and oppressed until she accepts Shug Avery's invitation to become a singer and thus have an occupation that will bring her independence. Evidently, Walker wanted The Color Purple to stress work as a solution to attaining positive self-identity, for the women in the novel with jobs outside the home find true strength by refusing to be dependent on men for their very survival. When Shug later helps Celie to fund a tailoring business in Memphis, Celie becomes a self-made entrepreneur, creating women's pants, a career that implies she has gained equality with, and is capable of, "wearing the pants in the family."
The importance of identity is also shown in the novel through naming. For example, at times the weaker characters allow their names to be changed by the aggressive characters. Moreover in some cases, characters are depicted as weak because they do not know the name of another character and consequently lack the power to oppose them. In addition, The Color Purple seems to question whether tolerance and patience are indeed virtues and whether temper tantrums and aggressive behavior are vices. Clearly, as the novel progresses, Celie must deliberate and decide whether she wants to continue a passive/submissive existence or whether she wishes to transform her life by becoming an assertive and aggressive individual, newly independent from subjection to others.
By standing up to Albert and by accepting the love offered by Shug, Celie is able to regain her relationship with Nettie, discovering that she has strengths that she had previously considered dormant. Though most men in the novel are initially shown in a negative light, they are eventually transformed by the powerful women and are forced to acknowledge that the benefits provided by strong females are far more worthwhile than the servile roles they fill when they are unacknowledged and ignored as inferiors.
Finally, the sexual awakening Celie experiences has often caused this novel to be classified as lesbian fiction. However, it seems more likely that what is really discovered is the power of sexual ties to express love rather than oppression. Love thus empowers characters when it possesses deep, rather than surface, meaning and when it is not used to place one partner in subjection to another. The reuniting of Celie and Nettie, the love of Shug and Celie, and the emancipation of Sophia and Mary Alice strongly suggest that "feminist" would be a better label for the novel than lesbian. It encourages women of color and females in general to value self-discovery and to assert their right to be equals with the men who attempt to degrade and dominate them. As she is reunited with Nettie and triumphs over Albert, Celie's life is like the color purple: something to be marveled at. If, as Shug says, "it pisses God off when someone walks by the color purple and does not notice it," then the color's very existence makes it worthwhile and admirable. Consequently, all of nature and even the insecure Celie of the earlier chapters, is worthy of notice because they contain a part of the deity, possessing a regal quality that harks back to their African heritage and that cannot be destroyed.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.
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