The Color Purple won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1983. Alice Walker’s novel is unique in its preoccupation with spiritual survival and with exploring the oppressions, insanities, loyalties, and triumphs of black women. Walker’s major interest is whether or how change can occur in the lives of her black characters. All the characters except Nettie and Shug lead insular lives, unaware of what is occurring outside their own small neighborhood. They are particularly unaware of the larger social and political currents sweeping the world. Despite their isolation, however, they work through problems of racism, sexism, violence, and oppression to achieve a wholeness, both personal and communal.
In form and content, The Color Purple is a slave narrative, a life story of a former slave who has gained freedom through many trials and tribulations. Instead of black oppression by whites, however, in this novel there is black oppression by blacks. It is also a story by a black woman about black women. Women fight, support, love, and heal each other—and they grow together. The novel begins in abject despair and ends in intense joy. To discover how this transformation occurs, it is important to examine three aspects of the novel: the relationships between men and women; the relationships among women; and the relationships among people, God, and nature. At the beginning of the novel, alienation and separation are evident in all of these relationships, but by the conclusion of the novel, an integration exists among all elements of life. In terms of the relationship between men and women, no personal contact between the sexes is possible at the beginning of the novel, since the male feels that he must dominate the female through brutality.
The correspondence between Celie and Nettie is the novel’s most basic example of the alienation of women from women. Sometimes the alienation is caused by the men, as when Mr.—— keeps Nettie’s letters from Celie, but often it results from the attitudes of the women themselves. For the first half of the novel, the women are against one another, often because of jealousy, as when Shug mocks Celie and flaunts her relationship with Celie’s husband. Walker presents numerous examples of women in competition with one another, frequently because of men, but, more important, because they have accepted the social code indicating that women define themselves by their relationship with the men in their lives.
The first indication that this separation between women will be overcome occurs when the women surmount their jealousy and join together. Central to this development is the growing closeness of Celie and Shug. Shug teaches Celie much about herself: to stand up for herself to Mr.——, about her own beauty and her self-worth, and about the enjoyment of her own body. The love of Celie and Shug is perhaps the strongest bond in the novel; the relationship between Celie and her sister is also a strong bond.
While the men in the novel seem to have no part in the female community, which, in essence, exists in opposition to them, they, too, are working out their salvation. As a result of the way the women have opposed them, they reevaluate their own lives and they come to a greater sense of their own wholeness, as well as that of the women. They develop relationships with the women on a different and more fulfilling level. The weakness of the men results from their having followed the dictates of their fathers, rather than their having followed their own desires. Mr.——, for example, wants to marry Shug, but in the face of his father’s opposition, he marries another woman and makes her miserable because she is not Shug. Harpo tries to model his relationship with Sofia on the relationship between his father and Celie. Ultimately, both men find a kind of salvation because the women stand up to them and because the men accept their own gentler side. The men, by the end of the novel, become complete human beings just as the women do; therefore, the men are ready for relationships with women. Near the end of the novel, Mr.—— is content to sew trousers alongside Celie. By the end of the novel, Celie and Mr.——, whom she at last calls Albert, find a companionship of sorts. Harpo is content doing housework and caring for the children while Sofia works outside the home. Each individual becomes worthy in his or her own eyes—and in the eyes of others. The separation between men and women is shattered, and fulfilling human relationships can develop.
Alienation is also present in Nettie’s letters from Africa. The relationship between African men and women is presented as similar to that of men and women in the American South. The social structure of the Olinka tribe is rigidly patriarchal; the only roles available to women are those of wife and mother. At the same time, the women, who frequently share the same husband, band together in friendship. Nettie debunks the myth that Africa offers a kind of salvation for African Americans searching for identity.
In Walker’s view, God and nature are inextricably intertwined; therefore, alienation from one implies alienation from the other. Celie writes to God for much of the novel, but she writes out of despair, not hope; she feels no sustaining connection with God. Through her conversations with Shug, she comes to believe that God is in nature and in the self, and that divinity is found by developing the self and by celebrating everything that exists as an integrated whole. Celie also comes to believe that joy can come even to her; she learns to celebrate life’s pleasures, including the color purple.
That spirit of celebration is embodied in the conclusion of the novel. At the Fourth of July celebration, all the divisions between people—divisions that had plagued and tormented the characters throughout the novel—have been healed. The characters’ level of consciousness has been raised, and the seeds of feminism and liberation have been planted.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple follows the personal and spiritual growth of an impregnated and abused African American girl in the South. Celie finds her voice and personal identity over the years. As such, the work does function as a feminist novel. However, its deeper thematic elements offer an alternative approach to spirituality. What follows is a literary criticism paper I once wrote for an undergraduate course in American Literature. Alice Walker’s book just also happens to be one of my most favorite novels.
The following comment appeared on last week’s book review of Finding Mother: “You really dig deep and bring out things many readers wouldn’t know how to articulate.” Needless to say, those types of comments please me immensely. After all, I’ve put years into studying the craft of writing. Granted this piece is long, but it does allow a glimpse into writing literary criticism. By comparison, my bi-weekly book reviews are a piece of cake!
The God Within: Structure and Spirituality in The Color Purple
In a world that is all too often obsessed with attaining spiritual enlightenment as if it were a twelve-step program to the gates of heaven, sometimes a voice comes along that transcends the myriad of confusing and contradictory rules that numerous religions use to shuffle followers to the promised land. In The Color Purple Alice Walker rises above the confines of gender and race in relation to religion. Her voice is also Celie’s voice—the voice of a person who has grappled with ideas of God and religion in order to allow an interpretation of a higher power that inspires characters within the book as well as its readers. The author draws attention to what happens when someone is forced to live by established ideologies that exclude rather than include many people. The journey of self-discovery that Walker’s protagonist, Celie, undergoes is accentuated by an internal understanding of God that is woven into the structure of the novel. Indeed, the novel’s structure relies on Walker’s development of Celie’s growing spiritual awareness.
Throughout the book, Alice Walker develops a concept of God that moves beyond the rigid God of Christianity. It is Walker’s vision of God that directs each scene. Within the book, God and the characters constantly change for the better. Celie redefines her notion of God as she interacts with people and in turn writes her observations in her diary as letters addressed to God. The vision of God developed in the novel enables Celie to survive and even be happy as she nurtures a spirituality that embraces her strengths and weaknesses while she grows and changes as a person in an often brutal and perplexing world.
People can change for the better when they demand a loving God as well as a place in the world.
Walker traces Celie’s journey from living in fear of a patriarchal God that is difficult to identify with to Celie’s eventual joy and acceptance of herself, others, and the serenity to be found in daily life. Celie eventually can move beyond a life full of suffering because she realizes life offers so much more as she hones the ability to change and grow. By infusing Celie with such a capacity for growth, the author acts as a spiritual guide throughout the novel and “unfolds a model both of and for human beings who are threatened by cultural disorder and by a loss of connection with themselves, with each other, and with the world” (Lewis 483-84).
The disconnection between people and the world is at the heart of the book. This disconnection underlies and advances the novel’s structure that relies on showing how people can change for the better when they demand a loving God as well as a place in the world. Regardless of the personalized version of God and the universe that Celie eventually develops, it becomes clear that the characters need a source of love and guidance in their life that grants them peace with their chosen roles rather than seeking a place within society’s narrow confines. As Dror Abend-David asserts, “the significance is not so much in the qualities that God is denied as in the qualities that God is finally awarded” (17).
“You better not tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
Walker’s guidance begins with the Stevie Wonder epigraph “Show me how to do like you / Show me how to do it.” This gives the reader a sense that the book will be an example of how to achieve a way of doing something—a way of how to come to terms with an issue. Then the novel begins with the ominous warning, “You better not tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” (Walker 1). So Celie begins to write letters to God.
The novel’s epistolary form enables Celie to develop a sense of self as well as a sense of God. As Celie becomes a more efficient writer, she applies those communication skills to the rest of the world. The writing process inherently yields itself to unearthing new ways of looking at situations. Were it not for Celie’s letters, her personal growth would not be so remarkable. On the most sweeping scale, the novel’s structure begins with Celie writing letters to God out of fear while unknowingly beginning the process of self-discovery. Then Nettie’s letters function to aide in Celie’s journey and Celie stops writing to God and writes to the more tangible Nettie. Celie’s final letter addresses everything under the sun. Walker uses this form to show how passionately the world is connected on all levels.
“You ought to bash Mr. ____ head open…Think bout heaven later.”
Jeannine Thyreen points out that Celie’s notion of God is a result of such hopeless circumstances that include the “racist and sexist atmosphere in which she lives and the oppression with which she is constantly faced” (52). Celie is trapped in an overwhelming world and when worried about protecting her sister, she tells Nettie that she will “take care of [her]. With God help” (Walker 4). This is the same God that Celie tells her mother is the father of her babies because she can’t come to terms with being raped by her stepfather (Walker 3). Celie is being a true Christian by chalking up a bad situation to the power and inaccessible love of God.
The first glimmer of Celie’s capacity to redefine God occurs when she feels bad for advising Harpo to beat Sofia into submission, “I sin against Sofia spirit” (Walker 41). Once again, Celie relies on prescribed notions of behavior, even when it causes harm to those involved because she doesn’t know any better (Thyreen 54). Celie’s passive acceptance of her situation comes across when she and Sofia talk to each other. Sofia is Celie’s opposite. Sofia is strong in mind and body, not to mention quick to anger. Her spiritual beliefs are not made explicitly clear which is not necessary because Sofia is a born fighter. Celie thinks, “I can’t even remember the last time I felt mad” (Walker 43). Since Celie lacks the ability to vent her frustration through anger, it becomes even more important that she gain the ability to come to terms with the god that dictates and influences the actions of her daily life. Celie mentions the promise of an afterlife, and Sofia says, “You ought to bash Mr. ____ head open…Think bout heaven later” (Walker 44). Unlike Celie, Sofia demands her life in the here and now to be a happy one, even if she has to fight for it. Despite the oppressive constraints of religion on her life, Celie finds what Sofia says funny. Even though Celie is not ready to leave behind such constraining notions of God behind, she finds some measure of fulfillment in talking to and coming to a measure of understanding with Sofia.
Celie eventually realizes that she deserves happiness regardless of the promise of an afterlife.
After Celie reaches peace over betraying Sofia, Shug Avery comes to town. Shug is the catalyst that allows Celie to embark on an active spiritual journey because Celie’s infatuation with and eventual love for Shug enables Celie to focus on a good aspect of her life. When Celie narrates the circumstances revolving around Shug’s arrival, the author employs Celie to report on the hypocrisy of the church. Of course, Celie is not aware of the implications of the scene she describes. Nonetheless, the act of observing pays off for Celie in the long run because she eventually realizes that she deserves happiness regardless of the promise of an afterlife.
People at the church gossip about Shug. The preacher speaks of her without saying Shug’s name, “Talk about slut, hussy, heifer, and streetcleaner…Somebody got to stand up for Shug” (Walker 46). Celie isn’t too surprised that Mr. ____ won’t defend his lover. The surprise in this scene comes from Celie’s mild assertion of the need for justice, which is part of the process of Celie’s spiritual awakening. Like she feels for Sofia, Celie becomes intrigued with the thought of another woman so unlike herself.
“First time I think about the world.”
At first, Celie chalks Shug’s will to live up to being evil—“that keep her alive” (Walker 49). It’s difficult for Celie to ponder other reasons why Shug is so headstrong. In Celie’s world, people like Shug are evil—not because Celie feels that way, but because her upbringing has beat that perception into her head. Yet, Celie is drawn to Shug, whose nickname “The Queen Honeybee” seems fitting since Celie flocks to her like a bee to honey.
A series of small and giant steps concerning Celie’s interaction with Shug gradually awakens Celie on many levels. The larger structure provided by the letters entails depictions of Celie’s steps toward spiritual peace. Shug’s assertion that all women are not the same causes Celie to think, “First time I think about the world” (Walker 60). Later, Sofia says, “Life don’t stop just because you leave home, Miss Celie” (Walker 85), and this sets Celie to thinking that Shug makes her feel alive again. Celie’s ability to love and identify with Shug begins to draw her out of her shell.
“Shug’s theology allows a diving, self-authorized sense of self.”
The relationship that forms between Celie and Shug eventually culminates with Shug sharing her vision of God with Celie. Mae G. Henderson point out, “Unlike Celie, who derives her sense of self from the dominant white and male theology, Shug is a self-invented character whose sense of self is not male-inscribed. Her theology allows a diving, self-authorized sense of self” (73).
Walker prepares the reader for Shug’s conception of God by paralleling Celie’s burgeoning growth beyond the grasp of a theology that doesn’t embrace her to events encountered by other characters that reflect Celie’s growing awareness of a desire and need to assert her wishes. In Sofia’s encounter with the mayor’s wife, the author once again emphasizes people’s capacity to overcome bad situations. Sofia may temporarily be subjected to the control of the white man’s world, but her spirit enables her to overcome. Likewise, small incidences like Squeak demanding to be called Mary Agnes result from Celie’s advice and the growing sense of self that both characters develop. Most important of all is that Walker structurally balances Celie’s crossing into a spiritually fulfilling life by introducing Nettie’s letters that Mr. ____ hid from Celie.
Walker demonstrates the futility of boiling problems down to racial lines.
Discovering Nettie’s letters finally causes Celie to be actively angry at Mr. _____, not to mention Celie has the assurance of a healthy mental and physical relationship with Shug to bring out her confidence. However, Nettie’s letters often feel like too blatant of a reflection of the spiritual struggle that Celie is not yet able to put into her own words.
Nettie can express, “I hadn’t realized I was so ignorant, Celie” (Walker 138). The letters also bring forth some hypocritical issues that Celie was formerly unable to put into words, such as when Nettie writes, “It is the pictures in the bible that fool you” (Walker 140-41). Nettie’s letters forever work to broaden her concept of God in relation to her experience in Africa in contrast to Celie’s limited understanding. Diane Gabrielsen Scholl discusses how Nettie’s experience broadens the scope of the novel by showing how the Africans often set up their own systems of oppression that have nothing to do with the oppression that is inflicted by white people (260). Here, Walker demonstrates the futility of boiling problems down to racial lines. By illustrating the destruction of the Olinka as partially being their own fault, Walker takes some pressure off of the tendency to blame bad situations on anything but the people at hand.
“What God do for me?”
Still, for how much Nettie’s correspondence enlightens Celie’s situation, it also is as a device that brings about Celie’s dismissal of the god she writes to, “You must be sleep” (Walker 183). Celie is still in conflict over worshipping a god that seems not to care about her. In her next letter, Celie no longer writes to a god she cannot identify with. Instead, she addresses her letters to Nettie. When Celie asks Shug, “What God do for me?” (Walker 199), Shug’s shares what God means to her with Celie:
She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God… You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it… God ain’t a he or she, but a It… I believe God is everything, say Shug. Anything that is or was or every will be (Walker 200-03).
Shug’s God represents the inductive God that the novel upholds in order for the characters to grow in their journey to know their selves, others, and God. Jeannine Thyreen considers postmodernism’s impact on Walker’s representation of God. Essentially, she asserts the hope that Walker offers her readers by describing God within a new context that “seeks to recognize the social/historical/cultural contexts” of traditional deductive notions of God (51). It’s not that Walker abandons the bible and its teachings, but she leaves room for improvement in the lives of her characters that do not live by the words of the bible alone. Walker’s vision includes both inductive and deductive aspects, but she emphasizes the role of personal interpretation because Celie must begin to learn to relate to the world in relation to numerous factors, not just the unrelenting do’s and don’ts of various religions. Celie’s eyes are opened when she begins the process of redefining God and the author poses the question to the reader: How can we grow as people if we do not question what came before us in order to fix the wrongs?
The book represents the struggle to develop an encompassing theology within the confines of a restraining theology.
In the tenth anniversary edition of The Color Purple, Walker shares what the book means to her, “it remains for me [a] theological work examining the journey from the religious back to the spiritual that I spent much of my adult life, prior to writing it, seeking to avoid” (qtd. in Thyreen 49). The book represents Celie’s, as well as Walker’s, struggle to develop an encompassing theology within the confines of a restraining theology. The author’s real life spiritual journey is reflected in the pages of her book and has continued after its publication.
In her book Anything We Love Can Be Saved Walker expands on some of the ideas underlying the theology presented within the structure of The Color Purple. The author recalls how her parents and grandparents led an existence under the pretense that they must fix flaws that weren’t real because those flaws were defined by so-called “’men of God’ [who were] really men of greed, misogyny, and violence” (4). She goes on to stress that all people deserve to be loved by God and that is why she feels Nature is a good choice for the role because it won’t “find anything wrong with your natural way” (25).
“Everything is a part of everything else.”
Part of the book’s shape results from Walker writing as a womanist whose philosophy reflects the part of feminism that demands answers for past actions and looks toward to the capacity that all people have to grow and change. Marc—A Christophe describes womanism as “the reattachment of humankind to a cosmogonic worldview where everything is part of everything else, a world that would give importance to all living creatures, big and small, for they are expressions of the divine” (107).
In 1973, Walker said, “the truth is probably that I don’t believe there is a God, although I would like to believe it” (qtd. in Scholl 265). For Walker to reduce herself to outright atheism would deny the joy and suffering she has found in exploring religion. And that is what Walker does with her book in allowing Celie to grow strong as a person through a series of incidents that bring her to a greater understanding of God and of herself.
“Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.”
Shug’s sharing her understanding of God with Celie is the turning point in the novel that acts as a wake-up call for Celie: “Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool” (Walker 204). The author has carefully brought Celie to the moment when she can find the strength and courage within herself and “enter into the Creation” (Walker 207). For the first time, Celie has the power to actively change and better her life. Because Celie can finally confront Mr. _____ about Nettie’s letters and curse him, “until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble” (Walker 213). This is a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the novel who cringed at all of life. Indeed, one of the happiest moments in the novel occurs when Celie asserts, “but I’m here” (Walker 214). The simple joy of being in the world successfully brings the purpose of Walker’s structure to the forefront. A connection to her inner-strength and a more internal God allows Celie a connection to the beautiful here and now of the world.
What follows allows Walker to show the result of coming to terms with religion. In a scene that is blasphemous and comical at the same time, Celie smokes pot when she wants to talk to God. Harpo’s and Sofia’s shock serves to reflect the reader’s reaction, but Walker isn’t so much advocating smoking marijuana so much as she is supporting the way it enables the three to feel the presence of “everything” (Walker 227).
Celie’s final letter brings the spiritual structure of the novel full circle.
Nettie’s eyes are also opened concerning the essence of God via her years in Africa. Nettie writes, “and not being tied to what God looks like, frees us” (Walker 264). Even Mr. _____ becomes Albert in Celie’s eyes and Celie can learn to live without Shug. Celie observes, “I be so calm” (Walker 290). Celie has moved beyond the blind acceptance that history teaches in order to reach a greater and more personal version of the truth.
The Color Purple reaches out to anyone who’s felt confused about the role of God and religion in their life and offers an alternative approach. Celie’s final letter brings the spiritual structure of the novel full circle. Celie addresses that letter to, “Dear God. Dear Stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God” (Walker 292). Not only can Celie express her happiness to God, she shares it with all of creation. And the reader whispers, amen.
*The list of works cited in this paper appears at the end of the blog post.
What reactions did you have to either the book or its movie version? What other novels with similar themes come to mind?
***Thanks to all who took my blog survey. Results will be posted next week.***
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Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB
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Christophe, Marc—A, “The Color Purple: An Existential Novel. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 101-107.
Henderson, Mae G. “The Color Purple: Revisions and Redefinitions.” Alice Walker. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 67-80.
Lewis, T. W. III. “Moral Mapping and Spiritual Guidance in The Color Purple.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 73. (1990 Summer-Fall). 483-491.
Scholl, Diane Gabrielsen. “With Ears to Hear and Eyes to See: Alice Walker’s Parable The Color Purple.” Christianity and Literature, Vol. 40 (Spring 1991). 255-266.
Thyreen, Jeannine. “Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: Redefining God and (Re)Claiming the Spirit Within. Christianity and Literature, Vol. 49 (Autumn 1999). 49-66.
Walker, Alice. Anything We Love Can Be Saved. New York: Random House, 1997.
The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.
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Chambers, Kimberly R. “Right on Time: History and Religion in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. College Language Association, Vol. 30. (1987 September). 49-62.
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Colton, Catherine A. “Alice Walker’s Womanist Magic: The Conjure Woman as Rhetor. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 33-44.
Davis, Thadious M. “Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” Alice Walker. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 25-37.
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Hooks, Bell. “Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple. Alice Walker. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 215-228.
Katz, Tamar. “’Show Me How to Do Like You’: Didacticism and Epistolary Form in The Color Purple.” Alice Walker. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 185-193.
Leder, Priscilla. “Alice Walker’s American Quilt: The Color Purple and American Literary Tradition.” Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 141-151.
Smith, Felipe. “Alice Walker’s Redemptive Art.” Critcal Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 109-124.
Walker, Alice. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Walton, Priscilla L. “’What She Got to Sing About?’: Comedy and The Color Purple. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 185-196.
Winchel, Donna Haisty. “Letters to God: The Color Purple.” Alice Walker. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 85-99.