July 25, 1982Some Letters Went to God
By MEL WATKINS
THE COLOR PURPLE
By Alice Walker.
ithout doubt, Alice Walker's latest novel is her most impressive. No mean accomplishment, since her previous books - which, in addition to several collections of poetry and two collections of short stories, include two novels ("The Third Life of Grange Copeland" and "Medridian") - have elicited almost unanimous praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer. "The Color Purple," while easily satisfyingthat claim, brings into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through her past work.
"The Color Purple" is foremost the story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. The tale is told primarily through her own letters, which, out of isolation and despair, she initially addresses to God. As a teen-ager she is repeatedly raped and beaten by her stepfather, then forced by him into loveless marriage to Albert, a widower with four children. To Albert, who is in love with vivacious and determinedly independent blues singer named Shug Avery, Celie is merely a servant and an occasional sexual convenience. When his oldest son, Harpo, asks Albert why he beats Celie, he says simply, "Cause she my wife." For a time Celie accepts the abuse stoically: "He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don't never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt... 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."
But during the course of the novel, which begins in the early 1900's and ends in the mid-1940's, Celie frees herself from her husband's repressive control. Bolstered by her contacts with other women and by her affection for her yonger sister, Netti - who with Celie's help has fled to Africa with a missionary group - Celie eventually leaves Albert and moves to Memphis, where she starts a business designing and making clothes.Ironically, it is Ablert's real love and sometime mistress, Shug Avery, and his rebellious daughter-in-law, Sofia, who provide the emotional support for Celie's personal evolution. And, in turn, it is Celie's new understanding of an acceptance of herself that eventually lead to Albert's re-evaluation of his own life and a reconciliation among the novel's major characters. As the book ends, Albert and Shug sit with Celie on Celie's front porch, "rocking and fanning flies," waiting for the arrival of Netti and her family.
This plot summary reflects neither the density of subtle interactions among the characters nor the novel's intense emotional impact. It does, however, suggest some of the book's major themes.Most prominent is the estrangement and violence that mark the relationships between Miss Walker's black men and women. Although this subject had been raised in the fiction of earlier American writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, and in comic caricatures of the Frankie and Johnny variety, it was largely ignored by most black writers until the early 1960's; at that point, the strongly felt need for a more open scrutiny of black life led writers to challenge longstanding black middle-class proscriptions against dramatizing and thereby exposing anything that might reinforce damaging racial stereotypes. Notable among the novels that have explored the theme si then are James Baldwin's "Another Country" (1962) and Carlene Hatcher Polite's acidulous "The Flagellants" (1967). More recently, such writers as Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones have produced powerful novels that, among other things, dramatize the theme of conflict between black men and women.
Alice Walker has also dealt with the subject before. In her collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down," two stories ("Porn" and "Coming Apart") assess the sexual disaffection among black couples. And the sainty heroine of the novel "Meridian" is desserted by a black lover who then marries a white civil-rights worker, whom he also later abandons. In "Meridian," however, the friction between black men and women is merely one of several themes; in "The Color Purple" the role of male domination in the frustration of black women's struggle for indedpendence is clearly the focus.
Miss Walker explores the estrangement of her men and women through a triangular love affair. It is Shug Avery who forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie, and it is Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship. "It don't surprise me you love Shug Avery," Albert tells Celie. "I have love Shug Avery all my life... I told Shug it was true that I beat his wife cause you was you and not her... some womens would have just love to hear they man say he beat his wife cause she wasn't them. ...But Shug spoke right up for you, Celie. She say, Albert, you been mistreating somebody I love. so as far as you concern, I'm gone."
What makes Miss Walker's exploration so indelibly affecting is the choice of a narrative style that, without the intrusion of the author, forces intimate identification with the heroine. Most of the letters that comprise this epistolary novel are written by Celie, although correspondence from Netti is included in the latter part of the book. Initially, some readers may be put off by Celie's knothole view of the world, particularly since her letters are written in dialect and from the perspective of a naive, uneducated adolescent: "Last spring after little Lucious come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say it too soon, Fonso, I ain't gonna. Can't you see I'm already half dead, an all these children."
As the novel progresses, however, and as Celie grows in experience, her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority and the dialect, once accepted, assumes a lyrical cadence of its own:
"After all the evil he done I know you wonder why I don't hate him. I don't hate him for two reasons. One, he love Shug. And two, Shug use to love him. Plus, look like he trying to make something out himself. I don't mean just that he work and he clean up after himself and he approciate some to the thing God was playful enought to make. 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 live on Earth as a natural man."
The cumulative effect is a novel that is convincing because of the authenticity of its folk voice. And, refreshingly, it is not just the two narractor-correspondents who come vividly alive in this tale. A number of memorable female characters emerge. There is Shug Avery, whose pride, independence and appetite for living act as a catalyst for Celie and others, and Sofia, whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives.
If there is a weakness in this novel - besides the somewhat pallid portraits of the males - it is Netti's correspondence for Africa. While Netti's letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppression by dexcribing customs of the Olinka tribe that parallel some found in the American South, they are often mere monologues on African history. Appearing, as they do, after Celie's intensely subjective voice has been established, they seem lackluster and intrusive.
These are only quibbles, however, about a striking and consummately well-written novel. Alice Walker's choice and effective handling of the epistolary style has enabled her to tell a poignant tale of women's struggle for equality and independence without either the emotional excess of her previous novel "Meridian" or the polemical excess of her short-story collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down."
Mel Watkins is an editor of The New York Times Book Review.
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Literary Analysis: The Color Purple Essay
1388 Words6 Pages
There are numerous works of literature that recount a story- a story from which inspiration flourishes, providing a source of liberating motivation to its audience, or a story that simply aspires to touch the hearts and souls of all of those who read it. One of the most prevalent themes in historical types of these kinds of literature is racism. In America specifically, African Americans endured racism heavily, especially in the South, and did not gain equal rights until the 1960s. In her renowned book The Color Purple, Alice Walker narrates the journey of an African American woman, Celie Johnson (Harris), who experiences racism, sexism, and enduring hardships throughout the course of her life; nonetheless, through the help of friends and…show more content…
According to Harold Bloom, “For Celie, the practice of addressing God simply reaffirms her solitude; she is essentially writing to herself” (Bloom, and Williams 77-88). This submissive practice nonetheless carries over onto her daily life, and ensues until her relationship with Shug Avery strengthens. After Celie begins to experience a spiritual, emotional, and sexual awakening as a result of this bond, her letters reflect her newfound emotional capacity. Bloom enforces this ideal, claiming, “Shug is the route through which Nettie's letters are restored” (Bloom, and Williams 77-88). With the figurative resurrection of her sister through Shug’s support, Celie’s power of voice grows. She begins to think for herself and express her thoughts more vividly, claiming, "My life stop when I left home, I think. But then I think again. It stop with Mr._______ maybe, but start up again with Shug" (Walker 85). The audience, who was Celie’s only recluse for thought, views her becoming more verbal and opinionated in reality as well; for instance, during her final standoff with Mr._______, she exclaims, "You a lowdown dog is what's wrong, I say. It's time to leave you and enter into Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (Walker 207). Celie, therefore, has discovered the act of standing up for herself as a person. Nettie’s letters possess a distinct voice as well, and the discovery and instigation of communication between the two sisters liberates the voice which