‘The Color Purple’ [Alice Walker]: Essay One [‘B++’, 2000/2001]

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‘Choose three letters and write about the ways in which Alice Walker uses language to develop characters, relationships and themes’

{Essay CONTENTS: Alice Walker’s view on society; Walker’s ‘womanism’; Epistolary form; Language use; Male/female relations – rape – intimidation; Male dominance in society; Rape: graphic description; Mama’s respite; Characterization of mama; Mama’s faith in Celie – female solidarity; Celie’s timidity; Celie’s acceptance of mistreatment; Celie’s positive view of mama; Celie’s repression; Underlexicalization; Alfonso (Pa): characterization; Pa as the ‘ENEMY’; Pa’s abuse of power; Pa’s quest for power; Theme of violence; Pa’s negative effect on Celie-mama relationship; Celie’s lack of education; Pa as dominant household figure; Pa’s violence & obsession with control, possession and dominance; Celie’s meek resignation; Celie’s empathy with mama; Celie’s protectiveness towards Nettie; Marriage as escape from Pa; Celie’s world view; Celie’s lack of sexual education; Celie’s sexual displeasure – distrust of men; Characterization of Nettie – Nettie and Celie’s solidarity; Celie’s brutal introduction to married life; Celie’s fulfilment of domestic duties; Celie’s loveless dutifulness; Celie’s silent fury; Celie’s development of a thick skin; Celie’s homosexual escapism; Celie’s naivety – Pa’s intentions towards Nettie; Celie’s lack of knowledge; Celie’s low self-esteem; Nettie boosts Celie’s self-esteem; Mr._’s shortcomings as husband and father; Mr._’s low regard for Celie; Mr._’s implicit violence; Mr._’s infatuation with Shug Avery; Mr._’s children’s siege mentality; Celie and Corrine; Familial evaluation; Conclusion.}

Alice Walker, whose book The Color Purple was published by The Women’s Press in 1983, felt strongly about the way black women were constantly degraded in society, and particularly within the black community.[^]

Her term ‘womanism’ (“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”) is derived from ‘womanish’ (used by mothers to female children, implying adult assertive behaviour, meaning outrageous, audacious, courageous or wilful).[^]

Throughout The Color Purple, letters are written by Celie to God/Nettie and by Nettie to Celie in reply.  This epistolary form relates to the image of quilting, symbolising community spirit, independence and working.  There are patterns in the letters.  Women are traditionally family writers, demonstrated by the fact that historians study female letters.  Both objective and subjective views can be put across to the reader.  One final point about this style is that the letters are undated: they don’t firmly tell us which time period it is set in, although clues can be found in the text.  Employing the epistolary form as she does, Alice Walker highlights Celie’s feelings of helplessness and loneliness – she has only God to write to.[^]

The language used in each diary-style letter helps develop each character and show their role in society.  The language- a form of Creole- used is harsh, blunt and colloquial, emphasising and relating Alice Walker’s ideas to us, the reader.  Throughout the book we are hearing Celie’s idiolect, with the occasional quotation from the relevant party interspersed to backup her description of events.[^]

The prelude to the first letter relates Celie’s father, Alfonso or “Pa” as he is known, threatening Celie with, “You better not tell nobody but God.  It’d kill your mammy.”  This one-way exchange is the first of many brutal examples which Alice Walker uses to develop the theme of male/female relations in the black community.  The complete sense of fear instilled by Pa is a demonstration of how downtrodden females were: Celie has been raped, yet intimidated to such an extent that if she ever told anybody what has occurred she will feel guilty, “It’d kill your mammy.”[^]

A further example of male dominance comes soon after Celie’s mother, “mama”, has given birth to Lucious, the latest in a long line of children.  Instead of Pa allowing the mother sufficient time for rest and recovery, “He was pulling on her arm”, demanding sex with scant regard to the feelings of his “already half dead” wife.[^]

Pa’s rape of Celie, “…he grab hold of my titties.  Then he push his thing inside my pussy…”, is described in graphic detail, fully outlining Celie’s feelings of pain and fear with little subtlety, “When that hurt, I cry.  He start to choke me…”[^]

When Pa is ‘good’ to mama- following his rape of Celie- “She happy, cause he good to her now.”  This implies that it is unusual for the husband to be kind and helpful towards his wife; a harsh reality, underlined by the observation that she is, “too sick to last long”– all the life has been battered out of her in the preceding years.[^]

Mama is developed as a worn-down housewife who has gone past the point of caring, “Naw, I ain’t gonna” (have sex with Pa), shows how far she has sunk in terms of health (both mental and physical); females wouldn’t refuse their husbands.  When Pa is rejected, it comes as such a shock to the system that he seeks gratification through other means, which is bad luck for Celie.[^]

Mama has faith in Celie, it appears, as (through Celie’s eyes) she, “left me to see after the others”, when mama visited her sister doctor over Macon.  “She fuss at me an look at me” says Celie of her mum when Pa is showing some sort of affection towards mama.  This hints at another theme of female solidarity: Celie is entrusted by her mother (showing Celie is considered to be mature) and subsequently given attention, suggesting there’s a loving relationship between Celie and mama when Pa isn’t being obstructive.[^]

Celie is portrayed as being very timid.  “I am.  I have always been a good girl” Celie writes, after her father has raped her.  She doesn’t know if she is still considered a ‘good girl’; she is unsure as to whether it is her fault she has been raped.[^]

Despite pain, “…that hurt, I cry…I don’t ever git used to it…”, she accepts that- as a female- she will be mistreated.[^]

She seems to love and understand mama; she takes mama’s side- a harbinger of the later “female solidarity vs. Pa” mentality that develops.  She knows that when Pa is kind to mama, mama is relieved and happy enough to show affectionate emotions towards her, “…She fuss at me an look at me…She happy cause he good to her now…”  Celie sees that mama tries her best, but her lack of power and authority prevents her exerting any real influence over family matters and stops mama showing Celie true love.[^]

Celie- because of the position she finds herself in- can’t, and doesn’t, put up any resistance to Pa’s sexual desires, suggesting that she will do what’s best for the family.  Celie “feels sick everytime I be the one to cook”.  She is very repressed: regardless of personal feelings, she makes no complaint.[^]

Alice Walker uses underlexicalization to emphasise Celie’s lack of formal education.  Her consistent use of ellipsis, her lack of adverb use, and basic grammatical errors underline her limited intelligence.  Unlike most people nowadays, Celie has only one word for relating speech: “…say”.[^]

Pa is developed as an instinct-led man, always after sex – whether with his wife or his daughter, Celie.  His demand for immediate gratification leaves him with little remorse for his act of rape, “You better shut up and git used to it”, he says to Celie, underlining his apparent lack of moral virtues.[^]

“He never had a kine word to say to me”, says Celie of Pa: he is developed and put across to the reader as nothing short of an animal in Celie’s eyes – the ENEMY.[^]

He abuses his dominant position, seemingly never able to get enough, “He was pulling on her arm” (mama’s arm), demanding sex, after his wife had given birth and wasn’t up to anything remotely physical for the good of her health.[^]

Pa is set on complete control over all the females in his life, regardless of whether it’s his wife/daughter/someone he barely knows.  In his quest for power it doesn’t appear to matter if he badly mistreats people.[^]

Violence is something developed by Alice Walker consistently throughout the book, and particularly in the first letter.  Pa is extremely aggressive in his pursuit of sexual gratification.  Violence and intimidation are two tactics used by Pa, perfectly highlighted with, “You better not tell nobody but God.  It’d kill your mammy”; little thought is given to how his relationship with those immediately concerned might suffer.[^]

Parent/child relations are not important to Pa: nothing gets in the way of his desires.  Mama is so scared of Pa she is unable to treat Celie affectionately all the time, only in sporadic bursts.  “My mama she fuss at me an look at me”, Celie observes, demonstrating that this love is conditional, “…cause he good to her now.”[^]

Celie obviously isn’t well-educated in either the ways of the world or in academic study.  When she is unsure of how she will be perceived in the eyes of God after her father has raped her (is it my fault?), she shows that she doesn’t know that it isn’t common or accepted practice for a father to take advantage of his daughter.  “She say It too soon, Fonso, I ain’t well,” highlights her lack of formal, extended education: she doesn’t use speech marks, but has enough intelligence about her to use parenthesis properly.  Celie has absolutely no ideas on the concept of sexual encounters (apart from the notion that they are invariably painful), “…sort of wiggle it around…”  She has no idea of what it is all about and what is supposed to happen.[^]

Alice Walker underlines male dominance in Celie’s referral to Pa as He”.  Pa is obviously the dominant household figure.  Pa is a God-like character (He) in Celie’s eyes.  However, Celie sees the bigger picture and realises he is only a domestic power, he is not omniscient.[^]

In letter five, Pa’s violent streak is again prevalent, “He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church.”  The cunning, conniving man that Pa clearly is can be inferred as we deduce the reasoning behind his actions.  Even at this early stage, we can see that Celie is a genuine, honest woman, so we have no reason to doubt her “truth”.  We know that if he beats her for looking at men, she will develop a reputation as an easy, dishonest young woman.  Thus, if Celie ever dared to summon the courage to speak of her ill-treatment, people will be less inclined to believe her.  In this instance, Pa shows how little he cares about the relationship he has with his daughter, and shows how obsessed he is with control, possession and dominance.  If anything can benefit him, he will pursue that avenue with scant regard to others’ feelings.  Pa is also “looking at Nettie”; his primitive, barely controlled animal instincts again coming to the fore.  In this episode Pa underlines the male/female divide.[^]

Celie is further developed as a meek, accepting female, who is completely abused and overrun by her father.  There is no real vehemence or anger in Celie’s voice when she says, “He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church”: there is only a weak resignation to the way her life is, a diffidence.[^]

Female solidarity between Celie and her mother is demonstrated again in the passage, “Maybe cause my mama cuss you think I kept mad at her.  But I ain’t.  I felt sorry for mama.  Trying to believe his story kilt her.”  Celie doesn’t blame her mother in any way for the treatment she dished out to her and had to endure: her perception of the situation proves, once again, to be very deep.  She has an empathy with her deceased motherly role model.  For the first time we see an independent school of thought coming from Celie, underlining the idea of the social divide between males and females.[^]

She silently opposes Pa, and tries to help Nettie (showing her protective attitude towards her younger, more naive and intelligent sister), “I told her to marry Mr._.  I don’t tell her why.”  She has become older, hardened and wiser through her experience of life and aims to apply her own past to stop Pa ruining anyone else’s life.  Celie also demonstrates a more worldly, cynical attitude when she says, “try to have one good year out your life.  After that, I know she be big”, suggesting she has seen life for what it is and has come to the conclusion that life ends when you become pregnant (basing this on her observations of how mama turned out).[^]

Celie realises that being pregnant and house-bound is still preferable to the inevitable rape she would suffer at Pa’s hands.  The marriage would not be for gain, but for escape – the escape provided by marital status.  Material worth for one year is favourable to the courting she’d otherwise endure from Pa.[^]

You must make an effort to have ‘one good year’ – that’s your lot.[^]

Celie is still naive to some extent, “I don’t bleed no more” she says, without realising the full implications of what she has discovered: that she is infertile.  The only sexual education Celie receives is hearsay, “A girl at church say you git big if you bleed every month”; she has no formal, informed advice.[^]

For Celie, the relationships between the sexes is strictly one-way when it comes to pleasure.  This is shown by her descriptions of Pa’s sexual actions and intentions.  She is naturally suspicious of men, even at this early stage.  Her life experience thus far has taught her to distrust all men.[^]

Nettie is described as being the innocent, unassuming girl that Celie would have been, had it not been for Pa.  The facts that “he still be looking at” her, and there is interest from Mr._, shows Nettie is obviously more attractive than Celie.  This is a fact which Celie later acknowledges without bitterness or resentment, “I know I’m not as pretty or as smart as Nettie, but she say I ain’t dumb”.  There is a mutual respect and love for one another: together they hope to combine their strengths (Nettie’s being education, Celie’s being domestic “duties”), and lead a better life in the future.  But for her older sister, Nettie could well have ended up like Celie; she doesn’t have to go down that route because of the strong sisterly bond that obviously exists between them, and the female solidarity idea shining through.  They depend on one another.[^]

In letter nine, Celie describes how she, “spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy”.  Alice Walker deliberately uses the collocation “wedding day” to conjure up stereotypical romantic images of good catering, quality entertainment, wonderful speeches etc.  The truth is brutally different.  She spends her night with Mr._, “he on top me”.  The children aren’t welcoming towards their new mother.  The eldest child, Harpo, following the precedent set by his dad, stones Celie on arrival, not wanting to “hear nothing bout no new one”, having suffered, “his mama died in his arms”.[^]

Celie shows how easily ordered about she is, and also how efficient she is at domestic work, “I…cook dinner,…start trying to untangle hair”.  After these tasks have been performed, she has (in her opinion) one last duty before she can go to bed: satisfy Mr._’s sexual urges.  For Celie, the sex is part of the marriage package – a thoroughly disagreeable aspect of the pact.[^]

The hairdressing (or, rather, the untangling of hair) is a form of expression for Celie: she isn’t going to let the children look so scruffy and unkempt.  She will dutifully fulfil the roles expected of her, despite not feeling any love towards the children.  The fact that she writes more about the hairdressing than the sex illustrates her comparative feelings on the two subjects: here, the hairdressing is the primary concern.[^]

Celie’s repressed, yet angry, observation, “His daddy say Don’t do that!” underlines her inability to stand up for her rights: she feels that, in not strongly reprimanding Harpo, an injustice has been committed, but she is incapable to act upon her thoughts.[^]

“They scream.  They cuse me of murder…But I don’t cry” is an example of the thick skin Celie develops, one which only Shug Avery can later pierce.[^]

Female sexual preferences start to emerge in Celie while she is gratifying his sexual demand, “I know what he be doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it.”  The only way Celie manages to remain sane throughout her hardship is through mental escape; in this instance she retreats into an imaginary world: she hates sex with Mr._, but- through thinking about Shug Avery- she is able to get through it.  Escape is a theme which Alice Walker builds on throughout the diary of events.[^]

The limited worldly education Celie has experienced in her life is underlined by her apparent surprise that the family of Mr._ comprises “four children, instead of three, two boys and two girls.”  Her surprise that Mr._ has underestimated the size of his family- how could anyone misjudge their family size?- is a good example of her naivety: when Mr._ is trying to convince Pa to let Nettie be his wife, he is hardly likely to say “I’ve got four unruly children, requiring a lot of effort on your daughter’s behalf to keep them under control”, so he underestimates his family size.  As it is, Pa says, “Mr._ got too many children already” – Pa using that fact to cover up his reluctance to allow the ripe, virginal Nettie to leave.[^]

Celie’s willingness to believe it’s, “bad luck to cut a woman hair”, demonstrates her acceptance of male dominance, but also her lack of better knowledge: if she knew otherwise, she’d be in a position to come up with a suitable retort (putting his statement down to superstition, an old wives’ tale).[^]

Celie has very low self-esteem, highlighted by her apparent lack of regard for her naked body, “The blood ran all down tween my breasts”.  This strongly implies she is disgusted by the occurrence, and her body in general.  Any self-respect she may once have had was cruelly stolen by Pa’s rapings; she can’t bear to look at her naked self any more.[^]

The loving sisterly relationship is demonstrated in letter eleven, when Mr._ is attempting to impress Nettie by complimenting her to excess.  Nettie- “First she smile a little.  The she frown.  Then she don’t look any special way at all”– knows what is going on, and passes the praise onto Celie, resulting in Celie, “feeling pretty cute”.  Nettie is trying to, and succeeding in, building Celie’s confidence in her appearance, “Your skin.  Your hair.  Your teefs.”[^]

Mr._ is shown to be both an uncaring husband and an uncommanding (domestically) father figure, particularly in his weak discipline of Harpo- who stones Celie on arrival.  He is a man of high expectations, but unprepared to do any hard graft; his input during the course of the evening (during which Celie untangled screaming children’s hair and cooked the dinner, after having bandaged up her own wounds) was to repeat an unproved superstition, “He say bad luck to cut a woman hair”.[^]

Mr._ doesn’t bother with introducing the children to their new mother; he obviously doesn’t want to give Celie any sort of sense of worth (fearing it may empower her, thus threatening his dominant domestic position).  His discipline of Harpo, “Don’t do that!”, was the sort of remark you’d make to a child performing an irritating, trivial matter.  This demonstrates the kind of regard he holds Celie in.[^]

He is well aware of the male dominance in society and intends to make the most of it.  The extreme, violent reactions of his children- throwing rocks, screaming/accusing Celie of murder- and the lack of surprise this invokes in Mr._, suggests he is a naturally aggressive man, and his children have merely inherited this trait and react in the only way they know how to vent their feelings.[^]

We can deduce that Shug Avery would have been his first marital choice, and that Celie was a last resort: he no doubt resents the way his life has turned out – this would certainly help explain his actions towards- and treatment of- Celie.  The wife he has now did not mother his four children- and even the real mum wasn’t loved properly, “he just brought her here, dropped her, and kept right on running after Shug Avery…He be gone for days.”– so what can Celie expect?  He will never feel particularly close to Celie.[^]

The children demonstrate a siege mentality, especially in their hostile treatment of Celie.  They all seem to have a chip on their shoulder, with their underlying unhappiness coming out in the line, “they cried themselves to sleep.”[^]

When Celie met the new “mother” of Olivia (Celie’s baby, who was taken away from her at a young age), she was overcome with joy and hopeful emotions.  She shows little resentment of the new mother, acknowledging that she is doing a good job in raising her baby.  In this passage we not only see female solidarity, but an illustration of inter-sex relations.  This occurs when Celie and Corrine are chatting, and the clerk says, “Girl you want that cloth or not?  We got other customer sides you.”  Corrine is the customer, therefore, in modern society, she should get the privileges and the favourable treatment.  The male is completely dominant, demanding total respect, regardless of the role he is playing (i.e. the store clerk, not the customer).[^]

All in all, they are one big, unhappy family.[^]

In looking at the three letters (numbers one, three and nine), plus an assortment of other quotations and passages, it is clear that Alice Walker uses The Color Purple to put across an array of themes she feels very strongly about.  These include: male dominance; relationships between the sexes; female solidarity; role-models; parent/child relationships; violence; escape; the role of education; and white/black relationships.  Characters are developed throughout the text, with different characters being vehicles for various themes.  The language used shows the harsh reality of life within the black community, as it was before our twenty-first century notions of racial/sexual equality.  As William Faulkner wrote in an earlier decade, so many of the black community could aspire to nothing but a life of soul-destroying endurance.[^]

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34-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, being a bit of a geek, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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