The Colour Purple written by Alice Walker is one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1980s and the first work by a Black woman to win both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award For Fiction. It is perhaps the cultural touchstone for Black women in America as it emerges out of the existence and experience of these women and the oppressive realities of 1900s that continue to be relevant. Revolving around the toxicity and victimisation of the Black woman of that period, the novel is also a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship. This work is a beautiful interplay of power and gender, of victimisation and liberation which introduced Black femininity into the then male-centred Black nationalist discourse.
The Colour Purple is an epistolary novel set in rural Georgia in early 20th century. It revolves around Celie, a poor, semi-educated Black girl who is caught in the horrors of incestuous abuse. Growing up caught in a cycle of rape and pregnancy, Celie thinks God took her children away only to realise later that her children’s father is really her stepfather. With no relief in sight Celie escapes only to be caught in another equally tyrannical relationship with a widower who makes her take care of his children and run house chores.
Revolving around the toxicity and victimisation of black women the novel is also a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship.
However, the widower, Mr Albert has eyes for Nettie, Celie’s younger sister who is lucky enough to escape the obnoxious step-father. She goes to Africa with a young missionary couple who happen to adopt Celie’s two children. However, Celie’s life continues to be miserable as her husband brings another woman Shug Avery, a bold, independent woman who loves her and teaches her the means of earning of a livelihood through her own creativity. Celie communicates with God and expresses the tirade and humiliation that she undergoes every day. Not only this, Celie and Nettie are empowered by letter writing and in doing so they not only acquire their voice but also their subjectivity.
The novel explores various themes like the relationship with God, the perpetual suppression of women, and the colour purple which is a thematic element in the story. First of all, Celie writes letters to God thinking that He would intervene in the ordeal and the trauma she was going through. There is however a shift in her understanding of God as a powerful white man which reflected the kind of socialisation she had.
Her letters are also a symbol of oppression from an early age but it is only through letters that she records her journey from silence to articulation. She matures gradually when she no longer believes that her audience is white (God) and starts addressing her letter to her sister Nettie which is reflected in her longing for a real connection.
The lesbian relationship shared between Celie and Shug helps Celie break her heterosexual bonds which only reinforced patriarchy and reduced her to a slave.
Through her work, Alice Walker is able to illustrate the relation of oppression between the Black man and woman, the latter being a subject of constant abuse and neglect. Celie is a woman who has lost her individuality and purpose in life so she silently and submissively endures every inhumane behaviour of her husband and also because she does not know of any other behaviour. She writes, “He beat me like he beat the children…….All I can do is not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man”. The novel also underlines the role of Black men in upsetting Black women’s struggle for identity, existence and independence.
Celie’s First Lessons
Celie and her daughter-in-law, Sofia Butler share another powerful and significantly defining relationship in this novel. Sofia is a strong and independent woman who loves her husband, Harpo but refuses to be dominated by him. She is as solid as a rock and never compromises her position. When she gets tired of Harpo’s unchanged behaviour, she eventually leaves him. Celie on the other hand who is so used to male subjugation, advises Harpo to beat Sofia although later, Celie feels guilty when Sofia expresses her disappointment over her actions.
Celie and Sofia’s relationship indicates Celie’s first steps towards autonomy and self-hood when Sofia catalyses Celie’s realisation of self-assertion in her marriage and household. The initial jealousy which Celie had for Sofia transforms into a dignified bond where Celie learns to let go of her defeatist attitude. Celie too helps Sofia overcome the losses she had to suffer due to racial prejudice and motivates her to regain her lost self-worth.
When Friendship Blossoms
The liberation of Celie comes through Shug Avery who is a Blues singer. Shug Avery stands for everything Celie believes she lacks – beauty, love, power, attractiveness, and freedom. Shug is the embodiment of feminist existential freedom who helps Celie discard all her stereotypical notions about God and instils in her the love for self. Shug teaches Celie to discover her own sexuality and introduces her to a more nuanced understanding of God – which is beyond race and gender.
Celie and Shug share a relationship that restores the former’s identity and is symbolic of the friendship in the Black community and their sisterhood. Shug provokes Celie’s unknown feminine desires by pushing her to explore her own body. The lesbian relationship shared between Celie and Shug not only strengthens their bond but also helps Celie break her heterosexual bonds which reinforced patriarchy and reduced her to a slave.
The Recovery Of Truth
The colour purple is used as a metaphor for Celie’s pain and suffering. It relates to clotted blood and also reveals her sexual violation when she compares her private parts to the colour. But on a positive note, the colour signifies her liberation from the shackles of dominance because ultimately this is a story about growth and endurance, nurtured by love. Finding the letters of Nettie can be seen as a journey for Celie towards self-discovery and resistance.
Towards the end of the novel, Celie is no longer afraid of her husband and leaves behind everything to move to Memphis. She establishes a female-centred household with Shug and moves on to the path of self-sufficiency by making pants which she fittingly calls Folkspants Unlimited. She is able to support herself, not by means of wage labour but by means of a trade that shatters the gendered notions of male and female apparel. At last Celie discovers her own value and journeys through where she overcomes her fears and redeems her independence.
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