Rebirth and Self Discovery in The Color Purple, The Sound and the Fury, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow

Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, written in 1982, emerged from the appearance of Feminist writers in the 1970s, when specific gender issues were no longer being suppressed by a patriarchal society. This allowed for the growth of personal freedom within the cultural legacy of both the Black community and the Feminist movement. Intellectual consciousness widened along with the drive to assert selfhood; this theme of the establishment of one’s sense of self is present in my second chosen text: The Sound and the Fury written by William Faulkner in 1929. The novel is a representation of an archetypical Southern American family “on the way to dusty death”, primarily due to their involvement in the distorted political and social struggle with new trends spreading from the North. The Sound and the Fury is written in three parts; the first of which is told through the eyes of Benjy, a young man handicapped by a psychological illness. In Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (published 1970), Ted Hughes used the quasi-human figure of Crow to explore the human psyche, and his themes of death and rebirth. The work took on the form of a Shamanic journey to the Underworld, something that Hughes believed integral to folk-mythology. Crow was the first of Hughes’ collections of poems in which he began to create a complex folk-mythology of his own, built around the framework of Shamanism: Crow is complete with a questing hero character and an entirely fallible God.

Walker’s protagonist Celie narrates her life in an epistolary form, providing not only a means of self revelation but also an intellectual process for comprehending herself and reality, in a similar style of literary discourse to William Wells Brown’s Clotel and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the words of the critic J. Hollands, this “enables the reader to witness the birth of very private writing”, for example the correction in the first line of the novel from “I am” to “I have”; the present form of the verb replacing the present perfect form. The very act of addressing letters to God rather than to an immediately physical human figure shows Celie’s alienation and marginality: “…long as I can spell G-O-D I got somebody along.” It is also significant that Walker chooses not to give her protagonist a surname, further removing her from any sense of self-identification and further intensifying her need to communicate with any willing person. The ineptness and irony that is apparent in the desperate relationship between a young person and God is paralleled by Faulkner’s portrayal of Benjy, the mentally handicapped member of the Compson family, as a modern Christ-like figure. Benjy is portrayed as a potential saviour for Caddy; a man who is the same age as Jesus was when he was crucified yet still forms part of a generation that is slowly tarnishing the family name with moral decay. In this representation of a new Christ, Faulkner implies that it would allow for the regeneration and renewal of the Compson family, in particular Caddy. This is illustrated by Benjy’s crying over Caddy wearing perfume; symbolising the immorality of Caddy’s giving birth to a child out of wedlock. Similarly in Crow, Hughes’ use of Biblical language and style and his recreation of the Genesis story redefine God, which placed Crow in the role of a “crucified” and then reborn hero as shown in “Crow and the Sea”, providing him with a supposed opportunity to learn humanity, adopt a sense of wholeness and alter his amoral, animalistic nature. All three protagonists developed their sense of self through some contact with God; Benjy through becoming a replacement for previous, “unworthy” religious figures, Celie through a process of humanising her ‘God’, and Crow through his attempted interference in God’s work.

In a similar way to the Odyssey giving form to James Joyce’s Ulysses, many images from the busiest week in the Christian calendar contribute to Faulkner’s narrative. The author’s decision to structure the plot of The Sound and the Fury around religious events of the Easter Week forms a capacity for potential spiritual discoveries within each of his characters, in particular Dilsey, one of the Compson family’s black servants. Through his portrayal of each of the four sections of the novel acting as parallels to gospel tradition and Reverend Shegog’s unorthodox yet powerful Easter sermon, Faulkner shows Dilsey as being awakened into a spiritual renewal, her experience of enlightenment pushing her to secular acts of affirmation and rejection. Therefore, the Easter event that is relevant to this novel is sacrament rather than an instantaneous rebirth; this becomes symbolic for a religious “rite of passage.” In comparison, Crow’s enlightenment is less immediate, as shown in “Crow Communes”, a poem that could be a partial satire on the Christian Eucharist. Hughes describes Crow as a “hierophant” due to his being caught eating a piece of God in an attempt to consume Divine knowledge and power. In “Truth Kills Everybody,” Crow is “blasted to nothing” and undergoes a symbolic death; ironically in the following poem, “Crow and the Stone,” Hughes describes Crow as “he who has never been killed.” This implies that the only way Crow can achieve the same state of spiritual redemption as Faulkner’s Dilsey is for the death of his old ego to take place, followed by a rebirth of his new self: “…[he] croaks helplessly and is only just born.”

In contrast, Celie’s character undergoes a more gradual and passive realization of spirituality. Critic Richard Yarborough states that Celie’s decision to address her letters to her sister Nettie rather than God “marks the dissolution of her isolation”; a vital moment in her psychological maturation. I do not agree that this action alone is significant enough to liberate Celie from her oppressed state. Celie’s character still had years of domestic abuse to endure after this point of supposed “dissolution,” suggesting that any form of rebirth would take place after the period of physical and mental trauma had ended. The “dissolution of her isolation” would perhaps be better placed when the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery develops into a sexual one; it is at this point in the novel that Celie is presented with the most emotional stability. However, Walker clearly initiates a change at this point in the novel as Celie’s sense of self and individuality are shown to be becoming more defined. This is shown in Celie’s decision to begin signing her letters, ironically signing “Amen” on some letters to Nettie when she had never done so on those addressed to God. This change from a metaphysical creation of “God” to a receptive human substitute also instigates the change in narrative tone from passive to passionate and self-expressing.

One significant way in which Hughes portrays spiritual rebirth throughout Crow is by showing that life and death are interrelated. This is evident in Crow Tyrannosaurus: “Creation quaked voices…a cortege of mourning and lament” suggests that for Crow to progress towards a state of spiritual freedom, he must first escape the trap of absurd duality, and “try to become the light”. Crow could therefore be considered as some sort of pilgrim on the way to enlightenment. The “roots tearing out of the bedrock atom” described in “A Kill” show Crow as being trapped in a paradoxical fall straight into duality; into a black and white existence with an “egoic sense of subjective isolation” (Valerie Smith 1987). Smith’s viewpoint is valid to the extent that the majority of the action described in “A Kill” is immediately physical, and therefore within Crow’s own control. However, it is important to note that Hughes removes the majority of Crow’s control over his own psyche and his body, for example “flogged lame with legs” and “clubbed unconscious by his own heart.” The dark irony of Crow’s individual body parts turning against themselves in a bout of self-annihilation suggests that for there to be any sort of realization of Crow’s psychological self, he must first lose all control and comprehension of his physical self. The portrayal of black and white as mutually exclusive opposites in “Crow’s Fall” consolidates this spiritual duality. Crow is described as being once white but through fighting the white sun, he becomes black: “Up there…where white is black, and black is white, I won.” Hughes implies that although there is a possibility for this duality to be transcended, it can only happen if Crow is able to view the two stated opposites as mutually dependent.

The theme of duality between life and death also runs through my two chosen novels; displayed in The Sound and the Fury through the divide between morality and immorality and The Color Purple through color symbolism, a similar technique to the one used in Crow. Faulkner’s portrays Mr. Compson as vaguely comprehending the issue of moral corruption but it quickly becomes obsolete, due to his “self-absorbed yet destructive belief in his ability to control all events that contribute to his family’s demise” (Robert Butler 1998). These events such as his daughter Caddy’s contribution to the collapse of social ideals of feminine purity and Jason’s intellect-destroying greed are manifested in Benjy’s inability to see the connection between morality and immorality, creating a total inability to move past old sins and be reborn into freedom, whether moral or spiritual. In comparison, throughout The Color Purple Walker introduces the gradual appearance of brighter colors to symbolize the chronology of renewals, rebirth and liberation of various characters. This is shown early in the novel when the only available color choices for Celie’s new dress are brown, maroon, or dark blue, followed by a later occasion when Celie selects a striking yellow material from one of Shug’s old dresses to make a quilt. It is also significant that Shug Avery, a key character described by critic June Lawrenson as “a revelatory figure…the key-holder to Celie’s emotional and spiritual maturity”, is associated with the color purple; a polysemous sign, the primary symbol of the Walker’s novel and the “color of life.” I believe Shug to be a “revelatory figure” not only in Celie’s life but also in those of other women in Celie’s social situation. Shug initiates Celie’s attainment of a strong sense of self and becomes the equivalent of an advocate for the spiritual well-being of women caught in the oppressive trap of black female life in the 1930s society. Modernist literature often celebrates the fact that rebirth and rejuvenation can be found in ruin, and falls into an endless time-cycle of destruction that gives rise to new creation: a quote from critic Timothy Bewes states that “…modernity must, in order to emerge, annihilate the past.” An example of this is shown in the meaning that is constructed from history in T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins…”

In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner implies that the potential regenerative properties of time is not something that can be objectively understood; rather merely available for human interaction in a range of ways. Benjy is portrayed as having no concept of time itself, yet his mental condition enables him to see links between past and present that other members of his family cannot. In contrast, Quentin’s futile attempts to escape time by breaking his watch only drag him further into the cycle of destruction, rather than the renewal that is the product of this cycle; this leads him to his final solution of suicide. In contrast, Hughes is far more involved in the world’s suffering; the poet presents the same destructive time cycle as Faulkner, but uses it as a means of coming to terms with his own experiences. It is possible that the “seven year honeymoon” referred to in the poem “Crow Improvises” is a direct reference to Hughes’ marriage to Sylvia Plath, which lasted from 1956 until 1963. The Plath-Hughes marriage was particularly turbulent, and events surrounding Plath’s suicide such as Hughes’ affair with another married woman and his refusal to discuss circumstances surrounding Plath’s death led to him being viewed as nothing less than a murderer in the eyes of many Plath sympathizers. The “seven year honeymoon” reinforces the instability of their marital situation, and also shows a marriage that worsened Hughes’ emotional fragility rather than strengthened it. This deep emotional connection leads Hughes to a similar conclusion as Faulkner’s Quentin; escaping the “march of time” is the only option if the “machine guns” on his consciousness are to be dissuaded. Critic David King states that Hughes’ “ retreat from the situation [is] a necessary part of artistic detachment”, whilst allowing for the gradual acceptance of horrific events; the “retreat” shown both “Crow’s Account of St. George” and “Crow’s First Lesson.” There is also the suggestion of the rebirth of a desperate hope within Crow in “Crow and the Sea”’ a progression from “he sat weeping” over the dark, distressing side of life to “he began to laugh.”

In The Color Purple, Celie’s involvement with the cycle of time only oppresses her further into her dehumanizing experiences, the focus of Walker’s narrative being restricted to the internalisations Celie creates of her shocking private life. This also leads to Walker employing a narrative style that takes the form of an extended interior monologue. Celie is initially depersonalised as the life situations she is presented with such as the incest she endures and the loss of her children are simply too extreme for her to become anything more significant than a passive victim of her society: “I don’t say nothing. I stay where I’m told. But I am alive.” However, it is important to note that it was with the passage of time that Celie was granted liberation from these extreme situations; implying that mere survival can eventually lead to rejuvenation. The events such as the First World War and the economic collapse that took place early in the twentieth century left Faulkner and his contemporaries harbouring the belief that the past is completely unalterable, “a burden that affects the present deeply” (Lucas Pointer 2007). Where Faulkner ended The Sound and the Fury with the foreboding tone that is generated by this Modernist notion, Hughes chose to conclude Crow by returning to his theme of embarkation on a quest of spiritual rebirth, also present in Hughes’ Cavebirds. In the words of Keith Sagar, “Crow is Everyman who will not acknowledge that everything that he hates and fears – The Black Beast – is within him.”

Finally, Walker’s voicing of the previously unnoticed voice of Celie and her real-life counterparts not only acted as a vital step in the liberation of women in Black communities but also, like Faulkner and Hughes, articulated and in-depth understanding of spiritual independence that made feasible the leap from particular to universal. These three writers’ portrayal of incidental events revolutionized spiritual and emotional freedom by the end of the twentieth century.

Works Cited

1) Smith, Valerie. “Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative.” Harvard University Press, 1987.

2) Butler, Robert. “Contemporary African-American Fiction: The Open Journey”. Associated University Presses, 1998.

3) Lawrenson, June. Lecture: Women in Afro-American Literature. Truro, 2/8/11.

4) Hollands, J. Lecture: Identity, Stereotypes and Silence. Falmouth, 14/3/11.

5) Yarborough, Richard. “The First-Person in Afro-American Fiction”. Chicago University Press, 1989.

6) Bewes, Timothy. Lecture: Elements of Modernism in American Literature. Lecture Transcript, Roehampton 2002.

7) King, David. Essay: A Description and Defence of Ted Hughes’ “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”. September 2007.

8) Pointer, Lucas. Essay: The Burden of History in Twentieth Century American Literature. March 1999.

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