Analysis of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
“No one is exempt from the possibility of a conscious connection to All That Is.” Alice Walker explores this quote through the story of Celie. Just like the color purple, the truth, no one is exempt from. No one can run away from the truth. It is inevitably inescapable. Starting off in a rather harsh setting, Celie starts off her story at the time she is raped for the first time by her own father. Rather straight forward, Walker captures her reader’s interest right in the beginning of her novel.
Blood is thicker than water. This saying is most exemplified throughout The Color Purple. Love, the tale of two sisters reconnecting, was one of the major themes of the story. In depth, love was not always romantic, but existent. There were different types of love depicted in the novel: love between family, friends, and couples. Love, in turn, helps with creating and development of relationship between characters.
Many other themes are depicted in this great work of fiction: Race, racism, African American women and men, abused wives, sexuality, and relationships.
These many themes are illustrated throughout the novel through different settings and people. Structuring her writing in short journal entries to God and the family of Celie, the round character, Walker employed them as one of the three symbols throughout the work of fiction. Traumatizing and explicit events occur during the entries which lead to the internal and external conflicts that will take place through the duration of the novel. In addition to these graphic events that were both inconceivable and horrific in every sense for Celie, the events described in the entries led to the novel being banned within some high schools.
In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes in a southern dialect and low level diction. The setting takes place in rural areas of the south where race played a huge part during the time when discrimination was more prevalent in America. Based on the level of diction, Walker writes in an uneducated, southern style. By writing in this type of style Walker is able to fully exemplify Celie’s thoughts creating a better understanding for the reader by revealing her level of education and social class. Sequentially, this adds
verisimilitude to the novel.
Born on February 9, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia; Alice Walker was nurtured by two sharecroppers and was the youngest of eight children by Minnie Tallulah Grant and Willie Lee Walker. When she was young she suffered from a traumatizing experience of being shot by a BB Gun in the eye by her little brother. She was bullied at an early age because of the scaring of her eye which was finally removed by her doctor eight years after the incident occurred. Before having the scaring removed, Walker wrote in order to escape her reality, similar to Celie. She attends segregated schools throughout her adolescent years and achieves success by graduating from high school and then attends Spelman College, a college founded for African American women.
While attending Spelman, Walker also gets involved in the Civil Rights Movement. By furthering her education, she attended Sarah Lewis College and continues to be apart of the Civil Rights movement. After college, Walker got a job and soon after ironically married a White Civil Rights lawyer named Melvyn Leventhal two years later. The irony of it all is that she marries a Jewish and Caucasian male when all her writing consists of racism, African American struggles, and abuse. Ultimately, the marriage ended in divorce after having conceived their first and only child, Rebecca.
Not only recognized for writing novels, Alice Walker is also recognized for her collections of poetry. Her first collection is titled, Once. After publishing her first collection of poetry, she began teaching at Jackson State College where she taught in the Black Studies Program. She continued to teach and eventually started publishing novels while continuing to publish poetry too. The Color Purple was Alice Walker’s third novel. The struggles that Alice Walker had to endure herself as a child are what helped manifest her development of The Color Purple. This proclaimed book and later motion picture, earned two prestigious rewards: the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. The novel achieved a tremendous amount of success and was made into a film that was produced by Steven Spielberg in 1985. Years after, in 2005, its first Broadway musical was produced.
Alice Walker continues to be known for her novels about African American women and her work definitely describes the effect that abuse in the home has on individuals. Which goes to show when it comes to The Color Purple as Celie was emotionally and physically abused by her father. The constant telling that she was too ugly, making her quit school at a young age, and being raped were some of the ways that created the lack of trust within Celie’s family circle. Celie writes letters to God which illustrated a contrast between her spirituality and lack of faith. Evident, since she does not write to God in hopes of being saved, but out of her misery, despair, and lack of hope that life will never work out in her favor.
Essentially, Walker chooses to record thoughts of the protagonist with a low level diction and southern dialect allowing Celie’s thoughts to be fully expressed. Based on Celie’s writing technique you know she is uneducated and she admits to it when she says how her father took her out of school and let her sister, Nettie, keep going. Reading The Color Purple can be described as confusing by those who are not used to such low level and amateurish writing style. Many might stumbled upon Celie’s choice of words and order of her thoughts. Alice Walker captures Celie’s true feeling and the way she actually thinks by spelling word wrong like ask. She spells ask like “ast” which further exemplifies that Celie is far from being smart.
Further into the novel, diction becomes more advanced once the point of view is change from Celie alternating to Nettie. Then the letters are from Nettie writing back to Celie. The switch in diction earned some scrutiny by the New York Times, “If Alice Walker’s celebrated and prize-winning earlier novel, “The Color Purple,” had a glaring flaw, it was Nettie’s letters from Africa, which tended to a certain monotonous didacticism.” Although appraised for this, by writing with better grammar and a higher level diction, Walker reminds the readers that Nettie is educated unlike her sister. You are able to compare Celie’s writing to her sister and it creates more realism for Celie’s character as it defines her lack of education. In contrast, Nettie’s letters speaks to the audience revealing purpose not out of despair, yet quite different than Celie’s letters. She talks about the civilization of Africa, politics, issues on racism that Celie was not very familiar with. Also, Nettie’s letters adds more credibility to Celie’s character.
Clearly, the diction and dialect show Celie’s lack of intelligence, but it also help you understand where the setting takes place. The way Celie speaks and the word choice she uses gives you insight on the rural areas where the setting takes place. The setting often paints an image of a farm as Celie writes in her journal entries how she and Harpo would work in the fields. The setting, taking place in the rural areas of Georgia helps to create atmosphere and establishes credibility and verisimilitude. In turn, this creates realism. Walker uses cultural circumstances of African Americans to help shape her setting. The upsetting, stressful, and tragic tones create a rather sympathetic and emotional atmosphere.
Race plays a huge role in The Color Purple. All African Americans were viewed as the weaker race, but African American woman were represented as the weaker gender between both sexes. The males take on an overpowering role and abuse their wives to keep them under their control. After the constant abuse Celie looses pride in her own race, self, and gender. It is not until she learns about some of the wealthy societies of Africa and essentially the color purple that she regains some of her pride that was taken away by the males in her life.
Racism against Blacks inflicted by Whites, another theme depicted, was just as essential to race as it was to the dehumanization of African Americans. Setting the tone, such blatant, unfair and harsh treatment during early times serves for the foundation of how Blacks treated their own kind. “They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us, say Sofia. Like us didn’t have sense enough to handle it” (102). Unlike most in the novel, Sofia had pride in her race. She did not let racism change her outlook and reflection of herself and race. Seemingly, a sense of pride that one could only wish that most African Americans exhibited.
Another theme expressed in The Color Purple is African American women and abused wives. Walker paints a picture that all Black males are controlling and disrespect their wives. To some Black males the way Walker portrayed them was offensive. According to the New York Times, critics claimed that Alice Walker “portrayed black men harshly.” Many Black men felt that Walker expressed prejudice views toward them especially since she married a White man. With that being said, others commended her for her portrayal.
In essence, many felt that The Color Purple encouraged lesbianism not only offended African American men. This is confirmed in an article on race and domesticity in The Color Purple. The article states that the novel was “degrading to Black men and promoting lesbianism among Black women.” The males in the novel were Celie’s antagonists. Some felt that Walker had something against African American males and that she thought they were all bad. Likewise, sensing any hostility toward Walker against African American males is understandable. Furthermore, the author was just trying to tell a story of the love of two sisters and the hardships of African American women and wives down south in the early 1900s.
Due to the disturbing events that Celie had to endure through her childhood especially she does not even label men in her journal entries. Celie always referred to them as “Mr.___.” Perhaps in a way this was her way of taking away power from males. The only good feelings and sexual ones are given to her by females, one in particular Shug Avery. The constant and explicit talk about sexuality is one of the many reasons why there are high schools who banned the work of fiction from school curriculums.
According to the School Library Journal, “The Color Purple ranks 18 on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books.” With that being said, high schools forbid their school libraries from ordering the book. The incestual scenes between Celie and her father alarmed the parents of Little Axe High School and they force the school to ban the novel (Norman). Although there are some overtly explicit experiences Celie dealt with, it is nothing that should be banned. Some high schools, usually those with a predominantly Black population can relate to this story, but schools like Little Axe High School probably would find a harder time relating to the story since their school is predominantly White. However, that does not mean someone White would not enjoy reading the novel. A Caucasian student, attending Warren Mott high school as a senior this year, actually enjoyed reading the novel in her English 11 class her junior year.
To help enhance the understanding of African American culture and history, The Color Purple has been put in many high school curriculums. A case study written by Rob Baum states that, “Woods High School added The Color Purple to its curriculum to rectify its balance of gendered and raced texts.” Adding on, reading The Color Purple for opposite races and even African Americans themselves can give much insight on some of the oppressed, abused, cultural backgrounds of African Americans.
Throughout the novel, Celie struggles with her sexuality. This is an example of the internal conflict within Celie. All her life she was beaten and raped by the men, including her father and husband. Dealing with much abuse causes Celie to have no confidence. Celie has no sense of her own actuality. She has no self worth, inner beauty, or formal intelligence. As Celie works through her internal conflict, the symbols employed throughout the novel are shown. The conflicts worked through the novel to add to the tragic and upsetting atmosphere.
Along with internal conflict, there was also some external conflict. There was external conflict between Celie and the men in her life. Her father and husband are just some of the examples of external conflict. Not only did the protagonist have external conflicts between men, other supporting characters such as Sofia and Harpo did as well. The males in the story try to dominate their women, while some succeed in doing so and others do not. Celie is an example of the women who accepted the oppression and just tried to survive. Day by day, she never fought back until given the courage in the end. Sofia, on the other hand, was an example of how women fought back against the sexist ideas that men could do whatever they wanted to overpower their wives, including beat them. Relationships were significant in the development of the novel.
The relationships between women and women, men and women, and people and God were illustrated. Just like there was love among the women, there was also jealously. The bond between Shug and Celie started off with jealously as Shug was prettier and was able to get the attention of Celie’s husband and stand up to him. The women stayed within competition of one another until they were finally able to ban to together and rise against the men in their lives that were keeping them down. The relationship between Celie and Shug was one the most prominent relationship in the story. After their bond was formed Celie learns many life lessons that ultimately help to liberate her from the captivity of male dominance in the story.
Next, the relationships between men and women often lacked love and passion in their marriages. The men were too busy following after their fathers that they never learned how to truly love their wives. Depicted in the novel, Black men felt they had to “wear the pants”; this idea transcends through The Color Purple as the men fail to break away from the tradition of trying to tame and train their wives. In doing so, some lost their wives respect and love in some circumstances.
Instances such as when Harpo observed his father’s relationship between him and his wife. Harpo formed the conclusion that by beating his wife like his father did to Celie, he might create a more controlling and accepting relationship between him and his wife. Trying to earn her respect by watching his father’s relationship with Celie, he beats his wife, Sofia. In response, Sofia lashes out and fights back. She was the perfect example of women who were true to themselves in mind and physique. Additionally, the males in the novel let their violent fathers dictate how they handled their own relationships.
Furthermore, the relationships that Celie encounters with men in her life cause her to feel no type of attraction or passion from men. “Naw, I say. Mr.______ can tell you, I don’t like it at all. What is it like? He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep”(77). In this excerpt, Celie describes how she felt about having intercourse with her husband. Unfortunate enough, no love or passion is felt, just abuse.
Last, but not least, the relationship among people and God was exemplified through Celie and how she views God. After being raped Celie loses her sense of love with God. To Celie, God was a male therefore, she lost faith in him like all the other males she had to encounter in her life. Writing to him out of loss of hope, she loses sight of the color purple and the liberation of life. By the end of the novel, Celie realizes the color purple is nature and the two combined is God as well. Viewing the two as one, she grasps the feeling of joy and being free.
Symbolism takes place throughout the novel. Like God, the color purple, represented nature. It stands for all the beauty that nature beholds and one of the unrecognized truths Celie had yet to understand. Celie had no idea of what the color purple was in the beginning. She lived life only to get to the next day. It was not until Shug came into her life that she gets a sense of the color purple. Then she is able to liberate herself from the control of her husband and move forward in life. “Until you do right by me, I say, everything you even dream about will fail. I give it to him straight, just like it come to me. And it seem to come to me from the trees” (206). This quote is evident of Celie’s transformation. Once wounded, she is now a warrior. Unrecognized, the color purple was the main idea of the story carried forward, hence its name.
Later on in the novel once Celie is living her life freely without the strong hand of men, she begins to make pants. Gaining a sense of actuality, beauty, and confidence in herself, Celie wears the pants as well as making them. The pants symbolized how Celie overcame the sexism she always was subjugated to. Since pants, culturally was a male article of clothing in the early 1990s, wearing and producing them gave Celie a sense of power she never felt before. The idea that men wore the pants was no longer a belief of Celie and it proves true in the novel. She no longer felt oppressed and afraid emotionally or economically. Her clothing business consisting of only pants was one of the starting blocks in her life that she was not afraid of men and she did not need them to support her emotionally or financially either. Therefore, pants being symbolic of manhood in many ways, making them was liberating for Celie.
God was also a symbol, not just the color purple and pants. Writing to God is what kept Celie life moving. Her letters to God were an indication that she was still alive and sane. Furthermore, the letters added to the verisimilitude of the novel. The employed symbol was used to give insight to the setting through Celie’s eyes which helped to create realism.
The Color Purple expresses the theme that everyone has a story to tell. Celie’s story was told in the novel. Going more in depth, the plot of the story helps enlighten readers on all the themes discussed in the previous paragraphs. The plot shaped the Walker’s story into a tragic love story that of two sisters trying to reunite once again. The violence, abuse, and sexuality of the plot are told from Celie’s perspective and through her writing of letters the other themes in the novel are revealed: symbols, marriage, and race.
As stated in the Masterplots Revised Second Edition, “Alice Walker’s novel is unique in its preoccupation with spiritual survival and with exploring the oppressions, insanities, loyalties, and triumphs of Black women.” Speaking to many unrecognized truths and possibilities of life, The Color Purple employs symbols in order to let those truths become understood. Setting, structure, diction, and dialect serve the purpose of verisimilitude for Walker. She uses them to create realism and credibility for her readers. Although criticized for her portrayal of African American men, the novel is still to this day a classic. The critical analysis of sex and lesbianism caused much uproar in some high school including Little Axe High School resulting in the banning of the novel in the school’s curriculum. Yet, it remains a best seller.
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