How Alice Walker Portrays Her Ideas In Her Novels The Color Purple And Meridian

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

In her interview with Claudia Dreifus, Walker explains the New Age quality in her writing and her ideas:

What I’m doing is literarily trying to reconnect us to our ancestors. All of us. I’m really trying to do that because I see that ancient past as the future, that the connection that was original is a connection: if we can affirm it in the present, it will make a different future. Because it’s really fatal to see yourself as separate. You have to feel. I think, more or less equal and valid in order for the whole organism to feel healthy. (p. 31)

The novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker has been written in the first person narration. This epistolary explores self-discovery and through the characters eyes as she faces hardships, struggles and achieve goals through inspiration. This novel written in the first person gives the reader the feeling of having accessed another person’s mind and the ability to see the intimate side with no detail hidden. This novel comes across as different from the traditional I-story as it narrates the story in between situations where the writer of the letters doesn’t necessarily know the outcome of any action. Celie who is the narrator and writer of these letters also creates a self-reflecting and confessionary aspect by using the first person narration.

Walker’s chosen narrator shows that all people, including uneducated, poor, victimized black women have an important story to tell. The first half of the book showcases letters by Celie addressed to God talking about things in her life and that of people around her. This is written from her point of view. The second half of the book comprises of the letters exchanged between Nettie and Celie. This half shows the difference in language, grammar and writing styles of both the women and their educational backgrounds and circumstances they had to face. Celie lack of education shows in her poor spellings and grammar. Nettie on the other hand is an educated woman with a strong voice. She writes about more complex things like women’s rights, civil rights, politics, religion etc. in a grammatically correct manner. Yet the stories both have to tell are powerful and interesting. Celie writes to God because she isn’t allowed to express herself to anybody.

Walker’s use of God helps her be expressive and open as no one else is actually reading these letters. Celie initially starts writing to God to seek for and request answers to why she is the recipient of all the violence she faces. She then abandons this style of narrative and opts for simple narrative that isn’t directed towards her or her inner contemplations but rather the story about people around her and all that they face. Walker makes sure that the reader is involved by using the interactive tact’s she uses in The Color Purple. Due to the dialect Walker amalgamates into her novel, the reader is required to figure out the meaning of certain phrases and must also work out meanings in between lines to get the full idea and intent of writing this way. The use of dialect also makes the book full of character and colorful.

As this is book is written in a first person form one can clearly see the change and growth in the narrators character and maturity. The difference in approach and importance given to situations especially that of rape differs from the first few to the later letters and the maturity can be clearly observed. Walker chooses to write through black vernacular English and the poor spelling and grammar throughout the letter enables the reader to pay more attention to what Celie is saying and slows down the pace of the book. This dialect form also helps in establishing a bond between the reader and the narrator due to Celie’s naïve use of language.

The shocking language in used in the opening letter affects the readers and makes them want to give answers to her pleas for help. Celie has shorter and blunter sentences in the initial few letters and deals with more complex images later on in this novel. Nettie’s letters add a different and a broader perspective to this book. Her letters also challenge the status of Standard English and deal with important matters and issue in society. Although the first person narrative stands to bring about a great individuality to this novel, Celie’s language seems more ethnic with great use of dialect and imagery unlike Nettie’s letters which seem rather bland and is the traditional way of writing. Fluidity is maintained in the narrator’s self-expression by the novelist by creating and maintaining immediacy in the narration of her work. She seems to portray an authentic- seeming voice of the protagonist. Walker also attempts to showcase duality and ambiguity in the achievement of the narrator’s self– identity. This form of writing finally supports the novelist in being able to reinvent forms or genres of writing such as autobiography and coming-of-age novels.

Walker utilizes the epistolary form, a form that provides the best, if not the only, means for convincingly achieving this narrative feat of sustained immediacy. By implementing the letter format, Walker maintains the impression that the narrator writes her story progressively over time. The epistolary structure does not inherently involve a close proximity between narration and events, but the form is certainly conducive to the creation of immediacy. When writing letters, people generally describe events, thoughts, and emotions that are recent in their experience. Anne Bower observes, “More than other narrative forms, letters… emphasize how written responses are enacted in pieces, with revisions, discontinuously” (p. 2).

Walker establishes narrative immediacy with many of the same results as those achieved by Gibbons and Wells. All of these writers attempt to portray an authentic-seeming voice for their protagonists. Furthermore, these novelists create and maintain immediacy in the narration of their works, and doing so allows for fluidity in the narrators’ self-expression. Rejecting the notion that self-definition is based upon finite, unilateral conclusions these writers portray duality and ambiguity in the achievement of self-identity. Finally, immediacy affords the novelists the literary freedom to uphold and reinvent genres such as autobiography and the Bildungsroman.

The achievement of openness in form and narration is a particularly pressing concern for Alice Walker, the only author considered who portrays a triply oppressed narrator-protagonist. In creating Celie, a figure oppressed because of her class, gender, and race, Walker is no doubt concerned with avoiding stereotypical, essentialist representation. In her comparative study of Walker’s novel and its nineteenth-century precursor, Iola Leroy, Deborah E. McDowell cites Walker as one of several contemporary black woman novelists who have succeeded at “[liberating] their own characters from the burden of being exemplary standard-bearers in an enterprise to uplift their race” (p. 287). As a result of this paradigm shift, McDowell argues, Walker and her contemporaries achieve “not only greater complexity and possibility for their heroines, but also greater complexity and artistic possibilities for themselves as writers” (p. 287). Much of the intricacy and honesty that characterizes Walker’s portrayal of Celie can be attributed to the novel’s narrative immediacy, which is created largely through its epistolary form.

Indeed, the structure of The Color Purple, which furthers the impression of spontaneous narration, serves Walker in a number of ways. First, Walker succeeds at the dual purposes of presenting an “authentic” and individualized voice and of creating a work that is representative of a community. In her study of the theme of Bildungin African American works, Gunilla Theander Kester points to the commonly experienced “[vacillation] between writing a personal history and a representational history” (p. 6). Without question, the novel probes the private life of an individual character.

Whether or not Walker succeeds at creating a work that is representative of the black community, however, has certainly been debated. While the accuracy and success of Walker’s attempt may be uncertain, the novel nonetheless does indicate an interest on the writer’s part to explore cultural phenomena and to enact social commentary. A number of aspects of the novel suggest Walker’s dual goal of writing a personal and a representative story. Walker’s choice to include letters from Nettie, whose experience and voice are markedly different from Celie’s, is perhaps the most obvious indicator that Walker is interested in multiple voices.

Walker also re-enacts dialogue between characters so that even though the work is narrated in the first person the perception is that characters other than the narrator speak. Furthermore, the structure of the novel and the techniques of the narration are characterized by fluidity, work to convey both the personal and the representative qualities of Celie’s voice. As Janet Gurkin Altman observes, the epistolary form is characterized by “subjectivity and multiplicity of point of view” (195). Because of the immediate, mimetic nature of the narration, furthered by Celie’s minimal interpretative commentary, any social critique is made through suggestion rather than overtly enacted by Walker or Celie. Thus, the flexibility of the narration allows for broad interpretative possibilities and, therefore, broad representation.

The letter format, in Walker’s unique manifestation of it, affords Walker the opportunity to speak for a community but to do so while directing focus to a single primary character. Anne Bower concludes that in epistolary works,

“the novel’s author still manipulates the letters’ contents and form for particular ideological or entertainment purposes, but the letter form will constrain one to read those manipulations within the dynamic of the female character’s agency, power, and discourse” (p. 12).

Walker’s depiction of her protagonist hinges upon the practice of valuing and maintaining dualities, an achievement Walker manages largely through the fluid structure of the novel. As Wendy Wall observes,

“The form of [Walker’s] text necessarily yokes together unity and disparity. The epistolary style divides as it unifies, it consists of a series of discrete entries that form a whole” (p. 83).

More specifically, the letter format allows for the portrayal of agency and independence in a narrator while also highlighting isolation and a consequent desire for affiliation. Altman is often cited for her discussion of “the letter’s power to suggest both presence and absence” (p. 15). Letter writing is an act marked by isolation because it is prompted by distance between sender and receiver. Although the letters represent an attempt at connection or overcoming distance, both the act of writing them and that of reading them are performed in isolation. On the other hand, writing letters provides a means of connection in that the result is a material entity (a letter) that serves as a substitute for the absent sender. Letters exemplify the notion that identity is relational because “the most distinctive thing about the letter form as a literary device may be that no matter what else it does, it always attempts to elicit or offer a response” (Bower 5).

The epistolary structure, with its reliance on both absence and presence, suits well Walker’s portrayal of female self-actualization, a process that involves finding and asserting an independent voice while maintaining connections. According to Anne Bower,

“Marginalized characters in epistolary novels… through their letter writing take control of language in a particularly direct, personally accessible form of communication” (p. 6-7).

Walker employs present tense verbs, a practice which creates an impression that what is being narrated is happening in “the now. ” Walker’s practice of re-creating dialogue also adds to the sense of immediacy. As a writer Walker’s preoccupations are, ‘the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women’ (O’Brien, 192).

Certainly, these preoccupations are evident in Walker’s second novel, Meridian. This novel has been chosen for exploration because the process of personal and social growth is a motif that characterizes Meridian. The novel concerns a black woman’s life as it unfolds itself for self-realization and freedom. It examines what the notion of feminine freedom means to Meridian, a black Civil Rights Worker in the rapidly changing cultural climate of the 1960s and how her search for wholeness is complete when she is able to redefine her role which has been handed down to black women through tradition and society. Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), traces three generations of Grange Copeland’s family in Georgia from the early 1920s through the 1960s.

This realistic novel centers round the life of a young black girl, Ruth, and her grandfather, Grange. Grange brutalizes his own family because of the overwhelming racial circumstances of early twentieth century rural Georgia. Under the pressure of poverty and alienation, Grange causes his wife Margaret’s demoralization and suicide, a pattern which is repeated by his son, Brownfield, who murders his own wife, Mom. But their daughter, Ruth, is brought up by her grandfather, Grange, who in his ‘third life’ attempts to salvage some of his own wasted life by protecting Ruth. He had survived but ‘survival whole’ was what he wanted for Ruth. Ruth emerges into a young woman at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement, and there is just a glimpse at the end of the novel of how that movement will affect Ruth’s life. She becomes aware by watching the Civil Rights activists that it is possible to struggle against the abuses of oppression.

Walker’s previous concerns about ‘the spiritual, the survival whole’ of black people, her commitment to exploring the oppressions and triumphs of black women, black women in relation to their mothers and the relationship between struggle and change, become more marked in Meridian. Meridian Hill is engaged in the search for selfhood by discovering meaning in her roots and traditions. She continues the struggle against the oppression of black women which Ruth dreams of. As she struggles to reclaim her past and (like Hurston’s Janie) re-examines her relationship to the black community, she gains internal strength to endure hardships.

Meridian is a maturation novel, an examination of Meridian’s growth, her movement into womanhood and her emergence as a strong woman. Walker constructs for her protagonist a lonely pilgrimage that encompasses elements of the universal monomyth: initiation, renunciation, atonement and release. Throughout the book the liberating goal of the pilgrimage is emphasized by symbols and images related to slavery and freedom. The quest is for self -knowledge, for wholeness that leads to transcendence, as Meridian finally discovers herself and her relationship to the world at large.

Meridian is organized into three major parts: the first part focuses on Meridian’s initiation into adulthood and her preparation forth a journey; the second part describes Meridian’s active participation in the Civil Rights Movement after her renunciation of her child; and the third part ‘Ending’ concentrates on atonement and release. The novel opens with Meridian’s encounter with Truman, her old comrade in the Civil Rights Movement. He observes her leading the black children of the town of Chicokema to see Marilene O’Shay, a mummy of a dead white woman, and tells her: ‘when things are finished it is best to leave. ‘ Meridian’s reply ‘And pretend they were never started?’ (p. 27) is the prelude to a journey back in time. The author moves backward in time to Meridian’s recent past and her mother’s past to introduce the theme of her growing up.

In a flashback Walker briefly mentions Meridian’s experience with the revolutionary group in New York, nearly ten summers ago. They pressed her to answer the question.

‘Will you kill for the Revolution?’ with a positive yes. As they were waiting for her to speak, she recalled a past experience. She remembered her mother and the day she lost her. Her mother’s love was withdrawn when she was thirteen. Her sense of alienation and isolation had deepened. Knowing that she was not whole, because at thirteen she had not come to grips with the whole truth about herself, she began a search for freedom. Coming back to the present, she replies like a true revolutionary that she would reject violence as the approach to change. She prefers non-violence because she is held by something in the past: by the memory of the old black men in the South… and the sight of the young girls singing in the country choir, their voices the voices of angels (pp. 27-28).

The authorial comments: ‘And so she had left North and come back South… remaining close to the people – to see them, to be with them, to understand them and herself’ (p. 31) foreshadows the direction of Meridian’s pilgrimage in search for genuine values. Walker arranges the narrative material in the novel in ‘a crazy-quilt story’ (Tate, 176) form. The narrative strands jump back and forth in time. They work on many different levels and form a complex structure. The personal histories of Anne-Marion Coles, the Wild Child, Meridian’s father’s grandmother, Feather Mae and the legend of the sacred tree Sojourner are interspersed with the past of Meridian’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, all of which provide the reader with insight into the various layers of black experience. The chapter ‘Indian and Ecstasy’ focuses on Meridian’s loving relationship with her father and her spiritual communion with him. This spiritual experience down the Serpent’s side which gives Meridian ‘the feeling of flying’ (p. S8) is their tangible connection to the past. It is through her relationship with her father that the seeds of her spiritual growth are sown.

Within the narrative presentation of the complex material, the initiation experiences of Meridian are described which are trying and painful. No one in her family had taught her what to expect from men, from sex. The lascivious Daxter, Who is in charge of the funeral home, pursues Meridian when she was only twelve. She sees his assistant’s seduction of another school girl. Still she is unaware of her physical vulnerability and acquires a young boyfriend, Eddie; she marries her lover and awaits the birth of her son. Her whole life is changed by an experience she did not enjoy.

Meridian sees sex as a ‘sanctuary. ‘ Once in her sanctuary ‘Meridian wonders if she could ‘look out at the male world with something approaching equanimity, even charity; even friendship’ (p. 62). Her marriage with Eddie falls apart because she feels that as a wife her life will always be empty and she cannot diminish her ‘self. ‘ Besides, Eddie like his name, ‘would never be grown up’ (p. 70). Now the focus of Meridian’s story is her motherhood. Walker presents a cultural context in which motherhood becomes a vehicle for rebellion for Meridian.

She employs two frames: the outer frame demonstrates that the culture gives women few alternatives to the suffocation and sacrifice of traditional wifehood and motherhood. The inner frame is the family life of the Hills. She discovers from the example of her own mother that motherhood is ‘beingburied alive, walled away from her own life, brick by brick. ‘ Her mother makes her feel guilty for ‘shattering her mother’s emerging self’ (p. 51). Her girlhood and young adulthood represent periods of emotional impoverishment.

As regards Meridian’s process of initiation into this new responsibility of motherhood, her pregnancy came as a total shock. She knew she did not want the child. After the birth of her son, he did not feel like anything to her but ‘a ball and chain’ (p. 69). Tending to the needs of the child was ·’ slavery’ (ibidem). She craved for freedom and felt as though something perched inside her brain was about to fly. She does not want to raise her child in a society ‘wherechildren are not particularly valued’ (p. 1?4).


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