The contemporary society has considerably advanced on the way to establishing ethnic and racial equality, equity, and justice from the most advanced economies such as the USA and Europe to the most remote parts of the world in Asia, Middle East, and Africa. Nevertheless, there the presence of the aching past with deep wounds and injustice is still looming in the minds of African Americans who have been experiencing the severe forms of oppression, segregation, and discrimination in the American society less than a century ago.
The ugliest evidence suggests that African Americans suffered from inequality, violence, and oppression not only from the side of white superiors, but also within their own race; women have always been the most victimized members of the African American community. Suffering from the constant emphases of their inferiority in the white society, they also experienced violence, sexual abuse, and dependence in their own families. The stories about child molestation, the continuation of the horror during marriage, the absence of rights and the right to decide – all these features were the haunting reality of African American women throughout the 20th century.
No matter how hard the literary works exhibiting the injustice and trauma suffered by African American women were banned and excluded from the bookshelves, there is still rich literary heritage explicating the dramas of black women. One of the splendid examples of literary pieces commemorating the tragic life of an African American woman and then celebrating her path to regaining her own identity, increasing her self-esteem, and finally gaining her independence from men torturing her, and from the society, is the novel of Alice Walker The Color Purple. It was written in the 1980s when the segregation of African American was officially over more than two decades before.
Though the majority of critics and literary analysts claim that the figure of Celie as a victim of abuse is central in the present novel, it should also be noted that alongside with a weak and tortured Celie, there are many characters who are stronger and who give her life examples to move forward and become stronger. Hence, the figures of Sofie, Shug, and Nettie as strong, independent women who have gained their positions in the male-dominated African American community present the expected outcome to which Celie moves throughout the work. Moreover, her work on self-discovery and growth should be largely attributed to the influence of these strong women, which makes her character not central but forming under the influence of these three female identities.
The composition of the narrative in The Color Purple is presented in the form of ninety letters that Celie writes to her sister Nettie, or just for herself, as a form of a diary in which she ponders over the questions she can ask nobody, or tries to resolve some inner dilemmas that her hard life presents her with. However, if the letters are taken not separately, but as a continuous fabric of Celie’s life, one can hardly dismiss the fact that the novel presents the story of “transformation and empowerment” that Celie goes through (LaGrone xiii).
Smith admitted that “while African American men and women have been silenced because of race and class, African American women’s silencing is compounded, both within and without the black community, by gender” (3). Hence, the narrative of The Color Purple represents Walker’s response to the deprivation of African American women of their own identity, the right to form and comprehend it.
The silence and oppression in which the African American women were urged to live were the unbearably unjust and hard environment enforced by white and black male norms; hence, Walker explored the gradual empowerment story of her protagonist Celie to show the ways in which every black woman can be liberated from these negative social aspects of her life.
Following Smith’s idea, Celie appeared a hero for all African American women, and she possessed all heroic features such as the ability to triumph over challenges, to solve lingering problems, to dissolve the concerns of the modern society, etc. (4). Hence, Walker has created a myth about Celie as a hero who constructed her own identity and came out as a new, remade woman of the 20th century unconquered and unsubordinated by the African American men.
Sexuality and femininity also play a decisive role in the formation and development of Celie’s identity. As Grebe indicated in her analysis, Celie was first presented as a woman deprived of control over her own body that was brutally possessed first by her stepfather and then – by her husband. Hence, Celie was victimized from her early years through sexual abuse, parental neglect, and violence, and during her adolescence, the period typically associated with the urge towards identity construction among teens, Celie was totally uninterested in self-exploration (5). Celie was not willing to “identify with her body and sexuality during puberty”, mainly because “her body is always treated as an object, whether it is for work or the act of sex” (Grebe 5).
For this reason, Celie was first presented to the reader without any clear identifiable identity because of shame and guilt regarding her stepfather’s deeds, and later – her traumatic marriage. It was not until the meeting with Shug that her sexuality, and consequently, identity started awakening and let her comprehend herself in a new way, without the shame and disgust towards herself as a tool, and not a human being deserving happiness and contentment. Hence, the meeting with Shug and the beginning of a romantic relationship with her helped Celie comprehend herself, develop a stronger identity, and finally realize what she wanted and did not want from her life (Grebe 5).
It is also essential to note that Celie successfully learns from certain role models who guide her on her path to identity construction and comprehension. This way, for instance, Sofia, Harpo’s wife, represents a feasible model for Celie in terms of resisting the surrounding harsh reality of abuse and violence. The main attribute ascribed to Sofia by Celie is “solid”; though Celie is awkward in describing her associations with this feature, it is still felt that Celie identified Sofia with a strong force that can crush obstacles in case she decides to (Walker 34).
Besides the evident physical strength, Sofia possesses a considerable level of internal resiliency and force, which helps her relentlessly protect her right for autonomy and independence. The present behavior is next to unthinkable for Celie because she cannot even imagine at the beginning of her path towards self-exploration how a woman can be so strong; she envies Sofia, but in fact, she takes much from her example in her later self-identity creation (Smith 9).
The sincere discussion with Sofie is the first step of Celie towards evolution of her inner self. Sofie shares an experience of her mother who also could not do anything about her father’s violence and abuse, and at the same time, displays the example of a strong and daring woman who can do anything, and stands out of her husband’s control. Though Celie does not share her intimate traumas with Sofie, she gets a hands-on example of the possibility of escape from the slavery in which she found herself in her marriage. Hence, the initial impetus towards seeking her own identity and forming her internal personality may be attributed to her acquaintance with Sofie (Smith 9).
The role of Shug in the identity pursuit of Celie can hardly be underestimated; Walker introduced the figure of Shug to grant Celie refuge from her harassers inside and outside her mind and body. As Smith indicated, “as guide and rescue figure, Shug nurtures and protects Celie and teaches Celie a new language through which she is able to create an alternate context of her developing self” (10). As it has already been noted, the sexual pleasure Celie comprehends with Shug makes her shift the focus from her body as a disgusting, unloved object of sexual pleasure for surrounding men to the tool for pleasure and contentment she can elicit from a romantic relationship. In this context, Smith emphasized, Walker’s focus was not on displaying a lesbian sexual relationship as the only possible resort from male violence, but as a culmination of women’s culture, women’s sisterhood, mutual respect, and emotional bonding in which the personality of each member is nurtured (10).
Finally, the figure of Celie’s sister, Nettie, is monumental in her path towards the discovery of her identity. As Eder admitted, Nettie had the chance for receiving education that Celie was deprived of, and this helped her to get education, and to share her knowledge with Celie, which contributed to Celie’s further ability to read and write (7). As Celie recollected at the very beginning of her tragic narrative, her stepfather never bothered to think of what his children would like to do, and frivolously deprived Celie of the opportunity for gaining basic literacy through education:
As one can see from the novel, writing becomes the powerful tool for self-expression, and further – self-expression, self-analysis, and self-advancement for Celie. Without the basic literacy skills Nettie provided to her, Celie would remain incarcerated in her illiterate body, and the way in which she finally obtained independence would be closed to her. Hence, Nettie and the symbol of literacy, enlightenment, and education that she brings into Celie’s life can hardly be ignored in the process of self-establishment of Celie as a personality.
Self-esteem and self-respect are the indispensible attributes of a full and independent personality adequately functioning in the contemporary world, knowing what he or she deserves and wants, having certain objectives and values in life, and striving to certain successes. Hence, for Celie, the creation of self-respect and self-esteem was the fundamental step to coming out of the environment of oppression and abuse. The main strength of any woman against male oppression is her own feeling of self-worth that reduce her endurance regarding abuse and violence she experiences. Women with no feeling of self-worth are able to endure sufferings for a much longer period simply because they do not believe they are worth anything better. Hence, the long-standing history of oppression and injustice towards African Americans, and black women in particular, has created an aura of violence acceptance in which women stopped seeking decent attitude and normal relationships.
Chung admitted in this context that The Color Purple functions as bildungsroman, educating women regarding the need to struggle for their life targets, and for developing as humans (6). The concept of bildungsroman is associated with the inspiration for self-learning (Chung 7). Hence, Walker inspired women from low classes to explore enlightenment and wisdom, to explore their identity, and to protect their right to hold that identity, and explore it as other people do. The lesson of Celie taught by Walker was that every woman could be liberated; however, to gain independence and freedom, she had to construct her own identity, to create self-respect, and to make others respect her.
The beginning of the novel shows the dramatic state in which Celie finds herself; at that point, nobody can even suggest a shadow of self-respect in Celie’s mind. Speaking about her stepfather’s attitude to her, Celie noted, “He act like he can’t stand me no more. Say I’m evil an always up to no good” (Walker 3). As one can see from this fragment, Celie did everything to survive, and subdued to every will of her stepfather; however, meeting no resistance to his violence and abuse, Pa started hating Celie even stronger because he faced no challenge from her. Therefore, the figure of Celie is initially associated with a worthless, weak, and broken creature that does not know what self-respect and self-esteem is and cannot even dream of obtaining it.
There is much more evidence in the opening parts of the novel that Celie was deprived of any humane attitude, and she lived as if in prison, in the close and picky custody of her stepfather. After the event in church when she unconsciously blinked and was then beaten at home by her Pa who suspected her of flirting with some boy shows that she was treated like his property, and did not have the slightest chance of being heard or protecting herself from unjust accusations. Chung (2012) admitted, “How pathetic she was! The way she was treated was as if she were a prisoner without any freedom. An abnormal life like hers would drive any crazy, not to mention that she was nothing but a young and rural girl” (24). However, this awful, ugly depiction of Celie’s life at the beginning of the story serves as a powerful, sharp contrast to what she reached at the dawn of her life.
Nettie’s letters that Shug reveals to Celie after their relationship is established also contain a powerful contribution to the establishment of Celie’s self-esteem and sober criticism about the main figures in her life – her parents, her children, her relatives, etc. As Smith admitted, “they ultimately lead Celie to a new level of spiritual awareness” (12). The main change Celie experiences after reading those letters is revisiting her internal vision of her parents and the figure of God to which she has been addressing all her fears, doubts, and concerns in the hard moments of her life.
She admits that her father is a lynch, her mother possessed a mental disorder, acknowledges the fact that many of her sisters and brothers appear not native by blood to her, and that her father is in fact not her biological father – all this evidence makes her suggests that God might have been asleep while these events have been taking place in her life. This reasonable extent of criticism ensures that Celie has already advanced to a new level of self-comprehension and self-esteem, and she believes that she does not deserve such a hard fate, though at the beginning of the story, she did not associate herself with a dignified human creature at all.
At the end of her story, Celie is represented as a woman who has found her niche in the cruel and unjust life that her destiny had presented her.
She reconciles the nature, cosmos, God, and spirituality in her last letter, and affirms her unity with everything in the world; indeed, she has become an owner of her own house in which she gathers her new community and her family members; she is also the owner of her life, being able to follow her own path, not supported by any man or woman, and reunited with Nettie. Hence, one can hardly doubt that at the end of The Color Purple, Celie has finally admitted her small but significant place in the world, the one she reasonably took, and the chance that she fully used once she obtained an opportunity to extend her small incarceration boundaries and see the unlimited, free world in front of her.
Independence and liberation from the crippling and traumatic environment in which Celie as a collective image of the oppressed and abused African American women is urged to exist is one of the main themes of The Color Purple (Eder 7). Her internal transformation is parallel with the rising thirst for independence; in the first letters, she seems to be a weak, lost child traumatized by abuse and lost in the complex pathways of the life in terror and violence. According to Smith, the focus of Celie’s life at the beginning is mere survival; her sister Nettie and Mr. ___’s sister Kate tell Celie to fight (Walker 17, 21).
However, Celie admits to her shame that she does not know how to fight, does not want to fight, and the only thing she can think of is staying alive. However, the reader can see how Celie gradually gains confidence in her writings, and becomes the full-pledged narrator and analyst of her life, thus breaching the ban of her father to voice her experiences to the outside world (Smith 8). This way, the character of Celie goes through a certain transformation – she gains the power over her own narrative, symbolically regaining strength of control over her own life, thus acquiring a much greater level of independence than the virtually absent one at the beginning of the story.
Celie’s liberation in The Color Purple is obviously symbolic of the women’s liberation in a wider social context explored by Alice Walker. The initial steps towards Celie’s liberation are conducted by her unconsciously; as Schwartz indicated, they are manifested in her motivation for writing (3). Writing, as Eder assumed, “helps the protagonist Celie to overcome abuse by writing letters to god” (7). The situation in which an adolescent Celie finds herself after committing an incest with her father and having children from him tortures Celie, since her young mind and conscience are not so strong to help her cope with the drama herself. Hence, Celie comes to a dilemma of liberating her concerns in some way; her father’s warning to tell nobody but God about what he did to her enables her to reveal all her troubles on paper. This way, writing becomes the safe haven for Celie, the activity in which she may not restrain herself, her thoughts, and her pain – no matter how bad her writing is, Celie finds self-expression in it.
The process of writing also reflects the development of Celie as a personality. As Schwartz noted in his analysis, the initial letters of Celie were focused on the plain reporting of her life events. However, in her later letters, Celie has passed from giving accounts to her life events to the psychological analysis thereof, as in the analysis of the marriage event: “Mr. _____ marry me to take care of his children. I marry him because my daddy told me. I don’t love Mr. ______ and he don’t love me” (Walker 57).
Smith also recognized the liberating power of sewing for Celie; on the most superficial level, it is the opportunity for Celie to gain economic and emotional independence from her husband and the overall male-dominated, crippling, violent social order in which she lives (11). Moreover, at in-depth levels, sewing is an effective instrument in Celie’s self-expression and self-establishment as an independent, free, and self-assertive personality. Celie successfully challenges the gender roles and stereotypes established in her community by sewing unisex pants. Moreover, Celie appears to be a good sewer, and creates pants for other people with creativity and inspiration, moving towards self-affirmation through professional success (Smith 11).
It is also essential to note the figure of God in the life of Celie symbolizing the essential place religion occupied in the lives of black women. According to Andujo, “Alice Walker’s The Color Purple demonstrates how African-American women have redefined religion (traditional Christianity) to empower themselves beyond their double minority status in America” (61).
Despite the fact that Christianity has traditionally been seen as a tool for subordinating women, and the Biblical writings instilled women’s inferiority and subjection to men, Celie found God to be the only resort for her drama. Andujo saw the personal empowerment of Celie in her individual ownership of God – she does not pray to Him in church or worship Him in public places of worship, communicating on a peer level instead (62). Hence, in Celie’s case, God played not a limiting, but a liberating role for her, allowing her to challenge the long-standing beliefs about religion facilitating the inferior status of women, and helping Celie to overcome dramas she could hardly stand alone.
The novel of Alice Walker appeared a tremendous success because it represented a daring attempt of an African American female writer to both depict the horror of double discrimination and submission in which black women were forced to exist throughout their American history, and to show the way out of the violence, silence, and abuse dominating the African American family relationships. Though The Color Purple was often criticized for the excessive criticism of the African American males, and the creation of a negative image of African American family relationships, Alice Walker can still be credited with the challenge to the established social order in the black community, and showing that every woman can become an independent, self-assertive, content personality. The path of Celie was illustrative of the path that every victimized black woman can follow to become independent and strong; however, the supporting images of Shug, Sofie, and Nettie have still served as the indispensible condition for her success as a personality.
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