Literary Criticism: The Color Purple
“Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl.
Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (Walker 1). In The Color Purple, Celie, an ugly black girl, is sexually abused her whole life. Celie’s father rapes her and forces her to marry a man who wants to marry her sister. Celie writes letters to god and to her sister Nettie sharing the immense struggles and rare joys that her life holds. In the novel The Color Purple, the author, Alice Walker, showcases Celie’s journey of finding her identity through the use of Celie’s letters to god, Celie’s letters to Nettie, and the formation of female relationships. Alice Walker’s first book, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was published in 1970.
It is about a rural black family who faces economic troubles and violence. Walker’s poems, novels and short stories all have common themes including, female relationships, African American culture, economic hardships, and racism. Most of her writing takes place in the rural south. Alice Walker was born in Georgia on February 9, 1944. She was the youngest of 8 children to her parents, who both worked as sharecroppers.
When Alice was 8 years old, one of her brothers accidentally shot her in the right eye with a BB gun, blinding her for life. Walker received a bachelors degree and became a civil rights activist. Due to her astonishing civil rights work, she was invited to Martin Luther King Jr.’s house to celebrate her achievements. Walker married Melvyn Leventhal, a white civil rights lawyer and had one daughter. Alice’s long list of accomplishments continues as she taught African American women studies at multiple prestigious colleges and universities around the country.
Walker currently resides in California. Walker’s writing is not only influenced by her personal past. Walker grew up during the civil rights movement, when segregation was prominent throughout the south (McLendon). Celie’s letters to God validate her lack of confidence in herself in that she is not comfortable with sharing her feeling with anyone who will respond. Celie uses her letters to God as a method of survival and a way to feel more confident. “Celie’s first audience is God.
.. Her letters to God suggest her simultaneous impulse to understand her traumatic experience of rape and to gain authority over her life. Her articulation of personal suffering through writing becomes Celie’s chief survival tactic..
. Although Celie confesses that her method of survival is emotional numbness, her writing testifies to her shame, anger, confusion, and sense of injustice, serving as a form of release and a means of distancing herself from the past” (Fiske). Celie writes letters to God sharing the events of her day, or things that happened recently in her life. More often than not, her letters say how horrible her life is and share all of the traumatic events of her day. Sometimes in these letters Celie asks God why she has to endure all of the terrible things that she is experiencing. Celie uses her letters to God as a journal.
This “journal” gives Celie a place to share her feelings without being punished for them. Celie knows that if she expresses the sadness, fear, shame, anger, and confusion with her father or Mr. _____ they will torment her even more. By writing the letters Celie is slowly gaining strength and independence, without these letters Celie will either go insane or become more severely depressed then she already is. Unknowingly, while Celie is releasing her stored up feelings, she is also separating herself from her horrific past, which also gives her strength to continue on in life. Celie starts to develop her relationship with God through letters as a result of something that her tormentor says to her.
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy,” (Walker 11). Alphonso threatens Celie that if she ever tells anybody except God about what he does to her, he will kill her Mother. This is ironic for multiple reasons. The first reason is that it is implied that Celie only wants to confide what has happened to her to her mother. Just two years after the sexual abuse begins, Celie’s mother passes away, therefore Alphonso’s original threat becomes invalid.
It is also ironic that Alphonso’s warning to only tell God is also what helps Celie survive his abuse and the abuse of her husband. Because Alphonso promises that if anybody but God knows about his rape, Celie is forced to write letters to God, which eventually give her the strength to overcome her past and the confidence to overcome any future problems. Celie writes letters to God for years that go “unanswered.” Celie uses these letters to find confidence in herself. She believes that God is helping her with this new found strength but in reality, she deserves the credit for overcoming her struggles, not God.
“What she needs is to share her burdens, be taken of the cross, and find a way to save herself. She does find a way and it works, because as she discovers, God is herself” (Parker-Smith 428). By writing letters to God, sharing information that nobody in the world knows, Celie is putting a lot of trust in God’s hands. All of this faith towards God goes unanswered for years on end, but Celie knows inside that God hears her because she building up an identity that she didn’t know that she had. Her letters to God worked a placebo effect on her self esteem.
She thinks that God hears her and is giving her strength, but really the strength comes from within herself, through writing the letters. Eventually, Celie realizes that she is playing the role of God for herself. Not only do Celie’s letters to God help her gain self confidence, the letters that she writes to Nettie help her as well. The letters that Celie writes to Nettie are a step up from the letters that she writes to God. Celie has built up the courage to share her feelings with another real person.
Celie begins to write letters to Nettie knowing that they will never be delivered. Writing these letters proves that Celie now feels that she needs a real human in her life to share her feelings with. “There is, in this parallel correspondence in which no letter ever hopes for an answer, something deeply moving, these sisters need each other desperately, but each must nurture and survive without response from the other” (Prescott 450). Celie writes letters to her sister knowing that they will never reach her, and Nettie does the same. This proves the need that Celie has for another person in her life. Celie especially wants Nettie in her life because she feels that Nettie is one of the few people that she can talk to about her past and current hardships.
This need for Nettie shows that Celie’s self identity. It is proven not only that Celie needs another person in her life who can relate to her, but also that she wants to reconnect with someone who is associated with her traumatizing past, which shows that she is building up strength to move on from that part of her life. Nettie’s letters give the opposite appearance about her life than what it actually is. In Celie’s letters, she proves that she is the sister who has found a true identity of herself. “In fact, Nettie gives the appearance of having overcome the traumatic incidents of their childhood and adolescence more successfully than Celie and presents herself as a healthier character throughout her letters. But is this so? I suggest that the reverse is the case: that is, that Celie, often against overwhelming odds, works toward and achieves a stable and authentic sense of self” (Proudfit).
Celie’s father treats both Celie and Nettie horribly. While Celie obviously has it worse, Nettie also experiences traumatic events. Nettie’s letters to Celie display her moving on from the past in a positive way, while Celie is still working on getting herself to a better place mentally. However, the way that Nettie moves on is not a “healthy” way of recovering from her past. Nettie moves to Africa on a missionary, but while she is there, she masks her past by creating a “new family” with the people from the missionary, and tries to forget her abusive past.
Celie’s letters prove that she is coping with her past in a much healthier way, by not masking it with a fake family, and by trying not to think about the past but also not pretending that it never happened. This view of Celie’s healthy way of dealing with her past proves that she is building up the courage to not be afraid and angry of her past anymore but to make it part of her identity. Celie builds enough strength to stand up to Shug and tell her that she doesn’t believe that god is helping her and that she wants to write to her sister, whose letters are helping her more, instead. “Dear Nettie, I don’t write to God no more. I write to you,” (Walker 193). Celie now knows that Nettie is alive, and she feels an overpowering connection to her long lost sister.
This connection is much stronger than any connection that she has ever felt towards God, even though he helps her through some of her toughest times. When Celie tells Shug that she is not writing to God anymore, that she is only writing to Nettie, Shug warns her that God will be upset. Celie has the confidence to stand up to Shug and tell her that she believes that writing to Nettie will help her more than writing to God ever did. Writing Letters to Nettie played a huge role in building Celie’s identity and self esteem, but the relationship that Shug and Celie formed was the most powerful, helpful relationship that Celie could have had. Shug helps Celie cope with her past and present problems in a way that only another female who understands her past could.
Celie adores Shug, who acts as a role model for the naive Celie. “There is Shug Avery, whose pride, independence, and appetite for living act a catalyst for Celie” (Watkins 450). Shug Avery is the only women who Celie ever truly wants to emulate. Celie wants to obtain the self identity, and independence that Shug has. Shug’s strong personality has the ability to draw Celie in, and even though Celie is not aware that her goal is to form the belief in herself that Shug displays she respects Shug for having that type of strong will.
Shug talks to Celie in a personal way that Celie is unfamiliar with, but Celie appreciates it nonetheless. The relationship that Shug and Celie form, and the way that Celie respects and admires Shug is the reason that Celie is able to make the final steps of her journey to becoming more confident and forming the self identity that she lacks. Shug’s overbearing personality pushes Celie’s identity to mature and have more confidence. “Ask the busy man your questions, Celie, say Shug” (Walker 183). Even in the most uncomfortable situations, Shug makes Celie stand up for herself. Shug helps Celie speak up on her own behalf by urging her say what she needs to say.
This helps Celie mature because with enough practice and with the help of Shug, Celie will be able to feel comfortable when speaking up on her own, when Shug is no longer with Celie when Celie needs her. For example, in this quote, Celie and Shug go to Celie’s father’s house to talk to him. This is extremely awkward and scary for Celie because of his abusive past towards her. Shug sets up the conversation for Celie so she feels slightly more comfortable in asking the questions that she needs to. If it weren’t for Shug helping Celie out, Celie would never have mustered the courage to confront Alphonso.
Now because Shug helped the first time, Celie has the confidence to speak to him again without Shug’s help if she ever needed to. Shug helps Celie recover from her sexual horrors in the past, by showing and explaining to her what love and sex really are. “Why miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin,” (Walker 78). Shug teaches Celie what it means to be in love and have sex. Even though Celie is not an anatomical virgin because she has had sex with her father and husband numerous times, Shug tells her that she is a virgin because she has not had sex with someone she loves, so she has not enjoyed sex to its full potential.
This new understanding of the word virgin for Celie makes her much more confident about her past, because she feels that her purity was not ruined by the sexual abuse that she had to endure. Shug and Celie also have a lesbian sexual relationship where Celie truly learns what real sex is with someone she loves. This realization of how much she loves Shug allows her identity to develop even more. The relationship between Shug and Celie is extremely controversial, but people are alking about it all around the world, allowing The Color Purple to become Alice Walker’s most famous novel. For obvious reasons, Alice Walker’s empowering novel The Color Purple is deserving of the numerous awards that it has received and the effects that it has had on the literature world today.
Alice Walker’s most famous novel The Color Purple earned both a pulitzer prize and the American Book Award. The novel was made into a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985 and has been translated into over 24 languages to be read by different cultures around the world. Walker has been criticized for this “unconventional” novel for years. People strongly disagree with both the way it was written and the topics discussed in it. Regardless of whether or not people agree with the concepts and style of this novel, it is talked about all over the world (McLendon). Celie develops self confidence, strength and identity through the letters that she writes to God, showing that she is willing to share her feelings with “someone,” the letters that she writes to Nettie, proving that she can graduate to writing letters to a real person, and the relationship that she forms with Shug, which helps her reach the final steps of maturity through sexual relations and assistance in realizing who she actually is.
Throughout the novel, Celie comes to a self realization that she is the “good girl” that she questions on the first page of the novel.