Study Guide

Alice Walker

Alice Walker Essay - Walker, Alice (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walker, Alice (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

The Color Purple Alice Walker

(Full name Alice Malsenior Walker) American novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Walker's novel The Color Purple (1982) through 2001. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, and 103.

The Color Purple is regarded as Walker's most successful and critically acclaimed work. Written in an epistolary style, the novel depicts the harsh life of a young African-American woman in the South in the early twentieth century. The Color Purple explores the individual identity of the African-American woman and how embracing that identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Although some reviewers have taken issue with the novel's portrayal of Black men, the novel has largely been celebrated by critics and popular audiences alike, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1983. In 1985 filmmaker Stephen Spielberg directed the film adaptation of The Color Purple, which was nominated for eleven awards—including best picture—by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Biographical Information

Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944, the eighth and last child of sharecroppers Willie Lee and Lou Grant Walker. When she was eight years old, her brother shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye. This disfigurement made her shy and self-conscious, and she began to use writing as a means of expressing herself. The accident also had a permanent impact on her relationship with her father: his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her forever affected her relationship with him, and they remained estranged for the rest of his life. Despite her disadvantaged childhood, Walker won the opportunity to continue her education with a scholarship to Spelman College. After attending Spelman for two years, she became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, entitled Once: Poems (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for Walker. After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca, but they divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author who would have great influence on her later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself when I Am Laughing … and Then again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple.

Plot and Major Characters

The Color Purple begins with fourteen-year-old Celie writing a letter to God, asking for a sign. Celie is a scared, poor, African-American girl living in the South. Her mother has become ill after the most recent of her numerous pregnancies, and the man Celie believes to be her father abuses Celie sexually. He tells her, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy.” Readers discover through subsequent letters that “Pa” fathers two children with Celie, but abducts them from her soon after each birth. Her mother dies during Celie's second pregnancy, and Celie is unable to confirm whether her children are living or dead. After her mother's death, Celie becomes responsible for the upkeep of the house and the rearing of her younger siblings, including her sister Nettie. Nettie is courted by a man her father's age, who asks to marry Nettie, but Pa refuses, and offers the older Celie as a wife instead. Celie marries the suitor, whom she calls Mr. ———. Nettie then becomes the object of Pa's sexual desires, causing her to move in with Celie and Mr. ———. Nettie is later forced to leave when she refuses Mr. ———'s sexual advances. Before Nettie flees, she promises Celie that she will write to her, but Celie never receives any of Nettie's letters. Celie's letters—which advance the narrative of the book—are now written to Nettie instead of God, and relate the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that she endures in Mr. ———'s household. When Mr. ———'s son, Harpo, brings home Sophia—his prospective wife—Celie is exposed for the first time to a proud, strong female figure. Sophia is outspoken and refuses to conform to Harpo's and Mr. ———'s stereotypical model of an obedient spouse. After Harpo repeatedly beats her, Sophia leaves and is eventually arrested for assaulting a white man. A turning point in Celie's life occurs when Mr. ———'s mistress, Shug Avery, moves in to recuperate after an illness. Another strong-willed woman, Shug is a sexy, spirited blues singer, and Celie is obsessively attracted to her. After Celie nurses Shug, Shug begins to heal Celie, first as a mother figure, then as a lover. Through this relationship, Celie begins to feel loved and develops newfound feelings of self-worth. One day, when Shug gets the mail, she brings in a letter for Celie, postmarked from Africa. The letter is from Nettie, and, as Celie discovers, Nettie has been sending her letters for years. A search of the house reveals that all of Nettie's letters have been taken and hidden by Mr. ———. Celie puts the letters in chronological order and begins to read them, learning that Samuel and Corinne, a missionary couple in town, took in Nettie when she was forced to leave Mr. ———'s house. Samuel and Corrine had adopted two children and the two are Celie's lost offspring. Nettie traveled with them to Africa, where they tried to Christianize the people of the Olinka tribe. Nettie's letters also reveal that Celie's Pa is not her father, but is instead her stepfather. In a rage over the theft of these letters, Celie comes close to killing Mr. ———, but is stopped by Shug. Shug convinces Celie that it is better to create than to destroy, and Celie subsequently takes up sewing pants as a creative outlet. Celie leaves Mr. ———, whom she now calls by his given name, Albert, and travels to Memphis with Shug. After Pa dies, Celie inherits her childhood home, which also includes a dry goods store. She returns to her hometown and sets up a small business selling Folkspants—a line of pants of her own creation. Albert eventually returns to Celie as a transformed figure who now respects her, and the two work side by side, with Albert sewing matching shirts for her pants business. At the conclusion of the novel, Celie is reunited with sister Nettie and her own lost children, and she introduces Shug and Albert as her family.

Major Themes

The Color Purple dramatically underscores the oppression Black women have experienced throughout history in the rural South in America. Following the Civil War, most Black Americans remained disenfranchised and were typically viewed as less than human by many members of white society. Women were also regarded as less important than men—both Black and white—making Black women doubly disadvantaged. Black women of the era were often treated as slaves or as property, even by male members of their own families. In The Color Purple, Celie is passed on from Pa to Mr. ——— without any regard for her own desires. She constantly struggles to forge her own self-identity and to not accept the subservient role that society has ascribed to her. In the course of the novel, Sophia becomes Celie's first role model of a Black woman who does not allow the men surrounding her to limit her lifestyle. Additionally, the novel examines themes of sisterhood and methods of sharing among women in their quest for political, sexual, and racial equality. Celie is able to overcome her many hardships because of the love and solidarity she receives from women like Nettie, Sophia, and Shug Avery. By seeing herself as a member of a community, Celie develops a sense of identity and realizes new opportunities in her life. When Shug stops Celie from killing Mr. ———, Celie is inspired to find a new outlet for her passion and creativity. This leads to the creation of Celie's business, which offers her more personal and financial freedom. Spiritual fulfillment is also a recurring theme in The Color Purple. The novel opens with Celie writing to God, an anonymous all-knowing male creator figure. Celie keeps asking for a sign from God to reveal his presence and lift her many burdens, but no signs ever appear. As the story progresses, Celie stops writing to God and begins writing to her sister Nettie. Through her relationship with Nettie and with the other Black women in her life, Celie is able to see tangible signs of hope and spirituality. Walker portrays the typical archetype of the male Christian God as aloof and absent in The Color Purple, while Celie's community of friends and family is portrayed as caring and emotionally nourishing.

Critical Reception

Walker has earned high praise for The Color Purple, particularly for her accurate rendering of folk idiom, her use of the oral storytelling tradition, and her characterization of Celie. Although critical response to the novel has been largely positive, there have been several widely-debated aspects of Walker's work. For example, many reviewers have criticized her portrayal of male African-American characters as archetypes of African-American men in modern society. Such commentators have condemned these portrayals as unnecessarily negative, citing the vile and unsympathetic male characters, such as Mr. ———, as evidence of enmity on Walker's part. Some critics have found fault with Walker's characterizations in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Reviewers have also noted temporal and logistic flaws in The Color Purple's narrative, but most scholars have excused these faults, commenting that such lapses are a necessary sacrifice for Walker's total narrative agenda. Walker has been highly praised by feminist critics for vividly portraying the brutality that women have faced throughout the years, but some have argued that the novel's happy ending makes light of the offenses suffered by the female protagonist and runs contrary to reality. Conversely, some reviewers have defended the novel's upbeat ending, claiming that it is not disloyal to feminist concerns, but rather furthers the idea that a woman—especially one surrounded by a community of nurturing women—can overcome adversity.

Principal Works

Once: Poems (poetry) 1968

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (novel) 1970

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (short stories) 1973

Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (poetry) 1973

*Langston Hughes: American Poet [illustrations by Don Miller] (juvenilia) 1974

Meridian (novel) 1976

Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (poetry) 1979

I Love Myself when I Am Laughing … and Then again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [editor] (prose) 1979

You Can't Keep a Good...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Criticism

M. Teresa Tavormina (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Tavormina, M. Teresa. “Dressing the Spirit: Clothworking and Language in The Color Purple.Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 3 (fall 1986): 220-30.

[In the following essay, Tavormina analyzes the parallels between clothing and the perception of the characters in The Color Purple, noting how Walker's characters use sewing to create a sense of accomplishment and freedom of expression.]

When a message has no clothes on
                    How can it be spoken?

—Thomas Merton1

Language is the clothing of thought, the skin of the soul. The mysterious entity of self is first expressed internally, in...

(The entire section is 5152 words.)

Daniel W. Ross (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Ross, Daniel W. “Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple.Modern Fiction Studies 34, no. 1 (spring 1988): 69-84.

[In the following essay, Ross employs psychoanalytic methods to analyze Celie's delayed emotional growth in The Color Purple and examines the catalysts that shape and encourage her progress toward self-realization and self-acceptance.]

For many readers the turning point of Alice Walker's The Color Purple occurs when Celie, the principal character, asserts her freedom from her husband and proclaims her right to exist: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly, and can't cook. … But I'm here”...

(The entire section is 7543 words.)

Wendy Wall (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Wall, Wendy. “Lettered Bodies and Corporeal Texts in The Color Purple.Studies in American Fiction 16, no. 1 (spring 1988): 83-97.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the epistolary format of The Color Purple, arguing that the protagonist Celie becomes stronger by using writing as an outlet, yet hinders her emotional growth by creating private discourses instead of verbalizing her fears and needs to others.]

In Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly describes how one ideological group establishes power by imprinting its traces on the bodies of other people. Imprinting, she explains, often involves invading, cutting, impressing, and...

(The entire section is 7323 words.)

Steven C. Weisenburger (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Weisenburger, Steven C. “Errant Narrative and The Color Purple.Journal of Narrative Technique 19, no. 3 (fall 1989): 257-75.

[In the following essay, Weisenburger examines the temporal inconsistencies in The Color Purple, noting the popular and critical reception of the novel's errors and themes.]

I

What would be required in developing a poetics of narrative error? Moreover, why has none been developed? Its foundation certainly exists, in the comprehensive accounts of narrative poetics that followed the paradigm shift to structural semiotics. Indeed, colleagues in composition pedagogy have already taken up “the...

(The entire section is 9812 words.)

Priscilla L. Walton (essay date April 1990)

SOURCE: Walton, Priscilla L. “‘What She Got to Sing About?’: Comedy and The Color Purple.ARIEL 21, no. 2 (April 1990): 59-74.

[In the following essay, Walton defines comic theory and classifies The Color Purple as a comedic novel based on examples from the work.]

[Laughter] is a froth with a saline base. Like froth it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty and the aftertaste bitter.

(Bergson 190)

This observation, written in 1900 by Henri Bergson, in the conclusion to his essay “Laughter,”...

(The entire section is 5976 words.)

Charles L. Proudfit (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Proudfit, Charles L. “Celie's Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (spring 1991): 12-37.

[In the following essay, Proudfit refutes the critical opinion that Celie's emotional development and actions in The Color Purple are unlikely literary contrivances, and uses psychoanalytic theory to argue that Celie's personal growth is realistically constructed, given her horrific childhood and adolescence.]

It is my belief and my faith that whenever you are trying to convey a sense of a common reality to people, they will want to read and...

(The entire section is 11355 words.)

Linda Abbandonato (essay date October 1991)

SOURCE: Abbandonato, Linda. “‘A View from “Elsewhere”’: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine's Story in The Color Purple.PMLA 106, no. 5 (October 1991): 1106-115.

[In the following essay, Abbandonato explores Walker's denouncement of the caucasian, patriarchal order in The Color Purple by displaying Celie's claiming of an identity and sexuality outside of traditionally accepted parameters.]

Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple begins with a paternal injunction of silence:

You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy.

(11)...

(The entire section is 6667 words.)

James C. Hall (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Hall, James C. “Towards a Map of Mis(sed) Reading: The Presence of Absence in The Color Purple.African American Review 26, no. 1 (spring 1992): 89-97.

[In the following essay, Hall examines Walker's portrayal of female repression in society and religion in The Color Purple, commenting that Celie's emotional growth depends largely on her gradual rejection of the caucasian, male God figurehead.]

[Some] receive the news of the death of God and the questionableness of authority with great enthusiasm. Like servants released from bondage to a harsh master or children unbound from the rule of a domineering father, such...

(The entire section is 5458 words.)

Carole Anne Taylor (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Taylor, Carole Anne. “Humor, Subjectivity, Resistance: The Case of Laughter in The Color Purple.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36, no. 4 (winter 1994): 462-82.

[In the following essay, Taylor evaluates Walker's use of laughter in The Color Purple, asserting that the novel employs laughter as a shared acknowledgment of pain and camaraderie, rather than lighthearted banter.]

They crush and crush
your heart;
your humor
escapes.

—Alice Walker, “Ndebele”

Postmodernism for postmodernism, politics for politics, I'd rather be an ironist than a terrorist.

...

(The entire section is 8688 words.)

Linda Selzer (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Selzer, Linda. “Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple.African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 67-82.

[In the following essay, Selzer discusses Walker's confrontation of race relations and class distinctions through the underlying text in The Color Purple.]

An important juncture in Alice Walker's The Color Purple is reached when Celie first recovers the missing letters from her long-lost sister Nettie. This discovery not only signals the introduction of a new narrator to this epistolary novel but also begins the transformation of Celie from writer to reader. Indeed, the passage in which Celie struggles to puzzle out the markings...

(The entire section is 9597 words.)

Stacie Lynn Hankinson (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Hankinson, Stacie Lynn. “From Monotheism to Pantheism: Liberation from Patriarchy in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 3 (spring 1997): 320-28.

[In the following essay, Hankinson discusses how the development of Celie's religious beliefs in The Color Purple are instrumental in and indicative of her spiritual growth.]

Alice Walker's The Color Purple, in spite of its overwhelming success, has been criticized for possessing a rather superficial, fairy tale-styled ending. T. W. Lewis, for example, avows that the work appears “not as a realistic chronicle of human events but as fable” (485), and, similarly,...

(The entire section is 2970 words.)

Charles J. Heglar (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Heglar, Charles J. “Named and Nameless: Alice Walker's Pattern of Surnames in The Color Purple.ANQ 13, no. 1 (winter 2000): 38-41.

[In the following essay, Heglar examines Walker's withholding of surnames and use of blank lines for the names of male characters in The Color Purple, and studies her use of surnames for three of the novel's atypical female characters.]

In her 1982 novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker skillfully erases, withholds, or supplies surnames for her characters in order to develop an alternative perspective that challenges, overturns, and regenerates the patriarchal society of the novel. Walker's erasure or...

(The entire section is 1351 words.)

Martha J. Cutter (essay date fall-winter 2000)

SOURCE: Cutter, Martha J. “Philomela Speaks: Alice Walker's Revisioning of Rape Archetypes in The Color Purple.MELUS 25, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2000): 161-80.

[In the following essay, Cutter compares and contrasts the character of Celie from The Color Purple with the character of Philomela from Ovid's Metamorphoses, noting the similarities between the women's repeated rapes and their rapists' attempts to silence them.]

The ancient story of Philomela has resonated in the imaginations of women writers for several thousand years. The presence of this myth in contemporary texts by African American women writers marks the persistence of a powerful...

(The entire section is 7708 words.)

Robyn R. Warhol (essay date May 2001)

SOURCE: Warhol, Robyn R. “How Narration Produces Gender: Femininity as Affect and Effect in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Narrative 9, no. 2 (May 2001): 182-87.

[In the following essay, Warhol explores the sentimentality of the themes and narrative in The Color Purple, and analyzes the reasons for a feminine gender designation to sentimental and emotional stories.]

Having a good cry is a feminine thing to do. In British and American mainstream culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, weeping openly and emotionally—whether for grief, anger, frustration, sympathy, relief, joy, triumph, or gratitude—is an activity associated with girls...

(The entire section is 2679 words.)