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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, ...

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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

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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 Woman Down (short stories) 1981

The Color Purple (novel) 1982

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (essays) 1983

Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful: Poems (poetry) 1984

Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (essays) 1988

To Hell with Dying [illustrations by Catherine Deeter] (juvenilia) 1988

The Temple of My Familiar (novel) 1989

Finding the Green Stone [illustrations by Catherine Deeter] (juvenilia) 1991

Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete (poetry) 1991

Possessing the Secret of Joy (novel) 1992

Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women [with Pratibha Parmar] (nonfiction) 1993

Everyday Use [edited by Barbara T. Christian] (essays and interviews) 1994

Alice Walker: Banned (nonfiction) 1996

The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult: A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film “The Color Purple” Ten Years Later (essays) 1996

Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism (essays) 1997

By the Light of My Father's Smile: A Novel (novel) 1998

The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (memoirs and short stories) 2000

Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit after the Bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (speeches) 2001

*In 2002 a revised edition was published with illustrations by Catherine Deeter.

M. Teresa Tavormina (essay date fall 1986)

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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 thoughts and feelings of various degrees of clarity; yet to give that self external expression, it must be “uttered”—made outward by being dressed in language. Just as clothing protects, adorns, interprets, and helps create the first impression of the body, the outer self, so language displays the inner self, giving shape to thought and feeling, defining yet covering them, significantly influencing others' perceptions of that self. Like a membrane, like skin, language simultaneously connects and divides self to and from others. The familiar metaphors of spinning yarns and weaving words, of text as textile, suggest the purpose of language as well as the intricate manner of its making.

Thus it is not surprising to find both clothing and language playing important, related thematic roles in Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple.2 Among the novel's major concerns are the discovery, definition, and expression of self, and the connections between self and other. Since both language and clothing are means of expressing—and, to our misfortune, also of repressing—the self, they are highly effective vehicles for Walker's views on the search her characters engage in. The present essay examines The Color Purple's treatment of this search, as reflected in images of clothing, sewing, and quilting, and the relation of these images to her use of such personalized forms of language as dialect and letters.


I had been trying to establish a respect for women and women's art; to forge a new kind of art expressing women's experience; and to find a way to make that art accessible to a large audience. I firmly believed that if art speaks clearly about something relevant to people's lives, it can change the way they perceive reality. … Since most of the world is illiterate in terms of women's history and contributions to culture, it seemed appropriate to relate our history through art, particularly through techniques traditionally associated with women.

—Judy Chicago3

References to cloth, clothing, and clothworking abound in The Color Purple. Again and again we read about people's clothing, especially Shug's. Both Nettie and Celie have a keen eye for what people wear, and are sharply conscious of their own dress as well, at times embarrassed by it, at times pleased. Most important, sewing and designing clothes becomes Celie's refuge and then her work. The meaning of these ubiquitous references goes beyond a realistic description of a common female interest or activity, however. By the end of the novel, Walker's clothing and clothworking images have reinforced several major themes: the nature of self-definition, the creative power of the human spirit, and the growth of familial and societal bonds out of shared life and history.

As I have suggested above, clothing not only covers us but also defines us. It is usually a large part of what we see when we look at each other, and different clothes give observers quite different impressions, as the dress-for-success people are fond of reminding their readers. It is no accident that the word “habit” can refer to behavior or to dress. Clothing can express its wearer's personality, or repress it so as to conform the wearer to someone else's definition of how people should look or act. Shug tells Celie that she should make herself a pair of pants because they would suit (another bivalent term) her better, given the work she does, even if they are not traditional for a woman:

What I need pants for? I say. I ain't no man.

Don't git uppity, she say. But you don't have a dress do nothing for you. You not made like no dress pattern, neither. …

You do all the work around here. It's a scandless, the way you look out there plowing in a dress. How you keep from falling over it or getting the plow caught in it is beyond me.


Folkspants Unlimited gets its start after Celie realizes that she can make pants that truly fit the people she makes them for—not just physically, but behaviorally and emotionally too. Her pants are designed for individuals, not in terms of sexual or other stereotypes but of the wearer's own particular needs. “[Mr. ———] ast me what was so special bout my pants. Anybody can wear them, I said” (230). This is not a one-size-fits-all reductionism, but a rejection of the constraints of traditional roles and their associated outward expressions. Like native African dress as Nettie describes it, Folkspants are genuinely comfortable clothes, extensions and adornments of the people wearing them, rather than a shamefaced, constricting covering-up of the self. Only the “colorless” whites, according to The Color Purple, feel naked and ashamed without clothes; Walker hints that the feeling may reflect the white distance from a “natural” life in harmony with the rest of the world. For black people, it is different: “Since they are covered by color they are not naked” (232). Instead, they dress for comfort and for celebration, like the Senegalese, “these shining, blueblack people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns” (119). They “try to wear what feel comfortable in the heat. … [They] wear a little sometimes, or a lot. … But men and women both preshate a nice dress” (230).

When Mr. ——— learns to sew from Celie, and begins designing shirts, he follows the same principles of usefulness, comfort, and attractiveness on the wearer. “Got to have pockets, he say. Got to have loose sleeves. And definitely you not spose to wear it with no tie. Folks wearing ties look like they being lynch” (239). Like Olivia's diapers, embroidered by Celie with the child's real name, the name that fits her, clothing should match the wearer's spirit, not imprison or strangle that spirit for being different; it should affirm the self, not deny it.

In proclaiming Olivia's name, the child's embroidered diapers express Celie's love for her daughter, but they also express Celie's creative spirit, a spirit that is celebratory and playful, that sews flowers and stars into a baby's diapers, that cannot be quenched even in the midst of Celie's confusion, fear, and near-despair over Fonso's brutal sexual assaults. Even before she learns to express her self by wearing particular products of the cloth- and needle-working arts, she expresses her self by producing such art. For the arts of needle, thread, loom, cloth are more than mere crafts, despite modern Western cultural biases. They are components of a major artistic medium, none the less valuable because its products are meant to be used, to make our lives more comfortable as well as to enrich our awareness. As the makers of medieval tapestries knew, it is a medium capable of power in all its forms, from intricate detail to huge sweeping webs of vision. It draws on potent human energies: Celie starts making pants so as to avoid killing Mr. ———; she grows as an artist by making pants for love of Shug, Squeak, Jack, Odessa, Nettie. “A needle and not a razor in my hand” (125), creation rather than destruction: this is the choice Celie makes, for Nettie's and Shug's sakes, the choice to hold fast, to remain herself. Like the quilt she has already made with Sofia, it is a “Sister's Choice,” one that leads her eventually into self-possession and independence. As Shug implies in her lyric “color purple” discourse, discovering the self is a way of discovering God in the self, and God is a creative force, “always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect” (168).

Walker's focus on clothworking as a primary image for human creativity stresses women's creativity.4 But she also insists that this is a human art, not limited to women unless men wish to impose artificial sex-role constraints on their own creativity. The Olinka men, who are not particularly noteworthy for respecting “women's work,” nonetheless feel no threat to their masculinity from their quilt-making skills.5 In fact, notions of “women's work” and “men's work” break down generally in The Color Purple: Harpo and Mr. ——— find that they enjoy cooking, sewing, and cleaning house, while Sofia, Shug, and Celie all engage in various activities usually associated with men—shingling roofs, designing houses, owning a store, and so on. All human beings have the power and the calling to be both usefully and playfully creative, and we see this power at work in many characters throughout the novel. Celie of course makes quilts, curtains, and pants, and embroiders stars, flowers, and words on Olivia's diapers. The Olinka make cloth and quilts, with animals, birds, and people appliquéed on them to create little worlds in fabric. Shug and Mary Agnes make music; Harpo makes a place for people to enjoy themselves. Albert makes comfortable shirts to go with Celie's pants; Corrine and Samuel and Nettie make a school. Even the no-count Grady grows a little reefer. “You making your living, Celie,” says Shug, “Girl, you on your way” (181). Making is living, destroying is death and nothingness. Even the limited destruction of meanness eats away at the soul of its perpetrator: “You know meanness kill” (191).


It took me more than twenty years, nearly twenty-five, I reckon, in the evenings after supper when the children were all put to bed. My whole life is in that quilt. It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. When I was proud of the boys and when I was downright provoked and angry with them. When the girls annoyed me or when they gave me a warm feeling around my heart. And John too. He was stitched into that quilt and all the thirty years we were married. Sometimes I loved him and sometimes I sat there hating him as I pieced the patches together. So they are all in that quilt, my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.

—anonymous woman in Ohio6

Besides providing an outlet for the creative forces within the self and offering a visual and tactile medium for presenting that self to the world, clothworking and clothing can also create the bonds between members of a community, especially a familial one. Mothers make or buy clothes for their children, or lovingly adorn those clothes as Celie does for Olivia. The only time Corrine and Celie meet is over material Corrine is buying for Olivia's new dresses, and part of Celie's pleasure at the meeting comes from helping Corrine “drape a piece of cloth close to [Olivia's] face” (14). Children are not the only recipients of lovingly made clothing: planning a pair of handsewn pants for Nettie, Celie promises that “every stitch I sew will be a kiss” (182).

Family members also share clothes at times. The reasons for such sharing are usually economic, to be sure, but the symbol of shared life is present as well. The life shared may be nurturing or constricting: if you never get to be the “first one in [your] own dress,” if you are always forced to wear other people's clothes (like other people's definitions of you), this can get pretty tiresome. Celie's pleasure when Mr. ———'s sister Kate insists on her having a new dress—the first one ever made just for her—is profound. It may well be an important early step on her road to self-awareness and respect: “She say. It's all right, Celie. You deserve more than this. Maybe so. I think” (20). But sharing clothes willingly signifies genuine intimacy, as Walker illustrates via Corrine's suspicious refusal to let Nettie borrow her clothes and Samuel's insistence that Nettie wear them after Corrine dies.

Familial bonds can be expressed in other pieces of cloth too. Celie lends Sofia thread for sheets and makes curtains for her, curtains that are torn during one of Sofia and Harpo's fights. Sofia returns the same curtains, along with the thread and a dollar for use, when she learns that Celie had told Harpo to beat her. After Celie makes her peace with Sofia, they take the curtain scraps to start a quilt—a quilt that Sofia and Celie and Shug all work on over time, a quilt with bits of Shug's old yellow dress as well as the curtain scraps, made in the “Sister's Choice” pattern. It is a quilt made of love and trouble and dreams, of flour sacks and of “little yellow pieces, look like stars” (53). Celie thinks first of giving it to Shug, if it turns out perfect, perhaps in a kind of homage to Shug's beauty; then she thinks of keeping it for herself, if it turns out imperfect, almost as a kind of relic. But finally she gives it to Sofia to help keep her and her children warm through the winter (53, 60).

The making of this quilt underscores the fact that sewing is an act of union, of connecting pieces to make a useful whole. Furthermore, sewing with others is a comradely act, one that allows both speech and comfortable, supportive silence. The Olinka mothers sew together in the afternoons when it is too hot for anything else, and “it is in the work that the women get to know and care about each other” (141). By the end of the novel, Celie and Albert grow close enough that they can sit together sewing and making idle conversation, occupations that explain to Shug why they are “looking as fine as [they] look” (240). Sewing helps Celie get through the hate and despair she feels when she learns that Mr. ——— has been keeping Nettie's letters; its creative and unitive dimension is the only possible cure for one whose world has come apart, as the idiom goes, at the seams:

I stutter. I mutter to myself. I stumble bout the house crazy for Mr. ——— blood. In my mind, he falling dead every which a way. …

I really started [making pants] right here in your house to keep from killing you.

(103, 214)

The depth of Celie's anguish over the telegram announcing Nettie's supposed death and the return of her unopened letters can be measured by her cry, “What good is sewing gon do? What good is anything? Being alive begin to seem like a awful strain” (216). But even in this grief, she holds things together in spite of the strain, and keeps sewing—even sharing it with Albert, multiplying creation and showing him “how to do it.”7

Like Celie and Sofia, Corrine makes quilts too, in a mixed African and American pattern, out of “the clothes the children had outgrown, and some of her old dresses” (159); thus on both sides of the ocean, we see quilts that contain and carry on the history bound up with their pieces. Through the quilts she has made, Corrine finally remembers making the clothes they came from, remembers buying the cloth, remembers Celie, and believes. Corrine's quilts connect the moments of time that make up her own and Olivia's lives. Trying to forget such moments because they were painful, burying them in forgetfulness as the quilts are buried in Corrine's trunk, can lead to even greater pain than the original memory, as Corrine discovers. It is better to keep all of one's heritage, to keep past and present united. This concern for recognizing one's history, one's place within a community of generations, runs through many of Walker's works, from the three-generational events of her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, to the Johnson family quilts in “Everyday Use,” to the concern for keeping memory alive in “The Abortion,” and to many other examples.8 Cloth, clothes, hand-ons, curtains, sheets, quilts—both individual maker, wearer, or user and the community of generations to which she belongs can be seen in these fabrics of life, created, used, re-used, shared, passed on.


When I wrote Meridian, I realized that the chronological sequence is not one that permits me the kind of freedom I need in order to create. And I wanted to do something like a crazy quilt, or like Cane—if you want to be literary—something that works on the mind in different patterns. … A crazy quilt story is one that can jump back and forth in time, work on many different levels, and one that can include myth.

—Alice Walker9

The quilts in The Color Purple, perhaps more than any of the other clothwork in the novel, may remind us of another “everyday use” art-form: language itself, especially as it finds expression in personal dialects and letters. The whole novel is crafted from these everyday materials, “pieced” from patches of memory, from patches woven of different threads and for different wear, but brought together so as to make a whole meaning from Celie's and Nettie's seemingly separated lives. The basic “threads” of the novel are the everyday voices of the two sisters, voices that are clearly distinct from each other, and clearly expressive of their distinct personal experience and sense of self, just as the personally-suited Folkspants express their wearers. Even though they are sisters, Celie and Nettie are different people, with different personal histories, and their personal dialects reflect these differences. Neither of them feels a need to “talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind,” as Celie calls the efforts made by one of her Folkspants employees to standardize Celie's speech (183-84).

But thread is only the beginning of the cloth-worker's art; the individual presence and voice embodied in one's personal dialect is only the beginning of the expressive power of language. Relatively formless in themselves, both thread and personal language can mat, ramble, pile up into inextricably incoherent tangles unless they are given a more complex and stable form by being directed to organized, purposeful ends. From individual pieces of clothing and individual letters to quilts and life-time correspondence, the creative human spirit fashions meaning from the otherwise scattered elements of life. Those elements find an initial articulation in their first use, their first wear; they “mean” a pair of pants, or an escape from self-annihilation, or a way of understanding “what is happening to me” (3). But in quilts and correspondence, they can be given a larger meaning as well by their connection to other articulations of experience, including but not limited to those experiences and articulations that lie adjacent on the thread of time. Walker makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for her readers to determine the exact temporal relationships between letters in Celie's series and those in Nettie's. There are no dates, only a few clearly specified intervals, and even potential time-marking events—the births and ages of children or Nettie's encounter with Sofia after her release from prison—turn out to offer us little help in reconstructing precisely interlocked biographical calendars for the two sisters' lives.10

But no matter. The meaning is in the whole. To see linearly is to limit one's seeing. Celie does not receive Nettie's letters as soon as they are written, and Nettie does not receive Celie's at all; neither of them “answers” each other's letters in the usual sense of the word, yet their letters clearly “answers” to each other. The art—Walker's art—is not only in the creation (or the transmission) of the two lives, but also in the arrangement that juxtaposes and interlocks moments of revelation in Africa and in America (148-68), that shows both sisters coming to similar understandings of the nature of love and of God, and so on. Letters, like quilts, transcend time's boundaries. Scraps from childhood shirts border on bits of maternity smocks, patches from kitchen curtains lie alongside faded pieces of a Civil War uniform. “No matter how much the telegram said you must be drown, I still git letters from you” (233).

Yet quilts and correspondence, besides transcending time, record its parts. They create histories for us, remembering the past so as to bring it into the present. To fully understand our place in and relationship to our history, we need to see all its parts. The Olinka view of the world is limited by their refusal to understand the outside world—either that of their American brothers and sisters or that of the white planters who destroy their village. Despite her good intentions, Miss Eleanor Jane fails to understand Sofia because she only considers her own side of their relationship. Even the black missionaries' work in Africa is frequently undermined by their failure to understand African culture, despite the fact that it is ultimately a part of their own history. Celie's own understanding of the world, from clothing to black-white relations to the value of yams for controlling blood disease, is much enriched by the traditional African knowledge she rediscovers in Nettie's letters. The quilter's art has been similarly enriched by African textile techniques introduced to America by black men and women brought to this country from such areas as the Congo, Dahomey, and Angola.11 The quilt whereby Nettie finally rekindles Corrine's memory of Celie was deliberately designed to draw on both branches of this artistic history:

The Olinka men make beautiful quilts which are full of animals and birds and people. And as soon as Corrine saw them, she began to make a quilt that alternated one square of appliquéed figures with one nine-patch block, using the clothes the children had outgrown, and some of her old dresses.

I went to her trunk and started hauling out quilts. …

I held up first one and then another to the light, trying to find the first one I remembered her making. And trying to remember, at the same time, the dresses she and Olivia were wearing the first months I lived with them.

Aha, I said, when I found what I was looking for, and laid the quilt across the bed.

Do you remember buying this cloth? I asked, pointing to a flowered square. And what about this checkered bird?

She traced the patterns with her finger, and slowly her eyes filled with tears.


Corrine's quilt is an icon dense with history—personal, familial, artistic, national, racial, human—and with union and reunion. It brings together differences without denying them or subjugating one to another—here a flowered square, there a checkered bird. Like the full set of both Celie's and Nettie's letters, it preserves, juxtaposes, and connects; it creates a meaningful, functional beauty out of a variety that admits both pain and happiness.12 “My whole life is [there]. … they are all [there], my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates.”

Finally, language and sewing, cloth-working and letter-writing, quilts and correspondence share the attractive trait of being creative arts that are almost universally accessible, if at various levels of skill. Taking up a hem or writing a note to a friend are everyday, practical activities that can be practiced by people of almost any economic or social class, given access to a relatively small amount of instruction and practice. And the products of these skills, however inexpertly or occasionally practiced, have an undeniable share in the same creative forces underlying the masterful work of a great quilt-maker or novelist, the kind of work that commands our awe and profound admiration. To take needle or pen in hand, for man or woman, is to place oneself on a spectrum of creative possibility that stretches ultimately to the splendid art of experienced and inspired weavers, writers, web-workers of all kinds.

In The Color Purple, both clothworking and language become media for self-definition, self-expression, and self-sharing. Their distinct but similar processes and products enable Walker's characters to become more aware of themselves, of others, and of their interrelationships with others and with the rest of the world. Both clothworking and language embody and help further the common quest of all the major characters in the novel—the quest for the Spirit, for the creative, suffering, wondering “dear God” within each individual self and shared with all other selves. We see the path toward that goal most fully in Celie's life: it begins with the need to recognize and respect the Spirit within herself, moves on to the need to communicate it clearly to those around her, and finally leads her to discover its presence in everything and to realize her share in the whole interwoven fabric of human life, history, and all creation.

With Celie and Nettie we learn that we must actively “address” the Spirit within ourselves and within others, reaching out to it with a “Dear God,” “Dear Celie,” or “Dear Everything.” With Albert we learn that in addressing ourselves to others, we need also to listen, if we wish to hear the great ocean within the seashell. And with them and their fellow characters, we learn that we must lovingly “dress” our own and others' Spirit, helping to express it in its own terms, clothing it “preshatively” and comfortably, making it manifest in whatever creative ways we have at our disposal.


  1. “A Messenger from the Horizon,” in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Dimensions, 1977), 351.

  2. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). Subsequent references will be made within the text of the essay.

  3. The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979), 12.

  4. The association of women with the textile arts is an old one, strikingly documented by Chicago in The Dinner Party Needlework: Embroidering Our Heritage (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980). Its literary manifestations take such early forms as the medieval verse “When Adam dug and Eve spun” or the antifeminist proverb quoted by the cloth-making Wife of Bath, “To women by nature God has given deceit, weeping, and spinning.” Still earlier are the classical tales of Penelope, Arachne, and Athena as weavers. An insightful discussion of the positive and negative implications of this connection may be found in Elaine Hedges' essay “Quilts and Women's Culture” in In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts, ed. Elaine Hedges and Ingrid Wendt (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1980), 13-19. See also the introduction to the first section of this collection, “Everyday Use: Household Work and Women's Art,” 1-9.

    As Barbara Smith notes, the way Walker and other black women writers “incorporate the traditional Black female activities of rootworking, herbal medicine, conjure, and midwifery into the fabric of their stories is not mere coincidence. … The use of Black women's language and cultural experience in books by Black women about Black women results in a miraculously rich coalescing of form and content.” (“Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” in All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith [Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982], 164.) A similar and perhaps more general valorizing of the commonly female activity of sewing occurs in The Color Purple, with its frequent associations of sewing with success, reconciliation, and self-discovery.

  5. Actually, men's and women's textile work was often differentiated in Africa; but Walker chooses to stress the fact that both sexes take part in the basic activity. After all, though Celie and Albert are making different kinds of garments at the end of the novel, the important thing is that both are sewing, and sewing together.

  6. Quoted by Chicago, The Dinner Party Needlework, 223.

  7. The theme of learning and teaching “how to do like you … how to do it” runs throughout The Color Purple, from the opening Stevie Wonder epigraph to Nettie's vision of Celie writing “what life is like for [her]” (132) to Mr. ———'s tardy discovery of how to “preshate” other people as he has come to “preshate” listening to seashells. Being able to see through another's eyes, hear another's voice, and share one's own life in return are crucial elements of communication in all the novel's relationships.

  8. The Third Life of Grange Copeland (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); “Everyday Use,” in In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 47-59; “The Abortion,” in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 64-76, esp. 71-76. “Everyday Use” offers an excellent gloss on the quilt-making in The Color Purple. For additional commentary, see Walker's “In Search of Our Mother's Gardens,” Ms., 2:11 (May 1974), 64-70, 105; and “Writing The Color Purple” (as “The Color Purple Didn't Come Easy”), San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, October 10, 1982, both reprinted in her recent collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. 231-43, 355-60. In the latter essay, Walker reports that while writing The Color Purple, she also worked on a quilt, apparently using a blue-and-red-and-purple fabric and following a pattern given her by her mother.

  9. Interview in Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate (New York: Continuum, 1983), 176. I wish to thank Professor Linda Kauffman for this reference.

  10. Such time references as there are in the novel seem to require Olivia to be about 13 when her family goes to Africa, and somewhere around 20 at the onset of menarche (an unusual but not impossibly late age). Nettie says that “nearly thirty years” have passed since she left Celie (217), at which time Olivia would have been six or seven years old, yet one does not have a sense of Olivia and Adam as being adults in their mid-thirties by the novel's end. It is as though time moves slower for Nettie and the children, even though the years do go by. Walker may be referring to these temporal strains in the novel when she remarks, “Fortunately, I was able to bring Celie's own children back to her (a unique power of novelists), though it took thirty years and a good bit of foreign travel. But this proved to be the largest single problem in writing the exact novel I wanted to write” (“Writing The Color Purple,” 359-60).

  11. Chicago refers in passing to the African contributions to American quilt-making in The Dinner Party Needlework, 220-25. See also Patsy and Myron Orlofsky, Quilts in America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 246, 259; and John Michael Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978), 44-75.

  12. A nine-patch square also forms the center of the “Sister's Choice” pattern, perhaps coincidentally; it is intriguing to speculate as to whether there is more than a chance parallel between the nine-patch (a very common quilt element) and the three principal marital arrangements in the novel, with their three-fold structures—Celie, Mr. ———, Shug; Sofia, Harpo, Mary Agnes/Squeak; and Nettie, Samuel, Corrine.

Daniel W. Ross (essay date spring 1988)

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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” (187). Celie's claim is startling because throughout her life she has been subjected to a cruel form of male dominance grounded in control over speech. The novel's very first words alert us to the prohibition against speech served on Celie by her father: “You'd better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy.” Thus, Celie writes, addressing her letters to God because she has no one else to write to and because she knows she must never tell no “body.” But even then Celie addresses her letters to the orthodox Christian God, another version of the father. In short, Celie's language exists through much of the book without a body or audience, just as she exists without a self or identity.

Finding the courage to speak is a major theme of The Color Purple. But the novel also suggests that speech cannot come from the hollow shell of selfhood that Celie presents early on. Thus, I would like to focus on the discovery that must necessarily precede Celie's discovery of speech: the discovery of desire—for selfhood, for other, for community, and for a meaningful place in the Creation. The process of discovering or developing desire begins, for Celie, with the reappropriation of her own body, which was taken from her by men—first by her brutal stepfather and then passed on to her husband, Albert. The repossession of her body encourages Celie to seek selfhood and later to assert that selfhood through spoken language. During this process Celie learns to love herself and others and to address even her written language to a body, her sister Nettie, rather than to the disembodied God she has blindly inherited from white Christian mythology. The crucial scene, I will argue, in initiating this process is the mirror scene. In this scene Celie first comes to terms with her own body, thus changing her life forever.


One of the primary projects of modern feminism has been to restore women's bodies, appropriated long ago by a patriarchal culture, to them. Because the female body is the most exploited target of male aggression, women have learned to fear or even to hate their bodies. According to Adrienne Rich, women must overcome these negative attitudes if they are to achieve intellectual progress:

But fear and hatred of our bodies had often crippled our brains. Some of the most brilliant women of our time are still trying to think from somewhere outside their female bodies—hence they are still merely reproducing old forms of intellection.


Coming to terms with the body can be, for women, a painful experience. Alicia Ostriker, for example, notes that although among contemporary poets females are more likely to describe the body or to use it as a source of imagery than their male counterparts are, their images often focus on strangulation, cutting, mutilation, or depictions of “psychic hurt in somatic terms” (249). Consequently, women often think of their bodies as torn or fragmented, a pattern evident in Walker's Celie. To confront the body is to confront not only an individual's abuse but also the abuse of women's bodies throughout history; as the external symbol of women's enslavement, this abuse represents for woman a reminder of her degradation and her consignment to an inferior status.

As the subject of repeated rapes and beatings, Celie tries alternately to ignore and to annihilate her body. The latter is her strategy for defense against her husband's assaults:

He beat me like he beat the children. … It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man.


But Celie's ignorance of her body is even more shocking than her desire to annihilate it, as her language makes clear. She describes her own hysterectomy in the words of a child: “A girl at church say you git big if you bleed every month. I don't bleed no more” (15). Even this knowledge, personal as it is, comes to Celie second hand.

Celie has no desire to get to know her body until the arrival of her husband's lover, Shug Avery. While serving Shug in the traditional female capacity of nurse, Celie feels her first erotic stirrings and associates them with a new spirituality: “I wash her body, it feel like I'm praying” (53). Celie's stirrings foreshadow her discovery, under Shug's guidance, of a new God that allows her to love sexual pleasure guiltlessly. Shug introduces Celie to the mysteries of the body and sexual experience, making possible both Celie's discovery of speech and her freedom from masculine brutality. But the introduction requires that Celie see her body and feel its components first. For this a hand-held mirror is necessary, as is Shug's encouragement that there is something worth seeing.

When Shug urges her to look at herself, Celie reacts much like a child who fears being caught by a parent: she giggles and feels “like us been doing something wrong” (80). Even Shug, for all her promiscuity, talks like a child in preparing Celie for what she will find:

Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It gets hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part.

(79; my emphasis)

The simplicity of Shug's language must certainly be designed in part to titillate Celie, but her uncharacteristic euphemism (“when you do you know what with somebody”) suggests that even the free-spirited Shug has trouble speaking straightforwardly about sex or the body. While Celie looks in the mirror, Shug guards the door like a naughty schoolgirl, letting Celie know when the coast is clear.

Celie is astonished by what she sees in the mirror:

Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose.


After her initial revulsion Celie sees in succession three things: the hair that shielded her vagina from view, her black lips, and, finally, her feminine beauty, symbolized as a rose. When Shug asks her what she thinks, Celie's immediate response abnegates her previous annihilation and ignorance of her body: “It mine, I say” (80). In discovering and accepting with pride her own body, Celie initiates a desire for selfhood. Next she begins to find an identity through a network of female relationships with Shug, Nettie (whose letters she soon discovers), Sofia, and Mary Agnes. With her newfound identity, Celie is able to break free from the masculine prohibition against speech and to join a community of women, thus freeing herself from dependence on and subjection to male brutality.


The hair, the lips, the rose. Each symbolizes an important aspect of Celie's attitude toward her body, an attitude that must change if she is ever to be free of male brutality. The hair represents Celie's old attitude of self-revulsion, evident in her spontaneous “Ugh.” The pubic hair no doubt arouses Celie's memories of her stepfather's raping her; he came to her with scissors in hand, ostensibly to have her cut his hair. But inside herself Celie finds the wet rose, a symbol of her new attitude, which includes not only love but also an entirely different attitude toward God and Creation. Shug teaches Celie to find God in herself, in nature, and in her own feelings, including erotic ones: “God loves all them feelings,” Shug tells her (178; my emphasis). In between are the lips, representing Celie's present ambivalence. Although she is gradually learning, under Shug's guidance, to discover her body, her lips are for the time being dry, indicative of her virginity (in Shug's sense of the word) and her silence. Both orifices, vagina and mouth, need moistening if Celie is to replace sexual abuse with sexual pleasure and then to assert her independence from Albert. When she and Shug make love for the first time, their pleasure is purely oral. They “kiss and kiss until [they] can't hardly kiss no more” (109). This scene culminates in an ecstasy that is both maternal and infantile for Celie:

Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth.

Way after while, I act like a lost baby too.


Infantilism and maternity can provoke negative memories for Celie: her stepfather raped her because her mother did not satisfy him, and her mother died screaming and cursing at Celie, who, pregnant with her first child, could not move fast enough to be an efficient nurse. But Celie does effectively nurse Shug's ills, and Shug, in turn, plays a maternal role by teaching Celie how to love. She sucks from Celie's breast as Celie's lost babies were never allowed to; we must recall here that Celie's children were taken from her before she could “nurse” them, leaving her with “breasts full of milk running down [her]self” (13). Celie's orgasm suggests a rebirth or perhaps an initial birth into a world of love, a reenactment of the primal pleasure of the child at the mother's breast. In psychoanalytic terms this scene presents the inauguration of primary narcissism that, “as a psychical reality, can only be the primal myth of a return to the maternal breast” (Laplanche 72). In essence, the story of Celie's life begins afresh here; as Terry Eagleton puts it, the desire to retrieve the mother's body drives “the narrative of our lives, impelling us to pursue substitutes for this lost paradise in the endless metonymic movement of desire” (185). I turn now to psychoanalysis to show how theories of infantile development can help explain just how far Celie comes in her development of an ego and love for another. Psychoanalysis demonstrates the crucial role Shug Avery plays in her development, especially in reconciling Celie with her own body.2


Modern psychoanalysis assigns great importance to mirror scenes. Such scenes are crucial in the development of an ego, for, as Freud noted, “the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed” (“On Narcissism” 77). Jacques Lacan posited the beginning of that development in “the mirror stage,” which normally occurs between six and eighteen months of age. The mirror stage, a metaphor for Lacan, is literally enacted by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple. Up until this stage a child has no perception of an external world, only of himself as, in Freud's famous phrase, “His Majesty the Baby” (“On Narcissism” 91).

Lacan believes that the mirror stage offers the child only an illusion of whole selfhood, when in fact the subject is always split. But Lacan's view of the unattainableness of whole selfhood finds a more optimistic revision in Walker's novel. The Color Purple, in fact, endorses another view prevalent in modern thought—that such illusions are not destructive but are positive accommodations that allow one to find meaning in life, far preferable to the desire for self-annihilation Celie voices early in the book. In Eagleton's words, if we analyze our situations in the world rationally, we are bound to conclude that we lack centering, but most of us interpret ourselves otherwise, to assure ourselves of our life's significance. Eagleton believes the relation of an individual to society, interpreted thus, resembles Lacan's view of the small child's image of itself in the mirror:

In both cases, the human subject is supplied with a satisfying unified image of selfhood by identifying with an object which reflects this image back to it in a closed, narcissistic circle. In both cases, too, this image involves a misrecognition, since it idealizes the subject's real situation.


But this misrecognition, Lacan's meconnaissance, says Eagleton, makes selfhood possible: “Duly enthralled by the image of myself I receive, I subject myself to it; and it is through this ‘subjection’ that I become a subject” (173).3 To put it another way, the misrecognition fuels the desire to construct selfhood, because “the first Desire of any human is the absolute one for recognition (the Desire to be desired), itself linked to the Desire to be a unity” (Ragland-Sullivan 58). Spurred by this desire, the subject begins looking to others for validation. The self is an imaginary construct; what the mirror offers, says Juliet Mitchell, is a chance for a child to grasp itself “for the first time as a perfect whole, not a mess of uncoordinated movements and feelings” (40). For Celie, the mirror opens the door of her imagination, helping her envision a world of new possibilities for herself.

The dangers of pursuing an illusory wholeness of selfhood are dwarfed by those of eliding the mirror stage. The child who experiences no normal passage through a mirror stage can be arrested, trapped in a very early stage of development. Such a child may become autistic, a sign of extreme disturbance in one's sense of identity (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 11).4 As I will show momentarily, this is Celie's condition early in the novel, when she is arrested in the pre-mirror stage of development. Without a positive sense of him/herself as a body, and without an imago to replace the parental one, the child who does not pass through the mirror stage is left without an awareness of externality or otherness. This lack of an other is extremely critical, for Lacan links the discovery of the other to our becoming social beings: without it we become overattached to early fixations of identity, unable to adapt them as necessary to life's demands (Ragland-Sullivan 43-44).

At least one other area of development is retarded if the mirror stage is elided: speech. For Lacan speech presupposes the existence of “the Other to whom it is addressed” (Sheridan viii).5 Thus, Celie's inability to find a listening audience for herself is another sign of her autism, another result of her arrested development.6 Only Shug Avery is able to draw Celie out of her autism; Sofia's early attempts to get Celie to speak for herself fail because Celie has developed no concept of otherness. Celie needs not only someone who will tell her how to act and what to say but also someone who will show her. She needs a sympathetic mentor and friend, a relationship that Sharon Hymer calls a “narcissistic friendship.” In the earliest stage of such a friendship, the narcissistic friend serves as “the initiator of activities as well as the provider of a value system and lifestyle which the patient embraces as a germinating ego ideal” (433).7 Shug does initiate such activities for Celie, helping her through the mirror stage to a discovery of her own body, her capacity for speech, and her ability to love an other.

The early portions of the novel illustrate Celie's arrested development. Many girls “regress” during adolescence, returning to preoedipal or pre-mirror stage fantasies of fusion with the mother; a close friend is often the key to helping them out of such regression (Dalsimer 25-26). But Celie, fourteen and friendless at the beginning of The Color Purple, seems trapped in this infantile stage throughout her teenage years.8 In Lacanian psychoanalysis, says Ragland-Sullivan, the pre-mirror stage is “a period in which an infant experiences its body as fragmented parts and images.” These images include “castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body, and … have a formative function in composing the human subject of identity and perception” (Ragland-Sullivan 18-19). Because of male brutality, Celie defines herself in terms of such images: her symbolic castration taking the form of her premature hysterectomy; her mutilation evident in her fear of the scissors her stepfather brings to her room with him; her dislocation symbolized in her being forced to take her mother's place; her feeling of dismemberment figured in the choking her father administers while raping her; the “bursting open of the body” imagined when Celie's “stomach started moving and then that little baby come out [her] pussy chewing on it fist” (Walker 12). Celie's fragmentation is most strongly reinforced by the way her stepfather presents her as less than a whole woman to her future husband, convincing him to marry her because “God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed it or clothe it” (18).

To make a desire for selfhood possible, Celie must take a new perspective on her own body. Rather than defining herself in terms of fragmentation or of lack, she must learn to define herself synecdochally, seeing part of her body, specifically her genitalia, as a sufficient symbol of herself as a whole. According to Ellen Forst Lowery, girls need a sublimation that “depends on the additional denial of the castrated state, or as some would protest, their intuition of an equally valuable sex organ/identity” (446; my emphasis). But such a radical reevaluation of the body is not likely for a woman living as Celie does. What she needs is the example of a woman who embodies sexual power; what she needs is Shug Avery.

Celie begins to fantasize about Shug before her own marriage. During the fantasy period Shug becomes Celie's ego ideal, an ideal self that “is aggrandized and exalted in the subject's mind” (Freud, “On Narcissism” 94), becoming “a model to which the subject attempts to conform” (Laplanche and Pontalis 144). Celie thinks of Shug while Albert rapes her on her wedding night, and, even though his lovemaking is as uncaring as her stepfather's, Celie begins to imagine the sexual act with some affection: “I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it. I put my arm around him” (21). Even as an imaginary construct, Shug stirs Celie's first erotic feelings. When the real Shug steps into Celie's life, these feelings become activated.

Although Shug arrives ill and weak, she nonetheless exudes a sexual power that Celie has never before imagined in woman or man. Quickly, Celie reassesses Albert in light of Shug's sexuality:

I look at his face. It tired and sad and I notice his chin weak. Not much chin there at all. I have more chin, I think. And his clothes dirty, dirty. When he pull them off, dust rise.


Celie's three-sentence fixation on Albert's chin is revealing: by comparing her chin with his, Celie gets her first inkling of an anatomical superiority. Typical of “narcissistic friends,” Celie and Shug take turns playing the supporting or, in this case, maternal role, and, interestingly enough, Celie goes first, nursing Shug through her illness. Here at last Celie is allowed the nursing role her stepfather deprived her of when he took away Celie's babies and left her with milk running from her breasts. During this nursing process Celie connects her feelings for Shug to her lost daughter and her mother: “I work on her like she a doll or like she Olivia—or like she mama” (57). The relation of the doll to the daughter and mother reflects a new development for Celie; as the psychoanalytic school of object relations would see it, the doll represents a transitional device that helps Celie come to grips with the complicated feelings of separation and ambivalence that characterize her thoughts of both Olivia and her mother. Celie, in other words, has begun to employ some typical mechanisms of psychic growth and development.

After Shug's recovery the roles shift, with Shug becoming Celie's nurse. Celie's illness, however, is not physical but psychological: Celie lacks an identity. Shug awakens Celie's desire for identity most explicitly when she sings a song she has written just for Celie. As Celie gratefully notes, “first time somebody made something and name it after me” (75). The act of naming something after Celie assures the integrity of Celie herself; she must be somebody to be a subject of a song. This act is also Celie's first clue that language need not come under the jurisdiction of male authority.

This is the background Walker gives to prepare us for the mirror scene and, after that, the first lovemaking scene between Celie and Shug. The mirror scene takes on particular meaning because the desire for ego-formation has already been sparked. From the Celie who thinks of her body as fragmented and who tries to make herself as unfeeling as a tree, Walker has taken us to a Celie whose passions allow her to begin to think about her body differently and to conceive of a relationship beyond the self, with an other. The mirror scene expedites Celie's development through the stage of primary narcissism, in which two love-objects exist—the self and the mother (Freud, “On Narcissism” 88-89)—to the onset of secondary narcissism, the stage in which self-love is “displaced onto another” (Ragland-Sullivan 37). In the scene, Shug teaches Celie first to perceive her genitals as whole and beautiful and then to masturbate.9 That Celie and Shug act like children during this scene, giggling and running off to Celie's room “like two little prankish girls” (79), emphasizes the fact that they are engaged in an essentially juvenile drama that must be played through in order for Celie to reach a more mature stage of development.

This juvenile drama helps change Celie's perception of herself and her body. Celie's new appreciation for one part of her body allows her to revise her view of her entire body: to view her genitalia synecdochally rather than as a fragment. Celie's new synecdochally conception of her body allows her to regard her genitalia as “normal” symbols, appreciating the beauty of the part as symbol of the whole without allowing it to replace the whole completely (Laplanche 36-37). Celie's acceptance of her genitals (“It mine” [80]) clearly indicates that she no longer perceives her body as something to deny or annihilate but as a source of pleasure. Even if, as Lacan believes, the post-mirror stage forces the individual to confront again the fragmentation of the body and the self, this synecdochal process helps Celie adapt to that threat to her totality.

As part of the mirror-stage experience, the child should identify its unified image of self with the mother's body; this identification foregrounds the child's, especially the girl's, acceptance or nonacceptance of its sexual organs (Ragland-Sullivan 277-278). At the end of the mirror stage the father intervenes in the mother-child relationship, preventing total identification or fusion with the mother and thus establishing boundaries necessary to the child's individuation (Ragland-Sullivan 42, 55). This process seems clearly to have been aborted in Celie's childhood, leaving an important gap in her development that Shug Avery fills. Shug, then, not only plays the role of Celie's “narcissistic friend,” but first and foremost she represents a mother-surrogate or, in Lacanian terms, a (m)Other. Under this formulation “a subject first becomes aware of itself by identification with a person (object), usually the mother,” although the figure may be “any constant nurturer” (Ragland-Sullivan 16).

As (m)Other, Shug also plays a crucial role in resolving Celie's Oedipal conflict. All such conflicts are grounded in ambivalence, Celie's especially so, as Nettie's narrative of their early life reveals (160-162). Celie's father was hanged when she was two and her mother's health ruined. Celie's stepfather (whom she assumes to be her real “pa”) married her mother when Celie was three to four years old, the age when the Oedipal phase begins. Every year thereafter, Celie's mother was pregnant, and her mental state gradually deteriorated. Celie's stepfather turned his lust on her when she had just passed puberty, at a time when the Oedipal drama is “internally staged for a second time,” its outcome crucial in determining “adult sexuality and other vital activities and functions in later existence” (Marcus 313). Thus, Celie's early life proves to be a perverse rewriting of the Oedipal script, with Celie aware of her mother's ambivalence about yielding her wifely role to her daughter: “My mama fuss at me an look at me. She happy, cause he good to her now” (11). Celie's guilt is augmented by her mother's questioning her pregnancy and her cursing Celie on her deathbed. Given the profound guilt and confusion that Celie must have felt about replacing her mother, in addition to the disruption of her own psychic growth and the continued brutalization to follow, it is little wonder that Celie would seek to annihilate self. But the intervention of Shug as (m)Other and of Nettie's revelation that “pa is not our pa!” (162) allows Celie to reimagine the possibilities of selfhood. By taking her back to the mirror stage, Shug helps Celie identify with her more positive perceptions of selfhood, sexuality, and body.

Furthermore, as (m)Other, Shug gives Celie an unusual form of identification, at least for a woman. One of Freud's most controversial ideas is his suggestion that women tend to develop inferior object-choices to men's: where men transfer their narcissism to an other, women tend to rechannel love back into the self.10 Such women love themselves more than anyone else, and they seek not to love but to be loved (“On Narcissism” 89). Man's “superior” object-choice is “anaclytic,” in other words, based on the mother-imago; but, as we have seen, Celie also grounds her attachment in an other—Shug—who represents for her a mother-imago. As Laplanche notes, “even if one [anaclytic object-choice] is alleged to be more characteristic of men and the other [narcissistic object-choice] of women, they in fact represent two possibilities open to every human being” (77). Furthermore, if Celie's choice (both because it is based on the anaclytic model and because it is the choice of a woman) seems masculine, it is the first of several such choices she makes that help her to rise from passive submission and to develop independence and identity. Ultimately, Celie derives from her growth the power of speech that is crucial to her victory over male brutality.


One sign of the mirror stage's end, for Lacan, is the coherent use of language (Ragland-Sullivan 29); another is the development of aggressivity (Lacan 19-20). Celie's progress toward gaining that coherent language in the form of speech is guided by Shug. As Elizabeth Fifer puts it, “each piece of Shug's advice changes Celie's language and becomes part of Celie's progress” (162). But aggressivity poses more sinister possibilities because Celie, once she develops her ego, cannot help but be driven to revenge against Albert. This drive peaks when she and Shug discover that Albert has been hiding Nettie's letters. Now sickened by Albert's cruelty to her, Celie believes she will feel better if she kills him. Celie gets her chance when Albert commands her to shave him, a command reminiscent of her stepfather's pretended desire for a haircut. Sharpening the razor, Celie contemplates murder, but Shug holds her back. Even after Shug takes the razor from her, Celie continues to fantasize her revenge:

All day long I act just like Sofia. I stutter. I mutter to myself. I stumble bout the house crazy for Mr. ——— blood. In my mind, he falling dead every which a way. By time night come I can't even speak. Every time I open my mouth nothing come out but a little burp.


What meager powers of speech Celie has at this time are overpowered by her desire for revenge.

Celie learns to take control over her aggressive desires by two means of sublimation: assertive speech and the substitution of one cutting instrument, the razor, for another, a needle.11 Lowery believes that the process of acquiring language may be an early form of sublimation for children, the word standing for the desired object (443). By telling Albert that she, Nettie, and her children will “whup [his] ass” (181), Celie deflects the need to do so; speaking daggers, she need use none. Sofia has provided the lesson that only defeat can result from an attempt to quit violence with violence. Celie, in contrast, gains victory with speech. When she declares her independence from Albert, she feels almost possessed by a mysterious power: “Look like when I open my mouth the air rush in and shape words” (187). Through speech Celie establishes her freedom, breaking Albert's hold on her. She further recognizes the power of speech when her curse on Albert sinks him into a life-threatening depression. That curse is lifted and Albert's regeneration begun only when he does what Celie has demanded—return Nettie's letters to her.

Celie has previously seen the power a woman's voice has to break male domination in the example of Mary Agnes. Here too is an example of the kind of sacrifice women must make in order to bind themselves together in a community that resists the pressure of male domination. Mary Agnes, once beaten up by Sofia, her rival for Harpo, helps free Sofia from prison by submitting to rape by the warden, her illegitimate father. This act of submission gives Mary Agnes a power of guilt over the warden that expedites Sofia's release. Ironically, Mary Agnes the victim emerges from this encounter with a new power over men in general. Though she comes home with a limp, her dress torn, a heel from her shoe missing, she repudiates her derogatory nickname (“Squeak”) and demands that she be called by her real name (95). Not only does Mary Agnes no longer “squeak,” but she also begins to sing. Although Celie reports that “she got the kind of voice you never think of trying to sing a song” (96), Mary Agnes soon emulates Shug's success, using her voice to give her a new freedom from, and power over, men. She begins to travel, choosing when to move in and out of Harpo's life. Thus her story foreshadows the story of Celie's freedom, both stories validating the theme that strength can come from enduring oppression with as much dignity as possible and then rising to denounce it. Ultimately, the victim gains moral power over the oppressor.

Celie's aggressivity is further sublimated in the development of her own form of art: sewing. Freud of course maintained that artistic creation was a major source of sublimation. It is no small irony that Celie adopts a traditionally feminine form of art to complete her separation from the violent masculine world. By sewing, Celie narrows the gap between the sexes, making pants for both men and women. More important, sewing links Celie to woman's primordial power that predates patriarchy. As Adrienne Rich describes it, sewing or weaving emphasizes woman's “transformative power”:12

the conversion of raw fibers into thread was connected with the power over life and death; the spider who spins thread out of her own body, Ariadne providing the clue to the labyrinth, the figures of the Fates or Norns or old spinning-women who cut the thread of life or spin it further, are all associated with this process.


Freud's interpretation of this process is more fantastical and more sexist,13 but it also can be instructive. He regarded sewing or weaving as evidence of woman's shame, caused by her castrated genitals. Weaving, thus, is motivated by a desire to follow the pattern of Nature, who

would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together.

(“Femininity” 132)

For Celie sewing represents not a means of covering up her castrated genitals but of binding together the sexes so that both male and female can “wear the pants.” Furthermore, Celie's sewing associates her with a select group of female characters in American literature who use their art not to reveal their shame, as Freud suggests, but to transplant it, placing it where it really belongs—on their male oppressors. The most prominent member of this set is Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. Forced by the patriarchs of Salem to wear the scarlet letter as an emblem of shame, Hester uses her art to create a letter that represents, to the narrator who discovers it two centuries later, a “mystic symbol” (28), giving evidence “of a now forgotten art” (27). Inspired by this symbol, Hawthorne creates a story in which the bearers of shame are the Puritan patriarchs who try to dehumanize and defeminize Hester for her refusal to submit to their code. Celie's art has a similar, although more immediate, effect. Rather than revealing the source of shame to a later generation, Celie's success in sewing helps Albert face his own shame and even begin a process of self-regeneration. At the end of the book Albert is a new man, capable of loving and sharing. The change in him is symbolized by his partaking, with Celie, in the traditionally feminine activity, sewing. Having had his lifelong view that “men spose to wear the pants” (238) corrected, Albert joins Celie in a communal act that, as Celie describes it, helps eradicate the differences that make for sexual domination: “Now us sit sewing and talking and smoking our pipes” (238).


Very late in The Color Purple Celie stands before a mirror, full-length this time, again. At this time Shug has left her for a nineteen-year-old fling. This scene provides the test that proves Celie's psychic growth has continued unchecked, that she will not regress in a crisis. Standing naked before the glass, Celie asks herself, “What would she love? … Nothing special here for nobody to love” (229). That Celie comes through this depression signifies that she has broken free of Shug, further establishing her independence and identity. Ultimately, says Hymer, a person who relies on a narcissistic friend must “develop an identity apart from the friend” (433), just as one must split oneself from the (m)Other. Celie does develop her identity and, in the process, finds a network of friends “matrifocal” in structure but open to men who can put aside their desire to dominate.14

Matrifocality dissolves the hierarchies that perpetuate dominance and oppression. The loss of such hierarchies changes one's perception of the self in society and even in relation to God. Thus, it is only a short step from a belief in woman's independence from man to Shug's concept of a nonracial, genderless God: “People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back” (178). Shug carefully notes here that one must live in the world to get to know God; merely surviving and waiting for a reward in heaven, as Celie did earlier, is the patriarchal way. Shug's version of God deconstructs the fountainhead of patriarchy, the Lacanian Name-of-the-Father who is the source of law and power, replacing it with a belief that one must become engaged in the Creation as Celie does, creating one's own self, art, and community. Demonstrating a parallel commitment to matrifocality, Sofia and Mary Agnes, former rivals, learn to share Harpo and the responsibility of raising each other's children as a means of maintaining freedom while avoiding the permanent dependence on one man that perpetuates masculine power. And, in Africa, Nettie first assists Corinne in raising Adam and Olivia and, after Corrine's death, replaces her as wife and mother before yielding the children to their true mother, Celie.15

As I have shown, one of the climaxes in the novel is Celie's first lovemaking scene, when she and Shug reexperience the primal pleasure of the child at the mother's breast. The Color Purple suggests that for one who develops a sense of self and then of other, similar kinds of primal experiences can be recaptured at points throughout life and not just in sexual encounters. One kind is recaptured again at novel's end when Celie and Nettie are reunited (with Celie's children) in a fairy-tale ending:16

Then us both start to moan and cry. Us totter toward one nother like us use to do when us was babies. Then us feel so weak when we touch, us knock each other down. But what us care? Us sit and lay there on the porch inside each other's arms.


Such childlike joy depends on staying alive, constructing one's ego, and learning to invest love in the other. Only after that process has been completed can we, in the words of Harpo (a man), “spend the day celebrating each other” (250).


  1. Lesbianism is an attempt to recapture or reexperience the mother-daughter bond. Sue Silvermarie describes the process as follows: “In loving another I discovered the deep urge to both be a mother and to find a mother in my mother. … When I kiss and stroke and enter my lover, I am also a child re-entering my mother” (quoted in Rich 232-233).

  2. The subject of the construction of selfhood or ego has a very complicated, uneven history in psychoanalysis. Depending on the theoretical model one adopts, many views are possible. As Steven Marcus says, “the notion of the self that we can construct out of contemporary psychoanalysis contains a new enlarged admixture in it of archaic, pre-Oedipal, prephallic, and preverbal components, pieces of psychic life that remain unintegrated, and of a self that is neither stable nor coherent in its earliest vital and formative phases” (318). This being the state of things, I must draw on a wide range of theorists whose ideas are not always compatible. In seeking to describe Celie's construction of a self, I am concerned not with establishing the superiority of any school of psychoanalysis but with accurately tracing the development of her selfhood as Alice Walker dramatizes it. The terminology of psychoanalysis is extremely useful for this process, although the theorists I cite might not always agree with each other.

  3. For arguments that illusions such as the type constructed here are necessary in modern life, see Ernest Becker and my own “Lord Jim and the Saving Illusion,” forthcoming in Conradiana.

  4. I follow Mahler, Pine, and Bergman here in distinguishing Celie's severe autism from the “normal autism” every child evinces during the early months of life. “Normal autism,” a stage of primary narcissism, gives way to an awareness that “need satisfaction cannot be provided by oneself, but comes from somewhere outside the self” (42).

  5. The distinction between the other (objet petit a) and the Other (grand Autre) is very complicated in Lacan. They represent algebraic signs that Lacan refused to translate. In particular, the Other does not represent, as some wrongly assume, a specific person who becomes an object of desire; Ragland-Sullivan comes closest to a definition when she says it designates “various external forces that structure a primary and secondary unconscious” (15-16). Because the lower case “other” more nearly represents a single imago or object of desire, I use it to refer to Shug's relationship with Celie. See Lacan (19).

  6. Behind the principal neuroses people suffer from, Freud found unresolved conflicts traceable to one's early development. Lack of resolution leads to a point where one's development becomes arrested or fixated. See Eagleton (158).

  7. Hymer finds similarities between the “narcissistic friendship” and many ancient views of friendship as described by Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and Zeno (423). Also relevant here is Heinz Kohut's theory of “alter-ego transference” or “twinship” (115).

  8. In his forthcoming book on narcissism and the novel, Jeffrey Berman notes that developmental arrest can be the result of “parental empathic failure.” This sort of arrest can produce “feelings of emptiness, depression, or dehumanization.” I am grateful to Professor Berman for sharing the manuscript of his book with me.

  9. Freud believed that clitoral masturbation was a necessary response to penis envy. Without it the girl is likely to remain dissatisfied “with her inferior clitoris” (“Femininity” 127). Whether or not one thinks Freud is right, it seems clear that in The Color Purple Celie must come to accept her body as it is before she can share it with another. Masturbation is a natural means of coming to this acceptance.

  10. For a harsh critique of this view, see Kate Millett (196-197).

  11. The latter strategy has also been identified by Teresa M. Tavormina (222). Her article promises intriguing parallels between language and sewing, but it finally says rather little about language. Tavormina's best point is that The Color Purple is itself a kind of quilt, a mosaic of patches from everyday life and memory “brought together so as to make a whole meaning from Celie's and Nettie's seemingly separate lives” (225).

  12. The ultimate symbol of such power, of course, is menstrual blood, “which was believed to be transformed into the infant” (Rich 101). In this light it is interesting that Walker parallels Celie's development with the story of her daughter's coming of age in Africa. In the latter story Nettie recounts how the Olinka patriarchs make menstruating women stay out of sight and how they initiate girls undergoing menarche with a ritual “so bloody and painful, I forbid Olivia to even think about it” (172).

  13. The Color Purple strongly reinforces the feminist complaint against Freud's belief that girls resolve their Oedipal crises through a fantasy of having the father's child. Celie lives out this fantasy (until her rapist's true identity is revealed), and it proves to be a nightmare.

  14. Dianne Sadoff, who calls such matrifocal structures “adaptive strategies,” gives a superb account of how they grew out of slavery (10-11). Nancy Tanner explains that although matrifocal structures tend to center on the mother, they also promote sexual egalitarianism: in matrifocal societies men and women share important economic and emotional roles. Flexibility, which is assured by the “network” of kinships, is the great advantage of matrifocality, allowing its members to live together and take turns caring for each others' children (Tanner 131, 151). Although less happy with the term “matrifocality,” Carol B. Stack describes the structure similarly, adding that the network may be composed of kin or non-kin, as Celie's are. Because of great social, economic, and other hardships, Stack notes, black women turn to such networks to strengthen the family, even if they threaten “any particular male-female tie” (115).

  15. Corinne's suspicions of Nettie indicate her own inability to accept matrifocality. Besides reflecting her guilt for not having borne her own children, this suspiciousness seems to be a critique of Corrinne's education at Spelman, which has indoctrinated her in the white, patriarchal set of mind. Walker further exploits this theme by portraying the limitations of the patriarchal perspective in Africa.

  16. On the Cinderella parallels to The Color Purple see Margaret Walsh's article. The weakness of her reading is its reduction of Shug Avery to a “fairy godmother” or “magic helper.”

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free, 1973.

Berman, Jeffrey. Narcissism and the Novel. New York: New York UP, forthcoming.

Dalsimer, Katharine. Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Fifer, Elizabeth. “The Dialect & Letters of The Color Purple.Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Eds. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1985. 155-171.

Freud, Sigmund. “Femininity.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 22. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1957. 24 vols. 112-135.

———. “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” SE. Vol. 14. 73-102.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Eds. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1961.

Hymer, Sharon. “Narcissistic Friendships.” Psychoanalytic Review 71 (1984): 423-439.

Kohut, Heinz. The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. New York: International Universities P, 1971.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Laplanche, Jean. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Laplanche, Jean, and J. B. Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Lowery, Ellen Forst. “Sublimation and Female Identity.” Psychoanalytic Review 72 (1985): 441-455.

Marcus, Steven. “The Psychoanalytic Self.” Southern Review 22 (1986): 308-325.

Mahler, Margaret, Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman. The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Basic, 1975.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Body Language: Imagery of the Body in Women's Poetry.” The State of the Language. Eds. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980. 247-263.

Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976.

Sadoff, Dianne F. “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.” Signs 11 (1985): 4-26.

Sheridan, Alan. “Translator's Note.” Lacan. vii-xii.

Stack, Carol B. “Sex Roles and Survival Strategies in an Urban Black Community.” Women, Culture, and Society. Eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974. 113-128.

Tanner, Nancy. “Matrifocality in Indonesia and Africa and among Black Americans.” Women, Culture, and Society. Eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974. 129-156.

Tavormina, M. Teresa. “Dressing the Spirit: Clothworking and Language in The Color Purple.Journal of Narrative Technique 16 (1986): 220-230.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square, 1982.

Walsh, Margaret. “The Enchanted World of The Color Purple.Southern Quarterly 25 (1987): 89-101.

Wendy Wall (essay date spring 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7323

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 fragmenting.1 In its depiction of rape, wife-beating, genital mutilation, and facial scarification, The Color Purple abounds with instances in which the human body is made to submit to and to register the forces of authority. In the text, a patriarchy maintains power by forcing the female body into a position of powerlessness, thus denying the woman's ability to shape an identity. During the course of the novel, however, Celie learns to reshape those forces of oppression and to define herself through her letters; these letters act as a “second body” that mediates her relationship to the power structure in such a way as to give her a voice. Writing becomes a means for her to define herself against the patriarchy and thus allow her to “reinscribe” those traces and wounds upon her body inflicted and imprinted by others. When Mr.——— sees Sofia giving Harpo orders, he predicts, “she going to switch the traces on you.”2 Celie's development in the novel allows her to “switch the traces” made by others, the marks of authority that limit and define her by circumscribing her within a fixed frame.

Although Celie initially writes her diary letters to heal the rift that has ensued from her sexual violation and to create an identity from fragmentation, the form of her 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. Likewise, the “self” that emerges from Celie's development is a decentered one, precariously poised against and rift with a sense of Otherness. The novel presents a strange conflation of text and body both thematically and formally; the form and the main character's corporeal and social existence are disjunct entities with malleable, tenuous boundaries.

Celie's texts are born when she is raped and silenced; the epigraph to The Color Purple consists of an unattributed, pervasive threat against speech. These stark words initiate the entire text: “You better not tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (p. 11). This external silencing forces a second mode of expression to unfold, Celie's diary letters to God. She writes to understand the violation that has threatened her identity. “I am” are words literally under erasure in the first page, thus revealing the instability of her existence and the threat of “I am not” that plagues her. She crosses out the present tense of the verb, replacing it with the past: “I have always been a good girl.” Her texts seek to recover that “goodness” that would allow her to state her existence without the mark of erasure; she wants to receive a reciprocal sign that will order her life and thus constitute her as whole.

Although Celie's letters provoke no reciprocal communication, her lettered plea creates a means for her to determine her identity. “Letter language” in The Color Purple is not merely, as Ian Watt suggests of the form, “the nearest record of … consciousness in ordinary life,” or “instantaneous experience”3; it is more than a window into the mental processes of the fictionalized individual (although Nettie's claim that writing allows her to release “bottled up” emotions suggests that this function is implicit as well). Celie's naiveté and brutal honesty in self-presentation, however, negate the opposite critique of her letters as a series of concealments, erasures, or lies. Her writing is neither a pure channel of communication nor a duplicitous self-misrepresentation but a complex means of restructuring herself, an active process in which she moves toward a self-realization through the mediation of language. In her letters, she may not merely convey but reshape (by articulating in a form) her private internal experiences that remain hidden from her life of laboring acquiescence. The letters act as a second memory, a projected body that precariously holds this hidden self.

Letters are merely the culmination of a series of anti-selves that Celie creates to mediate between herself and her oppressive environment. When she describes to Harpo how she copes with Mr.———'s abuse, she reveals her strategy for relocating and thus preserving a “self.” “It all I can do not to cry,” she states. “I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree” (p. 30). She resists the impulse to rebel by becoming inanimate, a state which infects her entire world; in ministering to Harpo, she realizes that she has lost all sentience: “Patting Harpo back not even like patting a dog. It more like patting another piece of wood. Not a living tree, but a table …” (p. 37). Celie's attempt to negate her pain by desensitizing herself creates within her emotionally hollow spaces. In one instance, she attempts to overcome this numbness by placing a static image between herself and her world. While making love to her husband, she imagines the picture she has of Shug Avery “whirling and laughing” so that she can respond. “I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it,” Celie thinks. “I put my arm around him” (p. 21). The image of Shug is an anti-self, someone active and able to express herself; it is by clinging to this image that she is able to translate her feelings of inanimacy into passion. Emotion is mediated; it is vicarious. Art becomes a second mediation that tries to counteract this first desensitizing barrier. Celie's letters create this mediation implicitly throughout the text, as she attempts both to preserve herself from and recreate herself into sentience.

Letters become the surrogate body for Celie, an inanimate form that both fends off pain (by siphoning off her feelings of degradation) and allows her to express and feel the intensity of her emotions. It retards as well as expresses the intensity of her emotions and stimulates her ability to manipulate her position. Her self-division is imposed upon her by external circumstances; yet by displacing a part of herself onto this second body, she keeps intact that division. She compartmentalizes a suppressed “self” through her letters, dividing herself into radically different public and private beings. The letter becomes the tenuous skin of her body, framing her internal thoughts in a realm separate from her outward actions. They demarcate the border between inside and outside for Celie, persistently uncovering her inexpressible (and thus contained) thoughts. One result of this sense of a reserved self is that it conserves her social position; since her “real” feeling self is withdrawn into a separate epistolary reality, she can accept her oppression. She depends on a double-consciousness. When Mr.——— returns from hearing Shug sing, Celie has a thousand questions running through her mind; yet she merely works silently in the fields, displacing these queries onto her diary. In this way, writing perpetuates that initial fragmentation, and the letter form becomes a separate bodily frame, an alternate self.

Paradoxically, it is through this doubleness that she finds an identity. Writing allows her to keep intact a self, to unify the rift that has been inflicted upon her, to remember her violated body through language. These letters are poised against self-destruction; they are an attempt to preserve a “real” self by burying it within a diary. Celie's reason for not actively resisting the brutalities inflicted upon her is a strong sense of survival; she can survive these abuses only by recording them in a diary. She displaces her voice onto this silent (because not communicated) text. The letters become an attempt to keep her from being swallowed into anonymity; she knows that her mother's death was caused by her mother's attempt to accept the reality of an external social life, specifically by her attempt to conform to her husband's view of this world, “trying to believe his story kilt her,” Celie writes (p. 15). Celie's “nonbelief,” her resistance to her husband, is registered in her letters, thus preventing her from a rebellion that would cause her to be beaten, like Sofia, into submission. Nettie describes Sofia as almost inanimate: “She suddenly sort of erased herself. It was the strangest thing, Celie! One minute I was saying howdy to a living woman. The next minute nothing living was there. Only a shape” (p. 123). Celie, too, sees herself as a being riddled with negation. When she contemplates herself in the mirror, she describes not her own features but those she lacks: “Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey-colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh” (p. 229). Yet, it is her act of contemplating herself in the mirror that invigorates her (gives her “blooming blood”) and stays those forces that would erase her, just as her contemplation of herself in her letters transforms and creates her anew.

The text of the novel functions both to contain and fragment Celie. This process is accentuated by the epistolary form which, by definition, divides the text into tiny contained “packets” of language, recorded years apart, surrounded by space and gaps. Each letter is a separate entity with a recognizable border. When collected together, these letters create a form that divides, as Janet Altman explains, one marked by “hiatuses of all sorts: time lags between event and recording, between message transmission and reception; spatial separation between writer and addressee.”4 The form is composed of a language of absence. These narrative gaps act as barriers between the writer and the outside world. Letters also, Christina Gillis notes, imprison the self in words, safely locking the person between salutation and signature, and thus shutting out dialogue.5 The autobiographical and non-retrospective stance “cloisters” the fictional writer temporally as well as spatially; because Celie cannot reflect on her actions from a later privileged viewpoint, but instead records them as she lives, she becomes framed in time, sealed in what H. Porter Abbot calls the true “hermetic fiction.”6 The notion of identity is made problematic by a form that disperses and imprisons the self. “To maintain existence through epistolary communication is a risky endeavor,” Gillis remarks. “Despite assertions of authenticity we are struck with the fragility of letters.”7 Celie thus is seen as a serial being, struggling to unite herself in a form that necessarily fractures identity and makes it tenuous.

Recent critical theory persistently argues that writing always fragments the self as it strives for an imposed unity; language is by definition full of displacements and slippages that deny the stability of meaning. The epistolary style, however, with its emphasis on discrete entries and its limitation to a first-person narration, emphasizes these inherent disjunctive qualities of language. It is a continually interrupted text, “a paradox of patterned disorder: spatial design against temporal,”8 and one that continually straddles the gulf between presence and absence. Within this disorder, Gillis states, “the whole cannot be examined without regard for the individual parts.”9 This commonplace is reinvested with meaning when discussing the epistolary form, for it exists only as a collection of fragments, piece-meal sections stitched together into a whole that coheres while revealing its seams. It is difficult to talk about Alice Walker's work without invoking the metaphor of the quilt, since it is her primary means of describing her art and her characters' means of artistic expression.10 The appropriateness of this folk craft in describing the epistolary style is obvious in that both are wholes that show the process of their construction.

The very form of The Color Purple produces an analogue to the female body and self within the text, as both are continually fragmented and remembered. Letters within the text, however, are similarly connected with the female body. Mr.——— conceals Nettie's letters because she refuses to be seduced by him; he rapes her language because he is denied her body. The location of these letters also links them with the body; that they are hidden in a trunk along with Shug's underwear and pornographic pictures. Mr.———'s abduction of Nettie's letters not only reveals the tenuousness of communication, evidenced by the continual interruptions in the epistolary form, but it also exposes him as a voyeur to female communication. The truncated female language, like her objectified pornographic image, becomes the object of male prurient interest. In The Rape of Clarissa, Terry Eagleton notes that letters are illicit intercourse: “The letter comes to signify female sexuality,” he suggests, “that folded, secret place which is always open to violent intrusion.”11 Mr.———'s erotic desires are displaced onto letters as well as pornography. “The male's desire to view the female's letter is namelessly voyeuristic,” Eagleton states.12 Both the female body and their texts become subject to violation by the male, who retains the power to encroach upon these private spheres.

The text repeats this conflation of stolen letters and the fetishized female body through Nettie's description of the African rituals. African genital mutilation labeled in the text as “female initiation rites” and “a bit of bloody cutting” similarly divides and constricts the body. A clitoridectomy desensitizes the female to erotic pleasure, thus binding her as an object for male exchange, silencing the language of her body. This bodily dismemberment creates a gap within the female, making her a “cipher” or a blank, like the spaces between Celie's entries that create narrative fissures in the text.

In some African cultures, the clitoridectomy is an attempt to strip away what is masculine in the female genitalia, to deny her phallic power by removing this protrusion.13 Likewise, circumcision is considered a defeminization of the male. Genital mutilation is, thus, an attempt to recodify gender distinctions, to use ritual to create and limit sexual identity. While the violence of these rituals polices the power structures of the society in a cruel and inhumane manner, these rites also suggest the radical notion that gender can be inscribed. Gender differentiation is not naturally defined but must be constructed through social activity.

Throughout The Color Purple, inherent biological gender characteristics are questioned; gender becomes a socially-imposed categorization. Harpo tries to beat Sofia into being a submissive wife but eventually learns to enjoy his domestic role as housekeeper and let her play the “masculine” role in the marriage. Shug usurps masculine power when she speaks her mind: “Shug act more manly than most men,” Mr.——— comments. “She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what” (p. 236). When he realizes that “Sofia and Shug are not like men … but they not like women either,” he implies that the social codes attached to the body that create a gendered identity can be transmuted and reconstructed (p. 236). Celie is then free to alter a socially gendered role; she may engage in a lesbian relationship with Shug, one that replaces her role as wife, and she also may undertake what is considered a masculine posture in establishing a business, albeit one that markets a female craft, sewing. Phallic power becomes a transferable quality that may be acquired and abandoned at will; like letters, these traces of power can be redirected.

The second aspect of the female initiation rite involves facial scarification, the act of inflicting wounds that emblemize submission to the traditions of the dominant power within the culture. The Olinka villagers force the young people to undergo this rite, “carving their identification as a people into their children's faces” (p. 214). This serves as the text's most obvious presentation of the authorization of the body; the human body is made to serve as the terrain upon which a culture can “mark” its heritage; the person, once marked, is circumscribed within that cultural sphere, limited to a set culture and a set gender. Adam's decision to undergo this rite of initiation, however, subverts the aim of the ritual; as an American and a man, the marks on his body misidentify. His outward signs misrepresent, and thus scramble, the means of gender and racial identification.

The novel demonstrates that the socially-circumscribed body can be dissembled and reconstructed by reimagining the self and projecting that image onto the world through language. Celie's awareness of this dynamic is evident as she learns to tear down the restrictive identity imposed upon her because of her gender. Her shift in focus from physical body to social identity follows a pattern in the text of denying the “imagized” body and instead dispersing it onto the realm of the imagination. Nettie hangs Olinka art in her cabin, “platters, mats and pieces of tribal cloth” rather than her pictures of Christ, the Apostles, Mary, the Crucifixion or other missionaries. Physical portraits make her feel “small.” She feels engulfed by the representations that surround and limit her. Similarly, Nettie explains that Biblical illustrations are misleading; they depict bodies that are images of the power structure rather than drawing them to correspond to historical evidence. The skin of the Ethiopians is “whitened” in the English Bible. “It is the pictures in the bible that fool you,” Nettie states. “The pictures that illustrate the words. All of the people are white and so you just think all the people from the bible were white too …” (p. 125). She severs the text into two parts: the word and the picture that attempts to gloss it. This division allows accepted, given pictures to be erased and redrawn.

Shug also realizes that imagining God's body reduces him to a limited entity. The only body that is powerful enough to provide a form for the divine is a white man, since he inhabits the dominant position of power within her world. This is, of course, an unfit image for the deity, since it is associated in their minds with corruption, oppression, and tyranny. Shug ridicules Celie's image of God as a man “big and old and tall and gray bearded and white” who wears “white robes and goes barefooted” and has “bluish gray” eyes (pp. 176-77). She tells Celie that her conception of God stems from a white ideological structure which is projected onto the Bible through the church. Celie's God, Shug argues, is “the one in the white folk's bible. … He look just like them. … Only bigger” (p. 177). “When I found out God was white, and a man, I lost interest,” Shug concludes. Both Shug and Nettie attest to the falsity of the image of God, the depiction that “fixes” the words of scripture within a political system; from them, Celie learns to free “fixed” words for her imagination to recreate, to re-authorize God by deconstructing and reimagining his body.

Shug's conception of God both relocates and regenders him. She argues that “God ain't a her or a she, but a It” (p. 177). Gender disappears when the body is elided, and God becomes more fluid and internal; she tells Celie:

God is inside you and inside everybody else. … Don't look like nothing. … It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything.

(p. 177)

Celie's text of private letters to God, which have been directed toward the task of creating an internal self, are then appropriately addressed. Her letters connect her to this interior being. Once God is freed from his bodily limitations, he can pervade all of nature; Shug's pantheistic philosophy demonstrates that she can find him by dissociating herself from his image:

My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all, I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. …

(p. 178)

Formerly, Celie reimagined herself as a tree in order to desensitize herself to pain and abuse; she is now encouraged to recuperate that tree-state in order to feel. The mediation between herself and the world is revalued positively.

The attempt to dispel God's body, however, is a difficult task for Celie, who has bound up herself and her world in imagined, fixed states. She realizes that Shug's advice (“You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a'tall”) will allow her to believe once again in a spiritual being, but her old image of the “white-haired man” stubbornly resists erasure (p. 179). “Whenever you trying to pray,” Shug tells Celie, “and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to get lost. … Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock” (p. 179). But Celie, who has conjured up many anti-selves as mediators, can only see these substitute bodies as weapons; “every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it,” she states (p. 179). Celie's fear of rebellion reappears here; she wants to conserve the fixed image and can only dislodge it by violence. The move toward creating a porous, interchangeable body is one riddled with conflict.

Nettie writes Celie that she has undergone this same shift in perception toward internalizing God:

God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal. Most people think he has to look like something or someone—a roofleaf or Christ—but we don't. And not being tied to what God look like frees us.

(p. 227)

Celie can, in her last letter, write to “Dear God, dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God” (p. 249). This listing reveals that the form God inhabits has become plural and interchangeable; he is identified as a series of natural phenomena. She can give God a new form, shaped to her own contours; this allows her and God to “make love just fine” (p. 197). The sexual rift that had spawned her letters is retranslated into sexual harmony with this new understanding of a deity. Although this sexual dialogue between Celie and God replaces her letters, corporeal language still maps out the quest for identity. Once more, letter and body act as functional counterparts.

The destruction of the actual body of God is accompanied by a reinterpretation of racial traces on the body in the creation myth in Genesis. The Olinka people displace the Christian myth of origin through their belief that Adam was merely the first white man; he was an aberration, an albino, who was cast out from the African society because of his bodily disfigurement. Thus Genesis' original parents become mere societal defects within this culture, and white skin color is devalued. The Olinkas believe that snake means “parent”; within the myth, white culture attempts to crush their parents (the black people) for casting them out, rather than the devil, for causing their fall. Instead of the creation myth explaining the fall, the Olinkas read it as an explanation of white prejudice. Differences in language subvert the missionaries' myth of creation; “naked” means “white.” Thus Adam and Eve cannot get rid of their nakedness, the trace of their race. The fall becomes cyclical as the bodies change in time; the outcast body recreates this societal exclusion. The Olinkas' revision of Genesis opens up the Eden story, implicating the body within a structure of interpretation; traces on the skin can be reinterpreted through myth.14

When Celie learns to transform her conception of the body of God and to revisualize the biblical stories, she may then shift her perceptions of her own gendered role. Both Celie's letters and her notion of the body are unravelled and reconstructed. One scene is unwittingly telling in revealing this shift. After discovering that her husband has suppressed Nettie's letters, she decides to go to Memphis with Shug. “Over my dead body, Mr.——— say,” Celie replies. “It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (p. 181). Her flippant threat to destroy her husband's body to free herself ironically notes a serious shift in her thinking, for she is liberated only through bodily experience, through refragmenting herself in her letters, and through her lesbian relationship with Shug. The function of her writing changes as her conception of her own body is changed. Celie gradually begins to assert herself, airing her covert thoughts and resisting her position as slave to her husband. She is no longer fully dependent on her alternate lettered body. After she has established her independence, however, she still is hesitant to speak these thoughts that have previously been relegated to writing. When Shug informs her of a new affair, Celie is too hurt to reply; instead she writes her response. The conversation continues with Celie writing sarcastic remarks and Shug attempting verbally to persuade Celie of her love. This scene suggests an intermediary stage in Celie's development as she dissolves this second “textual” body, her letters, and absorbs that other “self” into herself once again. Writing here is the median territory between the reserved, lettered self and the self that can “make love just fine” to God without language.

The body acts as the ground that allows her to change. She initially had been fragmented by an external force, by rape, but when she takes control of that fragmentation—solidifying the rupture by displacing part of herself into her letters—she is able to reunify herself. As she shifts her conception of her body (from ugliness to beauty, from stability to malleability), she similarly learns that she can restructure the confinements that had silenced her. Because Celie no longer writes what she cannot say, but records her active self-authorization, her letters cease to act as an “other” confined self. The differences between inside and outside lessen as she no longer has to compartmentalize in letters a radically different internal self; instead, she can release this self to interact with the external world. Public and private components merge into a single being. She finds that she can refuse to act as slave to her family, she can demand personal satisfaction in her relationships, she can realize her significance. In this transformation, she takes on the form of her “lettered” text, an identity that is porous and disjunct. The division between internal and external that had been erected and affirmed by her letters is transmuted as more nebulous and elastic boundaries are constructed. She no longer holds a self in reserve and contains that self completely. Celie “rewrites” the traces imprinted on her that had defined her and switches their meanings in order to establish an authority within herself.

The textual apparatus to The Color Purple both reinforces the notion of the malleable, fabricated self and highlights the division within the form itself. It is not unusual for epistolary works to spawn such frames. “Epistolary texts,” Janet Altman states, “engender prefaces, preprefaces and postfaces … which are a continuation of the text's dialogical model.”15 The incompleteness and energy of the form spill outside its borders. At the beginning of The Color Purple, Alice Walker addresses her book: “To the spirit: Without whose assistance Neither this book Nor I would have been written.” These words imply a self that is “written,” a body formed by an external authority. They also link her text with Celie's letters, which are later addressed to God; both invoke an ethereal, invisible audience. When Walker signs the book “A. W., author and medium” she defines herself as a vessel in which the spirit flows; this outer force reshapes the contours of her identity so as to allow her to become a medium for writing. In her essay “Writing The Color Purple,” she similarly defines her authority as intermediary as she describes her characters as autonomous entities she merely coordinates and situates in an environment. She explains why they could not come to life in the city. “They … didn't like seeing buses, cars, or other people whenever they attempted to look out,” Walker says of her characters. “Us don't want to be seeing none of this,” they said. “It make us can't think.”16 She then proceeds to move to California to a climate that these characters can enjoy. This displacement of authorial responsibility, though not a unique literary device, nevertheless calls attention to the notion of authorship as a mediating channel between internal imaginative characters and an outside world; within this formulation, the author is linked to her main character. Like Celie, Walker is equated with the text; both are shaped by this Other form and both actively negotiate the terms of their writing. The textual apparatus reveals a clear link between the body and the linguistic text, implicating both within fields of interpretation and inscription. These words also testify to the inconclusive nature of the work; the scattered letters seek a stable frame of reference outside the narrative.

The novel also works toward creating a stable frame within the text as the conclusion celebrates a unity that totalizes and recuperates all loose stands created through the plot. The family which had been rent by incest in the opening pages is now reconstructed, the stray sister returned. Celie's biological origins are recovered through Nettie's letters. Anonymity is thwarted, as Mr.——— loses his elided name and becomes Albert; similarly, Mary Agnes has regained her voice and name, and Celie is able to give her letters a signature. Time is stayed as Celie realizes that she is growing younger in her happiness, a state founded on the communion that exists because she and her family are safely enjoined. The traditional image of the harmonious banquet is made manifest in the concluding barbeque. This form of banquet, Tashi notes, links the characters with the African community across the sea. The text thus works to coalesce into a formal supreme order. Bound up in Walker's metaphor of quilting is the notion of a final product as a pieced-together collage of assembled but disparate beings; this metaphor highlights the struggle for coherence and integrity evident in the conclusion of the text.

The unity that exists in the closure of the book, however, is a qualified one. Harpo reminds the reader that this closely-knit tie between the black family occurs only because there is a common enemy. They band together on the fourth of July, separate from the white people who celebrate a different history. Earlier in the text, the family similarly consolidated when Sofia was imprisoned. It is quite striking that Squeak, Harpo's lover, is willing to be raped by the white deputy so that Harpo's wife can be released from prison, a gesture even more unusual because the family expects this sacrifice. The book traces out how these internal differences are repressed so that this greater chasm can be addressed; the individual's identity and the social harmony are unities that conceal difference and disruption beneath their surface. This thematic juxtaposition of unity and disunity corresponds to the epistolary structure, where truncated pieces remain disparate even as they are drawn together into a whole. In this way, the text resists a final closure. The gaps and spaces that inhibit a continuous flow of action in the epistolary text also pervade the totality and summation of the closing moments.

The text's qualified closure foregrounds the persistent tension between fragmentation and unity that has been presented in Celie's divided female identity. In this way, the work addresses the current rift between Anglo-American feminism and French feminist theories concerning the notion of bodily fragmentation and gender construction. Mainstream American feminists, like Mary Daly, concentrate on the powerlessness of the fragmented woman, how she is silenced within the culture by forces that deny her coherence. French feminists, however, see disjunction and disunity as a desirable state. Woman's marginal position creates her as internally divisive and “partitioned.” As one feminist notes, “this division-in-herself marks woman's specificity”17 and thus makes her capable of disrupting fixities within the culture. Her marginalized position is her stronghold; it gives her ground for resituating power.

In The Color Purple, Walker walks a thin line between these two notions, positioning herself between the two. She does not fail to point out the horrors of Celie's violent division by rape and thus resists neutralizing human pain into a mere discursive notion, yet she indicates that Celie's control of this division serves as a tool for reworking her position. Violation can be revised so as to become an empowering experience. Division remains a part of the text, even as Celie seems to emerge as an integral being. At the conclusion of the novel, Celie's merging of consciousness merely points to another existing division; the focus of the book shifts from the split within black culture along gender lines to the split between an oppressive white power structure and this unified black culture. Although Celie can resolve her double-consciousness, she still will have to suppress her desires within the culture at large, for when Eleanor Jane's baby grows up, Sofia makes it clear that he will subject her people to internal division: “I got my own troubles … and when Reynolds Stanley grow up, he's gon be one of them” (p. 234). When Eleanor Jane argues that her son will be different, and that she “won't let him be mean to colored,” Sofia cries, “You and whose army? The first word he likely to speak won't be nothing he learn from you” (p. 234). With this dialogue, the reader is left knowing that Celie, like the others, will once again silently acquiesce externally while revolting internally. The sense of affirmation and communion invoked at the end is merely a temporary truce in an ongoing war of political division.

In describing this continuous alternation between unity and disunity, Walker furthers W. E. B. Dubois' famous remark on the Afro-American's double-consciousness, for she locates this division within the black community as well as in its relationship with a more powerful ruling class. The issue of sexism is made problematic by Nettie's letters, which root it within the patriarchal tribal system in African culture. Celie extends this criticism, directly indicting the structure of the black family as contributing to racism; she scolds Harpo: “If you hadn't tried to rule over Sofia, the white folks never would have caught her” (p. 181). For this reason, the book is quite controversial, playing off two critical camps. And it has been decried by both feminists and black literary theorists as a result. Its attempt to explore the gap between these two polemical ideologies makes the book an unsettling force.

The qualified unity at the conclusion of the book is only one aspect of the way the text foregrounds its position within a dialogue created by postmodernist inquiry. Communication in the text is thwarted at every turn. Criss-crossed letters, letters written to an absence, letters received from the dead, hidden and confiscated letters, all of these point to the instability of language and the inability of a community to consolidate itself through mutual understanding. These miscommunications also call attention to the inherent problems within the processes of reading, writing, and interpretation. Walker's use of the epistolary style introduces the reader to hermeneutical issues: “Diary fiction, by its very nature,” Abbot states, “keeps the whole subject of verbal representation in focus.”18 It is a form that “explicitly articulates the problematics involved in the creation, transmission, and reception of literary texts.”19 In epistolary synecdoche, text stands for writer; there is no distanced description of the writer, but the world solely as a construction of language, with emphasis on the act of writing. Specifically, in The Color Purple, the fact that no letters are ever exchanged (so that a running dialogue can occur) indicates a contemporary, solipsistic view of the absence within communication or, rather, of the continuous model of sender to receiver. Exploring the fragmentation of the text and its connections to the body are also issues addressed by such contemporary theorists as Peter Brooks and Roland Barthes, who both use an erotic model to explain textual interpretation.20

It would be negligent to argue that The Color Purple, in its attempt to conserve and preserve a material grounding for artifice, is a throwback to a simpler, naive type of writing, for the work acknowledges and revises the changed relationship between a text and its reader. The epistolary form complicates the notion of audience, making the reader a voyeur (like Albert) to a private and intimate confession. This is an unsettling position; reading is portrayed as an act of intrusion, of violation. The writer is also unsettled within this form, which accentuates what Derrida terms a “crise de la destination”; it constantly questions the origin and destination of the written communication. Walter Ong notes that the form disrupts the notion of the writer:

The audience of the diarist is … encased in fictions. What is easier, one might argue, than addressing oneself? As those who first begin a diary often find out, a great many things are easier. First of all, we do not normally talk to ourselves—certainly not in long, involved sentences and paragraphs. Second, the diarist pretending to be talking to himself has also, since he is writing, to pretend he is somehow not there. And to what self is he talking? To the self he imagines he is? Or would like to be?21

These questions destabilize the narrative voice, forcing it to recede into unfamiliarity. Celie's diary fiction is complicated further by her salutations both to God and to her sister, entities whose existence are called into question. The dislocation of the addressee and thus the audience indicates a text aware of its readers; the form's ability to engender this awareness perhaps prompts such texts as John Barth's Letters and Saul Bellows' Herzog, which, like The Color Purple, use the epistolary form within a postmodernist discourse.22

Walker's grounding of her text within a historical framework and a defined feminist polemic implicates her within a current investigation into the future of fiction. John Barth's famous essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” predicted that the novel form could only be saved by a program of self-conscious play.23 “In the future,” Raymond Federman echoes in Surfiction, “the primary purpose of fiction will be to unmask its own fictionality, to expose the metaphor of its own fraudulence.”24 Critics, tired of this novelistic écriture, have variously seen this self-exposure as evasive, unethical, or narrowly-focused. Ihab Hassan notes of recent fiction:

Whatever is truly new in it evades the social, historical and aesthetic criteria that gave an identity to the avant-garde in other periods. The force of evasion or absence in the new literature is radical indeed; it strikes at the roots and induces, metaphorically, a great silence.25

Walker's text re-energizes the novel by appropriating a new history and a feminist perspective that refuses social evasion and thus explodes this imminent silence.

By projecting a literary form based on a dialectical unity, one which unsettles critical communities, Walker situates her text within the postmodernist program. She echoes Borges' argument against the exhaustion of the novel: “Literature is not exhaustible for the simple and sufficient reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated entity; it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”26The Color Purple emphasizes the plurality of these “innumerable relationships” through the epistolary form as well as through the novel's emphasis on revisionary history. Walker exploits an elusive, elliptical writing style, informed with the play between presence and absence. She resituates the novel, placing it in a liberating but precarious position, one that reveals the text's self-awareness of the subversive, fragmenting nature of language and yet absorbs that dialectical play within a new postmodern container, a new elastic form. This form attempts to work within a grounded polemic, thus responding to the challenge of social and political problems, to the frighteningly real pressures that threaten the human body. The Color Purple transcends a mere acknowledgment of its own fictional process of construction. It also responds by “switching the traces” that threaten to silence literary forms and by positing a qualified affirmation by “fragmented unity.” It is a quilt that exposes its seams and yet still may function to accommodate the human body, simultaneously rewriting coldness into warmth, disparate interpretative axes into a mosaic and dialogic voice, oppression into self-authorization.


  1. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: A Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 110, 155-78.

  2. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982), p. 41. Further references will be included in the text and cited by page number.

  3. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1957), p. 192.

  4. Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. 1982), p. 140.

  5. Christina Gillis, The Paradox of Privacy (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1984), p. 5. Gillis discusses Clarissa's epistolary style in terms of a spatial metaphors; she sees the evolving consciousness of the characters in terms of breaking through barriers into private rooms, while this study locates that private space within the human body itself (pp. 1-13).

  6. H. Porter Abbot, “Letters to the Self: the Cloistered Writer in Nonretrospective Fiction,” PMLA, 95 (1980), 23.

  7. Gillis, p. 9.

  8. Gillis, p. 5.

  9. Gillis, p. 5.

  10. See, for example, Alice Walker's essay, “Writing The Color Purple,” in which she describes her simultaneous quilting and writing, in Black Women Writers: 1950-1980, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983); and In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, a collection of essays that invoke this metaphor throughout (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1983).

  11. Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 54.

  12. Eagleton, p. 54.

  13. See Mary Daly's discussion of clitoridectomies in Gyn/Ecology, pp. 155-78.

  14. It is also strange that Celie describes this reinterpretation of the myth; it is not included in Nettie's letters, thus indicating that either some letters are suppressed, or this mythmaking is Celie's own. In either case, Celie alone gives voice to this new interpretation within the text, her new conception of the malleable body written into history.

  15. Altman, p. 163.

  16. Alice Walker, “Writing The Color Purple,” p. 454.

  17. Alice Jardine, in “Gynesis,” states this in discussing Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni's ideas in particular. See Diacritics, 12 (1982), 62.

  18. H. Porter Abbot, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), p. 39.

  19. Altman, p. 212.

  20. Peter Brook's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative discusses the reader's drive to work through and thus “plot” a text in terms of the “desire” for satiation (New York: Vintage Books, 1985). Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text directly links the body and the text; he describes the reader's surrender to the jouissance of reading, the play of contradictions and immersion into a world of sensation (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). His S/Z also discusses the fragmentation of the female body, fracturing Balzac's Sarrasine into a series of codes; text and body are linked implicitly (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

  21. Walter Ong, “The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA, 90 (1975), 20.

  22. Perhaps this argument adopts the strategy used by Jorge Borges's Pierre Menard, whose exact reconstruction of Don Quixote is interpreted differently in light of his historical era; Alice Walker merely appropriates the epistolary form, rather than subverting it in any significant fashion. Yet, because the form has historically been associated with women, it signals that certain issues will be at stake within the text. Walker's appropriation of this form at this time reveals a self-conscious attempt to address current issues of gender hermeneutics, issues that would not have existed in the same critical climate as when, for example, Clarissa was written.

  23. John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in Surfiction ed. Raymond Federman (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), pp. 19-33.

  24. Raymond Federman, in his introduction to Surfiction (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), p. 8.

  25. Ihab Hassan, The Literature of Silence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 4.

  26. Jorge L. Borges, “A Note on (Toward) B. Shaw,” as quoted by Robert Altar, “Self-Conscious Moment: Reflection on the Aftermath of Postmodernism” in Tri-Quarterly, 33 (1975), 212.

Steven C. Weisenburger (essay date fall 1989)

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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.]


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 phenomenology of error” while narratologists have yet to frame the comparable questions: What happens when the elemental techniques of narration go astray? What interpretive potentials might analyses of error set free? In particular, what can errors disclose about the socio-cultural horizon of a narrative fiction?1

Some examples. How did it happen that the omniscient narrator of Frank Norris's The Octopus relates a moment of gunplay between Annixter and Delaney, concluding with the proleptic claim that “for years he [Annixter] could reconstruct the scene” whenever “reminiscences began to circulate” among seated groups of men (186-7), while that narrator will also relate Annixter's death after just eight more months of story-time (367-8)? One answer might be that Norris's attention drifted away from his narrative chronometer because he was more occupied with a theme of men circulating stories, a theme handled throughout The Octopus as a generative dynamic standing against monopolized technology. This said, however, one would also need to ask why Norris's error has evidently gone unremarked in almost ninety years of critical commentary. Amidst the conventions of fictional realism, what blind spots have allowed such obvious glitches of verisimilitude to go unnoticed—by author, or readers, or both? Related cases certainly abound. In Harold Frederic's story “The War Widow” (1894) a first person (intradiegetic) narrator, eleven-year-old Sidney, provides crucial details of scene and event which only an omniscient (extradiegetic) narrator could glimpse through the walls of a barn. Or, in Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a merely awkward shift into first person becomes truly erroneous when the narrator, Janey, gains omniscient access to other characters' minds; also, one cannot teach the novel without some bright-eyed cynic commenting that one of Hurston's framing devices—Janey soaking her feet at the beginning and end of an hours' long oral narrative—must have left the poor woman's feet cold and shriveled. These were obvious authorial slips, but then what shall we do with “errors” that seem parts of an authorial design? In Gravity's Rainbow for instance we find a variety of anachronies, false leads and cancelled-out events, all interpretable as contributing to the satire of emplotment and thus of that “paranoid style” which characterized the novel's epoch. Or, in Goodbye, Columbus Phillip Roth seems to have planted various errors in sports jargon that can be interpreted as clues to the fruitless yet all-American posturing of his narrator, Neil Klugman.

Alice Walker's 1982 novel, The Color Purple, is a case-book example of these problems. First of all the text is shot-through with startling errors of simple narrative chronology, or “order”; but there is still more to work with, such as errors of authority and voice. In addition, Walker's public comments about the text's composition, its reception by jurors for both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award organizations, the fanfare over its cinematic translation of Stephen Spielberg and Menno Meyjes as well as the hotly politicized debate over their film, and finally a burgeoning record of the novel's scholarly interpretation as the capstone to its immense popularity—these phenomena, in addition to the fact that until now no one has noticed its errors, all make The Color Purple a text one has to reckon with.2

Walker's novel demonstrates that errors are interpretive opportunities. Errors can become windows on narrative techniques, on the “laws of genre,” on political and cultural stresses thematized in the text, and finally—as I shall argue—on the ways that such stresses can be taken as influencing the production and reception of a narrative fiction. Thus The Color Purple demonstrates what a poetics of narrative error should entail. At a minimum, as the above examples suggest, one needs to specify that on the writer's side errors can be intended (as in a metafiction or satire) or not (errors per se), while on the other side readers will either perceive or not perceive the errors. Potentially, then, errors falling into the category “not intended/not perceived” should be the most engaging, for in the act of shifting them into the category “not intended/perceived” one must account for the factors of production and reception that masked the glitches themselves. In sum, beyond forcing a closer look at the elementary structures of a narrative text, errors also require explanations that inevitably turn critics toward the sociocultural horizon whose signs are there in the text's writing and reading. This is what a general “phenomenology of narrative errors” should mean. Here, more specifically, the goal is to essay how The Color Purple may be read as “errant” in both senses of that word: as a novel that commits errors of artifice, themselves pointing to other business—Walker's social work, or “errand.”


First the errors themselves. Genette has taught us that between the diachronic limits of a narrative (not always its beginning and end, but the boundaries of its farthest analeptic and proleptic moments), there exist relationships of “order” by which units of narrative discourse are pegged to a presumed real time.3 These temporal relationships may be indicated in two possible ways: through “determinants” that are “external” because referential outside the story world (i.e. “it's V-E Day”), or “internal” (i.e. “the next day”). Among the modes of narration these elements are even rather definitive: external determinants are common to the realist text but unimportant to the romance. Now, in The Color Purple Walker uses an epistolary and therefore essentially realist form of narrative, since Celie's letters are offered as unedited documents. Notably, however, her apparent realism depends on few external determinants. Imprecise references to automobiles, or to popular musical artists like Sophie Tucker and Duke Ellington, indicate that we are somewhere in the Thirties (The Color Purple 114). Or, allusions to political turmoil in Europe and to the outbreak of hostilities (“it's a big war” [282]) track us into the Forties. Otherwise, the reader's sense of order mainly depends on a strained, erroneous network of internal determinants such as births, the given ages of characters and other references.

Thus one can reconstruct lines of temporal order for Walker's novel, and here are the essential determinants. In the first letter Celie describes herself as 14 years old and brutally impregnated by the man she assumes is her father (1); in the second letter, she is bearing another child; and by the third that child, a boy named Adam, has been taken off like Olivia before him (4). In a trice, then, some two years have passed. By letter seven, when Pa offers Celie to Mr. ——— in marriage, Celie is “near twenty” (9). Three more months pass (“March to June” [10]) before Mr. ——— decides; at that time, with Celie now twenty, Harpo is described as twelve years old (13) and Olivia, Celie's first child, is “bout six” (14). These then are the keystone dates in a narrative so absent of external determinants and so accelerated, in its pacing, through the early letters. Indeed, when Harpo announces his intention to marry Sofia, by letter thirteen, some five more years have flown by (“I'm seventeen. She fifteen,” boasts Harpo [23]). Then in the ensuing letters Sofia becomes pregnant (33), carries the baby in her arms when they marry (35), and quickly bears another child, who is old enough to “be making mud pies” by letter twenty (39). At least thirteen or fourteen years have transpired since Celie's first missive to “God”: she is now in her late twenties, her children teenagers.

At this juncture the elliptical, accelerated narrative duration slows down: more letters per year. The trigger for that change of pace is Shug Avery's arrival. This occurs approximately “a month” (41) after Celie's confrontation with Sofia, attended by the two muddy children; and with it come the novel's major chronological incongruencies. At first, Shug's presence in Mr. ———'s house inspires Celie to write almost a letter per day; then while Shug heals the duration once more stretches out across the months. Sofia leaves Harpo in the fall, probably October or November (“we been having right smart cold weather long in now” [71]), and she is “gone six months” (73) by the time Harpo readies his jukejoint for Shug's coming-out celebration, set for early June (78). Yet, when Sofia arrives at Harpo's with her lover, Buster, she declares to Celie—“I got six children now” (85)—and the reader reflects that, counting the five she had when leaving in the fall (“Dilsey,” “Coco,” “Boo,” “another one,” and “the baby” [72]), Sofia has miraculously birthed four children since Celie encountered her first two sitting in the mud just nine or ten months earlier (39-40). Still more inconsistencies begin to mount up. For example, Sofia is soon arrested and given a twelve-year prison term for striking the mayor, which prompts Mr. ——— to remark that she has also been mated to Harpo “for twelve years” (91), a span of time that would allow for the six offspring but that has not been accounted in Celie's letters. In deference to human reproductive biology, and to subsequent references, we nonetheless have to adopt the twelve-year mark, and this would put Celie in her late thirties, her children in their middle twenties. Thus, after serving “three years” of her sentence (105) Sofia is let out of the prison wash house; and after serving a total of “five years” (108), two of them as the mayor's domestic servant, she is allowed to visit her children for the first time. Celie must be in her early forties, Celie's children in their late twenties.

Here Shug unwittingly brings Celie a letter from Nettie, the first in decades to make it through Mr. ———'s blockade of the family mailbox. Shug helps Celie find the trove of earlier missives and put them into chronological order. Then begins, as an analeptic story-within-the-story, Nettie's narrative of exile and return. Walker's chronological problems also begin to multiply. For example, in one of her earliest letters, written just before departing for Africa, Nettie describes seeing a woman serving, reluctantly, as the mayor's maid: “looking like the very last person in the world you'd expect to see waiting on anybody. … [who] suddenly sort of erased herself” (137). This black servant, Nettie subsequently learned, was imprisoned for having “attacked the mayor, and then the mayor and his wife took her from the prison to work in their home” (137-8). The reader's obvious inference—that this “erased” figure of wise sisterhood is none other than Sofia—will be confirmed later in the text, when Celie explains to Nettie that “It was Sofia you saw working as the mayor's maid” (205). Yet the absurdity of this coincidence should have been obvious: among Nettie's letters the description of Sofia appears in the fourth letter, “dated,” as Walker even has Celie tells us, “two months later” (136) than Nettie's first three letters, themselves composed right on the heels of her expulsion from Mr. ———'s household. If so, according to events in Celie's frame narrative Celie would have had to be in her early twenties at that point and Sofia just ten or eleven years old. The error amounts to roughly twenty years.

This kind of discrepancy seems to have propagated itself throughout the subsequent pages. For instance, Nettie will soon describe having been in Africa “five years” (170), then a sixth (174); and Olivia's first menstrual period (“her friend” [195]) marks what would have to be Nettie's seventh or eighth year abroad (if Olivia is the usual twelve or thirteen at menarche). Celie should be about twenty-six or -seven. However, by this point Celie and Nettie have been exchanging letters for eleven pages of text; Celie therefore has to be in her middle forties; and the twenty-year chasm once more yawns between the two interwoven stories. And the most curious part of it all is, at times Walker seems cognizant of one chronology while pages later she nods towards the other. So Nettie will comment, as well she might if in her forties, that “some of my hair is gray” (232); then a few pages further she will describe “the children,” Olivia and Adam, as if they were teenagers (239-46), when they should be well into their thirties. Or, Nettie will correctly remind Celie that “thirty years have passed without a word between us” (264); whereas just months earlier Celie has written Nettie about how she declared to Harpo—“I got children … Being brought up in Africa. Good schools, lots of fresh air” (207)—when those “children” must be mature adults long ago graduated from school. Such discrepancies fill the novel's last one hundred and fifty pages. Similar errors also crop up in subordinate plots, as when Sofia is released from prison after eleven and one-half years (having gotten “six months off for good behavior” [205]) and Henrietta, her sixth child who should be twelve or thirteen, appears to be at least half that age.

How could such remarkable errors have slipped past Walker, as well as past the novel's editors, reviewers, judges, and scholarly interpreters? (Indeed, it even slipped past movie director Stephen Spielberg and his scriptwriter Menno Meyjes, who sleepily translated every one of these errors to the screen at the same time that—incredible as it seems—they called our attention to them by using on-screen dates, fixing the opening scene in “1909,” and so on.) There is some evidence that Walker herself was aware of problems. In a 1982 essay, “Writing The Color Purple,” she speaks of the novel's genesis, of how she designed it as “a historical novel” [In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, hereafter abbreviated as In Search] 355), and of how she struggled to make Celie's plot jibe with Nettie's. “Fortunately I was able to bring Celie's own children back to her (a unique power of novelists), though it took thirty years and a good bit of foreign travel. But this proved to be the largest single problem in writing the exact novel I wanted to write” (In Search 359-60; my emphasis). Hindsight suggests that providing each letter with a dateline, a simple convention of epistolary fictions, might have both coincided with Walker's “historical” intention and brought its erroneous plotting into the light. In any case the book was published without its being corrected. And perhaps, as Trudier Harris argues on thematic grounds, it was too hastily canonized. Perhaps … but whatever might be said along that line, the more interesting questions involve factors of genre, race and gender that shaped the writing and reading of Walker's novel.


More than just egregious mistakes, Walker's chronological errors spotlight the very keys to that narrative genre she chose. As a Briefwechselroman or “letter-exchange novel,” The Color Purple depends for its reading on complex formal and discursive conventions that are fundamental to dialogic narrative in general, conventions that—as Bakhtin and his followers have taught us—may function in strikingly transgressive ways: to subvert the voices of authority, to disrupt hide-bound representations of Man's estate, even to undermine mimesis itself. The first two of those three functions were clearly on Alice Walker's agenda for her book.4 And if, unlike the postmodernists around her, she never mounts a frontal assault on mimesis, her novel does seek to batter its flanks by taking on those powerful representations of gender and race that trouble American culture. What then are the functions of epistolary writing—both story and discourse—in that assault?

In its elements of story The Color Purple seems an almost paradigmatic epistolary novel. Its true beginning is not with a letter but with a proscription, the voice of Celie's “Pa” warning her: “You better not never tell nobody but God” (1). She does exactly that. And in writing her first letters to an omniscient deity Celie recuperates everything that was erased by her own submissions, both sexual and racial, to a brutal patriarchy. She can be audacious and free-spoken; can analyze, evaluate, and judge; give vent to spontaneous feeling; and most importantly she can be a vehicle of memory. By writing, eventually no longer to an invisible “God” but to a human correspondent (Nettie), then ultimately to the whole universe, she enters into a transactional bonding that will finally bring her out of domestic imprisonment and into the flux of ordinary talk and broader social differences—yet all in a loving, generative way. By such means Purple closely adheres to traditional structures, for epistolary narratives classically begin in repression (see Kauffman 20-3). Their heroines are physically cloistered or silenced, exiled and separated from the objects of generative desire: Heloise from Abelard, the nun of Lettres Portugaises (1669) from her beloved, Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa from their families. The epistolary heroine therefore writes, usually in secret, because it is her only available, “authentic” mode of communication. Repression, separation or violence thus serve as the very enabling conditions of story, and they provide Walker (and Spielberg) with a sensational opening. Beyond that beginning, too, the middle and end of Purple adhere to traditional forms. In Richardson's Clarissa: The History of a Young Lady (1747-8), the heroine's father first persecutes and then banishes her (from Harlowe Place); Clarissa next descends into the worldly Hell of Mrs. Sinclair's infamous house, whereupon Lovelace resumes the patriarchal persecution in more brutal and closely sequestered forms; she finally returns, albeit deceased, to her father's house. As Janet Altman observes, this pattern not only transmits the heroine's “History,” it also inscribes her story under the aegis of biblical myth; for the novel's plot is modeled on Man's pilgrimage from Eden to Paradise (Altman 26). And this epistolary mythos can be closed in one of two essential ways (Altman 150-1). Clarissa exemplifies its tragic closure, where the letters cease because of the writer's decease; Pamela illustrates the comic mode, the hard won triumph of an ethically proper marriage occasioning the heroine's reunion with long-distant correspondents.

The Color Purple closely follows these conventions of form, but not without ambiguity. For when her letters begin Celie already lives in a kind of earthly inferno. Sequestered, violated and silenced by the man she mistakenly calls “Pa,” Celie's only quasi-Edenic experience of family unity occurred in an age anterior to memory and is therefore absent from her autobiography until Pa (Alphonso) restores it to her, in essence also telling her how Eden ended and Hell began: “Your daddy didn't know how to git along, he say. Whitefolks lynch him” (187). There, at the farthest analeptic boundary of The Color Purple, Celie's story finds its true point of origin: in a violent racism that, as Darryl Pinckney observes, the novel unfortunately never examines in any significant detail. Celie is banished to the deeper inferno embodied in Mr. ———, who is (as Lovelace is to Mr. Harlowe in Clarissa) just another avatar of patriarchal order and its power over the (justly) subversive feelings (“sentiments”) of sisters. Expressing those sentiments on paper restores Celie, like Pamela, to a world of redefined proprieties. Indeed, in the comic plotting of Walker's novel, as in Pamela, the “Rake's Reform” concludes a significant subplot. Similar to Richardson's “B,” Walker's “Mr. ———” will declare at novel's end, “I'm satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man” (267). This specifically means that Mr. ——— abandons rigid sex roles (and, not incidentally, sex) as he begins to cook, sew and “clean that house just like a woman” (229). Later he tells Celie of learning such skills by working “along with mama” (279). More broadly, however, restoring Mr. ——— to what the text so confidently assumes is a “natural” ethos will also coincide with Celie's regaining the estate of her “real daddy,” an estate “passed on” to Celie and Nettie by their mother (251). The idea, quite clearly, is that the true (that is, “natural”) vessels of both propriety and proprietorship are mothers. And, if The Color Purple is thus a novel about characters “in search of their mothers' gardens,” as a type of feminist paradise, then this “argument” of its plot constitutes Walker's attempt to revise the classic epistolary histoire. Or is it just a contemporary variation on the form? Linda Kauffman has written extensively on the strategies of defiance and revolt in epistolary texts, in which the heroine's writing itself “is the revolution” (20). Celie's writing certainly serves to prepare her for Shug's popularized feminism.


This brings one around to questions treating epistolary discourse. Story elements lay a foundation for Walker's “consciousness-raising” work, becoming a platform for the contests of her “womanist” argument,5 but the really crucial and problematic elements of “epistolarity” can be found on its discursive side, as Altman and Kauffman argue. Epistolary discourse can stand as a model for the dialogism of the novel (in general) because the Briefwechselroman always involves the contrapuntal voices of letter writers, as the novelist juxtaposes them for readers. Its specific techniques for accomplishing this discursive work are what make epistolary forms unique—and problematized. On one hand the addressee of each epistle is absent; on the other, epistolary discourse must anchor itself in a self-consciously textualized present. This contrariness arises partly because writing letters means recognizing that the object of one's desire is distant, perhaps dead (as with the “God” of Celie's first letters), perhaps not yet even a differentiated part of Being (as when A. B. Cook IV addresses “his unborn child” in chapter 1:D of John Barth's Letters). In writing, then, the character graphs her potential for closing that gap. This is exactly why, in addition, the discursive presence of each correspondent becomes so crucial. In order for desire to close the spatio-temporal gap confronting it, everything depends on the writer's power to construct a world—literally, the illusion of presence—for her reader. As Altman phrases the problem: “To write a letter is to map one's coordinates—temporal, spatial, emotional, intellectual—in order to tell someone else where one is located at a particular time and how far one has traveled since last writing” (119). Expanding on this, we might add that the entire gambit hinges on the letter writer and her addressees sharing a world that is ultimately textual; it is events, experiences, and knowledge built (as John Barth so insistently reminds his readers) from letters, from alphabets on pages.

Moreover, one of the foremost qualities of that illusionary world will be its relationships of temporality. Each letter is only one frame in what appears as a continuous unfolding of cinematic scenes or episodes. The key fact, nevertheless, is that epistolary narration is essentially discontinuous, elliptical. It remains theoretically impossible for letters to compose an unbroken stream. Instead, each letter is composed within a unique enunciatory moment; each stands as a sovereign present around which the novel's past and future moments must be plotted.

The ramifications of this are crucial. Readers of a first- or third-person narration scarcely notice temporal ellipses or gaps because a reified narrative voice maintains the illusion of continuity. Then too, the presumed reliability of that voice would seem to foreclose on our interrogating the intervals of non-narrated time (see Genette 106-9). However, like diary fictions, epistolary novels are unique in foregrounding each hiatus; each gap between letters calls attention to the fact of non-narrated time. In addition, such gaps do not come under the authority of any primary narrator and indeed may be entirely attributable to the caprice of characters who decide whether or not to write; or the absence of a letter may be due to the impact of events beyond characters' control. For readers, this means first of all that in naturalizing an epistolary fiction the empty intervals common to narrative are suddenly more open to inquiry. And it means, secondly, that reading across the narrative lacunae depends on a certain persistence of vision, on the after-image of an “I”/“You” connection that carries over into the next letter. Indeed, those gaps might well turn disruptive if the novelist weren't using other means to sustain the illusion of ongoing presence. So in epistolary fictions some of the most striking, sometimes humorous moments come when the novelist promotes the illusion of ongoing presence by punctuating “the time of narrated action,” or erzählte Zeit, with reminders from “the time of narrating,” the Erzählzeit of actual letter writing. Thus Richardson has Pamela absurdly detail picking up her pen and checking her door, and continue writing even as B assails her person. Still more practically, more realistically (as Altman points out, 169-70), the novelist can sustain the illusion by following four basic conventions of the genre: (1) one writer/addressee relationship, (2) unfolding in a single plot, (3) which either de-emphasizes the gaps or fills them in with what readers may infer from corresponding letters, each unfolding in (4) strict chronological order. Among all of these, chronological order is certainly the most basic convention. It explains why, in Purple, Shug carefully arranges each of Nettie's letters in sequence according to its postmark—a remarkable moment when Walker's story reflects on the very discursive conventions she mishandles.

Surely this is why the erroneous chronology of The Color Purple is so remarkable. In brief: it was not noticed. Countless very sophisticated readers have taken Walker's letters to be just as they appear—as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, a steady stream of emotions recollected in tranquility. Thus Walker's readers have wholeheartedly opted to maintain an illusion of spontaneous presence, of natural continuity, and of the heroine's evolving sentiment which seems to give the text its meaning. Put another way, they have opted to maintain the mimetic image of an unedited, continuous, documentary text.6 Indeed, one might therefore see Purple's reception as a cautionary tale about the tenacity of the metaphysics of presence among quite well-educated people.

In general, Walker's run of chronological errors seems to have begun with the necessity of coordinating her two plots—Celie's with Nettie's. However, other kinds of errors soon followed suit. A few of Walker's critics noticed that varieties of contemporary slang appear in the characters' Thirties speech. Problems of authority also crop up. For example, as Purple winds toward its close Celie and Albert (Mr. ———, but in his reformed mode) sit in peaceful harmony on the porch, Celie instructing him in the alternative cosmology of the Olinka (279-83). They believe, she explains, that the first white man, Adam, and all the race he spawned, were really genetic freaks of nature run out of their African village (Eden) for their naked whiteness, and destined ever afterwards to be an evil scourge on all humanity, especially people of color. One of the novel's longer didactic forays, this letter participates in Walker's “consciousness-raising” project. It seeks to relativize Judeo-Christian mythology, indeed to contain western myth inside an African cycle, and even to suggest an origin of western racist and sexist practices. The crux of it is, none of Nettie's letters has ever detailed this Olinka material (How then can Celie know it?), and even if they had it would still be illogical to have Celie write it back to Nettie (Why be so redundant?).

In epistolary narrative this common problem is usually handled by having the correspondent acknowledge her repetition of already-told detail, usually by an “I told him about what you told me.” Yet there are related moments like this, as when Celie informs Nettie “I don't write to God no more” (199), when in fact Nettie can have no idea what writing Celie is speaking of. Indeed, one letter even calls attention to this very problem, when Celie writes about how Shug has laughed at her presumptiveness: “Nettie don't know these people, she say” (205). Such moments all involve the boundaries of time and space between letters, and the problem of how knowledge germane to one correspondent's unique fictional locus may be shared. In sharing knowledge between correspondents, the novelist must “choose constantly between redundancy and lack of verisimilitude” (Altman 173). Breakdowns of either sort spotlight once again the inherent discontinuity of epistolary fictions, each letter having to paradoxically function as both a self-contained unity and as a unit in that illusionary stream of narrative. Here, too, Walker's narrative fractures. The reason, no doubt, was that as The Color Purple neared its close the author's felt needs—to win her reader's complicity with and good opinion of her consciousness-raising work—had overridden the intradiegetic requirements for mimetic verisimilitude. Walker's “womanist” errand had taken priority over the elements of narrative art.


The terms of that errand need reconsideration. One ecstatic reader claims that by undertaking wholesale cultural reform Walker's novel becomes a “masterpiece that exceeds its limits as a work of fiction” (Parker-Smith 483). This was a fairly common refrain of Walker's more ardent supporters, though the novel's status as a “masterpiece” is not only arguable but even beside the point, which is that in evaluative readings of Purple such claims to greatness are always linked with ideas about the novel's cultural work. Clearly, it is one of those novels—like Pamela or Uncle Tom's Cabin—that not only sacrifices mimetic fidelity to the discursive demands of genre, but further sacrifices discursive precision to broader didactic goals. Withal, though, The Color Purple was immensely popular, even effective. The record of the book reviewers and scholarly essayists is rife with reader-witnesses who testify to the novel's didactic power in resituating, clarifying and solidifying people's lives. Such claims are worth attention no matter how many erroneous artistic strokes went unnoticed during the process of reading.

In concluding, then, I want to turn the tables. Now the idea, to paraphrase Jane Tompkins's provocative argument in Sensational Designs, is to put aside questions about what makes The Color Purple a work of “art” and ask instead what accounts for its mass-cultural popularity. This means that everything Walker's detractors have received negatively—her stock devices of melodrama, sensational turns of plot, preachy dialogue, women-in-distress and stereotyped villains—might be apprehended not only as conventions of a genre but as instruments of a cultural project. The Color Purple might thus be read according to the way it appears to “naturally” occupy its cultural landscape. Its archetypal story can be seen functioning as easily located, quickly decoded benchmarks. So the text becomes, as Tompkins puts it, a nexus within a network, expressing what is popularly believed, “tapping a storehouse of commonly held assumptions, reproducing what is already there in a typical and familiar form” (xvi). Here the question is: What gave the text that semblance of monumental solidity in its culture?

In The Color Purple, as has been suggested all along, Walker's errand involves nothing less than the recovery of an American Eden. Stephen Spielberg, his principal screenwriter Menno Meyjes and Walker herself (she collaborated on the film) all quickly intuited this theme. Their script is bracketed and punctuated by Edenic images: fields full of flowers and folks, fruitful gardens and the like—all in a landscape where machines and gridworked streets are noticeably absent. (In the novel, history's most infamous symbol of chattel slavery, the cotton gin, never actually appears; its only ghostlike appearance is managed through a brief allusion by a white girl, Miss Eleanor Jane [273]). Moreover, Spielberg and Meyjes' most significant revision of Walker's plot involved the stagey reunification of Shug with her stern preacher/father. Spielberg has the whiskey-soaked, bluesy, dionysian crowd wind its way out of Harpo's juke and bring the field into Reverend Avery's pulpit while the entire cast sings the verses of a gospel lyric (“God Is Trying to Tell You Something”). In all, it was a return to theological roots that prompted some of the most vitriolic criticisms of the film.7 However clichéd, though, this remarkable emendation might well stand as a mise en abyme for Walker's whole plot, insofar as it too is concerned with reclaiming and reordering the father's house, with reclaiming Eden. (Why else send Celie's second child, Adam, back to Africa?) The point is that issues of femininity and racism, foremost in the readings of so many reviewers and critics, are just facets of a larger project. Walker's strategy was to reinscribe problems of gender and race in the context of contemporary theology.

Farfetched as this may initially seem, Walker herself has claimed that her conception of womanist concerns extends beyond gender and race to include “the spiritual survival, the survival whole, of my people” (In Search 250). A few critics have glimpsed that commitment. Pauline Kael, for example, perceptively noted that “the glue” holding Walker's plot together “is the pop-folk religiosity that also serves to keep the book's anti-male attitudes in check” (69). Thematized (end preached) everywhere in her novel, Walker's theology is centermost in Nettie's interior narrative, when the Olinka see how “powerless” is the white peoples' God long before Samuel sees it (234), and thus himself as “A FOOL OF THE WEST” (242). In effect, Samuel and Nettie's African epiphany authorizes similar moments throughout the novel, especially Celie's own epiphany back home. Explaining why she no longer addresses letters to “God,” Celie tells Shug, “The God I been praying to is a man.” Like Nettie among the Olinka, Celie now finds that He “act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown” (199). Worse still, that God is “gray bearded and white” (201). Such a deity stands like a totem of every racist and sexist energy binding Celie's culture together in patriarchal violence.

“God” is supplanted by a god of the fields. Shug tells Celie: “My first step away from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people” (203). Moreover this naturalist deity is “inside you and inside everybody else,” Shug goes on to claim; and so “[y]ou can just relax, go with everything that's going, and praise God by liking what you like” (203). Shug's deity quite literally takes command of the text, authorizing its title—“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it,” she says (203)—and even empowering Celie's first outbreak against nearly forty (or is it only twenty?) years of being what Zora Neale Hurston once called “the mule of the world.” Reflecting on the “curse” she has put on Mr. ———, Celie writes Nettie that “it seem to come to me from the trees” (213). For Celie and those around her, this epiphany of naturalist theology quickly triggers an ethical revolution. Once they have been decentered, by cutting themselves loose from patriarchal symbols, all begin resituating family roles and reinterpreting their own racial oppression. More than any other element of the text, then, revisionist theological sentiment was designed to provide Walker's epistolary novel with its necessary appearance of mimetic continuity: in the heroine's recognition and reversal of her fate, in the interlacing of Celie's and Nettie's letters, and in the denouement which brings them all, men and women, Americans and Africans, together at last in Celie's father's field.

Here one gets right to the heart of things. The Color Purple has situated itself foursquare on some of the most recognizable and embattled grounds of contemporary American society: theological and familial. Familial because the essential locus of most epistolary fictions is domestic, as is the locus for most recent debates on sex-role stereotypes; and theological because the elemental structures of domesticity have everything to do with a culture's model of ultimate reality, its pantheon. For mere mortals, however, such things are also crucially political; an individual either fits into or rejects, or is unconsciously claimed by, the available semiotic slots. Now, if we want to define what the ideological bent of The Color Purple most decidedly is not, one can hardly do better than another “text” released just two years prior to Walker's: Senator Paul Laxalt's “Family Protection Act,” a central Neo-conservative manifesto that was carved up and introduced as a spate of bills before the 96th Congress in 1980. Nothing less than an attempt to roll back two decades of “consciousness-raising,” these bills (if they had passed) would have struck at such things as “sex-intermingling” in school sports, family and sex education (except when taught “by a minister or church on a release-time basis”), and the relativization of Judeo-Christian morality through courses concerned with “values-clarification.” In Title V, concerned with “Domestic Relations,” Laxalt's manifesto would have strictly limited the powers of federal and state government in preventing spouse and child abuse, would have banned the issuance of contraceptives to minors, would have banned the use of federal legal services funds for litigation involving abortion or “homosexual rights,” and would have denied any federal money to organizations presenting “homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.”8 Right down to Walker's implied plea for acceptance of Celie and Shug's lesbian sexuality, The Color Purple pretty much runs the gauntlet of these Neo-conservative blows. That is precisely why the book's consumption in public school classrooms was so hotly contested.

And yet beyond these debates over domestic relations always loom the broader concerns of contemporary theology. Here again Walker's bent is clear enough; but this time if we want to define what her novel's ideology most emphatically is, one might well begin with a text published in 1973 and subjected to increasingly virulent attack while Walker was writing The Color Purple. It is the “Humanist Manifesto II,” condemned by spokesmen for the fundamentalist right—such as Tim LaHaye and Senator Jesse Helms—as a “bible” for “The Most Dangerous Religion in the World.”9 A revision of the original document published in 1933 (about the same time, by the way, as Celie's epiphany), the 1973 version begins by declaring: “humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-healing God, assumed to love and care for all persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith.” This pretty effectively restates Celie's epiphany with a sugar-coating of the standard dialect. And the ethical results of Celie's enlightenment also tally quite well with the “Manifesto”; its subsequent paragraphs affirm the “preciousness and dignity of the individual person,” condemn intolerance for “the diversity of human sexual experience,” call for civil liberties as a prerequisite to human spiritual growth, and accordingly deplore all forms of racial and ethnic oppression, as well as “sexism or sexual chauvinism” (quoted in Kurtz 39-47).

More precisely, Walker's spirituality neatly dovetails with definitions of what Robert N. Bellah and other sociologists of religion refer to as the “new consciousness,” or “new age” faiths. Libertarian, humanist, and politically centrist or just left-of-center, new consciousness spirituality grew from countercultural movements of the Sixties and brought together many of their principal tenets: disaffection with the totalizing symbols of traditionalist faith, calls for “consciousness-raising” from civil rights groups and feminists, alternative “lifestyles,” distrust of machine technologies, and “ecological awareness.” To Paul Kurtz, two decisive elements in this potpourri are (1) rejecting theistic beliefs in a supernatural being, and (2) resituating that belief within the diversity of nature, including Man's embodiment of that natural diversity in his inner life. As Kurtz puts it, this new age humanist “claims that man is rooted in the soil (nature), that it is the flesh (life) that gives him satisfaction, but that it is in social harmony and creative fulfillment (the spirit) that he finds his deepest significance” (120).

Again, excepting the standard dialect (and the masculine pronouns), this almost sums up Walker's position, mediated through Shug and Celie. One might only add a further element from Bellah, who remarks that in this “post-traditional” mix “it has become possible to appropriate religious symbol systems from many times and cultures” (Beyond Belief 205). An example of this inter-textual, syncretic tendency: the blending of Hebraic and Olinka cosmologies, as Celie so enthusiastically describes it to Mr. ———. A further thing about this mix, apropos of Walker's novel especially, is that contemporary secularism, as well as the counter-culture which so popularly endorsed it in the Sixties, were expressions of a privileged, hegemonic white society. This is a point that Bellah has frequently driven home. And it is clearly a perception that shaped many of the more virulent attacks on The Color Purple, condemned as it was for pandering to white stereotypes of the black male, for being soft on the violent realities of racism in America, for blurring history, and finally for achieving sentimental popularity among a predominantly white reading public. At issue was the audience that Walker's critics saw her addressing—or mollifying, according to some.


When The Color Purple appeared, two years into the Reagan administration's “conservative revolution,” the debate over civil rights had become muted even as that over religious beliefs had become more polarized and sharply contested than at any time during this century. Still, the current strife between Fundamentalists and New Age Humanists has a lengthy pedigree in American cultural history. Essentially a split between Biblical theism and liberal utilitarianism, it has taken a variety of guises—right back to the Bay Colony/Merrymount schism. On one side stand essentially Puritan beliefs in the divine covenant, in Americans as God's elect people embarked on a millenial errand, and in the priority of communal unity. On the other side stand Cartesian doubt melded with a Lockean belief in the sovereign individual, belief therefore in self-enlightenment as the basis of creative spirit and thus of public prosperity, and acceptance also of social diversity. From 1820 to 1860, like our postwar decades also an era of profound socio-cultural change (economic turmoil, large influxes of poor immigrants, urbanization and mechanization, dissatisfaction among women, and the rise of anti-slavery movements), this rift was manifested in the growth of evangelical and revivalist sects on the one side, and on the other a more liberalist and naturalist expression of this “Second Great Awakening” in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. During those decades, the American Temperance Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society grew, in close affiliation with organized religion, and provided many women and a few blacks their first and only outlet for socio-political involvement. Like the civil rights, antiwar, and women's liberation movements of the 1960's, these nineteenth century “societies” also provided new visions of the public covenant and the people's errand. They valorized sentiment, the individual's seemingly “natural” ability to know right feelings and just thoughts. In exactly that milieu Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin became one of the century's most popular fictions. The novel was also, as Jane Tompkins persuasively argues, “a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view” (124).

This historical analogy suggests that whenever critics derogatorily compare Purple with Stowe's novel, as Pinckney does (18), it becomes impossible to avoid questions of sexism and of whose literary canon is privileged. Terms like “sentimental” become especially problematic. Defined negatively, it means flashing all the proper badges, and at worst seems a solipsistic exercise whose only intended response would be, “We're all thinking right thoughts, now, aren't we!” To many of Walker's critics (i.e. Pinckney, Stade, Towers) this almost oxymoronic sentimentalist feminism is exactly the “error” of her fiction; it also seems to account for the “programmatic intention behind” its feminist “design” (Pinckney 17). Approached positively, however, from the perspective of an ambitiously reformist heritage of women's fictions, Walker's program is not at all surprising, much less in error. The more engaging questions involve her readers and how she intends to move them—her errand. One needs to recognize how her novel, so much in the liberal humanist tradition, composes its arguments by raiding the Biblical fundamentalist tradition for some of its most potent symbols: the new Eden, and Man's Errand. The point is, Walker may well have been attracted, as suggested earlier, to the subversive dialogism of the epistolary form, in particular its ways of disrupting patriarchal codes. Nevertheless, she wound up writing an essentially centrist, familiar fiction. For members of her audience—a mainly white, secular humanist group—the “argument” of Celie's letters was a known commodity.

Alice Walker's audience for The Color Purple is exactly the great American mass of humanist, new age believers—secular or church-going. For this great centrist majority which, we are told, is fairly literate but inherently “silent,” Walker has seemingly created voices. Voices like Celie's confirm their sense that the grey-bearded old white God has passed away. With Shug, they easily assent to a contemporary naturalist theology: “just relax, go with everything that's going, and praise God by liking what you like.” Inevitably, such ideas would get Walker in deep with fundamentalists who decry the apparent moral relativism of such sentiments, in just as deep with leftist readers who decry the book's lack of any “realistic” historicity capable of translating her fiction into something politically useful, and also in deep with Afro-American critics. They were quite understandably put off by the way her novel seemed to meekly recodify a long emancipatory struggle within the mythos of an oppressive white society. None of these groups, however, would deny that Walker intended to shift a set of benchmark cultural symbols and beliefs, all involving what Eden looks like, who gets in, and where our errand takes us in regaining it. These questions may seem (and even be) trivial, yet the virulence of public argument occasioned by her novel and Spielberg's film demonstrates that they may never be value-neutral. The question is: Whose values?

Indeed from one last perspective, that of French theorist Jean Baudrillard, the issue of a fiction like The Color Purple poses further problems. Baudrillard has detailed the way mass cultural texts advance an “implosion of meaning” which does neutralize the discourses of value. This eventuates from the “staging” of an audience's desire in processions of simulacra, a “hyperreality” which—because it seems “truer” to reality than reality itself—leaves the audience impassively fascinated by the apparent surmounting of their voiceless condition. By such means the “silent majority” submits itself to the tautology of myths: their common narrativity means they are easily translated for various media, and this commodification only increases their “mythic” stature. In place of a “repressive demiurgy” it is instead “a gentle semiurgy which control us” (“Implosion” 140). Under its aegis “the medium” is absolutely the event. Content, including any statement of value, dissolves in a feedback loop of media-effects, of simulacra. The cruxes of axiology become the crazes of technology, and the “message,” especially the didactic social content of mass cultural texts, is according to this argument only a subterfuge on the strength of which “every hope of revolution and social change up till now has functioned” (ibid 144). Thus the only logic of such texts is their audiences' consumption of familiar metanarratives. And in the sternest moments of his jeremiad Baudrillard concludes that (excepting perhaps his own ironic, critical method) any symbolizing attempt to emancipate or “raise the consciousness” of individual or collective subjects is blinded by its inescapable conformity to systems whose goal is the overproduction and overvaluation of symbols, the simulacra or “fast-images” of contemporary media.

Baudrillard's optic often works with disturbing accuracy. After all, only in a fast-image culture could six-plus years slide past without anyone perceiving blatant errors of technique (“medium”) like those in The Color Purple. Yet interpreting such errant moments should not only end with a social and ideological siting of the text's apparent message and audience. It also must involve a looping back to that narrative medium, back to its lacunae and blind spots; in short, a looping back not only to the “laws of genre” but also to the glitches of genre that can be read like the tics of its own insecurity. Put another way, if adherence to the naturalizing conventions of narrative seems to give a text “traction” (Tompkins) or solidity in its society, then the errant moments of narrative are the traces of its slippage or instability. The best sellers of contemporary mass culture should offer plentiful examples for study. Yet why stop with popular fictions? Why not also examine the errant narration (however intentional or metafictional) of self-styled “experimental” fictions, for doesn't that very term suggest a complicity with metanarratives of technical progress? Feasibly, what's under scrutiny from this perspective is the cooperation of narrative technologies with forms of socio-cultural malaise—these days a sort of cultural “stag-flation.” In the general critique of such conditions, the example of Alice Walker's novel indicates that narrative poetics and a phenomenology of error can force a set of telling questions.


  1. See for example Shaughnessy (1977), and Williams (1981).

  2. Pauline Kael may have been thinking of the chronological problems when she wrote that “the cross-cutting between Nettie's experiences in Africa and Celie's life back home is staggeringly ineffective” (69), but she is never specific enough. In general, though, given the close readings of Walker's novel by everyone—from editors (at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), early reviewers, Pulitzer and A.B.A. judges, film directors, and cultural critics, to more recent scholars and Ph.D. candidates—the common failure to notice, much less comment on such basic errors of narrative art amounts to a phenomenon in itself. For readers of Purple have grilled Walker and Spielberg for less obvious inconsistencies. Reviewing the book, Robert Towers saw Nettie's return with the children as “crudely contrived” and “melodramatic”; he also noted “certain improbabilities,” like Celie's remarkable diction (her use of the word “amazons”) and her “Folkspants” business. Still, he begged off the larger question of mimetic fidelity by noting that these might all be explainable in the context of “current male-female antagonisms within the black community,” to which Walker was presumably the better witness (Towers 36). Denitia Smith pointed to an “unevenness” in the book's ideology, when the Olinka tribal patriarchy is depicted as bad, leaving one with the mistaken idea that its disruption by white colonialists is therefore “a good thing” (Smith 182). Darryl Pinckney, in a scathing review, charges that The Color Purple (novel and film) fails “to claim historical truth” because, with its myriad historical glitches, The Color Purple sacrificed accurate temporal and social context for a highly “insular” melodrama: “[it] might as well have been about a bunch of dancing eggplants for all it has to say about black history” (Pinckney 17). Thus far, M. Teresa Tavormina is the only critic to even begin noticing the chronological errors in Walker's novel. She hastily comments that “Walker makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for her readers to determine the exact temporal relationships between letters in Celie's series and those in Nettie's.” Then Tavormina stops short, assuming that such “time-marking events” as births and children's ages will, according to Walker's plan, only add up to a blurry picture: “The meaning is in the whole. To see linearly is to limit one's seeing” (226). Even more remarkable, in an endnote Tavormina tries to naturalize the “temporal strains in the novel”; they make sense, she argues, because it is “as though time moves slower for Nettie and the children” in their primitive, African setting (n. 10, 229-30). The sharply polarized reaction to Purple is also worth noting. Stade has discussed readers who have approached The Color Purple as “a sacred text” (264), and praiseful, near-ecstatic reviews occurred in popular periodicals such as Ms. Magazine (for which Alice Walker worked), and in Newsweek, where Peter Prescott called it “an American novel of permanent importance” (67). In Ms. (July 1982), Gloria Steinem seems so taken with the facts of Walker's being a woman, black, alive, and writing that she scarcely uses the fiction itself to support her praise. The New Yorker (September 6, 1982), relegated it to the “Briefly Noted” column of short reviews, yet still referred to Purple as “fiction of the highest order” (106). Denitia Smith's review was mixed, uneasy with Walker's didacticism and (what Smith saw as) ideological haziness but full of praise for the novel's qualities of voice—a common strategy for other reviewers. Smith hazarded the opinion that, with Purple, Alice Walker had joined “the company of Faulkner” (183). Among the downright negative reactions, Pinckney's is certainly the most outspoken and searing; he has recently been joined by Trudier Harris, who argues that the novel's too-hasty canonization resulted from “the media's ability, once again, to dictate the tastes of the reading public, and to attempt to shape what is acceptable creation by black American writers” (155). Harris also provides an excellent summary of these polarized reviews. In general, this sharply polarized reception was only exacerbated by the film's release in December, 1985. In a January 27, 1986, article the New York Times accurately summed up the brouhaha: feminists and liberal critics were passionately positive about the film; others, including black male writers like Nate Clay of the Chicago Metro News (a major black weekly), were acutely negative, usually condemning the film as “a pretext to take one more lick at society's rejects” (“Blacks in Heated” 13). Around the country, public debates aired similar opinions about issues of gender and race raised by The Color Purple: in New York, over 1,000 blacks “crammed into the Progressive Community Church for a heated discussion of the film” (ibid), a scene also repeated on university campuses (later that month, for example, the University of Kentucky sponsored a heated panel discussion attended by over 200).

  3. See for example Genette 116-23, and especially 140-3; also, though her terms are somewhat more general, see Rimmon-Kenan 43-6.

  4. There is a striking parallel to Purple in a long essay Walker wrote for the July, 1982, issue of Essence. Almost exactly contemporaneous with the novel, “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like” poses the two questions of blackness and femininity as they intersect in the problematic figure of that “lighter-skinned, straighter-haired” black woman who is a stock figure in many American fictions. Interestingly, the essay opens with a polemical epistle, addressed to “Dear ———.” And the whole was intended to function, Walker claims, as “A Consciousness Raising Paper” (In Search 294). The same could well be said of The Color Purple.

  5. In retrospect this should not be surprising. Historically, such apparently documentary fictions have often been received as if the represented characters and events were real, so powerful are the naturalizing conventions involved. As for Walker, her essay “Writing The Color Purple” speaks of “the people in the novel” walking in and out of her life (In Search 356). Then too, many of the novel's reviewers and critics have focused on the lifelike quality and naturalizing power of Celie's voice. See also Christian 470, and in particular Fifer, whose essay argues that accepting and understanding Celie's dialect, the reader comes “to understand Celie's plight within a larger cultural context” (156).

  6. Here, encapsulated, is Walker's definition of a “womanist”: “a black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e. like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior, [for example when a woman] loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. [A womanist] appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility … and women's strength … [and is] committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (In Search xi).

  7. This was the scene that prompted Pinckney's “dancing eggplants” remark (n. 3, above). Later in his essay-review he returns to it: “The preacher father is grafted onto the script not just as a way to rehabilitate the sinner, but to get the camera inside a black church because what would a black film be without a climactic scene of getting religion?” Pinckney then concludes: “it is not so much that Spielberg has revived these stock types as that he has reminded us of how present these heirlooms of folly still are, how quickly and comfortably summoned, how great is the pressure to conform to the familiar, the recognizable” (20).

  8. For the full text of Laxalt's bill see the draft of it in the Conservative Digest 6.5/6 (May/June 1980).

  9. Tim LaHaye's book, The Battle for the Mind (1980), was one of the most full-bore salvos of the fundamentalist right. “The Most Dangerous Religion in the World” was the subtitle of Homer Duncan's Secular Humanism (1981), published with a prefatory essay by Senator Jesse Helms. Both books were best sellers in the world of religious publishing.

Works Cited

Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

Barth, John. Letters: An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fictitious Drolls & Dreamers Each of Which Imagines Himself Actual. New York: G. P. Putnams' Sons, 1979.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses.” The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture. Ed. Kathleen Woodward. Madison, Wisconsin: Coda Press, 1980.

———. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. 1978. New York: Jean Baudrillard and Semiotext(e), 1983.

Bellah, Robert N. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

———, and Charles Y. Glock, eds. The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

“Blacks in Heated Debate over The Color Purple.New York Times January 27, 1986, natl. ed.: I, 13.

Christian, Barbara. “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward.” In Evans 457-77.

El Safar, Ruth. “Alice Walker's The Color Purple.The International Fiction Review 12.1 (1985): 11-17.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1984.

Fifer, Elizabeth. “The Dialect and Letters of The Color Purple.Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Harris, Trudier. “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence.” Black American Literature Forum 18.4 (1984): 155-61.

Kael, Pauline. Rev. of Spielberg's The Color Purple. The New Yorker December 30, 1985: 69-71.

Kauffman, Linda S. Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kurtz, Paul. In Defense of Secular Humanism. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1983.

Norris, Frank. The Octopus. 1900. New York: Signet, 1964.

Parker-Smith, Bettye J. “Alice Walker's Women: In Search of Peace of Mind.” In Evans 478-93.

Pinckney, Darryl. “Black Victims, Black Villains.” The New York Review of Books January 29, 1987: 17-19.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New York: Methuen, 1983.

Royster, Philip M. “In Search of Our Fathers' Arms: Alice Walker's Persona of the Alienated Darling.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 347-70.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Shelton, Frank. “Alienation and Integration in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.College Language Association Journal 28 (1985): 382-92.

Smith, Denitia. “Celie, You a Tree.” Nation September 4, 1982: 181-3.

“Spielberg Takes His Biggest Risk With Color Purple.New York Times December 15, 1985, natl. ed.: II, 1, 23.

Stade, George. “Womanist Fiction and Male Characters.” Partisan Review 52 (1985): 264-70.

Tavormina, M. Teresa. “Dressing the Spirit: Clothworking and Language in The Color Purple.Journal of Narrative Technique 16 (1986): 220-30.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Towers, Robert. “Good Men are Hard to Find.” New York Review of Books August 12, 1983: 35-6.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. 1982. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.

———. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32 (May 1981): 152-68.

Priscilla L. Walton (essay date April 1990)

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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,” ironically anticipates the changes that occur in the comic mode of the succeeding century when laughter's “froth” virtually disappears and its “bitter aftertaste” comes to predominate. After 1900, literature—comedy in particular—becomes more acrimonious and discordant, perhaps better to represent life in our century of “disorder and irrationalism” (Sypher 201). The comic novel ceases to ring with the “silvery laughter” that George Meredith applauds; rather it reverberates to the maniacal, paranoid laughter in which Thomas Pynchon revels. In short, comedy enters the realm of the absurd and begins to reflect the individual's disorientation in a “senseless, chaotic” world.

Yet even within this context, it might seem anomalous to call Alice Walker's 1982 work, The Color Purple, a comedy. The novel is arguably bleaker than many of the others that are included in the mode, since it deals with rape, incest, and social prejudice; yet the ideal “womanist” world in which it culminates (Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens xi) is joyous and celebratory—a condition of the comic. Although its subject matter appears at times to counteract the levity expected of a comic novel and so to be at variance with the comic purpose, if we set aside our more traditional expectations of the mode and look rather at the intent of the comic, we see that The Color Purple rather closely adheres to its theoretical tenets.

While it is not my intention here to offer an absolute definition of comedy, some idea of what the comic signifies is necessary to come to an understanding of its relevance to The Color Purple. My discussion is selective: the characteristics I discuss relate more specifically to what theorists of the comic call “high comedy,” or the “comedy of ideas,” since Walker's novel is obviously not of the kind of comedy which elicits hearty guffaws from its readers. But this does not disqualify it from the mode, for theorists of the comic often note that laughter is a very deceptive criterion by which to assess it (Martin 74, Sypher 203). More often than not, high comedy concerns itself less with being ‘funny’ than with dramatizing possibilities and exploring potentials. If it does provoke laughter, it is because it mocks certain social conventions. Yet, it mocks because it devotes itself to social improvement and often provides a critique of societal limitations. James K. Feibleman suggests that comedy pursues the ideal:

A constant reminder of the existence of the logical order as the perfect goal of actuality, comedy continually insists upon the limitations of all experience and of all actuality. The business of comedy is to dramatize and thus make more vivid and immediate the fact that contradictions in actuality must prove insupportable. It thus admonishes against the easy acceptance of interim limitations and calls for the persistent advance toward the logical order and the final elimination of limitations.


Comedy seeks improvement in a “negative way,” for it asserts that if it is only the limitations of actuality which prevent it from achieving perfection, then the limitations should be eliminated (96). Therefore, in a period of social change (like the twentieth-century), comedy often assumes an increasing importance because it is more subversive in nature than tragedy (96) and seeks to improve society: “Better to stress the fact that however much value any actual situation may have, it is prevented from having more only by its limitations. Why, then, be satisfied?” (96). Because comedy continually exposes the limitations of the actual to highlight the ideal, many comic theorists emphasize its potentially “dangerous” and even “revolutionary” nature. Indeed, Wylie Sypher goes so far as to suggest that the comedian

refuses to make … concessions to actuality and serves, instead, as chief tactician in a permanent resistance movement, or rebellion, within the frontiers of human experience. By temperament, the comedian is often a fifth columnist in social life.


All these criteria are relevant to The Color Purple, but of more specific interest at this point is the means by which comedy frequently displays its “revolutionary” tendency. If comedy is a subversive mode, it often succeeds in demonstrating the limitations of the social order through the incorporation of an excluded or marginalized individual. Northrop Frye perceives this as comedy's adaptation of the “pharmakos” or the victimized character who is “opposed to or excluded from the fictional society” and has “the sympathy of the audience” (Anatomy 48). The “pharmakos” generally appears in comedy in one of two ways and can be regarded as a “fool or worse by the fictional society, and yet impresses the real audience as having something more valuable than his [or her] society has” (48); or the “pharmakos” may choose to repudiate the society, and in doing so become “a kind of pharmakos in reverse” (48). The idea of the “pharmakos” also foregrounds what has been called comedy's “paradoxical nature,” since in it frequently that which is “seemingly absurd [is] actually well-founded” (Martin 86) and therefore, in “the best sort of comedy,” the “incongruous is finally seen to be congruent to a larger pattern than that which was originally perceived” (87).

While comedy seeks to improve society, often, particularly in its twentieth-century manifestations, it veers so close to tragedy that it is difficult to separate the comic from the tragic mode. But Frye suggests that this is because “tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy [and] comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself” (“Argument” 455). If comedy completes itself, this completion is manifested in the new (or renewed) society which is evident in its conclusion. High comedy is not content to expose the limitations in a closed social order; once they have been exposed, it often offers what it perceives as the ideal, for in its aim for general improvement, it needs to provide an open society as an alternative to the closed or limited one it has dramatized. Comedy's theme, therefore, is often “the integration of society” (Anatomy 43) and this social integration “may emphasize the birth of an ideal society” (“Argument” 454). As a result, “that which gets born at the end of comedy” may “not impress us as true, but as desirable,” since unlikely “conversions, miraculous transformations, and providential assistance are inseparable from comedy” (Anatomy 170).

High comedy forces its dramatized order to “open in many directions” (Sypher 249). It becomes “an achievement of man as a social being” (Sypher 252) because it compels us to recognize our potential by mocking what is less than ideal in our practice. Hence, while it exposes the limitations of our society, it either eliminates these limitations and so renews its fictional order or it posits a new, ideal order in its conclusions. Like tragedy, therefore, comedy too offers a “road to wisdom” (Sypher 254), and the comic protagonist often learns through suffering (Sypher 254); but the comic differs from the tragic in that it never “despairs of man” (Sypher 254).

And Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple, does not despair of “man” either, for it incorporates these elements of comedy: it makes the incongruous congruent to a larger pattern; it refuses to accept the limitations imposed on its fictional society; and it posits a new order which is presented in the novel as ideal. Even its tragic elements are not anomalous, since they are in accord with Frye's observation of “how frequently a comic dramatist tries to bring his action as close to a catastrophic overthrow of the hero as he can get it, and then reverses the action as quickly as possible” (Anatomy 178).

However, if we are to apply these prescriptions to The Color Purple, we must first perceive it as a “high comedy,” since it is only this mode which theoretically subscribes to the criteria discussed earlier. But “high comedy” invariably includes, and, in fact, culminates in the comedy of manners, and to characterize The Color Purple as such appears to be problematic, especially in light of M. H. Abrams's explanation that this mode

deals with the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a polished and sophisticated society, relying for comic effect in great part on the wit and sparkle of the dialogue—often in the form of repartee, a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match—and to a lesser degree, on the ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies.


The male and female characters of The Color Purple do not live in a polished and sophisticated society, nor do they engage in what is traditionally considered sparkling and witty repartee. And the violations of social norms and decorum that occur are not perpetrated by foolish, stupid, or dandified characters but by female characters with whom we are expected to sympathize. However, the conventions of the comedy of manners are so clearly inverted in The Color Purple that we cannot but suspect it to be deliberate. Therefore, I would suggest that The Color Purple is a parodic inversion of the comedy of manners,1 and so undercuts the form at the same time that it ironically adheres to its intentions—to improve and to open the closed social order it dramatizes.

Linda Hutcheon defines parody as “imitation with critical difference” (36). She also notes that parody too is potentially “revolutionary”:

The presupposition of both a law and its transgression bifurcates the impulses of parody: it can be normative and conservative, or it can be provocative and revolutionary. … [P]arody can, like the carnival, also challenge norms in order to renovate, to renew.


In its parodic inversion of the comedy of manners, Walker's novel recalls the works of Jane Austen, who, as Sypher observes, “devastates our compromises and complacencies—especially male complacency” and “placidly undermines the bastions of middle-class propriety” (247). Austen too, of course, frequently parodies various literary modes, particularly “the popular romance fiction of her day” (Hutcheon 44), and through it “satirizes the traditional view of woman's role as the lover of men” (Hutcheon 44). But while she may call into question the social mores of her time, Austen presents, in the conclusions of her novels, a society in which women are integrated into the traditional order. Walker, on the other hand, recalls Austen's work with a “critical difference,” since in her novel no compromises are brooked. She goes further than her predecessor and rejects the society which imposes the limitations and at the same time points out the exclusivity of literature, since traditionally few novels that have achieved significant “recognition” have dealt with anything other than a white social order or anything other than a patriarchal society. (To this end she also reworks to some extent Samuel Richardson's Pamela and the traditional endings of sexist fairy tales, specifically “The Frog Prince.”)

By transposing the comedy of manners, Walker foregrounds the limitations she finds in it and so undercuts those social norms which it has incorporated and to which it ultimately contributes. Indeed, J. A. Cuddon suggests that the comedy of manners has “for its main subjects and themes the behaviour and deportment of men and women living under specific social codes” (139). This definition takes on new significance in relation to a novel like The Color Purple because it subverts the form by parodically inverting its conventional notions of expected social codes.

Walker writes from the point of view of an outsider who is rebuffed by a closed social order; yet in her novel she transcends these social restrictions and envisions a world in which they cease to exist. The Color Purple is an intellectual comedy in that it is a comedy of ideas: it dramatizes possibilities and completes itself in a vision of an ideal world2—a world which is matriarchal, a parody of the boy-gets-girl endings of most comedies and fairy tales. This world is also an ideal one which is in direct opposition to the rigidly closed society that is in evidence in the opening pages of The Color Purple. However, the tragic elements so apparent here are necessary to Walker's idea, since she must work through the limitations of the closed order to give credence to the utopian possibilities of her open, womanist world.

Walker dramatizes the crippling strictures of this old order through her heroine, who is a social pariah. Celie is not just a woman, she is a black woman; but she is not just a black woman, she is—as she later learns—a lesbian, and is, therefore, thrice removed from the white male heterosexual norm. By writing from the point of view of this seemingly socially aberrant individual, Walker exposes the limitations that society imposes on anything outside the norm and the narrow, restrictive lifestyle that it upholds. The society in evidence at the beginning of the novel is a totally closed society, which would not open to include Celie even if she wished it, since she cannot change the colour of her skin or her sex. Yet this social outcast is shown to be far wiser than the white patriarchy which excludes her. She is able to manifest at the conclusion of the work a society that “opens in many directions” (Sypher 249). And in doing so, she points up the limitations of life lived under the patriarchal norm by transcending them.

But before the ideal situation is reached, virtually every bastion of society is assaulted and little is left unscathed. Walker exposes the limitations in most social values and institutions and attacks the autonomy of the white male heterosexual norm which has generated them. It is difficult to pinpoint the prescriptions of this norm, primarily because they operate as the basis of our society and so seem self-evident to us. As Feibleman writes:

It is a notorious historical observation that customs and institutions rarely enjoy more than a comparatively brief life; and yet while they are the accepted fashion they come to be regarded as brute givens, as irreducible facts, which may be depended upon with perfect security.


However, by extrapolating from the text, we can reconstruct those social mores that Walker questions.

The prescriptions are formulated in the nuclear family, which perpetuates the notion of male and female roles. The male role dictates that man perform “manly” work, such as field work and carpentry (Purple 22, 27), and that he act as the head of his household and the maker of its laws (36, 37). The female role demands that woman be domestic; she must clean her house, cook, tend to the children (20), and obey her husband (37). It is not thought proper for men and women to trade these positions, and, if they do, they are subject to criticism and mockery (36). Marriage, which begins on this restrictive basis, merely perpetuates the stereotyped roles that its members are expected to play and again does not allow for deviation from them. Both the family and marriage are shown to operate on the assumption of feminine inferiority. Religion, in support of this order, preaches platitudes and casts narrow moral judgements upon those who are different or who refuse to conform to the conventions of family life (46). The laws effected by the patriarchy in the name of “equality” and “justice for all” merely function as a support to the existing order by keeping those outside that order “in their place” through the use of force (90, 91). While the theory behind the institution of the patriarchal order may have been altruistic and idealistic, Walker's novel shows how far from the ideal it has strayed in its practice. She therefore dramatizes these social values and institutions as they function in actuality and then redramatizes them in terms of the possible and the desirable.

The novel begins by portraying the family as a social unit which subjects girl children to a life of rape and terror: “First he put his thing up against my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it” (1-2). The first three letters suggest that Celie's “father” kills her mother through abuse, at which point he ominously begins to eye her favourite sister, Nettie. Clearly, “a girl child ain't safe in a family of men” (42) and no woman in the household is inviolable. Nor is marriage a safe haven for Celie; it merely becomes an extension of her unhappy home life. Ironically, she is offered to Mr. ——— like a slave on an auction block, and Mr. ——— is more interested in her dowry than in her: “Mr. ——— say, That cow still coming? He say, Her cow” (12). In turn, Celie's wedding day is equally desolate, “I spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy. He twelve” (13). Marital sex is brutal and animalistic, and Celie later equates it with defecation, since it is hardly an act based on mutual fulfilment: “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” (81).

Celie's life is more a death-in-life, a life without hope, joy, or any indication of improvement. Nettie comments on this before she leaves: “I sure hate to leave you here with these rotten children, she say. Not to mention with Mr. ———. It's like seeing you buried, she say. It's worse than that, I think. If I was buried, I wouldn't have to work” (18). But Celie does not despair, and her faith sustains her: “I just say, Never mine, never mine, long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along” (18).

While Celie may find a vent for her anguish in writing to God, religion itself is undercut when Shug Avery comes to town. Shug, who refuses to accept the limitations that society imposes on a woman's life, becomes the target for attack:

Even the preacher got his mouth on Shug Avery, now she down. He take her condition for his text. … He talk about a strumpet in short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin. Singing for money and taking other women mens. Talk bout slut, hussy, heifer and streetcleaner.


Not surprisingly, however, Celie does not hold with the virtues preached from the pulpit and repudiates conventional social behaviour as prescribed by Mr. ———'s father. Independently, she rejects the “virtues” which society applauds, and takes the ill Shug in to nurse. Astutely noticing his refusal to acknowledge her as a person, Celie discounts Mr. ———'s father's words: “Celie, he say, you have my sympathy. Not many women let they husband whore lay up in they house. But he not saying to me, he saying it to Mr. ———” (57). Celie chooses instead to champion Shug and responds: “Next time he come I put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass. See how he like that” (57).

Celie identifies with the rebellious Shug from the seventh page of the novel, when she finds her picture and begins to idolize the blues singer. Shug provides an ideal for Celie, since, unlike the other women in Celie's life, she is not broken through years of abuse. Pretty and different, she offers an alternative lifestyle:

Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw. … I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motocar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some. … An now when I dream, I dream of Shug Avery. She be dress to kill, whirling and laughing.


Celie is also attracted to her stepdaughter-in-law, Sofia, an Amazon who refuses to be dominated by her husband, Harpo. But an independent woman has a more difficult time than one who meekly accepts her meagre lot in life. Ironically, Harpo wants Sofia to act like the submissive Celie: “I want her to do what I say, like you do for Pa. … But not Sofia. She do what she want, don't pay me no mind at all. I try to beat her, she black my eyes. Oh, boo-hoo, he cry” (66). Even though he loves Sofia, Harpo's marriage is troubled because society has taught him that this is not the way a woman should behave. Celie tries to reason with him, but to no avail; social conventions are too deeply ingrained in his mind:

Sofia love you. You love Sofia. … Mr. ——— marry me to take care of his children. I marry him cause my daddy made me. I don't love Mr. ——— and he don't love me. But you his wife, he say, just like Sofia mine. The wife spose to mind.


Sofia becomes a victim of social injustice when she refuses to respect authority in the person of the white mayor's wife, who wants Sofia to work as her maid. When Sofia responds with a “hell no” (90), a brawl ensues and the police are called. The dangers of fighting back are clear since Sofia's punishment is hardly “just” or merited by her crime:

When I see Sofia I don't know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm, it stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can't talk. And she just about the color of eggplant.


Society's justice is again satirized when the astute women realize that the only way to get Sofia released from the prison that is killing her is to plead that “justice ought to be done” (99) and to assert that Sofia will only be sufficiently punished when she becomes “some white lady maid” (99). After raping Squeak, the sheriff promptly takes action to ensure that Sofia will be “properly punished,” and she is released into the mayor's custody. We realize how correct the women's assessment of society's “compassion” is when the mayor's (white) wife wishes to be “kind” to her maid and drives her to visit the family she has not seen in five years, only to make her leave in fifteen minutes (110-11). She later berates Sofia for her ingratitude.

The novel is often criticized for its melodramatic disposition, but I would suggest that this is a result of Walker's parodic inversion of Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Certainly the epistolary style of The Color Purple reminds us of Richardson's work, which, itself, is often melodramatic.3The Color Purple deliberately recalls Pamela, but ironically transposes it, for Pamela becomes reconciled to the world of men, and if she is accorded any stature within it, that stature is bestowed when Mr. B. learns to appreciate her, makes her his wife, and thus allows her entry into his world. Like Pamela, Celie too suffers at the hands of men, with the “critical difference” that she is never incorporated into their society. Rather, she overturns this order and instigates a new one, into which she allows Mr. ——— to enter when he rehabilitates himself.

Despite the almost overwhelming oppressiveness of Celie's life, she endures and finally begins to accept herself: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here” (214). Yet, this self-acceptance is dearly bought, and Celie suffers extreme anguish when she learns that Mr. ——— has been hiding the letters which her sister, Nettie, has written. She is so angry that she nearly kills her husband and is saved only by Shug's replacing the destructive razor in her hand with a constructive needle—a symbolic act. However, Nettie's letters provide a further source of anguish for Celie, when, through them, she learns of her true parentage. At this point, her anger turns to despair, and she rejects God:

Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won't ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.


But a woman—Shug—teaches Celie to love and to trust again, and when she offers to take Celie to Memphis, Celie's world is rejuvenated. In the pivotal dinner scene, when Celie and Squeak announce that they have decided to forge new identities by leaving their husbands, they refuse to conform to the old patriarchal order. Celie stabs Mr. ——— when he tries to slap her (271) and Squeak demands that she be called by her proper name: “Listen Squeak, say Harpo. You can't go to Memphis. That's all there is to it. Mary Agnes, say Squeak. Squeak, Mary Agnes, what difference do it make? It makes a lot, say Squeak. When I was Mary Agnes I could sing in public” (210).4 The final pages of the novel are spent in dramatizing the positive aspects of society, by incorporating and revitalizing the social values and institutions in light of the new order.

The family itself becomes a positive force when Sofia changes it into an entity that succours and helps its members. She extends the nuclear family when she welcomes Squeak's children into her home and heals the breach that had existed between the two women, both rivals for Harpo's affections: “Go on sing, say Sofia, I'll look after this one till you come back” (211). Family is, therefore, no longer based on blood but on mutual love and respect. Shug and Celie form a new family unit when Celie learns the truth of her parentage, and Shug's tenderness helps her to overcome her despair: “Shug say, Us each other's peoples now, and kiss me” (189). Further, Shug's relationship with Celie takes on the sanctity that Celie's marriage with Mr. ——— lacked and offers a positive view of “non-marriage” as a union which proffers acceptance and concern: “Besides, she say. You not my maid. I didn't bring you to Memphis to be that. I brought you here to love you and help you get on your feet” (218).

Even religion is revitalized when it extends to encompass the segregated, and God loses “Its” colour and gender: “God ain't a he or a she, but a It. … It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself” (202). When religion loses the limitations imposed on it by a white, male hierarchy, faith “opens in many directions” (Sypher 249), and Celie's perception of God becomes all inclusive and whole. She comes to accept Shug's belief in a God who is “everything” (202) and begins to understand “It” need not be restricted to a church:

God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don't. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You say God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.


Society itself can become more enlightened when its members are able to repudiate the dictates of societal norms. Indeed, there is an attempt on the part of the daughters to overcome the sins of the fathers when Eleanor Jane tries to make reparation for her parents' treatment of Sofia by working for her: “Do her peoples know? I ast. They know, say Sofia. They carrying on just like you know they would. Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers, they rave. She tell them, Whoever heard of somebody like Sofia working for trash” (288). The new society is not a closed order; it is open to all; even Mr. ——— can be included when he realizes the errors of his ways, rejects his old, narrow outlook, and learns the meaning of love:

… he say something that really surprise me cause it so thoughtful and common sense. When it come to what folks do together with they bodies, he say, anybody's guess is as good as mine. But when you talk bout love I don't have to guess. I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can't be halted just cause some peoples moan and groan. It don't surprise me you love Shug Avery, he say, I have love Shug Avery all my life.


The novel's major narrative symbol is associated with the act of sewing: Celie literally sews her life back together when she begins to design pants, and Mr. ———'s salvation is symbolized when he begins to make shirts to match them. Indeed, Mr. ——— asks Celie to marry him again, “this time in the spirit as well as in the flesh” (290), but she refuses him because, as she states, “I still don't like frogs” (290). Celie's reference to frogs recalls the fairy tale, “The Frog Prince,” which the novel parodically inverts. In this story, Mr. ——— may kiss the “princess,” but he undergoes no miraculous transformation into a handsome prince; he remains a “frog.” Celie, on the other hand, is still able to “live happily ever after” without him, which, as mentioned earlier, undercuts the traditional boy-gets-girl endings of most fairy tales and comedies. However, Celie does forgive Mr. ——— when she allows him to join in her creative process, and her forgiveness constitutes the basis for the new society, for men and even white women like Eleanor Jane, although viewed sceptically, are allowed a chance to atone.

Since the novel attacks those bastions of society—family, religion, and marriage—but also offers a rejuvenation of them in its final pages, it evidently suggests that society itself is not what Walker questions and rejects but rather the limitations that are imposed upon it and make it closed and restrictive. The womanist utopia of the conclusion signifies a renewal of the initial social order because it is more accessible and more humane. Walker's utopia is “humanist” as well as womanist in the sense that it offers a revivification of humanity as a whole. This concept is epitomized in Celie's sewing.5 Her first pair of pants are made out of army fabric—hard, stiff to the touch—which she later rejects in favour of soft, pliable material: “Shug finger the pieces of cloth I got hanging on everything. It all soft, flowing, rich and catch the light. This a far cry from the stiff army shit us started with, she say” (219). The clothes that Celie designs out of the new fabric enhance the people who wear them; she creates pants that are comfortable and designed with their wearer in mind:

these pants are soft, hardly wrinkle at all, and the little figures in the cloth always look perky and bright. And they full round the ankle so if she want to sing in 'em and wear 'em sort of like a long dress, she can.


Mr. ———'s shirts are also devised to be extensions of their wearer; they support life rather than stifle it: “Got to have pockets, he say. Got to have loose sleeves. And definitely you not spose to wear it with no tie. Folks wearing ties look like they being lynch” (290).

The clothes that Celie and Mr. ——— design celebrate rather than restrict people; they become a symbol of the humanist/womanist utopia manifested at the end of the novel. Indeed, this utopia becomes an Edenic paradise, as Thadious M. Davis suggests, for the arrival of Celie's son, Adam Omatangu, and the rest of her family from Africa

signals the continuity of generations, the return (ironically perhaps) to the ‘old, unalterable roots.’ Their return is cause for a larger hope for the race, and for celebration within the family and community, because they have survived ‘whole,’ literally since they miraculously survive a shipwreck and symbolically since they have acquired definite life-affirming attitudes.


This is precisely the note on which the novel ends, since the new order, the order that opens to the once segregated, is celebratory: “White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th, say Harpo, so most black folks don't have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other” (294). To paraphrase Martin, in Walker's comedy, the female/black incongruous is seen to be more congruous than the white patriarchy, which made them incongruous in the first place by denying them entry into its closed society.

Therefore, while it may seem “incongruous” to classify The Color Purple as a comedy, it cannot truly be called anything else, for it seeks to improve society by eliminating the limitations prescribed by the societal norms. Meredith stresses that where “the veil is over women's faces, you cannot have society, without which the senses are barbarous and the Comic Spirit is driven to the gutters to slake its thirst” (31). In The Color Purple, the “veil,” of which Meredith speaks, is lifted, the barriers between the sexes are razed, and a new world is erected on the ruins, in which the sexes meet on an equal footing and celebrate each other, life, and humankind.


  1. I am indebted to Linda Hutcheon for showing me the significance of this aspect of the novel.

  2. Romance too offers a utopia in its conclusion. However, romance offers idealized characters and incorporates other-worldly elements (Frye, Anatomy 186-95). To suggest that The Color Purple belongs to this genre, I think, would be to stretch a point. However, Frye does suggest that comedy will often overlap with romance in its conclusion (177) which seems to me to be the case here.

  3. The similarity of the two male protagonists' names (Mr. ——— and Mr. B.) further supports the idea that the novel plays on Richardson's text.

  4. Names are very important in this novel. Walker dramatizes the idea that when we name we possess, and as a result, the women reject the names accorded them by the patriarchy. On the other hand, Mr. ——— is also transformed into Albert when he sees the “errors of his ways” and convinces Celie of his sincere repentance. He, therefore, must be renamed to signify his renewal and his incorporation into the new order. It is also interesting to note that he loses the title—Mr.—which is used, to some extent, to subjugate Celie.

  5. It is also symbolized in Celie's dialectal language which is proffered as natural and supportive of life. When she is given a chance to “improve” her speech, she says, “only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind” (223).

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 4th ed. New York: Holt, 1981.

Bergson, Henri. “Laughter.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker's Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. 21.4 (1983): 39-53.

Feibleman, James K. “The Meaning of Comedy.” Aesthetics. Toronto: Collins, 1949.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

———. “The Argument of Comedy.” Theories of Comedy. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Martin, Robert Bernard. “Notes toward a Comic Fiction.” The Theory of the Novel. Ed. John Halperin. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.

Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Sypher, Wylie. “The Meanings of Comedy.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

———. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

Charles L. Proudfit (essay date spring 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11355

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 hear about it.

—Alice Walker, “The Eighties and Me”

Since the publication of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, both novel and author continue to elicit a wide range of praise and censure from an increasing number of black and white, female and male reviewers, literary critics, and general readers. At one extreme are those who find the work “an American novel of permanent importance” (Prescott 67); who place the author “in the company of Faulkner” (Smith 183); and who praise Walker for her creation of the unique voice of her protagonist, Celie, a “poor, ugly, uneducated [black girl] … [from] rural Georgia,” for “the universality of the themes of redemptive love, strength in adversity, independence, and self-assertion through the values of community,” and for “creating a unique set of people who speak to the human condition” (McFadden 139-43). At the other extreme are those who feel that the novel should be “ignored” rather than “canonized” (Harris, “On The Color Purple” 155); who place Walker “closer to Harriet Beecher Stowe than to [Zora Neale] Hurston” (Pinckney 18); and who censure Walker for the creation of an unrealistic plot (Towers 36), for the “depiction of violent black men who physically and psychologically abuse their wives and children … [and for the] depiction of lesbianism” (Royster 347), and for peopling her novel with characters who “themselves do not seem to respond to [some form of] internal logic” (Harris, “Victimization” 9). Walker herself relates that her mother finds the book's language “offensive” and humorously describes a parent's attempt to have the novel banned in a California public school system (“Coming in from the Cold” 55-58). Between these extreme critical positions, one finds a growing body of measured literary criticism that addresses both the novel's formal qualities and thematic concerns1 and that validates the novel's having been awarded in 1983 both the American Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize.

Although from the beginning critics have recognized the importance of the theme of “female bonding” in Celie's search for and development of a mature female identity,2 no one, to my knowledge, has viewed either this theme or the protagonist's character development from the perspective of contemporary psychoanalytic developmental psychology. Such a psychoanalytic developmental reading will help illuminate Walker's literary portrayal of the importance of the mother for the female infant, child, and adult as she struggles to separate, to individuate, to develop her own identity, and to make a final choice of love object; will suggest the need to reconsider certain negative criticisms of the novel, such as unequal narrative voices, unrealistic character development, faulty plot, unbelievable events, and a lesbian relationship “that represents the height of silly romanticism” (Harris, “On The Color Purple” 157); and will help account for the contrasting literary portraits of Celie and Nettie.

This reading is based upon a mother-daughter bond that, according to several current psychoanalytic theorists on female development, has its origins in deep, primitive ties to the mother of infancy and is a bond that must be worked through again and again during a woman's lifetime.3 Walker's descriptions of Celie's bonding, first with the biological mother of infancy and later with suitable mother surrogates, is psychologically realistic and ranges from the ministrations of Celie's younger sister Nettie, to Kate and Sofia, and to Shug's facilitating Celie's sensual awakening to adult female sexuality and a healthy emotional life. This “female bonding,” which occurs over an extended period of time, enables Celie—a depressed survivor-victim of parent loss, emotional and physical neglect, rape, incest, trauma, and spousal abuse—to resume her arrested development and continue developmental processes that were thwarted in infancy and early adolescence. These processes are described with clinical accuracy; and, as they are revisited and reworked in Celie's interactions with appropriate mother surrogates, Celie is enabled to get in touch with her feelings, work through old traumas, and achieve an emotional maturity and a firm sense of identity that is psychologically convincing.

Since some readers may not be familiar with psychoanalytic developmental psychology, often referred to as object relations theory, I should first like to make several observations about this approach to the study of child development and then acquaint the reader with several concepts and theories of the English analyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott that inform my developmental reading of the text.4 Stated simply, psychoanalytic developmental psychology is the study of the infant's and the child's development that focuses upon the unconscious, conscious, and maturational processes that occur within the mother-infant/child matrix. The infant's and child's object relations are both internal (intrapsychic) and external (the child experiences itself as separate from other objects [like mother or father] “objectively perceived” [Winnicott, Maturational Processes 57]). Most object relations theorists postulate that at birth the human infant is psychologically merged with its mother.5 Winnicott asserts that “There is no such thing as a baby”; rather, “one sees a ‘nursing couple’” (Through Paediatrics 99). Margaret Mahler observes that “from the beginning the child molds and unfolds in the matrix of the mother-infant dual unit” (5). Although Mahler, Winnicott, and other object relations theorists differ in their understanding of the developmental process that, if successfully “completed,” allows for the emergence of a healthy, creative self, they do agree that this process occurs within the mother-infant/child matrix (Greenberg and Mitchell). Furthermore, Winnicott, Mahler, and others agree with Daniel Stern: “Development is not a succession of events left behind in history. It is a continuing process, constantly updated” (260).6 Walker's fictional treatment of Celie's continuing development into middle age appears to be in agreement with this psychoanalytic developmental view.

Although a psychoanalytic literary critic might draw upon several schools of object relations in offering a developmental reading of Walker's The Color Purple, I believe that Winnicott's concepts and theories offer the most helpful insights into the psychological dynamics that underlie Walker's literary portrayal of the significance of “female bonding” for the resumption of Celie's arrested developmental processes in the early part of the novel. Furthermore, Winnicott's view of the origin of what he calls the “True Self” and the “False Self” not only illuminates the contrasting literary portraits of Celie and her younger sister Nettie but also enables the reader to observe how Walker creatively uses diction, sentence structure, tone, and style in the sisters' letters to each other in order to create “authentic” and “inauthentic” voices. Finally, Winnicott's assertion that the developmental issues of infancy “are never fully established, and continue to be strengthened by the growth that continues in later childhood, and indeed in adult life, even in old age” (Maturational Processes 74) lends credence to Celie's lengthy developmental process—a process that has been severely criticized (Harris, “Victimization” 16). Since Walker's fictive description of Celie's developmental history includes a brief sketch of the first several years of her life (Color Purple 160-61), I will begin with Winnicott's concept of “primary maternal preoccupation” (Maturational Processes 85).

Winnicott observes that many expectant mothers experience a special psychological state during the latter part of their pregnancies and for several weeks after childbirth, in which they turn their attention inward and focus on the needs of the unborn and newly born. He calls this organized state “primary maternal preoccupation” and believes that the most successful mothers experience it. He believes that the mother and her newborn should be viewed as “a unit” (Maturational Processes 39) and asserts that the “good-enough mother” (57, 145; Playing 10),7 who is empathetically attuned to her infant's needs, provides a “holding environment” (Maturational Processes 44-50, 86), in which the infant moves “from being merged with the mother to being separate from her, or to relating to her as separate and ‘not-me’” (45). During this time the “good-enough mother” serves both as an auxiliary ego for the immature ego of the infant (44, 56-63) and as a “mirror” in which the infant sees itself reflected: “[When] the mother is looking at the baby … what she looks like is related to what she sees there” (Playing 112). According to Winnicott, the “good-enough mother” provides the infant over time with enough such positive reflections of self that the infant begins to develop a “True Self” (118). If, however, a “mother [who is not good enough] reflects her own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses” (112), then the infant perceives rather than apperceives (113), and we have the beginning of a compliant “False Self” (Maturational Processes 145). The origins of the “True Self” and the “False Self” begin before the infant has “separated off the ‘not me’ from the ‘me’” (158), that is, roughly prior to the sixth month.

Although Winnicott eschews a strict stage theory of infant development, he does note that the infant passes through several phases on its journey toward the development of a self. In the first phase of absolute dependence, the mother provides a facilitating environment (womb/first few weeks of life) for the totally helpless infant (Maturational Processes 87-88). In the next phase of relative dependence, the infant comes to separate the “not me” from the “me”; and from about six months to twenty-four months the infant becomes “aware of dependence,” comes to “know in his mind that mother is necessary,” and “gradually the need for the actual mother (in health) becomes fierce and truly terrible” (88). By two years of age, Winnicott believes that the infant has begun to develop inner capacities that will enable him or her to deal more effectively with loss (88). Prior to three years of age, however, loss of the mother or mothering agent can have profound adverse psychological effects upon a child. Finally, Winnicott asserts that throughout these phases of infant development “the whole procedure of infant-care has as its main characteristic a steady presentation of the world to the infant. … It can only be done by continuous management by a human being who is consistently herself. … This of course applies to father too” (87-88). These developmental concepts and theories, especially the “good-enough mother,” “the holding environment,” the “mirror role of the mother,” and the origin of the “True Self” and the “False Self,” underlie Walker's dramatic theme of “female bonding” and help illuminate the author's literary portrayal of Celie's lengthy search for and achievement of a mature female identity and healthy object relations.

Walker, like Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (one of Walker's favorite novels in childhood [Steinem 92]) begins The Color Purple in medias res: Celie, like Jane, is poised on the edge of adolescence after a childhood of loss, deprivation, and abuse. With Celie's first anguished letter to God, Walker enables the reader to enter into the private thoughts and emotional state of her traumatized, guilt- and shame-ridden, and depressed fourteen-year-old protagonist, who has been repeatedly raped and impregnated by the man (Alphonso) whom she believes to be her biological father: “Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (11). Celie draws a line through “I am” and writes “I have always been a good girl,” because the child victim of rape and incest often blames herself for her trauma; or, worse still, believes that this bad thing has happened to her because she is bad and therefore deserves it. Celie writes to God because she is ashamed of what is happening to her (122) and because of the threat from Alphonso that immediately precedes Celie's first letter: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (11). Threats and forced secrecy are usual parts of incest (Herman 88; Russell 132-33). The style of this letter, and of those that immediately follow, is characterized by short, choppy sentences, halting rhythms, repetitive grammatical structures of subject, verb, object, concrete physical descriptions in an ongoing present, and matter-of-fact tone. It is a style that mirrors Celie's traumatized cognitive processes and depressed emotional state. We learn that Celie's depression is partly caused by her repressed rage when later in the novel Sofia asks her what she does when she gets mad: “I think. I can't even remember the last time I felt mad, I say. I used to git mad at my mammy cause she put a lot of work on me. Then I see how sick she is. Couldn't stay mad at her. Couldn't be mad at my daddy cause he my daddy. Bible say, Honor father and mother no matter what. Then after while every time I got mad, or start to feel mad, I got sick. Felt like throwing up. Terrible feeling. Then I start to feel nothing at all” (47). Even the color purple, a mixture of the primary colors red (rage) and blue (depression), suggests Celie's mood in the initial letters. The color is also symbolic of the bruises resulting from the beatings inflicted upon Celie first by Alphonso (whom she later learns is her stepfather) and then her husband Albert.

In Celie's second letter, written about a year later, Celie's mother has died, screaming and cursing her pregnant daughter. After the birth of Celie's second child, Alphonso gives her infant son away, as he had her infant daughter, though Celie believes that he has killed them. She stops menstruating after the second birth. During the next five years, Celie lives at home with Alphonso, his new young wife, and a growing number of their children; she serves as a maid, and as protector of her younger sister Nettie against Alphonso's sexual advances. At twenty, Celie is married off to Albert, a widower with children, who also abuses her. Nettie joins them but is soon told by Albert to leave.

It is not until sometime later, when Albert brings home his old flame Shug Avery, that Celie is enabled, with Shug's help, to find Nettie's letters to her. These letters, written after Nettie goes to live with the missionaries Corrine and Samuel but hidden by Albert, reveal to Celie the truth of her origin. She discovers that Alphonso is not her biological father and that she lived for the first two years of her life as the only child in a loving family. The father adored his pregnant wife and, we would expect, his daughter Celie. But one night, when she was barely two years old, her successful father's store and blacksmith shop were burned and destroyed; he and his two brothers were dragged from their homes and hanged by jealous white merchants; and, when his mutilated and burned body was brought home to his wife by neighbors, she gave birth to Nettie and suffered an emotional breakdown:

Although the widow's body recovered, her mind was never the same. She continued to fix her husband's plate at mealtimes just as she'd always done and was always full of talk about the plans she and her husband had made. The neighbors, though not always intending to, shunned her more and more, partly because the plans she talked about were grander than anything they could even conceive of for colored people, and partly because her attachment to the past was so pitiful. She was a good-looking woman, though, and still owned land, but there was no one to work it for her, and she didn't know how herself; besides she kept waiting for her husband to finish the meal she'd cooked for him and go to the fields himself. Soon there was nothing to eat that the neighbors did not bring, and she and her small children grubbed around in the yard as best they could.

While the second child was still a baby, a stranger appeared in the community, and lavished all his attention on the widow and her children; in a short while, they were married. Almost at once she was pregnant a third time, though her mental health was no better. Every year thereafter, she was pregnant, every year she became weaker and more mentally unstable, until, many years after she married the stranger, she died.

Two years before she died she had a baby girl that she was too sick to keep. Then a baby boy [in fact Celie's kidnapped babies (12-13)]. These children were named Olivia and Adam.


Thus, in a single evening, the two-year-old Celie experiences several catastrophic losses: (1) the death of a loving father; (2) the emotional loss of a loving mother (at first through a psychotic episode and later through sickness and depression); (3) the loss of a safe and nurturing family environment; and (4) the loss of her place as an only child. During the next several months, Celie and her newborn baby sister Nettie experience hunger, neglect, and other deprivations. When Alphonso appears on the scene within the year and “lavished all his attention on the widow and her children,” Celie's and Nettie's physical needs were probably met, but their mentally unstable, ill, and often pregnant mother would not have been able to provide either of her daughters with the “good-enough mothering” that they needed. Given the description of Alphonso in Celie's early letters, he would not have been temperamentally fit to serve as a mother substitute. We can reasonably postulate that Celie became mother surrogate to Nettie, as well as to her ill and half-crazed mother's unwanted babies.8 When Celie's mother goes “to visit her sister doctor over Macon” (11), Alphonso rapes Celie and begins to use her as a sexual replacement for his exhausted wife—a not uncommon situation in actual cases of father-daughter incest (Herman 47-49).

This dramatic literary portrait of Celie as a traumatized and depressed survivor-victim of parent loss, physical and emotional neglect, rape, incest, and spousal abuse, which one black female critic finds unbelievable (Harris, “On The Color Purple” 155-56), is in fact a clinically accurate description of what Leonard Shengold calls “soul murder”:

Soul, or psychic, murder involves trauma imposed from the world outside the mind that is so overwhelming that the mental apparatus is flooded with feeling. The same overstimulated state can result as a reaction to great deprivation. The terrifying too-muchness requires massive and mind-distorting defensive operations for the child to continue to think and feel and live. The child's sense of identity (that is, the emotional maintenance of the mental images of his or her self) is threatened. Our identity depends initially on good parental care and good parental caring—on the transmitted feeling that it is good that we are there. … What happens to the child subjected to soul murder is so terrible, so overwhelming, and usually so recurrent that the child must not feel it and cannot register it, and resorts to a massive isolation of feeling, which is maintained by brainwashing (a mixture of confusion, denial, and identifying with the aggressor). A hypnotic living deadness, a state of existing “as if” one were there, is often the result of chronic early overstimulation or deprivation. As [Sandor] Ferenczi (1933) put it, “The [abused] child changes into a mechanical obedient automaton.” … But the automaton has murder within.


As a survivor of deprivation in childhood and of overstimulation in adolescence and young adulthood, Celie exhibits several characteristics of those who have experienced “soul murder.” When her husband Albert, whom she addresses as “Mr. ———” until the very end of the novel, orders Celie to get his belt and then beats her, she isolates her feelings: “It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree” (30). Unable to deal with her feelings of jealousy and rage (46), Celie identifies with her male aggressors: when Harpo asks her how to make his wife Sofia mind, Celie writes, “I don't mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr. ——— call me, she [Sofia] look surprise. And like she pity me. Beat her, I say” (43). And Celie, like other victims of “soul murder” who have been reduced to “a mechanical obedient automaton,” harbors a murderous rage that almost surfaces when Albert's father denigrates Shug (58-59) and when she learns that Albert has for many years been intercepting and hiding Nettie's letters (114-15).

How does Celie survive her early losses and subsequent “soul murder” and begin to move successfully through the developmental stages arrested in infancy and adolescence toward a mature female identity? How is she enabled to take pleasure—her own pleasure—in creative work and unselfish love as an adult? In short, how is Celie able first to verbalize and then to fulfill with her authentic living the promise inherent in those Stevie Wonder verses quoted by Walker at the beginning of her novel: “Show me how to do like you / Show me how to do it”?

Alice Walker writes: “Let's hope people can hear Celie's voice. There are so many people like Celie who make it who come out of nothing. People who triumph” (Anillo and Abramson 67). According to psychoanalytic developmental psychology, however, a successful survivor does not emerge “out of nothing”; Celie, as a successful survivor, is able to learn “how to do it” because (1) her family of origin gave her “good parental care” during the first two years of her life; (2) she is able to make use of several nurturing surrogate mother figures, foremost among whom is “the Queen Honeybee” herself, Shug Avery; and (3) as a survivor of “soul murder” she uses “adaptive powers and talents” (Shengold 7).9 In the remainder of this paper, I shall first speculate upon the psychological state of the pretraumatized two-year-old Celie viewed from the perspective of psychoanalytic developmental psychology; then attempt to show how Celie “bonds” with developmentally appropriate mother surrogates (Winnicott's “good-enough mother”) as she resumes working through several developmental processes that were traumatically halted at age two and that need to be readdressed in her skewed and delayed adolescence in order for her to achieve psychological maturity and a firm sense of identity; and, finally, compare Celie and Nettie as examples of what Winnicott calls the “True Self” and the “False Self.”

Since Samuel's story of Celie's family of origin before its destruction includes a father who was a successful farmer and landowner, who prospered at whatever he turned his hand to, and who adored his wife (160), we can infer that Celie's first two years of life were spent in a supportive, caring family environment in which her basic physiological and psychological needs were met. We can assume that Celie bonded successfully with her mother and received “good-enough mothering.” We find this mutually loving, triangular yet preoedipal family re-experienced by Celie in several places in the text. When Albert's father pays his son and Celie, now in her twenties, a call and denounces Shug Avery as a “whore,” Albert and Celie, each of whom loves Shug, exchange a glance, and Celie writes: “This the closest us ever felt. He [Albert] say, Hand Pa his hat, Celie” (59). A little while later, Albert's brother Tobias drops by with a box of chocolate for the “Queen Honeybee.” After Shug enters and sits by Celie without looking at Albert, Celie has a moment of intense self-awareness: “Then I see myself sitting there quilting tween Shug Avery and Mr. ———. Us three set together gainst Tobias and his fly speck box of chocolate. For the first time in my life, I feel just right” (61). Finally, in Celie's last letter, written in her early fifties, she describes herself and Albert and Shug “sitting out on the porch after dinner. Talking. Not talking. Rocking and fanning flies. … sitting on the porch with Albert and Shug feel real pleasant” (249). These adult experiences of Celie's are pleasurable because they are unconsciously experienced as that loving relationship she had had with her preoedipal father and mother during the latter part of her first two years of life. They help fulfill the need that has remained for such family object relations since the early separations.

Celie's father's adoration of his pregnant wife and mother of his daughter also strongly suggests that femaleness and femininity were highly valued by both mother and father, and that Celie's core gender identity is femaleness. According to Robert Stoller, our “core gender identity is the sense we have of our sex—of maleness in males and of femaleness in females. … It is a part of, but not identical with, what I have called gender identity—a broader concept, standing for the mix of masculinity and femininity found in every person. … Core gender identity develops first and is the central nexus around which masculinity and femininity gradually accrete” (“Primary Femininity” 61). Stoller's research leads him to believe that “core gender identity” is solidified for the most part by the end of the second year; gender identity, however, is determined by a wide variety of biological, psychological, social, and cultural influences and is usually not finalized until middle or late adolescence.10 Thus, by two, Celie's “core gender identity,” her sense of femaleness, is fairly well established, and the groundwork has been laid for the further development of her “gender identity.”

Perhaps most important for Celie's ability to bond successfully with females in adolescence and young adulthood, and thus to resume her development of an identity, of a “True Self” in Winnicott's terminology, is her partial but incomplete resolution of a transitional developmental phase that occurs roughly between six and twenty-four months. Winnicott calls this phase “relative dependence” and describes the infant's need for its mother at this time as “fierce and truly terrible.” Since the infant has not yet developed the permanent capacity to image mother either consciously or unconsciously when she is absent, the infant is subject to being overwhelmed with “separation anxiety.” Mahler offers the term “rapprochement crisis” for this phase and describes it as a time of ambivalence, when the infant's needs for separateness and autonomy and identity formation are in conflict with its need for mother (76-120). If the mother is understanding and empathetic at this difficult time, the infant will, in the third year, go on to develop a stable sense of self and others. If, however, there are serious maternal failures, severe adult psychopathology may result, and the developmental tasks of adolescence, especially the finalizing of gender identity and a firm sense of self, will be made even more difficult. Since Celie loses her “good-enough mother” at the height of her “rapprochement crisis,” when she has yet to develop stable conscious and unconscious images of mother and her identity formation is in the early stages of development, it is hardly surprising that Celie should later respond to the ministrations of women and resume the developmental tasks of separation, autonomy, and identity formation.

Although the white, patriarchal God Celie writes to in the first part of the novel never sends her a sign (175-76), life does—primarily in the form of caring and nurturing black women. These “good-enough mothers,” with the notable exception of Shug Avery, take the initiative; they intuit the depressed and traumatized Celie's deeply buried needs and break through her defensive passivity. When Nettie runs away from home to escape Alphonso's unwanted sexual advances and joins Celie and Albert, she teaches Celie “spelling and everything else she think I need to know. … to teach me what go on in the world” (25).

Nettie not only tries to give Celie the tools that will free her, she also, even more importantly, conveys to Celie her belief that Celie is of value. Kate, one of Albert's sisters, convinces him of Celie's need for clothes and takes her to a store to select cloth so that a dress can be made. When Celie is overcome with emotion and cannot speak, Kate reassures her and says: “You deserve more than this. Maybe so. I think” (28). And when Sofia, Harpo's wife and Albert's daughter-in-law, suggests that Celie and she make quilt pieces, Celie writes: “I run git my pattern book. I sleeps like a baby now” (47).

It is the seemingly inappropriate nightclub singer Shug Avery, however, who provides Celie with an extended period of “female bonding”; who, with unconditional love, provides a “holding environment” in which Celie's nascent self is reflected back to itself; and, who, as surrogate and “good-enough mother,” and lover, helps Celie to complete the development of those capacities that enable her to deal more effectively with loss, to finalize her gender identity and choice of mature love object, and to develop a stable sense of self. One might argue that the development of a nurturing and positive relationship between these two women is improbable. Celie, until she hears Shug's name spoken, appears as a passive victim. After she is married to Albert, women who become mother surrogates have to reach out to her. How then can Shug's name and her picture, provided to her by Alphonso's new wife (16), mobilize the depressed and passive Celie actively to seek a “good-enough mother” in Shug? And when the two women meet for the first time, the deathly ill Shug's first words are “You sure is ugly” (50).

What may appear inappropriate and improbable is seen not to be so when we acknowledge Celie's developmental history, her unconscious need to complete those developmental tasks that have been skewed and/or arrested—and most important initially, her adolescent longing for a transitional, idealized role model, figures that adolescents often draw from the entertainment and sports worlds: “Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw. She more pretty then my mama. She bout ten thousand times more prettier then me. I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motorcar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some. I ast her to give me the picture. An all night long I stare at it. An now when I dream, I dream of Shug Avery” (16).

After Celie's immediate positive response to the glamorous figure in the photograph, she focuses on the singer's “serious” and “sad eyes.” In so doing, she moves from her adolescent need to cathect a transitional, idealized role model to her unconscious infantile need to master the trauma of losing the emotional availability of her “good-enough mother.” Her initial negative encounters with the ill Shug parallel Celie's frustrated infantile efforts to break through her mother's psychosis and later her depression and deteriorating mental and physical condition. Celie perseveres, however, for she knows from the expression of the eyes in the photograph that this woman has the ability to mirror Celie back to herself. “What [mother] looks like is related to what she sees there,” asserts Winnicott (Playing 112), and Celie's experience confirms this. When she sees Shug's “serious” and “sad” eyes, she sees into her own murdered soul. When Alphonso is trying to convince Albert that Celie would make him a good wife despite her ugliness, Celie takes out Shug's picture, looks in her eyes, and “Her eyes say Yeah, it bees that way sometime” (18). Celie's ability to use Shug's eyes as a mirror is predicated upon earlier, positive, and unconscious mirror reflections from a “good-enough mother” of happier days. Indeed, Celie's ability to use Shug Avery herself as a mother surrogate for female bonding is predicated upon “good-enough mothering” during the first two years of Celie's life.

Once Celie has cathected Shug's photograph, her image permeates Celie's conscious and unconscious mind. Shug serves both as a “good-enough [preoedipal] mother” and as a libidinal object. On her wedding night, Celie thinks of Shug and, knowing that Albert and Shug were lovers, puts her arm around him (21). When Kate takes her to the store to buy cloth for her dress, Celie wonders what color Shug would wear (28). After hearing that Shug and her “orkestra” are coming to town, Celie carries an announcement with Shug's picture on it in her pocket all day and wants desperately to go that night: “Not to dance. Not to drink. Not to play card. Not even to hear Shug Avery sing. I just be thankful to lay eyes on her” (33). And when Albert brings the sick Shug home to recuperate, Celie, though flooded with emotions and desiring to heal her, cannot move until she “see her eyes” (50). When Shug finally looks up at her, Celie notices those parts of Shug's face that a nursing infant would see: “her face black. … She got a long pointed nose and big fleshy mouth. Lips look like black plum. Eyes big, glossy” (50).

Celie not only devours Shug with her eyes but wishes to incorporate her with her mouth. As she nurses Shug back to health, Celie at first hungrily looks at her naked body: “First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nippies, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man” (53). After Celie gives Shug coffee and a cigarette, she has a compulsion to take “hold of her hand, tasting her fingers in my mouth” (55). Shug, in her capacity as a “good-enough mother,” is unconsciously experienced by Celie as the maternal breast—a libidinal object. Celie's intense hunger is soon satisfied by the physical presence of this woman whose nickname, in combination with “nippies,” forms a Southern expression for a pacifier. Later, Celie washes and combs Shug's hair, saving the strands that “come out in my comb. … I work on her like she a doll or like she Olivia—or like she mama. I comb and pat, comb and pat. First she say, hurry up and git finish. Then she melt down a little and lean back gainst my knees. That feel just right, she say. That feel like mama used to do. Or maybe not mama. Maybe grandma” (57).

Although Celie has found a “good-enough mother” in Shug, it is only when Shug can provide an extended “holding environment” that Celie can build upon the efforts of previous mother surrogates and, in bonding with Shug, complete her previously stymied psychological development. One night Shug takes the initiative and asks to sleep with Celie. When Shug asks Celie how it was making love “with your children daddy,” Celie begins to tell another person for the first time about her rape and incest. Uncertain of Shug's response, Celie soon pauses: “I lay there quiet, listening to Shug breathe.” After several more painful revelations, she pauses again: “Shug so quiet I think she sleep. After he through, I say, he make me finish trimming his hair. I sneak a look at Shug. Oh, Miss Celie, she say. And put her arms round me. They black and smooth and kind of glowy from the lamp-light. I start to cry too. I cry and cry and cry. Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug arms. How it hurt and how much I was surprise” (108-9). This bedroom scene is the beginning of Celie's working through her rape trauma with abreaction and reconstruction of the traumatic events. Shug, as a “good-enough mother,” provides a “holding environment” that enables Celie to verbalize and to get in touch with long-repressed memories and feelings and work them through. Her severe dissociative state and cognitive deficiencies improve after this abreaction, as evidenced by the increasingly grammatical, stylistic, and tonal complexity of her letters.

It is also in this bedroom scene that the two women become lovers. Once again, Shug takes the initiative. After unburdening herself with words and tears, and unable consciously to recall the love of her preoedipal parents, Celie angrily says, “Nobody ever love me.” Shug immediately responds: “I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth.” After Celie responds with a kiss, the two kiss repeatedly—then touch—and then Celie says: “Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth.” And then: “Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too” (109).

Even though Celie's sensuous “female bonding” with Shug leads to a deeply experienced and lengthy lesbian relationship between the two women, Shug continues to serve Celie as a “good-enough mother” who ministers to the unconscious developmental needs of her child. Besides “mirroring” and providing a “holding environment,” Shug also remains “consistently herself” (Winnicott, Maturational Processes 87) and allows for moments of quiescent transitional relatedness which, according to Winnicott, are essential for the development of a stable and personal self: “It is only when [the infant experiences himself] alone (that is to say, in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his own personal life” (34). Celie describes the first of many such moments following their first night together: “Me and Shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can't hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel Shug's big tits sorta flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ——— at all” (110).

Shug occasionally acts as an “auxiliary ego” for Celie and helps her modulate states of excitement. When Shug tells Celie that Albert has been hiding Nettie's letters to her over the years, leading her to believe that her sister was dead, Celie is flooded with murderous rage and, without Shug's intervention, would have cut Albert's throat with his razor (114-15). Later, when Celie's rage toward Albert makes her sexually impotent with Shug, Shug identifies Celie's emotional state and tells her that strong emotions, such as “being mad, grief, wanting to kill somebody” (136), make one impotent. Shug then suggests that together they make Celie a pair of pants, thus giving Celie a lesson in sublimation: “A needle and not a razor in my hand, I think” (137).11

Shug also helps Celie to verbalize her feelings about Albert openly and to separate from him (180-83); long before they become lovers she gives Celie a lesson in and appreciation of her female reproductive organs (79-80); and her open bisexual behavior (which offends some critics)12 and her special blend of masculine and feminine gender identity facilitates Celie's completion of her own adult sexual orientation (choice of a love object) and gender identity. When Shug takes Celie to her house in Memphis, described by Celie as “big and pink and look sort of like a barn,” in order “to love you and help you get on your feet” (188, 190), she provides Celie with a literal and psychological womblike “holding environment” in which Celie flourishes. While there, Celie discovers that she has a creative and unique talent as a designer of “perfect pants,” for women and men, and, with Shug's financial backing, she establishes her own clothes business, “Folks-pants, Unlimited,” and thereby achieves economic independence: “Dear Nettie, I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends, and time” (193).

But before Celie can complete her final developmental task, the achievement of an autonomous and stable sense of self, she learns that Sofia's mother has died and returns home for the funeral. As she approaches Harpo's and Sofia's house, Celie acknowledges to herself: “I feels different. Look different. Got on some dark blue pants and a white silk shirt that look righteous. Little red flat-heel slippers, and a flower in my hair. I pass Mr. ——— house and him sitting up on the porch and he didn't even know who I was” (195). When Albert walks up to Celie after the funeral, she looks “in his eyes and I see he feeling scared of me. Well, good, I think. Let him feel what I felt” (199). These internal and external changes are soon followed by an unexpected inheritance.

Sometime after returning to Memphis and Shug, Celie learns from Alphonso's wife Daisy that Alphonso is dead and that Nettie and Celie have inherited their dead parents' land and the house and dry goods store that Alphonso rebuilt. When Celie wonders what Nettie and she would sell in such a store, Shug quickly replies, “How bout pants?” (216). Celie and Shug return home to look at the property and the buildings, and Celie spends the summer getting the house ready for Nettie, her husband, Celie's grown children, Shug, and herself. When she returns home to Shug, Celie's lover and “good-enough mother” inadvertently provides her with a painful opportunity to complete her development of an autonomous and stable sense of self.

“My heart broke,” Celie writes to Nettie, after hearing from Shug that she “got the hots for a boy of nineteen” (218-19). Although Shug protests that she still loves Celie and will return to her once she has had her “last fling,” Celie regresses briefly, returns to writing about her feelings—but then is able to verbalize her love for Shug “whatever happens, whatever you do” (221). Celie finds it necessary, however, to leave Shug's house, and she returns to her own, where she undergoes a period of healthy mourning. At first Celie has little desire to live and writes Nettie that “the only thing keep me alive is watching Henrietta [Sofia's ill daughter] fight for her life” (222). She breaks into tears after telling Albert how Shug taught her how to sublimate her murderous rage for him by helping her to make her first pair of pants (223). And one of the darkest days of her life occurs when she receives both a telegram informing her that Nettie's homeward bound ship has been sunk by German mines and all of her letters written to Nettie—unopened: “I sit here in this big house by myself trying to sew, but what good is sewing gon do? What good is anything? Being alive begin to seem like a awful strain” (225). Alone and despairing, believing herself bereft of sister, adult children, and her “good-enough mother,” Celie confronts her existential aloneness and struggles to complete both her mourning process and her final developmental task.

As time passes, Celie occasionally questions Shug's love: “I stand looking at my naked self in the looking glass. What would she love? I ast myself. … My body just any woman's body going through the changes of age. … My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood. … But look at you. When Shug left, happiness desert” (229). Although she periodically receives a post card from Shug, there is no mention of her return. Celie and Albert often spend time talking about their love for Shug and sharing their happy and sad memories—an activity that furthers the mourning process. After six months have passed, Celie sums up the first part of that process:

Well, your sister too crazy to kill herself. Most times I feels like shit but I felt like shit before in my life an what happen? I had me a fine sister name Nettie. I had me another fine woman friend name Shug. I had me some fine children growing up in Africa, singing and writing verses. The first two months was hell, though, I tell the world. But now Shug's six months is come and gone and she ain't come back. And I try to teach my heart not to want nothing it can't have.

Besides, she give me so many good years. Plus, she learning new things in her new life. Now she and Germaine staying with one of her children.


This extract from a letter to Nettie not only conveys the authentic voice of successful mourning but shows us that Celie is beginning to move beyond her need for a “good-enough mother” and, as a developing, autonomous, and stable self, Celie is able to express appreciation for Shug's generosity and even derive pleasure from the thought that Shug is “learning new things in her new life.”

The mourning process is slow, however, and Celie is subject to a variety of contrasting thoughts and feelings about Shug: “I wish I could be traveling with her, but thank God she able to do it. Sometimes I feel mad at her. Feel like I could scratch her hair right off her head. But then I think, Shug got a right to live too. She got a right to look over the world in whatever company she choose. Just cause I love her don't take away none of her rights” (236). At times Celie regresses and unconsciously experiences Shug as the sad mother of her childhood: “What I love best bout Shug is what she been through, I say. When you look in Shug's eyes you know she been where she been, seen what she seen, did what she did. And now she know” (236). There comes a time, however, when Celie's mourning process has done its work, and she is able to consciously acknowledge and unconsciously experience Shug's separateness, uniqueness, and autonomy, as well as her own: “And then, just when I know I can live content without Shug, just when Mr. ——— done ast me to marry him again, this time in the spirit as well as in the flesh, and just after I say Naw, I still don't like frogs, but let's us be friends, Shug write me she coming home. Now. Is this life or not? I be so calm. If she come, I be happy. If she don't, I be content. And then I figure this the lesson I was supposed to learn” (247-48). Celie has indeed learned “how to do like you.” Through years of “female bonding” and “good-enough mothering,” Celie has, in middle age, created a mature, stable, and autonomous identity for herself; she is what Winnicott would call a “True Self.”

Nettie's literary portrait, however, contrasts sharply with Celie's; literary critics usually discuss this contrast in terms of the “narrative voices” that emerge from the letters. Whereas Celie's “voice” is praised by many,13 including one of Walker's harshest critics (Harris, “On The Color Purple” 156), Nettie's “voice,” and her letters, have, like the novel itself, received a wide variety of negative and positive criticism. On the negative side are those who find Nettie's voice to be nondistinctive (Towers 36) and inauthentic (Robinson 2); her letters to be “often mere monologues on African history” (Watkins 7), didactic (Smith 182), “unconvincing” (Davis 53), “preachy” (McFadden 140), and “extraneous to the central concerns of the novel” (Harris, “On The Color Purple” 157); and her language “dull, devitalized, too correct. … written in ‘white’ missionary language” (Tucker 92). On the positive side are those who praise Nettie's and Celie's “voices” in terms of the authentic folk voice that emanates from the novel (Watkins 7; Chambers 54) and who find that Nettie's letters provide “important thematic parallels … [and] essential plot information” (McFadden 140), foster change in Celie (Fifer 158; Babb 114), and “add substantially to the depth and variety of the entire novel” (Tucker 91), while Nettie's language, “conventional, educated diction,” bodies forth “the new self Nettie has created with her new language” (Fifer 155, 158). Thus at one extreme Towers and Robinson assert that Nettie is “essentially uncharacterized” (Towers 36) and has “no personality” (Robinson 2), and at the other extreme Fifer argues that Nettie, through mastering a new language, standard English, has created a new self for herself (158).

Whether one views Nettie's “narrative voice” or literary portrait as superficial or complex, her intellectual and educated mind contrasts vividly with the emotional intensity of her victimized older sister. 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, a “True Self,” and that Nettie, who is cared for and protected by Celie until she joins the black missionaries Corrine and Samuel, the adoptive parents of Celie's two children, develops in infancy the beginning of a “False Self” that is strengthened and formed by her immediate family environment and the educational system. Approaching Nettie's literary portrait in terms of Winnicott's “False Self” helps account for the divergence of critical opinion concerning the authenticity of Nettie's “voice.” Should Nettie appear to be what she is not, then those critics who find her “voice” authentic have been misled by her “False Self,” and those critics who find her “voice” superficial have penetrated Nettie's “False Self.” Before proceeding with this developmental reading, I should like to review Winnicott's thoughts about the origin and development of the “False Self.”

Winnicott believes that the “False Self” originates during the first stage of object relationships (Maturational Processes 145); that is, prior to the sixth month of life, before the infant has “separated off the ‘not me’ from the ‘me’” (58). The not “good-enough mother” mirrors her own self to the infant rather than mirroring the infant back to itself, thereby making the infant perceive rather than apperceive, and it complies with mother and her needs. The infant, according to Winnicott, begins to develop “an aspect of the personality that is false (false in that what is showing is a derivative not of the individual [True Self] but of the mothering aspect of the infant-mother coupling)” (58). The adult who has a “False Self” system uses it “to hide and protect the True Self, whatever that may be” (142); the “False Self” “does [this] by compliance with environmental demands” (147). Winnicott also posits a continuum for “False Personalities”: “At one extreme: the False Self sets up as real and it is this that observers tend to think is the real person. … The True Self is hidden” (142-43), while “In health: the False Self is represented by the whole organization of the polite and mannered social attitude, a ‘not wearing the heart on the sleeve,’ as might be said” (143). Finally, Winnicott observes that “when a False Self becomes organized in an individual who has a high intellectual potential there is a very strong tendency for the mind to become the location of the False Self” (144).14

When Nettie's infancy is compared with Celie's, it is obvious that each is born into a “different family” and that each has a strikingly different developmental history. Whereas Celie spends the first two years of her life in an intact, loving, traditional family with “good-enough mothering,” Nettie spends the first several months of her life experiencing severe physical and emotional deprivation and the first several years complying with the emotional needs of a depressed and mentally unstable mother. Although Celie was in all probability able to offer some mothering to Nettie in the early as well as the later years, she could not have been a “good-enough mother” in Winnicott's sense. Thus it is reasonable to speculate that Nettie, in order to survive, quickly learned to comply with her environment; out of necessity she developed a “False Self” at the expense of her “True Self.” The text appears to corroborate this speculation.

During Nettie's adolescent years, first at home with Alphonso and later with Celie and Albert, Celie encourages Nettie “to keep at her books” (14) in order to escape her older sister's fate—and Nettie complies. When Albert decides that Nettie has to leave, Celie tells her to look up the wife of the “Reverend Mr. ———” (26)—and Nettie complies. And when Samuel and Corrine ask Nettie if she would like to join them in their African missionary enterprise, Nettie accepts, “But only if they would teach me everything they knew to make me useful as a missionary. … and my real education began at that time” (124).

Several critics have observed how effectively Nettie responds to and complies with her immediate environment. Valerie Babb notes that Nettie's first letter to Celie (119) “reads in a manner consistent with Celie's oral style” and that after “her missionary employers, Corrine and Samuel, have had a hand in her education … Nettie's letters are rendered completely in the standard” (113). Elizabeth Fifer describes Nettie as “controlled, religious, and idealistic” (163) and draws our attention to Celie's initial “bewilderment at the new self Nettie has created with her new language: ‘What with being shock, crying and blowing my nose, and trying to puzzle out words us don't know, it took a long time to read just the first two or three letters’” (158). Lindsey Tucker finds Nettie's letters to be “written in ‘white’ missionary language. Metaphorically speaking, Nettie wears her language much like she wears Corrine's clothing—without total authenticity or comfort” (92). Tucker then asserts: “In spite of a new home, a new career, and a new self, at the end of the novel, Celie has held onto one precious possession, her language. Although urged to become ‘educated,’ to learn to talk as the books do, she refuses to change her speech patterns by submitting to white language” (92). Restated in psychological terms, we might say that Celie will not and, in fact, cannot compromise the integrity of her “True Self,” whereas Nettie's compliance with “‘white’ missionary language” is in keeping with the protective nature of the “False Self.” Nettie's “real education,” it appears, is the final development of a “False Self” system that has found a home in Nettie's superior intellect.

In the next-to-last scene of The Color Purple, Celie's “True Self” and Nettie's “False Self,” as well as their family and loved ones, are reunited. Although Trudier Harris calls this a “fairy-tale” ending (“On The Color Purple” 160), I believe that the reunification scene offers a psychological validity that transcends the contrivance of plot, and that this psychological validity consists in offering closure to the developmental processes that began with the sisters' births. Celie, feeling “real pleasant” as she sits “on the porch after dinner” between Albert and Shug (249), has developed a mature, autonomous, and “True” self, has been reunited with her lover Shug, and has also on an unconscious level been reunited with her preoedipal father (Albert) and mother (Shug). Just as it is appropriate that the altered Albert, who sent Nettie away thirty years before, should be the first to recognize her among a group of people who have gotten out of a car with their luggage at the end of the drive, so too is it psychologically appropriate that Celie's and Nettie's meeting should be described from the perspective of very little children:

When Nettie's foot come down on the porch I almost die. … Then us both start to moan and cry. Us totter toward one nother like us use to do when us was babies. Then us feel so weak when us touch, us knock each other down. But what us care? Us sit and lay there on the porch inside each other's arms.

After while, she say Celie.

I say Nettie.

Little bit more time pass. Us look round at a lot of peoples knees. Nettie never let go my waist. This my husband Samuel, she say, pointing up. These our children Olivia and Adam and this Adam's wife Tashi, she say.

I point up at my peoples. This Shug and Albert, I say.


Not only does this emotional meeting of two middle-aged sisters enable them to regress and re-experience unconsciously earlier infantile needs for each other, but their “True” and “False” selves are validated with this encounter. Nettie brings nothing to this reunion that is truly hers—including herself. Thirty years earlier, when she had sought refuge with Samuel and Corrine, they treated her like family, “Like family might have been, I mean” (121). In becoming a missionary and going to Africa, she assumes “‘white’ missionary language” and a professional role. And when she arrives at Celie's and her house, she is accompanied by a dead woman's husband and a living woman's grown children. In order to complete this developmental portrait of Nettie as a “False Self,” Walker has her win a hollow “oedipal victory”: “You may have guessed that I loved [Samuel] all along; but I did not know it. Oh, I loved him as a brother and respected him as a friend, but Celie, I love him bodily, as a man!” (211). Corrine's suspicion that Olivia and Adam are, in fact, Samuel's and Nettie's children is incorrect (158-59, 168-69); what she does sense, however, is Nettie's love for the oedipal father. Nettie, unlike Celie, was not traumatized at the height of the rapprochement period, when a child needs its mother. Therefore, she passes through that “triangular period” that Freud termed the “Oedipus complex” (roughly from two and a half to six years) as a “False Self.” Celie, on the other hand, appears to have been largely unaffected by her passage through the oedipal years. Her traumatic losses at two and subsequent “soul murder” appear to have precluded the unfolding of this stage.

In contrast to Nettie, everything that Celie brings to this reunion is truly hers. As Nettie approaches, Celie, who “stand swaying, tween Albert and Shug” (250), is supported by her symbolic preoedipal family of origin as well as her lover Shug and now friend Albert. “Nettie stand swaying tween Samuel and … Adam” (250). Celie's “True Self,” forged out of years of abuse and suffering and “female bonding,” is face-to-face with Nettie's “False Self,” created through compliance with the outside world in order to survive a chaotic infancy and childhood. Nettie, who appears to have everything, including husband, grown children, Celie, and her inheritance, lacks one essential thing—an authentic life. Celie, who has survived loss, “soul murder,” incest, and physical and emotional abuse, has, in the process, acquired a home, a career, friends, and a lover and has developed an authentic self that enables her to live an authentic life. Celie, unlike Nettie, is able to participate in mature object relationships: as a “True Self,” Celie can both successfully mourn the inevitable losses of life and go on to form new relationships and live authentically and deeply in the present moment (Winnicott, Maturational Processes 221, 148-49).

Although this psychoanalytic developmental reading of Walker's The Color Purple is limited in scope and makes no pretension to address the many aesthetic, moral, and sociological problems and issues raised by this complex and controversial work of fiction, I have illuminated several of the unconscious developmental processes that underlie Walker's presentation of “female bonding” and that facilitate Celie's search for and attainment of a mature, autonomous, and authentic sense of identity that enables her to live an authentic life. Drawing upon Winnicott's concepts of the “good-enough mother,” the “mirror role of the mother,” “the holding environment,” and the origin of the “True Self” and the “False Self,” I have traced the development of Celie's “True Self” and Nettie's “False Self” and, in the process, have addressed specific negative criticisms of the novel, such as unequal narrative voices, unrealistic character development, faulty plot, unbelievable events, and the “fairy-tale” quality of the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug as well as Celie's and Nettie's reunion—arguing that a psychological reading of the text shows many of these negative criticisms to be spurious. Walker has given us in The Color Purple a brilliant psychological developmental novel (dedicated “To the Spirit: / Without whose assistance / Neither this book / Nor I / Would have been / Written”; Walker has “listened with the third ear”—her own unconscious). Celie's fictive narrative voice, that “speaks” to us though mute and that is never “heard” by those to whom she writes, transcends the limitations of her isolation and of the novel; as victim and survivor, Celie attests to the importance of “good-enough mothering” in the early years and to the healing power of human relationships.


  1. See especially Fifer, Babb, Chambers, Cheung, and Tucker.

  2. See Prescott 68; Smith 182; McFadden 141-42; Steinem 90; Lenhart 3; Fifer 162-63; Shelton 386-87; McKenzie 54-57; Pinckney 17; Chambers 56-57; Tucker 85-90; Cheung 168; and Lewis 79-80.

  3. See Deutsch 20; Ritvo; Blos; Bergman; and Dalsimer, “Introduction” 1-12.

  4. For a succinct and useful summary of D. W. Winnicott's theories of psychoanalytic developmental psychology, see Khan. For a more complete study, see Davis and Wallbridge.

    I wish to thank James E. Marquardt, psychoanalyst and colleague, for reading an earlier version of this paper and for offering clarification of several psychoanalytic developmental concepts.

  5. For Winnicott, the “mother” is the infant's “primary caretaker,” and the “infant” refers to that phase of life “prior to word presentation and the use of word symbols. The corollary is that [infancy] refers to a phase in which the infant depends on maternal care that is based on maternal empathy rather than on [the] understanding of what is or could be verbally expressed” (Maturational Processes 40).

    The terms “good-enough mother” and “primary caretaker” are, for Winnicott and other object relations theorists, not gender specific, even though in our culture the infant's primary caretaker is usually the biological mother. These terms are used to discuss the clinically observed importance of an adult person for the early psychological development of the infant. The focus of this paper is upon the importance of early object relations in the text for later change and development in adulthood, and not upon the current feminist political issues surrounding motherhood. I trust my readers will not accuse me of insensitivity to these issues.

  6. See also Winnicott, Maturational Processes 73-74; and Mahler 3.

  7. Elsewhere Winnicott writes: “If the inherited potential is to have a chance to become actual in the sense of manifesting itself in the individual's person, then the environmental provision must be adequate. It is convenient to use a phrase like ‘good-enough mothering’ to convey an unidealized view of the maternal function” (qtd. in Davis and Wallbridge 35; emphasis added).

  8. Hilda S. Rollman-Branch writes: “Auxiliary mothering by older siblings supplements the mother's care and even replaces it entirely. The infant's need for attachment to a human object can be satisfied by another child” (412).

  9. Shengold discusses the effects of “soul murder” upon artistic creativity in the works of three literary survivors: Dickens, Chekhov, and Kipling (181-208; 209-32; 233-83). Several critics have observed that Celie survives through the act of writing (Davis 50-52; Fifer 155-56; Chambers 59; Tucker 82-83; and Cheung 162).

  10. For further psychoanalytic thinking about “core gender identity” and “gender identity,” see Chodorow; Stoller, “Current Concepts” 793-96; Tyson, “Developmental Line” 61-63 and 72-84, and “Current Concepts” 796-99; and Tyson and Tyson.

  11. Paul Lewis observes that Shug twice uses humor to deflect Celie's murderous rage (Color Purple 134-35), and that Celie likewise uses humor to make the angry and embittered Sofia laugh for the first time “in three years” (Color Purple 99). He identifies it as “gallows humor” and asserts that such humor both “create[s] distance from our pain, … liberat[ing] us at least temporarily from otherwise inescapable torment” and helps further the humanity of “Miss Celie and Sofia, [and] even Albert and his foolish son Harpo” (80). I wish to thank my colleague Professor Siegfried Mandel for bringing Lewis's book to my attention.

  12. See Harris, “Victimization” 9-10; and Royster 368.

  13. See Watkins 7; Smith 183; McFadden 142; Fifer 155; and Chambers 54.

  14. For a brilliant contemporary psychoanalytic study of the “False Self,” see Miller.

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Greenberg, Jay R., and Stephen A. Mitchell. Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Harris, Trudier. “From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 1-17.

———. “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 155-61.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

M. Masud R. Khan. Introduction. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics xi-1.

Lenhart, Georgeann. “Inspired Purple?” Notes on Contemporary Literature 14.3 (1984): 2-3.

Lewis, Paul. Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature. New York: State U of New York P, 1989.

Mahler, Margaret, Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman. The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. New York: Basic, 1975.

McFadden, Margaret. Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Magill's Literary Annual. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 1983. 139-43. 2 vols.

McKenzie, Abilene Christian. “The Color Purple's Celie: A Journey of Selfhood.” Conference of College Teachers of English Studies 51 (1986): 50-58.

Miller, Alice. Prisoners of Childhood. Trans. Ruth Ward. New York: Basic, 1981. Rpt. as The Drama of the Gifted Child. Trans. Ruth Ward. New York: Basic, 1986.

Pinckney, Darryl. “Black Victims, Black Villains.” Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; The Color Purple, a film by Steven Spielberg; Reckless Eyeballing, by Ishmael Reed. New York Review 29 Jan. 1987: 17-20.

Prescott, Peter S. “A Long Road to Liberation.” Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Newsweek 21 June 1982: 67-68.

Ritvo, S. “Adolescent to Woman.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 24 (1976): 127-37.

Robinson, Daniel. “Problems in Form: Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Notes on Contemporary Literature 16 (1986): 2.

Rollman-Branch, Hilda S. “The First Born Child, Male Vicissitudes of Preoedipal Problems.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 47 (1966): 404-15.

Royster, Philip M. “In Search of Our Fathers' Arms: Alice Walker's Persona of the Alienated Darling.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 347-70.

Russell, Diana E. The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Basic, 1986.

Shelton, Frank W. “Alienation and Integration in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.CLA Journal 28 (1985): 382-92.

Shengold, Leonard. Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Smith, Dinitia. “‘Celie, You a Tree.’” Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Nation 4 Sept. 1982: 181-83.

Steinem, Gloria. “Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You: A Profile of Alice Walker.” Ms. June 1982: 36-37+.

Stern, Daniel N. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic, 1985.

Stoller, Robert J. In “Current Concepts of the Development of Sexuality.” Scientific Proceedings: Panel Report by Sara A. Vogel. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 37 (1989): 787-802.

———. “Primary Femininity.” Female Psychology: Contemporary Views. Ed. Harold P. Blum. Spec. issue of Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 24 (1976): 59-78.

Towers, Robert. “Good Men Are Hard to Find.” Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. New York Review of Books 12 Aug. 1982: 35-36.

Tucker, Lindsey. “Alice Walker's The Color Purple: Emergent Woman, Emergent Text.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (1988): 81-95.

Tyson, Phyllis. In “Current Concepts of the Development of Sexuality.” Scientific Proceedings: Panel Report by Sara A. Vogel. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 37 (1989): 787-802.

———. “A Developmental Line of Gender Identity, Gender Role, and Choice of Love Object.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 30 (1982): 61-86.

Tyson, Phyllis, and Robert Tyson. Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square, 1983.

———. “Coming in from the Cold: Welcoming the Old, Funny-Talking Ancient Ones into the Warm Room of Present Consciousness, Or, Natty Dread Rides Again!” National Writers Union. New York, Spring 1984; Black Women's Forum. Los Angeles, 17 Nov. 1984. Rpt. in Living by the Word. New York: Harcourt, 1988. 54-68.

———. “The Eighties and Me.” Publishers Weekly 5 Jan. 1990: 21.

Watkins, Mel. “Some Letters Went to God.” Rev. of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. New York Times Book Review 25 July 1982: 7.

Winnicott, D. W. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities, 1965.

———. Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, 1971.

———. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. New York: Basic, 1975.

Linda Abbandonato (essay date October 1991)

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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.


Celie's story is told within the context of this threat: the narrative is about breaking silences, and, appropriately, its formal structure creates the illusion that it is filled with unmediated “voices.” Trapped in a gridlock of racist, sexist, and heterosexist oppressions, Celie struggles toward linguistic self-definition. She is an “invisible woman,” a character traditionally silenced and effaced in fiction; and by centering on her, Walker replots the heroine's text. I want to show how Celie's story—the story of that most marginalized of heroines the black lesbian—challenges patriarchal constructions of female subjectivity and sexuality and thus makes representation itself a compelling issue for all women, regardless of their ethnicity or sexual orientation.1 I begin by exploring the question of representation and considering The Color Purple in relation to feminist theoretical discourses on femininity. I then argue that by exposing and opposing a powerful ideological constraint, institutionalized or “compulsory” heterosexuality, the novel appropriates the woman's narrative for herself, in effect reinscribing “herstory.”2

To substantiate my claim that The Color Purple is a conscious rewriting of canonical male texts, I propose a literary connection that is at once obvious and unlikely: the novel's epistolary form invites us to trace its ancestry all the way to Clarissa. Both novels represent a woman's struggle toward linguistic self-definition in a world of disrupted signs: Celie, like Clarissa, is imprisoned, alienated, sexually abused, and driven into semiotic collapse (see Castle's excellent analysis of Clarissa's collapse). The Color Purple, however, stands in a parodic or at least an irreverent relation to the monolithic Clarissa. The comparison between two fictions so radically separate historically and culturally is appropriate, I think, because Clarissa fully endorses the bourgeois morality that The Color Purple attacks and because Samuel Richardson himself (at least as constructed in our literary histories) perfectly symbolizes white patriarchy: the founding father of the novel (by convention, if not in fact), he tells the woman's story, authorizing her on his terms, eroticizing her suffering, representing her masochism as virtue and her dying as the emblem of womanly purity. Clarissa, even if largely unread now, occupies a dominant place in literature: its myths and values are recirculated in many fictions, especially in the ideology of romances, with which women are most fully engaged as readers and as writers.

Buried beneath the monumental edifice of works like Clarissa, male-authored volumes that tell the woman's story “as an Exemplar to her sex,” lie a mass of texts by women. The history of publishing is a record of female silencing; as many feminist critics have pointed out, women traditionally experienced educational and economic disadvantages and other cultural constraints that prohibited them from writing.3 When they overcame oppressive technologies of gender and took up the forbidden pen, the technologies of print could always be deployed against them. This may seem an overrehearsed, even an outdated argument, but the problems are still acute for women of color. Feminist attempts to revise the canon and address sexism in discourse are frequently marred by their failure to recognize heterosexism and racism; the counternarratives of femininity that emerge continue to erase women who are not white or heterosexual. Sojourner Truth's lament, “Ain't I a woman?” is insistently echoed in the contemporary writings of lesbians and women of color.4

Alice Walker too, in her nonfictional prose, protests the exclusion of black women writers from feminist revisions of literary histories (see esp. [In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, hereafter abbreviated as] Search 231-43, 361-83); and in The Color Purple, she shows her heroine trapped in the whole range of possible oppressions. Celie's struggle to create a self through language, to break free from the network of class, racial, sexual, and gender ideologies to which she is subjected, represents the woman's story in an innovative way. Can a book like The Color Purple make any real difference to the hegemony of patriarchal discourses? Placed beside Clarissa on my bookshelf, The Color Purple symbolically suggests in its physical size the position and power of the “womanist” text within the canon: dominated by the weight, prolixity, and authority of masculine accounts of female subjectivity, it may nonetheless challenge and displace those “masternarratives.”5

Walker gives several definitions for the term womanist, which is, of course, her coinage: “A black feminist or feminist of color. … Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. … A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually” (Search xi). I choose the phrase womanist text in preference to woman's text (i.e., a book written by a woman) to stress that the problem of representation cannot be resolved simply by the inclusion of more women writers in a male-dominated canon. While it is important for women to tell their stories, to gain a voice in literary and theoretical discourses and thereby achieve a certain empowerment, the ideological constraints on representation must also be considered. Put bluntly, how can a woman define herself differently, disengage her self from the cultural scripts of sexuality and gender that produce her as feminine subject? In Alice Doesn't, Teresa de Lauretis distinguishes between “woman” as an ideological construct and “women” as historical subjects and argues that women experience a double consciousness in relation to their representation in film: seduced into identification with woman, they are yet aware of their exclusion, of their nonrepresentation in that construct. If women are always constituted as objects (of desire, of the gaze) or as other, if “female” is always the negative of the positive value “male,” women find themselves situated in a negative space, neither participating in patriarchal discourses nor able to escape from them. When Lauren Berlant describes Celie as “falling through the cracks of a language she can barely use … crossing out ‘I am’ and situating herself squarely on the ground of negation” (838), she attributes Celie's situation to saintly self-renunciation; but I propose a different explanation. Celie's burden in building a self on a site of negation is shared by any woman who attempts to establish an identity outside patriarchal definition. If women are constituted as subjects in a man-made language, then it is only through the cracks in language, and in the places where ideology fails to cohere, that they can begin to reconstruct themselves. Luce Irigaray points out that “if [women] keep on speaking the same language together, [they're] going to reproduce the same history. Begin the same stories all over again” (205). She urges women to “come out of [men's] language.” But it is no easy task for women to authorize themselves as women, to disengage their feminine identity from the ideological masternarratives that inscribe it. Feminist discourse itself is inevitably corrupt, deeply implicated in the sexism of language and in patriarchal constructions of gender. As de Lauretis argues, women's theories of reading, writing, sexuality, and ideology are based “on male narratives of gender … bound by the heterosexual contract; narratives which persistently tend to reproduce themselves in feminist theories.” The challenge facing feminists is no less than to “rewrite cultural narratives, and to define the terms of another perspective—a view from ‘elsewhere’” (Technologies 25).

I suggest that The Color Purple offers that “view from ‘elsewhere.’” It succeeds partly because Celie's sexual orientation provides an alternative to the heterosexual paradigm of the conventional marriage plot: her choice of lesbianism is politically charged, a notion I develop later. For the moment I want only to point out that the novel is also lesbian in the much broader sense implied by Adrienne Rich's concept of the “lesbian continuum,” which spans the whole spectrum of women's friendships and sisterly solidarity. Walker's own term womanist is clearly influenced by Rich; and in this womanist text, the eroticism of women's love for women is at once centralized and incorporated into a more diffuse model of woman-identifying women.

Another way in which The Color Purple offers a view from elsewhere is through its displacement of standard English. Aware that “the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house” (Lorde 99), Alice Walker has fully confronted the challenge of constructing an alternative language. The significance of her achievement here has been overlooked, partly because critics often insist on confining the novel to the genre of realism and thus evaluate the Southern black vernacular solely for its authenticity. Indeed, Walker herself disingenuously describes her role as that of a medium, communicating of behalf of the spirits who possessed her (Search 355-60). She seems to intend this myth of creative inspiration literally, and it is attractive because we certainly experience the novel as filled with voices that address us directly. With Celie we undergo a metamorphosis of experience, aligning ourselves fully with her vision of the world since she insists on being taken on her own terms. Her language is indeed so compelling that we actually begin to think as Miss Celie—like Shug, we have her song scratched out of our heads—because by participating in her linguistic processes, we collaborate in her struggle to construct a self. For various reasons, then, we are distracted from the extreme skill with which Walker exploits her formal and linguistic resources, and thus we underestimate the degree to which the text is language as performance. There is a clue, however, in what is commonly perceived as a flaw in the novel—the sequence of letters from Nettie, which invariably disappoint readers. If signifying is “a form of meta-communication, where the surface expression and the intrinsic position diverge” (Cooke 15), we can regard The Color Purple as an elaborate act of signifying, since the apparently impoverished and inarticulate language of the illiterati turns out to be deceptively resonant and dazzlingly rich. By incorporating Nettie's letters into Celie's text, Walker illuminates the contrast between Celie's spare suggestiveness and Nettie's stilted verbosity. Thus the expressive flexibility of the black vernacular, a supposedly inferior speech, is measured against the repressed and rigid linguistic codes to which Nettie has conformed; the position of standard (white) English is challenged, and Celie's vitality is privileged over Nettie's dreary correctness. Nettie has been imaginatively stunted, her language bleached white and her ethnicity virtually erased. Always the Other Woman, one who lacks an identity of her own, she is cast in the preposterous role of a black missionary who attempts to impose the ideology of her oppressors onto a culturally self-sufficient people. Nettie's story perfectly illustrates the way society construes women as subjects (or as subject-objects, in de Lauretis's phrase): neither represented within the white mainstream nor able to construct a selfhood outside it, Nettie is internally divided, experiencing her subjectivity as otherness.

Celie, by contrast, refuses to enter the linguistic structures (and strictures) of white patriarchy, commenting that “only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind” (194), and so retains a discourse that is potentially subversive. We might compare Walker's technique with Irigaray's linguistic playfulness, fragmented phrases, and poetic cadences, which are similar in purpose, though not in style, to the suppleness, the sharp wit, and the compression of the black vernacular: each mode of expression represents both resistance to the hegemonic discourse and the deliberate use of linguistic non-conformity to position the self outside the dominant system. In The Color Purple the dialect is both naturalistic and symbolic, and if we try to confine the work to realism, we may easily miss the complexity of Walker's womanist aims. Her purposeful transgression of generic boundaries has also been perceived as a lack of artistic control, although it is entirely consistent with current feminist practice; and some of the criticisms directed at Walker imply a covert form of racism—an assumption that black novelists should (or can) write only in the realistic vein established by Richard Wright.6

By adopting the crazy quilt, the craft of her foremothers, as the structuring principle of her fiction, Alice Walker places herself within a tradition of black female creativity. This differently crafted, quilted novel, is also differently sexual: its formal structure allows many playful variations on a sexual theme. Some designs emerge clearly, but the overall pattern is extremely complicated; themes and relationships are introduced and inverted or turned, like a piece of fabric, inside out, so that the pattern can be traced a new way. Triadic combinations proliferate: characters are constantly realigned in an intricate network of configurations, apparently in a continual state of metamorphosis until the final utopian vision, the brave new world of the ending.7

The novel moves freely through time and space, juxtaposing the African motifs with the African American, thus supplying a dialectical commentary on the two cultures. Comic reversals of expectation are part of the scheme: for example, the Christian missionaries, striving to impose monogamy on the Olinkas, inadvertently reinforce polygyny because the Olinkas believe (quite rightly, as it turns out) that Samuel is married to both Corinne and Nettie. The treatment of incest is particularly interesting: although in one part of her design Walker reveals the full horror of father-daughter rape, she weaves in complications, twisting her narrative thread in ways that challenge the taboo. And if the incest taboo is subverted in this novel, so too is that other taboo homosexuality. I suggest that the great twentieth-century cultural narratives of sexuality and socialization, Freud's oedipal theory and Lévi-Strauss's theory of kinship systems and the exchange of women, are played out in the drama of Celie's life. The two theories center on the incest taboo and mesh together precisely. Both also explain, and have been used to reinforce, our system of “compulsory heterosexuality.” As I have suggested, Celie's lesbianism is politically significant, subverting masculine cultural narratives of femininity and desire and rewriting them from a feminist point of view.

Let us consider briefly how those narratives explain and reinforce heterosexuality, both in the construction of societies through kinship systems and in the enculturation of individuals within those societies. Lévi-Strauss describes the exchange of women as “the system of binding men together” (emphasis added), thus defining marriage as a social contract between men and viewing the kinship system as a means of reinforcing male power through the circulation of women. Lévi-Strauss concludes that the incest taboo is “the supreme rule of the gift,” designed to ensure exogamy (481). Compulsory heterosexuality thus becomes the basis on which society operates and the exchange of women the condition whereby the patriarchy flourishes. Women are prevented from becoming subjects in an economy where they are exchanged as objects, and homosexual desire becomes taboo, like incest, because it disrupts the terms of the social contract. Naturally, this system can only operate smoothly so long as sexual nonconformity is kept invisible. An important project of feminism, then, is to make the invisible visible: to topple the dominant ideology by placing the unorthodox and the marginalized at the center of the discursive and cultural stage. Thus feminist theory constructs homosexuality as a powerfully subversive threat to the social order: Eve Sedgwick, for example, takes up René Girard's notion of “triangular desire”—which in turn develops Lévi-Strauss's theory of the exchange of women as a form of bonding between men—and argues that homophobia functions to suppress recognition of the homosociality on which patriarchal domination depends. Irigaray's coining of the word hom(m)osexualité plays on a pun to suggest a similar concept of society as founded on a masculine economy of sameness, so that homosexual relations must be forbidden: “Because they openly interpret the law according to which society operates, they threaten in fact to shift the horizon of that law” (193).

Psychoanalytic accounts of enculturation also rest on the prohibition of incest, as enforced through the castration complex; in the oedipal plot, the phallus becomes the coveted marker of sexual difference and desire. Lacan's famous diagram of the identical doors labeled “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” suggests the different ideological worlds that the subject enters according to gender; although gender, like the signs on the doors, is no more than an arbitrary and fictional construct, subjects who wish to function within the symbolic order must pass through one of those doors (147-59). The successful inscription of subjects as masculine or feminine, as “ladies” or “gentlemen,” depends on acquiescence to the Law of the Father and on suppression of the polymorphously perverse drives of infancy; in the process, heterosexuality is reinforced as a cultural institution. An important objection to the oedipal scheme is that it predicates female sexuality on a masculine paradigm, thus effacing the very subject of femininity it claims to investigate. Women are effectively excluded from being desiring subjects or from having their sexuality theorized except through a distorting masculine lens. Consequently the lesbian remains outside the framework of representation, becoming, in effect, unrepresentable (for further discussion see de Lauretis, Alice and Technologies; Cixous and Clément 62-132). Feminist critiques of the oedipal theory have challenged its masculine economy of desire and exposed its inadequacy as an account of female sexuality. Adrienne Rich, for example, wonders why the female child should redirect her libidinal activity from the original object of desire, the mother, to the father and concludes that heterosexuality is a political institution into which women are conscripted ideologically, by force and through the censorship of alternative models of sexuality.8

But what happens when the taboo is broken and women refuse to be co-opted into a system of compulsory heterosexuality, refuse in effect to become objects of exchange between men? Or, in Irigaray's words, “[W]hat if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to ‘market’?” (196).

This is, of course, the question posed by The Color Purple, which reduces the system of compulsory heterosexuality to its basic level, making it abstract. The representations of male tyranny are in one sense reductive or crude and in another sense emblematic, their implications far-reaching. The specific systems of oppression that operate in Celie's life symbolize the more or less subtle operations of patriarchal power in the lives of women everywhere.

Compulsory heterosexuality enforces Celie's subjugation and erases her subjectivity. Celie graphically represents this situation when she begins her story by placing “I am” sous rature. Trapped from the start into complicity in the shameful secret of incest, Celie makes a timid plea to God: “Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (11). But how can Celie be given a sign when she is a sign, a mere object of exchange between men? The God she conceptualizes is a cruel father whose identity merges ominously with Pa's; when asked whose baby she is carrying, Celie tells the lie that is the truth: “I say God's. I don't know no other man or what else to say” (12).

When Celie marries Mr. ———, this man with no name becomes part of the system of male oppression, joining God the Patriarch and Pa in an unholy trinity of power that displaces her identity. The marriage negotiations take place entirely between the stepfather and the husband: Celie is handed over like a beast of burden, identified with the cow that accompanies her. Physically and psychologically abused by stepfather and husband alike, Celie is denied a status as subject. Her sexuality and reproductive organs are controlled by men, her children are taken from her, and her submission is enforced through violence. In her terrified acquiescence to such blatant male brutality, Celie symbolically mirrors Everywoman. Fear of rape, for example, is so habitual that it has become naturalized and conditions women automatically; when it circumscribes their movements, we call it Common Sense, and our judicial system holds women who lack it accountable for male violence. Celie bleakly represents the plight of her more privileged sisters, who are victimized by social tyrannies like antiabortion legislation, the kidnapping of children, and state intervention in the family and in individuals' sexual orientation.

Celie's vernacular is used to poignant effect in the double negative of “I don't have nothing.” Her connection with her sex is severed; doubly silenced, by father and by husband, Celie sends dead letters to an absentee God, and the only “sign” she eventually gets—the discovery that her real father was lynched—shatters an already eroded identity and precipitates her semiotic collapse. Her attempt to make sense of her new family history breaks down into the negative tautology of “Pa not Pa” (as Berlant has also argued).

This is a puzzling moment in the text. Why does Walker set up incest at the beginning and then reinscribe family relations halfway through? And what is the effect on the reader of discovering that “Pa not Pa”? At one level, I would argue, the revelation makes no difference at all: Celie was still raped, and by a man who was in every respect socially, if not biologically, her father. But suggestions of incest recur too insistently for the question to be dismissed so easily. What, for example, do we make of the marriage of “Sister Nettie” and “Brother Samuel” or of his claim that “we behave as brother and sister to each other”? Shug and Celie, sisters in spirit, become lovers in the flesh. Albert complains that Shug loves him like a brother—but Celie responds, “What so bad about that?” Shug has an affair with a boy who subsequently becomes “like a son. Maybe a grandson.” Time and again, the incest taboo is symbolically dissolved as the different categories of social relations, family and sexual, are intertwined.

Perhaps this focus on incest is an honest and courageous attempt to situate sexuality where it belongs: in the heart of the family. If the family is the site of sexual repression and taboo, it is also the place where sexuality is engendered, in the fullest sense.9 Yet, the Pa-Celie sexual relation, though initially presented as an actual violation of a primary taboo, turns out to be not literal incest but a social and symbolic equivalent. The novel seems to delve into the oedipal drama to unravel and then reweave the complexities, and the discovery that “Pa not Pa” confronts Celie with another contradiction. The Pa who is not Pa is yet—irrevocably—Pa. Her history has been shattered, and she cannot connect with the revised version sent by sister Nettie.

It is her love for Shug that enables Celie to bury her sad double narrative of paternal origins and construct a new identity within a feminine domain. In an earlier scene in the novel, Celie tells her story to Shug, breaking the father's injunction of silence and discovering a sister-lover, compassion and passion combined. Significantly, that first erotic encounter involves both women in a reciprocal mother-infant exchange: “Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. … Way after while I act like a little lost baby too” (109). The anaclitic satisfaction represented here suggests a symbolic return to the preoedipal stage, an idealized state of innocent eroticism; it is, in Foucault's words, about “bodies and pleasure.”10

Subsequently, when disconnected from her nom-du-père by the discovery that her paternity is indeed a legal fiction, Celie is rescued from an identity crisis by Shug, who tells her, “Us each other's people now”; the two women have mothered each other and now elect to be woman-identified women. Implicit here is an escape from patriarchal law. In breaking the taboo against homosexuality, Celie symbolically exits the masternarrative of female sexuality and abandons the position ascribed to her within the symbolic order. Instead, she chooses a mode of sexuality that Freud describes as “infantile”; but perhaps the value of that term should be reassessed. Shug, for example, is enviably infantile: as polymorphously perverse as a child, she pursues her pleasures without guilt or repression. Her sexual pluralism reminds us that sexuality is the site not only of regulation but of subversion; as Carole Vance argues, sexuality remains, in the end, “flexible, anarchic, ambiguous, layered with multiple meanings, offering doors that open to unexpected experience. The connection of both sexual behavior and fantasy to infancy, the irrational, the unconscious, is a source of both surprise and pleasure” (22). It is this highly disruptive potential—sexuality's ability to resist the ideological laws that operate through its very terrain, to survive and flourish in “aberrant” forms despite the cultural imposition of a norm—that Shug's erotic behavior suggests; she embodies and embraces the notion of jouissance as a liberating power.

Celie's initiation into eroticism is linked with her growing sense of self and her capacity to see wonder in the world. Taught by Shug, whose religious practice is to “admire,” Celie metamorphoses into a Miranda, taking childlike delight in the brave new world to which her latent sensory responses have been awakened. If homosexuality involves narcissism, as Freud believes, we see its positive and empowering effect on Celie. In loving Shug, Celie becomes a desiring subject, and in being loved by Shug, she is made visible to herself as an object of desire. In contrast to the repression that Celie has experienced in accepting her social position as a “mature” woman in a phallocentric culture, her “infantile regression” is an act of radical rebellion. By choosing “deviancy,” “immaturity,” and the “sickness” that lesbianism signifies in a system of compulsory heterosexuality, Celie enacts a critique not of the oedipal theory itself but of the sexist socialization that it insightfully yet uncritically represents.

In a hostile review of the novel, Trudier Harris describes Celie as “a bale of cotton with a vagina” and dismisses Celie and Shug's love affair as a “schoolgirl fairytale,” thereby missing the radical political implications of the shift from vagina to clitoris that the lesbian relationship involves. In Freud's theory the clitoral orgasm is notoriously immature; and within the culture, I would suggest, the notion of the mature vaginal orgasm still predominates, since it is a necessary myth within our compulsorily heterosexual society. For a long time Celie's clitoris remained “undiscovered”; and while real women in heterosexual relationships undoubtedly have lovers more skillful and sensitive than Mr. ——— (even if his being signified in this way does mischievously imply that he is the archetypal male), the ideological construct woman still seems to be experiencing orgasm without reference to her clitoris. Think of representations of sexuality in popular films, for example. In the typical love scene, the camera shows a couple commencing missionary-position sex and, eight seconds later, moves in to a close-up of the woman's face to reveal that, miraculously, she is in the throes of orgasm, her mouth wide open, perhaps to suggest that place where the camera is forbidden to go. At this climactic point, the scene dissolves from the screen in an act of self-censorship, and we are left with the dominant image of the desirable woman in our culture: passive, available, and obligingly able to reach instant vaginal orgasm. If film directors know about the clitoris, or about active female desire, film censors are surely involved in the conspiracy to keep such knowledge inadmissible.

What this practice suggests is that the ideology of popular culture subjects women to a mild form of psychological cliterodectomy, and perhaps for the same reason that real clitoridectomies are performed: as Kathleen Barry argues, they ensure that women will not form erotic attachments to one another (193). I would suggest that the erotic zone of the clitoris has to be censored in social constructions of sexuality, since its mapping on the female body would allow women to “just say no” to the coveted male organ.

So, for Celie, the discovery of the clitoris (and of the possibility of sexual fulfillment with a woman) is accompanied by a whole range of other discoveries that relegate man to the margins of a world he has always dominated. The most significant of these is a reconceptualization of God the Patriarch. Describing her feminist redefinition of God, Shug makes an explicit connection between spiritual and sexual jouissance.

My first step from the old white man was trees. … Then birds. Then other people. But one day … it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. … In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

In answer to Celie's shocked protest, Shug maintains, “God love all them feelings. That's some of the best stuff God did.” And shortly afterward she echoes the title of the novel by observing, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it” (178). This is a moment of epiphany for Celie, and we might notice her appropriately detumescent metaphor when, in severing the connection between “man” and “God,” she observes that “[n]ext to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. ———'s evil sort of shrink.” Phallocentrism has collapsed: the transformation of God from the “old white man” to a new form of otherness, the ungendered creator of the color purple, is one of the major metamorphoses of the novel.

Finally, what is meant by that richly allusive symbol, the color purple? Clearly, in part, it represents the wonder of the natural world, to which Celie's eyes have been newly awakened: “I been so busy thinking about him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?)” (179).

The color purple is encoded within the novel as a sign of indomitable female spirit. For example, Celie makes red-and-purple pants for Sofia (who has survived a brutal beating by the police that leaves her “the color of eggplant”): “I dream Sofia wearing these pants, one day she was jumping over the moon” (194). Consider also Walker's definitions of womanist, which are represented by the color purple. One of those definitions, quoted in part earlier, is embodied by Shug: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. … Sometimes loves individual men, sexually or nonsexually” (Search xi). Another definition refers to female joie de vivre, or exuberance; and in her fourth and final definition, Walker states suggestively, “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.”

But most daringly significant is the use of the color purple to encode the specifically feminine jouissance experienced by Celie. Associated with Easter and resurrection, and thus with spiritual regeneration, purple may also evoke the female genitalia; indeed, Walker makes the color connection explicit in “One Child of One's Own” by provocatively describing a black woman's vagina as “the color of raspberries and blackberries—or scuppernongs and muscadines” (Search 374). In that essay Walker complains that white women feminists “cannot imagine that black women have vaginas. Or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go” (373).

What I want to suggest is that in The Color Purple, in her representation of the unrepresentable, Walker dares us to arrive at the place where “imagination … is too far to go.”


  1. In The Heroine's Text, Nancy Miller defines the “euphoric text” as built on a “trajectory of ascent” and ending with the heroine's integration into society. Miller confines her study to eighteenth-century novels, but her model provides a useful contrast to The Color Purple, demonstrating how Walker's novel subverts the conventional plot by rewriting the story of seduction within a lesbian framework.

    In emphasizing the relevance of Celie's story for all women, I do not mean to deny the specificity of her oppression as a black lesbian. Indeed, any blanket reference to women as a category is in any case controversial; my paper does suggest briefly that in feminist discourse this usage tends to reinforce the marginalization of “minority” groups, but I should also note that some feminists would like to abandon the term altogether. Kristeva claims that “to believe that one ‘is a woman’ is almost as absurd and obscurantist as to believe that one ‘is a man’” (“La femme, ce n'est jamais ça,” Tel quel 59. 3 [1974]: 19-24; qtd. in Moi 163); Monique Wittig provocatively declares, “Lesbians are not women” (110).

  2. The term compulsory heterosexuality originated with Gayle Rubin: her influential essay “The Traffic in women” synthesizes readings of Freud, Lacan, Marx, and Lévi-Strauss to account for our enculturation into the sex-gender system. See also Adrienne Rich. The term herstory comes from Alice Walker's feminist prose (see esp. Search).

  3. Classic feminist texts that deal with the problem of silencing include Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own, Tillie Olsen's Silences, Patricia Meyer Spacks's Female Imagination, Elaine Showalter's Literature of Their Own, and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic.

  4. See, e.g., Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith's anthology Some of Us Are Brave and Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua's This Bridge Called My Back. Several essays collected in Showalter's New Feminist Criticism also focus on writing by black women and lesbians: Barbara Smith's “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism,” Deborah E. McDowell's “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism,” and Bonnie Zimmerman's “What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.”

    Printing presses geared toward “minority” groups have been set up recently: for example, the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. But in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life—a title so provocative that it invites speculation about men's place in black feminism—Calvin Hernton describes the male speaker's misogyny at a meeting set up to establish a new African American publishing company: “[The speaker] went into a tirade against black women writers … claiming that they had ‘taken over’ the publishing world in a conspiracy against black male writers” (xv). Note also Trudier Harris's allegation that Alice Walker became a media favorite by “waiting in the wings of the feminist movement and the power it had generated long enough for her curtain call to come” (155). Guilty of success, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker bear the brunt of such animosity; compare the personal and critical hostility directed at the flamboyant Zora Neale Hurston, who eventually “disappeared” under its pressure.

  5. “Masternarratives” is, of course, Fredric Jameson's term, though he uses it more generally to denote the hegemonic discourse of the ruling class and intends no specific reference to gender.

  6. I refer to the conventional assessment of Wright as a realistic writer, though it seems to me that this, too, is misplaced, that his works are, rather, surrealistic. Molly Hite discusses the critical blindness that has resulted from applying conventions of classic realism to The Color Purple.

    The feminist tradition of transgressing generic boundaries can be traced at least to Woolf's Room of One's Own, which inscribes its feminist social and cultural criticisms within an incisively ironic narrative framework. The strategy is most notably continued in the work of the French feminists, particularly Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Catherine Clément; the issue here is a renegotiation of the relation between the personal and the impersonal, or the alleged objectivity of academic discourse. Disrupting generic boundaries is connected with disrupting gender boundaries: feminist writers use subversive narrative strategies to infiltrate and reshape ideological fictions of femininity.

  7. For discussions of quilting in Walker's work, see Barbara Christian; Lindsey Tucker; Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Charlotte Pierce-Baker. See Showalter's “Piecing and Writing” for a critique of the revival of feminine crafts as tropes in feminist fictions and theory.

  8. For an opposing view, see Cora Kaplan, who objects to Rich's concept of “intellectual” lesbianism as a political solution, arguing that it has produced among feminists a new source of sexual shame and guilt: “Any pleasure that accrues to women who take part in heterosexual acts is therefore necessarily tainted; at the extreme end of this position, women who ‘go with men’ are considered collaborators …” (52). Note also Paula Webster's argument that by privileging lesbianism, feminist discourse has constructed an alternative sexual hierarchy that creates new prohibitions and reduces women's “relationships with eroticism to issues of preference and purity …” (387).

  9. Michel Foucault argues that “the family is the most active site of sexuality” and that incest is “constantly being solicited and refused … a thing that is continuously demanded in order for the family to be a hotbed of constant sexual incitement” (109).

  10. One could argue that if Celie symbolically returns to a preoedipal state, her subversive language, with its poetic pulsions and absences, can be connected with Kristeva's concept of the semiotic chora.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr., and Charlotte Pierce-Baker. “Patches, Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's ‘Every Day Use.’” Southern Review 21 (1985): 706-21.

Barry, Kathleen. Female Sexual Slavery. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1979.

Berlant, Lauren. “Race, Gender and Nation in The Color Purple.Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 831-49.

Castle, Terry. Clarissa's Ciphers. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Christian, Barbara, ed. Black Feminist Criticism. New York: Pergamon, 1985.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

———. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random, 1978.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” 1914. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957. 67-102.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Harris, Trudier. “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes and Silence.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 155-61.

Hernton, Calvin C. The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1987.

Hite, Molly. “Romance, Marginality, Matrilineage: Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.Novel 22 (1989): 257-73.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave. New York: Feminist, 1982.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Kaplan, Cora. Seachanges: Culture and Feminism. London: Verso, 1986.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Trans. James Hurle Bell et al. 2nd ed. 1967. Oxford: Beacon, 1969.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” Moraga and Anzaldua 98-101.

Miller, Nancy K. The Heroine's Text. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Methuen, 1985.

Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, 1981.

Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delacorte, 1979.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Representation.” Women—Sex and Sexuality. Ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980. 62-91.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review, 1975. 157-210.

Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

———, ed. The New Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

———. “Piecing and Writing.” The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy K. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 222-47.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Tucker, Lindsey. “Alice Walker's The Color Purple: Emergent Woman, Emergent Text.” Black American Literature Forum 21 (1988): 81-97.

Vance, Carole S., ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Boston: Routledge, 1984.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square, 1983.

———. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983.

Webster, Paula. “The Forbidden: Eroticism and Taboo.” Vance 385-98.

Wittig, Monique. “The Straight Mind.” Feminist Issues 1 (1980): 103-12.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, 1963.

James C. Hall (essay date spring 1992)

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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 individuals feel free to become themselves.

(Taylor 45)1

The Color Purple, Alice Walker's novel of black feminist awakening, is also a model for the reconstruction of a black feminist literary tradition. If the existence of such a tradition had previously been marked by the “white page” and historical silence, Walker subverts the space by embracing the absence. By attacking patriarchy (and patriarchal culture) at its Christian foundation, Walker celebrates the emptiness which is and has always been full. Working within and expanding the gaps, her work suggests new possibilities for the “sacred” as a tool in literary reconstruction. Her novel is at once “holy,” a celebration of “wholeness,” and, indeed, a hole. It is the descent necessary for the resurrection, the symbolic reversal of Christian tradition which makes lasting change possible.

If orthodox accounts of literary tradition and history treat influence and “development” with simplistic and apolitical interpretations of “genius,” contemporary theories, like that of Harold Bloom, retain an attachment to a patriarchal ground. Bloom's Freudian ordering of the literary universe, in a succession of anxieties and dissatisfactions in the rupture of communication between fathers and sons, cannot provide even the briefest contextual outline for a black women's literary tradition.2 His “daemonic” reversal, however, can be appropriated: A “misreading,” the creative failure of a son's writing/righting his anxiety, can become a “mis(sed) reading,” the creative success of the daughter's writing/rite-ing within the full emptiness of the page and history. Indeed, Paule Marshall has described her own literary output as writing those works that she would have liked to have read.3 Alice Walker has also textualized this “desire” and has noted the forgotten power (and tragedy) of the silenced voice.

Walker makes clear the relationship between the emptying of the literary space and the fulfillment of female identity through her novel's epistolary structure, which subverts the predominantly male code of the Western literary tradition. This grounding celebrates an escape from history while retaining a faithfulness to the transformative power of art. It is also significant that Western and African expressive traditions combine in the epistolary mode, which is the literary/literal equivalent of call and response. Similarly, the revision of the sentimental tradition retains the importance of sororal connections and focuses attention on female bonding. Walker's women transform their own lives as Alice Walker transforms the tradition: Literary codes and conventions are seen to parallel social and sexual relations.

I would like to argue, however, that Walker's greatest accomplishment within The Color Purple is its claim for “space” through the critique of patriarchal theological structures that are, by implication, theocratic. If the adoption of the epistolary form subverts male codes of literary expression, Walker continues the daemonic subversion, further directing her attention to philosophical and political structures that are also limiting of black women. Even more complicated, perhaps, is her critique of anthropomorphic thought and its creative limitations. Walker's religious universe is “self-inventive”; it marks the clearing of debris through the embrace of absence. Insofar as it directs attention to the creative process, Walker's text tends towards the realm of metafiction. It is indeed an anti-story: anti-patriarchal, anti-sexist, anti-Western, etc. But it is not an act of nihilism or desperation, not a celebration of the end but of beginnings. It restates the power of literary creativity in a profoundly social manner.

Walker's novel begins with a threat: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (3). The irony of the triple negative goes unrecognized, and the chief significance of the voicing lies, perhaps, in its threat to the matriarchal bond. The emergence of a voice of challenge could result in the disruption of the mother-daughter covenant. The threat (based upon the sexual violation of the female) cannot be acknowledged through a cry for help or even sympathy. Celie must turn toward a personal, but distant, God. Celie's “Dear God” marks not only the emergence of a literary form (the epistolary novel) but also a ritual form (prayer). Walker immediately (if somewhat cryptically) directs our attention toward the efficacy of this ritual form: In Celie's “I am,” Walker simultaneously deletes/revises the present tense of the verb to be and the Biblical self-designation of the Hebrew God. This radical, yet subtle, transformation is highly suggestive. Its deletion may signal a passionate turn from the Biblical religious tradition in which many black women have historically found self-definition. Equally as crucial, however, is Walker's empowerment of her seemingly impotent protagonist. The “word” has been spoken; the refuge of the traditional ritual (and literary) form is temporary.

Celie has also asked for a sign. At this point in her narrative she perceives herself as powerless, and looks for external authorization. Although writing God, she is unable to right her situation. Somewhat immediately, however, the beneficence and the righteousness of this God is called into question. “My mama dead” (4), Celie tells us in her next letter, despite her attempts to satisfy the demands of her father's curse. The victim of incest, Celie had told her mother upon the birth of her child that it was “God's” (4). Destructive patriarchal power is associated with God even though this same power is Celie's textual partner. Walker thus begins the process of clearing. Her protagonist has (in the first two pages) spoken the unspoken (the “I am”) and radically revised the mythic story of Christ's birth. Celie's path to selfhood involves the evaporation of patriarchal Christianity.

Celie's marriage to Mr. ——— continues the pattern. Her husband, in a further reference to the Old Testament God, is also unnameable. This textual deletion signifies her “partner's” absolute distance, his inability to comprehend her history and future. He perceives her as livestock, and denies her not only love but humanity. She discovers her lost child in the possession of a “Reverend Mr. ———” (15). From no Mr. ——— will she receive “God help” (5). In retribution, Walker ironically denies identity to the powerful, whom she playfully makes into objects of ridicule; they possess titles of pseudo-respect, but lack “Christian” names.

It is from Nettie that Celie first learns that resistance is necessary: “You got to fight. You got to fight” (17). But as that lesson is first being learned, Nettie's safety is called into question because of Mr. ———'s advances. Nettie begins their goodbye:

I sure hate to leave you here with these rotten children, she say. Not to mention with Mr. ———. It's like seeing you buried, she say.

It's worse than that, I think. If I was buried, I wouldn't have to work. But I just say, Never mine, never mine, long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along.


Celie's response is highly ironic, both in terms of her “never mine” comment and the silence of her respondent. It is true that that bond can never be hers. But Walker makes clear where the true bond should be. Their goodbye is completed:

I say, Write.

She say, What?

I say, Write.

She say, Nothing but death can keep me from it.

She never write.


The connection (a “literary” one) is based upon female ties. And what is of greatest significance is that Celie must learn to be patient with Nettie's silence; she must discover that there never was a silence, that the nexus was interrupted. The literary space is full. It is also significant that Celie herself seems to sense something. The salutation of her next letter is not “Dear God” but “G-o-d” (19). While clearly a reference to Nettie's farewell, the expression also explores the “white spaces” between the “letters.” Walker's revision of the textual form (of the generic convention) exposes the ritual partner as artifice.

Although Celie must endure the indignities of her life without Nettie's support and aid, Celie's familial universe is not to be without female nurturance. Harpo's marriage to Sofia introduces Celie to an alternative mode of coping. Sofia “modifies” the requirements of marriage and child rearing. She rebels against the authority of her own father, and she is unwilling to behave deferentially to any man. Sofia's rebellion becomes a cause for Celie to reflect:

I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her to make her mind. I don't mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr. ——— call me, she look surprise. And like she pity me.


Jealous of Sofia's autonomy, and uncomfortable with her pity, Celie suggests that Harpo beat her. Harpo's lack of success in taming Sofia and her own conscience conspire to make her realize her “sin.” Not even “think[ing]” about the Bible (37) relieves her anxiety.

Sofia's confronting Celie with the fact of her betrayal leads to her considering a new possibility. Celie tells Sofia how she perseveres:

Well, sometime Mr. ——— git on me pretty hard. I have to talk to Old Maker. But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over, I say. Heaven last all ways.

You ought to bash Mr. ——— head open, she say. Think bout heaven later.


Sofia's suggestion participates in the clearing of the patriarchal theological ground that is part of Celie's imprisonment. Outright rejection of the future-oriented strategy is difficult, yet Sofia's combative personal style is not appropriate for Celie. Still, the suggestion introduces levity into a confrontational situation. It provides an occasion for the establishment of female bonds through the introduction of a maternal art form:

Not much funny to me. That funny. I laugh. She laugh. Then us both laugh so hard us flop down on the step.

Let's make quilt pieces out of these messed up curtains, she say. And I run git my pattern book.


Whatever Sofia's contribution to Celie's enlightenment, it remains for Shug Avery to disrupt her world view radically. Shug, Mr. ———'s blues-singing lover, is clearly a threat to the patriarchal establishment, as the preacher signifies by taking Shug's “condition for his text” (40). Shug's lifestyle is a rejection of the values of the Christian-based community, and suggests both marginalization and survival. Despite her horrible condition when she enters Celie's household, she finds a way to endure:

Ain't nothing wrong with Shug Avery. She just sick. Sicker than anybody I ever seen. She sicker than my mama was when she die. But she more evil than my mama and that keep her alive.


Despite Shug's “evil,” her entrance into Celie's life represents the emergence of a new religious consciousness: “I wash her body, it feel like I'm praying” (45). And surprisingly, Shug's presence seems to lessen the tension between Celie and Mr. ———; their co-commitment to her health marks a new understanding in their relationship. Shug's presence also marks Celie's ability to conceptualize things differently, to imagine another real existence: “First time I think about the world” (52), Celie considers, in clear opposition to the “other-worldly” orientation that Sofia has warned her against.

Shug's attentions to Celie are crucial to Celie's emergent self-identification. Shug helps to make Celie aware of her own sexuality, and ironically “redefines” her as “virgin” (95). Significantly, Shug as “writer” draws attention to Celie. Her “Miss Celie's song” punctuates her importance in Celie's growing self-awareness: “First time somebody made something and name it after me” (65). Still, Shug's contribution to this naming and liberating process is limited. Like Sophia, Shug cannot provide Celie with her distinctive individuality. But by encouraging Celie to provide this answer for herself and to reject the Biblical injunctions, Shug, like Sophia, participates in the theological clearing.

There is still much radical redefinition to be done. When Sofia gets into trouble for “sassing,” Celie imagines a dramatic solution:

… I think bout angels, God coming down by chariot, swinging down real low and carrying ole Sofia home. I see 'em all as clear as day. Angels all in white, white hair and white eyes, look like albinos. God all white too, looking like some stout white man work at the bank. Angels strike they cymbals, one of them blow his horn. God blow out a big breath of fire and suddenly Sofia free.


But Celie, Shug, and Harpo's mistress Squeak do not wait for this solution. They conspire to have Squeak confront the warden in the hope of using her past to gain favor for Sofia. While their plan has limited success, it is their decision to combat patriarchal power with black female solidarity that is noteworthy. Their ability to “conspire” is significant; their “plot” is Walker's. The silence that is framed in otherworldly hope is replaced by a worldly female bonding.

Celie's discovery (with Shug's assistance) of Nettie's letters marks the radical turning point of the novel. Hidden by Mr. ——— (now named Albert), the letters are the powerful connecting metaphor for the reconstruction of a black feminist literary tradition. The text and the tradition have never been missing. They have been disguised and sequestered because of the letters' liberating power. Albert's desire to “keep” Celie, to shape her for himself, to proscribe her existence, is most powerfully expressed in his attempts to break sororal bonds through the denial of a textual connection with Nettie. The discovery of the letters, a product of ongoing self-redefinition, further promotes that process.

Nettie writes in one of her first letters:

I remember one time you said your life made you feel so ashamed you couldn't even talk about it to God, you had to write it, bad as you thought your writing was. Well, now I know what you meant. And whether God will read letters or no, I know you will go on writing them; which is guidance enough for me.


The artifice of Celie's writing structure is revealed; “God” functions as a sardonic surrogate partner in the silence created by the very patriarchal power it represents. This “revelation” produces a most dramatic change in Celie's character; Shug must try to convince her not to kill Albert, in a rage even Sofia can't conceive:

Don't kill, she say. Nettie be coming home before long. Don't make her have to look at you like us look at Sofia.

But it so hard, I say, while Shug empty her suitcase and put the letters inside.

Hard to be Christ too, say Shug. But he manage. Remember that. Thou Shalt Not Kill, He said. …

But Mr. ——— not Christ. I'm not Christ, I say.


Celie distances herself not only from the “Christ[ian]” response, but also from the tradition itself. The convincing part of Shug's argument is that Celie should not risk severing her tie to Nettie. The appeal to “Christ” is an appeal to an old rhetoric that has little hold upon Celie any more.

Walker powerfully challenges her reader (and herself) in the demythologizing of tradition by making Nettie a missionary. However, Nettie's experience in colonial Africa, rather than being a retreat, further unravels the ties between institutional Christianity and black oppression. Nettie's letters tell of the power of being faced with “the Olinka God” (131), and of physical and cultural destruction. The necessary ignorance of imperialism and the new vision of cross-cultural perspective make Corrine and Samuel appear provincial. Nettie's faithfulness in the face of such inconsistency and violence requires a radical reorientation. The “rules,” it seems clear, have changed, and this shift is linked to Nettie's tie to Celie. Nettie does recognize the negative power of the vocation she represents, and distances herself accordingly. The “fact” of her one-way correspondence with Celie seems to speak to a gap in her call. “I would give anything for a picture of you, Celie,” writes Nettie. “… the picture of Christ which generally looks good anywhere looks peculiar here” (135). Nettie has had to redefine her purpose:

My spirits sort of drooped after being at the [Missionary] Society. On every wall there was a picture of a white man. … We are not white. We are not Europeans. We are black like the Africans themselves. And that we and the Africans will be working for a common goal; the uplift of black people everywhere.


Celie, similarly, ceases to write to God when she learns from Nettie that “Pa is not our Pa!” (150). While literally representing the unraveling of Celie's complicated genealogy and the removal of the stigma of incest, this statement symbolically marks their joint recognition of the superfluous demands of a restrictive theocracy. The Christian “father” is not their father, not their spiritual reservoir. But, as Nettie warns (“… unbelief is a terrible thing” [158]), a retreat into nihilism is not the answer. Celie must re-learn belief in a way that replenishes the spirit as it redefines the self.

Shug also recognizes the danger in absolute rejection:

Just because I don't harass it like some peoples us know don't mean I ain't got religion.

What God do for me? I ast. …

She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.

Let 'im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.

She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.


Celie's claiming the power of the curse is significant. It is the most dramatic form of radical revision, but also the most dangerous.4 Shug's and Nettie's attachment to some “form” of a god makes clear that Celie's anger endangers her bond with them; an absolute negativity could shut them out. Celie herself recognizes the risk:

All my life I never care what people thought bout nothing I did, I say. But deep in my heart I care about God. What he going to think. And come to find out, he don't think. Just sit up there glorying in being deef, I reckon. But it ain't easy, trying to do without God. Even if you know he ain't there, trying to do without him is a strain.


Celie and Shug try to renegotiate an identity and existence for “God.” Shug's lesson for Celie includes recognizing that “God” isn't necessarily to be found in the institutional church, nor should “its” image be old, white, and male. Most radically, Shug rejects anthropomorphic conceptions completely:

Here's the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don't know what you looking for. …

It? I ast.

Yeah, It. God ain't a he or a she, but a It.


Shug's rejection is the action that makes possibility; hers is a signifyin' theology that clears the way for Celie's selfhood. It reveals that Celie's writing has not been directed outward to a distant, uncaring entity, but inward, satisfying her own creativity.

But Celie must still act for herself. If Shug's lesson has provided a further opening, Celie must enter it, and claim her inheritance.

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. …

Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain't. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don't want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods, and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.



Shug's ironic use of the orthodox account of the Genesis story becomes a tool in Celie's liberation. “Man” has corrupted the creation, and Celie must resort to conjuration to protect herself.5 The “Amen” that ends Celie's account is a powerful one. It has been conspicuously absent from her other letters (“prayers”) despite their traditional form. The “Amen” is not a note of ritual assent, but its negation. This amen indicates the power of the “specified” rather than consensus.

If conjuring provides the psychic power to prevent Celie's regression into total subservience, the “curse” is the radical negation that makes selfhood possible. “It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation,” (170) she tells Mr. ———. More powerfully still:

I curse you, I say.

What that mean? he say.

I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.

He laugh. Who you think you is? he say. You can't curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all. …

I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here.

Amen, say Shug. Amen, amen.


Mr. ———'s inability to understand “what that mean” becomes definitive of a separate tradition of voice and text. Celie's curse brings havoc upon the patriarchal household, and makes a claim for her own space within creation. Her acknowledgment of Mr. ———'s disclaimer negates its power and rejects its attempt to define appropriate roles and standards for black women. Finally, Shug's recitation of the dissenting a-men reminds the reader of the theocratic ground being cleared.

But Celie's curse is affirmative as well as negating. It instigates a new order. Not only is the restoration of Celie's family imminent, but significant changes in character are also promoted. We are told of Mr. ———'s new grooming habits and work ethic. Harpo's relationships with Sofia and his father are improved. We are even told of Harpo's going to sleep with his father in order to keep him company (191). Symbolically, the curse provides the motivation for the lamb to lie down with the lion, while it literally continues to revise gender roles.

Now Celie's troubles can be confronted in a different way. When Shug is about to leave her for a young man, Celie responds, “I write” (212). As Shug's explanation becomes more desperate, Celie's response becomes like a chant, and Walker again directs our attention to the value and function of the hidden tradition. The voice that empowers the curse also promotes and defines the tradition. Celie's “I write” (and, perhaps, I right) begins to provide the reader with access to that map of mis(sed) reading.

Walker's clearing of the theological ground has not been approved of universally. Indeed, the publication of her latest novel, The Temple of My Familiar, has heightened criticism that Walker has adopted a mushy New Age philosophy to confront a historical Christianity that has misled and misplaced black women. Gerald Early may have been Walker's harshest early critic when, in responding to The Color Purple, he suggested that Walker is guilty of a “fairly dim-witted pantheistic acknowledgment of the wonders of human potential that begins to sound quite suspiciously like a cross between the New Age movement and Dale Carnegie” (272). Such criticism would be appropriate if Walker claimed her novel to be “real” in the mode of either Toni Morrison or Richard Wright. But Walker may more correctly belong in a tradition of black mysticism, with Rebecca Jackson, Jean Toomer, and Howard Thurman as ancestors, and Henry Dumas as contemporary.6 Indeed, Early goes too far when he suggests that

… what Walker does in her novel is allow its social protest to become the foundation for its utopia. Not surprisingly, the book lacks any real intellectual or theological rigor or coherence, and the fusing of social protest and utopia is really nothing more than confounding and blundering, each seeming to subvert the reader's attention from the other. One is left thinking that Walker wishes to thwart her own ideological ends or that she simply does not know how to write novels. In essence, the book attempts to be revisionist salvation history, and fails because of its inability to use or really understand history.

(273; emphasis added)

Early protests too much, and begins to be cast in the role of offended defender of the patriarchal ground. Walker has made no claim as an historian; her self-identification as “medium” suggests that The Color Purple is clearly meant to be outside of the historical realm. Early is correct, perhaps, when he suggests that Alice Walker does not know how to write novels—at least novels directed or shaped by a male and Western paradigm. Walker is exploring the possibilities in the text as sacrament. “Profitless play,” suggests Mark Taylor, “can overcome the unhappy consciousness of the historical agent” (4). Walker's book is not “closed”; rejecting the telos of the historian for the “purposeless” wandering/wondering of the blues woman, The Color Purple invites the play of surfaces, the interpretation of interpretation. It dismisses history to revise the present.

To have access to a map of mis(sed) reading is to encourage a particular kind of historic consciousness. The challenge which confronts individuals interested in the establishment of a black feminist literary history is the necessity of enacting reconstruction and imaginatively identifying new historical categories, constructing theories of influence and theories of individual creation. Walker addresses this theoretical dilemma. Despite the important contribution of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, Barbara Christian's Black Women Novelists, or even the work of the Afro-American Novel Project at Boston University to our desired historiography, we must also recognize the contribution of Walker's fictional transgression. What work can a new catalog of lost texts do towards the comprehension of black women's creative writing if we cannot also think through the problem of absent readers? If our historiographical model is to be complete, it must acknowledge a range of literary activities and desires; it must document and imaging writers and readers, perhaps even texts, written and dreamed. Walker recognizes the wound inflicted by canonical edict: literary silence, despite richness of artistic instinct, of human desire to creatively alter the world, immediate and distant. Her response is to subvert the patriarchal and racist dimensions of our culture of the word by questioning traditional theological and theocratic structures, while retaining through playful revision the interrelationship of speech, selfhood, and creativity. The creative disorganization of our very notion of tradition, while retaining commitment to humanistic values and inquiry, is no small feat. Despite a postmodern theology—an embrace of absent fathers—Walker has no desire to do away with meaning. She is clearly a woman of letters.

The reintegration offered in Celie's final letter draws attention to the conjure; it suggests to the reader the closing of a special period of time and space. “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (249)—not only is there psychic reconciliation, but also a sense of ritual completion, consistent with the notion of the text as sacrament. The reader emerges from the realm of the imaginary with a sense of new possibility. Most significantly, “Walker creates a new literary space for the black and female idiom within a traditionally Western and Eurocentric form” (Henderson 18). We begin to get some idea as to how to inscribe and describe the newness—ways of celebrating genius. And as Celie discovers the letters, and recovers her “missed reading,” we are directed toward a map of tradition.

This accomplishment is best marked by Walker's quote of Stevie Wonder: “Show me how to do like you / Show me how to do it.” Walker's attention to the vernacular song makes clear the ways in which her text is not a passive imitation of the Western literary form. The Color Purple is a demand for recognition, for the acknowledgment of revision within missed reading. There is irony in the source—the black and blind (literally “vision”-less) singer asking to be shown as opposed to told. Walker's creative genius is the revision of vision, asking us to see alternatively, to see where we have not seen before.


  1. Taylor's deconstruction of traditional theological conceptions is crucial to my reading of Walker.

  2. Dianne F. Sadoff's “Black Matrilineage” offers an important consideration of the value of Bloom's work, particularly The Anxiety of Influence, for a black women's literary tradition. Sadoff also considers the value of Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic. I wish to argue that the notion of “re-reading” or “re-voicing” can be appropriated without adopting the psychoanalytic model (and controversy). Sadoff's work demonstrates the danger inherent in confronting that tradition: Spending an inordinate amount of time delineating the complexities of one “school” over another can divert attention from the insight's constructive potential within the literary tradition. More helpful are the essays by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers in Conjuring, by Mae G. Henderson in Sage, and most especially by Walker herself (see “Saving the Life That Is Your Own,” “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View,” and “Looking for Zora” in Gardens).

  3. It must be made clear that what is being asserted here by both black women writers and myself is not the non-existence of a rich tradition of literature by black women, but rather a matrix of circumstances which have in the past made (conspired to make?) unlikely the placement of black women's literary stories in the hands of a black female readership. Benignly, one might assert that a map of mis(sed) reading is an analytical tool for the use of sociologists of literature; more powerfully, I think, it should be seen as a interpretive tool for the use of sympathetic critics in the reconstruction of the unseen tradition. Again, as noted above, Alice Walker's own writing on models is crucial.

  4. Mark Taylor makes clear why it must be dangerous: “In a place of a simple reversal, it is necessary to effect a dialectical inversion that does not leave contrasting opposites unmarked but dissolves their original identities. Inversion, in other words, must simultaneously be a perversion that is subversive. Unless theological transgression becomes genuinely subversive, nothing fundamental will change. What is needed is a critical lever with which the entire inherited order can be creatively disorganized” (10).

  5. Pryse and Spillers have made specific use of Walker's use of conjuration in titling their text on black women's literary tradition. I would further suggest that this is a clue to a further revision of Bloom's “ratios”; for a black women's tradition of revision we might substitute signifyin' for clinamen, dues for tessara, steppin' out for kenosis, spirit possession for daemonization, curse for askesis, and the blues for apophrades. Of course, any such revision would need to challenge more substantively Bloom's assumed historical and psychoanalytic connections. Walker's challenge (and my own, I hope) is more than an assault on Eurocentric paradigms—it is a needed reassertion of American pluralism against objective theory.

  6. On Walker's knowledge of Rebecca Jackson, see “Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson” (Gardens 71-82). One of the most disappointing aspects of the most recent assault on Walker has been the inability of critics and commentators to contextualize her more recent concerns with reference to African-American religious history.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Early, Gerald. “Everybody's Protest Art: The Color Purple.Antioch Review 44 (1986): 261-78.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., gen. ed. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. 30 vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Henderson, Mae G. “The Color Purple: Revisions and Redefinitions.” Sage 2.1 (1987): 14-18.

Pryse, Marjorie, “Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and the Ancient Power of Black Women.” Pryse and Spillers 1-24.

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, eds. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Sadoff, Dianne F. “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.” Signs 11.1 (1985): 4-26.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Cross-Currents, Discontinuities: Black Women's Fiction.” Pryse and Spillers 249-61.

Taylor, Mark C. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.

———. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Feminist Prose. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

Carole Anne Taylor (essay date winter 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8688

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

—Alice Walker, “Ndebele”

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

—Susan Suleiman, Subversive Intent

Indeed, irony in the face of actual torture is arguably less worthwhile than terrorism in the face of a text. And we don't, in any event, always get to choose our contexts or our adversaries.

—Lillian Robinson, “At Play in the Mind-fields”

Perhaps no text more dramatically demonstrates how differently diverse communities of readers construct literary meaning than does The Color Purple, the locus of ongoing debate about interlocking systems of oppression and their representation in literature. Even among generally appreciative critics, some have found a clear model for the organized struggle against oppression, and others have found a wish-fulfilling romance. Estimations of value trouble over the seemingly polarized distance between Celie's distinctive personal voice and Nettie's “essay on the history of the Olinka tribe” (Robinson, “Problems,” 2), sometimes conceived as a problem of genre.1 Is the ending too utopian to address the difficult tensions between the material oppression that writes itself on actual women's bodies and the fictional oppression that either goes away or ennobles its victims somehow too easily? Where is resistance in a world replete with incest wiped away, abuse forgiven or transformed, and a propertied Celie surrounded by extended family? What relevance has a world where black women always get up again—no matter how beaten down—to real social worlds? Such questions have strong relevance to debates about resistance in literary texts and how such resistance hooks up—or does not—to the political world. In particular, The Color Purple may help clarify how resistance is never purely resistance nor simply there in a text but always ambivalently situated in relation to what it resists.2

Significantly, different constructions of humor and the comic inform ongoing controversies about whether a postmodernism of resistance is a hopelessly conflicted idea and about whether women's writing can escape the exclusionary strategies of received Western genres.3 Theories of an extreme, parodic humor, prominent in both feminist and postmodern imagining, value the resisting laughter of a madman, a Medusa, or the bricoleur while absenting any “normal other” from playfulness.4 Concomitantly, Fredric Jameson links his critique of postmodernism to a practice “devoid of laughter,” arguing that it replaces any healthy “normality” with “empty” or “neutral” parody and pastiche. And Judy Little and Clair Wills extend extant theory by fitting Bakhtin's carnival to women writers, hypothesizing an unending saturnalia, a holiday of festive inversions that never ends. Defiant, aggressive laughter exists abundantly in Walker's fictional worlds, as do festive comic inversions; and both assimilate easily into the dominant theories that identify humor as resistance with a focused attack on butts or targets.

Yet a humorous rapport among characters also celebrates a healthy normalcy and merges the subjectivities of its characters, placing The Color Purple somewhat outside these formulations. Its storytelling does not entirely return to an older Western realism nor entirely adapt the conventions of comic romance, just as it does not entirely abjure speech for a postmodern play among ontologies.5 Rather, interrogations of subjectivity itself attribute value to an intersubjectivity that has multivalent relation to readerly desire.6 By exploring the interrelations between humorous rapport and a merged subjectivity among characters, I want, ultimately, to consider The Color Purple's genre as an expressive hybrid, one whose dialogical form of resistance has everything to do with where readings enter relations of privilege or power.7

And so I start with what does not console or comfort my own reading position(s) in any way: an unheard laughter, a laughter that refuses any easy desire for inclusion, a laughter that upsets any hold on the security of writerly-readerly relations. Most of the characters in The Color Purple ultimately share the capacity for humorous rapport, and the work's sense of an ending relies in large part on a vision of happiness incorporating a robust, vernacular humor into daily life. Yet the way humor accrues value in The Color Purple has little to do with funny scenes, humorous lines or narratives, or some overarching comic structure. Rather, humor develops as an interaction that in its implied normalcy provides the daily context of value. And the development of this interaction mitigates against the generic security of both Molly Hite's attempt to reconcile feminist and poststructuralist concerns in a reading of The Color Purple as a comic romance and, more supplementally, Henry Gates's postmodern emphasis on an epistolary transformation of “speakerly language which no character can ever speak, because it exists only in a written text” (250).8 In comic romance, the impulse of a sympathetic humor works through the involuted exigences of disguise and disorder until a united couple at the close represents the unthreatened norms of a society returned to its rightful order. And in an epistolary text where writing protects the reader from Gates's “tyranny of the narrative present,” resisting agency resides primarily in the act of writing.9 Deborah McDowell's conception of character as process helps to focus on the value of humorous rapport because it usefully supplants Hite's sense of characterization and supplements Gates's emphasis, affording humor greater importance precisely because it helps to differentiate characters with fluid or merging identities from either unitary, ego-centered selves defined in contrast to some “other” or from characters subsumed by their existence in writing.10

A humor integral to the experience of interconnected relationships, dramatically presented in dialogue form, structures all of Celie's developing interactions with women, but her letters about Sofia's imprisonment and subsequent release focus on a humor contrasted to any humor “normative” to social health. Celie recounts how Sofia, at the beginning of her jail term of returning the mayor's violence, can still laugh, albeit with the quality of blues expressivity. When her extended family visits her in jail, no one present can bear the emotive force of her condition, which exists outside ordinary language:

Mr. ——— suck in his breath. Harpo groan. Miss Shug cuss. She come from Memphis special to see Sofia.

I can't fix my mouth to say how I feel.


Context connects this lyrical, expressive sadness with laughing alone:

I'm a good prisoner, she [Sofia] say. Best convict they ever see. They can't believe I'm the one sass the mayor's wife, knock the mayor down. She laugh. It sound like something from a song. The part where everybody done gone home but you.


In several subsequent letters, Celie tells of the scheming to release Sofia, a scheming that cleverly relies on white vengefulness. Then, suddenly, Sofia reappears as a participant in Celie's daily life, with a narrative ellipsis of three years marked by her presence in a relationship once again allowing mutual laughter. The absence of three years from Sofia's story, then, becomes not just some imaginary expansion of a terrible time in jail followed by a slavelike existence as resident “maid” to Miss Millie; rather, it becomes the absence of mutual, if not yet intersubjective laughter, a laughter whose disappearance and reappearance signals a gaping ellipsis in human as well as narrative time.

The capacity for this laughter marks Sofia's return to human interaction after her grotesque imprisonment, but the invocation of humor frames the opening and closing of Celie's letters rather than providing some humorous content. The first letter telling us that the scheme to release Sofia to a servitude outside the jail has worked begins with Celie's reported discourse in which she acknowledges the legitimacy of Sofia's rage but transforms it into a humorous comment on the politics of power:

Sofia say to me today, I just can't understand it.

What that? I ast.

Why we ain't already kill them off.

Three years after she beat she out of the wash house, got her color and her weight back, look like her old self, just all time think bout killing somebody.

Too many to kill off, I say. Us outnumbered from the start. I speck we knock over one or two, though, here and there, through the years, I say.


To argue that this reported dialogue represents Celie's “control” of another's speech, as do Gates's generalizations about the primacy of writing, undervalues the dramatic immediacy of the exchange and the context-specific focus on a sustaining, resisting humorous rapport. Even though Celie asserts, “Us outnumbered from the start,” her attitude has nothing of impotence about it, especially since her consoling figure (“I speck we knock over one or two, though, here and there, through the years”) has literal as well as figurative resonance: Sofia went to jail, after all, for knocking over “one.” Internally, the letter recounts the spiteful, self-injuring kick of Miss Millie's Billy and the more needy demands of Eleanor Jane, the daughter-outsider. At the close, Sofia ponders, “I wonder why she [Eleanor Jane] was ever born,” and the chapter-letter ends:

Well, I say, us don't have to wonder that bout darkies. She giggle. Miss Celie, she say, you just as crazy as you can be. This the first giggle I heard in three years.


Sofia's giggle marks the (re)created possibility for humor, taken up in the next letter. Here, Walker frames Sofia's story about Miss Millie's abusive driving experiment with explicit references to humorous rapport. Celie remarks at the outset that “Sofia would make a dog laugh, talking about those people she work for,” and Sofia herself closes her narrative with “White folks is a miracle of affliction,” yet the narrative itself does not represent some in-group narrative humorously targeting an out-group. The humor here, in fact, has nothing to do with the narrative per se, which has a bitter irony but nothing inviting laughter about it. Rather, the frame refers to a manner of telling, a humorous context in which even narratives of the most disturbing events—here, Miss Millie's teasing petulance with Sofia's enforced separation from her family—become occasions for laughter. Humorous rapport, here, grows out of mutual assumptions and responses within this world, and the changing humorous subject/object resides in an attitude, a tonality, a shared pleasure. Such pleasure inheres in the verbal assertions of characters resisting both others' definitions and, indeed, any easy self-other parameters. As bell hooks rightly observes, Sofia never participates in her own oppression and most radically enacts physical resistance (hooks, “Writing,” 465). Thus, her return to humor does not merely introduce her once again into a world where “us giggle”; rather, it locates resistance in a laughter intimately related to suffering yet powerfully critical precisely because of the absence of any didactic, authorial assertion surrounding it.

This humor does not avoid or deny anger, but perhaps more important, its interactive rapport specifically disallows any normative view of an identity differentiated from others by greater power. Sofia's tales that “would make a dog laugh” end in her outright rejection of Eleanor Jane's desire to take part in her family's life as the still-privileged other. Subsequent invocations of humor cumulatively emphasize that relations of unequal power make humorous interaction impossible. Value accrues to the intensity and intimacy of a rapport that comes from a mutually felt pain and can only attend equitable power relations. Such humor supplements rather than displaces the more aggressive wit with which women as often as men resist domination. Walker's debt to Zora Neale Hurston may suggest some parallel between the “rebellion” of women characters here and that in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie Starks certainly devastates Joe when her verbal wit improves upon the sexual insults he has grown accustomed to heaping upon her, and when Walker's women characters stand up to men, they may do so with similarly tendentious wit. But the intimate, humorous rapport primary to my argument here, explicit in supportively embracing difference however jocular the tonality, comes much closer to Susan Willis's overall sense of the difference in black women's writing: “Black women's writing imagines the future in the present. It sees the future born out of the context of oppression” (159).11 Such laughter as the trope for the values of improvised, spontaneous rapport, meaningful domestic activity, and a future imagined in the present—all in the context of daily activity—supplements Gates's attention to more overt rebellion and more aggressive wit. And it more closely reflects Walker's own concern for how the loss of compassion marks the end of any hopeful strategies, “whether in love or revolution,” elsewhere glossed by the poetic vision of a Christ who walks with “His love in front. His love and his necessary fist behind” (Walker, [Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990, Complete,] Her Blue Body, 289).

The daily normality of humorous rapport suggests a value at least supplemental to that of writing. Indeed, to take writing as the primary metaphor of value somewhat obscures Mae Henderson's insight that “Walker's use of the epistolary form allows her to transpose a formal tradition into a vehicle for expressing the folk voice, so her emphasis on material and popular modes of expression allows us to revise our conventional notions of ‘high’ art and culture” (17). To transform all emphasis on voice into emphasis on writing passes over how the power of the written word takes its place among other daily art forms distinct from elite culture, including sewing, quilting, cooking, and singing. Each of these art forms redistributes power, so that, for example, only men who have undergone transformation can participate in them. Writing as exclusive value also disregards the text's own emphasis on resistance within speech. Celie reports that Darlene aspires to correct her speech because, on grounds she reports in her own vernacular, “colored peoples think you a hick and white folks be amuse” (193). The depth of tradition inherent in that vernacular accords with Celie's frustration in trying to change it: “Every time I say something the way I say it, she correct me until I say it some other way. Pretty soon it feel like I can't think. My mind run up on a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down” (193). To Darlene's assertion that Shug would love Celie more if she talked “proper,” Shug gratifyingly responds, “She can talk in sign language for all I care” (194). Such explicit attention to speech and its vernacular meanings rests somewhat uncomfortably with Gates's assertion that “no one speaks in this novel,” despite that assertion's reliance on a fine analytical accuracy about Celie's reportage:

Celie only tells us what people have said to her. She never shows us their words in direct quotation. Precisely because her written dialect voice is identical in diction and idiom to the supposedly spoken words that pepper her letters, we believe that we are overhearing people speak, just as Celie did when the words were in fact uttered. We are not, however; indeed, we can never be certain whether or not Celie is showing us a telling or telling us a showing, as awkward as this sounds.


Certainly, the awkwardness of explanation corresponds to the awkwardness of engaging both the primacy of Celie's speech and the voyeurism of reading another's intimate letters. Yet the intimacy of speech (just as direct, perhaps even more so, as if it were within the constraints of quotation marks) formally coincides with an intimately shared humor as an important contrast between Celie's and Nettie's (re)presentations.

That Celie's writing compels associating her with voice underscores how strongly the presentness of characters within her epistolary narration (Shug, Sofia, Mary Agnes, Harpo, Albert, e.g.) differs from that of characters within Nettie's (Samuel, Adam, Tashi, e.g.).12 Writing does not necessarily transform the writer, which matters to the dramatic contrast between Celie's voiced, intimate writing and Nettie's more academic, distanced letters. As Gates notes, Celie's framing of Nettie's letters may merge voices in the manner of free indirect discourse. But the letters also give direct experience of voice that differs markedly from Celie's perceptions, especially from the character as process she will become toward the end of the work. Certainly, Nettie's letters establish the similarities between the condition of black women in the rural South and black women in Africa, giving an alternative context for female bonding; “It is in work that women get to know and care about each other,” writes Nettie. But the absence of humor, or anything like the humorous rapport so important to Celie's developing relationships, suggests that Nettie's letters serve as much a judgment on missionary sensibility as upon black patriarchal culture, despite her own suspended judgment on Samuel's hopes and expectations.

In the portrayal of Samuel's missionary activity, Walker's authorial juxtapositions remove any sense of Celie-cum-character, signifying more in the manner Gates describes when showing her relation in difference to Zora Neale Hurston and Rebecca Cox Jackson. Samuel's latent bitterness about his own failure erupts just after his anecdotal tale of how Aunt Theodosia (the name says much) found herself rebuked by a young Harvard scholar named Edward DuBoyce (“or perhaps his name was Bill”) for pride in a medal given her by King Leopold, a medal that symbolizes to him her “unwitting complicity” with a brutal white despot. The tonality and passionate impatience of DuBoyce invokes that of William Edward B. Dubois, also young at Harvard, whose sensibility contrasts uncomfortably with that of Samuel. Recounting DuBoyce's outrage at Aunt Theodosia's misplaced pride, Samuel uses the story to identify not with DuBoyce but with “poor Aunt Theodosia.” Like Samuel, Aunt Theodosia found little gratitude among Africans who “hardly seem to care whether missionaries exist” (210). Nettie's report of Samuel's disillusioned outburst, not in quotation marks but clearly representing his voice, captures with precision the reasons why humorous rapport necessarily absents itself from the African letters:

We love them. We try every way we can to show that love. But they reject us. They never even listen to how we've suffered. And if they listen they say stupid things. Why don't you speak our language? they ask. Why can't you remember the old ways? Why aren't you happy in America, if everyone there drives motorcars?


Samuel's focus on an altruism from above, and on “our” suffering, prepares for the litany of “stupid” responses that so effectively undermine the missionary's presumption of superiority, and it explains, too, the formal justice of the text's most mystified distance: that between Nettie's story and the compellingly absent, invisible mbeles. (Indicatively, the mbeles' “place” rests “so deep in the earth” that it can be seen only “from above.”) The hope for Samuel lies less in the vision of a new church “in which each person's spirit is encouraged to seek God directly,” than in his entry into a world of work challenging hierarchical power relations and opportunities for dominance. Here, even Samuel might become “us” and learn to laugh.13

Walker takes pains to link both Celie's late-developing camaraderie with Albert and Sofia's hard-won equity with Harpo to the possibility of this already leveled humor. Celie describes her reflections on the African renaming of Adam, with Albert as participant-observer, and closes:

[Albert] So what they name Adam?

[Celie] Something sound like Omatangu, I say. It mean a unnaked man somewhere near the first one God made that knowed he was. A whole lot of the men that come before the first man was men, but none of 'em didn't know it. You know how long it take some mens to notice anything, I say.

Took me long enough to notice you such good company, he say. And he laugh.

He ain't Shug, but he begin to be somebody I can talk to.


And when Sofia and Harpo discuss Eleanor Jane's likelihood of continuing to work for them despite the disapproval of her “menfolks,” Celie reports:

Let her quit, say Sofia. It not my salvation she working for. And if she don't learn she got to face judgment for herself, she won't even have live.

Well, you got me behind you, anyway, say Harpo. And I loves every judgment you ever made. He move up and kiss her where her nose was stitch.

Sofia toss her head. Everybody learn something in life, she say. And they laugh.


Sofia's “Everybody learn something in life” well captures the solidarity necessary to a laughter that represents a principled resistance to white judgments and values, a laughter initially associated with women in The Color Purple but held out as possibility to any who sustain no felt superiority-in-difference. Celie's acceptance of Albert attends not only his abandonment of dominance but also his participation in humorous rapport, evident in the little purple frog he carves for Celie as an emblem of his acceptance of her sexuality. (She has told him earlier: “Men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss 'em, as far as I'm concern, frogs is what they stay” [224].) When Shug returns and senses a new intimacy between Celie and Albert, she queries about their “idle conversation.” Celie puts down the impulse to provoke:

What do you know, I think. Shug jealous. I have a good mind to make up a story just to make her feel bad. But I don't.

Us talk about you, I say. How much us love you.


Despite Shug's weakness for successive men and Albert's former abuse, the three achieve an intimacy without power inseparable from a prose that will merge these characters in process.

In the prose of the last pages, not only do couples disappear, but a generally shared humorous rapport effaces any individuated points of view. Thus, the ending undermines any critical argument that simply exchanges periphery for center, still trapping explanation in critical oppositions. Note, for example, how Molly Hite's sustained attempt to explicate The Color Purple's dismantling of hierarchical oppositions still finds its closure in a center:

On the basis of such redrawn lines the entire immediate society reconstitutes itself, in the manner of Shakespearean romance, around a central couple. This couple is not only black, it is aging and lesbian. Yet clearly Celie and Shug are intended to suggest the nucleus of a new and self-sustaining society: the triply marginalized become center and source.


Such description finds a central couple in narration that blurs the couple out of existence. Yet repeatedly, in the last pages, Celie's presentation disallows either a female-centered or a couple-centered world. In the last section, often cited as the microcosm of a romantic idyll, Albert speaks first, followed by Celie's reference to “me and him and Shug.” Parallel syntax foregrounds “Shug mention …,” “Albert say …,” and “I talk …,” followed by the reiteration of sitting on the porch “with Albert and Shug.” Even the rhythms of dialogue seamlessly incorporate the vantage points:

Could be the mailman, I say. Cept he driving a little fast.

Could be Sofia, say Shug. You know she drive like a maniac.

Could be Harpo, say Albert. But it not.


And in the many times Celie mentions Shug and Albert in the first part of the last letter to God and “Everything,” they always occur together, linked in syntactic symmetry:

Shug reach down and give me a helping hand. Albert press me on the arm.


I stand swaying, tween Albert and Shug.


I point at my peoples. This Shug and Albert, I say.


Then Shug and Albert start to hug everybody one after the other.


The last part of the letter, the book's close after Nettie and her family have arrived, begins on July Fourth as the day “us can spend celebrating each other.” It invokes a panoply of characters who finally merge into an “everybody” and an “us” in a gesture that, following the global inclusiveness of the letter's address, includes everyone as subjective agency, even in contexts not normative to do so. When Tashi names her favorite African food as “barbecue,” “Everybody laugh and stuff her with one more piece.” Clearly, not everyone reaches for the “one more piece”; the collective gesture and the collective laugh put the closing frame on the sequence beginning with the first letter's address to an exclusionary God, followed by an opening subjectivity insecure as presence (with “I am” under the erasure of “I have”) and a prose inundated in singular personal pronouns. (It also intertextually plays on Hurston's celebratory sense of “barbecue” at the end of Dust Tracks in the Road.)14 After the last laugh, and before the final “Amen,” comes only the felt sense of distance between how the children see them and how they feel themselves:

I see they think me and Nettie and Shug and Albert and Samuel and Harpo and Sofia and Jack and Odessa real old and don't know much what going on. But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.


The prose does not differentiate among the cast of characters, and the repetition of the fluid “us” creates an expressively merged identity of characters in the process of intersubjective relation.15

Hite's notions about reversing hierarchical oppositions or exchanging periphery for center, especially some center “couple” consisting of Celie and Shug, ill describe such process and overlook the importance of laughter as value to resisting self-other distinctions with dominance as a defining difference. Remember that Nettie as writer does not recount episodes of laughter, nor does her standard English capture the “presentness” of humorous rapport. Only Celie's narration has used language that mitigates against a constant readerly transformation of dialogue into something written, something mediated by her own “control.” In fact, the language of “control” supports a reading where characters have unambivalent agency, not a more processual characterization where dramatically presented dialogue does not threaten a “tyranny of the narrative present” precisely because “presentness” does not imply fixed identity.

And “romance” or “comic romance” suggests a teleology alien to this sense of an ending that foregrounds how “us feel.” No “Edenic norm” ever existed here in a world always constrained by power relations (and with a graphic, non-Edenic enthusiasm for sexuality), and therefore no nostalgia for its return. Both Harpo and Albert must literally make themselves sick with the desire for dominance before they revive into an intimacy of work and care that allows laughter. And although the gendered tensions provide a model for “the recognition of conflict and pain, for the possibility of reconciliation,”16 a dominance ignorant of its own presumptions still persists in the white world. Eleanor Jane helps Harpo look after the children and creates yam dishes in artful disguise for Henrietta, but must yet outlast the judgments of both her parents and “menfolks.” The fact that she has learned to sound a little like Sofia augurs much, given the cost of Sofia's resistance:

Do her people know? I ast.

They know, say Sofia. They carrying on just like you know they would. Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers, they rave. She tell them, whoever heard of somebody like Sofia working for trash.


And “celebrating each other,” with a laughter attendant upon “working together,” can take place only because, as Harpo tells us, “white people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th … so most black folks don't have to work” (250). This celebration has neither turned the authority of the white world upside down nor, in this instance, broken its rules. Nor has it simply inverted white norms, though “us feel” has about it the “joyful relativity of all structure and order” that Bakhtin locates in such inversions (184).

The model for this celebration in resistance has much to do with the spiritual reclaiming of nature in Celie's last address and the expressive work in which all engage, a communal work that in its very form disturbs T. G. A. Nelson's claim that modern comedy may not end in idyll but must in any case return us to “the awareness that life is a struggle in which nobody can always be on the winning side, and where each of us will sometimes fill the role of victim, scapegoat, or fool” (186). To be sure, Celie inherits a house and gets her extended family together, but Harpo's reference to July Fourth as providing only temporary relief from working for white people carries dissent within it.17The Color Purple rejects the terms of romantic acceptance both because it rejects the construct of “winning” and “losing” sides and because it posits as value a felt merger among different characters' multiple subject positions, whether as male/female, lover/loved, employer/employee, or manager/worker. Such bonding feels stronger than empathy because one's own health depends on not accepting as “natural” the process of alternating victims and victimizers.18

At the end of The Color Purple, the merger of individuated characters into a replete intersubjectivity does not necessarily refer us to an uncritical new age spiritualism; rather, celebration takes place in the midst of a gap named by Harpo as a respite from white people's work. An overtly “happy ending” invokes values inseparable from a resistance as real as Sofia's stitches and as demanding as learning to tear dominance or the comforts of privilege out of one's own life; and he who formerly most dominated, Albert, has most radically altered his position in order to participate in the merged, intersubjective identity characteristic of the closing pages.19 The fantasy language, the trappings of generic sentiment, the closeness of characters to stereotype, all stand undermined by an intersubjective laughter that acknowledges in its very representation the pain of past and future oppressions. Analogously, the metaphysical, distancing values of romance occur within a context harshly implicating any idealized wish fulfillment, indeed, implicating all difference felt as privilege. Thus, a text with felt relation to realism, to epistolary romance, to comedy, and to comic romance closes with ambivalent recognitions and refusals, necessarily complicit in the structures its values reject.20

Similarly, as readers, our own positions regarding privilege in the world—as well as our diverse ways of resisting, repressing, or evading them—affect the degree to which the implications of intersubjective humor seem threatening or comfortable. Readers made aware of white, male, class, or heterosexual privilege will find themselves caught, I suspect, in unlikely combinations of desire, intimacy, and fear. Overlapping subject positions engage readers in multiple, contradictory responses to Celie's and Nettie's sections or to the judgment on righteous altruism—and by extension on the missionary venture in Africa as a whole—implied in the DuBoyce passage. The Color Purple blurs issues of subjective agency with cumulative expansions and mergers of identity that exclude those for whom privilege or power attend identity. An intersubjective humorous rapport moves toward an inclusive suspension of individuated subjectivity, one that bears little relation to the somewhat smarmy picture of beauty born again as fairy tale: “fanciful, heartrending, and uplifting” (Walsh, 100). Neither a nostalgic view of a prior state nor a context of wish-fulfilling changes in status diminish the cost of becoming “us” to dominant subjectivity. Oppressive power in The Color Purple does not recede into some abstracted, depersonalized evil. But because the text assigns yet does not essentialize blame, it proffers the possibility of transformation on the model of those specifically undergone by Harpo and Albert. The intense difficulty of such transformation inheres in the grave, embodies consequences of turning away from the abuse of power. Each has to earn a subsequent inclusion in intersubjective humorous rapport through traumatic and self-repudiating realization, through relinquishing power, and through taking up “a shared awareness of shared energy” (Snead, 245). The case does not offer anything so simple as some affirmation about humor as a kind of therapeutic transformative (a sort of Norman Cousins theory of resistance). Rather, humorous rapport becomes the textual embodiment of value, the value of an intersubjectivity most forcefully undermining the subject-object relations on which power relies.

This humor as value helps differentiate Walker's text from the several genres she uses as frames of reference and addresses, too, any felt evasions into either fantasy or didacticism. If such intersubjective humor comes closer to essentialism, to positing some chosen, constructed reality (a specifically black, women's laughter) as a first-order one, then it does so only in the partial manner of a resistance conceived as necessarily conflicted. So too, the presentness, as opposed to presence, of characters acknowledges a readerly penchant for engaging characters as analogous to embodied selves even when fluid in construction and merged in identity. Neither a comic romance with a utopian ending nor a postmodern fiction that celebrates writing as the figure of resistance, the very incompleteness, or partiality with which The Color Purple fulfills generic expectations addresses a debate about textual resistance both as conceived “inside” texts and as a negotiation made by readers “outside” texts.21 Texts are no less resistant by virtue of double or mediated social locations than are readers interested in bringing subjectivity back to human form (not just for discourse anymore) without unifying or psychologizing it.

This humor's invitation to the reader involves not so much either the identifying empathy of realism or the intellectual/spiritual desire of romance. Here, interaction works more on the model of generative call and response, where each response acts as another call at the same time that it comments on a responding, regressive resistance to answering fully, that is, by laying down the book and changing our lives. The comic wit of Barth, Pynchon, or even Carrington relies on distancing strategies with roots in the ironic fragmentations of fantastic, apocalyptic, or abstracted modes. A humor embodying “a form of power that is exercised at the very limits of identity and authority” may well not take place in contexts fulfilling generic expectations;22 humorous intersubjectivity acts as a context for storytelling that begins from an angle of passionate engagement with interlocking identities, and as such its treatment of subject-object relations refuses to engage Susan Sulieman's question about whether black women writers regard race or gender as priorities.23 Remember that when Sofia helps Eleanor Jane, she does so because Eleanor Jane has begun to see through white altruism and has begun to understand that no less than her own “salvation” depends on finding a work not imbued with assumptions of privilege of any kind.

If resistance is not simply there in a text, but produced and reproduced through the constitutive codes necessarily embedded in genre, trope, figure, and mode (Slemon, 31), then readers who read from different subject positions will have quite different responses to this textual call. From my own reading position, the response of “I want to be like that” or “I want to have those values in my life” carries with it the cognitive dissonance attending much white, privileged admiration of black culture, the unsaid “But not at that cost, not doing that work, not relinquishing the ‘I’ who thinks as a separate, individuated self, and not—especially not—giving up the privilege that allows me to read from this position, the one reading, speaking, writing, thinking now.”24 (Again, Walker's poetic voice serves as gloss: “Their envy of us / has always been / our greatest crime” [Her Blue Body, 435].) The case of laughter here mitigates against any appropriative presumption of utopian inclusion, for its roots lie in a history specific to a felt repudiation of the mythology, indeed the metaphysics, of a unitary self.25

Whether thought to address an intimate sisterhood figured in the two sisters' letters, a primarily white, female audience, or a general humanity,26 the text engages readers in reflective responses about implied analogies between how characters relate to each other, how speech relates to writing, and how writers relate to readers. The celebratory intersubjectivity that ends The Color Purple, however differently situated from the identity formations of readers, demands only some readerly relation to “what authentic solidarity with the oppressed demands” (hooks, 1990b, 188). But for reading positions of privilege, caught in the tension between desire and quite literal self-repudiation, the humorous rapport that formally links flexible, processual characterization with a valued, intersubjectivity has much to teach: it teaches that so long as theory privileges tropes “from above,” it will not undermine the subjectivities it likes to declare obsolete; that resistance need not be conceived only in the conflictual terms of weapons, targets, and combat—or indeed any instrumentality—but also in constructions of value resisting an ego-centered, individually achieving and performing self; and that only relinquishing actual social power—not just that in discursive formations—affords any hope of salvation.


  1. Both Calvin Hernton and Jacqueline Bobo provide useful overviews of the critical controversies surrounding The Color Purple. Specific to my purposes, Susan Willis will serve as an example of a critic treating The Color Purple as resistance literature and Molly Hite, Priscilla Walton, and Margaret Walsh as examples of critics who read in the direction of comic romance.

  2. Perhaps those explicating colonial and postcolonial/postindependence literary resistance have argued this most strongly. Jenny Sharpe's “Figures of Colonial Resistance” finds an emphasis on the partial, complicit nature of literary resistance common to such theorists as Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Abdul JanMohamad, and Benita Parry; and Stephen Slemon uses the “double, necessarily mediated” location of literary resistance to argue for the inclusion of “second world” texts by white Australian, New Zealander, Southern African, and Canadian writers in “post-colonial literary studies.”

  3. Some reject comedy as by definition representing absolute exclusivity: Umberto Eco, for example, asserts that “comic is always racist: only the others, the Barbarians, are supposed to pay” (6); and Susan Carlson argues that sexism inheres in the comic. Suleiman's sense of the avant-garde chooses as “subversive” works that ally her with McHale and others who primarily applaud parodic, discursive play. For an overview of how theories of humor and the comic relate to critical methodologies, see my “Ideologies of the Funny.”

  4. Foucault widely uses mad, perverse laughter as figurative creativity, but most particularly in Madness and Civilization, where he elaborates “delirious discourse” at length; Hélène Cixous figures a liberating laughter in “The Laugh of the Medusa”; and Susan Suleiman, Patrick O'Neill, and others discuss the ironic, parodying laughter of postmodern pastiches. In an elegant argument for the value of playfulness and “world-travelling,” values closely allied with what I call here “intersubjective humorous rapport,” María Lugones describes how a sense of fun is constructed out of her by dominant constructions of play.

  5. Jameson (1988a) refers to something like the possibility of an alternative realism in theory, though he has not generally explicated it in texts, when he postulates a collective subject.

  6. This sense of intersubjectivity differs from that of Habermas because it dialectically negotiates among complexly plural and overlapping subject positions, not among subject individuals. Although concerned here with the meaning of a humorous rapport among characters in process, I see both laughter and play as signs of a rapport capable of becoming intersubjective.

  7. I do not mean to imply that the nature of humorous rapport in The Color Purple is unprecedented, but rather that our theories of how to read the comic have precluded paying attention to the kind of humorous rapport so important here and have thereby tamed at least one kind of resistance out of reading.

  8. Although Henry Gates's reading requires that he foreground Celie's “control” of others' language, so that we have only Celie's and “Celie-cum-characters'” speech, his explication relies on conceptualizing different characters as such, perhaps most significantly in discovering Shug as a (re)writing of Hurston herself. The distinction between speakerly and writerly texts originates with Roland Barthes, who uses it in S/Z to oppose an older realism (readerly texts) to a modern ideal (a writerly text) corresponding to the plural, ambiguous properties of language; when Gates refers to Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as a speakerly text “(re)written” by Walker in The Color Purple, he strangely allies Hurston's passionate grounding in oral and folk traditions with the singular, imperialist language and authority Barthes identifies as readerly characteristics. Nevertheless, Gates's attention to the “simultaneous, inseparable, bonded” nature of voices suggests a resistant laughter here.

  9. While brilliantly disclosing the transformative use Walker makes of both Hurston and Rebecca Cox Jackson, Gates foregrounds a resisting agency belonging to Celie's use of free indirect discourse (246-47). Humor, since it erases boundaries between individual “selves,” appropriately figures some mediation between those who argue that any attention to characters as speakers suggests some unitary, regressively situated subject, and those who, like Homi Bhabha, in “Interrogating Identity,” argue that some fluid, “evolving cultural agent” must connect agency with victims' capacity for resistance.

  10. Deborah E. McDowell calls for a dialogical relation between this characterization as process and analogous reading strategies provocative for African American writers. Although I don't see “identification” as the only analogical link between characters with fluid identities and implied reading processes, I do attempt here to respond to her suggestion.

  11. This description does not suggest any totalizing gesture toward understanding the rich number of humorous kinds used by both male and female African American writers. Carlene Young, Valerie Smith, Leslie Hill, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and other black feminist scholars have agreed in informal discussion that qualitative difference does exist between African American men's and women's forms of humor, both in fiction and in life, but that the subject still awaits its necessarily African American, necessarily cross-gendered researchers.

  12. Stanley Cavell, in his sustained refusal to ally his own skepticism with the more absolute absences of deconstruction, explicates this distinction in “The Uncanniness of the Ordinary” (174).

  13. Despite my own conflictual invocations of Walker as author, whether or not Walker intended Nettie's voice as painfully devoid of humor and her situation as inimical to humorous rapport matters only if one reduces issues of resistance to issues of intentionality.

  14. James Robert Saunders makes this connection between this barbecue and Hurston's “out-of-this-world” barbecue: “Maybe all of us who do not have the good fortune to meet, or meet again, in this world, will meet at a barbecue.”

  15. Mae Henderson aptly formulates how Celie and Mary Agnes as well as Sofia and Shug act initially as doubles, complemented by successive triadic relationships. My point here is that any “new paradigm for relationships” relies more on resisting relations of dominance than on moving from dyads to triads (but one exemplary model of symbolic dismantling and reconstructing).

  16. Although hooks (“Writing,” 468) has a less positive sense of Walker's success in differentiating The Color Purple from its sentimental frames of reference, her phrase well expresses the difficulty of an ending within the conventions of happy endings but also not itself simply the generic equivalent of such an ending.

  17. Wall usefully relates “the persistent tension between fragmentation and unity” in the book's closure to related tensions between Anglo-American and French feminisms

  18. In this emphasis, I agree with Willis that “Walker's affirmation of blackness uses racially specific traits not to define a form of Black racism but to delineate the look of a class. Black is the color of the underclass” (126). Willis's explication of Meridian rightly distinguishes Walker's sense of revolutionary praxis from anything resembling “the politics of counterculture.”

  19. Kimberly Benston's description of Celie's and Nettie's meeting as a “melting” that poses “a radical challenge to our own liminal stance as interpreters, as negotiating judges between distanced parties” (106), published after this article was written, has particular relevance to what I have called “intersubjectivity.” In his context of facing traditions (here, effacing) in African American literature, the scene captures a revision “divested of the coercive powers of a specifically positioned look” (106). Taking laughter, and not the mutually reflective gaze, as trope, my reading also differs in its sense that readers' subject positions affect responses to a laughter inseparable from intersubjectivity.

  20. While focusing on the autobiographical strategies that may subvert narrative expectation, Valerie Smith significantly theorizes the persistence of hybrid forms in African American literature as derived from “their alienation from the ideological content of received literary conventions” (153).

  21. This seems closely related to Karla Holloway's theorizing of African American women writers' “polysignant” or “multiplied” texts, which demand something she calls “shift.” As “a necessary mediation between the reader and the text,” shift “encourages a dialogue among critical postures within the interpretive community” (625).

  22. Bhabha uses this phrase in an eloquent, appreciative “interrogation” of Fanon, while, at the same time, himself interrogating how the black presence defeats narratives of Western personhood (“Interrogating Identity,” 205).

  23. I refer to a note in which Suleiman counters the possibility of considering Toni Morrison or Ntozake Shange “black women feminist postmodernists” with: “But the question of priorities (race or gender?) remains” (248). Hernton's focus on critical, largely male responses to The Color Purple understandably responds with a female-centered reading in the direction of romance where, “The promise in the beginning is fulfilled in the end. The ending is the beginning. The dismembered tree, the broken family, is back together again” (26). This pastoral vision overlooks the radical change in subjectivity and the fact that the “broken” family at the beginning is not the same as the “us” at the end. Even the paradigm of the “female symbol” of the porch with its “diamond of women in sisterhood” (Celie, Mary Agnes, and Shug) ignores how Albert is foregrounded in the geography of the porch.

  24. This point, that reading from different subject positions implies different interpretive responses, does not suggest some imprecise or amorphous relativity (parallel, again, to Holloway's choice of the “polysignant” text). That texts may be chastening to some and discouraging to others demands rigorous examination of how and why readings separate, conflict, or overlap. Barbara Smith's reasoning and tonality captures this sense of relation in difference when she speculates on the different effects of Naylor's “The Two” for heterosexual and lesbian women readers in the context of an argument that fictional representation of black lesbian women “has crucial implications for all women's political liberation” (243).

  25. The engagement of any text outside the cultural traditions that engender it perhaps necessarily risks appropriation; yet, as I try to suggest here, some forms of appropriation act as a critique of dominant presumptions and some merely reinscribe those presumptions.

  26. Deborah McDowell finds affirmation in an implied intimacy between Walker and the black women readers invoked by “sisterhood,” whereas hooks (“Writing”) finds a voyeuristic, even pornographic presumption of a white, privileged, heterosexual female audience.

I would like to thank Wahneema Lubiano and Beverly Guy-Sheftall for helpful comments on a first draft; though not implicated in any readerly reductions, both helped me with thinking about the relationality of resistance, its diverse relation to the subject positions of readers.

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Linda Selzer (essay date spring 1995)

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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 on her first envelope from Nettie provides a concrete illustration of both Celie's particular horizon of interpretation and Walker's chosen approach to the epistolary form:

Saturday morning Shug put Nettie letter in my lap. Little fat queen of England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees and say Africa. I don't know where England at. Don't know where Africa at either. So I still don't know where Nettie at.


Revealing Celie's ignorance of even the most rudimentary outlines of the larger world, this passage clearly defines the “domestic” site she occupies as the novel's main narrator.1 In particular, the difficulty Celie has interpreting this envelope underscores her tendency to understand events in terms of personal consequences rather than political categories. What matters about not knowing “where Africa at”—according to Celie—is not knowing “where Nettie at.” By clarifying Celie's characteristic angle of vision, this passage highlights the intensely personal perspective that Walker brings to her tale of sexual oppression—a perspective that accounts in large part for the emotional power of the text.

But Walker's privileging of the domestic perspective of her narrators has also been judged to have other effects on the text. Indeed, critics from various aesthetic and political camps have commented on what they perceive as a tension between public and private discourse in the novel.2 Thus, in analyzing Celie's representation of national identity, Lauren Berlant identifies a separation of “aesthetic” and “political” discourses in the novel and concludes that Celie's narrative ultimately emphasizes “individual essence in false opposition to institutional history” (868). Revealing a very different political agenda in his attacks on the novel's womanist stance, George Stade also points to a tension between personal and public elements in the text when he criticizes the novel's “narcissism” and its “championing of domesticity over the public world of masculine power plays” (266). Finally, in praising Walker's handling of sexual oppression, Elliott Butler-Evans argues that Celie's personal letters serve precisely as a “textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the narration” (166).

By counterposing personal and public discourse in the novel, these critics could be said to have problematized the narrative's domestic perspective by suggesting that Walker's chosen treatment of the constricted viewpoint of an uneducated country woman—a woman who admits that she doesn't even know “where Africa at”—may also constrict the novel's ability to analyze issues of “race” and class.3 Thus Butler-Evans finds that Celie's “private life preempts the exploration of the public lives of blacks” (166), while Berlant argues that Celie's family-oriented point of view and modes of expression can displace race and class analyses to the point that the “nonbiological abstraction of class relations virtually disappears” (833). And in a strongly worded rejection of the novel as “revolutionary literature,” bell hooks charges that the focus upon Celie's sexual oppression ultimately deemphasizes the “collective plight of black people” and “invalidates … the racial agenda” of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon (“Writing” 465).4 In short, to many readers of The Color Purple, the text's ability to expose sexual oppression seems to come at the expense of its ability to analyze issues of race and class.5

But it seems to me that an examination of the representation of race in the novel leads to another conclusion: Walker's mastery of the epistolary form is revealed precisely by her ability to maintain the integrity of Celie's and Nettie's domestic perspectives even as she simultaneously undertakes an extended critique of race relations, and especially of racial integration. In particular, Walker's domestic novel engages issues of race and class through two important narrative strategies: the development of an embedded narrative line that offers a post-colonial perspective on the action, and the use of “family relations”—or kinship—as a carefully elaborated textual trope for race relations. These strategies enable Walker to foreground the personal histories of her narrators while placing those histories firmly within a wider context of race and class.

Both the novel's so-called “restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness” (Butler-Evans 166-67) and one way in which Walker's narratology complicates that perspective are illustrated by the passage quoted above. Celie's difficulty interpreting the envelope sent by Nettie at first only seems to support the claim that her domestic perspective “erases” race and class concerns from the narrative. But if this short passage delineates Celie's particular angle of vision, it also introduces textual features that invite readers to resituate her narration within a larger discourse of race and class. For where Celie sees only a “fat little queen of England,” readers who recognize Queen Victoria immediately historicize the passage. And if the juxtaposition of the two stamps on the envelope—England's showcasing royalty, Africa's complete with rubber trees—suggests to Celie nothing but her own ignorance, to other readers the two images serve as a clear reminder of imperialism. Thus Africa, mentioned by name for the first time in this passage, enters the novel already situated within the context of colonialism. Importantly, Walker remains true to Celie's character even as she recontextualizes the young woman's perspective, because the features of the envelope Celie focuses upon are entirely natural ones for her to notice, even though they are politically charged in ways that other features would not be (for example, Celie might have been struck by more purely personal—and more conventional—details, such as the familiar shape of her sister's handwriting). Embedded throughout The Color Purple, narrative features with clear political and historical associations like these complicate the novel's point of view by inviting a post-colonial perspective on the action and by creating a layered narrative line that is used for different technical effects and thematic purposes.6 That Celie herself is not always aware of the full political implications of her narration (although she becomes increasingly so as the novel progresses) no more erases the critique of race and class from the text than Huck's naïveté in Huckleberry Finn constricts that work's social criticism to the boy's opinions. This individual letter from Nettie thus provides readers with a textual analogue for the novel's larger epistolary form, illustrating one way in which the novel's domestic perspective is clearly “stamped” with signs of race and class.

But it is not only through such narrative indirection and recontextualization that the novel engages issues of race and class. Walker's domestic narrative undertakes a sustained analysis of race through the careful development of family relationships—or kinship—as an extended textual trope for race relations. Any attempt to oppose political and personal discourses in the novel collapses when one recognizes that the narrative adopts the discourse of family relations both to establish a “domestic ideal” for racial integration and to problematize that ideal through the analysis of specific integrated family groupings in Africa and America.


Important throughout the narrative, the kinship trope for race relations is articulated most explicitly late in the novel when a mature Celie and a reformed Albert enjoy some communal sewing and conversation. Celie herself raises the issue of racial conflict by drawing on the Olinka “Adam” story that has been handed down to her through Nettie's letters. Beginning with the explanation that “… white people is black peoples children” (231), the Olinka narrative provides an analysis of race relations expressed explicitly in terms of kinship.

According to the Olinka creation narrative, Adam was not the first man but the first white man born to an Olinka woman to be cast out for his nakedness—or for being “colorless” (231). The result of this rejection was the fallen world of racial conflict, since the outcast children were, in Celie's words, “so mad to git throwed out and told they was naked they made up they minds to crush us wherever they find us, same as they would a snake.” Offered specifically as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian account of Adam, this parable also offers readers an alternative account of Original Sin—defined not in terms of appropriating knowledge or resisting authority but precisely in terms of breaking kinship bonds: “What they did, these Olinka peoples, was throw out they own children, just cause they was a little different” (232). Significantly, by retelling the Olinka narrative, Celie is able to express naturally some rather sophisticated ideas concerning the social construction of racial inferiority, since the myth defines that inferiority as a construct of power relations that will change over time. For the Olinka believe that someday the whites will “kill off so much of the earth and the colored that everybody gon hate them just like they hate us today. Then they will become the new serpent” (233).

The Olinka creation narrative also raises a question central to the novel's larger design: Is progress in race relations possible? Some Olinka, notes Celie, answer this question by predicting that the cycle of discrimination will repeat itself endlessly, that “… life will just go on and on like this forever,” with first one race in the position of the oppressor and then the other. But others believe that progress in racial harmony is possible—that Original Sin may be ameliorated—through a new valorization of kinship bonds: “… the only way to stop making somebody the serpent is for everybody to accept everybody else as a child of God, or one mother's children, no matter what they look like or how they act” (233).7 These latter Olinka, then, express a domestic ideal for race relations, one that counters the sin of discrimination—based on an ideology of essential difference—with an ethic of acceptance that is grounded upon a recognition of relation, or kinship.

But the universalist ethos of the domestic ideal for race relations is put to the test by the larger narrative's development of historically situated, integrated kinship groupings in both Africa and America. Of particular importance are two family groupings: the white missionary Doris Baines and her black African grandchild in Africa, and Sophia and her white charge Miss Eleanor Jane in America. In both cases the specific integrated domestic groupings serve to expose and to critique the larger pattern of racial integration found in their respective countries.

Nettie meets Doris and her adopted grandson on a trip from Africa to seek help for the recently displaced Olinka in England, a trip Nettie calls “incredible” precisely because of the presence of an integrated family on board ship: It was “impossible to ignore the presence of an aging white woman accompanied by a small black child. The ship was in a tither. Each day she and the child walked about the deck alone, groups of white people falling into silence as they passed” (193). Compared to the overtly racist actions of the other whites who ostracize Doris and her grandson, the English missionary's relationship with the boy at first seems in keeping with the ethic of treating all people as “one mother's children.” Indeed, Doris describes her years as the boy's “grandmama” as “the happiest” years of her life (196). Furthermore, Doris's relationship with the African villagers also seems preferable to that of other white missionaries because, rather than wanting to convert “the heathen,” she sees “nothing wrong with them” in the first place (195).

But the relationship between the white woman and her African grandson is actually far from ideal, and Nettie's letters subtly question the quality of their “kinship.” If the boy seems “fond of his grandmother”—and, Nettie adds, “used to her”—he is also strangely reticent in her presence and reacts to Doris's conversation with “soberly observant speechlessness” (196). In contrast, the boy opens up around Adam and Olivia, suggesting that he may feel more at home with the transplanted black Americans than with his white grandmother.8 Indeed, the boy's subdued behavior around his grandmother raises questions about the possibility of kinship across racial lines, while his ease with the black Americans suggests that feelings of kinship occur almost spontaneously within racial groups.

The nature of Doris's honorary “kinship” with the Akwee villagers is questioned more seriously still, beginning with her reasons for taking up missionary work in the first place. As a young woman Doris decided to become a missionary not out of a desire to help others but in order to escape the rarefied atmosphere of upper-class England and the probability of her eventual marriage to one of her many “milkfed” suitors, “each one more boring than the last” (194). Although Doris describes her decision to go to Africa as an attempt to escape the stultifying roles available to women in English society, it is important to note that Nettie does not take Doris's hardships very seriously and draws upon fairy-tale rhetoric to parody the woman's upper-class tribulations: “She was born to great wealth in England. Her father was Lord Somebody or Other. They were forever giving or attending boring parties that were not fun.”9 From Nettie's perspective as a black woman familiar with the trials of the displaced Olinka, Doris's aristocratic troubles seem small indeed, and Nettie further trivializes the white woman's decision to become a missionary by emphasizing that the idea struck Doris one evening when she “was getting ready for yet another tedious date” (194).

The self-interest that prompts Doris to become a missionary also characterizes the relationship she establishes with the Akwee upon her arrival in Africa. There she uses her wealth to set up an ostensibly reciprocal arrangement that in fact reflects her imperial power to buy whatever she wants: “Within a year everything as far as me and the heathen were concerned ran like clockwork. I told them right off that their souls were no concern of mine, that I wanted to write books and not be disturbed. For this pleasure I was prepared to pay. Rather handsomely.” Described as a mechanism that runs “like clockwork,” Doris's relationship to the Akwee clearly falls short of the maternal ideal for race relations expressed in the Olinka myths. In fact, Doris's relationship to the villagers is decidedly paternal from the outset, since her formal kinship with the Akwee begins when she is presented with “a couple of wives” (195) in recognition for her contributions to the village.10 The fact that she continues to refer to the Olinka as “the heathen” in her discussions with Nettie implies that, in spite of her fondness for her grandson, Doris never overcomes a belief in the essential “difference” of the Africans attributed to her by the Missionary Society in England: “She thinks they are an entirely different species from what she calls Europeans. … She says an African daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but totally different kinds” (115). By promoting a theory of polygenesis opposed to the Olinkan account of racial origins, Doris calls into question her own ability to treat the Akwee as kin. The true nature of her “reciprocal” relationship with the Akwee is revealed when she unselfconsciously tells Nettie that she believes she can save her villagers from the same displacement the Olinka suffered: “I am a very wealthy woman,” says Doris, “and I own the village of Akwee” (196).

Stripped of both the religious motivation of the other missionaries and the overt racism of the other whites, Doris Baines through her relationship with the Akwee lays bare the hierarchy of self-interest and paternalism that sets the pattern for race relations in larger Africa. Indeed, from the moment that young Nettie first arrives in Africa she is surprised to find whites there “in droves,” and her letters are filled with details suggestive of the hegemony of race and class. Nettie's description of Monrovia is a case in point. There she sees “bunches” of whites and a presidential palace that “looks like the American white house” (119). There Nettie also discovers that whites sit on the country's cabinet, that black cabinet members' wives dress like white women, and that the black president himself refers to his people as “natives”—as Nettie remarks, “It was the first time I'd heard a black man use that word” (120). Originally established by ex-slaves who returned to Africa but who kept “close ties to the country that bought them” (117), Monrovia clearly reveals a Western influence in more than its style of architecture, and its cocoa plantations provide the colonial model of integration that defines the white presence elsewhere in Africa—from the port town “run by a white man” who rents out “some of the stalls … to Africans” (127) all the way up to the governor's mansion where “the white man in charge” (144) makes the decision to build the road that ultimately destroys the Olinka village. Indeed, the later displacement of the Olinka villagers by the English roadbuilders—the main action in the African sections of The Color Purple—simply recapitulates the colonial process of integration already embedded in Nettie's narrative of her travels through the less remote areas of Africa.

From her eventual vantage point within the Olinka's domestic sphere, Nettie becomes a first-hand witness to this process of colonization—a process in which she and the other black missionaries unwittingly participate. For although Nettie's reasons for going to Africa differ from Doris Baines's in that they, like those of the other black missionaries, include a concern for the “people from whom [she] sprang” (111), she is trained by a missionary society that is “run by white people” who “didn't say a thing about caring about Africa, but only about duty” (115). Indeed, missionary work is tied to national interest from the time Nettie arrives in England to prepare for the trip to Africa:

… the English have been sending missionaries to Africa and India and China and God knows where all, for over a hundred years. And the things they have brought back! We spent a morning in one of their museums and it was packed with jewels, furniture, fur, carpets, swords, clothing, even tombs from all the countries they have been. From Africa they have thousands of vases, jars, masks, bowls, baskets, statues—and they are all so beautiful it is hard to imagine that the people who made them don't still exist. And yet the English assure us they do not.


Charting the course of empire through a catalogue of the material culture appropriated by missionaries from “all the countries they have been” (and, chillingly, from peoples who no longer exist), this passage brilliantly underscores Walker's ability to maintain the integrity of the narrative's personal perspective—here that of a young girl's wonder at her first glimpse into the riches of her African heritage—even as she simultaneously invites readers to resituate that perspective in a wider context of race and class. In fact, throughout the African sections of the novel, Walker's embedded narrative enables readers to sympathize with the hopes and disappointments of the black missionaries while it simultaneously exposes the limitations of their point of view.

This narrative complexity becomes especially important in the passages concerning Samuel and Corrine's Victorian aunts, Theodosia and Althea, whom the narrative asks readers both to sympathize with and to judge harshly. On the one hand, as representatives of a group of black women missionaries who achieved much against great odds, the narrative asks readers to see these women and their accomplishments as “astonishing”:

… no sooner had a young woman got through Spelman Seminary than she began to put her hand to whatever work she could do for her people, anywhere in the world. It was truly astonishing. These very polite and proper young women, some of them never having set foot outside their own small country towns, except to come to the Seminary, thought nothing of packing up for India, Africa, the Orient. Or for Philadelphia or New York.


On the other hand, the narrative levies its harshest criticism of missionary work not against the white missionary Doris Baines but against Aunt Theodosia—and particularly against the foolish pride she takes in a medal given to her by King Leopold for “service as an exemplary missionary in the King's colony.” The criticism is levied by a young “DuBoyce,” who attends one of Aunt Theodosia's “at homes” and exposes her medal as the emblem of the Victorian woman's “unwitting complicity with this despot who worked to death and brutalized and eventually exterminated thousands and thousands of African peoples” (200). Like the other political allusions embedded in Walker's narrative, the appearance of Du Bois in Aunt Theodosia's domestic sphere recontextualizes Nettie's narrative, and his comments serve as an authoritative final judgment upon the entire missionary effort in Africa.

By structuring Nettie's letters around missionary work, then, Walker achieves much. First, that work provides Nettie and the other black missionaries with a practical and credible pathway into the African domestic sphere. Second, the institutional, historical, and ideological connections between philanthropy and colonialism enable Walker to use that domestic sphere and the example of Doris Baines's integrated family to expose the missionary pattern of integration in larger Africa. Finally, the embedded narrative line enables Walker to remain true to her characters even as she anatomizes the hierarchy of race and class that is first pictured in miniature on Nettie's envelope.


If the integrated family of Doris Baines and her adopted African grandson exposes the missionary pattern of integration in Africa as one based on a false kinship that in fact denies the legitimacy of kinship bonds across racial lines, the relationship between Miss Sophia and her white charge, Miss Eleanor Jane, serves an analogous function for the American South. Sophia, of course, joins the mayor's household as a maid under conditions more overtly racist than Doris Baines's adoption of her Akwee family: Because she answers “hell no” (76) to Miss Millie's request that she come to work for her as a maid, Sophia is brutally beaten by the mayor and six policeman and is then imprisoned. Forced to do the jail's laundry and driven to the brink of madness, Sophia finally becomes Miss Millie's maid in order to escape prison. Sophia's violent confrontation with the white officers obviously foregrounds issues of race and class, as even critics who find these issues marginalized elsewhere in The Color Purple have noted. But it is not only through Sophia's dramatic public battles with white men that her story dramatizes issues of race and class. Her domestic relationship with Miss Eleanor Jane and the other members of the mayor's family offers a more finely nuanced and extended critique of racial integration, albeit one that has often been overlooked.11

Like Doris Baines and her black grandson, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane appear to have some genuine family feelings for one another. Since Sophia “practically … raise[s]” (222) Miss Eleanor Jane and is the one sympathetic person in her house, it is not surprising that the young girl “dote[s] on Sophia” and is “always stick[ing] up for her” (88), or that, when Sophia leaves the mayor's household (after fifteen years of service), Miss Eleanor Jane continues to seek out her approval and her help with the “mess back at the house” (174). Sophia's feelings for Miss Eleanor are of course more ambivalent. When she first joins the mayor's household, Sophia is completely indifferent to her charge, “wonder[ing] why she was ever born” (88). After rejoining her own family, Sophia resents Miss Eleanor Jane's continuing intrusions into her family life and suggests that the only reason she helps the white girl is because she's “on parole. … Got to act nice” (174). But later Sophia admits that she does feel “something” for Miss Eleanor Jane “because of all the people in your daddy's house, you showed me some human kindness” (225).

Whatever affection exists between the two women, however, has been shaped by the perverted “kinship” relation within which it grew—a relationship the narrative uses to expose plantation definitions of kinship in general and to explode the myth of the black mammy in particular. Separated from her own family and forced to join the mayor's household against her will, living in a room under the house and assigned the housekeeping and childraising duties, Sophia carries out a role in the mayor's household which clearly recalls that of the stereotypical mammy on the Southern plantation. However, as someone who prefers to build a roof on the house while her husband tends the children, Sophia seems particularly unsuited for that role. And that is precisely the narrative's point: Sophia is entirely unsuited for the role of mammy, but whites—including and perhaps especially Miss Eleanor Jane—continually expect her to behave according to their cultural representations of the black mother. It is, in fact, these expectations that get Sophia into trouble in the first place, for when Miss Millie happens upon Sophia's family and sees her children so “clean” (76), she assumes that Sophia would make a perfect maid and that Sophia would like to come and work in her household. Similarly, Miss Eleanor Jane assumes that Sophia must return her family feelings in kind, without considering Sophia's true position in her household. Similarly, Miss Eleanor Jane assumes that Sophia must return her family feelings in kind, without considering Sophia's true position in her household. The young white woman's stereotypical projections become clear when she can't understand why Sophia doesn't “just love” her new son, since, in her words, “all other colored women I know love children” (224-25).

An historical appropriation of domestic discourse for political ends, descriptions of the black mammy were used by apologists for slavery to argue that the plantation system benefited the people whom it enslaved by incorporating supposedly inferior blacks into productive white families.12 And Sophia explicitly ties her employers to such plantation definitions of racial difference: “They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us. … Like us didn't have sense enough to handle it. All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat” (89). But through Sophia's experience in the mayor's household, the narrative demonstrates that it is Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, who is actually incompetent—who must be taught to drive by Sophia, for example, and who even then can't manage a short trip by herself. Thus, when she suddenly decides to drive Sophia home for a visit, Miss Millie stalls the car and ruins the transmission, the mistress unable to master driving in reverse. Too afraid of black men to allow one of Sophia's relatives to drive her back home alone, Miss Millie reveals her childlike dependence upon Sophia, who must cut short her first visit with her children in five years to ride home with the distraught white woman. Sophia's position as domestic within the mayor's household thus enables Walker to subvert the discourse of plantation kinship by suggesting that it actually supports a group of people who are themselves incompetent or, in Sophia words, “backward, … clumsy, and unlucky” (89).

Predicated on this plantation model of integration, relations between whites and blacks throughout the American South reveal a false kinship not unlike that of Doris Baines and the Akwee. But in this instance the false kinship is doubly perverse because it conceals an elaborate network of actual kinship connections. Thus Miss Eleanor Jane's husband feels free to humor Sophia by referring to the importance of black mammies in the community—“… everybody around here raise by colored. That's how come we turn out so well” (222)—while other white men refuse to recognize the children they father with black women. As Celie says of Mr. ———'s son Bub, he “look so much like the Sheriff, he and Mr. ——— almost on family terms”; that is, “just so long as Mr. ——— know he colored” (76-77). Like the apologists for slavery, then, the Southern whites in The Color Purple keep alive a counterfeit definition of family while denying the real ties that bind them to African Americans.

In fact, the underlying system of kinship that exists in the American South has more to do with white uncles than black mammies, as is clear from the scene in which Sophia's family and friends consider various stratagems for winning her release from prison. By asking, “Who the warden's black kinfolks?” (80), Mr. ——— reveals that kinship relations between whites and blacks are so extensive in the community that it may be assumed that someone will be related by blood to the warden. That someone, of course, is Squeak. Hopeful that she will be able to gain Sophia's release from the warden on the basis of their kinship, the others dress Squeak up “like she a white woman” with instructions to make the warden “see the Hodges in you” (82). In spite of the fact that the warden does recognize Squeak as kin “the minute [she] walk[s] through the door” (83)—or perhaps because he recognizes her—the warden rapes Squeak, denying their kinship in the very act of perverting it. As Squeak herself recounts, “He say if he was my uncle he wouldn't do it to me” (85). Both an intensely personal and highly political act, Squeak's rape exposes the denial of kinship at the heart of race relations in the South and underscores the individual and institutional power of whites to control the terms of kinship—and whatever power those definitions convey—for their own interests.13

It is specifically as an act of resistance to this power that Sophia comes to reject Miss Eleanor Jane's baby and thereby to challenge the Olinka kinship ideal for race relations. From the time her son is born, Miss Eleanor Jane continually tests out Sophia's maternal feelings for him, “shoving Reynolds Stanley Earl in her face” almost “every time Sofia turn[s] around” (223). When an exasperated Sophia finally admits that she doesn't love the baby, Miss Eleanor Jane accuses her of being “unnatural” and implies that Sophia should accept her son because he is “just a little baby!” (225)—an innocent who, presumably, should not be blamed for the racist sins of his fathers. From Sophia's vantage point as a persecuted black woman, however, Reynolds Stanley is not “just a sweet, smart, cute, innocent little baby boy.” He is in fact the grandson and namesake of the man who beat her brutally in the street, a man whom he also resembles physically. A “white something without much hair” with “big stuck open eyes” (223), Reynolds Stanley also takes after his father, who is excused from the military to run the family cotton gin while Sophia's own boys are trained for service overseas. To Sophia, Reynolds Stanley is both the living embodiment of and literal heir to the system that oppresses her: “He can't even walk and already he in my house messing it up. Did I ast him to come? Do I care whether he sweet or not? Will it make any difference in the way he grow up to treat me what I think?” (224). Reminding Miss Eleanor Jane of the real social conditions that separate her from Reynolds Stanley in spite of his “innocence,” Sophia articulates a strong position counter to the Olinka kinship ethic of treating everyone like one mother's children: “… all the colored folks talking bout loving everybody just ain't looked hard at what they thought they said” (226).

In subverting the plantation model of kinship in general and the role of mammy that it assigns to black women in particular, then, Sophia's position as an unwilling domestic in the mayor's household underscores the importance of the personal point of view to the novel's political critique of race relations. Indeed, the personal point of view of The Color Purple is central to its political message: It is precisely the African American woman's subjectivity that gives the lie to cultural attempts to reduce her—like Sophia—to the role of the contented worker in a privileged white society.14


The Color Purple closes with a celebration of kinship, its concluding action composed of a series of family reunions: Sophia patches things up with Harpo; Shug visits her estranged children (for the first time in thirty years); and the novel's two narrators, Celie and Nettie, are joyfully and tearfully reunited. Even Albert and Celie are reconciled, his change of heart signaled by his earning the right to have his first name written. Coming after Celie has achieved both economic independence and emotional security, the reunions at the end of The Color Purple testify to the importance of kinship to the happiness of every individual. Appropriately, then, when the two sisters fall into one another's arms at last, each identifies her kin: Nettie introduces her husband and the children, and Celie's first act is to “point up at [her] peoples … Shug and Albert” (243). But in addition to suggesting that the individual realizes her full potential only within the supporting bonds of a strong kinship group (no matter how unconventionally that group might be defined), the conclusion to The Color Purple also addresses the vexing question posed by the Olinka Adam narrative: Is progress in race relations possible? By bringing to closure two earlier narrative threads—one dealing with Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane, and the other with Sophia's relationship to work—the novel suggests that progress in race relations is possible. But the narrative's ending also contains arresting images of racial segregation in both Africa and America that complicate the idea of progress and ultimately move the narrative toward a final definition of kinship based on race.

After their falling out over Reynolds Stanley, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane are reunited when the mayor's daughter finally learns from her family why Sophia came to work for them in the first place. Miss Eleanor Jane subsequently comes to work in Sophia's home, helping with the housework and taking care of Sophia's daughter Henrietta. Clearly an improvement in the domestic relationship between the two women, this new arrangement expresses Miss Eleanor Jane's new understanding of their domestic history together: To her family's question “Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers?” Miss Eleanor Jane answers, “Whoever heard of somebody like Sophia working for trash?” For her part, Sophia's acceptance of Miss Eleanor Jane in her own home also signals progress, although when Celie asks pointedly if little Reynolds Stanley comes along with his mother, Sophia sidesteps the issue of her own feelings for the child by answering, “Henrietta say she don't mind him” (238).15 Sophia's comment maintains the legitimacy of her own hard-earned attitudes toward the child, even as it reserves the possibility that different attitudes may be possible in future generations.

Sophia's employment in Celie's dry goods store also seems to signal an improvement in race relations, not only because it represents Sophia's final escape from her position as mammy but also because shops are used throughout The Color Purple to represent the status of economic and social integration between blacks and whites. Thus early in the novel Corrine, a Spelman graduate, is insulted when a white clerk calls her “Girl” (14) and intimidates her into buying some thread she doesn't want. Later the novel contrasts the histories of Celie's real Pa and Step-pa as store owners, histories that comment on the ability of African Americans to achieve economic integration into the American mainstream.16 Celie's real father, in the tradition of the American success story, works hard, buys his own store, and hires two of his bothers to work it for him. Ironically, his model of industry and enterprise fails, since the store's very success leads “white merchants … [to] complain that this store was taking all the black business away from them” (148) Refusing to tolerate free competition from a black-owned and black-operated business, whites eventually burn the store and lynch Celie's Pa and his two brothers. The tragic history of Celie's real Pa thus compels readers to reinterpret Celie's family history in terms of the historical lack of access of African Americans to the “American Dream.”

Believing that Celie's real Pa “didn't know how to git along,” Alphonso, her step-pa, expresses a different path to economic integration:

Take me, he say, I know how they is. The key to all of 'em is money. The trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give 'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what I did was just right off offer to give 'em money. Before I planted a seed, I made sure this one and that one knowed one seed out of three was planted for him. Before I ground a grain of wheat, the same thing. And when I opened up your daddy's old store in town, I bought me my own white boy to run it. And what make it so good, he say, I bought him with whitefolks' money.


Alphonso's decision to pay off whites and buy a white boy to work in the dry goods store establishes him in the tradition of the trickster who plays the system for his own benefit; however, the model of integration he represents is finally seen as accommodationist. Alphonso, in fact, is identified with white power from the beginning of the novel, where he is seen going off with a group of white men armed with guns (11-12). After he has made his fortune, Alphonso recalls the compromised African president described in Nettie's letter—like him Alphonso lives in a house that now looks like a “white person's house” (153), and like him he establishes paternalistic relationships with other blacks. Thus when Shug asks Alphonso's new wife, a “child” not “more than fifteen,” why her parents allowed her to marry him, the girl replies: “They work for him. … Live on his land” (154). Alphonso's marriage thus makes explicit the degree to which his identification with white paternalism shapes his domestic relationships with other blacks.

In the context of these earlier histories, Sophia's coming to work in Celie's dry goods store has wider significance than just her finding suitable work outside the home. Indeed, for the first time in its history the store has an integrated workforce, since Celie keeps the “white man” who works there even as she hires Sophia to “wait on” blacks and “treat 'em nice” (245). In direct contrast to the white clerk who intimidated Corrine earlier, Sophia refuses to coerce customers and turns out to be especially good at “selling stuff” because “she don't care if you buy or not.” Importantly, Sophia also resists the white clerk's attempts to define their relationship in the terms of plantation kinship: When he presumes to call her “auntie,” she mocks him by asking “which colored man his mama sister marry” (237-38). While race relations in Celie's integrated store are obviously not ideal, Sophia's employment there is nonetheless both a personal and a communal triumph: Sophia finds employment that suits her as an individual, and the black community is treated with new respect in the marketplace.

Significantly, these small steps toward progress in race relations come not from some realization of the Olinka ideal or any recognition of identity between the races but from an evolving separatism and parallel growth in racial identity within the African and African American communities. The possibility of treating everyone like “one mother's children” is achieved within but not between racial groups by the end of The Color Purple. Instead, the conclusion leaves readers with images of an emerging Pan-Africanism in Africa and a nascent black nationalism in the American South.

In Africa separatism is represented by the mbeles, warriors who “live deep in the jungle, refusing to work for whites or be ruled by them” (193). Composed of men and women “from dozens of African tribes,” the mbeles are particularly significant because they comprise a remnant group defined not by traditional village bloodlines but by their common experience of racial oppression and their shared commitment to active resistance, which takes the form of “missions of sabotage against the white plantations” (234). In the mbeles, The Color Purple accurately depicts the historical origin of many African “tribes” or nations in the reorganization of older societies decimated by colonization. Their plans for the white man's “destruction—or at least for his removal from their continent” (217; italics added)—also reflect a nascent pan-Africanism among the disenfranchised. Including among their number “one colored man … from Alabama,” the mbeles represent a form of kinship that is defined by racial rather than national identity.

In America, a parallel growth in black identity is suggested by Celie's final letter in The Color Purple. Indeed, the spirit of celebratory kinship with which the novel closes is achieved by Celie's group specifically in isolation from whites, as Harpo explains: “White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th … so most black folks don't have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other” (242). By juxtaposing “white people” and “black folks,” Harpo distinguishes his kinship group from the kinship of whites, defined by privilege and national identity. Importantly, the “folks” that Harpo refers to now include Celie's African daughter-in-law, Tashi. Also significantly, that group does not include Miss Eleanor Jane, no matter how strained her relationship with her own family or how successful her reunion with Sophia. Tashi's easy integration into the black community effaces her earlier fears that coming to America would rob her of all kinship ties, leaving her with “no country, no people, no mother and no husband and brother” (235). Instead, Tashi's quick acceptance by the Southern women, who make a fuss over her and “stuff her” with food (244), suggests once again that feelings of black identity make it easy for people to treat others as “one mother's children.”17

But if the conclusion to The Color Purple suggests that feelings of racial identity can transcend national boundaries, the novel provides no such reassurances that the boundaries between races can be successfully negotiated. That sober conclusion is confirmed by the outcome of two other attempts at integration. The first is that of Shug's son, a missionary on an Indian reservation in the American West. The American Indians refuse to accept her son, Shug explains, because “everybody not a Indian they got no use for” (237).18 The failure of Shug's son to become integrated into the American Indian community contrasts with Mary Agnes's successful integration with the mixed peoples of Cuba, but her experience there also emphasizes the importance of racial identity to kinship definitions. Indeed, it is because she is a person of color that Mary Agnes is recognized as kin: Even though some of the Cuban people are as light as Mary Agnes while others are “real dark,” Shug explains, they are “all in the same family though. Try to pass for white, somebody mention your grandma” (211). Thus in Cuba—as well as in Africa and North America—feelings of racial identity among marginalized peoples become the basis for definitions of kinship by novel's end.

Finally, it is not surprising that, in elaborating her domestic trope for race relations, Walker is able to foreground the personal experience of her narrators while simultaneously offering an extended critique of racial integration. As Walker's integrated families remind us, the black family has seldom existed as a private, middle-class space protected from the interference of the state; therefore, the African American household is particularly inscribed with social meanings available for narration. Rather than opposing public and private spheres, Walker's narrative underscores their interpenetration. If her narrative does reveal an opposition, it is not between public and private discourse but between the universalist ethos of the Olinka ideal for race relations and the historical experience of African Americans as reflected in the narrative's analysis of specific integrated family groupings. For if the Olinka ideal questions the true nature of kinship in the novel's integrated families, these families also serve to criticize the Olinka myth for tracing the origins of racial discrimination back to some imaginary sin of black people, rather than to real, historical discrimination by whites.

It may be, however, that the growing sense of racial separatism at the conclusion to the The Color Purple is not necessarily at odds with the Olinka ideal for race relations. Past discrimination itself may dictate that improved relations between the races must begin with the destruction of false relations—the discovery of kinship among the disenfranchised the necessary first step, perhaps, toward recognizing all others as part of the same family. Like the Olinka Adam myth, the conclusion to Walker's novel raises the question of the future of race relations, but also like that myth, the novel offers no certain predictions. One thing is certain, however. Critics who believe that The Color Purple sacrifices its ability to critique the public world of blacks in favor of dramatizing the personal experience of its narrators not only run the risk of reducing the narrative's technical complexity, but also of overlooking the work's sustained critique of racial integration levied from within the domestic sphere. Through its embedded narrative line and carefully elaborated kinship trope for race relations, The Color Purple offers a critique of race that explores the possibility of treating all people as “one mother's children”—while remaining unremittingly sensitive to the distance that often separates even the best of human ideals from real historical conditions.


  1. By characterizing the novel's point of view as “domestic,” I mean no criticism, as my paper will make clear. My approach to The Color Purple is in sympathy with recent revaluations of the domestic sphere in literature. See, for example, Barbara Christian, who charts in her discussion of George Simms (20) the well-known nineteenth-century denigration of sentimental fiction by male writers; and Jane Tompkins, who has argued that earlier interpretations of sentimental fiction were shaped by critics who taught “generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality—and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority” (123). Closer at hand, Alison Light has attributed critics' “fear” of the happy ending in The Color Purple to similar attitudes toward sentimentality in fiction; Light points to an “‘androcentricity’ implicit and produced” in the “making” of public and private spheres (92) and notes that “terms like ‘sentimental’ and ‘idealistic’ are not themselves transparent descriptions of knowledge or response” but “carry with them cultural prescriptions and assumptions and have themselves to be historicized” (93). See also Susan K. Harris and Claudia Tate.

  2. Called Walker's “best but most problematic” novel by Bernard Bell (263), The Color Purple has generated controversy since its publication in 1982 and especially since the appearance of the 1985 film of the same title. It should be noted that academic discussions of Celie's point of view in The Color Purple are paralleled in interesting ways by a controversy in the popular media over the representation of black men in novel and film. In “Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple,” Jacqueline Bobo concludes that arguments in the public media focus on two values that sometimes seem in conflict: the need for positive images of black people in the media and the recognition of “the authority of black women writers to set the agenda for imagemaking in fiction and film” (334).

  3. By placing my first reference to race in quotation marks I am following the practice of Gates and others in “Race,” Writing, and Difference. The quotation marks indicate that “race” does not refer to some essential nature or fixed difference between people. Gates's collection illustrates a variety of critical approaches to what he calls “the complex interplay among race, writing, and difference” (15).

  4. hooks also objects specifically to Walker's linking of the slave narrative form to that of the sentimental novel, an association that she believes “strips the slave narrative of its revolutionary ideological intent and content” by linking it to “Eurocentral bourgeois literary traditions” (“Writing” 465). But hooks's criticism is problematic in light of the classical slave narrative tradition itself. Female authors of slave narratives often drew heavily upon the tradition of the sentimental novel to tell their stories. Note, for example, the case of what today is probably the best known woman's narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Until recently Jacobs's autobiographical narrative was thought to be a sentimental novel. Jean Fagan Yellin details the textual history of the narrative in her edition of Incidents. See also Sekora's discussion of the genre of the slave narrative as a “mixed form” that syncretizes several literary traditions. While disagreeing with hooks about the genre of slave narratives in general and with her assessment of Walker's use of that tradition in particular, I want to acknowledge my debt to her work elsewhere on plantation family structures (as discussed in n14, below).

  5. Unlike George Stade and bell hooks, Lauren Berlant and Elliott Butler-Evans seek not to criticize Walker's handling of the epistolary form but to uncover one effect that they believe follows from her chosen approach. Butler-Evans believes that the “restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness enables the novel to erase the public history and permits Celie to tell her own story” (166-67). Similarly, Berlant discusses Walker's “strategy of inversion, represented in its elevation of female experience over great patriarchal events” (847). Both critics detect an opposition or separation of discourses in the text, but their analyses differ in important ways. While sympathetic to Butler-Evans's method of analyzing the “politics of narration” (17) and especially to his analysis of sexual oppression, I believe his focus on the gender issues at the center of Walker's narrative leads him to underestimate both the extent and the importance of the novel's representation of race. Berlant's sophisticated argument cannot be summarized here, but if she means to limit—as I believe she does—her analysis of “nation” to Celie's understanding of the term, then our analyses may not be so much in conflict as they first appear. My own interest is in analyzing the narrative's embedded text on racial integration rather than in defining any particular character's understanding of race or nation. In other words, I believe that the implied reader of Walker's text is provided a political vantagepoint wider than that of any particular character in the novel, including its primary narrator, Celie.

  6. Gates has analyzed the extent to which The Color Purple signifies upon Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Signifying 239-58). Note that, because of its layered narrative line, Walker's text is capable of another form of “doubleness”—an ability to signify upon itself.

  7. While my purpose here is to focus primarily upon the representation of racial integration rather than gender, I should also note that this domestic ideal is expressed specifically in terms of matrilineal bonds. The recognition of all people as “one mother's children” is in keeping, of course, with the construction of gender elsewhere in the novel. Woman's love, understood as growing out of the experience of identity between mother and child (rather than out of the perception of difference between the sexes) is represented throughout The Color Purple as love that looks beyond differences in how people “look or act.” As Celie tells Shug when the singer prepares to leave her, “I'm a woman. I love you. … Whatever happen, whatever you do. I love you” (221). For a theoretical alternative to Oedipal theories of maturation, see Chodorow.

  8. While the boy's close proximity in age to Adam and Olivia accounts for some of his demeanor, his behavior raises issues of race and class nevertheless.

  9. Note that Nettie's use of fairy-tale rhetoric to parody Doris undercuts the gender issues available in the white woman's narration and emphasizes instead issues of race and class.

  10. Linda Abbandonato and others have pointed to Levi-Strauss's interpretation of the exchange of women as a “system of bonding men” (1109). Similarly, historian Gerda Lemer argues in The Creation of Patriarchy that the control of kinship—and especially of women's sexual and reproductive powers—leads to the historical development of patriarchal political structures, as power moves from the home and into law. Ironically, Doris leaves England to avoid becoming a wife, only to become an honorary husband in Africa. Doris's money has enabled her to escape becoming an object of exchange but not to escape the patriarchal system of exchange itself, which is seen to reach across continents.

  11. Thus, in an article on “alienation and integration,” Frank Shelton analyzes four kinds of alienation and integration in the novel—but not racial alienation or integration, probably because he believes that one component of such an analysis is largely missing from the text: “White people,” he asserts, are “called a miracle of affliction” and then are “virtually ignored” (382). Rather than being ignored, white people actually function in the latter half of the novel to underscore the presence of race and class hegemony in domestic space and to problematize the family ideal for racial integration.

  12. My discussion of the black mammy builds upon the work of Hazel Carby, Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman), all of whom have written on literary representations of the African American woman in the plantation household.

  13. For other analyses of Squeak's rape, see Christine Froula's reading of Squeak's “self-naming” in light of the sexual violence in the novel (639), and Berlant's discussion of the rape as “the diacritical mark that organizes Squeak's insertion into the ‘womanist’ order” (844).

  14. In doing so, Walker's novel joins the longstanding feminist critique of separate-spheres ideology as a false division used for power's self-maintenance. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's comment that “the deconstruction of the opposition between the private and public” is “implicit in all feminist activity” (201).

  15. Note that Celie's pointed question to Sophia about Miss Eleanor Jane's baby demonstrates her own understanding of the race issues involved in Sophia's relationship with the white baby.

  16. See Berlant's reading of Celie's family history, which argues that Celie's “fairy-tale rhetoric emphasizes the personal over the institutional or political components of social relations” such that “the nonbiologized abstraction of class relations virtually disappears from the text” (841-42). According to Berlant, Celie never understands the economic or class issues implied by her family history.

  17. The conclusion also suggests that feelings of kinship can transcend gender differences, even when these differences include prior wrongs as great as Albert's abuse of Celie. The novel resolves tensions between the sexes—but not those between the races—optimistically, with partners, husbands, wives, and estates well sorted out by the novel's end.

  18. Shug's son may work for the same organization as Nettie, since we learn early on that the “American and African Missionary Society” has also “ministered to the Indians out west” (109). In any case, the American Indians' treatment of Shug's son underscores their own understanding of the colonial function of missionaries. By calling Shug's son the “black white man,” the American Indians also complicate racial definitions of kinship by suggesting that the definition of race itself is ultimately located in social hegemony.

Works Cited

Abbandonato, Linda. “A View from Elsewhere: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine's Story in The Color Purple.PMLA 106 (1991): 1106-15.

Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.

Berlant, Lauren. “Race, Gender, and Nation in The Color Purple.Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 831-59.

Bobo, Jacqueline. “Sifting through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple.Callaloo 12 (1989): 332-42.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.

Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and The Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Froula, Christine, “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Feminist Theory.” Signs 2 (1986): 621-44.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Harris, Susan K. 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

hooks, bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End, 1981.

———. “Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple.Reading Black, Reading Feminist. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 454-70.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Told by Herself. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Lemer, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford UP, 1986

Light, Alison. “The Fear of the Happy Ending.” Plotting Change. Ed. Linda Anderson. London: Edward Arnold, 1993. 85-96.

Sekora, John. “Is the Slave Narrative a Species of Autobiography?” Studies in Autobiography. Ed. James Olney. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 99-111.

Shelton, Frank W. “Alienation and Integration in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.CLA Journal 28 (1985): 382-92.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Explanation and Culture: Marginalia.” Humanities and Society 2 (1974): 201-21.

Stade, George. “Womanist Fiction and Male Characters.” Partisan Review 52 (1985): 264-70.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Tum of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.

Stacie Lynn Hankinson (essay date spring 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2970

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, Trudier Harris notes that “the issues are worked out at the price of realism” (6). These are valid critiques, as it is difficult to imagine any character, despite the approximately forty-year time span, arising from such utter oppression into such a state of bliss and restoration, as does Celie. Yet if we as readers can accept this ending—simply overcome our prejudice that such a conclusion is improbable—we can then ask what functions as the impetus for such change. Much critical attention has been focused on the Shug/Celie relationship as the influencing factor in the latter's growth. For instance, Margaret Walsh, who refers to Shug as Celie's “magic helper,” declares that through Ms. Avery, “the love inside Celie comes forth, breaking the spell that has bound her” (90). And in like manner, Daniel Ross discusses “the crucial role” Shug plays in Celie's development (73).

However, I would like to suggest another apparently unexplored area that operates in a similar manner, and that is the pantheistic philosophy into which Celie emerges. Celie's conversion from a monotheistic view of God (or traditional Christianity) to a more pantheistic outlook represents and parallels her movement from feelings of oppression under the domination of patriarchy into a sense of connectedness with others and self-acceptance at which she ultimately arrives by the novel's end.

From early adolescence into adulthood Celie associates the biblical God with the men she knows—men who have been oppressive and cruelly insensitive to her. The male-bullying and domination begin for Celie at fourteen when the man she thinks is “Pa” rapes her on at least two occasions, rendering her unable to ever again bear children. The trauma of this event remains entrenched in Celie's mind, causing her to still cry in her adulthood: “Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug's arms. How it hurt and how much I was surprise. How it stung while I finish trimming his hair. How the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking. How he don't never look at me straight after that” (117). This assault develops into an oppressive view of men, particularly of the father figure, for Celie. In the same way that Celie wonders whether her father killed her vanished child (4), she also begins to associate God the Father with the murderer of her children. When her mother asks where the baby is, Celie replies: “God took it.” To herself she reflects: “He [God] took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods. Kill this one too, if he can” (3). Subtly and at an early age, Celie's notion of the monotheistic, biblical God also begins to be affiliated with fear and violence, mirroring her conception of her father, and next of Mr. ———.

Pa's relinquishment of Celie to Mr. ——— differs very little from the way one might relinquish cattle. As Harris notes, Pa essentially “barters her off” (1), when he tells Mr. ———:

I can't let you have Nettie. … But I can let you have Celie. … She ugly. … But she ain't no stranger to hard work. And she clean. And God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed or clothe it. … She'd come with her own linen. … She ain't smart either … but she can work like a man.


Pa presents Celie as “less than a whole woman” (Ross, 75), due to what Judy Elsley refers to as her “enforced hysterectomy” (73). And in the same manner in which Celie is given away, so she is treated by Mr. ————as an animal. Celie is brutalized by Mr. ———'s son, while Mr. ——— watches with indifference (13), but primarily and consistently she is beaten by Mr. ———. “He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man” (23). As Ross remarks, “Celie tries alternately to ignore and to annihilate her body” (70). Celie comes to know these beatings as both arbitrary (“Sometime beat me anyhow … whether I do what he say or not” [66]) and simply due to her permanent identity as female (“Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr. ——— say, Cause she my wife” [23]). Additionally, Mr. ——— repeatedly performs what might be considered sanctioned rape. Celie describes to Shug her dreaded sexual experiences: “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” (81). This sex is both in the absence of love and against Celie's will, rendering it a vile act.

It is Celie's interpretation of the biblical God and his commands that breeds her compliance to these abusive patriarchal conditions, for her acquiescence was apparently not an all-encompassing societal norm. Sofia and Shug, who function as foil to Celie's downcast state, are both women who vehemently refuse to be dominated. It is Celie's strict adherence to traditional Christianity, to the God who looks to her “like some stout white man work at the bank” (96), which keeps her locked in the cycle of male jurisdiction. Acting as “a model of Christian behavior” (Harris, 9), Celie explains to Sofia:

Couldn't be mad at my daddy cause he my daddy. Bible say, Honor father and mother no matter what. … Well, sometime Mister git on me pretty hard. I have to talk to Old Maker. But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over. … Heaven last always.


Mr. ———, who treats Celie as his slave and hides her sister's letters for several years, represents to Celie a tyrannical male figure. He explodes into an archetype—one in which Pa, Harpo, and all other men are also cast. “I don't even look at mens. That's the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I'm not scared of them. … Most times mens look pretty much alike to me” (6, 16). Celie's earlier experiences demonstrate “that patriarchal society puts value on women only to the degree that they serve the purpose of commodities of exchange between men” (Elsley, 73). Thus, it is not surprising that as an adult, Celie likens the monotheistic Judeo-Christian God, whom she knows to be distinctively male, to the same burdensome traits of all males, as she remarks to Shug: “the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and low-down” (199). This iron-fisted God keeps Celie in constant fear of being punished, bridling her into subordination; because Celie has been discarded by this “old white man” (201), she is left at the bottom of the traditional world's pecking order, as she is black, poor, female, and unattractive. Her resulting low self-esteem paralyzes her, making her a pawn, or as Charles Proudfit puts it, “a passive victim” (23), to the ubiquitous patriarchy that manifests itself both familially and spiritually.

Up to this point in the novel, Celie's life has been one of hopelessness, even longing for death as relief from life's hardships. “Celie has been fragmented into pieces which are given away to others, mostly at the insistence of the men who dominate her” (Elsley, 73). Finally, however, the story undergoes a significant turning point. When Celie discovers the long-obscured truth about her family—that her real father was lynched, her mother was crazy, and Pa was not really her father—she declares to God: “You must be sleep” (183). This is the first step Celie makes in resisting the “big and old and tall and gray bearded and white” monotheistic God (201). It is at this point that the story takes on a radically new direction even in terms of the narrative device of letter writing. Prior to this stage, Celie's letters were addressed to God, due to the threat made to her by Pa that prefaces the book: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (1). Thus, all these letters are cast with a fearful hue and are written to what is at best a vague entity to Celie. But after the aforementioned declaration that God is asleep in terms of her life, Celie begins addressing her letters to Nettie, underscoring the newly emerging theme of love, connectedness, and restoration, which Celie's bond with Nettie represents.

I must take issue at this point with Diane Gabrielsen Scholl who perceives the novel as having a “radically Christian nature” (255). Indeed, it is only as Celie rids herself of her oppressive man-God figure and emerges into a distinctly non-Christian discovery of God that she finally attains liberation from patriarchy. When Shug teaches Celie that God is in everything, including the flowers, wind, and water (204), and God is in her, and she is inherently connected to everything (203), her sense of fear and of being judged dissolves. Celie learns that she should focus on the creation, not the person of God, as Shug directs: “My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. … I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed” (203). Celie's newfound religion links God with the power of the universe, a very pantheistic notion, and often associated with goddess religions. According to Jung, the positive aspects of the earth and nature—including fertility, growth, and abundance—are associated with “The Good Mother” (Guerin, 152). In Celie's new framework, God is posited as internal, a connecting force of all nature (202), but most significantly for Celie, God is no longer a He, but an it, erasing the male connotations she previously connected with God. Shug describes: “[It] Don't look like nothing. … It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything” (202).

This new philosophy that positions Celie as “being part of everything, not separate at all” (203), fortifies her with self-acceptance and leads her to reject male mastery. When Mr. ——— asserts Celie's low status on the white, patriarchal scale—“You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman” (213)—it is the nature-God that literally enables her to speak and fight back. As Celie curses Mr. ———, she feels the strength “seem to come to me from the trees” (213). As Mr. ——— attempts to reassert his dominance, Celie continues to be spurred on by the air (213), and then the dirt (214), which gives utterance to her ultimate defiance against established hierarchy: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook. … But I'm here” (214). Celie affirms that although she does not fulfill the standards set by the male-dominated world which surrounds her, her existence matters.

As suggested, it is only as Celie diverges from the patriarchal family structure and perspective of God that she acquires her first sense of self-acceptance. She resists the imposed negative self-image and develops a previously unprecedented confidence. Namely, she starts her own clothing business, learns to accept Shug's affair with a man, and maintains assurance that Nettie is alive, in spite of a letter's mention of her sunken boat. Most notably, Celie begins for the first time to refer to her nameless oppressor, Mr. ———, by his first name, Albert. This change in name reference is indicative of Celie's developing realization of her equality with men, in contrast to her prior feeling of subservience toward them. By finally referring to her husband (from whom she is now separated) as Albert, Celie demonstrates her rejection of the fearful reverence that the formal title Mr. ——— commands and places her husband on a level more par with herself. Celie's life rises to such heights that she writes to Nettie: “I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time. And you alive and be home soon. With our children” (222). Coinciding with this newfound optimism, Celie discovers a new sense of unity and communion with the pantheistic God: “I smoke when I want to talk to God. I smoke when I want to make love. Lately I feel like me and God make love just fine anyhow” (227).

Under the masculine violence Celie is made to endure, a survival-of-the-fittest perspective had been implanted in her which pitted her against, rather than aligning her with, other women. When Harpo asks Celie “what to do to make Sophia mind” (327), Celie flatly advises him to beat her, resorting to a familiar hierarchal order system as justification: “Wives is like children. You have to let 'em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (37).

In spite of this external hostility towards other women, internally Celie is magnetized towards them, particularly towards Shug. Watching her bathe, Celie remarks: “I thought I had turned into a man” (51). Yet, in addition to the aforementioned patriarchally-instilled mentality that had set Celie in opposition to Sophia, Celie is also confronted with the moral taboo of homosexuality imposed by the white, male, Christian God. These two machinations—operating with different and yet uniform function—aim to immobilize Celie, so as to prevent her from seeking female refuge.

Celie hurdles both obstacles once again through the strength of her pantheistic god. She is liberated when Shug informs her:

God love all them [sexual] feelings. That's some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves 'em you enjoys 'em a lot more. You can just relax [and] go with everything that's going.


Believing in this new god that accepts alternative lifestyles and who “don't think it dirty” (203), Celie is free to venture into a lesbian relationship with Shug that for the first time merges sex and love for her. This relationship evokes so profound an erotic awakening that Celie believes she was “still a virgin” prior to it (81). Although Shug is often credited as the sole source of Celie's newfound physical and emotional nourishment, Celie may not have been receptive to Shug's advances if not for her spiritual reorientation.

Celie's final letter is addressed, “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (292). The novel's conclusion emphasizes Celie's discovery that God is in everything, and therefore everything is holy, a concept that defies any sense of hierarchal structure. In contrast to the unbridgeable separation Celie experienced from the remote Christian God who “sit up there glorying in being deef” (200), the ending stresses the connectedness of all existence—of God, stars, trees, the sky, and all people including herself. Celie's movement from monotheism to pantheism parallels her movement from feelings of isolation and inferiority under male authority figures, into a new sense of bonding with other women and appreciation of herself.

Among the many reasons that The Color Purple is considered significant, it should also be noted that the novel reveals a progression in the author's religious development and advocacy. In much of Walker's earlier work, a repudiation of traditional Christianity is evident while a viable replacement is not proposed. For instance, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Grange finally rejects Christianity in the immediate moments before he is shot. While it seems to Grange “appropriate” to pray, and he even opens his mouth to do so, ultimately he “could not pray, therefore he did not” (247). Walker unshackles Grange from Christianity, but provides him with no final recourse. Similarly, Dee/Wangero in “Everyday Use” (1973) refuses her mother's Christian lifestyle and even her own white Christian name, only to embrace what Sylvan Barnet calls “an essentially remote heritage” (70). Walker clearly presents the Black Muslim movement in this story as a superficial solution that provides Dee with no “real connection with her heritage” (Barnet, 69). The outcome for these early characters is bleak; while they cast off what Walker exhibits as an oppressive institution, they only progress into a vast void. The pantheistic alternative propounded in The Color Purple represents then a newfound optimism and spiritual furtherance in the ideological framework of Walker's characters.


Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. An Introduction to Literature: Instructor's Manual. 9th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Elsley, Judy. “‘Nothing Can Be Sole or Whole that Has Not Been Rent’: Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple.Weber Studies: An Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal, 9 (1992), 71-81.

Guerin, Wilfred, et. al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Harris, Trudier. “From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Studies in American Fiction, 14 (1986), 1-17.

Lewis, T. S., III. “Moral Mapping and Spiritual Guidance in The Color Purple.Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 73 (1990), 483-91.

Proudfit, Charles L. “Celie's Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Contemporary Literature, 32 (1991), 12-37.

Ross, Daniel W. “Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple.Modern Fiction Studies, 34 (1988), 69-84.

Scholl, Diane Gabrielson. “With Ears to Hear and Eyes to See: Alice Walker's Parable The Color Purple.Christianity and Literature, 40 (1991), 255-66.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

———. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

———. “Everyday Use.” In Love and Trouble. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1973.

Walsh, Margaret. “The Enchanted World of The Color Purple.The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts of the South, 25 (1987), 89-101.

Charles J. Heglar (essay date winter 2000)

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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 withholding of surnames draws attention to her examination of male dominance; on the other hand, in the few cases when she supplies a surname for a character, Walker indicates an alternative to such domination. Namelessness and naming become a significant pattern as the novel unfolds.

Molly Hite has given an insightful reading of the most obvious instance of namelessness through erasure when she notes that “the most important agent of suffering is also a (relatively) powerful male figure, Celie's husband Mr. ———, whose unarticulated name, in the manner of epistolary fictions since Richardson's Pamela, suggests fearful effacement of an identity too dangerous to reveal, and whose transformation is signaled by a renaming [as Albert] that at once diminishes and humanizes” (437). However, this is only one instance of Walker's use of the ——— to erase a male surname. “Reverend Mr. ———”—the minister who brings Nettie into his home, takes her to Africa, and eventually marries her—is a representative of patriarchal religious and cultural power and becomes a person, “Samuel,” much more quickly than Albert as, in Africa, his concept of God becomes less Eurocentric. The namelessness of Albert and Samuel is highlighted because the ——— draws attention to Walker's erasure of their surnames.

Closely related to erasure, withholding surnames occurs when characters are identified only by a first name or by kinship. In these cases, Walker does not even use the ———. Celie, Harpo, Corrine, Nettie, and other relatives by blood or marriage have their surnames withheld because of the erasure of Albert's and Samuel's surnames; thus, Celie and Nettie, for example, do not have married surnames because of the ——— for both Albert and Samuel. Withholding is also notable in Nettie's account of her and Celie's true origins; rather than identifying their parents by name, Nettie emphasizes their familial relationship. As Lauren Berlant points out, “Rather than naming names—her own father's, her mother's, her stepfather's—Nettie emphasized abstract kinship terms like ‘the man and his two brothers,’ ‘the wife,’ ‘the widow,’ ‘the stranger’ to describe their positions in the tale” (217). Because Nettie and Celie's stepfather is only identified as “Pa” or “Alfonso” and because their father is also presented without a surname, the sisters' maiden name is withheld. This pattern of withholding is further elaborated with Grady and Germaine, Shug Avery's two husbands, who are given no surnames, while their wife continues to be identified as “Shug Avery.” Similarly, Sofia's sister's husband is only identified as “Odessa's husband” or “Jack” (191). In a minor key, Squeak—“a little nickname” given by Harpo (83)—claims a name, but not a surname, through her aid in paroling Sofia.

In The Color Purple, erasing and withholding men's surnames diminishes their patriarchal authority as, in contrast, supplying women's surnames establishes an alternative to male domination. This is especially important for Celie and Nettie. Critics have given deserved attention to Shug Avery and Sofia Butler as models for Celie's evolution, though not to the fact that they are surnamed; for instance, bell hooks writes of “black women … like Shug and Sofia [who] rebelliously place themselves outside the context of patriarchal family norms …” (294). The major trait of these alternatives to male domination is their ability to break through imposed stereotypes and boundaries to provide models for others, both male and female, to follow. These alternatives are clearly androgynous. Albert and Celie argue but cannot decide whether Shug and Sofia are better characterized as “manly” or “womanly” (236). In the end they agree that “Sofia and Shug not like men … but they not like women either” (236). However, Walker only presents this androgynous alternative in the form of female characters with surnames.

Shug Avery and Sophia Butler provide the major alternative influences that allow Celie to grow and develop. However, Miss Addie Beasley, while a minor character in the subplot of Nettie's development, is important in revealing the extent of Walker's larger pattern of surnames. Although critics have explored the roles of Avery and Butler, they have ignored Beasley. Miss Addie Beasley is the teacher who serves as Nettie's model in her effort to become an educated woman. As Celie points out, “Nettie dote on Miss Beasley. Think nobody like her in the world” (19). Significantly, with a shift of perspective, Celie's statement could as easily describe her own later relationship to Shug Avery. Like Shug Avery and Sofia Butler, Addie Beasley stands outside of and threatens the patriarchal system of the novel. Alfonso describes the school teacher with disdain for, and fear of, her androgynous power: “She run off at the mouth so much no man would have her. That how come she have to teach school” (19). Beasley even attempts to intervene when Alphonso takes Celie out of school until she realizes that Celie is pregnant.

Although Beasley cannot help Celie, her influence on Nettie is important and lasting, even after Nettie, as a missionary in Africa, has outgrown Beasley's uninformed view of Africa as a “place overrun with savages who didn't wear clothes” (123). In one of her letters to Celie, Nettie describes Beasley's influence: “one thing I do thank her for, for teaching me to learn myself by reading and studying and writing a clear hand. And for keeping alive in me somehow the desire to know” (123-24). Knowing as a process rather than a set of received facts allows Nettie to grow beyond the limits of a religious and cultural missionary and to arrive at ideas of God parallel to those Celie reaches with the aid of Shug Avery. Furthermore, both Nettie's “desire to know” and her “clear hand” are instrumental in freeing Celie: Nettie discovers their family history and writes to inform her sister of their true origins. This subtle, but important, development places Nettie's intellectual growth in direct contrast to the static development posited by Linda Abbandonato, who sees Nettie in “the preposterous role of a black missionary who attempts to impose the ideology of her oppressors onto a culturally self-sufficient people” (299).

It is tempting to see Walker's pattern of surnames as a feminization of the world of the novel. In such a reading, Sofia Butler, Shug Avery, and Addie Beasley would function as mother figures who allow not only Celie and Nettie but also Albert, Harpo, and other responsive male characters to enter a fuller, feminized life. However, given the matronly, but maidenly, status of Miss Beasley and the disruptions in Shug Avery's and Sofia Butler's mothering of their children, it is more accurate to see Walker supplying a surname to these characters as a movement away from matriarchy that complements her rejection of patriarchy. For men, Walker uses ——— as a sign of the ultimate powerlessness of patriarchal conceptions; for women, she reverses the traditional signification and gives surnames as a sign of their power as nonmatriarchal alternatives to transform the patriarchal system.

Works Cited

Abbandonato, Linda. “Rewriting the Heroine's Story in The Color Purple.Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistead, 1993. 296-308.

Berlant, Lauren. “Race, Gender, and Nation in The Color Purple.Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistead, 1993. 211-38.

Hite, Molly. “Romance, Marginality, and Matrilineage: The Color Purple and Their Eyes Were Watching God.Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 431-53.

hooks, bell. “Reading and Resistance: The Color Purple.Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistead, 1993. 284-95.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square, 1982.

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

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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 archetypal narrative explicitly connecting rape (a violent inscription of the female body), silencing, and the complete erasure of feminine subjectivity.1 For in most versions of this myth Philomela is not only raped—she is also silenced. In Ovid's recounting, for example, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who then tears out her tongue. Philomela is finally transformed into a nightingale, doomed to chirp out the name of her rapist for eternity: tereu, tereu. The mythic narrative of Philomela therefore explicitly intertwines rape, silencing, and the destruction of feminine subjectivity.

Contemporary African American women's fiction contains allusions to this archetypal rape narrative. In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, for example, Pecola Breedlove's rape by her father Cholly causes a fragmentation of her psyche. Pecola's attempts to tell of her rape are nullified by her disbelieving mother, and by the novel's conclusion her voice is only exercised in internal colloquies with an imaginary friend. She flutters along the edges of society, a “winged but grounded bird” (158). Similarly, in Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, after Lorraine is gagged and brutally gang raped, she becomes both insane and unable to speak of her rape. Finally, she is left with only one word, a word that echoes back to Philomela's “tereu, tereu,” the word she attempted to use to stop her attackers: “Please. Please” (173).2 Rape is thus a central trope in these texts for the mechanisms whereby a patriarchal society writes oppressive dictates on women's bodies and minds, destroying both subjectivity and voice. Or, as Madonne Miner puts it, “Men, potential rapists, assume presence, language, and reason as their particular province. Women, potential victims, fall prey to absence, silence, and madness” (181).

For writers such as Naylor and Morrison, the myth of Philomela graphically illustrates the way a patriarchal society censors and erases women's voices. More damaging, perhaps, Philomela's story also indicates that if women find other methods of communicating, these alternatives lead only to more violence and an even deeper silence. After her rape Philomela is imprisoned in a tower of stone, but she manages to weave a tapestry (or in some accounts a robe) depicting Tereus's actions. She sends this artwork to her sister Procne, who “reads” this text and understands its import. Buried within this myth of patriarchal subjugation, then, there is a subtext that focuses on how women can “speak” across and against the limits of patriarchal discourse. However, the myth's final message seems to be that women's alternative texts fail to transform in any lasting way the social or linguistic forces of patriarchal domination. Procne's response to her sister is to first consider killing Tereus, whom she calls, as translated by Humphries, “the author of our evils” (149, emphasis added). Instead she kills her young son Itys, roasts and grills Itys's flesh, and serves this “feast” to her husband. When Tereus apprehends what has happened, he attempts to destroy both Philomela and Procne, but the gods intervene, transforming all three characters into birds.

The structural pattern of the myth (and its warning to women) seems clear; as Patricia Joplin explains, the myth fixes “in eternity the pattern of violation-revenge-violation. … The women, in yielding to violence, become just like the men. … The sacrifice of the innocent victim, Itys, continues, without altering it, the motion of reciprocal violence” (48-49). More importantly, the myth also instantiates an endless cycle of linguistic violence against women: violence (i.e., rape) leads to silence (the tongue is torn out); attempts to break this silence through assertions of an alternative feminine voice (the tapestry) lead only to more violence (the killing of Itys), and finally, to a more complete and final silence (the death of the characters and the loss of their human voices). The myth suggests that an assertion of alternative feminine voice merely imprisons women all the more exhaustively in pejorative mastertexts that make men, as Procne says, the “author of our evils.”

Like the novels of Morrison and Naylor, Alice Walker's The Color Purple invokes this archetypal rape narrative, but Walker is most interested in re-envisioning this myth through an alternative methodology of language. As Linda Abbandonato argues in her reading of the The Color Purple, it is important to consider how a woman can “define herself differently, disengage her self from the cultural scripts of sexuality and gender that produce her as feminine subject” (1107). Abbandonato argues that The Color Purple rewrites canonical male texts, but she does not discuss Walker's rewriting of the story of Philomela. Similarly, although critics such as Trudier Harris, Keith Byerman, Wendy Wall, Mae Henderson, and King-Kok Cheung have discussed Celie's acquisition of private and public languages, none of these critics has examined Walker's reconfiguration of linguistic elements of the myth of Philomela. Unlike the original mythic text, as well as the novels of Morrison and Naylor, Walker's text gives Philomela a voice that successfully resists the violent patriarchal inscription of male will onto a silent female body.

Yet Walker does more than simply allow Philomela to speak within the confines of patriarchal discourse.3 Walker's novel revises the myth of Philomela by creating a heroine's text that reconfigures the rhetorical situation of sender-receiver-message and articulates Celie's movement away from an existence as a victim in a patriarchal plot toward a linguistic and narratological presence as the author/subject of her own story. Walker's novel also rewrites the myth through its creation of an alternative discourse that allows for the expression of both masculine and feminine subjectivity—a language of the sewn that withdraws from the violence of patriarchal domination, of patriarchal discourse.4 Celie's skills as a seamstress both retrieve and refigure the myth of Philomela, for unlike Philomela's tapestry/text, Celie's sewing functions as an alternative methodology of language that moves her away from violence and victimization and into self-empowerment and subjectivity. The novel also deliberately conflates the pen and the needle, thereby deconstructing the binary oppositions between the masculine and the feminine, the spoken and the silenced, the lexical and the graphic. Walker's reconfiguration of the myth of Philomela thus overturns the master discourse and the master narrative of patriarchal society. In Walker's hands Philomela's speech becomes the instrument for a radical metamorphosis of the individual as well as a subversive deconstruction of the power structures that undergird both patriarchal language and the patriarchal world itself.

Susan Griffin argues that “more than rape itself, the fear of rape permeates our lives. … and the best defense against this is not to be, to deny being in the body, as a self; … to avert your gaze, make yourself, as a presence in this world, less felt” (83). Certainly, when Celie speaks of turning herself into wood when she is beaten or raped (“I say to myself, Celie, you a tree” [30]), the response described by Griffin is apparent; to avoid pain Celie denies her body and her presence. Walker's story begins in the familiar mythic way: Celie is told after her rape by her (presumed) father: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy” (11). Celie is silenced by an external source, and like Morrison's and Naylor's protagonists, she experiences the nullification of subjectivity and internal voice allied with rape by the myth of Philomela. Celie's story starts with the fact that the one identity she has always known is no longer accessible: “I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl” (11). No longer a “good girl,” Celie has no present tense subjectivity, no present tense “I am.”

Like Pecola Breedlove of Morrison's The Bluest Eye, who ends the novel “flail[ing] her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly” (158), Celie appears to have been driven into semiotic collapse by the rape. Walker's text also uses bird and blood imagery to connect Celie with her mythic prototype, Philomela as well as to revise the mythic prototext. In Metamorphoses, Ovid describes how Procne and Philomela are transformed, a change that silences them as humans but does not erase their bloody deeds: “One flew to the woods, the other to the roof-top, / And even so the red marks of the murder / Stayed on their breasts; the feathers were blood-colored” (151). Throughout The Color Purple, Celie is associated with both birds and blood. Celie tells Albert that she loves birds (223), and Albert comments, “you use to remind me of a bird. Way back when you first come to live with me. … And the least little thing happen, you looked about to fly away” (223). Later in the novel, when Celie returns to confront her “Pa” (Alphonso) about his actions, she comments three times on how loudly the birds are singing around his house (164, 165, 167). The singing birds of the later scene recall Celie's earlier victimization, the way she was raped, bloodied, impregnated, and deprived of voice by Alphonso's statement that “she tell lies” (18).

Paradoxically, the birds of this scene are also a positive symbol to Celie of how nature persists in displaying its beauty despite the despoiling patterns of humanity. Similarly, Walker later transforms the blood symbolism of the early rape scene (“Seem like it all come back to me. … How the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking” [108-9] into something more positive, revising the symbolism of blood in the mythic text. When Shug abandons Celie, Celie describes her heart as “blooming blood” (229). Here, although blood is painful, it is also generative: it blooms. Blood comes from Celie during her rape. It also covers her in other key scenes in the novel, such as her first meeting with Mr. ———'s (Albert's) family: “I spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy. … He pick up a rock and laid my head open. The blood run all down tween my breasts” (21). Like Philomela, whose breast feathers are stained “blood-colored” with the “red marks of the murder” after she is transformed into a bird (Ovid 151), Celie's breasts are stained with blood. However, Celie eventually transforms the blood of this attack into blooming blood, into a red that is creative and regenerative. A more mature Celie uses the color red as a positive element in her sewing, transforming it from a color of pain to a color of joy. She sews purple and red pants for Sofia (194), orange and red pants for Squeak (191), and blue and red pants for Shug (191). She paints her own room purple and red (248). The blood that marks Celie becomes a positive symbol of her artistic creativity, rather than (as in the myth) a negative symbol of how she is damned in perpetuity by her deed.5

Unlike the archetypal narrative, then, Walker's novel uses bird and blood imagery to suggest Celie's metamorphosis not from human to subhuman, but from victim to artist-heroine. The novel also differs from the mythic prototext, as well as from the novels of Morrison and Naylor, in that it begins (rather than ends) with Celie's rape, and in that the rape becomes not an instrument of silencing, but the catalyst to Celie's search for voice. After Celie is told to be silent about the rape, she confides the details in her journal, structured at first as letters to God. In these letters Celie begins to create a resistant narratological version of events that ultimately preserves her subjectivity and voice:

He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn't. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold of my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don't never git used to it.


The horror of this experience is evident, but it is also apparent that Celie narrates these events to resist her father. Susan Brownmiller comments that “Rape by an authority figure can befuddle a victim. … Authority figures emanate an aura of rightness; their actions cannot easily be challenged. What else can the victim be but ‘wrong’”? (271). However, even the patent statement that “I don't never git used to it” demonstrates that Celie knows her Pa's actions are improper and that she refuses to live by his imperatives; she refuses to be the passive sheet upon which the father writes unalterable messages. By writing about her rape, Celie also externalizes her experiences so that they do not destroy her. Celie feels sorry for her mama because “Trying to believe his [the father's] story kilt her” (15). Taking one's place within a patriarchal text leads to the obliteration of feminine subjectivity. That Celie resists the father's narratives through her own writing means that she survives.

Celie's narration of these actions in her diary also enables the later moments in the novel when she speaks of her rape to Shug Avery: “While I trim his hair he look at me funny. He a little nervous too, but I don't know why, till he grab hold of me and cram me up tween his legs. … It hurt me, you know, I say. I was just going on fourteen. I never even thought bout men having nothing down there so big” (108). Ellen Rooney comments that scenes of sexual violence “may be privileged sites for investigating the construction of female subjectivity because they articulate questions of desire, power, and agency with a special urgency and explicitly foreground the opposition between subject and object” (92). Walker twice narrates Celie's violation in order to show how “Pa” attempts to deny Celie's subjectivity as well as how Celie creates her own spoken and written version of events which emphasizes her cognizance and functions as a counterpoint to her own earlier erasure of body and identity. Walker thus revises the archetypal paradigm depicting rape as an event that encapsulates women in patriarchal plots as the site of silence, absence, and madness. In Walker's text rape leads not to erasure, but rather to the start of a prolonged struggle toward subjectivity and voice.6

Celie's movement out of silence occurs despite repeated rape by her husband, who in his demeanor and behavior exactly parallels her father. Multiple or repeated rape is an important element of the violation detailed in the archetypal myth of Philomela as well as in texts by contemporary African American women. In the mythic text, after Tereus cuts out Philomela's tongue he rapes her again, perhaps more than once: “And even then—/ It seems too much to believe—even then, Tereus / Took her, and took her again, the injured body / Still giving satisfaction to his lust” (Ovid 147). In The Women of Brewster Place, Lorraine is repeatedly raped by six teenagers, while her “paralyzed vocal cords” cannot function because of the dirty paper bag that has been shoved in her mouth (170). In The Bluest Eye, Pecola's internal monologue reveals that her father, Cholly, raped her at least twice (155, 156), but her mother does not believe that either incident occurred (155).

Celie, too, is repeatedly raped by her “Pa,” who impregnates her twice and then gives away her children. Celie is also raped, both actually and symbolically, by her husband, Mr. ——— (or Albert). Celie is quick to note the parallels between her husband and her father: “Mr. ——— say. … All women good for—he don't finish. He just tuck his chin over the paper like he do. Remind me of Pa” (30). And Celie's letters repeatedly emphasize that sex with Albert is the equivalent of rape: “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” (79; see also 109). In the imagery of Walker's text father and husband are conflated: both are rapists who deny that women can be anything other than objects of male abuse. This conflation echoes back to the myth of Philomela, for in Ovid's telling of the myth, when Tereus sees Philomela kissing her father, Tereus thinks that “He would like to be / Her father, at that moment; and if he were / He would be as wicked a father as he is a husband” (144-45). Furthermore, as in the myth of Philomela, in Walker's novel two women's sororal status does not stop the father/husband from wanting to have sexual intercourse with both sisters. Pa rapes Celie and then casts lascivious eyes at Nettie (13); Albert has intercourse with Celie but also attempts to rape Nettie (119). Given these parallels to the repeated rape paradigm in the myth of Philomela, Celie's resistance is all the more noteworthy.

Celie's resistant voice is enabled by her creation of an alternative conception of her audience and by a reconfiguration of the rhetorical triangle of sender-receiver-message. Rape is once again the catalyst for Celie's resistance. Albert's physical attempt to rape Nettie fails, but he finds a discursive way of “raping” both women when he refuses to deliver any of Nettie's letters to Celie. And indeed, this discursive rape is far more effective than his actual rape, as Celie's response shows. When Celie learns that Albert has suppressed all of Nettie's letters, her consciousness becomes a blank (116), and she feels “cold” and almost “dead” (115), “sickish” and “numb” (134). Moreover, as sometimes occurs in an actual rape, Celie's sexual responses to her lover Shug are deadened by Albert's symbolic rape (136). More than at any other point in the text, Celie seems on the verge of slipping into madness when she discovers Albert's suppression of her sister's letters.

However, in a text where “[c]riss-crossed letters, letters written to an absence, letters received from the dead, hidden and confiscated letters, all of these point to the instability of language” (Wall 94), perhaps it is no surprise that Albert's simplistic gesture of locking up Nettie's voice in his trunk does not actually disrupt the “conversation” between Celie and Nettie.7 Although Nettie has never received a letter from Celie, Nettie still feels as if she is communicating with her sister: “I imagine that you really do get my letters and that you are writing back: Dear Nettie, this is what life is like for me” (144). Similarly, Celie discovers that she can converse with Nettie despite receiving no response, and even despite the possibility of Nettie's physical death: “And I don't believe you dead. How can you be dead if I still feel you? Maybe, like God, you changed into something different that I'll have to speak to in a different way, but you not dead to me Nettie. And never will be” (229-30). In a more positive version of the interchange between Philomela and Procne, Celie's letters to Nettie create an imagined linguistic persona with whom she can speak “differently.” By doing so, Celie finds an alternative conception of the communicative process that allows her to bypass Albert's invalidation of her discourse and enables her survival. In most rhetorical situations, after all, the sender expects that the receiver will actually receive the message and shapes the message accordingly. But Celie subversively reconfigures her audience so that an imagined, rather than actual, person is the receiver of the message, and this allows her to shape her message in such a way that it cannot be erased or silenced, in such a way that it can exist despite Albert's attempt to deny both the communication and the communicator.

Walker also rewrites elements of the mythic paradigm of Philomela to emphasize a textual tradition in which women do more than simply defend themselves against male silencing: in Walker's new textual tradition women become active and articulate heroines of their own stories. In the myth, when Philomela is denied traditional channels of self-expression she creates an alternative text:

… no power of speech
To help her tell her wrongs. …
She had a loom to work with, and with purple
On a white background, wove her story in,
Her story in and out. …

(148, my emphasis)

Walker's title may be an allusion to Philomela's text, woven in purple.8 However, in Ovid's myth this alternative text leads only to Philomela's further victimization by Tereus and to her silence. Celie, too, finds an alternative text, a text directed at a non-patriarchal audience, for in the second half of the novel she stops writing to God—whom she perceives as “just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown” (175)—and starts writing to Nettie.

While Philomela's alternative text leads to her destruction, Celie's alternative text, her letters to Nettie, leads to reconstruction, allowing Celie to craft an identity for herself as the heroine of her own story. Celie gets a house and a profession, and she describes both these events in heroic terms in her letters to Nettie. Both Procne and Philomela are taken away from their familial homes by Tereus. Similarly, both Nettie and Celie are driven away from their family's home by the individual they call “Pa.” Unlike Procne and Philomela, both Celie and Nettie return. Celie's letter to Nettie describes her triumphant homecoming and ends with the statement that “Now you [Nettie] can come home cause you have a home to come to!” (217). Signing this letter “Your loving sister, Celie” (217), Celie asserts both her right to this home and to this text in which she is no longer a displaced wife trapped within a patriarchal plot. Although Celie seldom signs her letters, she also signs the letter in which she describes her new profession to Nettie. These two signatures, “Your loving Sister, Celie” (217), and “Your Sister, Celie, Folkspants, Unlimited” (192) indicate the contours of the heroic role Celie has shaped for herself, and contrast sharply with her earlier inability to say “I am.” And only in the second half of the novel, when Celie stops writing to God and starts writing to Nettie, does she actively articulate an alternative identity for herself.

Celie's insistence on her desire for Shug also formulates an alternative to being objectified as an absence in a male plot. If, as Catharine MacKinnon argues, “A woman is a being who identifies and is identified as one whose sexuality exists for someone else, who is socially male” (533), then Celie's insistence on her desire for Shug is crucial. Celie recounts her strong sexual response to Shug Avery (53), and even goes so far as to envision voicing her passion: “All the men got they eyes glued to Shug's bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. … Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do” (82). This internal voicing of desire becomes external in the letter in which Celie tells Nettie of her love for Shug (221). Celie's love for Shug and others is the fulcrum of her new brand of heroism, and her willingness to articulate it in letters to her sister indicates that she has crafted a textual tradition that allows for feminine heroism and desire.9

Beyond giving Celie a resistant voice that allows her to reconfigure the rhetorical situation, recreate her audience, and enunciate a heroine's text, Walker's text also creates an alternative methodology of language. In the world Walker depicts, language is often an instrument of coercion and dominance, and it is often used by men to silence women. At first Celie merely turns the tables on Albert, using language to suppress him:

He laugh. Who you think you is? he say. You can't curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.

… Every lick you hit me you will suffer twice, I say. Then I say, You better stop talking. …

Shit, he say. I should have lock you up. Just let you out to work.

The jail you plan for me is the one in which you will rot, I say.


In the mythic pattern, Tereus doubly silences Philomela, first by pulling out her tongue and then by imprisoning her in a tower, just as Albert doubly silences Celie, denying her voice (“you can't curse nobody”) and presence (“I should have lock you up”). But Celie silences and imprisons the oppressor within her own narrative: “the jail you plan for me is the one in which you will rot,” “You better stop talking.” Like Albert, Celie has learned how to use both physical and linguistic violence to erase others.

However, Walker is not content with showing Celie's use of “the master's tools” against the master. Celie must learn that language can be used to understand, rather than destroy, another's subjectivity. Celie's later comment about Albert that “He ain't Shug, but he begin to be somebody I can talk to” (241) is therefore revealing. Celie accepts that Albert is capable of using language in a constructive rather than destructive way, and she no longer denies his voice. In the end, Celie's and Albert's voices become agents for conversation rather than combat: “Now us [Albert and Celie] sit sewing and talking and smoking our pipes” (238).

In this passage, sewing and conversation are allied and inseparable, part of the alternative methodology of speech Walker is explicating. Indeed, in this novel sewing often functions as a language, communicating far more effectively than lexical signs. Celie sews curtains to welcome Sofia, and when Sofia is angry at Celie, she cuts down these same curtains and returns them (45). When they reconcile their differences, Celie and Sofia use the spoiled curtains as part of a quilt (47). Similarly, Celie's and Corrine's only conversation occurs in a store where Corrine buys material and thread to make a dress for her daughter. Nettie can only make Corrine remember this conversation by finding a quilt that has squares from the dress material Corrine purchased that day. Sewing is thus a key way individuals communicate with each other, signifying their friendship and interconnectedness. Commenting on Walker's ubiquitous imagery of clothworking, M. Teresa Tavormina argues that in the novel “sewing is an act of union, of connecting pieces to make a useful whole. Furthermore, sewing with others is a comradely act, one that allows both speech and comfortable, supportive silence” (224). Yet sewing does more than enable conversation: sewing is conversation, a language that articulates relationships and connects and reconnects networks of individuals to create a community.

Moreover, Walker's novel suggests that sewing is precisely the language that can replace the patriarchal discourse of Mr. ———, that can revise the mythic pattern of silence/violence/silence. Several critics have argued that the novel's form is quilt-like, and Walker's own comments have given strength to this interpretation.10 The structure of the novel can also be read as an embroidered tapestry such as the one Philomela creates; in Walker's text, Celie's pen is the shuttle/needle that creates a design out of separate narrative threads. Celie's letters to God sometimes weave in quotes or threads from Nettie's and Shug's letters; for example, a short letter by Celie includes Nettie's own words, removed from the letter they came in:

Dear God,

Now I know Nettie alive I begin to strut a little bit. Think, When she come home us leave here … But I think bout Nettie.

It's hot, here, Celie, she write. Hotter than July. Hotter than August and July. Hot like cooking dinner on a big stove in a little kitchen in August and July. Hot.

(138; see also 235 and 238)

Furthermore, rather than allowing Nettie's letters to remain as separate blocks of narrative “fabric,” Celie weaves them into her tapestry by interspersing her own voice into them: “Dear Celie, the first letter say,” (119), “Next one said” (120), “Next one fat, dated two months later, say” (122). Celie's narrative voice, then, is not just another square in a quilt, equal to all the other squares. Rather, in the text as a whole narrative voices are interwoven, imbricated, threaded together, and interconnected by the needle/pen of the spinner, Celie herself.

Weaving, embroidering, and sewing are thus important analogies for the novel's form, but they are also important metaphors for the kind of conversation Walker envisions replacing patriarchal discourse. Of course, there is nothing inherently peaceful about a needle, as illustrated by one character's comment that unlike Celie his wife would have taken a needle and sewn Shug's nostrils together (60). And the pen, like the needle, has a phallic shape that can rip and rend, rather than mend and stitch. What is important for Walker, however, is the use to which the instrument is put. For example, when Celie makes pants for Nettie, her sewing is envisioned as a language of love and remembering: “Nettie, I am making some pants for you to beat the heat in Africa. … Every stitch I sew will be a kiss” (192). Like Philomela's tapestry, Celie's sewing connects the two sisters.

But unlike Philomela's tapestry, Celie's sewn gift to her sister is an act of interconnection and rejuvenation. In Walker's telling of the myth, then, brutal retaliation is actually replaced by creativity and by sewing itself. When Celie wants to react to Albert's suppression of Nettie's letters with violence, Shug tells her to sew pants instead. Celie understands and accepts this: “everyday we going to read Nettie's letters and sew. A needle and not a razor in my hand, I think” (137). It is here that Walker's text swerves most radically from the myth of Philomela and from the mythic paradigm. Nettie's recovered letters are like Philomela's tapestry: they speak the oppression of women, they incite the sister (or all sisters) to violence. But Walker suggests that violence will only end in more silence. An alternative must be found, and this alternative is sewing and conversation, sewing as conversation. Sewing is a language that explicates an alternative to the violence of patriarchal discourse.

In the novel as a whole, Celie's pen stitches together the narrative fabric of the text, remaking individual relationships and roles, replacing the violence of patriarchal discourse with a language that remembers and remakes. Celie's pen becomes a needle, then. Yet Celie's needle also becomes a pen. Celie embroiders “little stars and flowers” in her daughter Olivia's diapers, but she also sews language: she sews her name for her daughter, “Olivia,” into the diaper (22). The needle is, quite literally, a pen, stitching a name that fits the child, that connects mother and daughter, that is both linguistic (written in letters) and sewn (embroidered). Tavormina notes that “in The Color Purple, both clothworking and language become media for self-definition, self-expression, and self-sharing,” but she also claims they have “distinct but similar processes and products” (229). I would suggest, however, that Walker deliberately confuses the processes and products of cloth-working and language, of sewing and communication. Ann Bergren explains that Philomela “huphenasa en peploi grammata”: she weaves pictures/writing since “grammata” can mean either (72). Like Philomela's tapestry, Celie's embroidery deconstructs the barriers between the pictorial and the lexical.

In the end, the thread and the word cannot be separated, and sewing not only helps Celie achieve self-expression, it becomes an alternative methodology of language that resists other more standard or formal discourses. When Celie's employee Darlene tries to convince Celie to speak “correctly,” Celie responds “only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind,” but she also notes that she is “busy making pants for Sofia,” and that she dreams of Sofia “jumping over the moon” in these pants (194). Sewing functions as an alternative methodology of speech that cannot be separated from Celie's acquisition of an alternative spoken and written language. Walker's language of the sewn denies binaries and hierarchies of the hegemonic world, such as those between oral and written language, between informal and formal diction, between art and language, and between discourse and “craft.”

Nor is this alternative language of the sewn limited to women. By the end of the novel, Albert is sewing, too. Indeed, sewing facilitates a retrieval of an earlier maternal conversation in which Albert once participated: “When I was growing up, he said, I use to try to sew along with mama cause that's what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me” (238). Through sewing, Albert becomes part of Celie's community; when Nettie returns from Africa, Celie introduces both Shug and Albert as “my peoples” (250). It is significant that Walker allows Albert, an image of Tereus, of the father/rapist, to participate in the conversation of sewing. His transformation and inclusion in Walker's new version of the myth of Philomela shows that indeed the violence of the cycle can be broken. In Walker's revision of the myth of Philomela, both the sisters and the rapist turn from the violence of patriarchal discourse and find alternative methodologies of language that speak their recapitulation of self rather than their deconstruction of self and other.

Through her depiction of Albert's metamorphosis and inclusion in the conversation of sewing, Walker also elucidates broader possibilities for social amelioration. Once rape has been renounced as an instrument of male domination, once the rapist has been transformed and included in a new social order where he can engage in “feminine” activities and be part of “feminine” language, society can move toward a more equitable relationship between the sexes. Peggy Sanday has shown that in rape-free societies, “there is no symbol system by which males define their gender identity as the antithesis of the feminine” (98), and “silencing the feminine is not necessary for becoming a proud and independent male” (94). In rape-free societies, there is “sexual equality and complementarity” (93) between the genders. It is precisely this equality between the genders and validation of the “feminine” that Walker alludes to when she includes Albert in the sewing circle (238), when she shows Harpo feeding and bathing his father (200), and when she shows Sofia making shingles (67). Critics such as Keith Byerman (66) and bell hooks (222) argue that Walker's feminization of Albert and Harpo reflects a movement away from historical and ideological conflicts. However, Sanday's research demonstrates that Walker's approach to social change is realistic. In Walker's text, the “feminine” is not silenced and it belongs entirely to neither gender. The “feminine” functions as a language that both men and women can speak, a language that offers the possibility of radical social transformation.

The novel therefore indicates that alternative methodologies of language (whether spoken by men or women) need not perpetuate the mythic cycle of feminine destruction encapsulated within patriarchal discourse and patriarchal narrative. Celie's letters allow her to reconfigure the rhetorical situation and create a resistant heroine's text in which she has a narratological existence as the author/subject of her own story. The novel as a whole also creates an alternative methodology of language that replaces the phallic and destructive patriarchal discourse of the pen, which tears and rends, with a feminine (but not female) discourse of the needle, which remends, remembers, and remakes. This discourse, the language of the sewn rather than the rent, in turn becomes the cornerstone for a reconstruction of gender roles that undermines patriarchal subjugation itself. And yet in the end, these two discourses (the discourse of the pen and of the needle) are subversively conflated, and it is finally and most incisively through this conflation and confusion that Walker's text achieves its most radical aims. After all, the pen has typically been an instrument of male empowerment, a phallic substitute instantiating men's control over women, while the needle has typically been associated with femininity, demarcating the contours and limits of women's sphere.

When Walker's text conflates needle and pen, then, it undermines the most basic binary structures of patriarchal society: male versus female, public versus private, empowered versus disempowered, spoken versus silent. For if the needle has become the pen and the pen has become the needle, if the feminine and the masculine cannot in fact be separated, if patriarchal discourse has been replaced by a discourse that admits of both masculine and feminine subject positions, what pedestal remains for the subjugation of women and other “minorities” within culture? Thus Walker's novel engages in a wholesale revision of the archetypal rape narrative of Philomela as well as the dominant master narrative of patriarchal culture itself: the silencing and objectifying of women and “others” as the basis for male subjectivity.


  1. Hartman defines archetype as a narrative whose suggestiveness is not explained by its parts or its context; archetype is a text “greater than the whole of which it is a part, a text that demands a context yet is not reducible to it” (337-38). Hartman (337), Joplin (39), and Rowe (53) view the myth of Philomela as archetypal; however, Rowe and Joplin present more positive readings of this archetype than mine. The myth of Philomela also corroborates what many recent feminist critics have argued: that rape is more than just an act of physical or sexual violence: it is an attempt to stamp out or destroy a woman's agency, and it is tied to perpetuation of gender inequality and denial of feminine subjectivity. See, for example, Brownmiller (287), Griffin (23), Sanday (85), and MacKinnon (532). For an important discussion of the treatment of rape as an archetype in contemporary women's writing, see Froula.

  2. Similarly, in Angelou's autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after the young protagonist speaks in court about her rape, she almost seems to bite off her own tongue: “I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I'd hold it in” (72). However, unlike those of Morrison's and Naylor's texts, Angelou's protagonist does eventually find her voice; as Froula argues, “Angelou's powerful memoir, recovering the history that frames it, rescues the child's voice … by telling the prohibited story” (637). The only study of the treatment of rape in African American fiction as a whole is that of Kubitschek; she examines different texts than I do and concludes that African American literature is most likely to portray “the strength which enables the rape victim to survive and recover” (44).

  3. I have found no published statements in which Walker comments on having read the myth of Philomela. However, Walker's novel Meridian (1976) seems to refer even more directly to this myth than The Color Purple. One section of Meridian tells of an enslaved African American woman with an extremely powerful voice. She tells stories all the children love, but one day her stories frighten the master's son to death. In punishment, the master cuts out her tongue. She buries her tongue next to a tiny tree, which eventually flourishes and grows, becoming a symbol of the master's inability to completely erase women's voice, women's tongue. I believe the resonance between this story and the myth of Philomela is too strong to be coincidental.

  4. Here I am arguing that Walker does more than simply allow her heroine to speak within the confines of patriarchal discourse. I use “patriarchal discourse” to mean a language system that grants men the right to be articulate subjects, while portraying women as silent objects. Such a discursive system is embodied in the novel by various male characters who believe that they should rule over women (Albert, Harpo), that women are objects of barter and exchange (Pa, Albert), and that women's main function is to support male subjectivity (Pa. Albert, and Harpo). The idea that men have more power in language than women also is directly alluded to by comments such as Albert's to Celie that “You can't curse nobody. … You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman” (187) and by Harpo's to Mary Agnes: “Shut up Squeak. … It bad luck for women to laugh at men” (182). Yet within the novel there are many language systems, and Celie struggles in her letters and sewing to find an alternative methodology of language in which her own subjectivity and voice are not denied. I am not arguing, then, that language is always patriarchal, or for that matter, white; rather, I am arguing that it often gets configured as such, and that Walker's text is in larger measure about reconfiguring it.

  5. In general, Greek myths do not offer raped women many options, as Zeitlin explains: “Whatever the outcome of the particular tale, and to whatever different uses it may be put, the repertory of Greek myth leaves us in no doubt that the female body is vulnerable to sexual assault. … Fleeing sexual violence only entails another kind of forcible change to the body [metamorphosis], while those who succumb, especially when gods are the desirers, become pregnant and produce a hero child” (122-23).

  6. Squeak/Mary Agnes's rape and movement towards voice can also be compared to Celie's. Again, Walker may be rewriting the mythic text, for after her rape Squeak becomes vocal, insisting that Harpo call her by her real name. Her creativity also seems to be unleashed; six months later she begins to sing. I am not arguing that Walker thinks rape is somehow “good” for women, nor do I agree with bell hooks's statement that Walker's treatment of the rape of a black woman by a white man shows “a benevolent portrayal of the consequences of rape” (222). Rather, Walker suggests that given the ubiquity of rape in society, women need to learn how to move beyond its victimization into agency and voice. All but one of Walker's central female characters have a rape (or an attempted rape) perpetrated against them. Celie and Squeak are actually raped, Nettie suffers an attempted rape, and even the strong-willed Sofia implies that she has learned to fight mainly to ward off unwanted sexual assaults by her male relatives (46).

  7. Wall argues that in the novel, “the fact that no letters are ever exchanged (so that a running dialogue can occur) indicates a contemporary, solipsistic view of the absence within communication or, rather, of the continuous model of sender to receiver” (94).

  8. Cheung also believes the title may be an allusion to the story of Philomela (172, n. 6) but does not discuss Walker's revision of this myth. For other readings of the title, see Abbandonato (1113).

  9. For a corroborating view, see Abbandonato's statement that “in breaking the taboo against homosexuality, Celie symbolically exits the masternarrative of female sexuality and abandons the position ascribed to her within the symbolic order” (1111-12). But for an alternative view, see hooks's argument that “Sexual desire, initially evoked in the novel as a subversive transformative force … is suppressed and finally absent—a means to an end but not an end in itself (217). I would agree with hooks that desire itself is not, per se, subversive in this novel, but that Celie's willingness to articulate her desire both privately and publicly is subversive.

  10. For critics who argue that the novel's structure is quilt-like, see Abbandonato (1109), Wall (96), and Tavormina (225). Walker herself comments that she “wanted to do something like a crazy quilt. … A crazy-quilt story is one that can jump back and forth in time, work on many different levels, and one that can include myth” (Black Women Writers at Work 176).

Works Cited

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Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1969.

Bergren, Ann L. T. “Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought.” Arethusa 16 (1983): 69-95.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Byerman, Keith. “Walker's Blues.” Alice Walker. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1989. 59-66.

Cheung, King-Kok. “‘Don't Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior.PMLA 103 (1988): 162-74.

Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History.” Signs 11 (1986): 621-44.

Griffin, Susan. Rape: The Politics of Consciousness. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.

Harris, Trudier. “From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple.Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 1-17.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “The Voice of the Shuttle: Language from the Point of View of Literature.” Beyond Formalism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. 337-55.

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Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “Subjugated Knowledge: Toward a Feminist Exploration of Rape in Afro-American Fiction.” Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Greenwood, FL: Penkeville, 1988. 43-56.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory.” Signs 7 (1982): 515-44.

Miner, Madonne. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

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Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Penguin, 1980.

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Rooney, Ellen. “‘A Little More than Persuading’: Tess and the Subject of Sexual Violence.” Rape and Representation. Ed. Lynn Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 87-114.

Rowe, Karen E. “To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tale.” Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm. Ed. Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1986. 53-74.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves. “Rape and the Silencing of the Feminine.” Rape. Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. 84-101.

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Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square, 1982.

———. Interview in Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983. 175-87.

———. Meridian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

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Zeitlin, Froma. “Configurations of Rape in Greek Myth.” Rape. Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. 122-51.

Robyn R. Warhol (essay date May 2001)

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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 and women, considered appropriate to their female frames and feminine feelings. Men cry, too, of course: if they are gay men, their tears are understood as part of the penchant they are supposed to share with feminine women for “making a spectacle” of their feelings;1 if they are straight, they must be perceived as shedding “manly tears” or run the risk of compromising their masculinity. To have a good cry, though, is to indulge in one of the perquisites of this culture's version of femininity, whether the person doing the crying is male or female.

In this essay I will focus on the narrative strategies that produce the good cry in narrative fiction, using as my illustrative example Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), an unabashedly sentimental novel, notorious for making readers cry. For me and for many of my students and fellow readers over the past fifteen years, the last letter in Walker's epistolary novel functions to invoke a “good cry” that is identical to the impact of the classics of the feminine “good-cry” genre, from the climatic moments of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, to the end of It's a Wonderful Life.2 I will argue that the source of the novel's affective impact is not individual readers' personal (or somehow essentially “feminine”) ability to identify with the characters but, rather, the novel's narrative technique, particularly the ways it uses focalization and address to underscore the novel's affirmation of what contemporary U.S. culture understands as feminine mythologies. My larger point is that readers' femininity does not preexist our repeated and habitual encounters with gendered cultural artifacts; rather, gender gets produced and reproduced through countless cultural patterns, including narrative strategies associated with texts that are marked within a given culture as “masculine” (such as adventure stories) or “feminine” (such as good-cry novels like The Color Purple). Narratology provides a useful vocabulary for describing the ways this works.

Sentimental narrative discourse requires a particular handling of “internal focalization,” narratology's term for narrative discourse conveying the perceptions (vision, thoughts, feelings, etc.) not of the narrator but of a character, regardless of whether the discourse is in the narrator's or the character's voice. Scenes in sentimental novels tend to be focalized either through victims or triumphant figures who have formerly been represented as oppressed. This focalization invites the reader to participate emotionally from the subject-position of the oppressed, in the diegetic good times and the bad. Sentimental novels can use embedded first-person narratives to achieve this effect. More often, the “omniscient” (or in more properly narratological terms, “heterodiegetic”) narrative focus simply shifts to the perspective of the sufferer, rendering the scene as he or she sees it. As Philip Fisher has pointed out, the focalization in sentimental narrative sometimes comes through sympathetic intermediary figures who are not, themselves, directly oppressed—such as Eva in Uncle Tom—but it is seldom if ever granted to those who oppress the protagonists in the fictional world. This careful limiting of the narrative point of view to those who suffer and triumph after tribulation can effect a powerful pull on the sensations of a susceptible, cooperative reader, regardless of the reader's historical orientation to the text (readers experiencing the novel twenty or a hundred years after its writing can have emotional reactions equal to those of the text's first readers).3 In sentimental novels, moreover, the “good cry” is much more often evoked by scenes of triumph than by scenes of sadness.

Attention to the role narrative focalization plays in the affective dynamics of reading is important, as it presents a challenge to the idea that readers sympathize with suffering characters when they can “identify” with them. Michael Steig's remarkable reader-response study, Stories of Reading (1989), for example, attributes Steig's own crying over Charles Dickens's Bleak House to identification with the characters. Steig reports, “I still find my eyes filling with tears at the same old points. I have felt in the past that I must have some residue of sentimentality in my soul, and have been annoyed that Dickens manipulates me into that reaction, but that is probably unfair” (70). Steig finds the “coy” narrator, Esther Summerson, consistently irritating, “and yet at the same time I must be identifying with her strongly, on the evidence of the way my tears so easily flow” (70). Emphasizing the intrinsically personal psychology of such identification, Steig remarks, “To get at the reasons for this will require some digging into my past” (70). Of course, a model of identification like Steig's puts the crying reader in a position of enjoying pleasures that are both individualistic and masochistic. If we think about the feminine reader's tears as, in part, a consequence of the text's technical arrangement of perspective, rather than as a reflection of the reader's consciously or subconsciously feeling that the miserable or triumphant sufferer is “just like me,” however, audiences' participation in sentimentalism becomes more positively performative, less revealing of some presumed hidden truth about the readers' “real feelings.”

Epistolary fiction (the form of The Color Purple), with its shifts in narrative voice and in temporal perspective, brings the affective mechanics of focalization into especially vivid relief. As the letter-writer relates each segment of the story, she has access only to her own consciousness (like any conventionally realist first-person narrator, she cannot read other characters' minds, but can only report their actions and expressions, both verbal and physical). Her perspective is even more strictly limited, however, than that of the intradiegetic narrators of novels that are not epistolary, in that she only knows as much about the story as she can know at the time of composing the letter: she has not yet “lived” beyond the moment at which she is writing, and hence cannot foreshadow, in her narration, what is to happen after that moment.4

Since Samuel Richardson's Pamela, epistolary novelists have made the most of this technique's ability to build suspense and to heighten the affective impact of fictional narratives. Like Pamela, Celie does not know, in moments when she is writing in fear and anger, that her tribulations will end happily; unlike Jane Eyre, for example, she does not tell her story with the double consciousness (and the inevitably ironic distance between the “I” who speaks and the “I” who experiences) that comes from life-long retrospection.5 Of course, epistolary narratives are usually written retrospectively, but the retrospection is in pieces, arranged serially as it were, rather than spanning the length of the diegetic time represented within the narrative. Hence, the telos in epistolary fiction is distinct from that of nonepistolary narrative, in that the epistolary narrator can reflect no sense of his or her final outcome in the narration, even if the author has used other means to establish foreshadows. The effect, for the willing or cooperative reader of the sentimental epistolary novel, is a heightened physical experience of reading that can be readily enlisted in the service of the good cry. The actual reader is “in the moment” with the epistolary narrator; the potential for detachment that is available to the authorial audience of retrospective or otherwise distanced narration is not available in epistolary form.

Critics commenting on The Color Purple take it for granted that this novel inspires readerly tears with moments of intensely rendered grief (as when the adolescent Celie mourns the two babies that were born to her and then brutally taken away; or when she is separated from Nettie, seemingly forever; or when she encounters the beautifully Amazonian Sophia, physically and emotionally diminished by her time in jail). But for me, the biggest cry comes at the novel's end, with a burst of joy peculiarly foregrounded by the focalizing effect of the epistolary form. The first fifty letters in the novel are addressed by Celie to “Dear God.” Up to that point, the narrative form more closely resembles a diary than an epistolary fiction; the letters to God are a chronicle of Celie's isolation, inspired by her supposed-father's injunction against her reporting his repeated, incestuous rapes: “You better not never tell nobody but God” (11). At the novel's formal turning point, the diary form gets interrupted by eight of the letters Nettie has written to Celie from Africa, hidden until this point by Celie's abusive husband, Albert. Celie's rage against Albert and against that rapist who, she learns from Nettie's letters, was not in fact her own father, leads her to conclude that God “must be [a]sleep” (163). At this point, with a third of the novel still to go, Celie changes her address from “Dear God” to “Dear Nettie,” and though Nettie's subsequent letters are not answers to the letters Celie addresses to her, the remainder of the text takes the form of a correspondence (although it is undelivered and undeliverable) between the two sisters.

As commentators have observed, Nettie's letters serve the thematic purpose of broadening The Color Purple's geographical and political horizons to include Africa and to connect that continent to Celie's little corner of the American South. The interpolation of Nettie's letters also serves a narrative function, though, as the letters provide Celie with an embodied narratee. Nettie's existence as narratee becomes the textual sign of Celie's relief from isolation, her coming into community as she comes out into her lesbian sexuality with Shug. When Celie grumbles to Shug about her religious disillusionment, Shug offers Celie an alternative view of God: “I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It. … She say, My first step from the old white man [image of God] was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people” (178).

As Celie renders it in a letter to Nettie, this scene's initial significance is in its romantic dimension, since it brings Celie closer to Shug. The Celie who relates this conversation cannot know how its vocabulary will return in the novel's last letter, or how the words' significance will shift, and so she cannot foreshadow its significance. The susceptible reader will be taken unawares, in the novel's final pages, by the scene's reprise.

Because the epistolary form focalizes the narrative through Celie's present state of feeling in each of her letters, the sudden happy ending does indeed carry heavy affective clout. But what makes me cry in Celie's last letter is not only—and, indeed, not primarily—the “happy-ending” events. I remain aware that these events, especially in combination, are so implausible as to be almost laughable. They include (1) the unexpected return of Nettie, who has been reunited in Africa with Celie's two lost children and has now brought them back, with their adoptive father (Nettie's own new husband) to live with Celie again; (2) the mother-and-child reunion that accompanies the sister's return; and (3) Celie's own new-found good fortune in having a place to welcome them to, having inherited the home her birth-father has left to her, thus solidifying the financial independence she has begun to establish with her pants-making business. No, it is not the situation itself that is the main source of the good cry for me. Instead, the main source is in the confluence of the narrative discourse with the novel's passionate endorsement of mythologies central to femininity (mythologies about sisters, mothers, children, and financial self-sufficiency, for instance), in the address of Celie's last letter. After having addressed fourteen consecutive letters to “Dear Nettie,” Celie starts her last letter with a completely new beginning: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God. Thank you for bringing my sister Nettie and our children home” (249). That passage gets me every time; for me, no other good-cry moment can surpass it. The way Celie's voice crosses the diegetic boundary, to include me in her address (“dear peoples. Dear Everything”) and, in so doing, to assert my inclusion in Celie's newly minted concept of God; the way her address brings into being a moment of pure community embracing not just Nettie, as the previous letters had done, but all the characters and even me; the unmixed joy and triumph of the moment of ecstatic enunciation always make me cry. And that is why I'd call it a “feminine narrative,” as it enforces and reinforces the physical experience of an emotion the culture marks as specifically feminine. The “femininity” of the text is not linked to the “femaleness” of the author or characters, nor to the sex of the presumed readers' bodies: it is a narrative effect.

To those who ask, “What's ‘good’ about ‘the good cry’?” I respond (only somewhat self-consciously) that the ideals of sentimental culture—the affirmation of community, the persistence of hopefulness and of willingness, the belief that everyone matters, the sense that life has a purpose that can be traced to the links of affection between and among persons—are good ideals. Sentimentalism has a bad reputation, among general readers and critics alike; it is no coincidence that Steig, for one, reports resenting Dickens's “manipulation” of his tears. To be sure, sentimentalism is often exploited in order to promote agendas far less progressive than Walker's or even Dickens's. If manipulators of public sentiment unscrupulously deploy the narrative techniques of the sentimental tradition in the service of nationalism, capitalism, and commercialism, however, that does not drain the techniques themselves (or their potential affective impact upon actual audiences) of value. Becoming more conscious of how those techniques achieve their effects does not render readers immune to them, but it can offer us the opportunity to affirm “feelings” that constitute what is worth preserving from traditional feminine culture.


  1. I am thinking of the links Joseph Litvak draws between spectacle, spectacular emotions, and homosexuality in Caught in the Act.

  2. For an introduction to what I mean by the “good-cry genre,” see my essay, “As You Stand, So You Feel and Are.” That argument, and the general point I am making in the present essay, are elaborated in my book forthcoming from Ohio State University Press, Having a Good Cry.

  3. See Sicherman for a rich account of Victorian-American feminine readers' reactions to reading sentimental fiction.

  4. To be sure, the author of an epistolary narrative may foreshadow future diegetic events by including verbal details or patterns in the storyline that will recur, even though the narrator does not, at the moment of narration, realize that they will.

  5. For more details on the retrospective impact of first-person narration, see my article entitled “Double Gender, Double Genre.”

Works Cited

Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.

Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara. “Sense and Sensibility: A Case Study of Women's Reading in Late-Victorian America.” In Reading in America: Literature and Social History, edited by Cathy N. Davidson, 201-25. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989.

Steig, Michael. Stories of Reading: Subjectivity and Literary Understanding. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Warhol, Robyn R. “‘As You Stand, So You Feel and Are’: The Crying Body and the 19th-Century Text.” In Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The De-Naturalization of the Body in Culture and Text, edited by Fran Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe, 100-25. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1992.

———. “Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette,Studies in English Literature 36 (Fall 1996): 857-75.

———. Having a Good Cry. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, forthcoming.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486


Berlant, Lauren. “Race, Gender, and Nation in The Color Purple.Critical Inquiry 14, no. 4 (summer 1988): 831-59.

Berlant presents an in-depth study of the political, racial, and gender-based agendas in The Color Purple.

Chambers, Kimberly R. “Right on Time: History and Religion in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.CLA Journal 31, no. 1 (September 1987): 44-62.

Chambers explores the effects that African-American folklore and traditions have on the temporal and religious aspects of The Color Purple.

Christophe, Marc A. “The Color Purple: An Existential Novel.” CLA Journal 36, no. 3 (March 1993): 280-90.

Christophe discusses the adversities Celie faces in The Color Purple and the various coping mechanisms she employs during her development.

Dole, Carol M. “The Return of the Father in Spielberg's The Color Purple.Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1996): 12-16.

Dole explores the differences between the novel and the film version of The Color Purple.

Early, Gerald. “The Color Purple as Everybody's Protest Art.” Antioch Review 50, nos. 1-2 (winter 1992): 399-412.

Early offers a negative assessment of both the novel and film The Color Purple.

Juneja, Om P. “The Purple Colour of Walker Women: Their Journey from Slavery to Liberation.” Literary Criterion 25, no. 3 (1990): 66-76.

Juneja examines the trials and tribulations of the female protagonists in Alice Walker's works.

Powers, Peter Kerry. “‘Pa is not our Pa’: Sacred History and Political Imagination in The Color Purple.South Atlantic Review 60, no. 2 (May 1995): 69-92.

Powers analyzes Celie's need to reinvent God's image in order to embrace spirituality and her own self-worth in The Color Purple, instead of adhering to the white, patriarchal religion which oppresses and devalues women.

Walker, Alice, and Kate Fitzsimmons. “Go Ask Alice: Alice Walker Talks about The Color Purple 10 Years Later.” San Francisco Review of Books 21, no. 2 (March-April 1996): 20-3.

Walker discusses writing The Color Purple, her views of the film version, and her opinions on current race and gender relations.

Additional coverage of Walker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 33; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:4; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 9, 27, 49, 66, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, 46, 58, 103; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural Authors, Novelists, Poets, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 30; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 11; Something about the Author, Vol. 31; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

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