The Color Purple Essays and Criticism
by Alice Walker

The Color Purple book cover
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Celie's Growth as a Person and Her Evolving Perception of God as a Consequence

(Novels for Students)

In The Color Purple, the story is told through letters. It is a novel about an oppressed woman, and the letters are important. Letters have been one of the few means of expression of oppressed women for many years. The author's choice of letters as a form of presentation has a number of consequences. In the first place, the story will be told by the author or authors of the letters: in this case, Celie and, in a small part of the novel, her sister, Nettie. This means the language of the story will be the one used by the person who writes the letter. In The Color Purple, Celie's letters are in the language of a black girl who has left school very early in life while Nettie's are in perfect, standard English.

Secondly, a letter is a document with a specific form and, in The Color Purple, the openings of the letters mark the changes in the character. There are only four openings: "Dear God," "Dear Nettie," "Dear Celie," and the long opening of the last letter, which is a variation of "Dear God." We will study the novel taking these openings into account. Before that, though, let's analyze the two sentences which are outside the letters. They appear at the beginning of the book in italics: "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy." They are a strong prohibition to speak (notice the words "not never nobody") given by a powerful man (the father) to a weak child (Celie, the daughter).

From that sentence onwards, Celie understands that she must not communicate her desires, fears and terrors to anybody. She starts writing to God because He is the only thing she has left. The letters will not be read by anyone. They are only a means of self-analysis. God is obviously not there: Celie asks him for signals all the time and does not receive them. In this first period, her life is marked by infinite loneliness. There is no use of the word we. The only small group Celie manages to form is with her sister, Nettie, and when she leaves, Celie is left totally alone. She feels she is buried alive. The most important character around her is her oppressor and he has no name. Mr. is only a role.

Yet, Celie manages to throw a number of bottles into the sea. She tries to communicate certain things, and she succeeds, though she does not realize. For instance, she embroiders the name of her child in her clothes: Olivia. The clothes help the child to keep her name, that is to say, to keep her identity, to be herself. This type of communication is not linguistic. It has to do with the activities a woman is allowed to perform in a house (sewing, cooking, cleaning). Celie turns them into a means of expression.

Celie is so immersed in oppression, she accepts the point of view of Mr.: she advises Harpo to beat Sofia. Thus, she agrees with her oppressor in the idea that a woman should only obey, work, and be silent. After this moment of deep humiliation, Celie has the first serious conversation in the book. Sofia comes to see her, furious, and Celie has to explain her attitude. She discovers she is jealous of Sofia's capacity to fight. This conversation is a new beginning for Celie. Both women find a moment of community, they do something together. The pronoun "us" is finally used: "I laugh. She laugh. Then us both laugh so hard us flop down on the step."

When Shug comes to Celie's life (she has seen the singer before in a photograph and has turned her into another God to contemplate from far away), Celie is prepared. Shug does not help her, as Sofia did. Celie has to conquer her with the only tools she has: the feminine activities. She cooks for her, helps her to take a bath, combs her. No words are spoken, Celie cannot face language communication (the order forbids it) but even in silence, she communicates. She gives life. And Shug does what men did not do: she thanks Celie. She dedicates her new song to her, shows her she is important.

In this second period, Celie changes radically. For instance, instead of telling a man he must beat a woman,...

(The entire section is 8,693 words.)