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The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

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The Color Purple Themes

The main themes in The Color Purple include sexism, transformation, and culture.

  • Sexism: Celie and the other female characters in the novel face life in a sexist, male-dominated society, encountering abuse and violence from the men around them.
  • Transformation: The novel details Celie’s transformation from a passive, abused young girl into an independent, confident woman over the course of her life.
  • Culture: Walker emphasizes cultural difference through the differences between Celie and Nettie, as well as through her portrayals of both the American South and Africa.

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Themes

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Sexism

Sexual relations between men and women in The Color Purple is a major theme. Alice Walker sets her story of Celie’s transformation from a passive female to an independent woman within the culture of Southern Black rural society from the 1920s to the 1940s. In the beginning of the story, Celie is dominated first by her father, whom she later learns is really her stepfather, then by her husband, Albert (Mr.). The catalyst for the character change in Celie is the relationship she develops with Shug Avery, the mistress of her husband, Albert. Because Celie has been warned by her stepfather, Alphonso, not to tell anyone but God about how he repeatedly rapes her, she begins to write letters to God. It is through the letters that the reader develops a sense of Celie’s being, which at first is self-effacing but eventually becomes strong and independent.

In the novel there are a number of role reversals that take place between men and women. Harpo, Albert’s son, tries to emulate his father and attempts to dominate his strong-willed wife, Sofia. By the end of the story, Harpo and Sofia have reversed traditional male-female roles. Harpo stays home to take care of the house, while Sofia works. Celie and Albert also reverse roles. By the end of the story, Celie is an independent businesswoman, and Albert is her assistant. Celie has also learned to speak up for herself, claiming her house when her stepfather dies. The sexual relationship between Celie and Shug further breaks with the traditional roles of passive women and dominant men that the story challenges. In the relationship between Samuel and Corrine, the missionaries who adopt Celie’s children, and later between Nettie and Samuel, Walker presents what could be called a partnership relationship between a man and woman. In these relationships, both the man and the woman share the same goals and work together to realize them. Walker uses the incident between Squeak and her white uncle, the warden at Sofia’s prison, to illustrate how sexism and racism were expressed. The warden has no qualms about raping his own niece, which reflects a Southern, white, male disregard for the dignity of Black women. During the period of the novel, it was a commonly held view among white males that they could do whatever they pleased with Black women.

Transformation

Celie’s transformation from a young passive girl, who is the object of violence and cruelty from her stepfather and her husband, into an independent woman with self-esteem is at the heart of The Color Purple. While the ways in which conflicts are resolved may stretch the imagination at times, they are central to the author’s view that goodness can triumph over evil. That Celie is able to forgive Albert by the end of the story and take him in as a helper reflects Walker’s insistence on the redeeming quality of the human heart. She shows in transformed relationships that the worst cruelty committed by one person on another does not prohibit a change of heart. Her view is basically that the conditions under which human beings struggle shape their behavior. Albert had a difficult life and took out his frustrations on Celie. When Celie became self-sufficient, she could easily have turned her back on Albert, but it is not within the framework of her character to be uncharitable. In becoming independent, Celie has found happiness. Rejecting Albert would detract from her happiness. Celie’s behavior toward Albert reflects Walker’s insistence on forgiveness and contributes to the overall religious overtones of the book.

Culture

Cultural difference plays a significant role in The Color Purple. Walker effectively uses Black folk English in Celie’s letters to express the voice of poor, rural African Americans. Walker presents a clear picture in the book of the economic and social hardships that African Americans faced in the rural South during the early 1900s. She also presents an honest picture of the effects of racial repression. The picture Walker paints of Black life is not one-sided. While Celie and Albert are tied to the land and the harsh life it represents, Nettie escapes into a Black middle-class life through her missionary friends. Religion in the South played an important role in liberating many African Americans from poverty. As a spin-off for involvement with the church, literacy and education flourished. Celie is embracing a religious literacy through her letters to God, and in her letters to Nettie she comes to grips with the larger world, including Africa, outside her small community. By making the connection to Africa, Walker emphasizes the importance of African Americans’ roots.

Point of View

The Color Purple is written in the first person, and the voice is predominately Celie’s, but some of the letters that comprise the book are written to Celie by her sister, Nettie. The story covers thirty years of Celie’s life from childhood to her maturity as an independent woman. By having Celie write in Black folk English, Walker brings the reader close to the quality and rhythms of life that her characters experience. Celie’s dialect also reflects her lack of formal education. Nettie, who was formally educated, writes her letters in standard English. They are full of information that becomes a source of knowledge for Celie outside the world of her own small community.

Structure

The structure of The Color Purple is the series of letters Celie writes to God and to her sister, Nettie. Some of the letters in the book are written by Nettie to Celie. This literary form is called the epistolary novel, a form developed in eighteenth-century England by novelists like Samuel Richardson. A major advantage of this structure is that the reader becomes intimate with the character of the letter writer. With the epistolary form, Walker was able to focus on the inner life of her main character and create a sense of intimacy that may be partly responsible for the success of the book. This technique creates a confidential reading experience. The reader has a chance to read over the character’s shoulder and look inside her. Nettie, to a great extent, escaped the cruelty that Celie experienced because she was able to leave home early. The tone of her letters to Celie contrasts sharply with Celie’s letters to God. In Nettie’s letters, there is much less intimacy. They do not contain the suffering that Celie has expressed in her letters to God. By introducing Nettie’s letters, Walker is able to shift her story from Celie’s life of despair to a life that begins to have hope. It is through the help of Shug Avery that Celie finds her hope—the letters from Nettie that Albert had hidden from her.

Basically there are four time frames of the novel. In the first period of her life, Celie experiences the misery of poverty and cruelty at the hands of her stepfather. In the second, closely related period, Celie experiences continued cruelty from her husband, Albert. In the third period, she awakens to the possibility of self-realization through her relationship with Shug and her renewed contact with her sister, Nettie. Finally, Celie has realized herself and has established a life where she has control; she has found the happiness and contentment that come from self-realization. Another period, not directly a part of Celie’s life, is Nettie’s time spent in Africa. The letters from Nettie serve as a contrast to Celie’s life. They also enlarge Celie’s perspective and help to universalize her life.

Symbolism

The primary symbol of The Color Purple is found in the title, The Color Purple. The significance of the color purple is that it stands for human hope. It is a miraculous color, when found in nature, and one which indicates that the feeling of hope, despite misery, is a miracle of the human spirit.

Themes

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As may be surmised from the discussion of social concerns, while Walker writes of the sources (and possible modes of resolution) of Black violence, the paucity of love, and the loss of faith, she also addresses more specific themes which are related to these concerns.

First, she probes the whole issue of personal identity. Celie’s last name is never given; Pa’s true identity is not revealed until late in the book; Albert remains the anonymous “Mr.” until he develops into a secure, caring man; and Celie’s children, raised as virtual Africans, do not even realize they were adopted until they reach adulthood. The deliberate confusion which Walker generates points to the tenuousness of personal identity in a world where little girls are forced to marry strangers, where men derive their sense of virility from sexual abuse and violence, and where work is a harsh, hopeless activity necessary purely for physical survival. For Walker, a major step in the achievement of personal identity is the emergence and nurturing of one’s creativity. In Alice Walker’s own life, it was her ancestors’ quilts and her mother’s gardens which served as outlets for creativity and enabled them to leave their marks on an otherwise hostile world. In The Color Purple, it is not until she receives Shug’s support in establishing “Folkspants Unlimited” that Celie finds her own identity as a successful designer and manufacturer of pants. But creativity is not the only source of personal identity: The brutal Mr. is humanized into “Albert” when he openly accepts the fact that he loves to sew, a “womanish” activity. The degree to which Albert’s transformation is credible is a moot point: Walker simply is arguing that one must reject sex-role stereotyping in one’s quest for identity.

A less obvious theme is the need to assume responsibility for one’s actions. For example, although Black men’s violence against women can be understood in terms of sociology, economics, or whatever, it cannot be excused on those grounds. Celie is scarred for life, emotionally and physically (the second rape-induced pregnancy left her barren), by her stepfather’s sexual abuse, while the high-spirited Sofia’s attack on the mayor results in an eleven-and-a-half-year prison sentence that turns her innocent children into virtual strangers. In short, isolated personal acts can hurt oneself and others, and the “bad” characters (such as Alphonso) either die or are converted to goodness by the end of the novel. In Walker’s fictional world, people are punished or rewarded for their actions: The Color Purple is an insistently moral book, its violence and sexuality notwithstanding.

More subtle is one of the most important themes of the novel: the need to look to the future. This is not to say that Walker denies the importance of one’s ethnic, racial, or familial past; in fact, in her essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” (1983), she confirms her belief that one’s heritage is to be recovered and revered. But Walker perceives an orientation toward the past as counterproductive. Celie becomes a secure, attractive woman precisely because she is willing to embark on a new relationship (with Shug), move to Memphis, and begin a pantmaking business; even her former husband, Albert, literally does not recognize Celie when she returns to town. Likewise, Nettie—who could have been just one more sexual victim of Alphonso—becomes an articulate, happily married missionary in Africa. Granted, sometimes these transformations strain credulity (Walker relies heavily on coincidence for the development of character and plot), but in general she points to courage, education (formal or otherwise), and faith in the future as the keys to happiness.

Clearly Walker’s themes tend to be platitudinous, and too often she has the articulate Nettie state them outright (e.g., “Unbelief is a terrible thing. And so is the hurt we cause others unknowingly”). But the themes nevertheless are timeless and universal, and Walker injects them with new life by virtue of her frequently memorable characters and imaginative techniques.

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