“The Colour Purple” is an epistolary novel. In the first three letters, the reader is immediately thrust into the world of the protagonist and narrator of “The Colour Purple”, Celie. She is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old black girl living in rural Georgia. Celie starts writing letters to God because her stepfather, Alphonso, beats and rapes her. The letters are the means by which the protagonist tells her life story. Letters are a personal form of communication, and they contribute to the readers’ feelings of empathy with Celie. For Celie herself, the writing of letters is not only a form of communication, especially as most of her letters are not sent, but, rather, writing is a way for her to express her feelings, quietly and safely. In fact, the importance of words, of written and spoken language, as the medium for empowerment is a central concern in the narrative. The gradual growth and development of Celie’s character through her letters, which is realised by the reader as the private intimations of a diarist, is compulsive reading. We will therefore be examining the first three letters of the novel in more detail, looking at narrative voice, characters, and language. In addition, we will also be looking at an overview of the first three letters of “The Colour Purple”, as well as putting the novel as a whole in historical context.
Let us firstly look at the social and historical context of the novel, as this may help us towards a better understanding of the characters, and the reasons behind some of their actions. Upon first reading “The Colour Purple” we may be mistaken for thinking that all of the novel’s background is rooted in slavery and missionary activity. Though this is true in part, the novel also makes casual references to prohibition, the racism and music during the 1920s. An important idea to grasp is that although the novel is not totally accurate, the general setting and time frame we are looking at is 1908 to 1940 in America’s Deep South. This is important, as the American states were all going through radical change at this time. While states in the northern half of America enjoyed the automobile and an abundant supply of cookers, heaters and refrigerators, older industries that were based in the South, such as plantations specialising in tobacco and cotton, were going under, and poverty predominated.
However, these contrasts would not last. A soaring economy and a saturated market meant unemployment for millions of Americans. The effect was devastating: banks were forced to go into liquidation and many people committed suicide out of a realisation that they may lose their house and all of their money. Soon after 1933 Roosevelt, the new President, gave Americans a ‘New Deal’ that included employment, and new-found confidence. Those in the South, however, again lost out. Beaten down and tormented by racial and financial pressures, many black men such as those in “The Colour Purple” crushed their wives along with them, as a sign of the frustration they were suffering.
At the novel’s beginning, the reader is presented with a girl who is writing to God because she feels that she has nobody else to turn to, indeed, she cannot even pray for fear of somebody hearing her. At first, Celie’s letters focus only on what she does, hears, sees, and feels. Too insecure to even give her name, we soon learn through the mouth of another that her name is Celie. While her mother is away, Alphonso, presumed to be her ‘Pa’ rapes Celie, later intimating to her that this will be the first of many occasions. One year later, Celie, having already given birth to Alphonso’s child, later known as Olivia, is pregnant again. On both occasions ‘Pa’ has taken the children away leaving Celie to believe that they may have been killed. Meanwhile, Celie’s mother is ill and dies “screaming and cussing” at the sight of what has happened. Alphonso, hungry for sex, begins to look towards Nettie, Celie’s younger sister. At the same time, he tells Celie that she is “evil” and “always up to no good” because of her pregnancies. Celie ends the third letter hoping that Alphonso will find someone else to marry, so that her sister can be spared the ordeal that Celie herself has gone through. She vainly hopes for God’s help in this.
As we have already mentioned, Celie is the main narrator as well as the central character in the novel. Celie, as the narrative voice in “The Colour Purple,” is powerful, engaging, and at times subtly humorous, and the reader is immediately captivated by her story: we want to hear her voice. Through the use of the word “I” in the letters, the reader is immediately given the impression that there is a distinct, particular person speaking. Because the book is written in the form of letters to God, or to a sister, this does not have the full impact it might if we were addressed directly. In fact this device, one which makes us feel as if we have suddenly looked through a door into a person’s private life, creates a slight tension. That the person isn’t named or described by a narrator heightens this tension. In fact, although we have already named her for convenience’s sake, Celie’s name is not actually revealed in the novel until letter seven. Even then, it is not Celie who identifies herself to us, but her name is revealed by Alphonso, as he is trying to give Celie away to Mr. _______ in marriage.
Let us continue to look at the first letter. After raping her, her stepfather orders Celie to tell nobody except God about what has happened. Celie, in her innocence, does as she is told. She does not pray out loud, but addresses her letters to God. Yet, by writing her thoughts in her unique style, the reader actually “hears” her voice: we hear what she has to say even if nobody else will listen. Letters therefore signify not just communication, but protestation and defiance against one’s oppressors.
When we are first introduced to Celie we recognise her innocence and simple mind: “I have always been a good girl,” she says. Celie then goes on to implore God to give her a sign in order that she may know her fate: “Maybe you can give me a sign to let me know what is happening to me.” This is a further indication of Celie being lost and isolated, and of her child-like, simplistic view of the world. She is asking God for help, as if he could intercede directly in her life. Her innocence is again emphasised by her candid and naï¿½ve description of being raped by her stepfather: “he put his thing up gainst my hip” and then “he grab hold my titties.” Her failure to sign her name highlights that she has no true identity, nor power, and that she is ashamed of the person she perceives herself to be. Nonetheless, Celie continues to write to God, and in doing so, confirms her existence.
The second letter begins with the news of Celie’s mother’s death. Celie tells us that her mother would scream at her for being pregnant, and for being too slow at doing her chores as a consequence. The description of Celie’s chores hints at the issue of domestic drudgery as a form of slavery. Women are imprisoned by having to care for huge families, and are confined to a life of servitude and domesticity within their own homes. Celie’s mother’s attitude in the second letter echoes the last lines of the first letter, where Celie tells us that her mother does show some concern about what is happening to her, but at the same time, she is happy because Alphonso is no longer demanding sex from her. All the blame is being put on Celie for what has happened, and at no time does Celie mention that anyone criticises Alphonso’s actions.
When her mother asks Celie who the father of her child is, and what happened to the child, Celie tells her mother that God both gave her the child and then took it away, when in fact Alphonso was responsible for both these things. It is as if Walker is drawing a parallel between deity and masculinity. She is drawing attention to how the masculine image of God has been used as a tool of power for patriarchy’s ends. Nobody questions Alphonso’s actions, and he has the power to give life and take it away, (especially as Celie thinks that he has killed her baby). By way of contrast, it is starkly obvious that Celie, her mother and sister are all powerless and oppressed by their situation. Celie’s mother dies, worn out from working and bearing children, Celie is raped and then given away in marriage, and Nettie is forced to run away from Alphonso in order to escape being raped herself. Walker clearly expresses her empathy for the oppressed black woman in “The Colour Purple” through the depiction of the sexual oppression of the black female characters in general, and Celie in particular, and gender-based issues are undeniably one of the most important thematic units in the novel.
The third letter is brief and stark. Celie tells us that she has once again been blamed for becoming pregnant. Alphonso tells her that she is “always up to no good” and he acts as if he hates her for allowing herself to be raped. He then tells Celie to make herself look decent. Celie protests that she has no clothes in which to dress up nicely. Clothing is an important idea regarding the theme of identity in the novel. The clothes people wear usually prefigure the role they are about to take on, so when Celie says that, “I don’t have nothing”, she is intimating that she has no real identity of her own, separate from that of Alphonso or of her family.
Throughout the novel, Walker employs black American vernacular as the predominant language style. In this literary style, with no quotation marks to indicate dialogue, Celie just writes her heart out. This enables Walker to capture the immediacy of feeling and personal quality of Celie’s writing, and this enables the reader to enter into the mind and heart of the main character, to identify with Celie absolutely. An example of the humorous candour of Celie’s language can be observed in her description of apprehension: “My mind run up a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down.” Walker allows us to hear Celie’s own true voice when nobody else will, she gives Celie a voice that allows her to make herself literally heard, in a society where women are otherwise invisible.
Finally, let us look at some key themes that appear even in the first three letters of the novel, and also at structural oppositions that begin to emerge. Throughout “The Colour Purple”, Walker portrays female friendships as a means for women to summon the courage to tell stories. In turn, these stories allow women to resist oppression and dominance. Relationships among women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a world filled with male violence. Female ties take many forms: some are motherly or sisterly, some are in the form of mentor and pupil, some are sexual, and some are simply friendships. In the third letter, Celie expresses her desire to protect her little sister, the only truly loving relationship she has with anyone in the first part of the novel. The geographical setting for “The Colour Purple” is also important. Walker sets most of her novel in a rural farm community that has few visitors, and she focuses on colourful portraits of each of her characters. By focusing on the personal lives and transformations of her characters, Walker renders public events almost irrelevant. The unspecific time and place therefore broaden the novel’s scope, making its themes more universal.
As we have already seen, powerlessness and struggle; domesticity and servitude; clothes and identity; religion and notions of God as an instrument of social control; issues around gender conflict; and letter writing as a means of empowerment and of finding a voice, are all key themes that have emerged from the first three letters in the novel. Let us now look at a number a number of possible structural oppositions in the first three letters. These could be obvious gender oppositions: male and female; or racial oppositions: black and white. We could also include some of the issues that we touched upon previously: power and powerlessness; struggle and subservience; assertion and silence; ignorance and knowledge; identity and anonymity; freedom and servitude; innocence and corruption; equality and discrimination; oppression and emancipation; conformity and individuality; hope and resignation; change and stagnation.
In conclusion, we saw how the epistolary, form of “The Colour Purple” resembles a diary, since Celie tells her story through private letters that she writes to God. Therefore, Celie narrates her life story with complete candour and honesty. We have seen that as a poor African-American woman in rural Georgia in the 1930s, and a victim of domestic abuse, Celie is almost completely voiceless and disenfranchised in everyday society. However, Celie’s letters enable her to break privately the silence that is normally imposed upon her, and so are a form of rebellion.
Celie’s letters, though completely candid and confessional, are sometimes difficult to decipher because Celie’s ability to narrate her life story is highly limited. Walker employs black American vernacular to further illustrate this and to bring the reader closer to Celie and her world. We have seen how, despite the abuses she endures, Celie has little consciousness of injustice and, tragically, shows little or no sign of anger.
Walker’s use of Celie’s own voice, however underdeveloped, allows Walker to tell the history of black women in the rural South in a sympathetic and realistic way. Celie’s letters offer a powerful first-person account of the issues surrounding racism and sexism, and her simple narrative brings the reader into her isolated world with language that reveals pain and numbness, hope and despair, humour and sadness.
We considered how Celie’s faith is prominent but child-like. Celie relies heavily on God as her listener and source of strength, but she sometimes blurs the distinction between God’s authority and that of Alphonso. She tells her mother that God, rather than Alphonso, killed her baby, and she never makes any association between the injustice she experiences in her life and the ability of God to overturn or prevent this injustice. Celie has nothing and, at the end of the third letter, is struggling just to survive, and to find a distinct voice that can be heard.