The cultural differences of the two characters are numerous and the implications far reaching. The austere but comfortable working class security of ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’, contrasts greatly with the urban squalor of ‘The Colour Purple.’ Even though there is such a massive social divide the two women share many similar struggles.
Both women are struggling against the imposition and enforcement of belief systems and intolerant judgements upon them. In Jeanette’s life her mother mainly imposes her controlling and stifling religious views upon her. She feels press – ganged to the extent that ‘I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World.’ The entirety of Jeanette’s early life is a moulding process, where she is forced to endure the influence of ‘enemies’ including ‘The Devil (in his many forms), Next Door, Sex (in its many forms), and slugs.’
Celie’s initial struggle takes on a much more chilling and darker tone. Her perspective comes from her being made to accept the role of a victim. Her stepfather tears away her basic human rights as he abuses her, ‘He start to choke me, saying you better shut up and git used to it.’ It is a constant challenge to achieve the recognition by others that she has nothing in her present, miserable existence.
‘Why don’t you look decent? Put on something! But what I’m sposed to put on? I don’t have nothing.’
One challenge faced by Celie is how to access a decent education, and further her basic skills. As she is seen as little more than a servant, her family believes that there is little need for her to further herself and grow.
‘The first time I got big Pa, took me out of school, He never care that I love it.’
In the initial section of ‘Colour Purple,’ the writing skills of Celie are very poor and reflect the poor education she has received. The entire opening diary entries are littered with colloquialisms and miss spellings, ‘Left me to see after the others. He never have a kine word to say to me.’ This often leads to the impression that the words of Celie are coming from an intelligent mind that does not quite have the tools to express itself properly. Later on in the novel, influenced by reading her sister’s letters and her own determination to succeed, she develops a much more fluid and sharper style, ‘Even thought you had the trees with you, the whole Earth. The stars. But look at you. When Shug left, happiness desert.’ It is still not writing of an educated woman, but a woman who is beginning to analyse her situation.
The struggle of Jeanette’s education is never one that is based on literary or language deficiencies. From a young age she is encouraged to have a firm grasp of The Bible. Jeanette’s initial keeping away from school limits her to her mother for a source of information. This leads to Jeanette having a bizarre view on the world from a young age.
‘My favourite was Number 16, the Buzule of Carpathian.’
As Celie has been at the mercy of such extreme sexist views for the beginning of her life, and Jeanette at the mercy of religious ones, they both struggle not pass their misguided views on to others. When Celie is not successful in refraining from doing so, it has a profound impact upon Sofia. The insecurity and inadequacy of Celie forces her to offer advice to Harpo, which leads to domestic violence. Celie has become so use to ritualised violence that the promotion of it actually becomes a strange form of advice. Only the pathetic nature of her advice saves her friendship with Sofia.
‘She stood their a long time, like what I said took the wind out of her sails. She mad before sad now.’
Jeanette struggles not to pass on her misguided and often inappropriate religious views while at school. Her teachers are alarmed by religious maturity and obsessive views, ‘That’s not the point you have been talking about Hell to young minds.’ Her unintentional preaching of her mothers dogma scares the children, and marks her out for abuse, ‘And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorize, yes, terrorize the other children. This criticism eventually leads to the developing of awareness that she not teach her mother’s dogma.
One of Celie’s main struggles is against the bitterness that Mr__ feels due to the loss of Shug Avery. Shug represents everything that Mr__ holds dear about women, and his attitude towards her is far removed from that of his one towards Celie, ‘Mr __ clam on top of me, do his business, in ten minutes us both sleep.’ When he is in the presence of Shug he takes on a much more Human and loving tone, ‘Nobody ever fight for Shug, he say. And a little water come to his eye.’
Both of the characters are struggling against trying to find a new definition of what God is. For Jeanette the process of defining what God is an inevitable act of rebellion. This lust for rebellion stems from her experiences at what her mother calls ‘The Breeding Ground.’ School is the first time for Jeanette that the belief’s of her mother are challenged as odd, and possibly dogmatic.
‘You do seem to be rather pre – occupied, shall we say with God.’
The entire childhood of Jeanette is steeped in what many would seem a bizarre religious fervour, ‘My mother is like William Blake, and she has visions and dreams and cannot always distinguish a fleas head from a king.’ This strangeness is evident throughout the novel and makes it nearly unbelievable that Jeanette could lead any kind of normal existence. Every expression of Jeanette’s creativity is expected to be an echo of her mother’s religious insecurity, but this position is untenable and inevitably ends up having ‘to enrage my mother because I had abandoned biblical themes.’
With the once vice like grip of her mother’s influence removed Jeannette’s development gathers apace as she finds comfort in her lesbian relationships. Her happiness is then disrupted later in the novel by the harshness of the reaction of the church and most of the community to Jeanette’s lesbian affair with Melanie. This amazingly over the top reaction has an even greater impact on her re – assessing her religious believes. Her community cannot comprehend Jeannette’s feeling of love for another human being and their lack of understanding alienates her to the point where escape from the community must be her only course of action.
‘These children of God,’ began the pastor ‘have fallen under Satan’s spell.’
Her mother reflects this view and seems to be even more extreme in her condemning of the love than the rest of the community. She dismisses the love as dirty a view, which is possibly hypocritical as there is evidence to suggest that she was once in a lesbian relationship.
‘She’s a woman of the world, even though she’d never admit it to me. She knows about feelings, especially women’s feelings.
Celie’s abandonment of traditional Christianity is also a slow burning act of rebellion. The change in her outlook on Christianity is measured from the initial part of the novel; her diary is a collection of her most intimate feelings and sufferings, which are addressed to God. He is a stabilising and comforting figure to Celie ‘But I say I’ll take care of you with God help.’ As long as she believes she is in contact with him, there is a buffer present protecting her from the horrors she has to endure.
‘But I just say, never mine, never mine, long as I can spell G-O-D I got somebody along.’
After her introduction to Shug and witnessing the actions of other similarly strong women, Celie’s reliance on the traditional representation of God crumbles. With her personal and spiritual development, God now becomes ‘like all the other men I know. Trifling, forgetful and low down.’
As soon as both of the women have been removed from the chains of religious obedience, they find a remarkably similar ideology. Both of the characters embrace a form of Humanism, where respecting themselves is the central component. This is most evident in Celie who has had the furthest to travel in terms of self-development. She has not found religion somewhere in the sky but in a redefinition of her place in the world, ‘ I’m poor, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.’ Where as Jeanette shows her newly developed self appreciation, ‘we stood on the balcony, looking down on them. Our family. It was safe.
The biggest struggle that both of the characters face is that by the end of the texts they must both seem to be morally superior, to the rest of their community. The journeys that Celie and Jeanette have both made must seem to have some kind of contemporary relevance or the effectiveness of the novels would greatly decrease. This is successfully achieved by making sure there is a full appreciation of the humanism, compassion and forgiveness that Celie and Jeannette extend to those who have sought to control their lives. At these points, the themes of both novels become universal.
Alice Walker does this by the way that she constructs the ending of ‘The Colour Purple’ it is done in such a way that it is evident that Celie has forgiven Mr__. Such a conclusion may appear slightly clichï¿½d, but it seems to me to be a device that brings the novel to a remarkably satisfactory conclusion. Even though the characters do not enter a romantic relationship in the form of conventional marriage, they have learned to have a strong respect for each other. Celie has become Mr__’s equal instead of the domestic servant she once was, and she has a full appreciation of this fact.
‘Mr __ done ast me to marry him again, this time in the spirit as well as the flesh.’
Mr__ has become Albert, showing the compassion and Human feeling that Celie now feels towards her once abuser. The simple act of not labelling him with a title, but by giving him his real name, past torments have been forgotten. The act of refusing his marriage proposal also shows great respect toward Albert, as she will not live a lie for his sake as well as hers.
‘And just after I say naw, I still don’t like frogs, but lets us be friends.’
Jeanette Winterson successfully portrays the forgiveness that Jeanette feels for her mother’s actions at the end of the novel. Without a clichï¿½d ending, but instead uses a constant thread of humour that runs throughout the book. ‘This is kindly light calling, Manchester, come in Manchester, this is kindly light.’
This demonstrates the way that Jeanette has succeeded in rising above the pettiness of her earlier life. An obvious and much used target for this humour is the often simple and stupid naivety of the church that Jeannette was so closely linked to. The churchgoers have not made huge journeys of self-development but instead comfort themselves with the child like rhymes of ‘Not whisky rye not gin and dry not rum and coke for me. Not brandy fizz but a spiritual whiz puts the fire in me.’
Of course another target for this humour is Jeannette’s mother, who by the end of the novel has not moved an inch from her initial beliefs. Even though Jeannette is now welcome in the family home, it is through comfortable familiarity she is welcomed there, and not because there has been an acceptance of what Jeannette has become. Even in the final lines of ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ Jeannette’s mother has remained entrenched in her religious fervour.