Alice Walker uses a variety of techniques to present the characters of Sofia and Harpo during page 60 of ‘The Color Purple’. I will be exploring a number of lexical, grammatical and phonological choices, as well as other techniques, in the order they appear in the letter and will be discussing how these can lead to the development of attitudes and values.
The introduction to the Sofia and Harpo relationship shows the reversal of the fixed stereotype perpetuated by other couples in the novel that a man should lead and a woman should follow. Previous letters depict Harpo as the feminine, subservient man,
“…crying like his heart gon break.”
While Sofia is much the dominant figure in the way she is “marching” like “going to war”. In not conforming to the basic male-female stereotypes we see Sofia “working on the roof” while Harpo is happy to “hold the baby” and “give it a kiss”. However, once Harpo sees that he is losing face he begins to eat gluttonously as he believes that physical strength leads to power. Although this gluttony could in fact be comfort eating and so is associated with his feminine image. Harpo’s need for control then extends to the bedroom, where Sofia says “once he git on top of me I think bout how that’s where he always want to be.” The situation here – as well as the previously accumulating tensions – has led Sofia to believe that she “need a vacation”.
Walker states that Sofia’s sisters are all “big strong healthy girls”, the words big and strong both have very powerful connotations. The two words are used very commonly and are short and simple; this reflects the simplicity of the sisters in terms of erudition but the physical power in terms of strength and dominance. Both words are mono-syllabic and consonance on the ‘g’ sound differs between the two words. The word ‘big’ is a very short sounding word and also has connotations for pregnancy and reflects how Sofia’s sisters can face what life has thrown at them in terms of relationships.
The word ‘strong’, however, has a continuous sound created by the nasal sound on the ‘n’. This sound portrays an image of continuing struggle to be a woman. Walker compares the attributes of the sisters to that of “amazons”, a tribe of women warriors; reflecting how Sofia’s sisters are striving to turn around the appearance of women as being the inferior race. An image is created of the sisters appearing to rescue Sofia from the grasps of an evil husband named Harpo. Even though Sofia is in fact similar to her sisters in terms of physical appearance, she lacks emotional strength to tackle the problem of Harpo, as deep down she still loves him. Sofia needs to be given strength from the rest of her family to eventually gather enough courage to leave.
In the following sentence Walker states that Sofia’s sisters arrived in “two wagons”. Wagons being, back then, made of wood – which in this novel is often associated with women. This reflects that, although the sisters have the physical attributes of males, they are still in-touch with their feminine roles and character. The fact that Walker uses “two” wagons supports this idea. In the dictionary it mentions the word ‘wagon’ as being “used for carrying heavy loads” and so this reflects the idea of Sofia’s sisters being ‘big’ and ‘strong’.
Walker chooses to mention some unusual items that Sofia takes with her. Linking back to the idea of two wagons; Sofia is taking so few belongings that two wagons may not have been necessary. The sisters may have thought that Sofia was taking a lot but it seems as though Sofia wants to forget the past and leave it behind her for Harpo to sort out. One item that Sofia takes with her is “a looking glass”. The past participle ‘looking’ portrays the image of Sofia looking back on her life with Harpo and judging herself and her attitudes. Sofia maybe regretting her position as the dominant figure in their relationship and might begin to question whether she was at fault for their present situation. Another item Sofia takes away with her is a “rocking chair”, this being made of wood and reflects the idea that Sofia wants to take some advice away with her.
The rocking chair could symbolise she has learnt that obtaining the image and role of a male does not help in relationships with other men. The word ‘rocking’ suggests that a relationship in which wood is present in both persons will never succeed. Taking wood away from Harpo could mean that Sofia wants Harpo to become more of a man and Sofia wants him to succeed in a stereotypical relationship. Walker then ends the list and states that Sofia is also taking “the children”. The fact that this is a simple sentence consisting of just two words gives it a very sudden feel to it. It’s a huge impact both to the reader and to the relationship between Sofia and Harpo. Harpo has lost the children even though he, due to the role reversal, was very much the mother to them. This highlights the painful feelings that Harpo must be going through to lose his children.
The subsequent sentence illustrates Harpo’s attitude towards Sofia as she is leaving.
“Harpo sit on the steps acting like he don’t care.”
The last three words ‘he don’t care’ contain only one syllable and demonstrate Harpo’s apathetic feelings towards the situation. The words ‘sit on the steps’ are also mono-syllabic and have a plosive edge created by the ‘t’ sound and also the ‘p’ sound in the word ‘step’. This reflects Harpo’s true feelings in that he is angry at the circumstances in which his marriage has come to an end. He is devastated at losing his children’ the fact that he is sitting down conveys that he wants to push all his feelings down and suppress them. The steps symbolise his position, Harpo is lost, and he doesn’t know where to go; does he continue the uphill climb towards a better life, or does he sink into a life of regret.
Walker then introduces the idea that Harpo is making a net for fishing.
“He making a net for seining fish.”
Harpo is making a net very much for the same reason Sofia and Celie made a quilt. Although Harpo is carrying this out on his own it still symbolises that he wants to fix his errors. The past participle ‘making’ portrays a continuous image of Harpo working long and hard to benefit from self-improvement. However, a net could also represent that Harpo wants to be protected from something emotionally. The word ‘seining’ is a means of catching fish by use of a vertical net with floats at the top and weights at the bottom. This way of catching fish requires minimal effort and so illustrates that Harpo is still not ready for physical activities and reflects Harpo’s role as a domestic one. The fact that Harpo is catching fish could associate to the phrase ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ in which Harpo wants to find another woman/wife. This could link back to ‘seining’ in which Harpo is not ready to find a woman for himself yet (or he doesn’t want to put in the effort) and so he lets the fish swim into the net themselves. Harpo could still be thinking about Sofia and deep down he still wants to be with her.
Walker then introduces the idea of Harpo whistling, but his whistle is “nothing compared to the way he usually whistle.” This suggests that Harpo has lost confidence in himself. The alliteration on ‘way’ and ‘whistle’ reflects the flowing of the tune, the consonance on the ‘y’ in ‘way’ and ‘usually’ creates a soft continuous sound and supports the idea that his whistle is fading away. In the following sentence Alice Walker describes how weak Harpo’s whistle really is.
“His little whistle sound like it lost way down in a jar, and the jar in the bottom of the creek.”
The first few words ‘his little whistle’ could possibly be a phallic reference mentioned by Walker to suggest Harpo’s immaturity at the situation. Harpo has gone off sulking just like a little child and hasn’t faced the matter like a man. This links back to the idea that Harpo has a strong feminine side. The consonance on the letter ‘i’, as well as making the words flow, could convey a very personal feeling; thus supporting the idea of a phallic reference. On the words ‘little’ and ‘whistle’ they both end in the letters ‘tle’, making them rhyme and chime (like a tune) and create a feeling as if they’re fading away. Walker mentions that Harpo’s whistle is lost in a jar, a jar being transparent and suggests that you can see through Harpo as he wants to be like all the other males. However, the glass can be broken and Harpo’s real side can be seen, his whistle returns and he regains his confidence. But be careful, as once the glass is broken, the shards can inflict pain. The jar is then lost down a creek which signifies that it cannot be returned without great effort and reflects that Harpo has to try and strive to succeed.
A lot can be discovered about the attitudes and values of Sofia and Harpo from looking at the first two paragraphs. Deep down Sofia loves Harpo and a great effort is needed for her to leave. Sofia wants to leave most of the past behind but takes a few important items to signify change both for her and for Harpo. Harpo must be stricken with pain at the sight of losing his children as he was very much the mother figure. However, Harpo contains all his feeling inside and tries to carry on with his life.