I have learnt a new lesson this week, do not sit on a post in the hope you can make it better or come back to it later with the same enthusiasm. Jot down ideas while you read and as they come to you otherwise you will return to the post you left (to ensure you gave it justice) and find you have forgotten half of what you wanted to discuss. I feel better in the knowledge I have worked this out fairly early on into this blogging experiment, but it disappoints me that I may fail to do The Color Purple and Alice Walker justice.
Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.Synopsis from GoodReads.
Much like mixing nakedness with large bodies of water, as a rule, I generally avoid epistolary novels; I often get bored with the format which can feel flat or hinder depth.Nakedness + large bodies of water = skinny dippingEpistolary novels are written as a series of documents. To my surprise The Colour Purple managed to avoid becoming tiresome and successfully rounded each character. It helped that Celie narrated the first half of the novel in her disjointed English, from her language you felt the effort she was putting into what she was writing and the feelings she was expressing. I was more interested in Celie as a character than Nettie; Nettie, the more learned sister, travelled vastly as a missionary and lead an easier (depending how you look at it, I suppose) life, but Celie’s corrupted innocence was the real journey.
When we first meet Celie she is powerless; she is raped by her ‘father’, her children are adopted without her consent, she is married off at 14, beaten by her husband ‘Mister’, and the only person who loves her, her sister Nettie, is driven away by Mister for spurning his advances. Celie sees no worth in her own existence, yet with the introduction of Shug Avery her world is illuminated, she discovers pleasure, love and existing because you are, not because there needs to be a reason to. This is like the colour purple, it exists for no exact reason but to exist; I do not think this was the intended reading, but I have taken it with me. The colour purple, more importantly, is a symbol for Celie beginning to see the beauty in the world where before she only saw pain; Shug is key to this transformation, providing the conditions that allow Celie to love and be loved.
Women are often portrayed as insecure, fickle human beings, but it is the men in this novel who are predominantly insecure and emasculated. Mister can never have the woman he wants; Harpo is expected to, but cannot, ‘control’ Sofia; Shug has a career and is a breadwinner; even Celie begins her own business and escapes the control of Mister. In Celie’s section of the novel all the men are emasculated not only by strong women, but also the abuse and trials they are struggling to overcome; in a thoroughly realistic portrayal each perpetrator of violence or abuse has previously been a victim.
The progression of the male characters is just as fascinating as the female’s; once the men had overcome their anger, anger utilised to regain a semblance of control, they became sympathetic and enjoyable characters. Even Mister, who I despised throughout the majority of the novel, softens as he takes the time to think and realise what he has done, and what he really knows about the world.
‘I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things that you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.’
Once conventional notions of gender are dropped and Mister accepts Celie’s new found confidence and sense of self-worth, combating his jealousy and anger, both he and Celie begin to bond. Harpo progresses similarly; he does not want to beat Sophia yet that is what he is told to and expected to act as the man, that he should be the one in charge. He and Sophia eventually reconcile once he accepts her attitude and stops fearing it. The men are just as damaged as the female characters and this adds real depth to the story, there are no real villains, only people stuck in situations they cannot control, each trying to cope differently.
The most difficult situation I felt all the characters shared was the exclusion from their two cultures. In America, as ex-slaves, they are second class citizens and in Africa they are viewed similarly to the white people, never truly accepted into village life but tolerated and humoured. ‘White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th, say Harpo, so most black folks don’t have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other’. They are stuck in a limbo between two un-accepting worlds, from where they came from to where they are, however, this does not hinder them, they are able to love each other and see the wonder around them without this acceptance; it does not matter.
“The boys now accept Olivia and Tashi in class and more mothers are sending their daughters to school. The men do not like it: who wants a wife who knows everything her husband knows? they fume. But the women have their ways, and they love their children, even their girls.”