Alice Walker has been one of the most popular and prominent figures in contemporary literature since 1970s. In her early literary career, her focus was on the spiritual survival of the black people especially the black women. In her works, though she explores the problems faced by a land and its people, she also keeps her emphasis strong on the healing power of love and the possibility of a change. She also used the term “Womanism” in her famous volume of essays “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose” derived from the word “Womanish” used for a girl asking too many questions and speaking in her own voice. In her works, Walker has always valued the bonds between women, their culture, their emotional flexibility and their strength.
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The Color Purple is considered a classic womanist text. It is about being a woman and a black, living in the frame of male civilization, racist and sexist, being subject to all possible forms of oppression. It explores the modern search for wholeness, connection of people in an age of fragmentation and exploitation. Trudier Harris in Black American Literature Forum states that The Color Purple has “become the classic novel by a black woman” because “the pendulum determining focus on black writers had swung in their favour … and Alice Walker had been waiting in the wings of the feminist movement…”
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel i.e. it is written as a series of documents, the usual form is letters. This technique allows Celie to speak for herself; she also gets to structure her identity and her sense of self by writing her letters. Celie’s letters, her growing ability to express her thoughts point out to her spiritual development and also pave the way for her independence. The novel’s narrative technique is linked with the novel’s main thematic image of gaining an identity, of rebirth and of survival. Through the form, Walker also links a formal and western tradition to an oral and distinctly African American folk expression. The use of the vernacular infuses an old form with new life. Alice Walker uses the color purple which is a color of triumph, regal power. By using this color, Walker has rendered heroism to their lives and to their ability to survive and triumph over oppressions and hardships.
The novel faced criticism by the Afro Americans because of the unfavourable portrayal of men as being capable of oppressing other members of the community especially women. Young women are treated like sexual objects; Celie is raped by her ‘Pa’. Her education is discontinued forcibly against her wish; she is married off to a person because she has become a “burden”. At the start of the novel, her only voice is her letters to God. In ‘The Bluest Eye’ Pecola is completely silenced as a result of paternal violence, Celie does not resign her beauty to a world where blue eyes seem to be the white standard of beauty. Celie confides in to God about her sufferings and not to any imaginary friend, she refuses to be a voiceless victim.
The novel makes use of the Socialist and the Radical theory of Feminism. According to the Socialist theory, the lower status of women is due to the fact that the women are economically dependent on the male partner and the ideological myths about women have strengthened the male power over them. These myths have played a powerful role in defining their major roles as that of a mother, housekeeper and a child rearer. According to the Radical Theory, patriarchy is a result of the exploitation of female biology by men; marriage based family relationships in which men control women’s behaviour.
At the beginning of the novel one can notice that Celie is completely devoid of identity. Her husband Mr ___ calls Celie a ‘nobody’. Celie is unable to define herself. Her life has been fragmented into pieces, given away to others. In the later stages of the novel, through the narrative, one realizes Celie takes a step forward towards her own self-acceptance when she announces her decision to leave Mr ___ and live with Shug in Memphis. Celie declares, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook…But I’m here”. Initially in the novel Celie does not sign her letters but after a certain point she does so emphasising on her identity through her family relationships, her business, her love, her new place in the world.
The Womanism in The Color Purple brings out the depiction of various women characters which are Celie, Nettie, Shug, Sofia, and Mary Agnes. The bonding between them is also a reason responsible for Celie’s metamorphosis into a strong and an independent person. In the novel the tale of Sofia’s sisters brings to light the importance of female bonding and the potential power of women. Quilts and quilting play an important role in The Color Purple. They embody the ideal of unity in diversity which is very prominent in Walker’s novels. As a truce Sofia and Celie make a quilt of diverse patterns suggesting the above stated idea of unity in diversity. Women’s quilting plays the role of creating a female community in a world that represses any form of female expression. Quilting in The Color Purple is a symbol of female bonding, creativity and a manifestation of African American folk culture.
Letters written by Nettie depict the widespread racism of whites and it is also a contrast between the life of blacks in New York and the ones in south. The whites consider the missionary work in Africa just a ‘duty’ whereas the Africans and American Blacks work for the upliftment of the black people everyday.
In the novel, Nettie, Sofia and Shug go beyond the conventions of being a black woman; Nettie’s education allows her to explore the larger world and to become a missionary. Sofia refuses to be controlled by anyone. In her relationship with her husband, Harpo, she goes beyond the gender conventions: she works in the fields while Harpo takes care of the domestic duties. According to the radical-libertarian feminists, men should be permitted to explore their feminine dimensions and women their masculine ones. No human being should be forbidden the sense of wholeness that comes from combining his or her masculine and feminine dimensions.
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The character of Shug Avery represents a total flaunting of the society’s prescribed roles for women. Her career as a blues singer enables her to experience much more freedom than the other women bound by their duties. Celie finds Shug to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Celie becomes aware of her own beauty through her relationship with Shug. Celie’s recognition of her own beauty is a very important step towards her self independence and self acceptance. The physical love between Shug and Avery is symbolic of the total liberation of women. Shug teaches Celie to love her own body and to follow the intuition of her mind.
Shug totally changes Celie ideas about God. Celie distrust a white, male God because he does not listen to ‘poor colored women’. He is neither male nor female, black or white. For her god is present in all creation. In this perception of God, Walker reflects her own understanding. Through the voice of Shug, Walker emphasises the unity of all life. At the end of the novel, Celie is able to address a letter to this new God which completes her journey of searching her identity: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God”.
In the novel, the complete redefining of gender roles also leads to crucial changes in the character of Mr ___. His love for Shug indicates that even he can love and care for someone. In the end, his attitude regarding women, gender roles is completely changed. He is transformed from anonymous Mr ___ to ‘Albert’.
Towards the end of the novel, the female characters of the novel find their footing. Through their quilts, songs they realize their identities and individuality. Shug and Mary Agnes find themselves in music; Sofia and Celie in their Quilts; Nettie in her teaching; Celie also creates her folkpants which is also a culmination of art and free spirit. Walker in a very clever twist uses a traditional white holiday to mark the spiritual, economic, emotional and social independence of Celie.
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