“But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is to stay alive.”
The Colour Purple tore me apart, it made me feel guilty and happy and it made me revel in the strength of its characters, in their greyness, it made me ache and it made me believe in the power of redemption. The first thought that came to my mind on reading the first few letters was, ‘I’m so glad I’m not black, or poor, or that my grand-parents were not slaves.’
Alice Walker, a black, bisexual woman who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award in 1983 for The Colour Purple is an oasis in the rather dreary desert of straight white men. She pulls down the veil of social and economic privilege that protects her readers from the harshest realities of the misogynistic and racist society of early 20th century Georgia. The setting being rural, international instabilities seem to have little or no effect on the characters lives. Walker thus points out the universal nature of the issues she is portraying in the novel while giving it a specific context. What makes the novel particularly engaging (and consequently heartbreaking) is the epistolary format coupled with the confessional and frank tone of Celie’s letters, first to God and then to her sister Nettie. Little Celie’s perfectly imperfect letters represent the powerful questions of an innocent lost in her wantonly cruel surroundings.
She is abused, time and time again both physically and emotionally and what hurts the most about this abuse is that she is so terribly young that she fails to comprehend the reasons for all the pain she endures. Celie’s detached, lost confession of her being raped by her step-father Alphonso when her mother is too unwell to sexually gratify him and her consequent pregnancies is truly disturbing. The abuse continues as she gets married off to an equally unfeeling man Mr___ (That’s a beautiful little trick that she pulls off, right there. Celie’s husband is never named in her letters. She always refers to him as ‘Mr___’ which on the surface symbolises her fearful respect for his superior position in society but at another, more badass level, signifies the utter indifference Celie has towards her husband. For her he is yet another man, yet another abuser who fucks her against her wishes. Walker uses the absence of an element to send out a powerful message. What is left unsaid is just as important as what is said, Silence can signify defiance.)
The abuse seems to numb her very soul. Her letters to God are terribly abrupt and curt.
“He [Pa] never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.”
It is quite impossible to read the book in one sitting and yet it is equally difficult to set it aside and resume life. Her suffering haunted me and the only way to know whether she recovered from the scars of her abusive childhood was to read on.
Walker beautifully weaves Celie’s transformation from a submissive young girl who has reconciled herself to her unfortunate fate to an enterprising old woman with a mind and family of her own, into the language and thoughts Celie chooses to put down in her letters and whom she addresses them to.
Her letters to God are lost and seeking help or answers about the unfortunate string of events that happen to her, the forced marriage and the restrictive gender roles it entails, the multitude of children she is physically and emotionally incapable of handling and the constant abuse. The introduction of Shug Avery, the charismatic ex-lover of Mr___ changes the tone. She represents everything Celie vies for. She is beautiful, she is assertive, she is emotionally and economically independent and she is almost maternal towards Celie. Under Shug’s feisty tutelage Celie begins her journey towards wholeness and independence.
Walker questions the patriarchal and racist notions of a white male God through Celie’s doubt about the old white man up in the clouds. She seems to know that there is something that “don’t seem quite right” about the white patriarch swooping down and saving her from all her woes. It is only when Shug introduces her to her version of God, not as a he or she but as it; as a force that delights in creation and just wants human beings to love what it has created, that Celie begins to truly find happiness and learns to let go of the fear and submission years of abuse have conditioned into her.
“Well, us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?).”
Walker also deals with the oppressive gender roles and the way violence perpetuates itself because of them. None of her characters are completely feminine or masculine. They’re always grey, struggling with their socially enforced genders. The relationship shared by Mr___’s son, Harpo with his wife Sophia effectively blur gender traits and roles.
“Sofia think too much of herself anyway, he say. She need to be taken down a peg. I like Sofia, but she don’t act like me at all. If she talking when Harpo and Mr.___ come in the room, she keep right on. If they ast her where something at, she say she don’t know. Keep talking. I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her to make her mind. I don’t mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr.___ call me, she look surprise. And like she pity me. Beat her. I say.”
Harpo’s need to beat Sophia to assert his dominance over her and his insecurity because of her strength and sass are a demonstration of violence being perpetuated by oppressive gender roles. Shug and Celie’s sexual relationship also brings in a delightfully novel element of sexual ambiguity to the story.
Nettie’s letters that form a major part of the novel deal extensively with the missionary cause of civilising (Read: Chritianising) the African ‘savages’. It provides an insightful and realistic account of the relationship shared by the missionaries and the natives. Although there is an unjustified condescension and patronising tone in the rather uppity letters written by Nettie, it is juxtaposed with some truly barbaric practices among the Olinkas.
Walker thus reiterates the hazy greyness of reality, not allowing the reader to take sides. The layered nature of racism is also apparent in these letters as Nettie, a black woman discriminates against the African blacks, thinking of them as the savages who gave up on her ancestors when they were taken away from their native land by the slave traders. The attention that Walker pays to the intricate details of the social reality she portrays is what sets her historical fiction apart from the others.
“Millions and millions of Africans were captured and sold into slavery—you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa—having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks—are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion….
Why did they sell us? How could they have done it? And why do we still love them?”
There is a beautiful greyness to all of Walker’s characters. Right from Mr___ to Shug or even Celie. I never felt like hating or loving any of them. It was more of a gradual understanding of the intentions and motives behind their actions with the background of the multiple social realities that influence them, rather than a simple judgment. Walker’s style left no space for judgment, only for understanding and beautifully random ‘ah’ moments in the character arches.
Walker manages, very tactfully, to separate the social convention from the character and juxtaposes them for her reader to truly understand the oppressive futility of social structures like the patriarchy. Mr ___’s journey towards redemption that culminates in him being a friendly companion to Celie in her old age was the high point of the novel for me (also the point when I proceeded to sob). When Celie leaves Mr___, he reconsiders his entire life. A lonely old man does not have to follow the prescribed gender roles and thus begins to discover himself under the layers of violently enforced masculinity. He begins to value both Celie and himself as an individual and craves for the human companionship they provide each other. The relationships shared by the charters in the novel are so painfully and intricately human, they take your breath away.
“Here us is, I thought, two old fools left over from love.”
says Celie in one of her final letters. She is an old, old woman who has everything she could wish for in life. Reunited with her sister Nettie and her family, she has a family she loves, a companion in Mr___, an intimate friend in Shug, a house she inherits from her step father, a booming business making wonderfully bright pants and most importantly, her liberty. She is in control of her own life, she has, like she said as a child, survived the ordeals of her life.
As she begins writing her own story, her final letter is addressed so,
“Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God-…”
It couldn’t have ended better, for her or for us.
Thank you, Alice Walker, you’re a beauty.
by Sneha Bhagwat