Finding Your Voice: an Analysis of the Color Purple
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“Who do you think you is? he say… Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.” (187)
Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, focuses on the struggles of a poor and uneducated African American girl, who is verbally, physically and sexually abused by several men in her life. She feels worthless and becomes completely submissive. Her only way to express her feelings is through private letters to God. An emphasized theme in this work is that expressing one’s thoughts and emotions is essential in order to develop an inner sense of self.
In the beginning of this novel, Celie is a young and naive adolescent. She is victimized by her step-father who rapes and impregnates her repeatedly. Her letters to God are her only escape. She hides inside herself. Scared, she writes, “I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” (1) She looks to God for support. “…long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along.” (26) A few years later, Celie is forced to marry a vicious man who beats her, forces her to have sex, and treats her like a slave. She is completely powerless and passive to those who abuse her. As her life progresses, she goes through a radical change. Her husband, whom she calls Mr. ___, intentionally keeps Celie separated from the only person that she loves, her sister Nettie. When Celie discovers that he has been hiding letters from Nettie for several years, she wakes up and wants to kill him.
This gives Celie the ability to express her anger. “I curse you… Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble… Everything you even dream about will fail… Every lick you hit me you will suffer twice, I say.” (187) She finally becomes expressive. A recurring theme in the novel is that finding a voice is essential when building one’s own identity. After many years of being a victim of violence, Celie ultimately finds her inner sense of self. She achieves independence and becomes a confident woman who can stand up for herself. When she leaves Mr. ___, Celie affirms her empowerment over her cruel husband, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook… But I’m here.” (187)
Two significant questions that arise from the text are: Why does Celie let the men in her life dominate her and why doesn’t she stand up for herself? After reading the novel, the response to this question is still not clear. Celie is an object of violence. She becomes pregnant by her step-father at the young age of fourteen and has to deal with her mother’s sudden death. Celie is brought up with the notion that women are inferior to men. She is repeatedly exposed to sexist views of society. “Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.” (42) Celie is heavily abused from a young age. Suppressed and censored, she has no one to tell her feelings to. She cannot express herself because she is scared. Most of the people in her life are men who constantly degrade and disrespect her. For example, her step-father thinks very lowly of her when fixing her up for marriage.
“I got to git rid of her… She a bad influence on my other girls… She ugly… She ain’t smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own… And another thing – She tell lies.” (18) Celie’s self-esteem is nearly non-existent. This affects her greatly. She cannot stand up for herself. Celie feels that she deserves the treatment that is imposed on her because she is black and a woman. Until she is influenced and triggered by other women to fight back, Celie is ultimately powerless. Her story can also be compared to Melinda Sordino’s in the book Speak. Melinda is a victim of rape and has trouble coming to terms with her situation. Melinda stops speaking because of her traumatizing memories. She literally loses her voice. In an effort to deal with the pain the rape has caused her, this young girl uses art as a coping method just like Celie, who writes letters to God, much like journal entries. Once Melinda builds up the courage to speak out, she is protected and congratulated by her family, friends and schoolmates. Celie goes through the same type of experience. Though this is the personal story of only one black woman struggling for change, it represents that of many other African Americans living in the South in the early twentieth century and still today!
Symbolism is one of the major literary devices used in this novel. The color purple itself is a significant symbol. It is first mentioned when Celie goes shopping for a purple dress. “Somethin purple… But us look and look and no purple.” (28) Purple is the color of royalty. It can also represent luxury, wealth, romance, feminism, passion and sophistication. The fact that Celie could not find any purple material represents all the above attributes that she cannot associate with herself. She ends up buying blue material. The color blue is cold and depressing. Buying the blue fabric symbolizes her miserable lifestyle. Later, a friend of Celie, Shug convinces her to look at herself naked. “She say, here take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it, have you?” (79) Once Celie sees herself, she identifies that her private parts are purple. Again, this color has a negative connotation seeing as Celie was sexually abused. For a third time, purple is compared to pain. When Celie’s close friend Sofia is put in jail after a violent fight, her face is bruised.
“And she just about the color of a eggplant.” (87) Finally, Celie lives her life bitterly and does not notice or appreciate anything around her. Shug tells her, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” (p. 178) Shug feels that God created beauty in the world to make humans happy. She feels that it is important that people take the time to acknowledge everything around them. From this, Celie realizes that Shug has enlightened her. She admits that she does not appreciate the world she lives in. This changes the way Celie perceives her existence. She begins to have a more positive outlook on life, despite the hardship she experiences. Celie herself can also be compared to the color purple. She has lived her life unnoticed. Once she realizes this, Celie creates an identity for herself and is finally noticed amongst her community. Another important symbol in this novel is pants. Once Celie is liberated from her marriage, she starts a pant-making business.
The pants represent independence, which again is a concept that relates to the theme of the novel. Celie can finally provide for herself. In her “previous life”, Celie’s only role in society was to bear children and keep house. The pants also symbolize a change in Celie’s relationship with men. Before, the idea that men and women had anything at all in common was completely daft. “Men and women not suppose to wear the same thing… Men spose to wear the pants.” (238) When Celie starts wearing pants, she no longer feels victimized by the men in her life. The theme of creating an identity for one’s self is once again apparent. Celie can finally experience freedom, a notion she has never known before. As the novel begins, Celie is a very simple-minded narrator. She sees things for what they are and cannot interpret them. Over time, her letters become quite insightful. Walker’s many symbols in this novel contributed greatly to creating more complex and abstract ideas and concepts that can be left to the reader’s interpretation. The point of view in this novel is particularly interesting. This epistolary novel is told in the first-person in the form of letters. The first half of the book is told from Celie’s point of view as she writes to God. The second half of the book is told in letters between Celie and her sister Nettie.
Even when the story is narrated by Nettie, the reader still experiences the story through Celie’s eyes. Celie is an uneducated woman since she was forced to drop out of school when she became pregnant. The effect of her poor grammar and spelling intensifies the rural and uneducated world she lives in. Her letters are short and crisp. Celie briefly describes what she experiences and how she feels. This style of writing forces the reader to become personal with Celie as she is a very distinct character. On the other hand, she does not develop or interpret her thoughts. Her language is very disturbing. “First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold of 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. ” (1) Celie provides graphic descriptions of all the abuse she experiences. She does not mean to be vulgar when using her crude words because they are the only ones she knows. She uses the language she grew up hearing and does not know that her words are improper. As Celie matures, so do her letters. She describes her life in more detail as she becomes closer to defining herself and earning self-respect. Nettie’s point of view is contrasted to that of Celie. Her grammar and spelling are correct. Because she is an educated woman, her letters are naturally much more complex. She describes human rights, religion, politics and other subjects and notions Celie cannot understand. “…trying to puzzle out words us don’t know, it took a long time to read just the first two or three letters.” (134) Both Celie’s and Nettie’s stories are very powerful and realistic.
In conclusion, the novel The Color Purple unveils several aspects of life – love, loss, religion, struggle, faith, sisterhood and power. Most importantly, Celie discovers that her path to self-respect lies behind her voice. In a society where blacks and women are discriminated against, it is most important to be heard. The message of this novel is one that brings hope for change to every person in Celie’s position. Despite the many obstacles in her path, Celie learned that people’s differences bring them together. After having a variety of friendships, she learns to deal with the past then release it. In spite of all the hardship she endured, she becomes a recognized and independent human being. The many literary elements present in the novel only strengthen the impact of Walker’s masterpiece!