“The Color Purple” PR – Gender Roles & Self-love

The Color Purple is a novel written by Alice Walker in 1982. The epistolary novel is innovative in terms of the story plot, setting, language, and structure. I am intrigued by this novel since I have never read one in a similar format. Walker’s novel displays the racism and injustice that African Americans are constantly facing in the lowest hierarchy in American society. At the same time, criticizes the gender stereotypes and conflict between men and women in the same race. Due to the novel’s unique format, it raised a variety of questions, from societal gender stereotypes, and racism, to personal love life. Walker raises these questions (the desired effects that she produces) mainly by the way she characterizes Celie through unique narrative devices: language and structure in the novel.

Walker characterizes Celie and shows her character arc through the unstandardized and comparatively informal English writing.

“I ast him to take me instead of Nettie while our new mammy sick. But he just ast me what I’m talking about.” (p. 7)

“Us both be hitting Nettie’s schoolbooks pretty hared, cause us know us got to be smart to git away.” (p. 9)

When Celie is writing and speaking in the novel, she often utilizes informal spellings like “ast” and “git” to replace the stardarized spellings “ask” and “get”. These words are a more vivid reflection of Celie’s thoughts and words spoken. Compared to Nettie’s standardized speaking and writing, Celie is comparatively uneducated. As Celie gets impregnated by Mr._ at such a young age, she is forced to drop out of school while Nettie continues her academics. This event marks the first misfortune in Celie’s life and increases our sympathy for Celie. However, Celie’s life does not start getting any better after she is forcefully married to Mr._. She is still facing violent treatment and being disrespected in the new household by Mr._ and his children.

“He say, celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man.” (p. 22)

At the beginning of the novel, Celie is a timid little girl who is afraid of speaking up for herself and would only do what the male characters tell her to do. Her self-worth is primarily based on what the male characters think of her. Her existence is also centered on chores within the household. Celie’s first-person narrative of her own experience makes us sympathize with her situation. Her calming voice of reciting her experience and Mr._ demanding tone when speaking to Celie show physical and verbal abuse toward women is normalized in Celie’s family, which is, the epitome of the colored community. It seems that the misfortune that Celie experiences have erased her ability to feel, as a human being. Instead, Celie is merely living as a machine that works and lives for other people. The language that Walker uses in the novel highlights the fixated, normalized societal norm of men dominating the powers in the household while women should be obedient and submissive. However, this stereotypical gender role is not only mentioned from the men’s perspective,

“I’m sick of her too, say Kate, letting out her breath. And you right about Celie, here. Good housekeeper, good with children, good cook. Brother couldn’t have done better if he tried.” (p. 20)

This quote is spoken from Mr._’s sister’s perspective which she compliments Celie because Celie does what people think she should do without questioning. This highlights the fact that stereotypical gender roles are ingrained in both genders’ minds. Women are subconsciously agreeing that they should be constrained by such social conventions. From this, Walker once again raises questions, such as “Does my gender shape the way I am supposed to act?” Also, to explore the possibilities of reversing gender roles in society (which is later explored in Celie’s self-discovery process).

Walker characterizes Celie’s self-discovery and self-love process through the epistolary structure of the novel. In Celie’s “awakening” process, Shug Avery has a catalytic effect on influencing Celie to embrace her own feelings and break off social constraints regarding gender roles.

At the beginning of the novel, Celie only writes and vents her unhappiness to God. As she stated on p.1 of the novel

“You better not ever tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” (p.1)

This quotation shows that she does not feel comfortable expressing these feelings to the surrounding people.

“Dear God,

Harpo went and brough Sofia and the baby home. They got married in Sofia sister house.” (p. 33)

In her letters to God, her writings are monotonous, simply recording the events in other people’s lives. This also reflects the fact that Celie does not feel like she has her own life but living for other people.

However, as the plot progresses, she does not write to God as much as she used to. She either expresses her feelings and thoughts to Shug or writes to her sister, Nettie.

“Dear Nettie,

My heart broke.

Shug love sombody else.” (p. 245)

In her letters to Nettie, we can see that she is expressing more human emotions, happiness, sadness, anger, etc. showing that she is not oblivious to the ongoing events surrounding her. She embraces her emotions and pursues her love life. Her braveness allows her to stand up for herself against Mr._, which buys her respect from the men in the family. Since Celie starts fighting for her own life, she gains more control over what she wants to do in her life. Celie’s self-discovery process also fosters reversing the gender role in the family. While Celie is playing a more dominant role in decision-making, men in the family seem to become more submissive and have fewer say. This further leads us to explore and reflect on the possibilities of events that will potentially happen in society when male and females swap their fixated roles. Walker gradually induces more perspective in the letter writings (from solely Celie’s perspective to incorporating both Celie and Nettie’s perspectives) is a brilliant way to display the “awakening” process of Celie. Walker also induces Shug Avery’s contemporary views in lots of aspects of life:

“Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love-and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.” (p. 195)

This quotation spoken by Shug Avery has consoled Celie’s conflicted mind while Celie is trying to discover her self-worth and interests in life. Shug’s presence has a positive influence on Celie’s character development. In letters written by Celie, Walker is able to show the importance of self-love through the influence of Shug’s words and actions on Celie.

I have to admit that I found the book quite dull and monotonous in the beginning. However, the book gets better as it progresses. I especially enjoy the part where Celie rediscovers her self-worth is not primarily based on how the male character perceives her, but rather, based on how she perceives herself. Celie’s optimistic character allows her to love people unconditionally after all these life-long traumas. This inspires me to always be my true self and embrace my emotions. Just as Shug Avery says:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somwhere and don’t notice it.” (p. 195)

This novel will forever serve as a reminder for me to be optimistic and appreciate the serendipity in my life.

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