Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Color Purple Stands Out

'Identity seems to be a function of mental and moral mobility'

Walker herself describes The Color Purple as an examination of the journey from the religious – and all those things that word represents (dead, empty, boring, hollow sentiments) – to and towards the spiritual. A spiritual life is one that is full, filled with joyful relationships and valuable, meaningful experiences. The epistolary opening immediately and directly draws the attention to the plight of man (in this case a young woman) under God. This is an effective device given our stereotypical views of God. Some would even say that God (in both the Muslim and Christian tradition) is the ultimate sexist, and here we see a pathetic young creature calling out to an unheeding, isolated ultimate Male.

The desperation of fourteen year old Celie is instantly obvious. We can also see that she articulates herself in a specific and limited way. This reinforces the perception that she exists in a brutal setup. With her mother dead, Celie is forced into an apparently incestuous relationship with her father*. The two children that arise out of this unfortunate union are removed from the household, and Celie longs to know what has become of them. Her life is quite robotic in the sense that she merely serves to satisfy the whims of men around her: she cares for her siblings, cooks and cleans and despite being ugly, performs sexual favors. (Had she been told she was pretty, ironically enough, she might have felt less like a sexual object, and more an object of desire and to be desired).
It is in this paradigm that Celie finds herself, and although she is somewhat habituated to the extremes of this existence, her letters to God indicate that she finds her circumstances unbearable (when she laughs she feels her face split), and incomprehensible.

Things go from bad to worse when she married Mr_________. It’s possibly that this man is such a horrible concept that she cannot bear to even mention his name. Perhaps by de-naming (if there is such a word) this person that has disempoered her, and dehumanised her, she can exact some kind of revenge – albeit of a much subtler nature.
Mr__________ treats her as her father did, and so she comes to understand the tenets of the ruthless patriarchal society she must live in. It is a world without identity, a world that denies her any rights, denies her to be any part of who she is, denies her the fulfillment or even the recognition of her needs, and places her in firm subordination to the needs of the men around her.**

As the wife of Mr________, Celie feels oppressed, alienated and disconnected. She functions as an object without an identity. Her letters to God are a desperate attempt to talk to SOMEONE, and in the process of reaching out, she realises the extent of her deprivations.*** By the last third of the novel Celie’s letters are to Nettie, but interestingly the novel concludes with the word: Amen – as though the initial prayers, misdirected as they perhaps were, were answered nonetheless in some mysterious way.

The catalyst for Celie’s necessary transformation from pathetic, helpless, identity-less creature is provided by beautiful, world-wise Shug Avery. Shug arrives sick, at the smallholding, and Celie is able to express her affection through caring for her. Shug’s appearance creates a large pivot around which Celie’s life gradually rotates, leaving behind a life of depredation and moving over and above her brokenness towards a life structured around an identity. Shug provides Celie with the human equivalent of a goalpost. Celie sees in Shug all that she wants, including, who she wants to be. Like Shug, she wishes to live unshackled, free to be herself, and free to engage the world and all its goodness. In fact Celie’s relationship to Shug distinctly parallels Celie’s attempt to reclaim her soul. At last this human being who has not been permitted to discover who she is, finds someone to teach her how to do just that.

The fact that Shug and Celie’s husband re-establish their earlier relationship further confirms Celie’s humiliated state. Somehow Celie’s fascination for Shug, and her impressions of the different dynamic at work with her, compensate for Celie’s feelings of loss. **** For example, Shug treats men as equals. This is an eye opener for Celie, who has thus far lived cowering and subservient to those (men) around her. For the first time she becomes aware of a new paradigm in herself and in the world. Avery awakens Celie’s sense of self, but more than that, Celie is attracted to Shug. Shug is glamorous, she sings, and her independence is attractive. Celie probably associates men with pain and vulgarity, which is why a homosexual encounter is a natural step for her, and especially so with Shug Avery (who is very sexually in tune with herself).

It is interesting to observe how important sexuality is in the process of reclaiming identity. It’s fair to suggest that sexuality (when pursued in a healthy, positive relationship) represents the first step in reclaiming first the body and insodoing achieving emotional and psychological balance. Once this is achieved the soul is free to fly.

Celie’s background makes it difficult for her to quickly extricate herself. She suggests at one point that Harpo beat Sophia, as en effective way of controlling her. At this stage Celie is still ‘unconscious’, still operating in a world that she thinks is ‘normal’.
Shug induces Celie’s enlightenment. She teaches Celie the value and power of her own body. Celie becomes aware, too, through Shug, of the vital importance of love, and loving. Even further, Shug demonstrates her sense of the divine through her inner (one could almost say ‘innate’) connectedness to herself and her sense of God/Nature. It is this connectedness that Celie learns from Shug and begins to develop in herself, turning disempowerment and a dehumanised existence into an empowered, more actualised, more fulfilled life. These spiritual developments are manifested in a number of ways. Firstly by Celie’s increasing interaction with other female characters (like Sophia and Mary Agnes) she develops a social identity.
She also starts her own business: Folkspants, in Memphis and leaves Mr_________ (who by now we know as Albert, possibly because she has the strength, occasionally, and the sense of identity – occasionally – to face him for who he is because she knows who she is).

Celie returns later (to attend a funeral) to find that Albert (who appears neat and well dressed) actually listens to her now, and she finds him reasonably good company, considering all that has happened. This development demonstrates the establishment not only of Celie’s identity in terms of herself, but also her ability to change the perceptions of others towards her, principally, Albert’s disposition.
It’s possible that through Shug, Walker presents someone who suggests to all woman: ‘Don’t give men permission to treat you badly. If you do, they will, so don’t.’
This also implies: ‘Give yourself permission to be treated better.’ It is advice Celie has learned to live by, and has allowed her to thrive.

In broader terms, the abuse of black males on the females in their care is possibly a reaction to brutal white oppression. Because of their own feelings of helplessness, these men, over generations, reacted by disempowering those weaker than themselves. Interestingly, this loss of power is mirrored by Nettie’s experiences in Africa, where tribal roots and traditions are wiped out by ‘the wheels of progress’. Imagine the Olinka’s crops (and the vitality associated with their generations-old lifestyle) being wiped out by rubber plantations. It is a vulgar thing, progress, and new roots have to be dug in fresh soil to reclaim the vitality in our lives.

In the end, what appear to be fragments and fluid ribbons of movement come together, interconnect in a patchwork of a fulfilled life for Celie.***** In the end, Celie’s prayers are answered, she reunites with her sister and children, she inherits a house – all these things as she is becoming more and more part of (as opposed to apart from) the world, and part of God. Celie’s concept of God is now not a distant, unheeding Him, but a softer, subtler, more internalised force that flows within her. Letters that started of as a sign of isolation and alienation have also returned to her now (Nettie’s letters). Ultimately these missives demonstrate how a long ago reaching out can manifest fully, and finally, in fulfillment and freedom, in connection and connectedness.

*In fact her real father was lynched by whites who were jealous about his success
**Haro, Mr_________’s son forms some kind of friendship with Celie, but it is not enough to restore her sense of womanhood.
*** P173 ‘I don’t write to God no more, I write to you’ (Nettie)
‘What happened to God? Ast Shug
Who that? I say’
**** Shug’s fluid relationships with people
*****The quilt that Celie and Sophia create is an appropriate metaphor for this interconnectedness.

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