Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, brings an often forgotten or ignored subject, that of slavery, gender hierarchy and racism, to the forefront of readers’ minds. The discrimination against individuals because of their colour, background or gender was, and continues to be, present in modern society and Walker draws attention to this with her writing. This essay will analyse this text in five main sections. It will start by elucidating parts of the text on which the cultural and historical context has a bearing. It will then consider the motives and interests of the author. After which, it will reflect on what effects are achieved by the use of non-standard English; it will go on to identify and describe the narrative viewpoint of the text and show understanding of its connotations. Finally this essay will show the reasons for the structure and layout of the text.
In this novel a great deal of discrimination is aimed at some of the characters. The reader is shown throughout how race determines the lifestyle of individuals. Black people are seen as only fit for particular jobs and it is frowned upon when they become too successful. Although slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, Walker shows how the impression of slavery was still present, especially in the American “Deep South”. One example of this is when Mr —— is deciding whether or not to take Celie as his wife. Celie has no say in the matter, when she is called outside to see Mr —— she is asked to turn around so that he can have a good look at her: “Celie, he say. Like it was nothing. Mr —— want another look at you.” (Walker 1983:12) He examines her, much as a master would examine slaves in previous years, while deciding if he wished to buy them.
In the 1980s women, some of whom called themselves feminists, had begun to campaign for equal rights. Women even had the same voting rights as men. New laws were being written and old ones amended in order to aid the push for equality. Despite this, women were still seen to be of lesser value than males in society. Females appear almost to be treated as slaves to their masters, who would usually be their father or their husband. They were second or even third class citizens.
Married men at this time, according to law, owned their wives and so marital rape was not a criminal offence. Once again, not dissimilar to the relationship between a slave and their owner.
Walker’s character, Sofia, was a lady who stood up for herself and therefore, due to the society at the time, did not fit in and was subjected to a great deal of discrimination. This is shown when Harpo becomes annoyed at Sofia for not letting him boss her around and asks his father’s advice on what he should do. Harpo is advised to beat her: “You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (Walker 1983:35). Violence towards women was seen as acceptable and as females were accustomed to it from an early age, it became the norm. Sofia is expected to conform to behavioural expectations but as she actively does not, she is punished.
When she punches the mayor and is thrown in jail, the massive class divide, based on race and gender, is apparent. She retaliates to being hit and, because of the huge difference in social stature between a black woman and an upper class white man, she is sentenced to a grossly unjust jail term. Sofia is greatly affected by being put in jail to the point where, when she is let out, she has almost lost her identity. Ironically, she gratefully accepts the job as housemaid as an alternative to jail as her predicament begun when expressing the displeasure of being offered such a job.
Because, not only is Sofia black but also a woman, she was placed in the bottom bracket of society, forever fighting a battle against discrimination.
There were a number of factors that influenced Walker’s writing of this novel. Essentially, she wanted to bring awareness to the harsh reality of society and the great mistreatment of blacks and of women. Women’s push for equal rights was gathering momentum but, as previously discussed, women were still not seen as equals, especially in certain parts of the U.S. As well as raising awareness of gender discrimination Walker also sought to promote an end to racism. With her writing coming off the back of the Harlem Renaissance, it was clearly influenced by that of political activists like Garvey and Du Bois. How she encourages the reader to compare and juxtapose the cultures of colonial Africa and the American Deep South is typical, in a sense, to the writing of this era.
A non standard form of the English language is used through the entire book. At the start, the dialect and use of “Black English” instantly identifies the setting a without the need for a description, which is clearly necessary as the narrator does not address the reader in the story. The use of this language is important in helping the reader to understand the characters too, especially Celie. As her spelling is so poor and often phonetic, it is apparent that she has been poorly educated and so is probably from a very deprived background. Colloquialisms and double negatives are used all the way through the story by Celie, such as “But he don’t pay her no mind” (Walker 2008:104).
As Celie is not only the teller of the story but also a character in the book and so an innocent or unreliable narrator, it is difficult for the reader to know the exact turn of events. The reader has only descriptions of people and proceedings from Celie’s perspective but this helps to show Celie’s limited understanding of her environment. Right at the start it is apparent that Celie is raped by, as it turns out, her step-father. But she doesn’t actually know what has happened. From this Walker shows how women were victims of abuse and, because they knew no better, accepted this as part of their lives.
Walker’s use of epistolary to convey the thoughts and feelings of Celie is an important part of how events are perceived. One advantage it has over direct narration and dialogue is how, when writing to God for instance, Celie’s writing is very personal, and writes things that she probably would not be comfortable saying to someone. Because this is such a personal form of prose, the reader develops a great attachment to the characters, especially Celie. When she writes about her friends, for example her sister Nettie, the reader can tell how much she loves her. Instead of just being described how she looks and what she says, the reader is told about the effect she has on Celie, from Celie’s own point of view. Celie describes events, often inaccurately, but more important than what actually happened, is how she reacts and feels about it. The reader would not discover this through standard narration and description.
This essay has looked at how the Historical and Social contexts have influenced Walker’s writing and how they are shown by the treatment of the character Sofia in the book. It then went on to look at how Walker’s intentions were put across by her choice of language, form and structure.
The abuse of women because of their gender and blacks because of their colour was still around, despite general views acknowledging the need for equality. One of the main characters in The Color Purple, Sofia, is subject to a great deal of abuse as a result of a situation she wouldn’t have been in if she wasn’t a black female.
Walker clearly was trying to make people aware of the suffering of individuals as a result of sexist and racist society. The use of language in the book shows the lack of education, resulting in a lack of understanding of the character’s own rights. The book is written in a very personal form to help the reader relate to the characters and see the discrimination from their point of view.
It’s only been twenty-five years since the writing of this novel and thanks to people like Alice Walker, whose outstanding dedication caused millions to take a more thoughtful look at society, the world we now live in is very different to the one depicted in this book.