Search for Selfhood In The Color Purple

In this literary criticism, L.P. examines the quest for individuality in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple through her use of numerous literary devices like style, symbolism, and diction.

The Color Purple is a novel set in the impoverished south, following the development of one woman throughout her life. Alice Walker uses her knowledge of the treatment of black woman in the south, not only by whites, but also by their own husbands to create a transcendental story of Celie. Through symbolism, style, and imagery, Walker illustrates the development of Celie from an abused young wife with no self importance to a supported entrepreneur using literary devices like writing in the style of letters, symbols of her dynamic character, and selective diction.

Symbolism is subtly used throughout the novel, mainly manifesting itself in four symbols, God, Shug Avery, pants, and the color purple. Celie expresses herself by writing letters to god, not because she is devoutly religious, but because he is the only one she believes will listen. She pictures him as and benevolent but strict white man, but after she talks to Shug Avery, she becomes more of an omnipotent al being presence. This was representative of her leaving the influence of patriarchy. Shug Avery, while while she is an actual character in the novel, is representative of everything Celie wants to escape her life. Shug is independent, feisty, and lives by no one’s terms but her own. When Shug is at Abert and Celie’s house, Celie is saved from the abuse she normally suffers at Albert’s hands, and she enters a loving, enlightening relationship with Shug that helps her realize her self-worth. Shug, to Celie, begins as an idol, but as Celie develops her sense of self, Shugs flaws become more apparent.Shug Avery serves as a tool for Celie to develop, and leaves Celie later, when Celie becomes totally independent. Pants are also a symbol of Celie’s transformation. In the beginning of the novel, Celie never wears pants because they are seen as a man’s clothing. Making pants became a pastime for Celie to avoid killing her husband out of anger. “‘He say, I notice everybody in the family just about wearing pants you made. But you mean you turned it into a business?’ ‘That's right, I say. But I really started it right here in your house to keep from killing you."’ Pants eventually become a symbol of economic and gender liberation when Celie not only starts making them, but creates a business out of them. Lastly, the color purple is the most obvious symbol. It’s only mentioned a few times in the novel, but it represents everything God has made for man to enjoy. Celie has no sense of the color purple in the beginning of the novel, she is so focused on simply surviving that she cannot take time to notice small beauties. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” As Celie learns to love life, she begins to notice the color purple.

Alice Walker writes in a style that allows the reader to experience Celie’s journey as if they are looking over her shoulder. The story is told in a series of letters, beginning with Celie’s to god, then her sister Nettie’s to Celie, then as Celie begins to distance herself from patriarchal figures, from Celie to Nettie. The letter format not only conceptualizes the passing of time over twenty plus years, but also into the character’s thoughts, life, and expression. When Celie first begins writing letters, her language is simple, struggling. “My mama she fuss at me an look at me. She happy, cause he good to her now. But to sick to last long.” When talking about her rape by her stepfather, she cannot use any other term but “his thing,” demonstrating her lack of not only general knowledge, but that what is happening to her is wrong. Her language is filled with southern jargon, and it contrasts with her sister Nettie’s refined and educated letters. Although Celie never loses her southern accent, it is as big of a part of her as her personality itself, her comprehension and expression improve greatly.

Alice Walker shows Celie’s character through diction in the second sentence of the novel. “ I am I have always been a good girl.” The crossed out word starts out the novel with the notion that Celie doesn’t know who she is, but her letter writing will give her a chance to figure that out. The “good girl” hints that Celie will blame herself for her mistreatment by the men in her life. Her diction also show exactly how uneducated she is, like when she describes her body after her hysterectomy. “A girl at church say you git big if you bleed every month. I don’t bleed no more.” Her life is reduced to simple terms where she has no way of expressing her pain. However, after the arrival of Shug, Celie becomes descriptive and metaphorical in her letters. “I wash her body, it feel like I’m praying,” is one of her first discoveries of body and sexual experience, opening doors for new language and thinking. At first, she associates it with religion, because that is the cause of all wonder in her life, but soon, her sexuality allows her to create a selfhood entirely different from what he was before. “It’s mine, I say.” With these four simple words, Celie claims her body as her own for the first time in her life, setting her on the path for an independent identity.

Alice Walker’s tale is certainly not uncommon. She brings into literature an unfortunately all too common story of a woman subjugated to blameless abuse and total obedience. Walker immerses her readers into the empowerment of Celie with her personal letter form, characterizing language, and carried symbols, so much so that the numerous literary devices scattered throughout are forgotten in Celie’s inspiring rise to selfhood.

L.P. 2015