You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.
This is what the man fourteen-year-old Celie calls Pa tells her after he rapes her; and this is what she does. The epistolary novel, The Color Purple, is a compilation of this correspondence.
Celie is an illiterate black girl, deep in the American South. She keeps on writing letters to God, narrating her distressing tale in short, staccato and flat sentences which however feel loaded with misery: such acute misery that the reader is likely to throw the book away during the first few pages. She is raped by her father, and two children born out of that relationship are taken away and presumably killed, by the father himself. Her sick mother dies heartbroken, and Celie is then literally sold off in marriage to Mr _____ (unnamed throughout the novel, except for his first name Albert, revealed later on), who is lusting after her sister Nettie, a more beautiful and educated girl. The idea of ‘Pa’ to force Mr _____ to marry Celie is to have Nettie for himself. However, Nettie runs away to Celie; then to Africa with a missionary couple to escape the attentions of Celie’s husband.
Into this world of dissolute, chauvinistic men and silently suffering women enters two spirited ladies: Celie’s stepson Harpo’s wife Sofia and the singer Shug Avery, Mr _____’s old flame. Sofia is a spirited young woman, who does not take white supremacy and male chauvinism for granted. She fights back, giving as good as she gets: hitting back at Harpo when he tries to discipline her, and ultimately landing up in jail for attacking the mayor for his condescending remarks. Shug Avery is a rare breed in those days: a liberated woman. A singer by profession, she was unable to marry Mr _____ because his father would not hear of it: but that does not prevent her from coming and staying with her old lover. Initially she is antagonistic towards Celie, but a curious friendship (ultimately lesbian) develops between the two as she becomes aware of Celie’s sad plight.
It is on this relationship that the story hangs – because Celie slowly starts developing a sort of self-respect, ultimately allowing her to stand up to her husband. In the meantime, Nettie has travelled to Africa with the missionaries Corrine and Samuel, who also happen to be the adoptive parents of Olivia and Adam, the children of Celie. She keeps on writing to Celie, but the letters are hidden by her husband because Nettie wouldn’t submit to his wishes, long back: they are unearthed by Shug. From then onwards, the novel becomes a correspondence between Nettie and Celie. Celie, Shug, Sofia and Harpo’s new wife “Squeak” (Mary Agnes) find an unlikely bonding among themselves, which encourages them to leave their no-good husbands and strike off on their own. Squeak discovers a singing career and Celie starts to sew pants (she starts wearing pants also, symbolically). Sofia, serving the mayor’s wife in lieu of her jail sentence, strikes up a curious love-hate relationship with her daughter; she also takes pleasure looking after Henrietta, Harpo’s sick daughter by Squeak.
Through Nettie’s letters, Celie comes to know that the man who raped her is not her father but her stepfather. He dies eventually, leaving her her mother’s house; Celie has suddenly become well-off.
Meanwhile, Nettie along with Samuel and Corinne is busy doing missionary work with the Olinka, an African tribe whose very existence is threatened by British tea growers. The missionaries try to save the Olinka from extinction, but they are unsuccessful in doing so. During the long years spent in Africa, Corinne dies and Nettie marries Samuel. Adam falls in love with a girl from the Olinka tribe, Tashi, and marries her.
Meanwhile, the Second World War begins. Celie is shattered by a telegram saying that the ship carrying Nettie and her family have been sunk by the Germans. However, she still keeps on getting letters from her. In the end, they suddenly turn up – it seems that they did not drown after all! The novel ends on a surprisingly maudlin note, which would have been cliché had it not been so fitting.
What makes this novel so effective?
The story, very inexpertly summarised by me above, is rambling and lacking in cohesion. It narrates extremely distressing events, and very rarely does it give us a feeling of warmth. There are very few literary passages. Still, the effect is devastating.
Ruminating on it, I came to the following conclusion – it is the effectiveness of the narrative voice and the way the POV has been developed. We talk about unreliable narrators. In an epistolary novel, the narrator has to be unreliable to a certain extent. However, Celie’s uneducated and uncultured voice is so honest, that we start identifying with her from the first sentence:
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.
Celie literally does not know what is happening to her. Her letters have the raw strength of a child’s honesty, narrating distressing incidents which should never happen to a teen. She takes all the punishment the world and a man give to her, and develops a fatalism which is a kind of strength.
As the novel progresses, the narrative voice slowly matures. It is all credit to Alice Walker how she has managed this gradual shift in voice: as a reader, you find the woman growing old in front of your eyes. Sofia gives her a glimpse of what a woman of spirit can be like – but it is Shug who opens her out. Their lesbian relationship is physical as well as spiritual.
Shug is a masterly creation. It is she who unlocks womanly feelings in Celie, gets her Nettie’s letters and gives her the courage to stand up to her husband. In fact, Shug is Celie’s alter ego, the woman she wants to be: her love affair is more an attempt to be one with the other than carnal satisfaction.
There is an extremely significant chapter where Celie “loses” her religion; she starts writing to Nettie instead of God. She cusses God to Shug, only to be surprised to learn that she is a believer! Only, Shug’s God is different from Celie’s.
Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for…
…I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.
This is the God of the Upanishads: “Aham Brahma Asmi” (I am the Brahman) and “Tat Tvam Asi” (Thou Art That). The ultimate knowledge, the still point at the centre where the Bodhi tree stands. Once one has reached there, all is bliss. It is significant that it is from this point that Celie’s fortunes start changing: in fact, the world is the same; it is her relationship to it which has drastically changed.
Nettie’s adventures in Africa provide a nice counterpoint to this narrative. It is a sort of return to the roots for a black woman from America, for whom Africa is the equivalent of a fairy tale kingdom. Nettie finds the roots fast disappearing: but Adam’s marriage to Tashi brings it full circle. The name “Adam” here cannot be a coincidence.
Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, the happy family reunion at the end is contrived but fitting, it is needed to round out Celie’s personal journey. Her last letter is addressed to
Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.
Yes. Oh yes!