The Color Purple

I was asked recently to explain an A level Lit response in an exam situation, so here is the question and my attempt at an answer. Would you agree with my analysis?

Extract from Saturday morning “Shug put Nettie letter in my lap” (page 109) until “she take and sling it back in the shaving box” (110).

Explore how Walkers manipulation of Celie’s voice conveys attitudes towards Mr_’s deception and examine how Walker shows how realisation has changed Celie’s perspective on her relationship and the circumstances that have shaped them as the novel progresses.

Concepts of deception and realisation are things that Walker uses in her novel to bring about the gradual realisation of her chief protagonist, Celie, throughout the novel. It is her voice that brings this novel alive, her mix of non-standard Creole English that allows the reader into the mind of this young oppressed woman as she comes to terms with her predicament.

In this extract, the reader observes just how naive and uneducated Celie really is, both in the ways of the world and the ways of the person she lives with, Mr_. Walker though, uses the character of Shug Avery, to help Celie realise that her life is more than oppressed. As Shug puts the letter into her lap, she sees several things; stamps with pictures of “peanuts” on them, a postmark saying “Africa” and a picture of a “little fat Queen of England.” But she fails to understand that the letter she has in her possession comes from anywhere in particular. In her uneducated and naive state, she does not make the connection between a Queen, a continent and the fact that this letter is from overseas. This not only shows naivete and a lack of education for the times, but also just how much she as an oppressed black woman accepts her life situation as being normal for the black woman in the southern states of America at the time the novel is set. She says she “don’t know where England at” and then links this with the fact that she does not know where Nettie is either. Such is the lack of understanding in this downtrodden character that the audience feels her sense of pain and frustration and sympathizes with her plight.

As the text continues it is Shug who has to inform her that Mr__ has been keeping her letters from Nettie away from her on purpose. But Celie’s response of “Naw” signifies a lack of understanding that he is as mean as he is. To her, such actions as he has perpetrated on her are normal. Indeed, the black American woman of the time would have added that this was the life of women at that time in America. To be black and female, one had to expect such a life. It was their allocated lot in life in a society that gave them no rights and fewer laws to protect them. As she responds in the negative, the reader is left incredulous because it is obvious that Mr__ is withholding her letters from Nettie, which illustrates his meanness to Celie, but her lone small voice holds true to herself, trusting the man who oppresses in a way that keeps her locked up in his squalid little world. The negativity of her response is antonymous with the reality of her existence and she cannot see it, or refuses to see it, again showing the depth of the plight she is in.

It is the reinforcement showed by Shug when she adds “Humph, he that mean” that imposes the reality of her existence on Celie and her dawning sense of realisation about her relationship with Mr__ to the point where she suddenly begins to observe the true nature of the man who dominates her so effectively and so callously. But even as she becomes more aware at this point, she is still asking “but how come he do it?” She knows that Mr__ knows that Nettie is everything to her and always has been and that by denying her the right to read Nettie’s letters, Mr__ is denying her a chance to live, but she still is naive enough to ask why a man, at that time, would stoop to such a manner of behaviour as this. It is a thing common in the Black Feminist experience that man dominates and the black woman has little or no say. It is something that they not only expect, but live with and only until recent times, continued to suffer. So by asking Shug this, she is doing so in an incredulous manner, showing she understands now something of what is happening to her, but also that she remains incredulous as to why. Shug’s response of not knowing but saying she will find out shows how much she wishes to see Celie grow and develop as a woman in that time, and also something of what Shug herself may have had to endure up till this point.

As the two women concoct the plan to seal the envelope and place it back in Mr__’s pocket, the reader sees that there is a growing sense of deviousness to Celie’s character. Her voice, supported by that of Shug, becomes one that is now prepared to fight back, to find new ways of getting to the truth behind Mr__’s behaviour and her relationship with him, but just as much as she sees him walking around all day with the letter in his coat pocket, she also begins to watch him more closely. This in itself signifies that her levels of trust are diminishing and as she begins “to feel a lightening in the head” the reader senses her voicing out her thoughts, almost like a soliloquy, to the point where she finds herself standing behind Mr__ with his razor, ready to take the next step.

The reader is unsure what that next step will be, thinking that she may use the razor to exact some form of revenge on Mr__ for his behaviour to her thus far. He has, after all, abused her, both physically and sexually on a series of occasions and behaved in an abominable manner resulting in her forced compliance in all matters of life. It is only natural then that Celie should begin to voice and enact her thoughts of revenge on this brute of a man. It is then in the text that the reader sees the way Walker takes the tension of this time and alleviates it by the use of laughter. When Shug begins to laugh, it lightens the tension, and when linked with the “lightening” in Celie’s heart and mind, we begin to see just how Shug is important to the character of Celie in her growth and development, her realisation that her relationship with Mr__ cannot continue.

The final section in the excerpt shows just how astute Shug really is. Sensing the tension in the air she is able to defuse it, whilst also bringing about a sense of peace to the scene. Celie is simply standing by, as it were, observing how a lady can control a man, even in the direst of circumstances. When Mr__ realises she has the razor, he is quick to tell Celie to put it down, showing perhaps, a sense of fear, but also guilt, because by being so controlling and dominant, he must recognize that at some point, Celie’s growth as a woman will get her to the point where rebellion will follow naturally. His reference to women “always needing to cut this and shave that, and always gumming up the razor” is perhaps a sexual reference, but it is also one that shows dominance and his right to dominate in that societal situation at the time.

Clearly, this extract shows a degree of growth in understanding from Celie, via the intervention of Shug Avery, but it also shows just how much Celie is a figure of subjugation and subservience, a woman whose needs are not being met by the man she is forced to live with and that as she grows and matures, so does her understanding of the world around her. She has been developing from the point where she was totally naive, through negative experience at the hands of her father and then the Mr__, to the point where knowing a woman of Shug Avery’s ways and attitude allows her to grow. These scenes from the novel show a female protagonist at a turning point in her development, which will inevitably lead to the ending where she is able to be happy for the first time in such a long time and end her diary with the word “Amen” or “so be it,” reflecting that she is then able to say that everything in her life, albeit some of it horrible, has happened for a reason and that reason is to be content with the things in her life at the end of the story. Her voice is strengthened at the turn of every page. Her attitude to deception is increased at every life event and she can finally understand the nature of a loving relationship, something Mr__ will never be able to give her.

R Johnson