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Chasing Rainbows: a black girl's search for inspiration and identity (Chapter 3)

The Color Purple : sisterhood and the search for self-knowledge.

“Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.”
(Alice Walker .)

One of the most notable aspects of The Color Purple is its form. It begins with a letter addressed from Celie to God:

Dear God, 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.
This indicates to the reader whose personal viewpoint the story is told from, and suggests that in her innocence she is confused about her life. Christian explains that along with diaries, the only form of expression allowed to women in the West were letters. By using the epistolary style, Walker allows her central character, Celie, to express her personal reaction to the oppression she suffers.

However, Henderson argues that in using the traditional Eurocentric epistolary form Walker is subverting the genre which was invented by men, and traditionally used to write about women. Instead of writing from a male viewpoint, all of the letters are written by women. Celie’s letters are used to talk about the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of men. Through Celie’s use of letters, Walker is controlling literary images of women and allowing them to have a voice, therefore allowing them the power of words. Celie begins to write in response to her stepfather’s threat, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” ; therefore, she is reacting against the authority of men. As Christian argues ‘Celie is so cut off from everyone and her experience is so horrifying, even to herself, that she can only write it in letters to God.’ Unlike Pecola in The Bluest Eye, who is imprisoned behind a wall of silence because of ‘paternal violence, Celie does not relinquish her sanity to an illusory world where blue eyes see an icy, sterile beauty.’ Instead, Celie tells God, not an imaginary friend, what happened and refuses to become ‘a voiceless victim’ .

Celie’s letters have positive effect since they increase Celie’s self-awareness and improve her ability to make sense of the world. Like a typical epistolary novel, The Color Purple emphasises the psychological development of its central character. Although Celie attempts to communicate with someone, or some thing, through her letters, McDowell states that they also serve as a process of ‘self-examination and self-discovery’ . It is through her letters that Celie comes to know herself, just like the reader. The letters allow her to make sense of the traumatic experiences and develop a response against them. Everything we learn about Celie is ultimately from her subjective point of view since she is the narrator, therefore, if we did not trust her innocence, we might question the validity of her letters.

Originally Celie’s intended audience is a white, male God who does not listen to her prayers, and her letters remain anonymous. Her image of God is ‘big and old and tall and graybearded and white.’ Whenever Celie is depressed by Mr. – ‘s cruel treatment, she alleviates her suffering by thinking about the ‘Old Maker’ and how ‘Heaven last all ways.’ Like the blacks of Stamps in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Celie longs for an end to her suffering on Earth. Just as Celie can only express her concerns to God, she also highlights the saving power of religion when she hopes that God and his angels would come down ‘by chariot, swinging down real low and carrying ole Sofia home.’ However, when Celie realises that God does not listen to her prayers she revises her notions about religion and begins to address her letters to Nettie. By signing her letters, Celie proves that she has found her identity.

Celie explains that she stopped writing to God because he gave her ‘a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister [she] probably won’t ever see again.’ Celie distrusts a white male God because he does not listen to ‘poor colored women.’ Shug encourages Celie to reject ‘religious beliefs which reinforce sexist and racist domination’ and insists on ‘the primacy of a spiritual life’. Shug tells Celie that ‘God is inside you and inside everyone else.’ If Celie looks for God in a white church or a white written Bible it is inevitable that she will encounter a white God, therefore she must look at her immediate environment for guidance. At the end of The Colour Purple, Celie thanks God, the stars, the trees, the sky and people for Nettie’s safe return, showing how she has put her new belief of God into practice. While Celie revises her belief in a white God, she also retains a belief in the teachings of the Bible. When Celie has a strong urge to kill Mr. – for hiding Nettie’s letters, Shug reminds Celie of Christ’s teaching ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. Deep-rooted beliefs can not easily be altered, but Celie’s accommodation of traditional and natural religion reflects the elements of her personality.

Celie becomes aware of her own beauty through her relationship with Shug. Shug initially judges Celie on her appearance, saying ‘You sure is ugly’ . In comparison, Celie admires Shug’s body, as well as her voice, for its beauty. Although Celie is confused by Shug’s beauty, which makes her feel like she has ‘turned into a man’ , Shug teaches Celie to appreciate her own body. As Byerman argues, the discovery of physical beauty ‘inherent in womanhood begins the psychological change in Celie.’ Henderson argues that until Shug ‘introduces her to the beauty of her own body, Celie remains devoid of any sense of self-esteem or self-value.’ Celie’s recognition of her own beauty ‘is the first step towards [her] independence and self-acceptance.’ Through Shug’s compliments of Celie’s body she begins to love herself. However, when Shug leaves her for Germaine, Celie begins to doubt her beauty, saying ‘Nothing special here for nobody to love’. The rejection temporarily diminishes her self-confidence, but her faith in her heart keeps Celie alive.

Celie’s original loneliness in The Color Purple is emphasised in her letters to God. Separated from her sister, Nettie, Celie has no one else to express her feelings to other than God. However, Celie’s loneliness disappears when she engages in a friendship with Shug, bonds with Sofia and writes her letters to Nettie instead of God. Shug understands Celie’s loneliness because her ‘inability to stay with one man is a tale of loneliness’ , and Sofia understands Celie’s struggle to survive. The tale of Sofia’s Amazon-like sisters not only emphasises the importance of female bonding, but also highlights the potential power of women. Celie begins to feel that Shug and Sofia are like her sisters, but their presence cannot remove the pain of Nettie’s absence. When Celie thinks about Nettie a sharp pain runs through her and the thought of seeing Nettie ‘seem too sweet to bear.’

Later, when Celie reads Nettie’s letters she is relieved to read that Nettie misses her as much. Although Nettie is with Celie’s children, Adam and Olivia, and their guardians, Samuel and Corrine, she experiences very few bonds with other women her own age. Nettie tells Celie that she has ‘hardly anybody to talk to, just in friendship.’ Instead, Nettie has to rely on her relationship with Celie’s children, Adam and Olivia.

Celie’s rape by her stepfather, Alphonso, causes her isolation in The Color Purple. His threat that she must not tell anyone leaves Celie isolated. What makes the rape worse for Celie is that until many years later she believes that Alphonso is her real father. Nettie’s letters from Africa reveal to Celie that in fact whites murdered their real father. Celie’s subsequent marriage to Mr. – does not ease her isolation for she is again used for unemotional sex. Celie responds to this sex by ‘making herself wood... not responding to either abuse or sexual intercourse.’ Like Momma’s resistance to racism in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Celie imagines she is a tree. She can only cope with the unpleasantness by blocking it out.

Rape is also portrayed as a positive force in The Color Purple because Celie ‘accedes to the violation of her body in order to protect her sister Nettie from the sexual advances of their stepfather’. Squeak (Mary Agnes) also uses her body to help free Sofia from jail. Squeak sacrifices her body in order to improve Sofia’s circumstances although Sofia knocked her teeth out. This rape of a black woman by a white man is shown as a positive force because ‘even though it acts to reinforce sexist domination of females and racist exploitation’, it is also ‘a catalyst for positive change’. Not only does the act free Sofia; it also affirms Squeak’s identity as Mary Agnes. When Harpo says ‘I love you, Squeak’ she stands up for her own identity by replying ‘My name Mary Agnes’.

Celie only comes to know about the pleasure of sex when she has a sexual relationship with Shug. Shug encourages Celie’s self-appreciation by complimenting her body, saying ‘you look so cute’. Willis argues that unlike the inequality of Celie and Mr. – ‘s relationship, Celie and Shug’s is a ‘reciprocal relationship’. While Celie helps to nurse Shug back to health, Shug teaches Celie to love her own body and ‘to follow the intuition of her mind.’ However, Celie’s first experience of love and sexual pleasure is accompanied with her first feelings of rejection. Celie cringes with jealousy, covering her head with a quilt, when she hears Albert and Shug together. When Shug leaves her and marries Grady, Celie instantly dislikes him no matter how hard she tries not to. Celie is able to confide in Shug about the pain and surprise of her ‘father’s’ rape because of the intimacy they share. This confidence leads Shug and Celie to enjoy each other’s bodies for security. Celie feels that sleeping with Shug is like ‘heaven... not like sleeping with Mr. – at all.’ However, Shug’s relationship with a young man portrays her as ‘an aging female seducer who fears the loss of her ability to use sex as a means to attract and control men’. Her failed relationship with Germaine, which she had already predicted, leaves Shug feeling as deflated as Celie did.

Celie herself is for the most part isolated from racial discrimination, but she is an onlooker of the racial discrimination that Sofia is subjected to. When Sofia refuses to be maid for the mayor’s wife, the mayor slaps her. As she has been conditioned to whilst growing up in the presence of men, Sofia fights back. It takes several men to beat Sofia so severely that she is silenced. Celie is horrified when she sees Sofia because her skull and ribs are cracked, her nose is torn ‘loose on one side’ and they ‘blind her in one eye.’ In response to the whites’ brutal racism Sofia develops an urge to kill all whites, asking Celie ‘Why we ain’t already kill them off.’ Celie also hears about the rape of Squeak by her white uncle. Although Squeak, or Mary Agnes, does confirm her identity because of this traumatic incident, her return home is a pitiful sight. Celie describes how ‘Poor little Squeak come home with a limp. Her dress rip. Her hat missing and one of the heels come off her shoe.’ What is most tragic about Mary Agnes’s rape is that her uncle justifies his rape of her because of their family ties. His shame and disgust at having black relatives is taken out in his violent rape of Mary Agnes.

Nettie’s letters to Celie depict the widespread racism of whites that permeates even the Olinkan society, and the sharp contrast between the life of blacks in New York and the life of blacks in the South. Whereas blacks in the Southern states have to endure segregation, Nettie witnesses wealthy blacks in New York, who ‘own a whole section of it, called Harlem.’ Nettie also emphasises the whites’ attitude towards missionary work in Africa, which they regard as a ‘duty’. In comparison, the American blacks and Africans are ‘working for a common goal: the uplift of black people everywhere.’ Whereas the whites from America and England go to Africa to feel charitable, the blacks actually care about the future of Africa.

Once she reaches Africa, Nettie witnesses the positive culture of the African nations as well as the invasion of the whites, which strip the Olinka of their land in order to build roads to aid their commerce. In Monrovia, Nettie witnesses the exploitation of blacks by those with lighter skin, like the racism Pecola Breedlove is subjected to by Junior and Geraldine in The Bluest Eye. When the roadbuilders reach Olinka, the Olinkan people offer them hospitality by feeding them, but the builders repay them by stealing their land, which now belonged to a rubber manufacturer in England. Not only do the builders demolish the village; they also begin to charge the Olinka rent for the remaining land.

The Color Purple promotes a different kind of family network with its emphasise on an extended family where the men are feminised so that they no longer prove a threat. Albert who ‘has always enjoyed sewing’ stitches pants and shirts with Celie, and Harpo ‘works at his favourite activity, cooking.’ Quilting in The Color Purple functions ‘as a way of creating female community’. Celie and Sofia establish a bond through ‘the folk arts of the dozens and quilt-making.’

Celie’s community is contrasted with the Olinka community, who also makes quilts as a means of bonding, through Nettie’s letters to Celie. Similar to Celie’s subordination to men, Nettie learns about ‘scarification and clitoridectomy, rituals of female mutilation in a patriarchal society.’ In Olinka, the men do not want their women to have an education or independence because they want the women to take their orders. The subjugation of women in Olinka reminds Nettie ‘too much of Pa.’ However, like the female bonding between Celie and Shug, Nettie discovers in Africa ‘the value of female bonding’. The women who often share husbands ‘are friends and will do anything for one another’, sharing both gossip and everyday chores.

The ideal community is created when the two previous communities are merged at the end of The Color Purple. The addition of Nettie, Olivia, Adam and Tashi compliments the existing family network. Along with Celie’s new companionship with Albert, who is feminised by his enjoyment of sewing with Celie, Celie welcomes the new part of her family. Each of the sister’s introduce their ‘family’ – Nettie introduces her husband, Samuel, their children Olivia and Adam, and Adam’s wife, Tashi, and Celie introduces Shug and Albert. It is ironic that on July 4th, American Independence Day, the African Americans ‘spend the day celebrating each other’, and their independence from white people.

Through her link with other people via her letters and friendships, Celie achieves a sense of identity and independence. Celie at first maintains her voice through her letters to God, but as she gains self-confidence Celie can interact with other individuals and the wider community. Through her friendship with Shug Celie learns to value her own beauty and sensuality, especially through their sexual relationship that fills Celie with pleasure. Celie refuses to allow her rape by her stepfather and unfeeling sexual encounters with Albert deter her from indulging in a healthy sexual relationship with Shug. With Celie’s growing confidence comes her independence that allows her to speak her mind. Ultimately, the supportive family network that evolves within their community nurtures Celie, enabling her to find her self.


  1. Alice Walker, "Alice Walker Quotations", [27 February 1999]
  2. Walker, The Color Purple , p.3.
  3. Barbara Christian, "The Black Woman Artist as Wayward" in Bloom, (ed.) Alice Walker , pp.51-52.
  4. Henderson, "The Color Purple: Revisions and redefinitions", p.67.
  5. Walker, The Color Purple , p.3.
  6. Christian, " The Black Woman Artist as Wayward", p.52.
  7. Karla Holloway, "The Legacy of Voice: Toni Morrison's Reclamation of Things Past" in Holloway and Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality , pp.25-26.
  8. McDowell, " "The Changing Same": Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists", p.143.
  9. ibid. , p.143.
  10. Walker, The Color Purple , p.165.
  11. ibid. , p.39
  12. ibid. , p.80
  13. ibid. , p.164
  14. Bell Hooks, "Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple", in Bloom, (ed.) Alice Walker , p.221
  15. Walker, The Color Purple , p.166.
  16. ibid. , p.122
  17. ibid. , p.42.
  18. ibid. , p.45.
  19. Byerman, "Walker's Blues", p.64
  20. Henderson, "The Color Purple: Revisions and redefinitions", p.72.
  21. ibid. , p.73
  22. Walker, The Color Purple , p.220.
  23. Byerman, "Walker's Blues", p.65.
  24. Walker, op. cit. , p.58
  25. ibid. , p.140
  26. Byerman, "Walker's Blues", p.64
  27. Henderson, "The Color Purple: Revisions and redefinitions", p.76
  28. Hooks, "Writing the Subject", p.222
  29. Walker, The Color Purple , p.84
  30. ibid. , p.69
  31. Susan Willis, "Walker's Women" in Bloom, (ed.) Alice Walker , p.88
  32. Walker, The Color Purple , p.98
  33. Hooks, "Writing the Subject", p.218
  34. Walker, op. cit. , p.77
  35. ibid. , p.87
  36. ibid. , p.83
  37. ibid. , p.114
  38. ibid. , p.115
  39. Byerman, "Walker's Blues", p.65
  40. ibid. , p.61
  41. ibid. , p.62
  42. Henderson, "The Color Purple: Revisions and redefinitions", p.77
  43. Walker, The Color Purple , p.137
  44. Henderson, op. cit. , p.77
  45. Walker, op. cit. , p.141
  46. ibid. , p.243