Corina Crisu | Rewriting | Polytropic Identities in the Postmodern African American Novel | Chapter VI | “I have Always Been a Good Girl” – (Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”

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Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after (Walker 1983, 49).

I went in search of the secret of what has fed that muzzled and often mutilated, but vibrant, creative spirit that the black woman has inherited… And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read (Walker 1983, 239-40).

Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

“The Writer’s Microphone:” Self-Definition as a Womanist

In a palimpsestic view on literature, reading proves to be an inspiriting1 process that leads to rewriting, so that authors become “creative readers” who fill in the previous texts’ “vacant spaces” and give voice to their unsayability (Iser 1978, 210). The silences and gaps of the earlier African American fiction are revisited by Alice Walker, who does not only reconfigure the leitmotif of the female quest for self-revelation, but also chooses to reflect upon it from a new narrative perspective. The writer herself shows her awareness of the deep interconnection between her own writing and other writers’ works: “I learn that the writer’s pen is a microphone help up to the mouth of ancestors and even stones of long ago” (Walker 1988, 144).

Walker’s fiction—The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), In Love and Trouble (1973), Meridian (1977), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), The Color Purple (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart (2000)—centers upon the black characters’ personal development and inner fulfillment in relationship to their African American community and their specific Southern psychogeography.2 Like other black authors, Walker repeatedly explains that she is preoccupied with the spiritual survival of her own people, especially with women’s process of artistic creation. Her work draws the reader’s attention to the huge potential of black women’s creativity, which “expands traditional Western notions of art to include such artifacts of “everyday use” as gardens and quilts” (Walker 1983, 137). For Walker, the process of writing itself turns out to be similar to the art of quilting, that presupposes the assemblage of various patches belonging to different text(ure)s, or to the work of gardening, in which diverse plants are transferred from one (narrative) space into another.

Centered upon Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple,3 the aim of the present chapter is twofold. On the one hand, Walker’s novel is significantly placed in an inter-textual framework given by the body of other African American women’s texts. In this way, the process of rewriting becomes a useful tool for offering cross-cultural and cross-temporal representations of female identity. Walker’s novel consciously revises Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), as well as texts belonging to the nineteenth century African American women writers, such as Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892). One of my main points regards the way the identity of the main character, Celie, is constructed by revising the nineteenth century cult of “true womanhood,” as well as the image of a patriarchal white male God.

On the other hand, special attention is paid to Celie’s polytropic character that is developed through the act of writing letters—an intra-textual strategy for physical and spiritual self-expression, documenting her movement from a subaltern into an independent position. Celie’s writing stages an escape from a patriarchal system, where her initial state of marginalization points to women’s subordinated role from a sexual and literary point of view. Her auctorial authority, which is also strengthened with the help of female bonding, reflects her ability to transform her objectified self into a powerful subject. This textual self-assertion reveals her mastery of her own words and her claiming ownership of her freed person.4 From a poststructuralist perspective, Celie’s body-text points to the deconstruction of the patriarchal view on the male-female relationship, so that her ex-centric writing offers a black woman’s version of events.5

Re-modeling her precursors in an innovative melting p(l)ot, Walker offers a groundbreaking example of reconstructing black womanhood, while her view upon character and genre is rooted in her self-definition as a womanist writer:6

Womanist 1. From womanish (Opp. to “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious). A black feminist or feminist of color… usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown-up. Being grown-up…

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as a natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength… Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female…

3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

4. Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender (Walker 1983, xi-xii).

Walker’s womanist credo can be detected in the way she constructs her female protagonists’ identity in The Color Purple. Celie, the main character, learns to grow inwardly, as her initially brutalized consciousness awakens. The catalyst agent of her progress toward spiritual and sexual accomplishment is Shug, the sensual blues singer, a strong presence who also appears in Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar as a high priestess of the womanist religion.7 Promulgating her womanist ideas, Walker writes a Bildungsroman that engenders Celie’s metamorphosis from a silenced, oppressed “good girl” into a powerful, self-reliant woman “who speaks out, speaks up, speaks against or in defense of something important” (Ziegenhals 1988, 1037).


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

“Show Me How to Do It:” From Zora Hurston to Stevie Wonder

Addressing the essential role of a broader perspective in writing, Walker underlines that “models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect—even if rejected—enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence” (1983, 4). In her symbolically entitled essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” she states her indebtedness to several literary precursors: Zora Neale Hurston, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, Jean Toomer, and others.8 One could argue that Walker’s relationship with these authors has a double significance: while she strives to rescue their work from oblivion or misreading, they provide her with valuable sources of inspiration for her own literary survival. The most powerful example is Zora Neale Hurston, the writer whom Walker “saved” from being just a footnote in the white literary canon and whose work left its deep imprint on Walker’s creativity.9

Walker has no anxiety of influence in considering Hurston as one of her literary precursors.10 Henry Louis Gates cogently argues that Walker’s The Color Purple “Signifies upon” Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God “by troping the concept of voice” (1988, 243). In the same direction, Michael Awkward affirms that Walker transforms Hurston’s text into a “matrix” for her novel (1989 a, 135).11 Even though Hurston belongs to the Harlem Renaissance generation of the 1930s,12 and Walker to the postmodern period of the 1980s,13 the same thematic concern for women’s identity development is central to their texts.

Indeed, both novels celebrate women’s achievement of an autonomous identity, the importance of women’s bonds, and their relationship to the black community. Several similarities should be established between Hurston’s Janie and Walker’s Celie: both heroines are Southern black women who live in the 1920s and 1930s; both of them are orphans (their mother is absent or dies); for both of them attaining womanhood through marriage means psychological death; both of them have two men in their lives who treat them either as “mules” only good for hard work or as objects of desire; both of them experience self-awakening through a nonconformist relationship to either a pariah protagonist (Tea Cake in Janie’s case) or a woman singer (Shug in Celie’s case); last but not least, floral imagery and symbolic colors acquire a primordial role in their lives, expressing the stages of their inner quest. Hence, Hurston’s and Walker’s texts propose “a new gynocentric culture in which the originally abused and marginalized becomes the new loci for order and spirituality” (Brogan 1999, 187).14

Walker’s relation to Hurston (and other literary precursors) can be implicitly traced in the novel’s two line epigraph, as well as in its final note, its dedication and its very title—all of them making reference to the intertextual quality of the novel. The epigraph of Walker’s novel, “Show me how to do like you/Show me how to do it,” belonging to Stevie Wonder, brings into attention a vernacular song with sexual and textual implications. While this ambivalent song can be read against the Western literary tradition as a signifying mockery of the Eurocentric grand narratives, it may also refer to the African American tradition, whose assistance the author invokes and whose vacant spaces she rewrites. In this light, the final note in the novel, with its metafictional input, places Walker’s authorial alter-ego in the position of a mediator between her characters, the spirits of her literary precursors, and the contemporary reader: “I thank everybody in this book for coming. A. W., author and medium” (245).

The same intertextual polysemy is present in the dedication prefacing her novel:

 To the Spirit:

Without whose assistance

Neither this book

Nor I

Would have been

Written.

 The dedication to the Spirit not only deconstructs the classic tradition in which the Muse was invoked at the beginning of a literary work, but also prefigures the later replacement in the novel of the Christian God with the more flexible notion of the divine Spirit. Mostly, the dedication draws our attention to the deep interconnection between Walker’s novel and her authorial self as constructed body-texts that are “written” with the “assistance” of a whole cultural context.15

The scriptural connotations of the dedication resonate with the metaphor of gazing in Hurston’s title, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Reconsidering Hurston, Walker’s character does not look up at God, (or ask for His mercy as in the slave narrative tradition), but tries to establish a way of communication by writing to Him, in order to make God symbolically gaze down upon her. Unlike in Hurston’s novel, where the point of view switches from the first person at the beginning to the third person narrator throughout most of the novel,16 Walker lets her character speak in the first person, so that the narrator’s sufferance of being raped at age fourteen by her step father should become more arresting.17 The novel is conceived as a series of letters/monologues18 addressed by Celie to God and later to her sister, Nettie. The triangular pattern Celie-Nettie-God can be also identified in Hurston, where Janie tells her story to her bosom friend, Pheoby, whose function is to retell it to the community.

Hurston and Walker employ different strategies to narrate their characters’ search of an autonomous identity—an empowering trope in their texts. While Hurston’s technique is to make Janie tell her story through the agency of a narrator, relying on the oral African American tradition of storytelling, Walker’s device is to allow Celie write down what is happening to her, in order to develop a textually constructed identity. Implicitly, Celie’s letters also speak to a community of readers, so that the domestic sphere is brought to public attention, with its most intimate implications. From a reader response perspective, Celie’s letters and Janie’s speech have the function of captatio benevolentia, of appealing to the reader’s sympathetic understanding.

In Walker’s epistolary novel, Celie’s letters initiate a process of self-examination, in which she learns how to decipher her body as a text imprinted with racial, social, and sexual relations. For Celie, writing becomes a therapeutic act of healing, of rendering visible her invisible trauma, of preventing her from becoming a dead, silenced subject in language.19 From this perspective, the epigraph “Show me how to do it” points to her desire to acquire and develop her own polytropic identity throughout the novel and her search for models who would help her awaken her conscience. Certainly, Celie’s journey from object to subject reconsiders woman’s position in patriarchy and the departure from predetermined female roles.


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

Revising 19th Century Female Models: “She Ain’t Fresh Tho”

By creating an independent female protagonist, one of Walker’s main strategies was to revise the nineteenth century model of black womanhood. Deborah McDowell stresses Walker’s and other contemporary authors’ endeavor to rethink the black female ideal inherited from their African American literary precursors:

Although these recent writers have preserved the revisionist mission that inspired that ideal, they have liberated their own characters from the burden of being exemplary standard bearers in an enterprise to uplift the race. The result is not only greater complexity and possibility for their heroines, but also greater complexity and artistic possibility for themselves as writers (1995, 41).

The Color Purple undertakes a thorough reworking of such past models as Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy. Focusing on women’s situation during slavery, all these texts are representative for what Robert Stepto calls “the pregeneric myth” or leitmotif of African American literature, the quest for literacy and freedom” (1979 a, ix). The heroines struggle to get over physical or moral enslavement, as their spiritual growth is strongly connected with their acquisition of a literate voice.

One may first notice that “the trope of the talking book” (Gates 1988, 240) has different figurations in the nineteenth century female tradition.20 Wilson’s Frado achieves psychological freedom through her reading of religious books that become “constant companions” for “her soul’s refreshment” (115-16).21 In the same direction, Jacobs’ Linda Brent uses her newly acquired skills to read and write as an instrument of outwitting her master and finally obtaining her own and her children’s liberation.22 In a broader context, Harper’s Iola places her education on the altar of social uplift and advancement of her race, transforming her life into a symbol of Christian virtue.23 Similarly to her precursors, Walker’s Celie learns that writing letters represents a means of resistance to the unaccountable events she is forced to pass through.

Significantly, Walker uses “the quest for literacy and freedom” for a different purpose than her precursors. While nineteenth century authors focus on an abolitionist goal as they intend to awaken the predominantly white audience’s consciousness against slavery, Walker’s aim is mainly feminist (or womanist) as she strives to enlighten both her black and white audience’s consciousness for the emancipation of the women of color. Whereas Wilson’s, Jacobs’, and Harper’s major goal is racial and social (the fight against the institution of slavery), Walker’s main concern is psychological and sexual (the fight against gender prejudices). This is why the first authors strive to generalize the experience of their characters whose portraits attain the quality of static abstractions, while Walker focuses on the private details of Celie’s inner life disclosing her dynamic personality.24 Walker’s use of the epistolary genre allows the reader to concentrate on Celie’s most intimate reflections that are narrated in the first person and directly convey the stages of her psychological development. Unlike Jacobs or Harper, Walker writes about a real act of rape. If Jacobs’ Linda manages to avoid the sexual innuendoes of her white master, if Harper’s Iola escapes an attempted rape, Walker’s Celie is repeatedly raped by her father (“Pa” or Alphonso) and by her husband (Mr.______ or Albert)—two men who transform her into a sexual object and a hardworking housekeeper.

Walker’s novel thus presents an obvious parallelism between woman’s situation during slavery and Celie’s treatment by her father and husband. Not only is Celie raped by her putative father, but also her two children (Adam and Olivia) are given away by her father, her existence being similar to that of female slaves whose children were sold as a commodity. The scene of the marriage proposal is suggestive for the way in which men see Celie as an object of sexual fulfillment. Celie becomes part of a commercial exchange and is “bargained” by her future husband who looks at her in the same way as slave women used to be examined before being bought. Her father’s words addressed to her future husband point to her loss of virtue—an inferior status that is counterbalanced by her ability for hard work:

I can’t let you have Nettie. She too young. Don’t know nothing but what you tell her. Sides, I want her to git some more schooling. Make a schoolteacher out of her. But I can let you have Celie. She the oldest anyway. She ought to marry first. She ain’t fresh tho, but I spect you know that. She spoiled. Twice. But you don’t need a fresh woman no how. I got a fresh one in there myself and she sick all the time (9).

On this background, Celie’s phrase—“Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl” (3)—is a significant pre-text to the novel. Her almost simultaneous self-affirmation and self-erasure point to her confusion, her inability to represent herself in writing as a virtuous persona. Writing to God becomes a means of clarifying her consciousness: “Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (3). Ironically, her phrase that presupposes the rhetorical questioning of the patriarchal context is addressed to a white male God.

With its social and sexual undertones, the haunting image of the “good girl” can be traced in most of the writings of nineteenth century African American women who strove to defy the representation of the black woman as an epitome for insatiable sexual appetite. Wilson’s Nig, Jacobs’ Linda, and Harper’s Iola are instances of virtuous heroines attempting to demystify negative clichés of femininity. Their writings deconstruct nineteenth century polarized representations of femininity that used to contrast the pure image of Madonna (associated with white womanhood) with the debauched image of Jezebel (associated with black womanhood).

Walker revises this tradition, shedding an ironic light over woman’s so called “virtue,” which in an abusive system is equivalent to silence. This is why Celie’s remark “I don’t never git used to it” indicates her first sign of unconstrained behavior and resistance to male will (3). In her case, rape is no longer “an instrument of silencing, but the catalyst to Celie’s search of voice” (Cutter 2000, 166). Her narratological act of internal resistance is in consonance with her passive attitude toward her male aggressor:

He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you are a tree. That’s how come I know tress fear man (22).

Celie is exploited and beaten by her husband in the same way the salve Frado in Wilson’s Our Nig is abused by her white mistress. Both are seen as property, yet both find empowering ways of undermining their oppressors’ authority. Like Frado who is “the only moving power in the house,” Celie takes seriously her role of a housekeeper, able to look after her four stepchildren.25 At this stage, Celie strikes back through her attitude of stubborn resistance—the only way to defy the misogynistic attitude of her husband.

Walker demonstrates accordingly the negative effects of patriarchy that chokes woman’s genuine voice and leaves her alone without a true interlocutor in an authentic dialogue. There is no “shared” discourse between Celie and her husband, but just a simulacrum of communication between the male and female spheres—the monologic aspect of a false dialogue. As further suggested by the next part, in such a patriarchal regime where women have to put on either the sugar-coated dress of true womanhood or the scabby coat of debauched womanhood, female characters have to develop various means of survival that make room for the dynamic expression of their personality.


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

“Pa Is Not Our Pa:” Subversions of Religious/Patriarchal Authority

In depicting Celie’s quest for independence, Walker’s innovative technique no longer draws upon Christianity as a source of authority, but critically revises its patriarchal ideological body enlarging it with new possibilities of a more flexible religion. If nineteenth century female writers lay stress on the protagonists’ strong religious faith in God’s justice, Walker reconsiders the traditional meaning of the Judeo-Christian God.

Celie’s spiritual awakening triggers the moment when she changes her perspective upon the white male God. When she finds out from Nettie’s letter that “Pa is not our Pa” (150), she rethinks her whole genealogy (realizing the removal of the stigma of incest) and also reconsiders her relationship to God. Her awareness is recounted in the last letter she writes to God, in short sentences that concentrate her fragmented thoughts focused on disturbed intra-family relations: the lynching of her real father, the madness of her mother, the lack of biological connections between herself and her brothers and sisters.

The destabilization of the patriarchal system takes place simultaneously with the subversion of the religious authority. There is a striking parallelism between Celie’s discovery that she does not have a real father and her awareness that God is not a fatherly, benevolent figure. In her confession to Shug, Celie juxtaposes the image of a deaf God upon the image of an insensitive man: “I say, the God I been praying and writing is a man. And act just like all the other men I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown” (164). Even more than that, Celie repeatedly associates the representation of God with that of a white man. “Big and old and tall and graybearded,” God must either look “like some stout white man working at the bank” (80), or “wear white robes and go barefooted” (165).

It is Shug who draws Celie’s attention to her stereotypical depiction of God as a white man and to the fact that the Bible was written by the white people. To the conventional divinity described by Celie, Shug opposes the animistic idea of a Supreme Being whose presence is felt everywhere. In Shug’s confession, God resembles Emerson’s Over-Soul, an almighty presence that assists each individual in discovering himself or herself: “God is inside you and inside everybody else… One day, while I was sitting quiet and like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all” (166-7).

In her preface to the tenth anniversary edition of The Color Purple, Walker sees her novel as a theological work, which may contain the message of “the pagan transformation of God from patriarchal male supremacist into trees, stars, wind, and everything else” (1). This message encompasses Celie’s spiritual journey from an imprisoning condition to her self-realization of being part of a universal divine power.26 This idea is closely related to Celie’s last letter, which clearly underlines her movement from writing to a patriarchal God to writing to an omnipresent divinity: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (242).

Walker therefore reconsiders Christian religion from the standpoint of an African American woman.27 Using Shug as a promoter of her womanist ideas in the process of “decolonizing the spirit” (Walker 1997, 33), the author suggests the necessity to revise the Judeo-Christianity in its strict understanding as an inhibiting religion and reaffirm its more tolerant belief in the free will of each being. Shug’s warning to Celie that it is dangerous to totally reject any form of divinity opens new perspectives toward a fresh religious perception in relationship to black woman’s identity. Shug teaches Celie that she need neither associate God with an institutional church, nor ascribe to Him anthropomorphic features.28

The replacement of the orthodox notion of a Christian God with a pantheistic perception of God is deeply correlated with Celie’s emancipation and awareness of her own self-worth. Two changes happen in Celie’s life revealing her transformation: first, she stops writing to God and starts writing to her sister; second, she leaves her husband and goes to Memphis to live with Shug with whom she gets romantically involved. Male authority—no matter if it is human or divine—is subverted by the development of strong female relationships.

Not only does Celie have the courage to question the supremacy of the Divine Father, but she also dares to confront the authority of her husband: “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need” (170). Celie’s defying words echo an important scene in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; there Janie confronts her second husband, Joe Starks, to whom she delivers a mortal blow depriving him of his aura of fierce masculinity: “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (Hurston 75). While Janie becomes free when her husband dies (as a result of Janie’s un-maling words), Celie has to escape Mr.______’s patriarchal control by moving away.29

Walker suggests here that cultural dominance will always lead to cultural resistance. Celie’s writing deconstructs the hegemonic male discourse, her narrativization disrupting masculine sites of power that exercise their control upon her body-text. She succeeds in re-mapping her own identity through writing—a means of restoring self-authorship. In this context, she reveals her newly acquired ability to master words, as well as her “outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior” that makes her part of the writer’s womanist paradigm (Walker 1983, xi).


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

“The Color Purple:” Reflections on/of a Liberated Self

The main idea of Celie’s attaining a polytropic character through her personal rebirth is contained in nuce in the title of the novel. From a symbolic perspective, the color purple entails equilibrium, temperance, symmetry, stability, and self-control, since it is an equal mixture of the chthonian red and the celestial blue. In Medieval iconography, Jesus wears a purple mantle during the Passions, “when He totally assumes His reincarnation, when, in the moment of fulfilling the sacrifice, He completely unites in Himself the Man, the son of the earth whom He would redeem, with the immortal Holy Ghost, where He would return” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1995, 453). Associated with inner resurrection, the purple is the color of mystery, the symbolic veil/dress beyond which our female protagonist’s spiritual regeneration takes place.

The ambivalence of the color purple suggests camouflaged sacredness in Walker’s novel: Celie’s meek existence finds its mirrored correspondence in nature through the unobtrusive color purple often unnoticed in fields. Shug draws our attention to the sacred beauty revealed by nature and the unity between God and His creation: “It pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it” (167). As Shug notices the purple fields, so she observes the inner beauty of Celie—whom she helps discover herself and progress out of a state of submissiveness. In relation to Shug, the color purple may therefore be seen as “a multivalent erotic symbol,” “a sign of indomitable female spirit” that encodes a “specifically female jouissance” (Abbandonato 1993, 306).

Due to its polysemy, the color purple becomes an epitome of femininity and should be linked not only with Celie but also with the other female characters in the novel. Celie’s achievement of an autonomous identity is replicated by several female characters that function as reflections enabling her to define herself through similarities or contrasts. While pondering the creation of these sisterly bonds, Martin Buber should be invoked here, as he points to the necessity of defining oneself in relational terms by paraphrasing the Bible: “At the beginning there was the relation” (1992, 54).

Keeping in mind Buber’s words, we should notice that in Walker’s novel Celie’s mis-shaped body-text is re-shaped with the aid of female bonding—a vital source of power.30 Shug, Sofia, Squeak, and Nettie—who certainly aren’t “good girls”—are juxtaposed upon Celie’s image. Her personal progress achieved via communication with the other women gains momentum from her letters that stitch together a plurality of female voices. These women help Celie reflect on herself and undertake a process of inner healing by unifying her own perception of her divided self.

There are many instances in which female characters support each other in moments of crisis. At the beginning of the novel, Celie tells us how she protects her younger sister from being raped by their stepfather, preferring to be raped instead. Another instance of female friendship is offered by Shug who discovers that Mr.______ has hidden Nettie’s letters and thus prevented the sisters’ communication over the years. Female sympathy also appears when Mary Agnes strives to take Sofia out of prison, and, as a result of her daring behavior, is raped by the warden, her uncle. Moreover, in an important scene, Celie stitches together with Sofia a quilt out of the “messed up curtains” torn in the fight between Sofia and her husband. The quilt represents a symbolic bond between women, taking into account its pattern called “Sister’s Choice:”31

Me and Sofia work on the quilt. Got it frame up on the porch. Shug Avery donate her old yellow dress for scrap, and I work in a piece every chance a get. It a nice pattern call Sister’s choice. If the quilt turn out perfect, maybe I give it to her, if it not perfect, maybe I keep (53).

In Celie’s and Shug’s case, juxtaposition serves as an effective tool in emphasizing their similarities and differences. If at the beginning of the novel, Celie’s behavior is contrasted with Shug’s, later this discrepancy will be effaced. Since her first appearance in the book, Shug Avery is an imposing presence in antithesis with Celie’s humility. Shug’s figure is almost legendary, reminding us of well-known singers, such as Bessie Smith32 or Josephine Baker.33 Admired and condemned by the community, Shug resembles Toni Morrison’s Sula: both are strong-willed women whose sexuality has a mesmerizing power over the others; both develop female bonds (Sula with Helene, Shug with Celie).34 Still, while Sula is a failed artist whose dangerous freedom threatens the community and whose energies are uselessly wasted, Shug personifies the self-made woman whose music helps the others define themselves.

In the relation of equality established between Celie and Shug, not only Shug helps Celie, but also Celie’s life proves to be inspiring for Shug who composes Miss Celie’s song. This song makes Celie acknowledge her own intrinsic value, the endless possibilities of her “muzzled” creative spirit: “First time somebody made something and name it after me” (65). She also realizes the possibility of spiritual rebirth: “My life stop when I left home, I think. But then I think again. It stop with Mr. ______ maybe, but start up again with Shug” (72).

Shug has the symbolic function of a catalyst, since she offers Celie the mirror—an instrument of self-knowledge and spiritual illumination. Lynn Pifer and Tricia Slusser remark that in the novel there are “epiphany-like moments that lead to a fuller, more coherent sense of self,” moments in which “the presence of a literal or metaphoric mirror enables the protagonists to move from an experience of fragmentation to a vision of a more unified state of self-possession” (1998, 47). In truth, the mirror scenes are fundamental to Celie’s attainment of both a unified and independent self. From an early age, Celie learned to detach herself from her body as a result of the intolerable physical treatment she received. Only with Shug’s aid, she discovers herself literally and metaphorically, and “the repossession of her body encourages Celie to seek selfhood through spoken language” (Ross 1988, 70).

Celie’s portrait is connected not only with Shug, but also with Sofia. An example of autonomous identity, Sofia offers Celie an alternative mode of being, in which Sofia’s open fight is contrasted with Celie’s passive resistance. This untamed shrew does not subject herself to any male will and maintains the upper hand in the marriage. Sofia’s challenging resistance complicates the novel’s patriarchal critique with racial issues. Refusing to become a white woman’s maid (even if she happens to be the major’s wife), she is imprisoned for three years and later has to work for a white family.

Last but not least, the gallery of independent women is completed by Mary Agnes alias Squeak, whose movement from subjection to autonomy deeply resembles Celie’s.35 If at the beginning she is submissive to Harpo, she later dares challenge him: “Harpo… do you really love me, or just my color?” (84). Her moving away to Memphis and her singing equally document her independence—an idea also present in her insistence that the others call her by her adopted name Mary Agnes, which designates her new identity as a singer. Her song emblematically expresses her refusal to be defined solely in terms of her “yellow” skin color:

They calls me yellow

like yellow be my name

They calls me yellow

like yellow be my name

But if yellow is a name

Why ain’t black the same

Well, if I say Hey black girl

Lord, she try to ruin my game (85-6).

The implicit question and negation present in the song undermine racial prejudices that associate the lighter skin of the mulatto with a higher degree of purity and beauty. With its self-reflective quality, Mary Agnes’ body-text offers a re-appropriation of the black/mulatto female representations, which cannot be reduced to stereotypes.

If Celie’s relationship with Shug and the other women contributes to her physical and spiritual self-definition, her relationship to Nettie contributes to the development of her textual identity.36 Even if there are differences between Celie’s and Nettie’s ways of writing (in comparison to Nettie’s cultivated style, Celie’s grammar is full of mistakes), both affirm in their letters the deep emotional import that is part of their personal evolution.37 Their letters reinscribe a Transatlantic space, in which two versions of femininity are juxtaposed. As the topographical significance is polarized between America and Africa, their letters help mitigate the alienation between the two sisters who discover significant existential details. While Celie’s letters speak about her defiance of the patriarchal system, Nettie’s opus brings to the foreground significant racial issues. Nettie’s embedded writing therefore offers a larger context to her sister’s text.

At this point, I disagree with Elliott Butler-Evans who interprets Celie’s letters as a “textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the narration” (1989, 166). On the contrary, it is through this technique of distancing present in the symbolic exchange of letters that Walker highlights sexual, racial, social, and economic issues, combined with noteworthy ethnographic information about Senegal. Walker’s text thus accounts for the cross-cultural and transnational significance of women’s physical subjection.38 In this sense, Nettie depicts an African scenario39 that suggestively deconstructs the idyllic representations of Africa, by insisting on the preconceived ideas of the Olinka population who would not educate their daughters, and still kept some barbaric customs such as women’s circumcision.40

At the same time, the exchange of letters between the two sisters points to the mixing of the authorial boundaries, to the deconstruction of a text with a single author/narrator. The two sisters dialogically unite their writings, presenting a many-layered feminine écriture. More than that, the next section analyzes how the novel’s ending sheds light over a possible suturing of the male-female opposition, a way of creating a type of discourse that blends their voices harmoniously, as argued below.


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

Stitching Dichotomies: “The Conversation of Sewing”

Making use of Celie’s technique of writing, Walker underlines such dichotomies as speech vs. writing, mind vs. body, and masculine vs. feminine.41 From a Derridian perspective, her text functions as a substitute for speech through the mode of supplementarity, in which writing is both an addition and a substitute for speech (1976).42 In a context in which speaking is denied to her, Celie transforms her “speakerly,”43 “oral”44 writing into a vehicle of truth and self-expression that deconstructs the opposition between writing and speaking. Celie’s complex text resembles African American quilts that incorporate various materials in a distinctive whole.45 Her polytropic character is achieved through authorial autonomy in a dialogic text that unifies a multitude of female voices. In this sense, Nettie’s writing is incorporated into Celie’s text and turned into speech when her letters are read by Celie to the others. As in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, where Janie’s speech merges her own and the others’ discourses, in Walker’s novel there is a mixture of familiar and official “conversations” that melt into Celie’s distinct narrative voice.

As the opposition between writing and speech is effaced, so is that between the body and the mind. Through a schizophrenic self-representation, Celie initially detaches herself from her body. Drawing our attention to Celie’s remark, (“I git it and laugh. It feel like to split my face” (16)), McDowell compares this symbolic rupture that engenders “the character’s tenuous sense of self” to the gap between the inner and outer representation of herself (1995, 44). While Celie’s effacement is obvious in her letters addressed to God that are left unsigned, her process of self-discovery is visible in her letters to Nettie that she starts signing. By reshaping her body-text in a narrative mirror, Celie’s self-awareness is validated in writing so that she can acknowledge the intrinsic value of both her spirituality and physicality.

One should compare here Celie’s affirmation of her obliterated identity with Morrison’s Pecola in The Bluest Eye, the young girl whose inner development is hindered by her assimilation of racist stereotypes imposed on women’s bodies.46 Both Morrison’s and Walker’s novels criticize “the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Morrison, Afterword 1999, 167-68). Both novels portray images of young girls who are rejected by their racial and patriarchal environment, are raped by their (step)fathers, but still find support in female relationships. In spite of these common points, the antithesis between characters is evident. If in Morrison’s gloomy text Pecola is not “saved,” but driven into madness as her child dies, in Walker’s optimistic novel Celie is able to survive the traumatic events and find the inner strength not to collapse psychologically. Finally, there is a striking contrast between Pecola’s maimed self, wondering at the outskirts of the society, and Celie’s renewed self, blooming happily in the middle of her reunited family. While Morrison consciously “gives voice to the unspeakable condition of a girl whose inner growth is silenced by society,” Walker intentionally lets her character express herself surpassing her former somatophobia and subverting male authority (Criºu 2003, 17).

What saves Celie from turning into Pecola is the newly achieved autonomy that manifests both from an authorial and sexual point of view. As Lauren Berlant states, “sexual knowledge derives from private experiences on the body and yet operates as a register for systematic relations of power” (2003, 100). Berlant’s perspective sustains the idea of female empowerment—a recurrent trope in the novel. In order to assert her freedom, Celie moves away from her husband’s house and starts a business with pants. Paradoxically, her creative impulse is based on a destructive one, manifested in her intention to kill her husband after discovering that he hid her sister’s correspondence. The “razor” is replaced accordingly by the “needle:”

I sit in the dining room making pants after pants. I got pants now in every color and size under the sun. Since us started making pants down home, I ain’t been able to stop. I change the cloth, I change the print, I change the waist, I change the pocket… Then finally one day I make the perfect pair of pants… (180).

By reflecting “the relationship between struggle and change” (Christian 1989, 39), Celie’s work becomes an instrument of self-expression, of proving her self-worth and abnegation to the others. As trousers point out strong connotations of masculinity, Celie passes through a process of virilization that allows her to become more self-confident and self-sufficient.47 In an ironic key that turns the initial situation upside down, Celie starts to be assisted in her work by her husband, Mr. ______. Notice that Celie and Mr. ______ do not change their roles so that Celie could become Mr. ______’s suppressor. The end of the novel does not offer the easy solution of a world turned upside down, of feminine independence and masculine subservience, but places the two protagonists on equal positions and they start “sewing” their conversation in the same way they do their needlework.

This brings us to our last dichotomy: the conflict between the masculine site of power and the feminine powerlessness. This opposition is mediated in Celie’s final letters. Celie’s and Albert’s “conversation of sewing” takes place at the meeting point where Celie’s virility is counterbalanced by Albert’s femininity (Cutter 2000, 175). Their dialogue sends us back to the epigraph of the novel, “Show me how to do like you/Show me how to do it” that can be reconsidered through Celie’s perspective as an initiator abiding by an African model:

And men sew in Africa, too, I say.

They do? He ast.

Yeah, I say. They not so backward as mens here.

When I was growing up, he said, I use to try to sew along with mama cause that’s what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me. But you know, I liked it.

Well, nobody gon laugh at you now, I said. Here, help me stitch in these pockets.

But I don’t know how, he say.

But I show you, I said. And I did (230).

The scene brings along the reconfiguration of the domestic space, which is no longer a feminine area. As the interaction between individuals is a significant component in the production of space, the novel negotiates a symbolic terrain for the masculine and the feminine spheres to meet. In this way, Celie’s character becomes autonomous only when she manages to come to terms with her past and overcome her feelings of hatred toward her former oppressor.

This reconciliation is encoded in Celie’s usage of names. Since she no longer calls her husband Mr.______, but Albert, she humanizes and transforms him into a person who understands her: “I mean when you talk to him now he really listen” (221) and “look to me rather thoughtful” (231). Molly Hite explains here that Mr.______’s initial lack of name justifies the narrator’s “effacement of an identity too dangerous to reveal, and whose transformation is signaled by a renaming [as Albert] that at once diminishes and humanizes” (1989, 107).

If Walker’s pen functions as a microphone, Celie’s pen serves as a needle—an instrument that stitches together various dichotomies in intricate textual embroidery. In the end, Celie is reconciled with Albert and her father, Sofia with Harpo and Squeak, the white family (represented by Miss Eleanor Jane) with Sofia. As in a quilt pattern, the characters’ voices blend in a harmonious chorus, which transcends former literary representations that used to maintain Manichean positions.48


Chapter VI

“I have Always Been a Good Girl”

(Re)Lettering the Body-Text in Alice Walker’s

The Color Purple

“Tuh de Horizon and Back:” Opening Perspectives

Keith Byerman interprets The Color Purple as “a ‘womanist’ fairy tale.” His idea circles back to the first part of this chapter, where it is argued that Walker’s perspective upon character and genre has its roots in her womanist credo. Byerman takes into consideration how Walker’s novel rethinks and combines several fairy tale motifs, while focusing on women’s emancipation:

Like Snow White, Celie is poisoned (psychologically in the novel) by an evil step-parent; like Cinderella, she is the ugly, abused daughter who ultimately becomes the princess; like Sleeping Beauty, she is awakened from her death-in-life by the kiss of the beloved; and like them all, she and her companions, after great travails, live happily ever after (1989, 59).

In Walker’s fairy tale it is not the man, but the woman who embarks on a quest for an autonomous self. Celie moves geographically (from an incarcerating Southern home to a liberating Northern space), psychologically (from a subordinate to an independent position), and imaginatively (from America to Africa by accompanying her sister).

Through Celie, Walker thus allows us to metaphorically hear those women whose existence has been “muzzled.” In this contemporary version of Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, it is the “princess” who is in search of an inner adventure 49—that point of arrival to self-realization. Celie’s process of (re)lettering herself inscribes her body as a text, and her scripta as a corpus. As argued in this chapter, not only the boundary between speech/writing, mind/body, masculine/feminine collapses, but also that between the text and the body. Celie’s letters help her surpass the physical stereotype of the “good girl,” in a dialectical novel, in which the beginning is the thesis (where Celie exposes her female condition), the middle is the antithesis (where she comes to contradict the masculine model), and the ending is the synthesis (where the male and female voices blend).

Finally, writing means reflection and identity means connection, so that the end of the novel should be seen in relational terms highlighting the idea of reunion. On a physical level, Celie gets reunited with her family (Nettie, Samuel, Tashi, Olivia, and Adam) returning from Africa. On a metaphysical level, she seems to broaden her spirit through pantheistic reunion with the divinity and the natural elements. As Celie’s perspective is enlarged in a circularly expanding text, the intertextual reader may think of Janie’s conclusion to her story:  “So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in my house and live by comparisons” (Hurston 182).

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