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<Inapoi la Cuprins


 Corina Crisu



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


“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.


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