The Color Purple, Alice Walker and Imitation in Art

Many of you may have heard of, or read The Color Purple (most likely in some high school honors English class). Coming from a private school, heaven forbid we read a book that talked about sex, or worst, homosexuality, but this book was intriguing and refreshing for the layers of imitation and self-expression within them, an apt reflection of the times as well as the modes of communication we use today.

When I first did background research on this novel (I usually do this AFTER I’ve read the book, though I don’t know why this is) I was surprised to find it was published in 1982. At first glance I had assumed Alice Walker to be writing a memoir-type novel, like Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative of the life of a Slave . Mainly, this novel struck me because of it’s epistolary style; in which the main character Celie, a poor and undereducated black woman in the south during the 1930’s, and the letters she writes first to God, and then to her sister Nettie. The novel focuses on her slow revival and growth into a strong, independent woman.

However, I was struck by the us of the letters Walker uses to narrate the events of Celie’s life. Celie obviously  feels the need to write letters because no one else will listen to her feelings or opinions. But this never changes in the novel, the letters continue, even though she decides to start writing to her sister rather than to God. But why doesn’t she use a more direct form of narration in the end of the novel?

As Oscar Wilde once said (and one of my boyfriend’s favorite quotations) is that art imitates life imitates art. Obviously, while this narrative isn’t true, it is a reflection of Alice Walker and her struggles and feelings, and her need to give voice to the feelings and opinions of people like Celie, who are told by others that they are worthless or purposeless. The letter writing style reflects that of many women writers, who either wrote under a false name or wrote in a very secondary style, such as private letters or journals. But why continue in this frame? The book obviously argues for education, women’s rights, and the need for self-expression and self-value, but the mode of writing controls and edits Celie’s own voice.

Can self-expression truly be captured through secondary documentation? To be sure, we do get  Celie’s true voice through her letters because she feels that in her letters, she is free to express herself, and through that she is able to tell other people in her life her true feelings. Much in the same way that the main character of Ewan McEwan’s novel Atonement does, writing to justify and express her feelings. Thus, we see a layering and veil of different means of expression and meaning. Is it Alice Walker writing or Celie? Whose voice is truest? Is Celie expressing herself through private letters or Alice Walker writing public ones? We all know the answers to these questions as obvious, but the dual nature of Alice and Celie both writing through this non-direct view is something to think about when you’re reading.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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