A2 Synoptic material on ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker


  This is an extract from The Color Purple by Alice Walker, published in 1982. This is the first of Celie's letters in the novel, which is not written to God, but to her sister Nettie, who is in Africa. Celie has discovered that her real father was lynched. Her stepfather, who she thought of as Pa, abused her and married her to Mr. __, who does not love her. Mr.__'s old lover, Shug, a blues singer, has come to live in their house, and she and Cetie have formed a relationship.

 Dear Nettie,
I don't write to God no more, I write to you.
What happen to God? ast Shug.
Who that? I say.
She look at me serious.
Big a devil as you is, I say, you not worried bout no God, surely.
She say, Wait a minute. Hold on just a minute here. Just because I don't harass it like some peoples us know don't mean I ain't got religion.
What God do for me? I ast.
She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.
Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won't ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.
She say. Miss Celie. You better hush. God might hear you.
Let 'im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.
She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.
All my life I never care what people thought bout nothing I did, I say. But deep in my heart I care about God. What he going to think. And come to find out, he don't think.  
Just sit up there glorying in being deef, I reckon. But it ain't easy, trying to do without God. Even if you know he ain't there, trying to do without him is a strain.  
I is a sinner, say Shug. Cause I was born. I don't deny it. But once you find out what's out there waiting for us, what else can you be?  
Sinners have more good times, I say.  
You know why? she ast.  
Cause you ain't all the time worrying bout God, I say.  

Naw, that ain't it, she say. Us worry bout God a lot. But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like.  
You telling me God love you, and you ain't never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that?  
But if God love me, Celie, I don't have to do all that. Unless I want to. There's a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.  
Like what? I ast.  
Oh, she say, I can lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy. Have a good time.  
Well, this sound like blasphemy sure nuff.  
She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God not find God.  
Some folks didn't have him to share, I said. They the ones didn't speak to me while I was there struggling with my big belly and Mr.___’s children.  
Right, she say.  
Then she say: Tell me what your God look like, Celie.  
Aw naw, I say, I'm too shame. Nobody ever ast me this before, so I'm sort of took by surprise. Besides, when I think about it, it don't seem quite right. But it all I got. I decide to stick up for him, just to see what Shug say.  
Okay, I say. He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.  
Blue eyes? she ast.  
Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though. White lashes, I say.  
She laugh.  
Why you laugh? I ast. I don't think it so funny. What you expect him to look like. Mr.____?  
That wouldn't be no improvement, she say. Then she tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you wait to find God in church, Celie, she say, that's who is bound to show up, cause that's where he live.  
How come? I ast.  
Cause that's the one that's in the white folks' white bible.  

Shug! I say. God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it.  
How come he look just like them, then? she say. Only bigger? And a heap more hair? How come the bible just like everything else they make, all about them doing one thing and another, and all the colored folks doing is gitting cursed?  
I never thought bout that.  

Nettie say somewhere in the bible it say Jesus' hair was like lamb's wool, I say.  
Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he'd have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky.  
That's the truth, I say.  

Ain't no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don't seem to listen to_your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? Ask Sofia, she say.  
But I don't have to ast Sofia. I know white people never listen to colored, period. If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do.  
Here's the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even If you not looking, or don't know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.  
It? I ast.  
Yeah, It. God ain't a he or a she, but a It.  
But what do it look like? I ast.  
Don't look like nothing, she say. It ain't a picture show. It ain't something_you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It.  

Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.  
She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.  

Shug! I say.  
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That's some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves 'em you enjoys 'em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that's going, and praise God by liking what you like.  
God don't think it dirty? I ast.  

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love - and a mess of stuff you don't. But more than anything else, God love admiration.  
You saying God vain? I ast.  

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think' it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.  
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.  
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.  
Yeah? I say.  
Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.  
You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.  
Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?  
Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.  
Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr.____s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say. You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a'tall.  
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make  you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain't. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on  the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.  
But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don't want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight, I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.

  ITEM 2  
This is an extract from notes about the novel, written for A Level students

  The Color Purple was published in )une 1982. Its release was heralded by Gloria Steinem's interview with Alice Walker in the June issue of Ms. Steinem is a founding member of Ms. and a leading white woman activist. Her interview with Walker was placed next to a succinct piece by the black literary critic, Mary Helen Washington. The latter article concerned Walker's mother and her significance in the writer's work. A large picture of Walker's face, underlined by the caption, 'Alice Walker, a Major American Writer,' was featured on Ms.'s cover, a portent of the media attention she would receive once the novel was released.  

 In her assessment of Walker's earlier works, Gloria Steinem pointed out that 'a disproportionate number of people who seek out Walker's sparsely distributed books are black women,' and that a 'disproportionate number of her hurtful, negative reviews have been by black men.' ...  

In the following months, the novel received high praise, particularly for its poetic language and its innovative form, from reviewers in national commercial magazines such as Newsweek and intellectual and political journals such as The New Yorker and The Nation. Mel Watkins, a black reviewer for The New York Times, called Walker 'a lavishly gifted writer.' He was taken with 'the density of subtle interactions among the characters,' and 'the authenticity of [the novel's folk voice.' He noted, however, ‘weaknesses in the novel,' what he called 'the pallid portraits of the males,' and that Netties letters seemed like 'mere monologues of African history." These are points that would be made about the novel in other reviews. Watkins ended his review with a superlative comment: These are only Quibbles however about a striking consummately well-written novel."  

 During the rest of 1982, The Color Purple received similar praise in mainstream publications. But black feminist critic Barbara Smith, in her review for Callaloo, a respected black literary journal, wondered if many of the reviewers had actually read the work ... Smith focused on the womanist aspects of the novel. She called The Color Purple a classic because it does something new: what Walker has done for the first time is to create an extended literary work whose subject is the sexual politics of black life, as experienced by ordinary blacks.' Smith also pointed out that "no black novelist until Alice Walker in The Color Purple has positively and fully depicted a lesbian relationship between two women, set in the familiar context of a traditional black community.' Smith ended her review with a provocative comment: 'The Color Purple offers an inherent challenge to the Black community to consider fighting for the freedom of not just half but the entire race.'  

Praise for The Color Purple as a womanist novel characterised reviews by other black women - Dorothy Randall-Tsuroto's review for The Black Scholar (published inSummer 1983, but apparently written before the novel received the Pulitzer), and Yvonne Porter's review for Colorlines, written just as Walker was awarded the Pulitzer.  

Porter began her review with the statement that 'The Color Purple is a woman's womanist book...' She did warn her readers that some of them may be disturbed by Celie and Shug's sexual relationship, and reminded them that 'lesbianism is an aspect of the black woman that has seldom been dealt with in any depth.'  

These positive reviews by black women were followed by others during 1982-84, not all of which were entirely complimentary. Maryemma Graham in the Summer 1983 issues of Freedomways called The Color Purple Walker's 'most compelling and thought-provoking work to date.' But Ms. Graham thought that Walker identifies men as the sole source of female oppression, a view with which she disagrees. Graham also objected to the lesbian theme in the novel which she thought might 'muddy the waters' about female bonding. Her major objection to the novel was that it is bourgeois, that 'Walker has imbued her rural Georgia females with the strivings and potential for self-indulgence of the urban middle class."  

Another review by black woman critic Trudier Harris, in Black American Literature Forum, asked whether Walker hadn't reiterated white stereotypes of both black women and men. Ms. Harris, who had previously written essays on Walker's earlier work, was clearly disturbed by the characters of The Color Purple.

  ITEM 3  
These two pieces are from a section about Alice Walker's work in Writing Women.

  Metaphors in The Color Purple  

The sparingly used metaphors stand out against the dramatic simplicity of Walker's discourse. Two key metaphors are those of colour and quilting. They stress black artistry and link disparate episodes with patterning structures.

The title represents a complex symbol: at first Celie has no decent garment, only drab cast-offs; what she longs for is a sexy dress. When she is able to buy one, she chooses the bold, affirmative colour purple. The purple flowers in the field signify joy and freedom. In the Foreword Walker explicitly states that her womanism is to feminism what purple is to lavender: that black womanhood asserts strength and creativity.

When Celie inherits a house from her stepfather she decorates Shug's room in brilliant colour, symbolising her new economic choice and an intention of affirming her personality. When sewing trousers she selects materials and colours to suit diverse personalities. They bring beauty and colour into everyday design, for the use of friends and families.

The word 'coloured' had been used, like the word 'negro', to denigrate a whole race. Therefore the use of coloured metaphors signals a bold denial of humiliating associations. Morrison and Angelou both lovingly describe different shades of blackness; Walker makes the admired Shug very dark, and beautiful.

The symbol of quilt making links episodes and characters. It represents women coming together, sewing in sisterhood, as frequently quilt making was a group activity, for long winter evenings. Pieces discarded by others were used to make something new and beautiful. Alice Walker kept the quilt her mother made for her and still uses it 'for comfort’.

Quilt making begins the moment Celie has a few scraps of spare material and time, and wishes to make peace with her turbulent sister-in-law, Sofia: 'Let's make quilt pieces out of these messed up curtains, Sofia say. And I run git my pattern book. I sleeps like a baby now.' (p 39) Not only does the shared sewing bring peace to Celie, it helps the women make up. After this they no longer allow their men to divide them.

When Shug slowly recovers from her illness, Celie decides to sew for her, 'Shug gets out of bed, asks "How do you sew this damn thing?" I hand her the square I'm working on, start another one. She sew long crooked stitches, remind me of that little crooked tune she sing'(p 51), stressing the parallels between the two art forms allowed to women. Shug soon donates her old yellow dress: 'I call it Sister's Choice." (p 53) This name, suddenly created by Celie, symbolises the emerging understanding and love which will help transform her from ugly to beautiful, in her own eyes and those of the world. Quilting transforms discarded pieces into beauty, as Walker's metaphors transfer her message into art.

Men in The Color Purple


Walker presents a range of men, from the ideal Samuel to the violent, crass, irredeemable stepfather. The stepfather is irretrievably brutal, abusing Celie sexually and openly despising her. He feels no remorse, but turns his predatory eyes to the slightly more attractive younger sister Nettie. He gives no sexual pleasure in his frequent assaults, and finally, to get rid of Celie, gives her away to a violent lazy bully as husband. Till he died Celie did not even know that he was called Alphonso; he was a force, not a human being, to the violated girl. Celie discovers only from his will that he had made money, which she had never seen. He had bought some property, aping white capitalists and their meanness, like Macon Dead in Morrison's Song of Solomon. At least when he dies, his house is left to the girls. Celie's first thought is to refuse to live in it but Shug's reactions are sensible, unsentimental and realistic: see the cruel as they are, and accept that some good may come from evil - "Don't be a fool, Shug say. You got your own house now. That dog of a stepdaddy just a bad odor passing through.' (p 207)  

Walker shows courage in not avoiding the topic of male brutality. Angelou and Morrison, aware of the racism of American society, are less trenchant, and recall a time when black men treated their women as equals, since all were equally exploited in the fields. Perhaps as she is_younger. Walker can state publicly that there is no excuse for taking white racist violence into their homes. She depicts their interiorisation of white values in the desire to humiliate. Celie's husband insists that he should be called "Mr. __' precisely because white males call him "boy" and deny his manhood publicly. However, he is represented as improving slowly once the economic situation improves. Above all his women teach him to respect them: first Shug by being herself and refusing sexual, emotional and intellectual domination; then Celie by rejecting his view of herself, and teaching him, against his will, to respect her. Respect earns love and love allows the possibility of self-love, which he attempts movingly to express: 'I start to wonder why us need love. Why us black. Why us suffer ... I think us here to wonder ...The more I wonder, the more I love.' (239) This resembles psychotherapy in teaching that love and respect for self are needed for us to be able to love others.

  ITEM 4

This is an extract from The Female Gaze, edited by Lorraine Gammon and Margaret Marshment (1988), a book about modern women writers.  

The happy coincidences with which Celie's story concludes - the appearance of her long-lost children, the discovery that the man who raped her as a child was not her biological father, the return of her beloved sister - can be read as an improbable fairy-tale ending. In a sense, of course, it is. But it can be read as something other than a failure of the realist imagination. Folk tales and fairy tales traditionally reward the heroine/hero at the end, often in an excessive way (great wealth, marriage to the prince, sainthood). Celie's reward at the end of The Color Purple may seem equally excessive (at least by the criteria of the realist novel). But, in the manner of a folk-tale protagonist, she has earned it through her own subversive efforts; and, like the heroine of a morality tale, she deserves it. Seen within the context of the oral culture of American blacks, the happy ending is that of the folk tale or parable, and as such entirely appropriate in form and content.  

For this is not just an optimistic book, but an optimistically didactic one. Black women must learn to respect themselves, it says, to be respected; learn to speak for themselves to be listened to; speak up for themselves to be recognised. They must not internalise oppression by responding with self-hatred and submission. They can, and must, look to themselves, and to those who can give them the support they need in this struggle - that is, other black women - and draw sustenance from them. Then they will realise that they have strength in community and can give as well as receive. Then they will find each other as sisters, discover that their past was worse than had been admitted, but not as bad as they'd feared (Celie's children are the product of rape, but not of incest), and thus forge their own future in autonomy and freedom. This would be a cruel message without the happy ending.  

Despite the atrocities she suffers, Celie has the courage to speak of them. In giving voice to the unspeakable, she discovers that it can be spoken. She defies the taboos and thereby deprives them of their power to destroy her. In speaking to God she discovers herself and her own strength, because 'God' is not another powerful and potentially hostile force - 'God' is everything that lives:  

       God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with  
God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just  
manifest itself even if you are not looking, or don't know what you are  
looking for... It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at  
apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything,  
say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you feel 
that, and be happy to feel that, you've found it.

Celie learns to "chase that old white man out of [her] head' and recognise her own 'divine' humanity - her own capacity for joy, freedom, control, autonomy and love. She learns to notice 'the color purple in the field', so that she can no longer dismiss her life as merely the sum of her oppression or accept suffering as her destiny. Here too is a message for black women generally - indeed for all oppressed people. Celie's redefinition of the meaning of her life is one that rescues oppressed people from the negative implications of their status as victims by pointing to ways of transcending it, without minimising either the intensity of their oppression or the difficulties of resistance.  

This also gives her the strength to forgive. The capacity to forgive is much emphasised in black women's novels. It cannot, in The Color Purple at least, be read as a sentimental spirituality which aims to transcend the political, or as an act of Christian charity for the benefit of the individual's immortal soul. Rather, it is an essential mechanism in the black women's liberation, which allows her both to free herself from the self-destructive emotions of hatred and bitterness, and to shift her emotional focus back where it belongs - into the black community. For it is Mr. and his son Harpo who are forgiven; white people are not such much forgiven as excommunicated from consciousness.

  ITEM 5 

This is an article by Alice Walker about the writing of The Color Purple.

   I don't always know where the germ of a story comes from but with The Color Purple I knew it right away. I was hiking through the woods with my sister Ruth, talking about a lover's triangle of which we both knew. She said: And you know, one day The Wife asked The Other Woman for a pair of her drawers. Instantly the missing piece of the story I mentally was writing about two women who felt married to the same man – fell into place. And for months - through illnesses, divorce, several moves, travel abroad, all kinds of heartaches and revelations, I carried my sister's comment delicately balanced in the center of the novel's construction I was building in my head.  I also knew The Color Purple would be a historical novel, and thinking of this made me  chuckle. In an interview discussing my work a black male critic said he'd heard I might write a historical novel some day, and I went on to say, in effect: Heaven Protect Us From It. The chuckle was because, woman-like (he would say) my 'history' starts not with the taking of lands, or the birth, battles and deaths of Great Men, but with one woman asking another for her underwear. Oh well, I thought, one function of critics is to be appalled by such behavior. But what woman (or sensuous man) could avoid being intrigued? As for me, I thought of little else for a year.  

When I was sure the characters of my novel were trying to form (or, as I invariably thought of it, trying to contact me, to speak through me) I began to make plans to leave New York. Three months earlier I had bought a tiny house on a quiet Brooklyn street, assuming - because my desk overlooked the street and a maple tree in the yard representing garden and view - I would be able to write. I was not.

New York, whose people I love for their grace under almost continual unpredictable adversity, was a place the people in The Color Purple refused even to visit. The moment any of them started to form - on the subway, a dark street, and especially in the shadow of very tall buildings - they would start to complain.

What is all this tall shit anyway? They would say.  

I disposed of the house, stored my furniture, packed my suitcases, and flew alone to San Francisco (it was my daughter's year to be with her father), where all the people in the novel promptly fell silent, I think, in awe. Not merely of the city's beauty, but of what they picked up about earthquakes.  

It's pretty, they muttered, but us ain't lost nothing in no place that has earthquakes.  

They also didn't like seeing buses, cars, or other people whenever they attempted to look out. Us don't want to be seeing none of this. they said, it make us can't think.  

That was when I knew for sure that these were country people. So my lover and I started driving around the state looking for a country house to rent. Luckily I had found (with the help of friends) a fairly inexpensive place in the city. This too had been a decision forced by my characters. As long as there was any question about whether I could support them in the fashion they desired (basically in undisturbed silence) they declined to come out. And no wonder: it looked a lot like the town in Georgia most of them were from, only it was more beautiful, and the local swimming hole was not segregated. It also bore a slight resemblance to the African village in which one of them, Nettie, was a missionary.  

 Seeing the sheep, the cattle and the goats, smelling the apples and the hay, one of my  characters, Celie, began, haltingly, to speak.

 But there was still a problem.  

 Since I had quit my editing job at Ms. and my Guggenheim fellowship was running out, and my royalties did not Quite cover expenses, and - let's face it - because it gives me a charge to see people who appreciate my work, historical novels or not, I was accepting invitations to speak. Sometimes on the long plane rides Celie or Shug would break through with a wonderful line or two (for instance, Celie said once that a self-pitying sick person she went to visit was 'laying up in the bed trying to look dead'.) But even these vanished - if I didn't jot them down - by the time my contact with the audience was done. 

 What to do?  

 Celie and Shug answered without hesitation: Give up all this travel. Give up all this talk. What is all this travel and talk shit anyway? So, I gave it up for a year. Whenever I was invited to speak I explained I was taking a year off for Silence. (I also wore an imaginary bracelet on my left arm that spelled the word.) Everyone said Sure, they understood.

  I was terrified.  

Where was the money for our support coming from? My only steady income was a three hundred dollar a month retainer from Ms. for being a long distance editor. But even that was too much distraction for my characters.  

Tell them you can't do anything for the magazine, said Celie and Shug. (You guessed it, the women of the drawers.)  Tell them you think about them later. So I did.  Ms. was nonplussed. Supportive as ever (they continued the retainer). Which was nice.  

Then I sold a book of stories. After taxes, inflation and my agent's fee of ten percent, I would still have enough for a frugal, no-frills year. And so, I bought some beautiful blue and red and purple fabric, and some funky old second hand furniture (and accepted donations of old odds and ends from friends) and a quilt pattern my mama swore was easy, and I headed for the hills.  

There were days and weeks and even months when nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever. I worked on my quilt, took long walks with my lover, lay on an island we discovered in the middle of the river and dabbled my fingers in the water. I swam, explored the redwood forests all round us, lay out in the meadow, picked apples, talked (yes, of course) to trees. My quilt began to grow. And, of course, everything was happening. Celie and Shug and Albert were getting to know each other, coming to trust my determination to serve their entry (sometimes I felt re-entry) into the world to the best of my ability, and what is more - and felt so wonderful - we began to love one another. And, what is even more, to feel ommense [sic] thankfulness for our mutual good luck. 

Just as summer was ending one or more of my characters: Celie, Shug. Albert, Sofia or Harpo, would come for a visit. We would sit wherever I was sitting, and talk. They were very obliging, engaging and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad, often made them laugh. Oh, we got through that, don't pull such a long face, they'd say. Or, You think Reagan's bad, you ought've seen some of the rednecks us come up under.  The days passed in a blaze of happiness.  

Then school started, and it was time for my daughter to stay with me - for two years.   Could I handle it?

  Shug said, right out, that she didn't know. (Well, her mother raised her children.) Nobody else said anything. (At this point of the novel, Celie didn't even know where her children were.) They just quieted down, didn't visit as much, and took a firm, Well, let's wait and see, attitude.  

My daughter arrived. Smart, sensitive, cheerful, at school most of the day, but quick with tea and sympathy on her return. My characters adored her. They saw she spoke her mind in no uncertain terms and would fight back when attacked. When she came home from school one day with bruises but said You should see the other guy. Celie (raped by her stepfather as a child and somewhat fearful of life) began to reappraise her own condition. Rebecca gave her courage (which she always gives me) - and Celie grew to like her so much she would wait until three-thirty to visit me. So, just when Rebecca would arrive home needing her mother and a hug, there'd be Celie, trying to give her both. Fortunately I was able to bring Celie's own children back to her (a unique power of a novelist), though it took me thirty years and a good bit of foreign travel. But this proved to be the largest single problem in writing the exact novel I wanted to write between about ten-thirty and three.  

I had planned to give myself five years to write The Color Purple (teaching, speaking, or selling apples, as I ran out of money). But on the very day my daughter left for camp, less than a year after I started writing, I wrote the last page.

And what did I do that for?  

It was like losing everybody I loved at once.  First Rebecca (to whom everybody surged forth on the last page to say goodbye), then Celie, Shug, Nettie & Albert, Mary Agnes, Harpo and Sofia, Eleanor Jane, Adam and Tashi Omatangu. Olivia. Mercifully, my quilt and my lover remained.  

This is an extract about Alice Walker from Writing Women.

 Alice Walker: The Color is Purple

 Alice Walker is one of the younger pathbreaking black women novelists to come to prominence in the 1980s. Already she has produced thirteen remarkable volumes of poetry and prose. She was born in 1944 in Georgia, 'halfway between misery and the sun". The South has provided Walker with spiritual balance and an ideological base, despite racist domination through sharecropping (giving half the crops to the landlord) or by wage labour. A southern writer also inherits a 'trust in the community. We must give voice not only to centuries of bitterness and hate but also of neighbourly kindness and sustaining love.’

Sustaining care came from her mother, who had married for love, running away from home to marry at 17. By the time she was 20 she had two children and was pregnant with a third.

    Five children later, I was born. And this is how I came to know my mother: she seemed  a large soft, loving-eyed woman who was rarely impatient in our home. Her Quick, violent temper was on view only a few times a year, when she battled with the white     landlord who had the misfortune to suggest that her children did not need to go to school.

Her mother laboured beside - not behind - her father in the fields. Their working day began early, before sunrise, and did not end till late at night. There was seldom a moment for either to rest: they were sharecroppers, working for harsh white landlords. Yet they both found time to talk to their children, and encourage their talents. Though her father cared a great deal for her, she talks of him as being "two fathers' and for a long time felt so shut off from him that they were unable to speak to each other. Alice Walker pays particular tribute to her mother's creativity, to the garden she planted lovingly, and watered before going off to the fields. Her flowers and her quilts become a symbol of black women's creativity, which found expression even in the hard daily work: 
She planted ambitious gardens, brilliant with colors, so original in design, so magnificent with life ... I notice it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant ... Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of

Indeed Alice Walker claims that a black southern writer has not an impoverished but a rich inheritance given by 'compassion for the earth. The heat is so intense and one is so very thirsty, as one moves across the dusty cotton fields, that one learns forever that water is the essence of all life.’

When she was eight Alice Walker lost one eye in a traumatic accident. This led her to believe she was ugly and made her shy and timid forbears. 
It was from this period - from my solitary lonely position, the position of an outcast - that I began really to see people and things, really to notice relationships ... I retreated into solitude, read stories and began to write.

  ITEM 7
This is an extract from a critical commentary on The Color Purple for A Level students.

  What Alice Walker has told us about her sources for The Color Purple is useful in understanding the novel. Her plans for her work in the 1970s, as discussed with critic Mary Helen Washington, suggested that her third novel would begin where Meridian had ended, that it would be contemporary in setting. Yet, The Color Purple is set in the early part of the twentieth century and could be called a historical novel. Walker has said that her third novel represented a detour; still it is a contemporary novel, in that it addresses contemporary issues with which Afro-American women's literature and the international women's movement have been intensely concerned: issues of men's violence against women, issues of sisterhood, women's eroticism and lesbianism, and issues of women's economic independence. These issues have been discussed more openly during the eighties than ever before and Walker's The Color Purple has been a significant contribution to that discussion.  

Walker's description of the emergence of her characters' voices indicates how important the oneness of creation, as symbolised by the color purple, is to the novel's theme and to its title. For as she immersed herself in the countryside she realised that although one does not usually think of purple as a prominent color in nature, it is everywhere if one only takes the time to see it. As well, the language that her characters speak is related to the natural setting in which they live.  

If we look at Walker's entire body of writing, we can also see how The Color Purple proceeds from her previous work. At the beginning of the novel, Celie resembles the Copeland women of Walkers first novel in that her body and spirit are battered, and she is seeking a language through which to articulate her condition. "Burial," and other poems in Revolutionary Petunias, are compressed narratives of rural Southern women and men that are developed in The Color Purple. Walker experiments with the letter/diary form as early as "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay' in In Love and Trouble and as recently as '1955' in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. Like Roselily in In Love & Trouble, Celie wonders "if she will ever know what it is to live,' and like Hannah, in "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," Sofia is almost crushed by racism. Poems in Good Night Willie Lee relate directly to the image of woman as mule, a central motif in this first half of The Color Purple. And like Meridian, Celie is haunted by the loss of her children.

  Perhaps the most significant precedents in Walker's previous work are her experimentation with the form of quilting, and the "bodacious" spirit of the two publications that precede The Color Purple, a spirit arrived at only through the struggle so beautifully expressed in her early work. This spirit is embodied in the blues singer, Gracie Mae Stills, of '1955,' the singer who is a foreshadowing of Shug. The Color Purple is one of a few novels in the tradition of Afro-American literature which explores the female blues singer as heroine. Like Walker's other novels, it is intensely rooted in the history and creativity of back women even as it pushes that tradition to another level. And as in her other two novels. Walker uses that history to explore  change in generations of one black Southern family. In contrast to the sharecropping Copeland family of her first novel, or the small town Hill family of her second novel, Celie's family is a middle-class land-owning black family, like many at the turn of the century. Walker explores in her novels the relationship of class to racism and patriarchy. The Color Purple, then, does not come out of nowhere. It is informed by Walker's own work, as well as by the tradition of Afro-American Literature.  

One of the most arresting aspects of this novel is its form, a tour de force in that it is written entirely in letters. Letters are short units, each of which is complete in itself and, when stitched together with other letters, creates a series of patterns - a quilt. Just as important, letters tell us about the objective conditions of a person's life while being a subjective reflection on her life. The letter is a form of narrative that combines both the objective and the subjective. This dual quality may be one of the reasons why letters were written so consistently by women in the past, when their experience was considered trivial and was usually omitted from history. Through writing letters, women not only recorded their lives but also reflected upon them, a source of personal growth. Feminist historians have used women's letters as an important source of researching women's history in its concreteness as well as in its subjective ramifications. Walker has adopted this genre, so useful in history as a specifically female literary genre.

  But letters can be arranged in many different ways as the European tradition of the epistolary novel indicates. Walker arranges the letters of The Color Purple in terms of the Afro-American literary tradition, specifically the genre of the slave's narrative, which usually traced the slave's growing awareness of her oppression, her increasing resistance, escape, and the final realisation of freedom in body and spirit. Like the slave in the nineteenth-century narratives, Celie's body and spirit are brutalised, a fate she accepts until she is confronted with other models, in this case Sofia's resistance through fighting, Shug's resistance through loving. Then there is a period of anger, followed by one of flight, her subsequent escape to Memphis where she develops her economic independence. Finally, there is a resolution of the spirit as she achieves independence of self, even from Shug, and effects the unification of her family and community. By ending her novel with a family reunion on the Fourth of July, Walker recalls Frederick Douglass, one of the finest writers of the slave's narrative, and the creator of the famous Fourth of July Speech that protested the institution of slavery.  

In order to understand how typical and/or atypical Celie's experience is, we need to consider a few facts about woman's status at the turn of the century. In much of the world, as well as in the United States, woman was seen as inferior to man. She did not have many of the rights we now take for granted. As recently as the nineteenth century, many American women could not be legal agents and thus could not own property or negotiate contracts, except through their fathers, husbands or brothers. American women could not act as political agents; they could not vote or be elected to political office. They were not expected to speak in public or operate in the public domain and were to remain primarily within the family. They were not regarded as economically independent. 'Respectable' women were not expected to work, particularly if they were married and had children. And women's goal in life was supposed to be marriage and motherhood.  

In effect, women, 'the weaker sex,' were under the control or "protection" of their male relatives, and in many ways were conceived of as property. Husbands and fathers could not be prosecuted for physical or sexual abuse, and in many states, fathers, rather than mothers, had the right to children. Incest then, as now, existed although it was not often spoken about -young orphaned girls were considered particularly unfortunate since they had no access to power or even to protection. The Women's Rights Movement of the nineteenth century protested these conditions but it took some fifty years to achieve the vote for women.  

Many people miss the fact that The Color Purple is not about a poverty-stricken black Southern family. Pa and Mister both are landowning blacks, of which there were many in  Georgia at the turn of the century. In focusing on this class, Walker reminds us that many Southern blacks were economically successful during Reconstruction, though because of the Southern racist system, some were eventually dispossessed of their property.  

In the case of The Color Purple, Walker does a critique of patrimony and how it is linked to the pursuit of power. Mister owns land that he has received from his father who, in turn, received land from his father, who was a white slave owner. Mister's father objected to his relationship with Shug Avery, a woman who refuses to be owned. Mister doesn't marry Shug and complies with his father's wishes partly because his father determines whether or not he will inherit land. In a real sense, Celie's abuse is derived from that fact, for Mister gives up the woman he loves, and becomes a bully to his first.  

One aspect of woman's condition critical to Celie's story was the denial of education.  Ironically, it was the creation of The Freedman's Bureau, which taught one and one-half million blacks to read and write between 1864 and 1970 that resulted in general public school education for poor Southern whites and women. But because of the passage of segregationist laws, blacks did not have equal access to education. Being able to read and write was considered as valuable a prize as it had been for slaves.  

Black women, of course, had an even lower status than white women, who were often placed on a pedestal, even as they lacked independence. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston characterises the status of black women as that of a mule, an animal bred to work; creating an image that comes out of slavery. Walker makes great use of this image in the first part of The Color Purple as well as in the section set in Africa.  

This is not to say that black women did not oppose these conditions in many different ways. Walker presents three different ways in which black women resisted their lot. Sofia represents the strong black woman who does not accept the definition of woman as weak and helpless and resists whites' attempts to diminish her. Often women like her have been denigrated both in black and white society as Amazons, or matriarchs, and punished for their resistance. Nettie represents women who did not marry but became missionaries, leaders, etc., and who used education as a means to transcend the low status of the black woman. As well. Walker uses Nettie to demonstrate the long history of relationships between Afro-Americans and Africa. Often these women had to separate themselves from their families and become 'exceptional' women. Shug represents another avenue, that of the blues tradition, an area in which black women could express their creativity and eroticism, and be economically independent. Though maligned as immoral by the middle class, female blues singers were often seen by other blacks as Queens. They were openly sexual, often bisexual, and explored pleasure as a woman's right. They, too, risked the possibility of separation from their children and experienced volatile economic changes in the music business as well as intense racism from the white world. That few novels, until recent|y, have used female blues singers as central figures indicates the ambivalence with which particularly the black middle class has related to these women. Their economic independence, overt eroticism, and spiritedness subverted the society's definition of the good woman.    


  Answer all three questions.

  Read Item 8, printed after the questions.  

  30 minutes are allocated in the examination to the reading and consideration of  this Item.

  Question 1 will ask you to compare Item 8 with the passage from The Color Purple in your pre-release material  (Item 1).  

Question 1.  Compare the ways these two writers deal with the situation of black women in  America in the early twentieth century by examining: 

        • the attitudes of women to men, and to their own situation  

        • the relationships between women and men  

        • the attitudes of women to authority figures  

        • the concept and presentation of religion  

        • the writers' uses of form  

        • the effects achieved by the choices of language.

                                                                         (40 marks)


Question 2. Compare and contrast some of the different interpretations offered in Items 2, 3 and 4. Which do you find the most persuasive, and why?                       (20 marks)  

Question 3.  Using Items 5, 6 and 7, explain what sources and values, in your view, most influenced Alice Walker in her writing of The Color Purple.                            (20 marks)


This is an extract from the novel 'Jazz' by Toni Morrison.


Other women, however, had not surrendered. All over the country they were armed.  Alice worked once with a Swedish tailor who had a scar from his earlobe to the corner of his mouth. 'Negress,' he said. 'She cut me to the teeth, to the teeth.' He smiled his    wonder and shook his head. 'To the teeth." The iceman in Springfield had four evenly   spaced holes in the side of his neck from four evenly spaced jabs by something thin, round and sharp. Men ran through the streets of Springfield, East St. Louis and the City holding one red wet hand in the other, a flap of skin on the face. Sometimes they got to a hospital safely, alive only because they left the razor where it lodged.  

Black women were armed, black women were dangerous and the less money they had  the deadlier the weapon they chose.

Who were the unarmed ones? Those who found protection in church and the judging, angry God whose wrath in their behalf was too terrible to bear contemplation. He was not just on His way, coming, coming to right the wrongs done to them, He was here.   Already. See? See? What the world had done to them it was now doing to itself. Did the   world mess over them? Yes but look were the mess originated. Were they berated and cursed? Oh, yes but look how the world cursed and berated itself. Were the women fondled in kitchens and the back of stores. Uh huh. Did police put their fists in women's faces so the husbands' spirits would break along with the women's jaws? Did   men (those who knew them as well as strangers sitting in motor cars) call them out of   their names every single day of their lives? Uh huh. But in God's eyes and theirs, every   hateful word and gesture was the Beast's desire for its own filth. The Beast did not do what was done to it, but what it wished done to itself: raped because it wanted to be   raped itself. Slaughtered children because it yearned to be slaughtered children. Built jails to dwell on and hold on to its own private decay. God's wrath, so beautiful, so simple. Their enemies got what they wanted, became what they visited on others.  

Who else were the unarmed ones? The ones who thought they did not need folded blades, packets of lye, shards of glass taped to their hands. Those who bought houses and hoarded money as protection and the means to purchase it. Those attached to armed men. Those who did not carry pistols because they became pistols; did not carry switchblades because they were switchblades cutting through gatherings, shooting down statutes and pointing out the blood and abused flesh. Those who swelled their little unarmed strength into the reckoning one of leagues, clubs, societies, sisterhoods designed to hold or withhold, move or stay put. make a way, solicit, comfort and ease. Bail out, dress the dead, pay the rent, find new rooms, start a school, storm an office, take up collections, rout the block and keep their eyes on all the children. Any other kind of unarmed black woman in 1926 was silent or crazy or dead.