Unlike the omniscient narrators in most accounts of the racist 1930s America, Walker allows the reader to understand the inner psyche of the black woman. The protagonist, Celie, writes intimate letters to “God” about her life, depending on his audience to determine her own self worth. The entire novel is narrated with the epistolary technique. Although the omniscient perspective usually gives the reader the freedom to judge and understand the document, the epistolary technique explores the personal touch of the writer- giving it more credibility.
The epistolary technique also gave the readers of the late twentieth century, a sense of realism. After the ideal of fiction transformed from romance to realism, the epistolary form helped fill a psychological function which gave insight to the readers, about the authors. Although the epistolary form is defined as fiction narrated through documents, a diary entry would have significant differences from a letter. Walker combines both in her novel.
“The Color Purple” consists of letters written by Celie and Nettie, two sisters living in Georiga during the 1930s. However, the letters written are unconventional when compared to other epistolary novels such as “The White Tiger” or “Dracula”. Celia addresses her letters to God at first, recognising her voice and her ability to communicate through language. This could be described as a “diary” like entry, because of the fact that they are written without an expectation to be read or written back. It is only later that she reads the letters from Nettie. Celia and Nettie both, are able to draw energy and strength from writing and reading letters. It reflects the theme of communication, that Walker emphasises, for a change to be seen. The letters allow both of them to come into their own being and understand themselves clearly.
In contrast to epistolary novels written in that time, Celie is the antithesis of a usually brave, comfortable yet educated and strong protagonist. She is raped and abused by her father, forced into an unfulfilling marriage and is seen as weak and irresolute. However, the readers are able to develop with her and see her grow throughout the novel. It begins with her ceasing to talk and beginning to write, as she talks about her continued abuse from different men in her life. Her father, who rapes and abuses her is seen as a main patriarchal figure who is then replaced by her husband, Mr. ___. The letters take a very monotonous turn with the various stories of abuse.
The story only develops as Celie finds two women who defy her concept of womanhood. Sofia, a loud and outspoken woman inspires jealousy in Celie because of that very attitude. Shug Avery, is a burlesque dancer, and she does not care for what society thinks of her. With the unintentional guidance and support of these two women, Celie becomes strong enough to realise she is a woman of her own. The discovery of Nettie’s letters over the years bring about a change in her as well. She is now able to think clearly, free from all the men who judged her. She continues writing letters, to Nettie, and not to God. It shows the fact that Celie has found the will to find support and help for herself- rooted in relationships with women. The changing of the recipient of her letters and their relationship is a significant part of understanding the story.
While studying the epistolary techniques in “The Color Purple”, it is important to analyse the structure of the letters as well. There are 92 letters in the novel, and each serves as its own chapter. There are no dates mentioned at any point in the novel and the location is also generally unspecified, other than Nettie being in England or Celie writing from Memphis. There is also no narrator aiming to explain the collection of these letters. However, this brings the reader straight to the point- the fact that these letters were written; and not how they were obtained. The letters also seem to be tampered with in terms of the ordering etc. Nettie’s letters were introduced with notes that could be written by someone else, or could also be the spoken voice of Celie.
The novel, unlike other epistolary novels, does not work on the fundamental drive of a sender and a receiver. Most epistolary novels use letters as a means of communication. Nettie’s letters aren’t received by Celie for most of the book, and there are two writers and three addressees- which makes the exchanging of letters almost impossible. As a result, the reader only knows Celie’s side of the story.
Celie goes through many phases in her life which is also evident in her letter writing. In the beginning of the novel, she addresses God asking him what is happening to her. The second phase is marked by the receiving of Nettie’s letters, where many questions about her life have been answered- such as Alphonso not being her real father- and she begins writing to Nettie instead of God. The third phase is marked by the last letter, where she addresses God as “Everything”. Her perception and concept of God and life have changed and she is a changed woman.
Walker’s creation of a character that can only communicate in the dialect she understands, gives the reader a fresh perspective of the condition of a black woman. Her written word is merged with the way she speaks, which makes the novel more authentic. While her spoken word may not remain, her written words will remain forever, in the letters of “The Color Purple”. Finally, Walker has achieved what she had set out to do right in the beginning- to prove the permanence of communication.
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