A Personal Letter: The Epistolary form in “The Color Purple”


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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Characteristics of Metaphysical poetry

The metaphysical poets used similar styles of writing, allowing us to define what metaphysical poetry actually is. The metaphysical conceits or the “wit” that they use is a common factor. It includes the violent juxtaposition of unconnected ideas that forces the reader to think and understand the relation. Donne’s comparison of love being canonized is one such example of the usage of “wit”.  This is materialized in the form of literary devices like metaphors, similes, paradox, irony and obliquity.

Paradox serves as a literary device that assists the poet to not only express their emotions, but also analyze the contradictory ideas. Metaphysical poets, therefore, overuse this example of literary composition. Irony is also a major element that is combined with paradox. While irony is within the poem, paradox explores the structure and meaning of the poem and is therefore inclusive of irony. (Wikipedia, Paradox) Irony is characterized by contrast and includes figures of speeches like “double entendre” etc.

Obliquity basically means “to morally or mentally deviate”. The concept of obliquity can be applied to metaphysical poetry because it explores moral ideas, but deviates from the obvious perceptions about those ideas. In “The Collar”, Herbert shocks the readers by revealing the apparent true nature of a priest or God man. This distorts the perception that priests are devoted to God selflessly.

Casuistry essentially means logical reasoning used to understand and resolve moral problems. While applying this principle, the theoretical reasoning of one instance can be used for another instance. Metaphysical poets use this because of its evasive quality. Many questions and arguments brought up by the poets are unanswered to the poets themselves, and thus, they look to evasive reasoning.

Neoplatonism is a school of thought that emerged in the 17th century that heavily influenced the metaphysical poets, especially when love is being explored. One of the main concepts adopted from this school of thought used by the metaphysical poets is that the perfection of beauty in the beloved is what reminds the poet that beauty is eternal.

Influences of the British Romantics

The Romantic Era saw the emphasis on logical reasoning change to the emphasis on feelings and impulse. Poems became less impersonal and subjective, highlighting imagination. Poetry became a way to express feeling, and not analyse it (like the metaphysical poets). It transformed into a gateway to transcendent experience. And so, the poetry written by famous Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, talked about the influence Nature had over them and how it made them feel. In “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth revisits Nature, explaining how he loves Nature even as a grown man because of the way it captured him when he was younger. Each stanza emitted a different theme, and most importantly, a different mood.

The term “Romanticism” itself entails an idealization of Nature. The beauty seen in Nature is eternal and healing, according to these poets. It comes from the term “romance”, used by poets in France to escape from reality. Wordsworth himself claimed, “I am a worshipper of Nature”. However, this does not mean that Wordsworth is a poet of Nature and only writes poems about Nature. It only means that Wordsworth looks to Nature for inspiration. “Resolution and Independence” is one such poem that displays this quality. Wordsworth focuses on the empowerment he feels through Nature.

Romantics also drew inspiration from other sources. Freedom from oppression and individualism are only a few of these sources. Individualism and freedom of expression was one of the main concepts the Romantics believed in.  Wordsworth repeatedly said that poetry was  “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The metaphysical poets, with their emphasis on casuistry and evasive reasoning was different from the Romantic poets, who approached their problems by directing them with their emotions and the healing powers of Nature. Freedom from oppression is another theme recurrent in romantic poetry. W.B Yeats writes in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” where he addresses the hypocrisy of the British use of Irish soldiers in World War I.

Religion influenced the Romantics considerably as well.  Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism” and Wordsworth’s” Ode: Intimations of Immortality” are both works that came out during this time. This could be because of the religious atmosphere during that time. The British Church propagated Anglican Christianity, and suppressed all other forms of religion. However, this suppression brought about many other forms of religion and spirituality. Pantheism, or the belief that there is only one all- encompassing God; Atheism were only a few of the alternate forms that rose. Romantics like Shelley questioned the religion of Christianity as well, and he argues that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of God. Wordsworth does not openly talk about religion. Nevertheless, many of his poems show that he may be a follower of Pantheism. In Tintern Abbey, he says that nature is “the anchor of my purest thoughts”, which might reflect the fact that he does not believe in Christianity. Therefore, Nature could be said to be a source of spiritual inspiration to the Romantics as well.