Walker, Alice: Title Commentary

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The Color Purple

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The Color Purple


SOURCE: Morgan, Winifred. "Alice Walker: The Color Purple as Allegory." In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 177-84. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

In the following essay, Morgan discusses The Color Purple as an allegory that represents the traditional gender role of women as constituting slavery.

Since the 1982 publication of The Color Purple, Alice Walker has continued to publish essays, poetry, and fiction. She has also maintained a high profile in news media for her role in spearheading a campaign against the primarily African practice of female genital mutilation, clitorectomy. Regardless of these accomplishments, Walker remains best known for The Color Purple. Since its publication, buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of feminists and black studies departments, the novel has enjoyed considerable success. This was true both before and after Stephen Spielberg's cinematic revisioning of the novel.1 Walker's novel certainly has appealing qualities which generally sell—strongly drawn characters, a sense that these characters embody the experience of many people, memorable contrasts between the oppressors and oppressed, a downtrodden central character who overcomes both horrendous abuse and deprivation to bloom into a strong person, and, above all, an optimistic, some say a fairy-tale, ending.

Whether they praise or condemn the novel, few readers react with less than passion to Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The considerable critical disagreement which has developed about the novel reflects these emotional responses. Beginning with the novel's publication and continuing through the 1985 premiere of the film version, one group of reviewers and critics has lavished praise even as others have questioned both the novel's and the film's artistic validity, particularly their verisimilitude, and their depiction of black men.2



The fact that a book with a Black Lesbian theme by a Black woman writer achieved massive critical acclaim, became a bestseller, and was made into a major Hollywood film is unprecedented in the history of the world. It is The Color Purple which homophobes and antifeminists undoubtedly refer to when they talk about how "many" books currently have both Black Lesbian subject matter and an unsparing critique of misogyny in the Black community. For Black Lesbians, however, especially writers, the book has been inspirational. Reading it we think it just may be possible to be a Black Lesbian and live to tell about it. It may be possible for us to write it down and actually have somebody read it as well.

Smith, Barbara. An excerpt from "The Truth That Never Hurts: Black Lesbians in Fiction in the 1980s." In Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, pp. 691-712. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

From the first reviews to the most current criticism, writers have analyzed, adulated, and excoriated the novel's structure. A number of scholars, with a glance toward Terry Eagleton's comments on the epistolary novel in The Rape of Clarissa, have concentrated on Walker's use of letters. Most (for example, Gates) find the choice fortuitous, allowing Walker to move beyond the limitations of first-person narration while still encouraging readers to identify with the central character. Most critics also find Nettie's letters the least satisfying part of the novel.3 A few critics (for example, Katz and Heraldson, in Bloom) enjoy the use Walker makes of this inherently didactic form usually associated with eighteenth-century tomes. They believe that Walker uses this traditional, even old-fashioned form, to overturn expectations of traditional social structures.

Still other writers have placed the novel in the existential tradition (Christophe) and that of the parable (Scholl). Yet the most obvious tradition that the novel belongs to beyond that of the epistolary novel is that of the slave narrative. The common narrative pattern encountered in slave narratives—an innately good, morally superior person is unjustly confined and maltreated by a corrupt individual; through heroic efforts, the victim escapes and lives to tell the tale and to work against the evil institution—continues to influence African-American literature almost a century and a half after the legal abolition of chattel slavery in the United States.4 In fact, Walker's echoing of that form5 accounts for a good deal of the angry reaction to the novel since black men, accustomed to seeing themselves vindicated in African-American literature, encounter little vindication in this novel.

Although critics have made much of the tie between The Color Purple and the slave-narrative tradition, concentrating on the similarities between the form of this novel and that of slave narratives may distract critics from the novel's allegorical possibilities, what Hernton refers to an "ironic analogy" between racism and sexism. A traditional definition reminds students that allegory is

a form of extended Metaphor in which objects, persons and actions in a Narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the Narrative itself.… Allegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters, and settings presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to convey or the significance they bear. The characters, events, and settings may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the test is that these materials be so employed that they represent meanings independent of the action described in the surface story.

[Harmon and Holman 12; my italics in the last clause]

With this novel, Alice Walker joins other late-twentieth-century feminists in building up, and on, an allegorical construct which personifies the traditional gender roles of woman as constituting slavery.6 In fact, Kathleen Barry even equates domestic abuse and incest with slavery: "Female sexual slavery is present in ALL situations where women or girls cannot change the immediate conditions of their existence; where regardless of how they got into those conditions they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation" (40; Barry's italics and caps).

Not only does the novel play upon the form of traditional slave narratives, as an allegory The Color Purple provides a devastating critique not only of racism but also of the sexism that has doubled the burden of those women whom Zora Neale Hurston has one of her characters call the "mules of men."7 Furthermore, the novel speaks against all forms of oppression. Readers do not have to be poor, black, ugly, unable to cook, or female to feel its central character's plight.

A striking allegorical representation of a kind of continuing slavery occurs in The Color Purple. Unnerving similarities exist between Celie's twentieth-century existence in the early part of the novel and that of her slave ancestors and other black women's lives under slavery. Before the novel opens, Celie's birthright has been stolen as her stepfather, Alphonso, has usurped her inheritance. If, as a sage in one of the medieval Spanish ejemplos argues, stealing is "the greatest villainy," then that is what has been practiced against Celie. Not only has her stepfather taken over her inheritance, his physical and sexual abuse have almost obliterated her sense of self. Hence, when fourteen-year-old Celie attempts to write her first "letter to God," her second sentence begins with a false start as she crosses out "I am." The adolescent Celie's rape by the man she believes is her father parallels the rape of slave women whom plantation theory considered "children" of the patriarchal owner. In common with generations of slave women, Celie then has her infant daughter and son taken from her. Her stepfather tells her that they are dead when, in fact, he has given—perhaps sold—them to a childless couple.

Five or six years later, when he hopes to unleash his sexual abuse on her younger sister, Nettie, Alfonso connives to get rid of Celie by having a neighbor, Mr.—, a widower with four children, marry her. During their negotiations, Alfonso's description, "she ain't fresh," identifies Celie with milk-producing animals, and the way he makes her turn around for Mr.—to examine her body recalls the way slave women were bought and sold. Like them, Celie is handed on to Mr.—for reasons slave women were bought—their ability to endure hard physical labor and their potential as sexual objects.

In common with her ancestors, Celie is lied to and lied about. In fact, her stepfather tells Mr.—that "She tell lies" (10). Until Celie finally breaks loose from Mr.——whom she refuses to, perhaps dare not, call by his first name, Albert—she is almost constantly abused and intimidated by him. Celie spends her first day of married life fleeing Mr.—'s twelve-year-old son, who nonetheless manages to wound her in her head with the rock he throws at her. She then cooks dinner under primitive conditions and untangles the long-neglected hair of Mr.—'s little daughters. When night comes, she spends her time thinking about her sister, Nettie, and Shug Avery while Mr.—is "on top" (13) of her. Mr.—, it quickly turns out, is a brute who alternates between beating her and beating his children (22). Living with Mr.—'s brutality, Celie inures herself to maltreatment and tells herself she is a "tree" (22). "I don't say nothing.…What good it do? I don't fight, I stay where I'm told. But I'm alive" (21). Celie lacks power and skill. All she can do is survive and persevere. All she retains of ego is her "voice," and in the presence of her masters, that she keeps silent.

The stories of the other black women in the novel provide variations on Celie's story. They also serve as catalysts. As a matter of fact, from the first mention of Sophie twenty pages into the novel, Celie's existence starts to improve—if only because she has someone to talk to. The intersection of the other women's lives with that of Celie allows her for the first time to envision other possibilities. First Sophie, then Shug, but even Mary Agnes (Squeak) and Nettie move from being dominated to liberated. Each of them starts out "freer" than Celie, but none travels quite as far as she. As Shug comments to Mr.—'s brother, To-bias, "All women's not alike" (52).

The Color Purple looks at what the dynamics of power between men and women, and particularly between some black men and women, currently achieve. The novel finds them so appalling that they evoke the image of conditions under slavery. No other image has quite the same potential for inciting horror, repulsion, and anger among African-Americans. Having raised this dreadful specter and dramatized the similarities between slavery and patriarchy, the novel, in effect, asks, "Can men and women find 'another way' of dealing with one another? What might this new dynamic look like? How might it come about?" The novel then pictures a world in which such new relationships might unfold. The novel's allegory implies that if such changes and new relationships could occur in the life of the downtrodden, humanly almost obliterated Celie, surely a new life with different alternatives could be possible for anyone.

In a sense each person's life, even that of a single cell, recapitulates that of the entire race. Yet Celie's experience in the first two-thirds of Alice Walker's The Color Purple —until she leaves Mr.—and moves to Memphis with Shug and Grady—has such specific parallels with the experiences of slave women that the novel emerges as an allegory of the black woman's experience of slavery in America. Calvin Hernton labels the novel "an emulation of the slave narrative" (3). But as an allegory, and not merely a novel utilizing "a classical (primal) literary genre" (Hernton 3), the novel becomes an even stronger statement of the parallels between the domestic slavery found in some homes and marriages and the situation of black women under the system of chattel slavery existing in the United States before the Civil War. Although he never actually uses the word allegory, Hernton does interpret the novel as an allegory of patriarchy (13-14). Celie's declaration of independence from Mr.—contrasts with her earlier comment that "I don't fight.… But I'm alive" and echoes what is probably the best known epiphany found in the slave narrative genre, Douglass's insight into Covey's tyrannous reign (Douglass 81).8 When Celie turns on Mr.—and challenges him with the warning that "Anything you do to me, already done to you.…I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook.…ButI'm here" (176), she changes her life dramatically. "What women want" is respect. But then that is what all human beings want and need. The ending of the novel projects "what might be" if men and women respected one another.

One wonders whether the novel's allegorical message helps to explain its popularity, which took even Walker by surprise. Readers respond to this novel at an emotional level, suggesting that something is influencing them at a subliminal as well as a conscious level. One explanation might be that in The Color Purple, Walker has written an apparently realistic novel that also functions as an allegory of the slave woman's experience. But since the story does not, after all, take place during slavery times, readers are left with the impression that for some black women, at least, their condition after slavery hardly changed. Orlando Patterson's definition of slavery resonates with a chilling familiarity when one thinks about Celie's situation at the opening of the novel. As Patterson explains, "on the level of personal relations … slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons" (13).9 Although not born a slave, as the novel opens, for all practical intents and purposes, Celie is a slave.

One has to ask "Why has the condition of women like Celie changed so little?" Many people respond that racism alone does not explain this fact. Both the excitement and the outrage that the novel has generated are understandable, even to be expected, when one realizes that inadvertently or not, the novel lends itself to an allegorical interpretation explicating the lives of many poor black women both during and after slave times. The fragmented, epistolary, almost inchoate early part of the novel also deflects readers from suspecting that Walker might be using a seemingly outdated technique like allegory. By setting the novel in the not-too-distant past, Walker makes clear that slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation nor even with the end of the American Civil War. Nor—despite the novel's apparently happy ending—does slavery end until people grow into an appreciation of themselves within a human community. Celie's story starts in slavery but goes on to suggest not so much how slave women of the antebellum period could choose to be free (they could not) as how those who continue to suffer a kind of slavery might participate in their own emancipation.

The central narrative in The Color Purple certainly works as an allegory, and the allegorical nature of the novel may help to explain why critics delight in finding multiple interpretations. It mimics aspects of the slave-narrative pattern because it harks back to a defining experience in African-American culture: the unavoidable historical fact of chattel slavery. But Walker seems to use that experience as a foil or mirror, forcing her readers to acknowledge the equally formative experience of sexism under patriarchy.10

Unlike the "temptation" which C. S. Lewis warns readers to avoid lest they attend to an allegory's larger meaning to the detriment of its poetry, to find allegory in The Color Purple in no way encourages readers to attend to an intellectual abstraction or any other kind of construct in preference to the novel's verisimilitude. On the contrary, most readers are far more likely to get so caught up in the fiction's highly charged details that they ignore any larger significance. Yet, in fiction as in poetry, "the more concrete and vital the [work] is, the more hopelessly complicated it will become in analysis: but the imagination receives it as a simple—in both senses of the word" (Lewis 345).

Yet the critical reaction to The Color Purple illustrates that, however easy it is to summarize its plot, the novel is not simple. That Walker should have produced a work with allegorical overtones flows organically from her rural Southern upbringing in which the tradition of African-American religious music has always spoken symbolically. Allegory works through symbols, and as Don Cameron Allen reminds readers, symbols allow communication that is larger than simple reality. "It is also the nature of the symbol to communicate to others those intuitions which seize us" (Swann and Krupat 566). The emotional reaction to the novel seems to suggest that many readers have felt that it speaks to their intuitions. Allegory, according to Angus Fletcher, has been "omnipresent in Western literature" as long as there has been such an entity, and often the surface of an allegorical tale works perfectly well by itself but achieves greater depth with interpretation. In any case, allegory serves to get past defenses, to speak to those intuitions of which Allen speaks, intuitions that might otherwise be repressed.

By its nature allegory is open to interpretation. Since readers respond to a piece of literature and interpret it according to individual experiences, not surprisingly, contemporary readers do indeed find The Color Purple a "moral tale" as Walker originally subtitled the novel. While, of course, the novel reflects the experience of only a portion of black women, enough of them relate to the central character's vicissitudes that, for example, during the movie's showing in some theaters, black women's voices sang out their encouragement of Celie. On the one hand, many African-American women could reasonably interpret The Color Purple as an allegory of both the racial and sexual oppression that black women have endured during and since slavery. Many white women, on the other hand, respond to the novel as a "womanist" (with its emphasis on choosing a course of action rather than accepting one's fate as biologically predetermined) allegory. Anyone can read the novel as an allegory of every human being's need for respect.

The novel's most adamant critics have objected to its supposed lack of realism and what they insist are vicious stereotypes of black men. But if The Color Purple is allegorical, the criticism of the novel as a fairy tale or unrealistic or improbable loses some of its validity. The Color Purple is about reclaiming one's history, gifts, inheritance, language, skills, song, and voice—and thereby throwing off the yoke of slavery. Though the action in the early part of the novel closely parallels that of black women under slavery, the novel's conclusion has moved far beyond that. Questions both about whether it is unfair that some black men are depicted as violent and whether the story achieves adequate historical accuracy are beside the point. As an allegory, the novel does not have these as primary concerns. In any case, why cannot the story of a poor black woman's liberation also help to set free others of both sexes, all classes, and all races?


  1. The movie subtly alters and even subverts some of the novel's feminism, but that's another essay. As Jacqueline Bobo reminds readers, "the film is a commercial venture produced in Hollywood by a white male according to all of the tenets and conventions of commercial cultural production in the United States" ("Cultural Readers" 93).
  2. See, for example, Bartelme, Baumgaertner, Bovoso, Graham, Heyward, Hiers, Kelley, Pinckney, Prescott, Dinita Smith, Tickle, Towers, and Watkins.
  3. See, for example, Barbara Christian's comments in an early essay on Walker (in Evans 470).
  4. During the early 1990s, William L. Andrews led NEH Summer Seminars at the University of Kansas exploring how this tradition functions in African-American literature. I was fortunate to be part of the 1991 seminar.
  5. The assumption that The Color Purple echoes the slave narrative is so common as to be almost a truism. See, for example, Awkward and Hernton.
  6. This is, of course, hardly a new connection, since radical eighteenth-century feminists insisted on the same similarities. More recently, Kari Winter's Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change delineates some of the parallel strategies utilized by women slave narrators and women writers of gothic fiction. Winter's book also carefully delineates the limits of the rhetoric linking women under slavery and other, for the most part, less harsh patriarchal forms of domination.
  7. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's grandmother gives this warning to the still youthful, romantic central character.
  8. This is, of course, the section of Douglass's autobiography where he determines to fight back. In an extended brawl he beats the bully Covey; and years later, recalling his insight from that experience, Douglass muses that "I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me" (81).
  9. In David Brion Davis's explanation, "the slave has three defining characteristics: his [sic] person is the property of another man, his will is subject to his owner's authority, and his labor or services are obtained through coercion." Without irony, Davis goes on to note that "various writers have added that slavery must be 'beyond the limits of the family relations'"(31).
  10. Michael Awkward explores what he believes is Walker's conscious construction in The Color Purple ofatale about black women's creativity in order to counter false images developed over the years in the fiction of black men. Her portrayal, even if a "dream" or "utopian," nonetheless offers a picture of what a black community that had advanced beyond patriarchy might look like (163-64).

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