The Color Purple is a Bildungsroman novel which charts the growth of protagonist Celie through letters; primarily from her to God, but later to her sister Nettie. Its epistolary nature means the narration of The Color Purple is frank and confessional and Celie’s development is shown from her perspective. Walker takes her protagonist on a journey towards self-actualization.
The idea of self-actualization originates from Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Maslow pioneered the concept that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs. We have basic needs which must be satisfied before we can fulfill the higher needs. His hierarchy begins at the fundamental physiological necessities for survival such as food and shelter. It then moves to the need for safety in a stable and predictable environment. Next is the need for love and social acceptance, fulfilled by affection and intimacy from others. Then the need for self-esteem, which include confidence in oneself and respect from others. Finally, Maslow argues, an individual needs to reach self-actualization, which is defined as “discovering and fulfilling ones potential”. Celie’s growth as a character very much parallels this basic hierarchy.
The novel opens with an innocent description of Celie’s rape by the man she believes to be her father. Although addressing God, Celie describes him grabbing hold of her “titties”. She continues “Then he push his thing inside my pussy”. The inappropriate use of sexual slang is typical of the language within the novel, which rarely coheres to conventional grammar or spelling. Many words are written phonetically and slang terms are frequently employed. Celie had no formal education – her stepfather refused to let her go to school, using the excuse that she was “too dumb to keep going to school” to keep her at home and hide her pregnancy. Her accurate observances of those around her, along with the fact that she learns to read without schooling, demonstrates to the reader that she is not without natural intelligence.
Celie’s mother dies when she is fourteen, leaving her to look after her younger siblings, defenseless against her abusive father.
American law, governed by middle-class, middle-aged, white men, made no attempt to protect or enforce the rights of poor black girls such as Celie. At this point in the novel Celie is seen as nothing more than a substandard possession. She falls pregnant twice by her father and he sells the babies, before giving her away for marriage with the bargain “She’d come with her own linen. And she can take that cow…”. Her husband, Mr ____, treats her as little more than a slave. Celie does all the housework, looks after his disobedient and abusive children, and is forced to have sex with him. He beats her for any disobedience and, as she tells another character, “Sometimes he beat me anyhow…whether I do what he say or not”. Without the law to protect her rights it is left to Celie to fight for herself if she does not wish to be ruled to the point of ownership by men.
The character Sofia demonstrates this is possible, but not easy. “All my life I had to fight”, Sofia tells Celie. Mr ____’s sister urges Celie to do the same, insisting “You got to fight them, Celie…I can’t do it for you. You got to fight them for yourself”. To fight back against the constant oppression Celie has been subjected to would take confidence and self-belief, neither of which she possesses. She questions what good fighting back would do, asserting “I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive”. At this point Celie fulfils only the first step of Maslow’s hierarchy, the need for survival. Her only instinct is to stay alive.
Despite this, Celie is affected by the relationship between the resilient Sofia and her husband Harpo. When Harpo complains to Celie that Sofia doesn’t follow his orders, her advice is identical to Mr ____’s – “Beat her”. Sofia, strong and used to fighting, refuses to let him overpower her. When Harpo again complains that Sofia “do what she want, don’t pay me no mind at all”, Celie pleads with him to learn to live with Sofia as she is. “Sofia love you”, she tells him. “She probably be happy to do most of what you say if you ast her right”. Their relationship demonstrates to Celie, and to the reader, that a relationship could be happy and functional if both partners were equal. It is clear to Celie that Harpo loves Sofia and that she makes him happy, but he cannot ignore the idea he has grown up with, that a wife should be subservient to her husband. Sofia refuses to play the role of submissive wife which society attempts to force upon her, and Harpo cannot overcome his embarrassment that their relationship does not cohere to the conventional model of marriage he sees around him.
The next stage in the hierarchy of human needs, safety within a stable environment, is provided for Celie when Mr ____’s mistress Shug Avery moves into their house. The town is disgusted at Mr ____’s behaviour, but Celie is unconcerned. She feels no affection for Mr ____ and has long been fascinated by the idea of meeting Shug. Despite Shug’s original hostility they become friends. With Shug there Mr ____ no longer beats Celie or has sex with her, and she settles into their unconventional family life happily, relishing being around the captivating Shug and dreading the day she will leave and Mr ____ will revert to his original behaviour. She confides her fears with Shug, telling her “He beat me when you not here” and Shug promises “I won’t leave…until I know Albert won’t even think about beating you”.
Shug and Celie grow increasingly closer, and their relationship offers Celie love and affection she has never before received. Shug forces Celie to question ideas she has previously accepted blindly, and through this Celie lbegins to form an identity for herself. They discuss sex, which Celie admits she has never enjoyed. She cannot understand “What is it to like?…Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference…Just do his business, get off, go to sleep”. Shug Shug insists that if you have never enjoyed sex “you still a virgin”. She teaches Celie that she does not have to accept the definitions other give her, but that she can create her own.
Later, Celie admits that she is disillusioned with the idea of religion. She tells Shug “the God I been praying and writing to is a man…Trifling, forgetful and lowdown…If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place”, and Shug objects to this vision of God. He is not necessarily “big and old and tall and graybearded and white”. Shug believes that “God is inside you and inside everybody else…God is everything. Everything that ever was or ever will be…God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t.” She presents Celie with the freedom to question her conventional view of God, created and imposed upon her by white men, and to use her own experiences to invent a form of spirituality which makes sense to her.
Celie, who has previously only thought of herself in relation to other people – she was Pa’s daughter, Nettie’s sister, Mr ____’s wife – now begins to form an identity for herself. One of her new spiritual beliefs is that “it pisses God of if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it”. Celie associates “the color purple” with herself, and for once it is not because of bruises. She accepts that she too is something God created which deserves to be loved and admired. Shug’s love helps Celie to realise that she deserves respect and love as a human being in her own right.
With Shug’s help she recovers years of letters from her sister Nettie, which Mr ____ has hidden from her. This huge deception gives her the courage to finally stand up to him, and she leaves him. In a last attempt to control her, he says “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all”. Celie replies “Until you do right by me…everything you dream about will fail…Every lick you hit me you will suffer twice”. She has come to realize that she can control her own life.
The language continues to be colloquial but begins to represent something more than Celie’s lack of education. A new friend attempts to “teach [her] how to talk”. She insists that speaking the way she does will make Celie come across badly to others “You say US where most folks say WE…and people think you dumb. Colored peoples think you a hick and white folks be amuse”. But Celie speaks the way that she thinks and is happy to do so. She suggests “Look like to me only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind”. She has formed her own identity and no longer needs to approval of others, and so the unconventional grammar and spelling becomes a symbol for her refusal to conform.
Celie discovers a talent for, and love of, making pants – a clear symbol for her new empowerment. The “perfect pair of pants” are “totally comfortable”, the same way that Celie now feels in herself. From the moment she leaves Mr ____ Celie’s future begins to slot into place. She discovers that her “Pa” was in fact her stepfather. When he dies she inherits the large house and goods store which was owned by her real father. Nettie returns with the children Celie’s Pa gave away many years earlier, and they all live together in Celie’s house.
It is easy to criticize the ease with which Walker concludes the novel, ensuring that Celie’s life has a somewhat unlikely “happy ending”. But if the reader approaches the novel as an allegory for female empowerment then the ending is far more satisfactory. The men within the novel represent different social pressures placed upon woman by conventional ideas and stereotypes. Pa is the idea that all women are sexual objects to be used by men. Mr ____ is the insistence that a wife should be submissive and obedient to her husband. Harpo is the difficulty men have with overruling social conventions and inventing their own rules to life.
The sudden improvement in her life doesn’t happen until she achieves self-actualization, and so her inheritance and her pant making business can be seen as the power women will discover once they become empowered.
Celie’s growth would not happen within the influence of the women she meets, and their close friendships allow them all to grow and develop. This sisterhood represents the necessity for women to be strong and to help each other if they wish to achieve anything.