There are many books which tell about the struggles of protagonists and how they manage to overcome them, attaining a better life for themselves or the people around them. Yet, not many of them show how the personal problems of the main character reflect the overall historical context of the era in which the book is set. Adding social, political, and cultural dimensions to a story provides the reader with a complete picture of the period and enables them to trace how the existing societal norms affect the protagonist. Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is an example of a book which successfully integrates the personal story of the main character and the wider historical situation in which she lives. In her book, Alice Walker using the example of Celie manages to demonstrate how African-American women were able to address and overcome the oppression imposed on them by the patriarchal society (Budi and Widyastuti 116). Nevertheless, despite the fact that Celie eventually becomes a strong and independent woman, she fails to learn the lesson of the value of independence which causes her to fail helping herself and her sister Nettie.
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Before conducting an analysis of Celie’s struggles and lessons, it is important to provide information about her and the historical context of the story. Celie is a teenage girl whose mother passes away and who lives alone with her sister Nettie and her father, Alphonso (Walker 9). Celie is poor and not well-educated and mostly spends her days cooking and caring for her sister. The situation in Celie’s family reflects the historical context of the beginning of the 20th century when African Americans experienced considerable oppression and were denied many opportunities due to their race (Musanga and Mukhuba 392). For instance, later in the novel, it becomes known that the actual father of Celie was lynched by white people because of his success (Walker 163). As a result, black families such as Celie’s had to live in poverty and were prevented from advancing in their lives. Moreover, as a woman, Celie also experiences oppression due to her gender, which contributes to her personal struggles, significantly undermining her character.
The novel shows how Celie’s life consists of constant oppression, which has different forms, including sexual. First of all, as a girl, Celie becomes subject to rape on the part of Alphonso, the man who she believes is her father. Alphonso continuously rapes Celie, which constitutes one of the main types of oppression faced by the main character. Essentially, the sexual oppression Celie experiences makes her submissive because she avoids telling anyone about it and thus learns to bear her trauma alone. Moreover, sexual oppression continues in the life of Celie when she marries Alfred, whom she calls Mr._ in her letters. For instance, Celie describes a typical sexual act with Alfred in her letter, “Mr. _ … do his business, in ten minutes us both sleep” (Walker 68). Such a description shows that Celie is passive and does not experience any feelings for Alfred, who simply uses her for satisfying his sexual desire.
Apart from sexual, there are also other forms of oppression which Celie continues to passively tolerate. After being raped by Alphonso, she gives birth twice, and both times her stepfather takes children to an unknown place. Thus, it is possible to say that Celie is denied the right to be a mother to her children, with whom she gets separated by force (Musanga and Mukhuba 391). Similarly, her marriage is arranged by Alfred and Alphonso only, and Celie cannot even disagree with it. Additionally, Celie experiences beating from Alfred and Alphonso, and the former even states that a husband has the right to beat his wife (Walker 28). Moreover, Celie encounters oppression when she is denied to study at school by her father, who disparages her intellectual abilities (Walker 16). Albert also oppresses Celie, for instance, by making her work constantly in the field and caring for her step-children, therefore relegating her to the role of a slave (Walker 32). Yet, most importantly, Albert separates Celie from Nettie by preventing her from reading letters sent by the sister. Therefore, it is possible to state that the main struggles faced by Celie are continuous oppression on the part of her father and husband.
As a result of constantly being oppressed, Celie develops a submissive character and becomes a person who does not have self-determination and independence. Only later in the novel, Celie gradually starts gaining the ability to act as an independent woman who recognizes her own desires and makes them a priority. First of all, Celie falls in love with Shug, a singer and her husband’s mistress, with whom they engage in a sexual relationship, and Shug teaches Celie about sex (Walker 100). Thus, at first, Celie learns how to receive sexual pleasure in her life and understands that her husband cannot satisfy her. Moreover, after discovering that Alfred hid the letters sent by Nettie, Celie gains self-determination and decides to kill her husband but gets stopped by Shug. Eventually, the final act of complete independence and self-determination shown by Celie is her decision to move to Memphis with Shug (Walker 183). Essentially, after facing the reality that she could have a different life in a loving relationship and without constant oppression, Celie finally learns her lesson of the value of independence.
At the same time, despite actually learning her lesson, Celie does it later than needed and fails to help herself and her sister deal with the oppression earlier. For example, Celie could leave her home as soon as her stepfather decided to rape her. Although she was still a teenager, she could try to find a place where she would be safe. Yet, instead, she remained passive and tolerated the abuse inflicted on her by Alphonso. Additionally, as a grown woman, Celie could attempt to leave her husband once he started beating and raping her. Essentially, she was an adult woman who had even more opportunities to find a better life than when she was a teenager. Celie also betrayed her little sister Nettie, whom she had to protect, but instead, Celie did not make any efforts to support her or leave together with her. Celie finally decided to stop oppression in her life when she was already a mature woman, which shows how much time she spent in vain and under submission.
Thus, the ultimate payback experienced by Celie for her lack of self-determination and desire to seek independence was the years spent not living the life she could. Essentially, her passive view of the suffering she endured and the submissive nature of her character led her to be a long-time slave for her father and husband. As a result, Celie potentially lost the most productive years of her life, which she could invest in building a better life for herself and Nettie on satisfying the desires of Alphonso and Alfredo. Moreover, she did not make an effort to find her children and therefore suffered a long-term separation from them. The example of Celie teaches the reader several important lessons which everyone must learn. First of all, Celie’s story teaches people to always remember their own interests and desires and prioritize them. Secondly, the story teaches people to stand up to injustice and oppression and have the self-determination to address or escape it at any cost. Finally, the story reminds the reader about the necessity not to waste their time and always live a life they wish to have.
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The Color Purple by Alice Walker tells the story of Celie, a woman who, due to not realizing the importance of independence and self-determination for a long time, failed to help herself and her sister. Celie is a woman who, since her teenage years, has been consistently subject to oppression on the part of her stepfather, who raped her, and her husband, who beat her. As an African-American female living in a patriarchal society at the beginning of the 20th century, Celie was treated as a slave by men and not more than a child-bearing object. Due to not being able to realize her predicament for a long time, Celie continued to develop a submissive character and suppress her desire to be independent. Yet, gradually, after meeting Shug and discovering that there can be pleasure and joy in her life, Celie began to gain her independence and self-determination. Finally, Celie was able to escape the oppressive relationship and to learn the value of being independent, yet it was too late.
Budi, Levita, and Dewi Widyastuti. “Self-Determination to Fight Oppressions as Seen in the Main Character of The Color Purple by Alice Walker.” Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 17, no. 2, 2017, pp. 116–124.
Musanga, Terrence and Theophilus Mukhuba. “Toward the Survival and Wholeness of the African American Community: A Womanist Reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 50, no. 4, 2019, pp. 388–400, Web.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Open Road Integrated Media, 2011.