The character of Celie in Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple is one of the most memorable characters that I have ever met in fiction. From a young black girl struggling to find her place in the world to a successful, confident and happy business woman in later life, Celie is one of those rare characters who stay with the reader long after they have finished the book.
The success of the character and the novel as a whole is largely down to Walker’s use of voice and also the letter format. By using the first person, Walker ensures we experience everything, including the other characters, from Celie’s perspective.
The novel begins with the words of the narrator’s father after he has raped Celie.
You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.
Desperate to talk to someone, but too afraid to tell her family, the young Celie begins her letters to God.
Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I am. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
Celie is afraid, vulnerable and unable to understand what is happening to her. The only person she can talk to is God. The striking out of the words ‘I am’ emphasises her low self-esteem and lack of identity. In just a few lines Walker captures the character and themes that shape the novel.
Walker’s chapters in The Color Purple are short, deliberately so, as Celie briefly talks about the tragic events of her life. The letters are written in the American vernacular, which creates a very real and authentic voice, arguably one of the most memorable in contemporary fiction. Walker also uses very poor grammar and spelling as a way of highlighting Celie’s lack of formal education.
The narrative voice in The Color Purple is its distinguishing feature. By having Celie write letters in the same way that she talks, Walker creates a personal voice that is so consistent and powerful that the reader hears Celie as she tells her story. Like in the oral tradition of storytelling, Celie passes her stories on to the reader in her own African American voice.
Celie may be dismissed for being uneducated, inarticulate, black and a woman, but through her language her character shines. Walker shows the person behind Celie’s words – presenting Celie as likeable, funny, sensitive, understanding, caring, loyal, and determined. She presents a character who is finding her identity and place in a world of segregation. As Celie grows in confidence her letters get longer and more detailed, reflecting her transformation, but her voice, honesty and humour remain.
Although most of the letters are from Celie, Walker also presents letters from Celie’s sister, Nettie. In contrast to Celie, Nettie writes in Standard English and her letters are grammatically correct – reflecting her formal education. They are also longer and tell of her travels and life as a missionary, opening up a whole new world for Celie. The communication between the sisters is also what keeps them going despite the hardships they both endure. Sending the letters is therapeutic but it is receiving them that gives the women hope.
There is so much to talk about in The Color Purple, but, for me, it is the narrative voice that makes it memorable. In Celie we have a character who knows what it is to be poor, black and a woman in the deep American South, but we also have a character who recognises the power and joy of her own spirit.