The Spirit of Human Connection and Reunion in Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘The Color Purple’ is the tale of a young black girl named Celie, a victim of racism, poverty and segregation as well as oppression and sexual abuse at the hands of men. The novel is set in the deep American South in between the wars, approximately spanning forty years, taking the reader on a raw, honest and emotional journey through a modified epistolary format as Celie writes letters to God and then to her sister Nettie.

The book begins with a fourteen year old Celie questioning God why her step father Fonso (who she at the time believed was her birth father) chose to rape her and then take away her two children Olivia and Adam. Her self esteem was shattered and fear and despair in turn filled this void. Separated from her sister Nettie, the only person who she thinks ever truly loved her, Celie is forced to marry a widower whom she refers to as Mr.___. Her notion of love is perverted with this marriage and her fear of men only solidified as she is beaten by her husband. But when Celie meets the outspoken and unapologetic singer Shug Avery her transformative journey begins and is reinforced by her discovery that Nettie is not dead as she had been led to believe exemplifying how important human connection is.

From the depths of despair in the beginning of the novel, the final letter reflects a remarkable change not only in Celie’s metamorphosis but the changes in the nature of relationships she has with others like Nettie, Shug and Albert or Mr.___.  The characters grow as individuals before coming back together. Through out the novel, these relationships are disturbed only to be restored: Shug returns from travelling with Germaine, Sofia returns to her family and Nettie, Olivia and Adam return to Celie. There is a family reunion on the 4th of July where everyone has gathered making Celie very happy. While the reunion occurs as a whole, it is imperative to analyse the nature of each relationship and subsequent reunion at the close of the novel since each one has its own significance in the canvas of human connection.

Celie and Albert’s reunion reflects that no matter how terrible things are between people, time and space is all that’s needed to remedy what was once broken. Initially, Celie never felt anything for her husband Mr.___ and her conscious choice of avoiding the use of his name seems to convey how she does not think of him as a human being, just a nameless entity who makes her life miserable when they get married. Yet, towards the end of the novel, she begins to call him by his first name which is Albert. This is because they become closer as they talk about their shared love of Shug. This is how they begin to listen and relate to one another, something that was utterly lacking while they were living together as a married couple. Clearly when Celie and Shug leave Albert, he changes for the better, showing us that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. After leaving Albert, Celie becomes an independent woman with her own business. Having both grown as individuals during their time apart, once Celie and Albert meet again, he becomes interested in her pants business and she teaches him how to sew. During this time they talk and in turn learn from one another. Though Albert asks Celie to marry him again, this time in both flesh and spirit, she refuses and says they are better off as friends. Their friendship becomes a vehicle for platonic re connection and communication, allowing them to finally be themselves.

Shug, on the other hand, was someone Celie wanted to be more than just friends with and indeed their relationship does escalate to that of lovers. Celie’s aversion to men may play a role in her romantic interest in women and it appears as if Celie loves Shug more than Shug loves Celie. This becomes apparent when she tells Celie that she has fallen for a nineteen year old boy named Germaine who makes her feel young and attractive despite her middle age. Celie is unhappy with Shug’s request to have one last fling and to give her six months time after which she would come back. Despite Celie’s disapproval, Shug leaves and Celie becomes very lonely and it is in this time that she platonically reconnects with Albert. One would expect Celie to be angry with Shug once she comes back but that is not the case. It’s as if Shug is the free bird who needs some time to fly before coming back home and Celie is the one who must give her that freedom. Thus Shug and Celie’s reunion proves that if you love someone, set them free and if they come back they are yours.

However the most emotional of reunions is that of Celie and Nettie. Fonso and Albert were the people ultimately responsible for the separation of the two sisters. Instead of giving Nettie’s hand in marriage to Albert, Fonso offers Celie. Once Celie leaves her home, Nettie is the object of their step father’s attention and this drives Nettie away from home and so she asks to stay with Albert and Celie. Everything is fine until Albert makes sexual advances toward Nettie that she had to fight off. This outrages Albert and he kicks her out of his house and seeks his revenge by hiding Nettie’s letters from Celie. Since Celie hadn’t heard from Nettie in years she assumes that her sister is dead but her hope soars when she finds all of Nettie’s letters hidden in Albert’s trunk. So the only manner in which she knew her sister since she left was in the written form, by her words and stories about her life. Nettie was a mental construction that Celie actively struggled to maintain and towards the end of the novel when they are reunited she becomes a solid and physical presence in Celie’s life, as the person behind the letters comes to life before her very own eyes.

Along with Nettie come Celie’s children Olivia and Adam whom she has only read about in Nettie’s letter and her yearning as an estranged mother is rewarded once she finally meets her children in the flesh and all grown up.

These reunions culminate Celie’s journey in both physical and spiritual nature, rejuvenating both her mind and spirit. This is clear when reading the last paragraph of her final letter. She says she feels peculiar around the children since they are all grown and they see Nettie, Albert, Shug, Samuel and her as old people who don’t really know what is going on. Then she goes on to say, “But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.”

Although each character travels his or her own path, all their relationships are restored, bonded by family and friendship helping them transcend their past and the pain that accompanies it. So long as you have your loved ones with you, the trials and tribulations endured in life that burden your shoulders seem to lift off and dissipate and that is the reason why reunions are so important in this novel as well as in life itself.

However, not all reunions are those of characters in a book or people in reality. There is still one very important reunion that is left to be discussed and it’s that of the author and the protagonist or the creator and the creation. In the tenth anniversary edition preface, Alice Walker says that the novel was a spiritual journey that both she and Celie took, explaining that, “This book is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realized I had experienced and taken for granted as a child; a chance for me as well as the main character, Celie, to encounter That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving…”

The spiritual journey that Walker describes can be seen in how Celie addresses her letters over the course of the novel. Initially she writes her letters to God but halfway through the book, she questions whether God really exists and begins to write letters to Nettie instead. Unlike her previous letters, Celie addresses the final one like so: Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything, Dear God. This is the stage that I believe Celie as well as Walker have reached the actualised state where their spirits are reunited with The Spirit to whom Walker dedicated the novel to.

Also, the family reunion can be seen as the encounter of what the author describes as ‘That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving’. In my interpretation, Walker is attempting to say, among other aspects of the universe, human beings are so complex and beyond our understanding but aren’t beyond our innate capacity to love others. I think that is what reunions remind us of. The characters of ‘The Color Purple’ and Alice Walker herself teach us that while understanding is limited, love and warmth are not.

References:

  1. “The Color Purple Study Guide.”Study Guides & Essay Editing. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.
  2. “The Color Purple By Alice Walker The Color Purple.”Literature Notes: The Color Purple. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

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