The Color Purple

by: Alice Walker

Important Quotations Explained

It must have been a pathetic exchange. Our chief never learned English beyond an occasional odd phrase he picked up from Joseph, who pronounces “English” “Yanglush.”

In the sixty-fifth letter, Nettie shares with Celie her sentiments about the Olinka villagers. After the Olinka have this “pathetic exchange” with a white man from the English rubber company, the Olinka conclude that it is a waste of breath to argue with men who cannot or will not listen. The cultural barrier between the Olinka and the English is so vast that both parties readily give up, believing no communication is possible. Samuel later mentions that the only way he and the other Americans could remain in Africa is to join the mbeles, the natives who have fled deep into the jungle and refuse to work for the white settlers.

With this discussion of the barrier separating the Olinka from the English, Walker emphasizes that, though narrative can be a powerful force, some differences cannot be overcome. Cultural complexities and gulfs of foreignness sometimes render communication futile. This provides a sobering counterexample to Celie’s success at finding her voice and using it as the key to her discovery of self-worth. Walker admits that some cultural differences are so great that there is little hope for communication. Unfortunately, she suggests no solution to this problem.