The Color Purple
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.”
Celie’s spirits rise now that she knows Nettie is alive. Celie decides that she will leave Mr. ______ as soon as Nettie returns to Georgia, and she wonders what her children look like. She continues to read Nettie’s letters in the order in which they were sent.
In her letters, Nettie tells the following story. She, Corrine, Samuel, the children, and their guide, Joseph, travel for four days through the jungle until they reach an Olinka village, their final destination. The Olinka villagers crowd around them because they are unaccustomed to the sight of African-American missionaries. One woman contends that Olivia and Adam must be Nettie’s children and asks if both Nettie and Corrine are wives of Samuel’s. Together, the group is ushered into a hut with no walls, and the Olinka serve them dinner and palm wine.
Nettie befriends a woman named Catherine, whose daughter Tashi quickly develops a friendship with Olivia. Corrine, meanwhile, grows increasingly uncomfortable with Nettie’s nebulous role in the family and is frustrated that the natives think Nettie is Samuel’s other wife. Corrine requests that Nettie not allow the children to call her “Mama Nettie.” Eventually, Corrine also requests that Nettie no longer invite Samuel into her hut alone and that she and Corrine no longer wear each other’s clothes.
Because, as girls, Tashi and Olivia are not allowed to enter the local school, they join Nettie in her private hut to talk, tell stories, and share secrets. Tashi is the only one of the Olinka villagers who wants to hear about African-American slavery, and it angers Nettie that the Africans fail to acknowledge even partial responsibility for the slave trade. Consequently, Nettie begins to feel that Africans are just as self-centered as white Americans.
The village soon experiences a turn for the worse when road builders working for an English rubber company plow through the middle of the village with orders to shoot anyone who opposes them. They destroy village homes and crops and force the Olinka to start paying rent on their own land since the company claims the Olinka no longer own it.
Corrine continues to fear that Nettie is encroaching upon her family and threatening her identity as a wife and mother. Corrine becomes ill with a fever and, wondering if Nettie might really be Olivia and Adam’s biological mother, demands that both Nettie and Samuel swear on the Bible that they had never met before Nettie came to their home for help.
Nettie, believing that Olivia and Adam are in fact Celie’s children, finally requests in private that Samuel explain how he adopted them. Nettie learns that Celie and Nettie’s father had been a farmer who decided to open a dry goods store. The store was very successful and always teeming with customers. Competing white storeowners were furious at Nettie’s father for taking all the black business away from them, so they burned his shop and lynched him. At the time, Nettie’s mother had already had Celie. Soon after her husband’s death, Nettie’s mother went into labor and gave birth to Nettie. Though she never fully recovered from the mental anguish of her husband’s death, she remarried, to a man named Alphonso, and continued having children until she died.
Alphonso and Samuel know each other from Samuel’s wild days, before Samuel became religious. One day, Alphonso showed up at Samuel’s door, saying that his wife was too ill to care for their two youngest children. When Alphonso offered the two children to Samuel, Samuel could not refuse because he and Corrine had been unable to have children of their own. Samuel never revealed the identity of the children to Corrine, so when Nettie showed up, both Samuel and Corrine had assumed, from the resemblance, that Olivia and Adam were Nettie’s children.
Dazed after learning that Alphonso is not her real father, Celie stops writing to God and begins writing to Nettie instead. Shug decides to move back to Tennessee and asks Celie to move with her. Before they leave, however, Celie wants to go see Alphonso. She and Shug find a new house with a beautifully landscaped yard built on Alphonso’s old property. Alphonso has a new wife, Daisy, who is only fifteen years old. Alphonso confirms that Celie’s real father was lynched and that he is really only her stepfather. Celie and Shug stop by the local cemetery, but they are unable to locate Celie’s mother and father’s gravesite because it is unmarked. Comforting Celie, Shug tells her, “Us each other’s peoples now,” and kisses her.
Throughout The Color Purple, Walker makes it clear that storytelling and communication are crucial to self-understanding. By this point in the novel, we have seen problems due to failed communication between Celie and Alphonso; between Celie and Mr. ______; among Nettie, Samuel, and Corrine; and between Celie and Nettie. As the novel progresses, some of these ruptures in communication are repaired through narratives of one kind or another. Celie finds Nettie’s letters, Samuel tells the story of his children to Nettie, and Celie confirms this story with Alphonso, learning the truth of her own family history. However, aside from communication failures in these specific relationships, Walker highlights many broader, more general communication problems in the world that remain unresolved. She points to failed communication between men and women; between American blacks and American whites, between American blacks and Africans, and between Africans and European imperialists.
Celie’s discovery of her true family history brings about a major change in her pattern of communication, as she develops surrogates for God and her parents, in the form of other women. After learning of her tragic background, Celie feels that she has lost some of her faith in God, and closes what she intends to be her final letter to God by chiding, “You must be sleep.” Instead, Celie begins to write letters to Nettie. Likewise, though Celie is unable to locate her parents’ graves, to which she looks for closure, Shug tells Celie, “Us each others peoples now.” These strong, surrogate ties that Celie makes with other women allow her to create a new family in the face of the tragedies she has endured. Celie ceases to wait for the kingdom of heaven and begins to search for peace and happiness in her own life.
Nettie’s voice, likewise, has burst forth after being obscured for so long. We see that Nettie has become highly intellectually curious and sophisticated, and is now a missionary, a job that is centered around articulating a narrative. Nettie is very vocal in her attitudes toward the native Africans, especially the self-centeredness she perceives in them, and their clear sexism.
Additionally, by highlighting the self-centeredness Nettie perceives in the Olinka community, as well as its clear subordination of women, Walker complicates her depiction of race and identity. Though the Olinka are oppressed by a colonial force, the rubber company, there is still significant oppression within the Olinka community itself. This internal oppression, coupled with what Walker portrays as the self-centeredness of the Olinka people and their indifference toward African-American slavery, complicates the seemingly straightforward categories of oppressor and oppressed.
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