The Process of Schema Construction, Schema Imposition, and Schema Liberation in Alice Walker`s "The Color Purple"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

22 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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1. Introduction

2. Methodical Approach

3. The process of Celie’s schema construction

4. Objectification of women. The process of schema imposition upon Celie

5. A new spiritual world view and a redefinition of interpersonal relations The process of Celie’s schema liberation

6. Summary


1. Introduction

Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God. Thank you for bringing my sister Nettie and our children home. [...]

I feel a little peculiar round the children. For one thing, they grown. And I see they think me and Nettie and Shug and Albert and Samuel and Harpo and Sofia and Jack and Odessa real old and don’t know much what going on. But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. (pp. 292-295)

This is part of Celie’s final letter, one of the central characters in The Color Purple who, after having experienced the brutality of a patriarchal system and many years of struggle and oppression, is reunited with her sister Nettie and her own children. Celie is, at the end of the novel, a solid person who has learned not only to fight but also to love herself and to share love despite continually cruel pressures.

Yet, when the novel opens, Celie is a barely grown up girl who lives in the rural South at the turn of the century. She has been sexually abused by Fonso, the man she believes to be her father. As an adolescent, Celie is confronted with rape and incest. She is made pregnant twice and assumes a large share of the domestic labor. After Fonso’s warning “You better not nevertell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”, the subject of sexual violence is immediately introduced in Celie’s first letter addressed 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. [...]

He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my tities. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.

But I don’t never git used to it. And now I feels sick every time I be the one to cook. (pp. 1-2)

Her words “titties”, “pussy”, and “his thing”, as well as the misspellings and restricted stylistic options in this first letter illustrate her innocence and poor education respectively. Boesenberg (1999) sees these letters addressed to God as the creation of an imaginary space “which compensates to some extent for the lack of attention and affection from the adults around her.” (p. 203)

Some images of slavery are also evoked in the following letters. When Albert, an older widowed man with four children, asks for Nettie’s hand in marriage, Fonso offers him Celie instead. He puts Celie up on the front porch for close inspection and advertises in a brutally explicit language Celie’s aptitude for hard work and her infertility, an economic advantage allowing her to be used as a sex object without bearing more children. Albert’s children abuse and overwork her. He beats her, forces her to work both in the house and the field, and insists on sexual gratification, treating Celie as if he can hardly bear the sight of her. Celie is a victim of a patriarchal system that reduces her to the status of property.1

Nettie leaves Fonso’s house and stays with Celie, until Albert evicts her. As she leaves, Celie begs Nettie to write if she is not dead. Many years later, Celie realizes that Albert has withheld all the letters Nettie had written to her.

When Celie meets Shug Avery, a female blues singer and Albert’s mistress, life beginns to have a different sense for her. Shug represents for Celie the female beauty. She praises Celie for her skills, despite Albert’s insults, and is the first character besides Nettie to be grateful for Celie’s hard work and to love her as a person. Shug expresses her love for Celie verbally and physically. For the first time in her life, Celie experiences bodily pleasure with her. They talk about their troubles and exchange confidences with one another. It is also the first time Celie tells a person the details of her rape:

It hurt me, you know, I say. I was just going on fourteen. I never even thought bout men having nothing down there so big. It scare me just to see it. And the way it poke itself and grow. [...] I cry and cry and cry. Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug arms. How it hurt and how much I was surprise. How it stung while I finish trimming his hair. How the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking. How he don’t never look at me straight after that. And Nettie. Don‘t cry, Celie, Shug say. Don’t cry. She start kissing the water as it come down side my face. (pp. 116-117)

Another aspect the novel deals with is that of creativity. After Shug and Celie discover the letters that Albert has kept for so many years in his trunk, Celie feels speechless and in a state of emotional emptiness. She thinks of killing Albert:

I watch him so close, I begin to feel a lightening in the head. Fore I know anything I’m standing hind his chair with his razor open.

Then I hear Shug laugh, like something just too funny. She say to me, I know I told you I need something to cut this hangnail with, but Albert git real niggerish bout this razor. Mr. _____ look behind him. Put that down, he say. Women always needing to cut this and shave that, and always gumming up the razor.

Shug got her hand on the razor now. She say, Oh it look dull anyway. She take and sling it back in the shaving box. [...]

How I’m gon keep from killing him, I say. [...]

Hard to be Christ too, say Shug. But he manage. Remember that. Thou Shalt Not Kill, He said [...]

You somebody to Nettie, she say. And she be pissed if you change on her while she on her way home. (p. 125, 150)

Shug suggests that Celie starts reading Nettie’s letters and sewing to suppress her desire to kill Albert. Through Nettie’s letters she realizes that Fonso is her stepfather, and thus, her children are not a product of incest. At the dinner table at home, Harpo, Albert’s son, Sofia, Harpo’s wife, Odessa, Sofia’s sister, Jack, Odessa’s husband, Shug, Celie, and Albert, among others, are gathered. Shug announces that Celie is going with her to Memphis. After Albert’s refusal, Celie asks him if he has received other letters from Nettie and starts cursing him as well. Celie promises him suffering all the way: “I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble. [...] Until you do right by me, everything you even dream about will fail. [...] Every lick you hit me you will suffer twice, I say.” (p. 213) In Memphis, Celie experiments with colors, materials, and the design possibilities of pants. She sews pants of every size, shape, and color for her friends and family back home. Celie’s sewing, which was originally supposed to sublimate her impulses of killing Albert, has turned into a creative process. Celie has discovered her vocation, which also makes her financially independent.

When Celie returns home from Memphis, now with a house of her own after Fonso’s death, the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are prominent in her last letters. She forgives Albert because he loves Shug and Shug used to love him. “Plus, look like he trying to make something out of himself.” (p. 267) As a symbol of their friendship, he starts making pants together with Celie. According to Johnson (1998), “[b]ecause of her love for Shug, Celie is able to move toward an understanding of the man she only knew as ‘Mister’ for many years.” (p. 85).

Boesenberg (1999) sees at the end of the novel the emergence of a black female voice. “Celie’s last letter celebrates her power of voice, representing her as the author of her own text.” (p. 218) Johnson (1998) also interprets the character of Celie as a person who has made a totally psychological journey, a journey “from a seemingly silent object to speaking subject.” (p. 99) Karanja (1993) describes three specific events in Celie’s life which constitute a ritual of transformation: the ritual phases of separation, initiation, and i ncorporation (see pp. 130-131). According to the author, Celie’s phase of separation is marked by the death of her mother and the separation from her sister Nettie. Her relationship with Shug Avery represents Celie’s second ritual stage of initiation. The final stage of incorporation comprises the events after Shug makes the announcement that Celie is going with her to Memphis. “Celie, now having entered into the fullness of womanhood, uttering, speaking herself there by locating her authoritative voice, exercises her latent female power and is, then, incorporated into the sanctum of womanhood.” (pp. 132-133)2

In his book Critical Analysis of Fiction. Essays in Discourse Stylistics, Weber (1992) advocates a stylistic analysis which focuses on the largely implicit and highly ideological background of the text. His approach emphasizes a discourse stylistics based upon a theory of language which is socially, functionally or pragmatically oriented, and includes a semiotic, cognitive, and linguistic level.

[T]he reading process is to a large extent an inferential process of meaning construction. [...] [T]he set of assumptions used in the inferential processing of text forms an ideology or what we shall refer to as a cognitive or ideological “world”. We have now moved from the linguistic level via the cognitive level to the semiotic level, where “semiotic” is used in the Hallydayan sense of the modes of meaning that constitute the “reality” of a particular individual or culture [...]. Such a reality or “world” is built around constraints which limit the meaning potential available to that particular individual. (pp. 13-14)

For analytical purposes, Weber (1992) divides the process of construction of reality into the following subprocesses: schema construction, schema imposition, and schema liberation. A mental schema is “a network of assumptions and expectations which we construct, consolidate and rely upon in our daily encounters with textual as well as extratextual stimuli.” (p. 26) Schema construction comprises not only real-world events and the construction of a particular world, but also reflects the norms, assumptions and values of a particular character. The act of imposing a schematic world-view upon another person illustrates the process of schema imposition. Schema liberation illustrates the fact of a character being free from some distortions of her own ideology.

Following Weber’s (1992) approach to critical discourse stylistics, this paper will be concerned with the analysis of the linguistic construction of reality related to one of the central characters in The Color Purple, Celie. The author’s categories of schema construction, schema imposition, and schema liberation, will illustrate the processes that lead this character to the creation of a self and finding a voice at the end of the novel.

2. Methodical approach

Weber (1992) suggests that every representation of the actual world is necessarily mediated, by subjective depictions and interpretations, and is thus to a certain extent fictional. Regarding the semiotic level of discourse stylistics, the author points out that fictional worlds are subject to modal constraints which divide these worlds into axiological and deontic. Axiological worlds cover the concepts of goodness and badness. They are “typically stories of quest involving the search for some absolute or transcendent value.” (p. 16) Deontic worlds are constituted by the concepts of prohibition and obligation.

The cognitive level of discourse stylistics comprises the speaker’s beliefs, and goals that are needed by the listener to interpret the text produced by the speaker. According to Weber (1992), the concepts of “cognitive world”, “ideology” or “ideological world” reinforce the necessary link between the cognitive and the semiotic level (see p. 17).

At a linguistic level, Weber (1992) refers to Halliday’s systemic- functional grammar3 which distinguishes three basic functions of language: the textual, the ideational, and the interpersona l. The textual function deals with the way language is used to construct a text. The ideational function is concerned with the use of language “to convey and interpret experience, to communicate ideas or concepts about reality.” (Weber 1992, p. 20) This function is realized through the use of transitive or intransitive verb constructions. It also includes verb constructions that represent mental processes, processes of sensing, relational processes, processes of being, and material processes, processes of action. The interpersonal function is realized by mood systems and structures, and includes choices in linguistic modality. Following Halliday (1994), the author makes a distinction between two basic types of modality:

Modality proper (or “modalization”) is the speaker’s judgement of the likelihood of the proposition, and includes the scales of probability (possible/ probable/ certain) [...]. Modulation is the speaker’s judgement of the desirability of the proposition, and includes the scales of obligation (allowed/ supposed/ required) [...]. (p. 21)

The concept of schema construction is approached by Weber (1992) via the notion of ideological point of view, i.e. how the particular character who sees, speaks or thinks modalize what s/he sees, says or thinks. The ideological background of a text can be determined by the potential of unrealized units, “those narrative clauses which encode an event or state of affairs that has not yet been realized or will never be realized within the fictional world in question.” (p. 23) Unrealized units are classified into explicit and implicit units. Explicit units include sentences or modal units with a modal auxiliary (s/he may ...), a modal adjective (it is possible ...), a verb of judgement (I think ...), or a modal adverb (perhaps ...). They are related to the Hallidayan concept of modalization. Negative sentences are also part of these explicit units and can illustrate some features about the speaker’s subjective expectations. Implicit units are made up of inferences corresponding to semantic gaps or ellipses in the text. The reader has to supply the missing information in the text in order to make sense it.

The category of schema imposition is linguistically represented through the use of transitivity. Balance or mutuality can be illustrated through transitive constructions of the type: I - V - you and you - V - me. Both types of constructions are referred to as two-way high transitivity. “[F]or high- transitivity both subject and object are ideally human beings, which is ensured by my formulating them as ‘I’ and ‘you’, where ‘you’ refers exclusively to the partner” (Weber 1992, p. 51). On the contrary, low transitivity is “an attempt to have the total power over the other, a denial of mutuality.” (p. 52) It is illustrated through the use of verbs in the irrealis mode (I will/ may/ didn’t/ ... tell you), which indicate an action that did not occur, or that happens in a contigent world, and represent indirect or latent use of power. The direct use of power “consists in turning the two-way transitivity into a one-way system of control.” (p. 52) In this respect, high and low transitivity illustrate the ideational function of language.4

With regard to the category of schema liberation, Weber (1992) explains this process with the Hallidayan concept of modulation. As mentioned above, modulation refers to the speaker’s assessment of obligation. It is subjectively oriented through the use of the modal verbs ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘ought to’, ‘should’, ‘may’, ‘can’, which represent the speaker’s personal norms. Constructions such as ‘supposed to’ indicate an objective orientation, and reflect social norms imposed from outside upon the individual.

3. The process of Celie’s schema construction

For the analysis of the process of schema construction through the notion of the ideological point of view, Weber (1992) suggests a prior analysis of the linguistic point of view, i.e. an answer to the question “who speaks or thinks?” In this respect, Boesenberg (1999) mentions that Celie’s letters, particularly the early ones, contain long representations of oral conversations in direct speech. By omitting standard typographical markers of direct speech such as quotation marks, Walker downplays boundaries between Celie’s written discourse and the speech she reports, as well as boundaries between the author Celie and her characters. Some sentences become ambiguous as a result: it is undecidable whether they are Celie’s or the characters [...], or whether they present Celie’s thoughts, speech or later commentary [...]. (pp. 281-282)

The author proposes the term free direct discourse for this form of speech-representation with “minimal editing”. Moreover, the illusion of oral narration in the novel, which creates a fictious ‘language of proximity’, “facilitates identification with the characters and emotional involvement in the fictional universe.”(p. 21)

Celie’s schema structure can be reconstructed via some modal and negated units, and the implied propositions which underlie them. As mentioned above, Celie is at the beginning of the novel a naive child who suffers physical pain and mental anguish. For a long time, she does not sign her letters. This can be explained by the fact that Celie does not think of herself as a person with sufficient worth to sign her name. The following negated units illustrate the idea of Celie’s poor self-esteem:

- “I don’t have nothing.” (p. 4)
- “I don’t have nothing to offer and I feels poor.” (p. 15)
- “ Nobody ever love me, I say.” (p. 117)

Her lack of self-worth is the result of being exposed to a patriarchal system which objectifies women. She writes about her father: “[h]e never had a kine word to say to me” (p. 1); “Pa call me. Celie, he say. Like it wasn’t nothing” (p. 11). The fact that she calls Albert “Mr._____” shows the distance that exists between them and the position of servitude and alienation in which she is placed. The narration of her sexual relations with Albert also reflects the dehumanizing aspects of this act: “I lay there thinking about Nettie while he on top of me” (p. 13); “[h]e clam on top of me and fuck and fuck, even when my head bandaged” (p. 117); “Mr._____ clam on top of me, do his business, in ten minutes us both sleep” (p. 69).

Before meeting Shug Avery, Celie is a weak person who cannot fight Albert. Her sexuality is controlled by men, to whom she is not attracted:

- “But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive.” (p. 18)
- “I don’t fight, I stay where I’m told.” (p. 22)
- He say, Celie, git the belt. [...] It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, You a tree.” (p. 23)
- “I don’t know no other man [...]” (p. 3)
- “He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church. [...] I don’t even look at mens.” (p. 6)
- “Most times mens look pretty much alike to me.” (p. 16)

Celie and other female characters in the novel are depicted negatively. Such images about women can be identified through some negated and modal units. When Harpo brings Sofia home to meet his father, Albert remarks that “[y]oung womens no good these days, [...]. Got they legs open to every Tom, Dick and Harry.” (p. 32) Celie hears about Shug Avery being belittled and damned in church: “[a] woman at church say she dying - maybe two berkulosis or some kind of nasty woman disease.” (p. 45) When Celie talks about all the hard field work which she and Harpo have done, Celie says the following about Harpo: “[h]e black as the inside of a chimney. His eyes be sad and thoughtful. His face begin to look like a woman face.” (p. 29) After a long time hearing, thinking, and dreaming about Shug Avery, Celie is at last going to meet her. When Albert returns with her in the back of his wagon, Celie relates her own feelings in the following way:

My heart beginn to beat like a furry, and the first thing I try to do is change my dress.

But too late for that. By time I git my head and arm out the old dress, I see the wagon pull up in the yard. Plus a new dress won’t help none with my notty head and dusty headrag, my old everyday shoes and the way I smell.

I don’t know what to do, I’m so beside myself. [...]

Come on in, I want to cry. To shout. Come on in. With God help, Celie going to make you well. But I don’t say nothing. It not my house. Also I ain’t been told nothing. (pp. 46-47)

Celie feels like a slave. She thinks she does not have the right to offer help and speak unless given permission to do so by Albert. Shug’s first words to her are “[y]ou sure is ugly” (p. 48). It could be inferred from this statement that Albert has already talked to Shug about Celie’s ugliness.

These examples of negated and modal units describe a state of affairs related to the topics of male dominance, domestic violence, and gender oppression. Yet the fact that Celie writes her letters to God can be interpreted as a protest against the abuse she suffers. It illustrates at the same time a schema of faith which contrasts with the whole range of oppression she is exposed to. As Boesenberg (1999) suggests, writing down an account of her rape in her first letter to God is an act of subversion.

Ce lie’s “But I don’t never get used to it”, directly juxtaposed as it is to the imperative “You better shut up and git used to it”, has a defiant ring at the same time that it expresses her pain and suffering. It parallels her refusal to “shut up” which this first letter represents. By delineating different layers of intentionality in the same utterance, Walker subtly prepares the reader for Celie’s later rebellion. (p. 199)

The following modal units in Celie’s first letters represent to a certain extent the beginning of resistance to male domination. They illustrate Celie’s hopes in different ways:

- “I keep hoping he fine somebody to marry. I see him looking at my little sister. She scared. But I say I’ll take care of you. With God help.” (p. 4)
- “How she could come to me if I marry him and he be so love struck with her I could figure out a way for us to run away. [...] us know we got to be smart to git away.” (p. 10)

These examples are concerned with Celie’s adult- like attitude for her sister Nettie and her strong faith in God. She does not want Nettie to be sexually brutalized as she herself has been. Before marrying Albert, Celie also thinks about escaping with Nettie. After Nettie leaves, there is no further mention of Celie’s desires for escape. However, she continues having faith: “long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along.” (p. 18) These modal units that show her faith in God take the reader into Celie‘s axiological world, into her search for some transcendent value.

When Celie goes to town for the first time, she meets Corrine by chance, the adoptive mother of Celie’s children, Olivia and Adam. She sees Corrine with Olivia and immediately feels that the baby is hers. Celie writes in her letter to God: “I think she mine. My heart say she mine. [...] If she mine, her name Olivia.” (p. 14) The fact that she trusts her feelings at this point indicates a first step in the growth of her emotional abilities, and will be of importance throughout the rest of the novel As mentioned above, Shug Avery plays an important role in Celie’s transformation.5 In this respect, Butler- Evans (1989) describes the character of Shug as “a vehicle through which Celie becomes concious of, and empowered to address, the conditions that oppress her.” (p. 169) Before describing the process through which Celie frees herself from such oppression, the following section will illustrate how a patriarchal schema is imposed upon this character.

4. Objectification of women. The process of schema imposition upon Celie

Since the beginning of the novel, Celie is objectified and often regarded as less than human. She is reduced to the status of an object and property through male dominance and sexual violence. In this patriarchal schema, knowledge is kept inaccessible to women. This idea of the inaccessibility of male knowledge, which situates Albert in a position of power over Celie, is represented through the following negated units:

- “Mr._____ children all bright but they mean. They say Celie, I want dis. Celie, I want dat. Our Mama let us have it. He don’t say nothing.” (p. 18)
- “Harpo bring [Sofia] to meet his daddy. [...] She sit down and start to fan herself with a hansker. It sure is hot, she say. Mr._____ don’t say nothing.” (p. 32)
- “Harpo look at his daddy [...]. But he don’t say nothing.” (p. 33)
- “Mr._____ whisper to Sofia. Where your children at? She whisper back, My children at home, where yours? He don’t say nothing.” (p. 85)

The relationship of Celie with her father and Albert is characterized by a denial of the essential subjectivity of women, and thus, a denial of mutuality. This is represented in the novel by the use of direct or indirect power through transitive constructions. When The Color Purple opens, Fonso’s threatening command “You better not never tell nobody but God” is a vivid example of the manifest use of power, and places Celie’s first letter to God in a context of domination. His strategy of power is linguistically represented through the use of a one- way low transitivity:

- “Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t.” (p. 1)
- “He say Why don’t you look decent? Put on something.” (p. 4)
- “He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church.” (p. 6)
- “He beat me for dressing trampy but he do it to me anyway.” (p. 8)
- “You too dumb to keep going to school, Pa say.” (p. 11)

In the following passage, the same technique of one-way transitivity is used when Celie is traded like a slave by Fonso:

She ain’t fresh tho, but I spect you know that. She spoiled. Twice. But you don’t need a fresh woman no how. [...]

She ugly. He say. But she ain’t no stranger to hard work. And she clean. And God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain’t gonna make you feed it or clothe it. [...] She a bad influence on my other girls. [...]

She ugly. Don’t even look like she kin to Nettie. But she’ll make the better wife. She ain’t smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own. (p. 9)

In this way, Celie is characterized by negative images and forced to be part of a system of beliefs and values to which she is supposed to conform. Albert’s strategy of power over Celie is also represented through the use of a one-way system of transitivity. When Celie goes to town for the first time with Albert, she writes in her letter: “Mr._____, come out the store. Clam up in the wagon. Set down. Say real slow. What you setting here laughing like a fool fer?” (p. 16). In other occasion, when Celie talks about her work in the field, she also mentions the poor communication that exists between them: “He wake up while I’m in the field. I been chopping cotton three hours by time he come. Us don’t say nothing to each other.” (p. 27)

The pattern of objectifying women in the novel is transmitted from father to son. When Albert’s father arrives, he expresses his disgust that Albert has taken Shug into his home: “[s]he black as tar, she nappy headed. She got legs like baseball bats. [...] she ain’t even clean. I hear she got the nasty woman disease. [...] Plus all her children got different daddys.” (pp. 56-57). Albert feels that her father’s statement is unfair. Yet he repeats the same pattern of unjustice when Sofia comes to visit him, charging her with promiscuity. In the same way as Albert beats Celie, he advises Harpo to beat Sofia to make her obedient:

You ever hit her? Mr._____ ast.

Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.

Well how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating. (p. 37)

Weber (1992) affirms that, in this strategy of direct use of power, “relational processes take precedence over mental and material process clauses, where the dynamic world of interhuman processes is reified into a static world of immutable percepts and interdicts, which weigh like a heavy burden upon the individual.” (p. 54) In this respect, Fonsos utterances about Celie in the previous examples, “[y]ou too dumb”, “[s]he ain’t fresh tho”, “[s]he spoiled”, “[s]he ugly”, “[s]he a bad influence”, represent these relational process clauses. At this point, the relationship between Celie and the characters of Fonso and Albert represents a deontic world of prohibition and obligation.

Yet the breaking of this patriarchal schema can be seen as threatening or subversive. When Celie interacts with other women, her consciousness starts growing. Celie’s relationship with her sister Nettie is characterized by affection, and thus, it is linguistically represented by grammatical patterns of two-way high transitivity:

- “I tell Nettie to keep at her books. It be more then a notion taking care of children ain’t even yourn.” (p. 5)
- “[Nettie] try to tell me something bout the ground not being flat.” (p. 11)
- “[Nettie] be sitting there [...] [h]elping me with spelling and everything else she think I need to know. No matter what happen, Nettie steady try to teach me what go on in the world.” (p. 17)

After finding Nettie’s letters, Celie starts writing her letters to Nettie instead to God. Although Nettie does not receive any of them, these letters represent for Celie an emotional closeness to her sister. Nettie’s letters also enlarge Celie’s horizon with respect to the outside world.

When Celie tells Harpo to beat Sofia, Sofia confronts Celie and reveals how terribly betrayed she feels:

Then what you say it for? She ast She standing there looking me straight in the eye. She look tired and her jaws full of air.

I say it cause I’m a fool, I say. I say it cause I’m jealous of you. I say it cause you do what I can’t. What that? She say.

Fight. I say.

She stand there a long time, like what I said took the wind out of her jaws. She mad before, sad now. [...] You ought to bash Mr. _____ head open, she say. Think bout heaven later. Not much funny to me. That funny. I laugh. She laugh. Then us both laugh so hard us flop down on the step.

Let’s make quilt pieces out of these messed curtains, she say. And I run git my pattern book. I sleeps like a baby now. (pp. 42-44)

This exchange between Celie and Sofia illustrate their vividly contrasting characters. Sofia is a fighter. Celie is in that moment an anguished woman as she admits to having been a fool. Laughing together, the two women are reconciled finally because of their honest exchange of viewpoints. The quilt that they decide to make together symbolizes their reconciliation. As Boesenberg (1999) suggests, this reconciliation between them represents “a significant step in the healing of Celie’s psyche. Sofia is one of several women whose friendship helps Celie to eventually overcome the psychic damage caused by a history of disregard for her as a person.” (p. 204) Their reconciliation also represents a balance achieved in their relationship. Later in the novel, Celie tries to achieve a similar balance in Sofia’s matrimony, as she tells Harpo how Sofia loves him:

Harpo, I say, giving him a shake, Sofia love you. You love Sofia.

He look at me at best he can out his fat little eyes. Yes ma’am? He say.

Mr._____ marry me to take care of his children. I marry him cause my daddy made me. I don’t love Mr._____ and he don’t love me.” (p. 66)

A state of balance and mutuality is reached by Celie in her relationship with Shug Avery. They talk about their troubles and exchange confidences with one another. According to Johnson (1998), “[t]he love between Shug and Celie is intersubjective because both women are free to love and each is a speaking subject.” (p. 97) This subjectivity is also represented through grammatical constructions of two-way high transitivity. When Albert brings Shug home, she is sick. He gives Shug to Celie to take care of. For Celie, it is a source of pleasure and excitement: “[f]irst time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black pump nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man. ” (p. 51) The first exchange of confidences between them is about their own children:

She say, You ever have any kids?

I say, Yes ma’am.

She say, How many and don’t you yes ma’am me, I ain’t that old. I say, two.

She ast me Where they is? I say, I don’t know.

She look at me funny.

My kids with they grandma, she say. She could stand the kids, I had to go. You miss’ em? I ast.

Naw, she say. I don’t miss nothing. (pp. 51-52)

Shug is so grateful that Celie has nursed her back to health that she names a blues that she sings at Harpo’s jukejoint “Miss Celie’s song”. Celie’s heart begins to come to life again: “[s]he say this song I’m bout to sing is call Miss Celie’s song. Cause she scratched it out of my head when I was sick. [...] First time somebody made something and name it after me.” (p. 77) Besides Shug’s awakening to life, Celie is awakening to a sense of herself. Since Nettie left, this is the first time Celie feels loved. Afterwards, Celie tells Shug that Albert beats her. Shug’s first reaction is to protect Celie: “I won’t leave, she say, until I know Albert won’t even think about beating you.” (p. 79) Both women also talk about their relationship with him. In contrast to the conversation between Celie and Sofia, Celie tells Shug more details about her sexual relations with Albert:

I don’t like it at all. What is it like? He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep.

She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why, Miss Celie. You make it sound like he going to the toilet on you.

That what it feel like, I say. She stop laughing.

You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy? Never, I say.

Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin. (p. 81)

This part of the novel represents the beginning of Celie’s sexual awakening. Shug teaches Celie how to give herself pleasure and make herself feel good. The way her genital parts are described reflects a positive view of a female body and Celie’s maternal instincts:

Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose.

It a lot prettier than you thought, ain’t it? She say from the door. It mine, I say. Where the button?

Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little.

I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this is the right button to mash. Maybe.

She say, While you looking, look at your titties too. I haul up my dress and look at my titties. Think bout my babies sucking them. Remember the little shiver I felt then too. Sometimes a big shiver. Best part about having the babies was feeding ’em. (p. 82)

After telling Shug the details about her rape for the first time6, the highest point of mutuality between both women is reached in the scene where Celie makes love with her. Like the previous examples, this sequence is represented by patterns of two-way high transitivity:

She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth.

Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back, say um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other.

I don’t know nothing bout it, I say to Shug. I don’t know much, she say. (p. 118)

They also talk together about Nettie: “I talk so much my voice start to go. Why you want to know so much bout Nettie? I ast. Cause she the only one you ever love, she say, sides me.” (p. 123).

Whereas relational process clauses take precedence at the beginning of the novel, a great number of mental processes prevail during Celie’s interaction with other female characters, specially with Shug:

- “I wash her body, it feel like I’m praying.” (p. 51)
- “First time I think about the world. [...] For the first time in my life, I feel just right.” (p. 60)
- “My life stop when I left home, I think. But then I think again. It stop with Mr._____ maybe, but start up again with Shug.”
- “Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too.” (p. 118)
- “What it like? [...] It warm and cushiony, and I feel Shug’s big tits sorta flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr._____ at all.” (p. 119)

Boesenberg (1999) affirms that, as Celie grows in self-confidence, “her letters turn into longer and more differentiated accounts of her life, including explicit commentary on her own or other people’s actions, and more extensive representations of her feelings.” (p. 265)

Celie’s first action against the patriarchal opression takes place when she spits in the glass of water of Albert’s father. In this respect, Johnson (1998) suggests that Celie has become a ‘silent revolutionary’, “a woman who does not yet have the power to verbally express herself, but whose knowledge of herself is growing. Celie rebels on behalf of Shug, the woman who is to become [...] her friend, and her lover.” (p. 106) The following section will illustrate how Celie achieves her definite emancipation from these patriarchal structures.

5. A new spiritual world view and a redefinition of interpersonal relations. The process of Celie’s schema liberation

Celie’s image of God as a tall, graybearded, white man who does not listen to women like her is replaced by the idea of a God that doesn’t look like anything. Shug urges Celie to see God as part of the Creation and to understand herself as part of a universe in which God continually manisfests itself, even in the color purple. In this respect, “Celie begins to move, gradually, toward wholeness of and reverence for the self, and begins to speak herself into existenc e with a spirit that surprises everyone in the familiy.” (Fanning 1993, p. 54) According to Boesenberg (1999), this metamorphosis of Celie’s world view is “at the heart of Walker’s ambitious re-examination of Christianity in The Color Purple.” (p. 206)

After Celie finds Nettie’s letters, she confronts Albert and decides to go to Memphis with Shug. This part of the novel is characterized by numerous images of anger, death, and sadness. They are represented in the novel through modal and negated units which exemplify Celie’s feelings at that moment:

- “I don’t sleep. I don’t cry. I don’t do nothing. I’m cold too. Pretty soon I think maybe I’m dead.” (p. 125)
- “Naw, I think I feel better if I kill him, I say. I feels sickish. Numb, now.” (p. 151)
- “[M]y tities stay soft, my little button never rise. Now I know I’m dead.” (p. 152)

Celie curses him for having kept Nettie’s letters so long: “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.” (p. 207) The scene of Celie’s departure is characterized by a great number of relational process clauses that indicate negative images about Celie. They also illustrate Albert’s last attempt to subjugate her through direct use of power:

You’ll be back, he say. Nothing up North for nobody like you. Shug got talent, he say. She can sing. She got spunk, he say. She can talk to anybody. Shug got looks, he say. She can stand up and be notice. But what you got? You ugly. You skinny. You shape funny. You too scared to open your mouth to people. All you fit to do in Memphis is be Shug’s maid. [...] You not that good a cook either. And this house ain’t been clean good since my first wife died. And nobody crazy or backguard enough to marry you, neither. What you gon do? Hire yourself out to farm? He laugh. Maybe somebody let you work on the railroad. (pp. 212-213)

Another attempt of imposing his power over Celie, but in an indirect or latent way7, is illustrated in the following sentence, after Celie asks him if he had received any more letters: “If they did, he say, I wouldn’t give ’em to you.”

Celie becomes a “conjuring woman”8 as she tells Albert:

Until you do right by me, I say, everything you even dream about will fail. I give it to him straight, just like it come to me. And it seem to come to me from the trees. [...]

Look like when I open my mouth tha air rush in and shape words. [...]

Shug come over to where us talking. She take one look at my face and say Celie! [...]

A dust devil flew up on the porch between us, fill my mouth with dirt. The dirt say, Anything you do to me, already done to you.

Then I feel Shug shake me. Celie, she say. And I come to myself. (pp. 213-214)

Later in the novel, Albert goes through difficulties as he loses every person close to him and almost his sanity. Celie’s voice uttering these words does not seem to be her own. She seems to be in a state of trance or connection with the universe as Shug shakes her. The last sentence in this part of the novel, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here. Amen, say Shug. Amen, amen” (p. 214), can be interpreted as Celie’s assumption of her place in the Creation. Celie’s confrontation with Albert and her departure to Memphis represent an act of subversion and the definite step in the process of liberation from the patriarchal system.

Celie has now become a speaking subject. In this part of the novel, expressions of subjective orientation which indicate Celie’s personal norms and values take precedence over expressions of objective orientation which refer to social stereotypes.9 This is illustrated in the novel as Celie beginns to sew “folkspants” for Shug and some other characters:

You ought to make up a special pair to thank and show Jack. [...]

They have to be camel. And soft and strong. And they have to have big pockets so he can keep a lot of children’s things. Marbles and string and pennies and rocks. And they have to be washable and they have to fit closer round the leg tha Shug’s so he can run if he need to snatch a child out the way of something. And they have to be something he can lay back in when he hold Odessa in front of the fire. (pp. 219-220)

Constructions of material and mental processes also grow in importance:

- “I sit in the dinning room making pants after pants.” (p. 218)
- “The next week I’m in and out of stores [...]” (p. 220)
- “I’m busy making pants for Sofia now.” (p. 223)
- “I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time.” (p. 222)

These examples of material and mental processes as well as the previous examples characteristic of subjective orientation present an image of Celie as a person who has finally succeeded and who is free to choose her own obligations.

Celie’s relationship with Shug at the beginning of their stay in Memphis is a further mutual relation. At home, they talk about their house, about cooking, and Celie’s pants creation. The constant repetition of the pronoun “us” also suggests this idea of mutuality:

Us talk about houses a lot. How they built, what kind of wood people use. Talk about how to make the outside around your house something you can use. I sit down on the bed and start to draw a kind of wood skirt around her concrete house. You can sit on this, I say, when you get tired of being in the house.

Yeah, she say, and let’s put awning over it. She took the pencil and put the wood skirt in the shade. Flower boxes go here, she say, drawing some. [...]

But the time us finish our house look like it can swim or fly. [...] Us eat and eat, and drink a little sweet wine and beer too. [...]

Let’s us put a few advertisements in the paper, she say. And let’s us raise your prices a hefty notch. [...] You making your living, Celie, she say. Girl, you on your way. (pp. 216-221)

However, at a later point in the novel, Shug has a love affair with Germaine, a young flutist she hired to play in her band. As Shug talks about it, Celie’s feelings are expressed through the following modal and negated units which again indicate images of death:

- “I feel like shit. [...] Shug, you killing me.” (p. 255)
- “Well, I say, if words could kill, I’d be in the ambulance.” (p. 256)
- “I don’t say nothing. Stillness, coolness. Nothingness. Coming fast.” (p. 256)
- “I don’t say nothing. I pray to die, just so I don’t never have to speak.” (p. 257)

Celie returns home and lives in her own house after Fonso’s death. Having a house of her own gives her even more financial security and a new place to share with Nettie and other characters at the end of the novel. Her reaction to Shug’s affair at a later point in the novel indicates her psychological progress with respect to her past experiences: “if she want to come back here dragging Germaine I’d make them both welcome, or die trying. Who am I to tell her who to love? My job just to love her good and true myself.” (p. 276) When Shug returns, “the intermediate separation engenders greater symmetry in their relationship, in which Shug is less dominant and Celie less dependent than before.” (Boesenberg 1999, p. 212). Celie’s reaction to Nettie’s possible death also illustrates her psychological growth and a different form of spirituality related to her new image of God. There is no anxiety or sadness in her reflections:

And I don’t believe you dead. How can you be dead if I still feel you? Maybe, like God, you changed into something different that I’ll have to speak to in a different way, but you not dead to me Nettie. And never will be. Sometime when I git tired of talking to myself I talk to you. I even try to reach our children. (p. 267)

Moreover, Albert seems to abandon his patriarchal role. He learns to cook and even makes yam dishes for Henrietta, Sofia’s daughter who is suffering from a “blood disease”. Celie and Albert become friends and eventually sew pants together. Whereas Albert’s relationship with Celie was before characterized by a denial of subjectivity and mutuality, it becomes now closer and more harmonius:

I mean when you talk to him now he really listen, and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said Celie, I’m satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man. It feel like a new experience. [...]

Now us sit sewing and talking and smoking our pipes. [...]

He not such a bad looking man, you know, when you come right down to it. And now it do begin to look like he got a lot of feeling hind his face. [...] (pp. 267, 279-280)

If at the beginning of the novel a mutual relationship between a man and a woman was considered to be androgynous, and thus, impossible, Celie and Albert represent at the end the embodiment of androgyny. As Boesenberg (1999) suggests, Celie’s “feminine” and Albert’s “masculine” behaviour change in order to become a whole (see p. 239).

Just as sex declines in importance towards the end of the novel, the concept of gender loses much of its defining quality. Differences in physical appearance are minimized as the family members put on Celie’s unisex pants. The revision of gender is attractive for all characters: women are empowered, men redeemed through the manner in which they change. (p. 238)

The last letter in The Color Purple relates Celie’s reunion with Nettie and the children. Their encounter provides Celie with an inexhaustible source of youth: “Matter of fact, I think this is the youngest us ever felt.” (p. 295) This letter addressed to God, the stars, the trees, the sky, and to her “peoples” represents Celie’s wholeness and interconnection with “Everything”. In this respect, Johnson (1998) remarks that “[t]he protagonists of this narrative bridge the chasm that is produced by an androcentric culture by finding within themselves the interconnectedness that enables them not only to relate to one another but to the whole of the creation.” (pp. 108-109)

6. Summary

Weber’s approach to critical discourse stylistics illustrates the way how reality is linguistically constructed. Applied to the analysis of The Color Purple, it shows the cognitive or ideological world of one of the central characters of the novel, Celie, and her process of constructing a self and finding a voice through the categories of schema construction, schema imposition and schema liberation.

In the category of schema construction, examples of modal and negated units emphasize Celie’s state of alienation under a patriarchal system, and illustrate at the same time the topics of violence, male dominance, and oppression. Yet this schema is not completely internalized by this character at the beginning of the novel. It constrasts with the act of writing letters and her faith in God, as a first sign of resistance to oppression.

The category of schema imposition illustrates the pattern of objectifying women. It is shown through grammatical constructions of one-way transitivity which intensify the inaccessibility of male knowledge and the ability of some male characters to dominate women. The masculine world, represented in the novel mainly by Fonso and Albert, denies the essential subjectivity of women and imposes a deontic world of duties and principles upon Celie. However, it is women who create expectations of symmetry in The Color Purple. On the one hand, examples of two-way high transitivity and mental processes indicate a state of balance and mutuality in Celie’s interaction with Nettie, Sofia, and Shug, and represent an act of subversion against this patriarchal schema. On the other hand, Celie’s exchange of confidences with other women suggests a greater self-awareness and independence, and thus, a decisive step in Celie’s pursuit of a more self-directed identity.

The process of schema liberation is characterized by the idea of a new spirituality and new forms of interpersonal relationships. Further examples characteristic of mental and material processes, as well as expressions of subjective orientation indicate Celie’s psychological growth and her transformation into a speaking subject. At the end of the novel, Celie recognizes “that she is a unique entity in the plenitude of Creation and that her place, however finite, is an integral part of [...] an infinite universe.” (Fannin 1993, p. 46)

According to Weber (1992), our realities are to a large extent linguistically constructed. This “can ultimately lead to social change, since it opens up the possibility of alternative constructions of reality.” (p. 13) In this respect, The Color Purple is concerned with the psychic and physical oppression of women, and emphasizes their desires to achieve freedom and spirituality. The novel delineates politically productive models of interpersonal relations, especially with regard to more balanced male-female partnerships. Projecting a concept of identity which is constituted in close interactions with others, replacing the patriarchal nuclear family with a female-centered kin network, the text represents expanded experiential options for its female characters. Reconceptualizing [...] sexuality, a lesbian love relationship and a revised form of heterosexual bonding are both portrayed as viable personal choices. (Boesenberg 1999, p. 216)


Boesenberg, Eva (1999). Gender - Voice - Vernacular. The Formation of Female Subjectivity in Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Heidelberg.

Butler-Evans, Elliot (1989). Race, Gender, and Desire. Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia.

Fannin, Alice (1993). “A Sense of Wonder: The Pattern for Psychic Survival in Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple. In: Howard, Lillie P. (ed.). Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. The Common Bond. Connecticut / London. 45-56

Halliday. Michael A. K. (1994). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London.

Henderson, Mae G. (1989). “The Color Purple: Revisions and Redefinitions”. In: Bloom, Harold (ed.). Alice Walker. New York / Philadelphia.

Johnson, Yvonne (1998). The Voices of African American Women. The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York.

Karanja, Ayana (1993). “Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Transcendent Realtionship - Jonah’s Gourd Vine and The Color Purple”. In: Howard, Lillie P. (ed.). Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. The Common Bond. Connecticut / London. 121-137

Walker, Alice (1982). The Color Purple. New York / London / Toronto / Sydney / Tokyo / Singapore.

Waters Dawson, Emma J. (1993). “Redemption Through Redemption of the Self in Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple”. In: Howard, Lillie P. (ed.). Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. The Common Bond. Connecticut / London. 69-82

Weber, Jean Jacques (1992). Critical Analysis of Fiction. Essays in Discourse Stylistics. Amsterdam / Atlanta.

Wilson, Mary Ann (1993). “‘That Which the Soul Lives By’: Spirituality in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker”. In: Howard, Lillie P. (ed.). Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. The Common Bond. Connecticut / London. 57-67


1 See Johnson (1998, p. 81)

2 For further descriptions of Celie’s creation of the self and finding her own voice see also Wilson (1993, p. 61ff); Waters Dawson (1993, p. 77ff); Buttler-Evans (1989, p. 169ff); Henderson (1989, p. 74ff).

3 See Halliday (1994)

4 See p. 5 above

5 See pp. 2-3

6 See p. 2 above

7 For an explanation of the grammatical representation of indirect or latent use of power, see p. 6 above.

8 See Wilson (1993, p. 61)

9 See p. 6 above

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The Process of Schema Construction, Schema Imposition, and Schema Liberation in Alice Walker`s "The Color Purple"
University of Freiburg
HS The Woman that I am: The Construction of SElf and Identity in American Women Writing
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Process, Schema, Construction, Schema, Imposition, Schema, Liberation, Alice, Walker`s, Color, Purple, Woman, Construction, SElf, Identity, American, Women, Writing
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Gabriel Dorta Méndez (Author), 2001, The Process of Schema Construction, Schema Imposition, and Schema Liberation in Alice Walker`s "The Color Purple", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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