The Development of Celie in 'The Color Purple'

Seminar Paper, 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1. Introduction

2. Framework of The Color Purple

3. The Character of Celie
3.1. Adolescence
3.2. Sexual Discrimination

4. Identification Process of Celie
4.1. The Relationship Between Celie and Shug
4.1.1. Acceptance of her Body and Sexuality
4.2. Breaking the Silence
4.3. The Evolution of a Dignified, Self-confident Woman

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Being awarded the Pulitzer Price, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple stands as an extraordinary literary work, which broaches the issues of African-American women in the 1930s. At first published in 1982, it demonstrates concerns like racial discrimination and abuse amongst others by using the example of Celie, the main character. Thus, this paper is meant to discuss the development of Celie regarding her experience of harassment and oppression. Thereto, I will not only outline stages of her development, but also focus on criteria that have hindered or supported her process. Furthermore, this paper is aimed to appraise her identification process insofar, as it will look on how she has dealt with her difficulties and if she has managed to come to terms with herself, eventually.

In order to meet these ambitions, I will present several general aspects on The Color Purple including setting and formal features in the following chapter. The third and fourth chapters serve as the main part of my paper, since they deal with characteristics and the development of Celie in detail.

Consequently, I will seek to uncover reasons for her lack of self-esteem in chapter 3 by taking a closer look to her childhood first. Moreover, I will concentrate on one main problem Celie has to face during her life: sexual discrimination. In this connection, I find it also most important to examine key figures and scenes that have turned her into the woman she is.

However, as the story continues, it becomes also obvious that Celie undergoes changes. Thus, Chapter 4 will focus on her identification process and the respective result. While the preceding chapter demonstrates the establishment of Celie’s personality, the attention will now be turned to decisive factors that generate and support her search of identity. Hence, especially the relationship between Celie and Shug, the initiator of her transformation, and marginally the influence of her newly-created social network will be taken into account. Lastly, I will examine the final stage and result of her development: the evolution of a dignified, self- confident woman.

Eventually Chapter 5 will provide a brief summary of the discussion. Furthermore, it will evaluate Celie’s process in consideration of the given task and highlight the importance and universal validity of her development.

The literature I have concentrated on is in large part taken from journals, that hold a broad range of essays on The Color Purple in general and on the character Celie in particular. However, first and foremost the research refers to Alice Walker’s novel itself. As no single comprehensive analysis on The Color Purple exists, I will not focus on one academic only, but instead take different perspectives into account. However, I would like to point out the essays of Daniel Ross, Charles Proudfit, Emma Waters-Dawson and Trudier Harris, as they were rather useful for my discussion.

2. Framework of The Color Purple

Similar to her earlier works, Alice Walker has chosen a young African-American woman to be her central character: Celie, who at the beginning of the novel is only 14 years old, lives in the South of the United States and has been “sexually abused, verbally dominated, and physically beaten for almost thirty years” (Harris 1986: 1). Situated during the 1930s in the pastoral, conservative depth of Georgia, it is also set in a time and place of segregation, hostility and prejudices. Keeping that at the back of one’s mind, Celie’s fate might be considered as typical for African-American women of that time and origin. After having been rejected by almost everyone during her adolescence and separated from her beloved sister, she has turned to God instead by writing him letters: That epistolary character of the novel serves not only as an external feature of form and style, but also helps to understand her process, as it will be shown later. Moreover it “allows the reader to be inside Celie’s head as the protagonist records and comments on the events that happen to her” (Waters-Dawson 1991: 257).

Walker’s blunt portrayal of Celie’s individual and exemplary struggle for selfhood has often led to criticism since the novel “presents a negative portrait […] of black men in particular and the black family in general” (Bobo 1989: 332). Thus, it does not come as a surprise that The Color Purple is listed amongst the top five in the American Library Association’s record of the Banned and Challenged Classics1 (cf. American Library Association: 2009). In my judgment, however, it is for exactly this restricted style that the reader realizes the extent of Celie’s fate.

3. The Character of Celie

With Celie, Walker has created a typical character, as she usually “presents a montage of miserable characters, most of whom are black and female” (Snodgrass Malone in WatersDawson 1991: 259). They usually stand for the “utter extreme of hardworking, spiritless, and occasionally unattractive human beings” (Waters-Dawson 1991: 259). Since this paper aims to discuss Celie’s progress of dealing with her experiences of victimization, it is of far reaching importance to identify and name what has caused her to become one of those characters in the first place and how these factors continue to influence her.

3.1. Adolescence

When using the word adolescence, I am rather referring to the time frame and physical stage, than to what it might implicate in terms of freedom, independence, and self-discovery. For the loss of her body, “which was taken from her by men - first by her brutal stepfather and then passed on to her husband, Albert” (Ross 1988: 70) symbolizes the loss of her childhood. Thus, she is not able nor has the desire to identify with her body and sexuality during puberty. That also rests on the fact that her body is always treated as an object, whether it is for work or the act of sex. Furthermore, it is not until Shug that her sexuality slowly awakens, which also shows that Celie “seems trapped in [an] infantile stage throughout her teenage years” (Ross 1988: 75). If Lacanian psychoanalysts are to be believed, children undergo the mirror-stage2, a period in which they recognize their bodies as a whole, instead of only fragmented parts (cf. Ragland-Sullivan in Ross 1988: 75). However, in my opinion, it seems as if Celie is stuck in a pre-mirror stage, because physical actions done to her body are always reflected as if they were only happening to a part of her: “Then my stomach start moving and then that little baby come out my pussy chewing on it fist.” (Walker 2004: 4). Ross furthermore says, her “fragmentation is […] reinforced [when] her stepfather presents her as less than a whole woman to her future husband” (1988: 75). However, it also demonstrates that Celie does not have the knowledge to understand the significance of her experience and as she has been forced into silence by her father (cf. Walker 2004: 1), she does not dare to share her experience and ask for help. Consequently, she turns to God instead by writing “about events whose implications are too tragic or horrible to relate to anyone else” (Waters-Dawson 1991: 257).

Moreover, Celie has never enjoyed a mother-child relationship, but on the contrary is cussed at, even on her mother’s deathbed and moreover becomes “a necessary replacement for her own mother, who was too ill and too weary of sex to act on her own” (Barker 1999: 56). That must have also led to her “arrested developmental process” (Proudfit 1991: 15) because “the emergence of a healthy, creative self […] occurs within the mother-child matrix” (Greenberg/Mitchell in Proudfit 1991: 14).

Eventually, I agree with Emma Waters-Dawson, when she summarizes Celie’s adolescence like this:

Celie is raped by her mother’s husband, taken out of school because she is pregnant, and deprived even of the two offspring she is forced to bear; furthermore, she becomes sterile, unable to have more children, and is married off to a widower, Mister, who needs a hard worker to take care of him and his many children.

(1991: 258)

Although she moves out of her parent’s house, away from her abusive father, she is still trapped in a world marked by domination, rejection and physical violence and thus further abandons that world by isolating her thoughts and feelings.


1 The Banned and Challenged Classics is a record of books, established by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. It lists 20th century works that were objected by individuals or groups and/ or excluded from libraries for reasons of unsuitable language and/or content.

2 The mirror-stage is a major concept that can be traced back to Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and describes "a phenomenon [that] marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child [and] typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image.” (Lacan: 1951)

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Development of Celie in 'The Color Purple'
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Fremdsprachliche Philologien)
Introduction to Postcolonialism
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Development, Celie, Color, Purple, Alice Walker, postcolonial literature, abuse
Quote paper
Nadja Grebe (Author), 2009, The Development of Celie in 'The Color Purple', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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