Alice Walker’s Use of Epistolary Narrative in "The Color Purple"

Essay, 2015

19 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Literature Review

3 Research Methodology

4 Celie’s letters and her struggle for Freedom

5 Conclusion

6 References


This study explores the purpose of Alice Walker’s use of epistolary narrative in her most celebrated novel The Color Purple. Being a renowned female writer, she deals with the sufferings of the black women who are suppressed. The sufferings and pains are inflicted upon them by the male members of their own society. This research paper aims at the protagonist’s self-discovery who is a black, unlettered and silenced girl of fourteen years in the beginning of the novel but she becomes an independent woman by the end of the novel.. This research work will help the reader to understand other’s plight. It will also enable all the suppressed women to fix their problems in patriarchal setup.

1 Introduction

Alice Malsenior Walker is one of the most illustrious and renowned black women novelists. Apart from writing novels, she also wrote several short stories, essays and poems. She received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple and became the first woman to receive Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

She was born on 9th of February 1944 in a rural town of Eatonton, Georgia. She was the youngest of eight children of Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker and Willie Lee Walker. They were sharecroppers. The environment in which Alice Walker grew up was of violence, sexism and poverty.

She was blinded in right eye by BB gun pellet in 1952 because of an accidental shooting. This incident proved instrumental in letting her choose writing career as an escape from the society because she felt herself to be misfit in it because of her physical deformity. Writing served her as her catharsis and she felt more comfort in the life of her mind than with her family.

The following are some of her prominent works which show that throughout her writing career, she always remained relevant to her times but at the same time, through her unique style and technique, she universalizes her themes. To Hell With Dying is a significant short story. Then she wrote The Civil Right Movement, The Third Life of George Copeland, Meridian, Possessing the Secret of Joy, The Same River Twice; Honoring The Difficulties, By The Light of My Father’s Smile and a collection of essays We are the Ones We have been Waiting are some other significant works of Alice Walker.

In 1982, she wrote The Color Purple, the best of all her works. It is an epistolary novel. The pioneer of the English novel, Samuel Richardson, employed this technique for the first time in his novel Pamela in which the plot of the novel is unfolded through the exchange of letters between its major characters. No doubt, it is the earliest technique of novel writing but the credit goes to Alice Walker who uses the same technique in a new way and style to discuss the most sensitive issues of the modern times.

The novel The Color Purple is about a poor black woman, Celie who dwells in rural Georgia, near the town of Eatonton where Walker was born. Like her novel Possessing the secret of joy (1992), Walker used first person narration in The Color Purple. But in this novel the first person narration appears in letters alone.

The story of the novel The Color Purple has multiple layers of meanings and themes. It magnifies the most sensitive and touching issues of the world of today. Celie, the central figure in the novel represents all such black girls in the world who are treated unjustly by those who must have cherished her and nurtured her. But, they ruin all her chances in life and she fails to avail the chances that life offers her.

She is parentless and hence shelterless. Her father is killed by the white men and her mother marries again and leaves her in the lurch to suffer endlessly.

Her step-father assaults her sexually at too young an age when she hardly knows what it all about is. She carries deep scars on her soul and psychology throughout the novel and learns through her bitter experiences in life how to survive.

Characters like Nettie, Shug and Sofia serve as turning point or watershed in her life. Their attitude and character influence and inspire her the most and she gets a new awakening and awareness about life. Under their influence, she breaks the shell of complexes and sees things in their true colors. Shug encourages her to launch a business of her own to establish her identity and individuality in the society which crushes her in the beginning in one way or another. The research question of this study is to explore an illiterate Black girl’s journey to freedom

Walker is of the view that external experiences of the human beings directly affect the character and soul and keep on shaping their personality on new grounds and on new foundation and after an intense process of very varied experiences, they emerge as potentially solid and sound character.

2 Literature Review

There are several writers in the history of English literature who used the technique of epistolary narrative in their works. Most of the writers employed this technique only for the sake of communication between the characters. In contrast to these writers, Alice Walker utilizes epistolary narrative for some consequential purposes in her novel The Color Purple. This research work deals with her use of epistolary narrative to explore the momentous issues that are hidden in the letters and the development of the protagonist’s character of the novel.

Alice Walker is not writing about issues that are only concerned with a single human being. It is considered that when anyone suffers from any pain, this pain is only restricted to one particular person but when the whole society suffers, this, a minor wound becomes the cancer of the whole society. Walker revolves the story of her novel The Color Purple around two characters, Celie and Nettie, but actually she is talking about the whole society that is full of domestic violence which includes both physical and mental abuse, racialism and patriarchy. In addition to shedding light on these problems, she talks about how these suppressed people of society overcome these evils and start a journey towards freedom.

Patrrica Harris Abrams animadverts in The Gift of Loneliness: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, about the themes of Alice Walker that she infixes in her works:

“Walker explores themes, many of which germinate in her earlier short stories and poetry, which illuminate the human condition: loss of innocence, search for faith, the nature of human suffering and triumph of human spirit. Additionally she examines some taboos in that relationship between women as well as between parents and children.” (Abrams)

Alice Walker introduces several themes in her works such as various sorts of sufferings faced by human beings, triumph of human spirit, loss of innocence, search for identity and faith and nature of relationship between man and woman and the notions that are associated with men and women. All these themes are posed in her novel The Color Purple. These themes are not only floating on the surface but the reader has to plunge into the ocean of words that are constellated in the form of letters.

Jeri Walker – Bickett opines in his Literary Criticism: The Color Purple by Alice Walker:

“On the most sweeping scale, the novel’s structure begins with Celie writing letters to God out of fear while unknowingly beginning the process of self-discovery. Then Nettie’s letters function to aid in Celie’s journey and Celie stops writing to God and writes to the more tangible Nettie. Celie’s final letter addresses everything under the sun. Walker uses this form to show how passionately the world is connected on all levels.” (Bickett)

Walker’s use of epistolary form has a serious purpose. Letter writing is the only weapon in the hand of Celie through which she can fight the war against patriarchy. The act of letter writing develops the sense of selfhood in her. From the very beginning, she is raising her voice against all the oppressions by writing letters to God but her voice was not loud to let the others hear it. When Celie learns that her younger sister is alive and gets all her letters that she has written to her, she gets courage and makes her voice louder that other people can listen it. She changes that recipient of her letters. She shifts from God to Nettie and finally she addresses the whole world in her last letter.

Anna Clark writes in a review on The Color Purple when it is award with National Book Award in 1983:

“Walker accomplishes a rare thing: she makes an epistolary novel work without veering into preciousness. Rather Celie’s full bodied voice emerges, a moody and honest voice in an inherently intimate literary form. While she is the protagonist of the novel, she is not the protagonist of her world and so, she writes letters to God that no one expected to read.” (Clark)


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Alice Walker’s Use of Epistolary Narrative in "The Color Purple"
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Aneeqa Zafar (Author), 2015, Alice Walker’s Use of Epistolary Narrative in "The Color Purple", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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