THE COLOURED “BRIAR ROSE” AND A PURPLE VISION: THE COLOR PURPLE AND “BRIAR ROSE” IN A MODERN BLACK FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE
The phenomenon called literature is always open-ended and under continuous analysis. A scrutiny of it reveals how great works of art draw heavily from pre-literary categories such as ritual, myth and folk tale. Thus Archetypal criticism traces literature to conclude that in spite of temporal and spatial boundaries, great works of art revert to these pre-literary forms. Primordial man tried to explain his experiences, observations and inferences in the form of rituals, legends and folk tales that were orally communicated throughout generations. Orality thus played a significant role in the spreading of the legends and stories:
It is certain that as man began to live in communities, they felt the desire to share their experiences. At first it was merely telling of some personal exploit in hunting or war. . . .Gradually stories came to embody the prowess of the tribal heroes, accounts of battles, the customs and rituals of the people. (Haviland 206)
Being intended for social and moral growth these customs and rituals come under the general term folklore. They were a means for passing down cultural ideas, thoughts and values. Most of them are structured in the form of children’s literature and meant for socializing children.
Every culture has popular tales meant for children in the form of folk tales, legends, myths or ballads. Fairy tales that have been passed down through generations have their roots in old oral folk tales. Many stories that we associate as deriving from European roots can be traced back to some other oral folk culture in ancient times. Many a time the same story can be located in different cultures. Thus, they transcend temporal and spatial boundaries. These tales encompass the culture’s values and morals. Conveyed in the form of stories where the characters are often charming princes, pretty maidens, animals etc., set in the background of a dream world, such tales could imprint traditional and ethical values deep in the child’s psyche. They served as reservoirs of culture and tradition and thus expressed the thoughts and aspirations not of an individual but of a collective psyche. As a result, children’s literature has become the subject of heated critical discourses in the modern scenario.
Women played a major role in the process of socialization. A mother was often regarded as a tradition bearer, a source and channel for passing down communal history and wisdom to the next generation. Most often, this transmission occurred orally through folk narratives. The mothers or grandmothers who told the stories coloured them with their own experiences while giving expression to their aspirations and protests, dreams and demands.
Women’s narratives showed a perfect blending of tradition and creativity. The common feature of an “underlying thread” could be located in them: “women play active or extraordinary roles as protagonists who go beyond prescribed norms of society, overcome adversaries and transform obstacles to their advantage” (Narasamamba 83). The women narrators tried to show their children that women could also perform well in life independent of men, sometimes even better than men could. They suggested that women are never silent when it comes to representing themselves in a world that is often claimed as a man’s land. The storytellers sometimes employed humour and subversion to attack stereotypes of male wisdom and superiority as is evident in Indian numskull tales:” It is interesting to note that many Indian numskull tales . . . present fine examples of tales in which numskulls are characterized as males, such as stupid peasants, weavers, boys, husbands and of course- stupid sons-in-law” (Handoo 36) .
The term Fairy in Fairy Tale is derived from the French word faerie, which referred to the residences of the local fee. The fees were village women who distributed herbs and incantations and often regarded as transmitters of mystical stories. This shows the involvement of women in the propagation of folk fairy tales, asserting their wisdom and power. The tellers of the tales were often the older women, passing on experience to the young by telling tales that outlined social functions. The oral tales, when they are changed into written form acquire new meanings depending on the audience and the time they address. They have the ability to reshape themselves to suit the generational and individual requirements of literature. For example, many of the first folk tales like the Zambian legend “Why People Began to Live in Houses”, the North-American legend “How the Sky Went So High” etc seek explanations for the origin of universe and life. Later writers used myths, folk fables and fairy tales to produce great works with diversity of thought and greater experiments in plot. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm that comes under this tradition is a modified beast tale where animals assume the role of humans thereby exposing the noble and absurd human traits.
Down the centuries, fairy tales have acquired psychological, philosophical, anthropological, political, racial as well as feminist overtones. Psychologists like Sigmund Freud find “Thumbelina”, “Little Red Riding Hood” etc., as symbols of the development of female sexuality. The followers of Carl Jung find fairy tales as a psychological quest for self-realization. Anthropologists claim that folk fairy tales can tell a lot about ethnic cultures. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, according to Jack Zipes writers like Oscar Wilde, Charles Kingsley etc., subverted and inverted the tales. He says that their tales were affected by “the development of a strong proletarian class, industrialization, urbanization, educational reform acts, evangelism and the struggles against those forces which caused poverty and exploitation” (Zipes 99). Many writers have subverted these myths, folk tales and fairy tales or have interwoven them into their works to meet the changing social situations. For example, the Black writers incorporated oral forms like sermons, riddles and proverbs to explore such themes like racism, slavery and equality. Chinua Achebe’s The Arrow of God portrays the Igbo tradition through native myths and proverbs, thereby raising voice against colonialism. Wole Soyinka’s play The Road uses the religious myth of Ogun just as Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana uses the native myth of transposed heads to show the existential predicament of modern man.
Black literature employs strategies of orality, parody, lucid imitation, magic and primordial African myths as well as the music of jazz and blues to show the world that there is a rich tradition which keeps alive the vibrancy and dynamism of Black culture. This culture has its roots in the matriarchal tradition of pre-slavery Africa where women enjoyed high social status. The Black women were of “powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling”. With the intrusion of the colonizers and the subsequent slavery, these women were forced out of their Paradise to the Inferno of the White capitalist society. Being slaves with neither a room of their own in the society nor economic independence, they had to suppress their creative power within themselves. As the Afro-American feminist writer Alice Walker points out in her article “In Search her of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, they were “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (Walker 109,105).
With the emergence of the concept of the New Black womanhood, the Black women realized that instead of remaining totally battered and abused by the society, they should develop their identity intellectually, culturally, politically and spiritually to survive with dignity. In literature, they sought to regain their lost voice. They found that in the works of Black male writers the figures of Black women are often shadowy:
They create inauthentic females because in their writings the black women are always subordinate to men and the relationship between black men and women is always exploitative. Women are not fully developed human beings and are treated as victims or sex objects.... The fact that women, too, aspire to achieve their womanhood which is equally important is always ignored. (Puri 7)
Thus in the works of Black women writers we find an attempt to expose the oppression of Black women based on race, class and gender. In order to raise their voice against this triple jeopardy, as well as to show the importance of Black beauty and Black motherhood, the Black women writers rely on the materials readily available to them and which suit their rich oral folk tradition. In addition, they find nothing better than the folk and fairy stories that they have derived from their mothers and grandmothers. Black feminist writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker employ subversion as an important technique to give new meanings to traditional folk fairy tales. In Morrison’s Tar Baby, the African folk tale of tar baby is retold as a modern cautionary tale that emphasizes cultural dilemma, racism and sexism. These writers use myths and folk tales to assert the individual’s identity as a Black and as a woman, as Celie states in Walker’s The Color Purple (CP): “I’m Pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here” (Walker, CP 187).
Alice Walker grew up in an oral tradition to be influenced by folk and fairy tales and the impact of oral culture is very much evident in her works. In her article “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, Walker creates a matriarchal history of Black womanhood. She says that the Black matriarchs are guardian angels of their race and tradition. Black motherhood is seen as not only giving birth and bringing up children, but also as igniting in them the creative spark and transmitting to them a cultural heritage. Walker acknowledges here the influence of the stories told by her mother in her writings:
so many stories that I wrote, that we all write, are my mother’s stories . . . through years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories- like her life- must be recorded. (Walker, “In Search” 110)
Walker’s novels are thus her tribute to the rich Black culture, oral tradition and most importantly to the entire Black womanhood. In The Color Purple, Walker explores the issues of race, class and gender through the life of the female protagonist Celie. She employs subversion both at the structural and the thematic levels in order to challenge the unjust notions of the patriarchal Eurocentric society in such a way that Celie’s sexual, artistic and spiritual growth correspond to a princess’s awakening from a long sleep. By subverting the Eurocentric concepts of beauty as well as replacing the role of a male rescue hero with Shug Avery, Walker narrates a story of double subversion and recreates Celie as a Black Briar Rose.
Fairy tales have their origin in prehistoric oral folktales based on matriarchal cultures to be passed down through ages. Women internalized the tradition and values and expressed them in their own lives, never hesitated to externalize them in their creative narratives as well. Naturally, these tales might have been centered on female figures as they were told by women narrators. The mothers and grandmothers used their narratives as tools to challenge the prescribed norms of the society. In their stories, they showed yet another society where women could give shape to their aspirations with a different sensibility.
These matriarchal views and motifs of original oral tales underwent successive stages of patriarchalization. A gradual change happened when these narratives were translated into graphocentric texts. The majority of the people who put the stories into print were male and therefore they exploited the fairytales to reinforce traditional ideologies of male domination. Many among such tales represent White Eurocentric cultural values while upholding male hegemony. Feminist criticism tends to analyze and interpret the images and ideological assumptions in the male produced works in such a way that the very understanding of the text undergoes a change. It has contributed to analysis, interpretation and evaluation of the traditional fairytales like that of Brothers Grimm. Accordingly, these tales have been rewritten countless times with explicit female perspectives.
In her essay “Towards a Feminist Poetics”, Elaine Showalter argues that women characters have always been stereotyped in the works of men. From myths to modern writings, women are characterized either as angels or as witches (Showalter 146-155). In Ramayana, Sita, who conforms herself to the norms of the patriarchal society, who never questions the injustices done to her, is regarded as an angel. At the same time Shurpanakha, who dares to challenge the andocentric norms and openly expresses her desires is labeled as a monster. Thus almost all male texts miss the authentic portrayal of female characters. These characters are marginal and subordinate and introduced only in relation to male characters. The male author imprisons his fictitive creatures in the shackled webs of patriarchy depriving them of autonomy. Women writers tend to subvert these stereotypical characters and create new characters based on genuine female experiences.
Accordingly, there has been a growing awareness of the way in which women are portrayed in fairy tales. One of the stereotyped female figures is that of the damsel in distress. A young woman imprisoned by a monster who requires a hero for her rescue is a recurring image in fairytales:
One of the main attributes of female is to long for male. She dreams of male who performs the role of liberator, who will escape her from the role of subordination. She imagines that under male love she will be able to feel the currents of life. He will provide her a sense of security. (Beauvoir 53)
Feminist critics have challenged the helplessness of the damsel awaiting a male rescuer. Many modern writers like Angela Carter and Jane Yolen have revisited classic fairy tales and subverted them. In order to break the damsel in distress pattern, they reversed the stories by empowering the damsel who in turn rescues the men in distress.
Traditional fairytales like that of Brothers Grimm try to assert that woman’s beauty is her only virtue and that this beauty is akin to her soft brittle nature. The damsels use it to capture the heart of the charming princes whereby they are rescued. On the other hand, ugliness in fairytales is usually considered as the outward manifestation of wickedness. Again, the figure of princesses is always associated with nobility. Thus by the shifting of importance to pretty princesses, these tales tend to ignore ordinary women, especially Black women:
Fairytales focuses on princesses because men prefer younger women: hence the shock when Anne Sexton rewrites some of Grimm’s fairytales from the point of view of ‘a middle-aged witch, me’. (Ruthven 80)
Thus, traditional fairytales tend to instill the child’s mind with the idea that it is impossible to survive without the saving hand of a man and for that, it is necessary to be attractive.
Feminist critics find that like any other docile women characters in literature, the beautiful damsels in traditional fairytales are devoid of individuality. Like what Emily Dickinson says in her poem “What Soft Cherubic Creatures”, such gentle women are “soft” and “brittle” objects with “Dimity Convictions” lacking identity ( Dickinson 866-67). Thus, there have been attempts to subvert these docile heroines in to those who triumph through their spirit, bravery and perseverance. In her work Unprincess Manjula Padmanabhan portrays three heroines who are braver, bolder and resolute than the swooning princesses of traditional fairytales. In the story entitled “The Giant and the Unprincess”, she makes a brilliant remark:
After all, aside from Kavita, all the little girls on the bus were princesses. Being princesses, there was only one thing they could do really well in a crisis. And that was to scream and to cry at the loudest possible volume. So they did so. They could also go red in the face and drum their heels against the floor. They did so. . . .But none of what they did made the slightest difference in the giant. (Padmanabhan 5-6)
Yet another area that has attracted feminist critics is the role of the male rescuer. In fairytales, the rescuer is always presented as a male, usually a charming prince, thus conveying the idea that the rescuer is always a man. Recent feminist studies in fairytales attempt to demythologize this concept of traditional hero. Subsequently, the nature and function of the stereotyped fairytale rescuer has shifted. They tend to prove that not all male figures are competent rescuers as Manjula Padmanabhan writes in Unprincess:
The princesses screamed with renewed vigour, so much so that one or two of the princes looked up from their games. But it was very clear that the situation was still nowhere near being the kind they knew the solution to. So they shrugged, and returned to their buttons on their Game Boys. (9)
Moreover, they argue that in the original version of most of these tales, the rescuer was not a male figure. In The Grandmother’s Tale, the oral version from which Charles Perrault derived the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the girl is finally rescued not by a passing woodsman or hunter but by a group of laundresses who drown the wolf in the river. Similarly, the male writer in such a way twists Bluebeard’s tale that the two sisters have to be saved by their brothers from the hands of the cruel husband. On the other hand, the original story relates how the third sister saves herself and her sisters. Similarly, Margaret Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg is a subverted form of the traditional outlook. Angela Carter’s“The Bloody Chamber” is also a subversion of the Bluebeard story where her mother finally rescues the heroine: “Without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head” (Carter 45). In her collection of stories, Carter substantiates the strength of women by subverting the popular stories to portray strong female characters. Most of the stories in the collection have a female as the protagonist whereas men play insignificant roles. Thus in “The Bloody Chamber”, while the lover figure is blind and passive, Carter makes the heroine’s mother the saviour who comes riding on a horse thus emphasizing the strength of women. In addition, this portrayal of the mother saving the daughter can be traced back to the myth of Demeter, the corn goddess who struggles to save her daughter Persephone from the hands of Pluto. The story of Demeter and Persephone has been regarded as the archetype of female bonding. This shows how these writers subvert the traditional tales so as to substantiate the concept of women bonding.
Female writers have thus retold many fairytales. Perrault’s story of “The Sleeping Beauty” is one among them. After prolonged waiting, a daughter was born to a king and a queen. The king decided to hold a great feast and invited twelve good fairies to bless his daughter. Just as eleven of them had done blessing her, one wicked fairy being angry that she was not invited decided to take revenge. She cursed: “The king’s daughter shall, in her fifteenth year, be wounded by a spindle, and fall down dead” (Grimm 37). Then the twelfth fairy who had not yet given her gift blessed that the spindle wound shall not kill her, instead she should fall asleep for a hundred years. After fifteen years the prophecy was fulfilled and along with the princess, the entire palace fell asleep. After hundred years, a charming prince came and kissed the sleeping princess out of her sleep. Moreover, they lived happily ever after. In Perrault’s version, there is a second part for the tale, of the wicked mother-in-law. Brothers Grimm who retold the story as “Briar Rose” removed this second part.
There have been many subversions of “Briar Rose” as presented by women writers. Feminist theorists focused on Sleeping Beauty’s extreme passivity and the sexual nature of her awakening. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose retells the story through the female protagonist Gamma and her grandmother. In the story, set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, the common images of the fairy tale is metamorphed to portray the harsh realities of life under the Nazis. The Spindle is a modern feminist retelling of the story by Carolyn Gage. It is the story of a young lesbian who sets out to redeem the princess out of her curse. Angela Carter in “The Bloody Chamber” and Other Stories gives a postmodern retelling of “Briar Rose”. The story entitled “The Lady of The House of Love” is concerned more with feminist ideals than staying true to the original tale. It is the story of a countess, the queen of vampires, who abhors a meaningful existence between life and death. Carter subverts the concept of beauty when she says, “She is so beautiful she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity . . . her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, of her soullessness” (Carter 120). The identity of the protagonist is asserted when she chooses death instead of accepting the rescue hand of a male who was planning to change her according to his will:
We shall take her to Zurich, to a clinic. She will be treated for nervous hysteria. Then to an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist, to put her teeth into better shape. Any competent manicurist will deal with her claws. We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is. (137)
Thus the story of Briar Rose has been a subject of various retellings. Archetypal criticism views the story as a symbol of the replacement of lunar year by the solar year. The lunar year with thirteen months is represented by the thirteen fairies which are replaced by the twelve good fairies, showing the twelve months of the solar year. From a psychological perspective, the story can be regarded as a transition from unconsciousness to the consciousness of the self. Closely related to this view, feminist criticism analyzes the story as the awakening of the female protagonist towards an awareness of her identity. For this emancipation she might have been guided and supported by an outside agency like mother, father, friend or lover. However, the story can be regarded as a girl’s awakening towards self-consciousness.
In its affinity towards oral tradition as well as in its employment of subversive strategies, Black feminist fiction comes closer to fairytales. As stated before, fairytales have their origin in a matriarchal oral tradition where women were free to compose and recompose their narratives. Similarly, African as well as Afro-American literature has its roots in the African oral tradition rooted in culture that gave great honour to motherhood. However, this female tradition was hindered somewhere in the pages of history and authorship became purely a male activity. Women were forbidden to write for the reason that she lacked phallic power. As Sandra Gilbert says that in the Western patriarchal culture, the author of the text is considered “a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch” and his pen is regarded as “an instrument of generative power” (Literary Paternity 190). Moreover,
Through the construction of cartoon figures like Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop and Fielding’s Mrs. Slipslop and Smollett’s Tabhitha Bramble, they implied that language itself was almost literally alien to the female tongue. (Gilbert, “The Mad Women in the Attic” 157)
Therefore, when women started writing, she had to use the oppressor’s language in order to express her feelings and desires. As Virginia Woolf says, it was a language unsuited for women’s use.
In this way, a woman’s writing and women’s language have become the central subjects of feminist critique. Critics like Elaine Showalter argue that woman writes through her brain, which is a “metaphorical womb” (“Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” 337). They say that the concept of women’s language that appears in folklore and myth is very ancient. It is as a break from patriarchal language that the concept of ecriture feminine was formulated. Accordingly, women writers started using female body as a source of imagery. They used female sexuality as a symbol of women’s victimization as well as resistance.
Feminist theorists thus view much of the fairytales as a symbol of female initiation, maturation and sexual anxieties. Hence, in their subversions they employ sexual imagery. A fairytale is usually characterized by a short sentence structure, direct address to the reader, fantastic setting and a simple diction that is often rhythmic. In “Briar Rose”, too the setting is remote and romantic where the characters are the noble fairies, the pretty princess and the heroic prince. The story starts thus:
A king and a queen once upon a time reigned in a country a great way off, where there were in those days fairies. Now this king and queen had plenty of money, and plenty of fine clothes to wear, and plenty of good things to eat and drink, and a coach to ride out in every day. . . . (Grimm 36)
The later retellings of the story like “The Lady of the House of Love” abound in violent sexual as well as gothic elements. Instead of presenting the marvellous and the fantastic, the writers give gruesome pictures of reality. They also deviate from the ‘once upon a time’ pattern of narration with an omnipotent narrative voice. The retellings thus become authoritative and subjective, revealing the inner thoughts of the characters.
Black women writers use their writings as a liberating tool, a subversive technique and an artistic mode of self-expression. In their use of native myths and authentic language which has the rhythm of blues, jazz etc., they tend to look back to the oral tradition. Alice Malsenior Walker is one of the prominent figures in African American women’s writing, who has written fiction, poetry and essays about race and gender. Greatly inspired by the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, and in her own capacity as an activist of the civil rights movement, Walker’s works depict the struggles of the Blacks, especially the Black women and their lives in a racist, sexist and capitalist society. Her works are also her expression of the role of women of colour in culture and history. Starting with The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), she has written fictions like Meridian (1976), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), The Complete Stories (1994), By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998), Now is the Time to Open Your Heart (2005), We are the One’s we have been Waiting for (2006) etc. Her essays include, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Living by the Word (1988), Anything We Love can be Saved (1997), Sent by Earth: A Message From the Grandmother’s Spirit (2001) etc. She has also written poems like Once (1968), Her Blue Body Everything We Know (1991) and Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003).
The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker’s best known and critically acclaimed novel that uses subversions in the structure of an epistolary novel. Walker uses the epistolary style and the Southern Black vernacular in the novel to subvert the traditional paternal discourse to enhance the theme of Black woman’s independence: “Throughout The Color Purple the authorial voice speaks for subverting a system that promotes both racism and sexism” (Johnson 216).
Epistolary was a form invented by men to write about women, and in a sense for women since they thought that being emotional and weaker, women could express their thoughts and feelings not directly by speaking but through the medium of letters. In the epistles written by men to portray women, again we find women being defined by men. The male writers portrayed women characters as being powerless to articulate their feelings in public who in turn sought the help of letters to communicate their private emotions. “By the twentieth century, the epistolary mode is a matter for self-conscious revival”. This style was revived by women writers to delineate the true self of woman. They used it as a tool to undo the hierarchy of gender. “The two potent elements in the form, it has been suggested, are its impressive instancy and its approach to psychological truth, even to the stream of consciousness” (Watson 37, 31-32).The ninety one letters written by the two sisters in The Color Purple (CP) focus on and document Celie’s progress from sleeping to awakening. Celie’s initial letters to God show her passive resignation: “Her very first letter reveals that the secret that can be told to no one but God has to do with sexuality, with sexual morality, with a male parent’s sexual abuse of a female child” (Berlant 54). Later, when she replaces God with Nettie, her rebellion against patriarchy in general is revealed: “God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown” (Walker, CP 173). The letters of Nettie bring into sharp focus the African heritage also. The epistolary narration provides an intimate view of the character without any interference from the author. Walker uses this style to give voice to Black women who have been silenced for long.
The language that Walker employs in the novel is the Black American vernacular as evident in the use of double negatives like “I don’t say nothing”. When Darlene tries to teach her talk in Standard English, Celie says, “Pretty soon it feel like I can’t think. My mind ran upon a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down” (Walker, CP 194). This shows the Black people’s defiance of a language system controlled by the White. There are variations in vocabulary and spellings also. Walker’s protagonist develops a voice despite the constraints of race, class and gender and thereby transforms oral tradition into innovative literary language. The language of the letters in Black American Vernacular and its usage exploits all the possibilities of expression to suit the crises in the character. In this bold act, Walker subverts the dominance of standard language and standardizes the marginalized language to convey the direct message with exact sharpness.
The epistolary form of narration and the true oral language that is employed take the novel closer to the heart of the readers, just like the fairy tales. Celie’s journey towards her self in The Color Purple follows the fairy tale structure of fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation. With a fantastic touch of understanding and affection, the already latent desire in Celie for a good life is accelerated to lead her to a complete recovery and reformation. Under the strong impact of the discovery of her real self with the help of Shug Avery, Celie recovers from her victimized self and starts perceiving her life and surroundings in a new light. This follows her sincere attempts to escape from her largely alienated self and that result in the confrontation of it in new terms, the narration of it in a new vision through a different style. Walker renders her novel in the pattern of a fairytale both from the feminist and structural perspective. Just as the traditional fairytale undergoes thematic and structural inversion, the self of the protagonist undergoes a series of subversions. The mutilated self for a time exists as a silent, lethargic and alienated self devoid of any hope of redeem in the bleak society. After the magic of compassion, it evolves into the final stage of a new awakened active self. In Walker’s novel as well as in the fairy tale, there is the “victory against odds of the unlikeliest people. That is based upon the incurable optimism of human nature” (Haviland 224).The myth of the sleeping beauty thus acquires a feminist interpretation in the novel incorporating the subversion of the Eurocentric values of culture, race and gender in the wider context, and the requirements of Afro-American situation in particular in the modern times.
The feelings of low self-esteem, low self-respect, as well as the traumatic and alienated life of Black women in a White society is a theme handled by Black women writers like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Forced to live as a Black and as a female in a racist, sexist, patriarchal and capitalist society, Black woman was treated not as a human being but as a subhuman or a mere object. Throughout her novels, short stories and essays, Alice Walker focuses on the issue of the helpless and powerless state of the Southern Black women. Walker’s Womanist parable, The Color Purple (CP) depicts the triumph of one woman’s crusade against racism, sexism and socially imposed traditions. It is the story of an oppressed Black woman’s journey from sexual slavery to freedom.
The Color Purple has been analyzed using many terms such as feminism, racism, spiritualism, existentialism etc. It has also been considered in its various capacities as an epistolary novel, a bildungsroman and a historical novel. Walker has interwoven all these aspects into the myth of Philomela, at the same time subverting the myth by giving Philomela a voice that successfully resists the violent patriarchal inscription into a silent female body. Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, who tears out her tongue after it. She is being imprisoned in a castle from where she manages to weave a tapestry depicting Tereus’ actions and sends it to her sister Procene. The mythic narrative, which intertwines rape, silencing and the destruction of female subjectivity, has also a subtext that focuses on how woman can raise her voice against the limits of patriarchal discourse. African-American women’s writings like The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye etc., have allusions to this archetypal rape narrative. However, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple transcends this allusion and grows out to be a bildungsroman where the protagonist achieves sexual, spiritual and creative awakening. Many a time, this awakening in the protagonist Celie is mixed with dramatic coincidences that make us think it to be a fairy story. Therefore, it is suggested that Celie is the awakened sleeping beauty like the princess in the fairy tale “Briar Rose”.
Celie is a young girl of fourteen, ignorant, naïve and vulnerable. To be born as a Black girl in a White patriarchal society itself becomes a curse for her. As any other Black woman cursed to be in a Eurocentric society, Celie too has to suffer a condition of triple oppression. Subjected to severe brutality of racism, classism and sexism by the White patriarchal society, the Black woman was tormented beyond description. Celie is repeatedly raped and forcibly initiated into an incestuous relation with a man whom she believes to be her father but is really her stepfather. She is too innocent to know what is happening to her and hence the cry to God: “I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (Walker, CP 3). The guilt of compelled incest torments her mind and she thinks that she is a sinner.
This sense if sin is aggravated by the lack of love and care from her mother. Her mother becomes a silent partner in her victimization by Pa. Celie is aware that her mother realizes what is happening. But she is deprived of comfort and security from the mother, herself a victim of patriarchal oppression. Her mother’s overbearing has ruined her physical health and so she finds it difficult to satisfy Pa physically. This provides a strong justification for the unrefined man to harass the helpless daughter of his wife. Celie says, “He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say you gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t”. The mother is relieved, as her husband is more kind to her now. At the same time, she gets infuriated with Celie who becomes pregnant: “My mama dead. She died screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me” (Walker, CP 3, 4). Celie understands that she is living her mother’s life, but the child in her wants her mother’s love. The profound guilt and self-hatred Celie experiences about replacing her mother are augmented by her mother questioning her pregnancy and her cursing Celie from the deathbed. It is a universal fact that a strong relationship with the mother is essential for the growth and maturity of the child especially a girl child. According to Adrienne Rich, the loss of mother-daughter bond is the greatest tragedy in the world. The mother’s awareness of her own feminine selfhood is a pre-requisite for the emergence of a selfhood in the daughter. In the case of Celie, the mother’s self-hatred leads to a stunted psychic growth in the daughter.
The mother’s curse at her deathbed then becomes similar to the wicked fairy’s curse to the young princess. Both the mother and the fairy are humiliated by the society. The mother is a victim of the White patriarchal society whereas the king and the queen consciously ignore the fairy from the feast just because there were only twelve golden dishes. Their curse is thus the result of humiliation, self-hatred and grief. The princess Briar Rose is cursed not for her fault but for the mistake done by the grownup people around her. Celie’s sufferings are also due to the outcome of the failures of the grown up people around her. The inescapable fact of being a Black and a woman haunted her destiny. To top it all, her stepfather takes her two children away and he marries her off, like a chattel, to a man Mr___ who actually needed a mother for his children from a previous marriage. Amidst all these negative experiences, the only happiness to Celie is the presence of her little sister Nettie. She is like the twelfth friendly fairy in the fairytale, who softens the wicked curse and blesses the princess that she “should not really die, but should only fall asleep for a hundred years” (Grimm 37). The love and concern for Nettie used to make Celie bold and thoughtful and it is then we become aware of the inner spark of strength in her. Celie tries the maximum to protect Nettie from Pa and later from Mr___. The two sisters used to love and care for each other and Nettie always tried to instill knowledge and strength into Celie’s mind. So Nettie’s running away from Mr___’s house as well as her supposed death is to Celie the needle prick which puts the princess into the long sleep. Nettie’s disappearance makes Celie believe that the wages of rebellion are death: “I think about Nettie, dead. She fight, she run away. What good it do? I don’t fight, I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive” (Walker, CP 22).
However, the creative core within Celie is not destroyed which is illustrated through her writing of letters to God. There is an inner strength, which Nettie has instilled in her. However, Celie chooses a state of slumber for she needs it in order to forget her sense of sin and guilt. Initially she chooses silence out of shame and fear, for her stepfather has threatened: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” (3). But now, to an extent she is tormented thinking herself as the cause of Nettie’s supposed death. It is because of this torment of the soul that Celie puts her body, mind and soul into a long sleep. Thus, the spirited woman within her is hibernated: “She was not dead, but had only fallen into a deep sleep” (Grimm 38).
What follows is a life of suffering and silence to Celie. Instead of asserting herself, she chooses to say nothing, which in a way adds to her own oppression. She makes herself a drudge looking after Mr___’s rotten children and keeping his house clean. There is an unquestioned submission from her part. In a way, the silence and submission is her particular mode of existence. When like an animal she is often beaten by Mr___, Celie survives by refusing to feel: “He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. 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” (Walker, CP 23). The condition of being merely a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence and nothingness in women. With no one so intimate to open her heart and share her feelings, she starts to internalize the White patriarchal notions of womanhood. She imagines herself ugly and impotent as told by Pa, “She ugly . . . She ain’t smart either . . . She tell lies”, and by Mr___: “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all” (10,187). Her destruction is complete and beyond recovery:
Raped, beaten, silenced and sold into marital slavery by the man she thinks her father, Celie begins to doubt her humanity, and as her debasement continues in the hands of Mr___, she actually entertains thoughts of self-erasure. (Allan 130)
Celie gradually forgets her own potential, forgets that she ever enjoyed the status and dignity of a human being.
Like most of the Black women imprisoned in the Eurocentric world, Celie is also ignorant of the richness of her African culture and tradition. She is unaware of the distinct human status that women enjoyed in pre-slavery Africa. As a result, Celie struggles to fit herself into the feminine roles defined by the White androcentric society: “When a woman marry she spose to keep a decent house and a clean family”. The Black woman in a White society was degraded by the sexual attack of the White man and more profoundly by the men of her own race. Similar is the case of Celie. Because of the extended sexual abuse first by Pa and then by Mr___ Celie thinks herself to be devoid of any sexual desire. She never enjoys having sexual relation with her husband. To her it is as if “he going to the toilet on you” (Walker, CP 20, 74). Her premature menopause, probably induced by the trauma of sexual abuse is read as a symbol of her de-sexing.
Black women’s silence over her racial and sexual oppression, her silence over the crucial issues related to her feminine narcissism represented her negation of the inner erotic power. It even indicated that she possessed a fragmented self. (Kulkarni 83)
Deep in the mind of the Blacks, there is always the thought that the Whites are superior and so they should be treated with respect and reverence. This is illustrated by Walker through Celie’s concept of God: “He big and old and gray bearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted” (Walker, CP 175). She believes that in order to be a part of God one has to work for Him and pay regular visits to the church. She seeks comfort by writing letters to God but unfortunately, the God she has in mind is a White patriarch. Thus, Celie, by all means, is silenced by patriarchal abuse. She becomes the sleeping beauty in the woods. Her mind becomes rotten and deserted like the palace in the fairy tale surrounded by thickets: “A large hedge of thorns soon grew around the palace, and every year it became higher and thicker” (Grimm 39). As she has allowed herself to be in sleep, Celie’s innate strength lies dormant and hidden. Carter narrates a similar condition in “The Lady of The House of Love”:
Depredations of rot and fungus everywhere. The unlit chandeliers is so heavy with dust the individual prisms no longer show any shapes; industrious spiders have woven canopies in the corners of this ornate and rotting place, have trapped the porcelain vases on the mantelpiece in soft gray nets. But the mistress of all this disintegration notices nothing. (Carter 120)
With the princess the whole palace- the king and the queen, the entire court, the cook, the butler, the horses, the dogs, the pigeons and even the fire on the hearth- falls asleep. Similarly, Celie enters the world of no reactions. Celie being silent and docile, Mr___ fails to acknowledge her potentials and continues to dominate her. However, with Shug Avery he is quite different a man. As Shug says,
Nobody dance like Albert when he was young . . . Albert was so funny. He kept me laughing. How come he ain’t funny no more? She ast. How come he never hardly laugh? How come he don’t dance? She say. Good God, Celie, she say, what happen to the man I love? (Walker, CP 111)
Not only Mr___ but his son Harpo too tries to dominate his wife Sofia and his lover Mary Agnes. Harpo wants Sofia to do whatever he says, and he believes his father’s words: “Wives is like children. You have to let them know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (35). Thus, Celie’s household, which is a microcosm of the society for all practical purposes, is in a sleeping stage. It shows that as long as woman fails to challenge the patriarchal norms, as long as she remains silent, the society will never acknowledge her presence.
Sofia shows courage to challenge the patriarchal as well as racial norms. Celie, whose mind has become a thorny thicket, grows jealous seeing Sofia’s courage and asks Harpo to beat her. This shows the degradation of Celie, but she herself feels guilty of her action: “A little voice say, something you done wrong. Somebody spirit you sin against”. Later she herself confesses to Sofia, “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” (Walker, CP 38, 39).
So many princes try to break the thicket and enter the palace to rescue the princess. However, all of them fail, to be entangled in the thorns and bushes. Likewise, numerous times other women like Mr___’s sisters tell Celie that she must fight back. In spite of the efforts, all of them fail to wake her up from her sleep. Nettie who has tried to fight with her circumstances, according to Celie, has met with death. Later Sofia, who shows a great courage to hit the White mayor is imprisoned and sentenced to life long slavery. Thus, Celie continues to be silent and submissive until the arrival of Shug Avery who kisses her out of her sleep.
It becomes evident that most of the incidents in The Color Purple correspond to those in the fairy tale “Briar Rose”. Many of the symbols in the novel are similar to those in the fairy story. The rural farm community replaces the palace in the story. It is symbolic of the domestic as well as the universal nature of the theme. Nature is given importance both in Walker’s Womanist novel as well as in Grimm’s tale. Children’s tales usually abound in colours as pink, yellow and blue. The central symbol of the novel is purple colour, which is used to highlight the royalty and strength of the Blacks. It suggests the miracle of the vast capabilities hidden in the Black race. The princess in the fairytale is named Briar Rose. The term rose connects the princess and Celie. As Celie explores her body, it looks to her like “a wet rose”. Later, when Shug explains her concept of God, she is described as “a big rose” (Walker, CP 75,175). Thus, rose becomes the symbol of growth and blossoming whether sexual or religious. The thickets that have covered the palace are equivalent to Celie’s emotional deadness, for many a time she compares herself to a wood. The thickets represent a sign of change, hope and renewal. The twelve friendly fairies stand for the community of women in the novel. Sewing and spinning which has been a main part of women’s labour, are terms often found in fairy tales. Walker uses the same symbols- sewing and quilts- to show women’s creativity. Quilt composed of diverse patterns sewn together signifies Walker’s Womanist concept where men, women and nature exist in unity. The spindle which puts the princess to the long sleep is replaced by the needle, through which Celie attains economic independence.
The basic structure of most of the fairytales like “Briar Rose” has an element of quest. It reflects human wish for knowledge and experience. Similarly, The Color Purple is the record both of a Black girl’s quest for her self and the evolutionary growth that teaches her to face life with a sense of belonging. With the coming of Shug into her miserable life, Celie is initiated to the journey in search of the meaning of existence. Nettie’s letters guide her further in the journey. She reaches her destination at Memphis and successfully returns to her family. It is a journey to continue the quest for her very soul and its hitherto suppressed triumphs. As Virginia Haviland says ,“The true hero in all the folk tales and fairy tales is not the younger son, or the younger daughter, or the stolen princess, or the ugly duckling, but the soul of man” (Haviland 221). In the novel too, Celie’s soul succeeds by gaining identity through the undefeatable survival after the initial inertia. Walker has inverted many ideas in the fairytale, yet The Color Purple acquires the status of a modern retelling of “Briar Rose” and it further expands in its message of transformation, accommodation and progress through the magic of compassion and affection. The chemistry of this message transforms the marginalized contexts of fall, misery and inertia into contexts of women’s declaration of ideology and power.
Women writers have employed various tools both to deconstruct the gender biased myths, folk and fairytales and to reconstruct them focusing on the silences and blanks between their lines. Analyzing this trend and the strategic position, Patricia Klindienst says:
In returning to the ancient myths and opening them from within to the woman’s body, the woman’s mind, and the woman’s voice, contemporary women have felt like thieves of language staging a raid on the treasured icons of a tradition that has required woman’s silence for centuries. (Klindienst 612)
They attempted to invert and retell the events from the eyes of women thereby questioning the established social order with its structures of power, authority and exploitation. Mahasweta Devi’s After Kurukshetra thus looks at the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war from the eyes of marginalized dalit women. In the opening story of the work, she replaces the Panchakanyakas, the five virgins (Sita, Tara, Ahalya and Mandodari) with five tribal women. Similarly, writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker subvert oral narratives, traditional folk, and fairy tales to articulate African-American experience. In the same manner, Walker’s The Color Purple (CP) subverts two main concepts embedded in the fairy story “Briar Rose”.
Children’s fairy tales, which emphasize such things as women’s passivity and beauty, are gendered scripts with socially constructed notions. Accordingly, these stories are powerfully responsive to social changes. As a result of colonization, slavery and cultural invasion many of the original folk narratives of Africa were westernized to suit Eurocentric ideals. Walker points out this in The Color Purple through Nettie’s letter: “Olivia feels that, compared to Tashi, she has no good stories to tell. One day she started in on an ‘Uncle Remus’ tale only to discover Tashi had the original version of it” (Walker, CP 149). During the periods of intense racial conflict, Black characters virtually disappeared from children’s books. Most of the popular fairy tales like “Cinderella”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “The Sleeping Beauty” etc, associate what is pretty, beautiful and the fairest with the heroine who is most often described as possessing blue eyes, rosy cheeks and golden locks of hair. Many tales connote goodness, industriousness and beauty with such characters who are often rewarded. The opening sentence of “Mother Holle” says: “Once upon a time there was a widow who had two daughters; one of them was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy”. When the story ends, the beautiful daughter is rewarded, “ a shower of gold fell upon her, and the gold clung to her, so that she was covered with it from head to foot” but, for the ugly daughter, “instead of the shower of gold, a great bucket full of pitch came, pouring over her” (Grimm 113, 115,117). In this way, beauty becomes associated not only with fairness but also with goodness and economic privilege. Again, most often fairy tales tell the story of princesses and princes, not of ordinary people. Thus, beauty becomes symbolic of race and class. Starting from myths and fairy tales, it has become a universal thing to connect the fair complexion with goodness and the dark complexion with evil. The class-consciousness attributed to children’s literature could be traced back to the past as Haviland says,
Children’s books have always tended to be upper class in outlook. In Victorian days a few moral tales were deliberately aimed at the children of the poor, but stories intended for amusement rather than for edification have almost invariably been written with an upper class background. (Haviland 44)
“Briar Rose” which focuses on Eurocentric notions of beauty incorporates into its fine texture many cultural factors of the past. The princess is described as “so beautiful, and well behaved, and good, and wise, that everyone who knew her loved her”. The description of a friendly fairy as “with a high red cap on her head, and red shoes with high heels on her feet, and a long white wand in her hand” (Grimm 38, 37) is representative in nature since it could properly be assigned to the remaining eleven fairies as well. The white wand that the fairies carry symbolizes the goodness and kindness of the fairies. The wicked fairy is contrasted from the rest by associating her with Black colour. She comes “with a black cap on her head, and black shoes on her feet, and a broomstick in her hand” (37). The white wand and the broomstick they carry differentiate the good and bad fairies. The red attire and the white wand suggest wealth and royalty whereas broomstick is always linked with working class. Moreover, only the twelve fairies are invited for the feast in the palace. Thus, there is a clear differentiation of race and class in “Briar Rose” where the White hegemonic section attains fair treatment. Walker subverts this notion of beauty and emphasizes Black aesthetics in The Color Purple.
Women characters in The Color Purple exist in a world defined by its Blackness but surrounded by the White society that violates and denies it. The Black women, when they encountered the White society, had an irresistible impulse not only for White beauty ideas but also for the White cultural traits. Blackness is a cultural burden and thus in confrontation “with a society attuned to white standards of beauty as the positive marks for humanity, the black women felt ashamed of their black colour as if it was a dead weight or an albatross hanging around their necks” (Kulkarni 67). Fascinated by the Eurocentric culture, the Black women detached themselves from their Blackness and their culture. Jadine in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby is a character who rejects her native culture. Similarly, Pecola’s craving for pretty blue eyes and her psychic breakdown as described in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows the colonizing effects of White female beauty on a Black girl and her community. Pecola thinks that she will be loved and cared by others if she has blue eyes. Morrison brings into sharp focus the universality of the issue when Claudia says, “All the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was that every child treasured” (The Bluest Eye 14). There are instances in The Color Purple where Walker shows the influence of White beauty ideas. For example, Carrie describes Shug Avery as “black” (Walker, CP 21) as her shoe. Others like Pa and Mr___ also treat Celie as ugly. Again, it is her strong belief that she is not beautiful and attractive that has partly made Celie submissive and docile. The fashionable world, which they saw around them labeled as sophisticated and respectable, made the Black women like Celie think that their culture and complexion were symbols of savagery. Thus, they willfully forgot their African heritage, and together with that failed to respect and recognize their own identity.
The notion of beauty in Black women’s writing is connected with the issue of racism. Black women writers’ novels are an exploration of the colourful patterns of the meaning of their Blackness. They show what it means to be Black in a White society, to believe in an indigenous African culture in a world that endorses only Eurocentric culture and to strive for visibility in a society in which Blackness signifies invisibility. They record the triumph and complexities of the journey of the Black life from the painful past of slavery to the still frustrating racially prejudiced present.
In The Color Purple, Walker demythologizes racial discrimination through characters like Sofia, Nettie and Tashi. Sofia claims her right as a human being when she defends herself from the Mayor and his wife. For hitting back the Mayor, she is brutally beaten, imprisoned and condemned to eternal serfdom. Later Sofia expresses her rebellion against racism through her reaction to Eleanor Jane. When Eleanor Jane asks Sofia an explanation of the love she has for her son Reynolds Stanley Earl, she is in fact asking Sofia to regard her oppressors as her benefactors. It is here that Sofia reacts by denying that she loves the little boy: “I don’t feel nothing about him at all. I don’t love him. I don’t hate him”. She adds that, “I love children . . . But all the coloured women that say they love yours is lying” (Walker, CP 240). Tashi makes another hit on racial discrimination when she refuses to marry Adam. She refuses because she was aware that back in America her culture would be despised and she would be shunned as a savage because of the scarification marks on her cheeks. It was very clear to Tashi “that black people did not truly admire black skinned black people like herself, and especially did not admire black skinned black women. They bleach their faces, she said. They fry their hair. They try to look naked” (252).
Through Nettie’s letters, Walker glorifies African culture and tradition and shows the colonial invasion that has ruined their culture. Nettie’s letters explain how Africa fell into the abyss of slavery and superstition. There is also a subversion of the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve in the reference to the Olinka tribe’s belief that the White people are Black people’s children. To them Adam is not the first man, but the first White man:
They say everybody before Adam was black. Then one day some woman . . . come out with this colorless baby . . . then another one had one and also the women start to have twins. So the people start to put the white babies and the twins to death. So really Adam wasn’t even the first white man. He was just the first one the people didn’t kill. (Walker, CP 247-248)
Nettie says that Christ’s hair was not straight but curly like lamb’s wool. Being aware of the civilization of Africa she wants to awaken her sister too about the achievements of their culture in the past and it makes her tell Celie about Harlem and Egypt.
Walker’s The Color Purple is a statement on racial discrimination that asserts African heritage. Her intention is to substantiate Black pride and Black beauty. As Nettie writes from Senegal,
They are so black, Celie, they shine. Which is something else folks down home like to say about real black folks. But Celie, try to imagine a city full of these shining, blue black people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns. Tall, thin, with long necks and straight backs. . . . Because the black is so black the eye is simply dazzled, and then there is the shining that seems to come, really from moonlight, it is so luminous, but their skin glows even in the sun. (Walker CP 126)
The use of the central metaphor, the colour purple, is again a pointer to Black beauty. The title The Color Purple is a celebration of beauty and of spiritual and political growth. Purple signifies the royalty and energy of the Black people. It is also related to spiritual strength. It is a symbol of happiness and independence. In the preface to the novel, Walker writes that the purple colour is always a matter of surprise and present everywhere in nature. The purple colour is akin to the rosy cheeks of the princess in “Briar Rose”. By associating Celie with purple flowers and rose she is made a representative of Black beauty. Walker’s idea is reflected exactly in Morrison’s comments on the Black woman in the canary yellow dress in Tar Baby, “that woman’s woman- that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty” (43).
Thus, The Color Purple subverts the concept of beauty as patterned in the fairytale “Briar Rose” and shows how the Black people enjoy their Blackness, take pride in it and display unlimited potential for the assertion of the self and the entire community. It epitomizes the change in the attitude towards the African heritage among African Americans. By substantiating the indigenous existence of the coloured woman, Walker converts the invisible diary of a woman into a visible political document of women’s question and ethnicity.
Yet another idea that Walker subverts is the figure of the hero as the knightly rescuer of the damsels in distress. In “Briar Rose”, the brave and the charming prince comes to awaken the princess from her long sleep. The thorny thickets do not discourage him. He says, “All this shall not frighten me; I will go and see this Briar Rose” (Grimm 39). It was the day on which the hundred years ended and as such, the prince could easily get into the palace. As soon as he sees the sleeping princess, he falls in love with her and kisses her:
The moment he kissed her, she opened her eyes and awoke, and smiled upon him; and they went out together, and soon the king and queen also awoke, and all the court, and gazed on each other with great wonder. (40)
In The Color Purple, Walker substitutes the prince with Shug Avery who is called “Queen Honeybee”. She is introduced as charming as a princely figure: “She got on a red wool dress and chestful of black beads. A shiny black hat with what look like chikinhawk feathers curve down side one cheek, and she carrying a little snakeskin bag, match her shoes” (Walker, CP 42, 44). Shug Avery has proven her bravery by stepping out of the borders defined by the male hegemonic society, which is in a sense a stepping in, an encroachment into the sacrosanct power politics of the male. Celie’s mind that has been already attracted by Shug has transformed itself from thorny thickets to flowering shrubs that Shug could easily enter. The flowering of the plants denotes the changed climate. But unlike the prince in the fairytale, Shug Avery is not all of a sudden enchanted by Celie, it is not an attraction at first sight certainly. In fact, at first she looks at Celie with contempt: “She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it”. Their relationship grows through mutual understanding. The attraction that has already started paved the way for Shug’s entrance into the scene of dejection and misery of the soul. The relation with Shug makes drastic changes in the dormant self of Celie. It is with Shug’s help that Celie is awakened to her own sexuality which makes Celie record truthfully: “I thought I had turned into a man”. For Celie, to be able to appreciate her own body is an initiation to the potentials of her own identity. From Shug, she not only obtains the awakened sexuality but also acquires the ability to love herself and others. Until Shug introduces her to the beauty of her body, Celie remains in the wilderness of ignorance devoid of any sense of self-esteem or self-value. Their sexual relation fills Celie with pleasure that she tries to define it in terms familiar to her. Then it is: “Little like sleeping with mama . . . Little like sleeping with Nettie . . . It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr___ at all” (Walker, CP 44, 47,104). Shug becomes a rescue figure of romantic proportions who is bestowed with the capacity to annihilate her totally, or save her forever, ever afterwards. As the fate would have it, the latter course started its influence on Celie so that light entered into the abysmal suffering. Then, Shug becomes every source of encouragement, acceptance and love that she needs in her search for selfhood: “As Celie learns to love Shug, she finds her mother, sister and lost babies within. No longer isolated and full of her remembered relations, Celie begins to experience a sense of wholeness” (Williams 83).
Shug-Celie relationship has been often viewed in a lesbian perspective. According to critics like Nancy Chodorow and Adrienne Rich, lesbian relationships tend to recreate mother-daughter emotions and connections. The first erotic lesbian encounter involves both Shug and Celie in a mutual relationship of trust, sharing and personal enhancement. The unreserved flood of compassion unearths a reciprocal mother-infant relationship that becomes a central part of the sustained relationship between them. Each of them, as Celie says, “act like a little lost baby” (Walker, CP 103). The two women after having mothered each other realize the importance of woman bonding. Feminist psychoanalysts have found that a girl’s identity is similar to her mother’s identity. Showalter in her essay “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” says that a girl’s core gender identity is positive and that it is built upon sameness, continuity and identification with the mother. Women “are not required to separate from the mother as they acquire a gender identity; they simply identify with the closest person to them as they grow up, their own mother” (Rivkin 529). With this establishment of mother-daughter relationship, the concept of female bonding has gained momentum in the works of women writers who view the idea as an escape from patriarchy as well. In her relation with Shug, Celie regains the maternal love that had been deprived to her. In breaking the taboo against lesbianism, the two women show an escape from patriarchal law. More than enjoying a lesbian relationship, Celie nurtured an intimacy and affection with Shug and that opens for her a liberated world of the bonding among all women ,and later all human beings to propel her spiritual journey to selfhood.
For Celie, her mother is a metaphor for repressed emotions, memories, wants and desires. Her relation with Shug can be regarded as echoing a desire to return to the ideal mother. This search for the mother leads to Celie’s steady and harmonious spiritual growth that is evolutionary in nature. Shug and Nettie’s interpretations of God serve to demolish the portrait of a paternal God in Celie’s mind and that leads to her introduction to Mother Nature. Through Nettie’s letters Celie realizes how even religion has been thwarted with Eurocentric notions. With the recognition that her belief in God is modeled upon the “white folks white bible”, she starts to have a different notion of God. Shug introduces Celie to the real God, the “It” (Walker, CP 175,176). The awareness of the presence of God inside her, inside others and in the entire Nature leads Celie to the “feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all” (176).This pantheism is also seen in the Olinka tradition of worshiping nature as seen in the roof leaf ceremony.
Apart from her role in Celie’s sexual and spiritual awakening, Shug plays yet another crucial role in Celie’s life by leading her to Nettie. Celie understands the fact that Nettie is alive. Through her further communication with Nettie, Celie comes to know about her lost children Adam and Olivia and learns a more important truth that Pa is not her real father. This knowledge removes the stigma of guilt and incest from Celie’s mind which catalyses her journey to selfhood. Nettie’s letters become the second formative influence on Celie’s life. They help Celie to think of a world beyond her domestic boundary. She gets an awareness of African life and customs. When Nettie writes, “Oh Celie, there are colored people in the world who want us to know! Want us to grow and see the light! They are not all mean like Pa and Albert, or beaten down like ma was”, she is putting on record her optimism and hope. A direct beneficiary of it is Celie as she shares her vision with her. After restoring her self with the help of Shug, Celie could realize outside her domestic world the presence of elements of humanity in the coloured people and the world at large. Celie also comes to know about the oppression women suffer in the Olinka tribe, where “the husband has life and death power on the wife”. The Olinka people cannot accept a wife who knows everything her husband knows and thus women are deprived of education. Nevertheless, there is a sort of relationship among women: “It is in work that the women get to know and care about each other. It was through work that Catherine became friends with her husband’s other wives” (Walker, CP 119,151,150). Thus Nettie’s letters help Celie to have a sense of cultural identity as well as a sense of belongingness to her own community.
Elaine Showalter says that woman’s psyche has always been split into two by her position in the society as the product of a male tradition and at the same time by her desire to be part of a sister’s movement (“Feminist Poetics” 146-55). Women’s culture separates itself from the male tradition and redefines woman’s activities as well as her goals from a woman-centered point of view. The terms Women’s Culture denotes “an assertion of equality and an awareness of sisterhood, the community of women” (Showalter, “Feminist Criticism” 345-46). The concept of a community of women can be dated back to ancient myths and legends. The Graie in Greek mythology are three women who share a common eye. The only eye they possess is the eye of sisterhood that is ultimately stolen for Zeus to get the head of Medusa. Similarly, the nine sister Muses and the three Fates represent women bonding. In India writers like Ashapurna Debi and Lalitambika Antarjanam have emphasized women bonding:
The communities of women which have haunted our literary imagination from the beginning are emblems of female self-suffering which create their own corporate reality, evoking both wishes and fears. (Auerbach 37)
The twelve friendly fairies In “Briar Rose” can be considered as a representation of female community. They “gave all their best gifts to the little princess. One gave her goodness, another beauty, other riches, and so on till she had all that was good in the world” (Grimm 37). Likewise, Celie is empowered by the community of women to which she belongs.
Awareness of her community gained through Shug and Nettie makes Celie love and care the women around her like Sofia, Mary Agnes, Odessa, Henrietta and even Catherine and Tashi. The making of quilt by Celie and Sofia gains significance through its name “Sister’s Choice” (Walker, CP 56). Quilt, which is symbolic of the woman bonding in the novel, becomes a connecting link between Celie and Corrine, the one who adopted Celie’s children. It is through the quilt that Nettie is able to prove her relation to Adam and Olivia, thereby removing Corrine’s suspicion. Through the strength gained through the awareness of her community, Celie is able to attain economic independence through the execution of her creativity. It is Shug, who gives the scissors to Celie introducing her to the new course of life through stitching. Shug takes Celie along with her to Memphis where she is able to start a career as a fashion designer: “With the help of other women she transforms her interest in stitching into a business venture- she stitches pants, wears them, sells them and learns to manage her own life” (Gaur 36)As Celie says, “I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time” (Walker, CP 194). Within a short span the liberation occurs, within no time the night becomes starlit to break into a new dawn of liberated selfhood.
Thus, the curse that had fallen upon Celie, the thickets that had covered her mind has been removed by the kiss of Shug Avery. Like in the fairytale “Briar Rose”, it is the kiss that literally awakens the sleeping beauty within Celie: “Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more”. Through an awakening that is sexual, spiritual and creative, Celie is able to identify the beauty and strength within her. The awakening of Celie brings about changes in other women like Sofia and Mary Agnes as well as in the men around, Mr___ and Harpo. They no longer view women as objects, instead they begin to acknowledge women’s equal status as human beings. Later in the novel, when Shug Avery is away, Celie even feels that “Mr___ seem to be the only one understand my feeling”. Mr___ himself says: “I’m satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man. It feel like a new experience” (Walker, CP 103, 235, 236). Thus, Shug’s influence awakens Celie and like a renaissance it brings the flood of light into the life of every other character, as seen in the awakening of the entire palace in “Briar Rose”. The novel seems to end with the assurance that as the women concerned are contented, everything is all right with the world. The happy family union anticipates many a things to come:
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. (261)
Through the concept of woman bonding Walker illustrates the truth that in patriarchal culture, women can define themselves only through the kind of female bonding and sympathy developed with other women. She also asserts that the presence of a single emancipated woman can bring about sustained transformations of great significance for the entire community. Ashapurna Debi highlights the same idea in The First Promise:
The shadow-dark waters of a pool in some secluded village overflow in the monsoon to join the river and gush forth in torrents. That same river rushes along, and, one day joins the ocean. We must never forget that initial flowing firth out of the shadows. (Debi 2)
With their mutual love, empathy and shared sense of oppression, the Black women give strength to one another, stand up for one another other and succeed collectively in asserting their own identity in a male dominated capitalist society. The epigraph with which the novel opens, “To the Spirit: / Without whose assistance/Neither this book/ Nor I/ Would have been/ Written” (Walker, CP vii), gains significance in this context. Critics could connect such open statements with the assertions made in the text:
The dedication underlines the fact that the novel, through its women characters, quintessentially represents the collective consciousness of black women- their moments of pain and misery, fear and fortitude, experiences and hopes are cleverly woven into the thematic patterns of the novel. (Gaur 31)
Walker thus gives the story of the sleeping beauty a new dimension by subverting it from a marginalized, and later a magically transformed Black woman’s perspective. The subversion is the real and the only version with reference to a community that largely depends on rewriting or redefining its identity incessantly. Subversion then serves to exist as a quality of defence and attack. It rather sprouts up naturally to women who define themselves unselfconsciously. When women learn to define their proper identity naturally and independently least bothered about the scenario of gender questions, it is time to believe that freedom and equality has been definitely achieved. As it is noted in Celie and Briar Rose, the transformation is so complete, genuine and magical that they are lifted out of the ordinary to accommodate firstly the changes that occurred in them later to move to an inclusive perspective of heightened sensibility.
The novel celebrates Black aesthetics and at the same time openly transacts with the cultural burden of the race that is penalized along with the individual. It is a saga of the sustained transformation of the entire community viewed in a new perspective. In these entire spectra, one could see how brightly Walker’s subversion of “Briar Rose” incessantly focuses on the intense human situation of Celie, her medium in this particular cultural confrontation through the text.
One of the most useful sets of cultural products for establishing cultural motifs and values are children’s stories. According to Jack Zipes, fairy tales are formed in order to civilize the child according to the social order that is prevalent at a particular time. As such, these tales evolve and devolve according to the change in society and social strata. Their significance and function in the society is distorted and redefined so as to suit the needs of the storytellers. In the oral tradition in which they evolved, where the storytellers were matriarchs, the folk fairy tales emphasized the potentials of woman and her community, the equal status that she ought to attain in the society as well as the sexual anxieties in growing girls. When this logocentricism gave way to graphocentricism, where the writers of the text were predominantly men, these tales were thwarted in such a way to reinforce the patriarchal scheme of things. Yet, the subversive codes with which the oral narrators moulded their stories could not be dismantled. Thus, the fairy tales are deconstructed and reconstructed repeatedly in order to meet the changing and challenging needs of the society.
Fairy tales, written down by male writers contain explicit and implicit messages about dominant power structures in the society especially those containing gender race and class. As such, most of these tales reflect the ideals of a royal western androcentric society. It is in such a scenario that the fiction of a Black woman writer like Alice Walker gains its significance. Walker subverts the popular tale of “Briar Rose” in order to challenge the ideals of the White patriarchal society that is capitalist in nature and in turn asserts the identity of her Black woman protagonist:
The Color Purple’s strategy of inversion, represented in its elevation of female experience over great patriarchal events, had indeed aimed to critique the unjust practices of racism and sexism that violate the subject’s complexity reducing her to a generic biological sign. But the model of personal and national identity with which the novel leaves us uses fairy-tale explanations of social relations to represent itself. (Berlant 26)
The story of Briar Rose, the sleeping princess has been subjected to many retellings as in Angela Carter’s “The Lady of The House of Love”, Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, Carolyn Gage’s The Spindle etc. These writers subverted the fairy tale with diverse intentions such as sexist, political and philosophical. Accordingly, it is interesting to study how the structure and style of the fairy tale have been inverted by the authors to suit their varied needs and goals. The objective linear narration has been replaced by a subjective style, often non-linear, where a juxtaposition of time is brought in through interior monologues. Instead of the idyllic and fascinating world in the fairy story, these writers employ violent, sexual and sometimes gothic imagery in order to bring out the complex social milieu as well as the complex psychic state of the characters. With a subversion of the traditional fairy tale, Alice Walker intends to subvert the capitalist, racist and sexist power structures.
Celie’s transformation from a naïve, ignorant and victimized Black girl to an experienced, independent and active Black woman parallels the princess’ awakening from her long sleep to find fulfillment in love leading to a bright future. In both cases, the awakening is towards self-esteem and an increased awareness of the world, its powerful possibilities. Apart from the many symbols and incidents they share, both The Color Purple and “Briar Rose” have the basic archetypal quest element that leads to a successful conclusion and the assertion of optimistic thoughts. Celie and Briar Rose are in a journey to discover their true self until which they are in a state of slumber, unaware of their potential. The passivity of Briar Rose and the sexual nature of her awakening have corresponding echoes in Celie. The princess is redeemed of her curse with the prince’s loving kiss as Shug Avery’s kiss awakens Celie out of her lethargic state. After placing Celie’s awakening to her identity in parallel to the sleeping beauty’s awakening Walker subverts the important concepts with which Brothers Grimm articulates “Briar Rose”.
Firstly, Walker employs the epistolary form as a means to carry out the subversion to unfold Celie’s inner thoughts and feelings. Walker uses the epistolary form to portray not merely the domestic, personal and romantic life of Celie. In addition, Nettie’s letters take the novel to a more common realm that focuses on the history and tradition of Africa. The epistolary form of narration though it departs from the objective nature of the fairy tale and in itself is a challenge with its medium of vernacular, retains the orality with which fairy tales are narrated. Walker’s subversion of the White man’s standard language with Afro-American vernacular is a bold statement of her creative striving for the expression superiority as well.
Jack Zipes says that due to the Nazi influence, the works of Brothers Grimm became icons of racial purity and excellence. Thus, “Briar Rose” has undertones that assert racial superiority hidden in the deceptively simple content and style. The White beauty concept is a manifestation of the Western prejudices of race and gender reflective of an inner ugliness, a spiritual and moral failure. Walker subverts the Eurocentric beauty concept through the portrayal of the rich African culture, which she claims is far superior to the European culture. By associating Celie with purple flowers, rose etc., she is viewed as a Black beauty and it marks the reorientation of her self in relation to her altered position. The concept of Black beauty itself is a subverted notion in its reference to the Eurocentric norms. Reassuring Celie of her merit and her right, Walker centralizes the African woman and her indigenous existence. Thus, Walker makes a firm statement that Celie is the Black sleeping beauty, a representative of the beauty in the individual woman of colour and the Afro-American race.
Another major aspect that Walker subverts is the figure of the prince charming. Celie is awakened to her sexuality, creativity and identity, not with the guidance of any man but with her intense relationship with Shug Avery, a woman. Shug is substituted as the male rescue hero in The Color Purple. Moreover, the community of women in the novel plays a vital role in Celie’s sexual, artistic and spiritual awakening. The mutual love and respect help every woman character in the novel to realize their potential that in turn gains them a space in the patriarchal society. Through Shug, Celie is empowered which inspires other women to actualize their potential thereby gaining acceptance in a patriarchal society. Shug’s kiss thus awakens not only the sleeping Celie, Celie’s reformation in turn affects the entire community including the men who were blissfully blind to the potentials of women. Thus, by subverting a male rescue figure, Walker points to a universal truth that the presence of a single emancipated woman could bring about self-awareness in other women and this consciousness could in turn create changes in the entire society.
Alice Walker’s tradition of oral narratives, folk and fairy tales has contributed much to the weaving of The Color Purple in the pattern of “Briar Rose”. The strategy of subversion liberates the shackled values and the miserable characters. The modern authors often retrospect on the past with the view to rewrite it in order to explain their message in different terms. Protest could be a marked intention especially in the case of subversion. Then in deceptively simple narrative style, they could connect the past and the present. The author in modern situation thus makes use of the tradition of orality, regenerates a fairy tale to suit his purpose of narrating Celie, Shug Avery and everyone in the marginalized and miserable human situations. Just like the children, the readers could read the fairy tale, to feel a sense of affinity towards the characters and the settings. The Color Purple as a Black feminist retelling of “Briar Rose” acquires more readership since it places the general human situation at the centre. Moreover, the princess and prince are Celie and Shug Avery in the modern Black feminist situation of protest, fight and emergence.
With the thread of a Western fairy story, The Color Purple subverts the Eurocentric concept of beauty, hierarchy of gender, role of the male rescue hero, the expressive authority of the standard language, the ideologically implied meanings, method of narration and the position of indigenous culture in relation to the dominant power structures. The Black Feminist retelling of “Briar Rose” is a bold statement that accommodates all these strains, at the same time a literature of resistance that compromises in the end with an optimistic perspective. The Color Purple is the “Briar Rose’’ regenerated with a purple vision, where sharing the crises of the characters Walker makes it clear that the writer should have definite position and ideology in order to assure freedom to every single human being.
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