Celie's Transformation in 'The Color Purple' Essay

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“Freedom, or the lack thereof, is inextricably linked with power”

In light of this statement explore how Alice Walker and Emma Donoghue present the relationship between freedom and power in Room and The Color Purple.

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Throughout the entirety of both novels, constant inferences can be made about a journey of liberation, whether it be the similar physiological release in both texts, the escape from physical imprisonment in Room, or the separation from male-led oppression through female empowerment in The Color Purple. Each of these examples showcases how Emma Donoghue and Alice Walker portray a journey from entrapment to freedom in each of their texts.

The Color Purple follows the story of Celie, a southern black American woman who is born into poverty, patriarchy, and inequality. Her childhood is corrupted by the man she calls “Pa” through his sexual assault and she is victimized throughout her early adult life at the hands of “Mr._____”.

In his book, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explores problems that African Americans are faced with, and at one point he states:

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free”1

Even though this has come from a slightly different context, it is still indicative of Celie’s journey in reaching liberation, as she first explores her true sexuality with Shug Avery before being able to set herself free from the patriarchal grasp that Mr. _____ encapsulated her in.

In Room, Jack spends the early years of his life growing up in one small room with his Ma. Unknowingly Jack is the offspring of his Ma’s kidnapper, as she was abducted at a young age and locked into this room. For Ma, the room is keeping her from the world she once knew, yet for Jack the room holds the entirety of his knowledge, being born inside he has no understanding of there being more life outside of their cruel confinement. The journey that we follow has two main strands, for Jack, we follow his path to reaching a revelation, and for Ma, we follow her path of a slow psychological deterioration from her mental and physical isolation.

At the beginning of The Color Purple Alice Walker uses explicit descriptions of Celie’s abusive childhood to immediately compartmentalize her life into a cynical circle of tyranny and subjugation. The first threatening line of Celie’s father warning Celie to “better not never tell nobody but God” as it would kill her “mammy”2 is an implicit portrayal of Celie’s destined confinement to physical and mental isolation, as through this fear of wrongfully thinking she can never tell any “body” Daniel W. Ross, believes that the reason for the novel’s epistolary structure is because Celie addressing “her letters to the orthodox Christian God, another version of the father”3 is means of salvation, as she believes God is the only person that will hear her. Furthermore, much of Celie’s language exists without a “body or an audience” being almost parallel to how she exists without “a self or identity”4. After leaving to visit her “sister doctor” Celie’s mother leaves Celie to “see after the others”5 and during this time, Celie’s Pa uses her for sexual pleasure. The uncomfortable description of Pa placing his “thing up against”6 her hip and sort of wiggling it around, does not just portray the sexual violence in Celie’s early upbringing, but it could also highlight her innocence, as the basic vocabulary Walker uses almost makes it seem like Celie has not reached the age where she understands or even knows about adult sexuality, only elucidating how traumatic her childhood was. This is almost parallel to the innocence that Jack portrays in Room, as during his mother’s consistent rape, he listens in confusion from the wardrobe, not understanding the pain and suffering she is enduring. After the distressing description of Celie’s first revolting experience with her Pa, he tells her that she “better shut up and git used to it” but she exclaims to “never get used to it”7 and this line could perhaps be Walker directly questioning societal views on male expectations for female sexuality, linking to how Dror Abend-David views The Color Purple as a “construction of an alternative language for women” that in some feminist readings explores the “preference of sexual deviation”8. This is later implied when Celie says that she does not even “look at men” but does “look at women”9, which almost foreshadows the relationship that she starts to later build after receiving a picture of Shug Avery that begins to make Celie dream about her. From just the beginning of The Color Purple, Alice Walker uses sexual violence, childhood trauma, and female entrapment to initiate Celie’s journey to freedom, as, throughout the rest of the novel, Celie slowly begins to understand her own identity and sexuality, allowing her to separate herself from her prolonged isolated life.

Instead of primarily using confined sexuality to portray a power struggle, at the beginning of Room Emma Donoghue uses Jack’s innocence to highlight the effect of Old Nick’s power on Ma and Jack’s freedom. From the first line of Jack going to sleep in “wardrobe” at the age of four and waking up “changed to five. abracadabra”10 there is an immediate sense of purity, as through this mystical exclamation Jack portrays his secluded mentality. Moreover, Donoghue may not just be implementing Jack’s imaginative mindset, she could also be indicating the possibility of escape that is constantly running through Ma’s head, further insinuating that Jack’s imagination could just be fabricated out of the natural process of growing up, yet for Ma her possible delusion could be stemmed from the years of captivity, as she knows what lies beyond the walls of their confinement. Having said that, Jack could share Ma’s decaying mentality as through the repetition of him not using determiners when referring to the objects around the room, it can be inferred that he views these objects as living organisms or in his childlike mentality, his friends. Others may view this as another common representation of Jack’s infant intellect and imagination, as Donoghue herself, states in an interview with The Guardian that her “goal was to avoid sentimentalizing imprisonment”11, which would indicate that Jack’s grammatical mistakes are only a depiction of a normal child’s intelligence. However, Donoghue also mentions that she wanted this novel to be a “great reckoning in a little room” and that she wanted a story of “childlike simplicity that would pose the big questions”12, and in light of this statement it would then allow an interpretation of Donoghue’s use of grammar to be symbolizing a long term effect on Jack’s mentality, for he may not be able to dissociate fiction from reality in the future. The fact that Jack may share the same delusional mentality as Ma, the “black and brown” stains on the rug, could allow for some to perceive Jack as the catalyst for Ma’s deteriorating sanity, as the cynical imagery could perhaps be insinuating a corruption in Ma’s frame of mind. On the other hand, through Ma describing to Jack that he metaphorically entered the room “through skylight”13 the heavenly imagery could then depict Jack to be the vessel in potentially transporting Ma from her collapsing mental state. In retrospect, the “black and brown” stains on the rug should then illustrate how Jack’s birth initiated Ma’s journey to freedom that will eventually come from regaining a sense of power back from Old Nick, after a foreshadowed time of darkness.

Being almost parallel to Celie’s fate, in The Color Purple, Celie must disobey the amount of power she is given by society, to overcome a period of darkness so that she can eventually reach her desired freedom. The ‘black and brown’ stains from Room share a common theme with The Color Purple since Celie's time of darkness is shown through Walker’s graphic representation of her traumatic childhood. Furthermore, Jack’s God-like birth through ‘skylight’, which foreshadows a prolonged positive outcome, links to Celie’s excitement when she begins to explore her sexuality with Shug Avery, as this exploration almost acts as a catalyst within her journey of attaining freedom. Before meeting Shug, Celie only ever referred to her oppressor as Mr.___, and it was only when Shug spoke to Mr.___ in front of Celie that Celie remembered his first name, as she wondered “Who Albert”14 was after Shug mentioned him in a conversation. The fact that Walker only presents Albert’s name until Shug is introduced to the story, it could be inferred that this isWalkerr creating an argument against the overpowering masculinity in the early twentieth century, as the lack of female agency was ever present so it was probably very common for women to rely on each other for their survival, which may illustrate how Shug’s female presence almost gives Celie the power to acknowledge Albert as the tyrannical dictator of her life, and this is what potentially enables her to eventually overcome this oppression. Moreover, similar to how some critics view Jack to be Ma’s savior against Old Nick, Shug can also easily be seen as Celie’s opportunity to create her destiny, as before getting intimate, Shug allows Celie to educate herself on her own body, from when she hands Celie a mirror and tells her to “go look at [herself] down there”15. Some may view the relationship between Shug and Celie to only be fueled by Shug taking pity on Celie, as before they “kiss and kiss until [they] can hardly kiss no more”16 Celie informs Shug of the time Alfonso brutally raped her when she was “just going on fourteen”17, which would therefore possibly imply that Shug only feels sympathetic towards Celie’s lack of sexual exploration being caused by the years of physical and mental monotony, of which is enforced from Albert’s patriarchal authority over her sexual freedom. From an alternative viewpoint, Celie could be as much of a safety line for Shug then Shug is for Celie. Despite Celie needing Shug to escape from isolation, Shug could also need Celie so that she can escape from her hectic reality. This is reinforced by Shug reassuring Celie that she doesn’t “know much [about it] either”18 after they begin kissing, which would then connote how each of them symbolizes a beacon of hope for one another, guiding each other to salvation.

Throughout the chapter “Dying” in Room, Donoghue similarly presents this theme of hope, as this pivotal section of the book explores Ma’s desperation in constructing Jack’s escape plan followed by her yearning for him to be successful. Building on this idea of endurance through a time of hardship to ultimately lead to prosperity, Jack’s escape encapsulates the epitome of darkness for both Ma and Jack. Jack has to experience the overwhelming flood of knowledge from the outside world, whilst trying to follow the strict procedure that Ma fabricated from her psychological torment of “Dead, Truck, Wriggle Out, Jump, Run, Somebody, Note, Police”.19 Furthermore, Ma has to wait in Room by herself for the first time in years, without Jack to keep her in her right wits, her mentality may cascade into destruction, as she is only left wondering if Jack managed to escape and find help. Before being able to deceive Old Nick about Jack’s death, Ma has to convince him that Jack is sick and to do this Ma leans “over bed [...] put her hands in her mouth” until she makes herself vomit over him, which she then uses to spread over Jack’s T-shirt and across his mouth. With this nauseating description and Jack’s uncomfortable shriek of “stop”, it can be inferred that Ma’s mental stability has completely withered down to the point where she has no sympathy towards her child any longer and that she only desires to leave her prison of physical and mental seclusion. However, through her short response to Jack of “sorry, I have to”20 it can be argued that she completely understands what she is doing, her morality may have been tampered with, but her hope for escape could have taken over mental fragility, putting an end to her avoidance with attempting to take back her freedom and provide Jack with a real childhood. Similar to how Shug represents hope for Celie’s future, Jack provides Ma with a chance to disconnect herself from her out-lived enclosure.

In The Color Purple, Walker uses Celie’s powerful departure to Memphis, Tennessee to present the importance of female empowerment in the changing world. When informing Albert of her plans to leave with Shug Avery, Celie is once again belittled by Alberts's primitive and patriarchal paramountcy, however, this time, she decides to use it to her advantage. When Albert tries to break down Celie’s confidence in an attempt to prevent her from leaving, he compares the fact that “Shug got talent” to be living in Memphis and all Celie is fit to do “is be Shug’s maid”21. He continues to try and utilize society's expectations by calling her black, pore, ugly, and a woman, all being a useless attempt in making her stay, as Celie pivotally empowers herself and confidently responds with the emotional statement saying;

“I’m poor, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice says to everything listening. But I’m here.”22

The fact that Celie spontaneously exerts all of her frustration onto Albert after years of solitude at this moment, Walker could be showing her frustration for the lack of advancement within society and that she may want to portray how drastic action can lead to drastic change. This inference can be reinforced through Celie trying to explain where her confidence is being created and exerted from, as when she states how she is giving “it to [Albert] straight […], it seems to come to [her] from the trees”.23 Moreover, this natural imagery may illustrate howWalkerr is trying to portray how society is constantly evolving, meaning that humans need to evolve at the same time, so the ‘trees telling’ Celie what to say could then be nature’s way of allowing Celie to separate herself from her past to create a new future. In contradiction to this, Celie almost shows some self-acknowledgment of her place in society, as before making her stand against Albert she mentions how “wherever there’s a man, there’s trouble”24 which could also be Walker cynically presenting the destined confinement to societal views upon females’ attainment of power. Revisiting how Dror Abend-David views this novel from a feminist viewpoint as an “alternative language for women”25

This idea of the effects of a changing society can also be implemented in Room, as Donoghue presents the difference in Jack’s ability to adjust to the real world compared to Ma’s inability to cope with the realization of lost time. After Jack successfully returns to the room with the police, he and Ma are provided with a place in a hospital, which is an attempt to allow a slow and healthy reintegration for Ma and a paced introduction for Jack to the real world. At first, Jack is frightened by all the new concepts he is faced with, however, he surprisingly adjusts quickly to his new life outside of the room. After only a few days of living in the hospital, Jack spends a day outside with nurse Noreen, without Ma. For Jack to leave the hospital without Ma can be viewed by some to be an unrealistic portrayal of Jack’s independence, however, considering his past confined imagination to one room, his childlike curiosity could be much greater than normal as he has a whole new world to explore, further implying that he is possibly more free then Ma. Building on this point, arriving back at the hospital, Jack returns to Ma and his room, but upon his arrival, he discovers that Ma is “not moving when [he] pulls her” before noticing her “pill bottles open on the table [that] look mostly empty”. Jack’s confusion about Ma breaking the rule of never taking “more than two”26 pills implies how despite Jack being able to easily adapt to outside life, Donoghue still presents the regularity of his child mentality preventing him from understanding the complexity of death. Even though Ma does not pass away, Jack still does not understand the severity of the situation. Some can view Ma’s overdose from two viewpoints, firstly, critics can view this as a coping mechanism that stemmed from her loss of Jack’s dependency, in the room Jack could only have survived as long as he did with Ma’s diligence, without it he may not have survived his birth. The realization of Jack no longer needing her may have reverted her into her childlike mentality, causing her to feel lost, helpless, and redundant to Jack’s life. On the other hand, Ma’s mentality of being locked into one room for years paired with the overwhelming reality of the frequency within the constantly evolving modern world may have just been too much for Ma to fathom. From a controversial viewpoint, critics could believe that Ma’s psychological standpoint only truly begins to deteriorate once she leaves the room, further indicating that Jack is possibly what kept her from plummeting into insanity from the moment he was born. Walker could then be elucidating howwomenn can continue to grow in society, but there will always be a limit to that growth, as long as masculine dominance continues to release a set amount of freedom for women.

Even though Celie, Jack, and Ma have been successful in escaping each of their oppressors, it can be argued that, yes, their freedom has been personally attained, but within each of their respective powerful societies, will they ever truly be free?

This implied rhetorical viewpoint leaves the reader for each of the novels to question the validity of the supposed evolving modern world, we are presented with a structural hope for a prosperous future, yet constantly reminded of humanity's cruelty. Opposed to contrary belief, each of the novels acts as a reminder of the possibility of society continuing to decay.    

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