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Themes In The Colour Purple

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Autor:  anton  22 March 2011
Tags:  Themes,  Colour,  Purple
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The theme of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is very straightforward and simple. Like many other novels devoted to the mistreatment of blacks and black women especially, The Color Purple is dedicated to black women’s rights.

Much of the narrative in Walker’s novel is derived from her own personal experience, growing up in the rural South as an uneducated and abused child. In short, the goal of this book and indeed all her writing is to inspire and motivate black women to stand up for their rights. Celie, the main character, undergoes an inner transformation, from a submissive, abused wife to an unabashedly confident and independent black woman and businesswoman.

There are other more secondary themes, such as the rejection of the traditional, Christian, "white-man's" God. Thanks to the influence of Shug Avery and Nettie, a new age kind of God is developed and is a great comfort to all three women. Even Celie's last letter is written to this vague kind of god-- a god of nature and stars and people

Race and domesticity in 'The Color Purple.'

An important juncture in Alice Walker's The Color Purple is reached when

Celie first recovers the missing letters from her long-lost sister Nettie.

This discovery not only signals the introduction of a new narrator to this

epistolary novel but also begins the transformation of Celie from writer to

reader. Indeed, the passage in which Celie struggles to puzzle out the

markings on her first envelope from Nettie provides a concrete illustration

of both Celie's particular horizon of interpretation and Walker's chosen

approach to the epistolary form:

Saturday morning Shug put Nettie letter in my lap. Little fat queen of

England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees

and say Africa. I don't know where England at. Don't know where Africa at

either. So I stir don't know where Nettie at. (102)

Revealing Celie's ignorance of even the most rudimentary outlines of the

larger world, this passage clearly defines the "domestic" site she occupies

as the novel's main narrator.(1) In particular, the difficulty Celie has

interpreting this envelope underscores her tendency to understand events in

terms of personal consequences rather than political categories. What

matters about not knowing "where Africa at" - according to Celie - is not

knowing "where Nettie at." By clarifying Celie's characteristic angle of

vision, this passage highlights the intensely personal perspective that

Walker brings to her tale of sexual oppression - a perspective that accounts

in large part for the emotional power of the text.

But Walker's privileging of the domestic perspective of her narrators has

also been judged to have other effects on the text. Indeed, critics from

various aesthetic and political camps have commented on what they perceive

as a tension between public and private discourse in the novel.(2) Thus, in

analyzing Celie's representation of national identity, Lauren Berlant

identifies a separation of "aesthetic" and "political" discourses in the

novel and concludes that Celie's narrative ultimately emphasizes "individual

essence in false opposition to institutional history" (868). Revealing a

very different political agenda in his attacks on the novel's womanist

stance, George Stade also points to a tension between personal and public

elements in the text when he criticizes the novel's "narcissism" and its

"championing of domesticity over the public world of masculine power plays"

(266). Finally, in praising Walker's handling of sexual oppression, Elliott

Butler-Evans argues that Celie's personal letters serve precisely as a

"textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on

racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the

narration" (166).

By counterposing personal and public discourse in the novel, these critics

could be said to have problematized the narrative's domestic perspective by

suggesting that Walker's chosen treatment of the constricted viewpoint of an

uneducated country woman - a woman who admits that she doesn't even know

"where Africa at" - may also constrict the novel's ability to analyze issues

of "race" and class.(3) Thus Butler-Evans finds that Celie's "private life

preempts the exploration of the public lives of blacks" (166), while Berlant

argues that Celie's family-oriented point of view and modes of expression

can displace race and class analyses to the point that the "nonbiological

abstraction of class relations virtually disappears" (833). And in a

strongly worded rejection of the novel as "revolutionary literature," bell

hooks charges that the focus upon Celie's sexual oppression ultimately

deemphasizes the "collective plight of black people" and "invalidates . . .

the racial agenda" of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon

("Writing" 465).(4) In short, to many readers of The Color Purple, the

text's ability to expose sexual oppression seems to come at the expense of

its ability to analyze issues of race and class.(5)

But it seems to me that an examination of the representation of race in the

novel leads to another conclusion: Walker's mastery of the epistolary form

is revealed precisely by her ability to maintain the integrity of Celie's

and Nettie's domestic perspectives even as she simultaneously undertakes an

extended critique of race relations, and especially of racial integration.

In particular, Walker's domestic novel engages issues of race and class

through two important narrative strategies: the development of an embedded

narrative line that offers a post-colonial perspective on the action, and

the use of "family relations" - or kinship - as a carefully elaborated

textual trope for race relations. These strategies enable Walker to

foreground the personal histories of her narrators while placing those

histories firmly within a wider context of race and class.

Both the novel's so-called "restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness"

(Butler-Evans 166-67) and one way in which Walker's narratology complicates

that perspective are illustrated by the passage quoted above. Celie's

difficulty interpreting the envelope sent by Nettie at first only seems to

support the claim that her domestic perspective "erases" race and class

concerns from the narrative. But if this short passage delineates Celie's

particular angle of vision, it also introduces textual features that invite

readers to resituate her narration within a larger discourse of race and

class. For where Celie sees only a "fat little queen of England," readers

who recognize Queen Victoria immediately historicize the passage. And if the

juxtaposition of the two stamps on the envelope - England's showcasing

royalty, Africa's complete with rubber trees - suggests to Celie nothing but

her own ignorance, to other readers the two images serve as a clear reminder

of imperialism. Thus Africa, mentioned by name for the first time in this

passage, enters the novel already situated within the context of

colonialism. Importantly, Walker remains true to Celie's character even as

she recontextualizes the young woman's perspective, because the features of

the envelope Celie focuses upon are entirely natural ones for her to notice,

even though they are politically charged in ways that other features would

not be (for example, Celie might have been struck by more purely personal -

and more conventional - details, such as the familiar shape of her sister's

handwriting). Embedded throughout The Color Purple, narrative features with

clear political and historical associations like these complicate the

novel's point of view by inviting a post-colonial perspective on the action

and by creating a layered narrative line that is used for different

technical effects and thematic purposes.(6) That Celie herself is not always

aware of the full political implications of her narration (although she

becomes increasingly so as the novel progresses) no more erases the critique

of race and class from the text than Huck's naivete in Huckleberry Finn

constricts that work's social criticism to the boy's opinions. This

individual letter from Nettie thus provides readers with a textual analogue

for the novel's larger epistolary form, illustrating one way in which the

novel's domestic perspective is clearly "stamped" with signs of race and


But it is not only through such narrative indirection and

recontextualization that the novel engages issues of race and class.

Walker's domestic narrative undertakes a sustained analysis of race through

the careful development of family relationships - or kinship - as an

extended textual trope for race relations. Any attempt to oppose political

and personal discourses in the novel collapses when one recognizes that the

narrative adopts the discourse of family relations both to establish a

"domestic ideal" for racial integration and to problematize that ideal

through the analysis of specific integrated family groupings in Africa and


I. "She says an African daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but

totally different kinds"

Important throughout the narrative, the kinship trope for race relations is

articulated most explicitly late in the novel when a mature Celie and a

reformed Albert enjoy some communal sewing and conversation. Celie herself

raises the issue of racial conflict by drawing on the Olinka "Adam" story

that has been handed down to her through Nettie's letters. Beginning with

the explanation that ". . . white people is black peoples children" (231),

the Olinka narrative provides an analysis of race relations expressed

explicitly in terms of kinship.

According to the Olinka creation narrative, Adam was not the first man but

the first white man born to an Olinka woman to be cast out for his nakedness

- or for being "colorless" (231). The result of this rejection was the

fallen world of racial conflict, since the outcast children were, in Celie's

words, "so mad to git throwed out and told they was naked they made up they

minds to crush us wherever they find us, same as they would a snake."

Offered specifically as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian account of

Adam, this parable also offers readers an alternative account of Original

Sin - defined not in terms of appropriating knowledge or resisting authority

but precisely in terms of breaking kinship bonds: "What they did, these

Olinka peoples, was throw out they own children, just cause they was a

little different" (232). Significantly, by retelling the Olinka narrative,

Celie is able to express naturally some rather sophisticated ideas

concerning the social construction of racial inferiority, since the myth

defines that inferiority as a construct of power relations that will change

over time. For the Olinka believe that someday the whites will "kill off so

much of the earth and the colored that everybody gon hate them just like

they hate us today. Then they will become the new serpent" (233).

The Olinka creation narrative also raises a question central to the novel's

larger design: Is progress in race relations possible? Some Olinka, notes

Celie, answer this question by predicting that the cycle of discrimination

will repeat itself endlessly, that ". . . life will just go on and on like

this forever," with first one race in the position of the oppressor and then

the other. But others believe that progress in racial harmony is possible -

that Original Sin may be ameliorated - through a new valorization of kinship

bonds: ". . . the only way to stop making somebody the serpent is for

everybody to accept everybody else as a child of God, or one mother's

children, no matter what they look like or how they act" (233).(7) These

latter Olinka, then, express a domestic ideal for race relations, one that

counters the sin of discrimination - based on an ideology of essential

difference with an ethic of acceptance that is grounded upon a recognition

of relation, or kinship.

But the universalist ethos of the domestic ideal for race relations is put

to the test by the larger narrative's development of historically situated,

integrated kinship groupings in both Africa and America. Of particular

importance are two family groupings: the white missionary Doris Baines and

her black African grandchild in Africa, and Sophia and her white charge Miss

Eleanor Jane in America. In both cases the specific integrated domestic

groupings serve to expose and to critique the larger pattern of racial

integration found in their respective countries.

Nettie meets Doris and her adopted grandson on a trip from Africa to seek

help for the recently displaced Olinka in England, a trip Nettie calls

"incredible" precisely because of the presence of an integrated family on

board ship: It was "impossible to ignore the presence of an aging white

woman accompanied by a small black child. The ship was in a tither. Each day

she and the child walked about the deck alone, groups of white people

falling into silence as they passed" (193). Compared to the overtly racist

actions of the other whites who ostracize Doris and her grandson, the

English missionary's relationship with the boy at first seems in keeping

with the ethic of treating all people as "one mother's children." Indeed,

Doris describes her years as the boy's "grandmama" as "the happiest" ears of

her life (196). Furthermore, Doris's relationship with the African villagers

also seems preferable to that of other white missionaries because, rather

than wanting to convert "the heathen," she sees "nothing wrong with them" in

the first place (195).

But the relationship between the white woman and her African grandson is

actually far from ideal, and Nettie's letters subtly question the quality of

their "kinship." If the boy seems "fond of his grandmother" - and, Nettie

adds, "used to her" - he is also strangely reticent in her presence and

reacts to Doris's conversation with "soberly observant speechlessness"

(196). In contrast, the boy opens up around Adam and Olivia, suggesting that

he may feel more at home with the transplanted black Americans than with his

white grandmother.(8) Indeed, the boy's subdued behavior around his

grandmother raises questions about the possibility of kinship across racial

lines, while his ease with the black Americans suggests that feelings of

kinship occur almost spontaneously within racial groups.

The nature of Doris's honorary "kinship" with the Akwee villagers is

questioned more seriously still, beginning with her reasons for taking up

missionary work in the first place. As a young woman Doris decided to become

a missionary not out of a desire to help others but in order to escape the

rarefied atmosphere of upper-class England and the probability of her

eventual marriage to one of her many "milkfed" suitors, "each one more

boring than the last" (194). Although Doris describes her decision to go to

Africa as an attempt to escape the stultifying roles available to women in

English society, it is important to note that Nettie does not take Doris's

hardships very seriously and draws upon fairy-tale rhetoric to parody the

woman's upper-class tribulations: "She was born to great wealth in England.

Her father was Lord Somebody or Other. They were forever giving or attending

boring parties that were not fun."(9) From Nettie's perspective as a black

woman familiar with the trials of the displaced Olinka, Doris's aristocratic

troubles seem small indeed, and Nettie further trivializes the white woman's

decision to become a missionary by emphasizing that the idea struck Doris

one evening when she "was getting ready for yet another tedious date" (194).

The self-interest that prompts Doris to become a missionary also

characterizes the relationship she establishes with the Akwee upon her

arrival in Africa. There she uses her wealth to set up an ostensibly

reciprocal arrangement that in fact reflects her imperial power to buy

whatever she wants: "Within a year everything as far as me and the heathen

were concerned ran like clockwork. I told them right off that their souls

were no concern of mine, that I wanted to write books and not be disturbed.

For this pleasure I was prepared to pay. Rather handsomely." Described as a

mechanism that runs "like clockwork," Doris's relationship to the Akwee

clearly falls short of the maternal ideal for race relations expressed in

the Olinka myths. In fact, Doris's relationship to the villagers is

decidedly paternal from the outset, since her formal kinship with the Akwee

begins when she is presented with "a couple of wives" (195) in recognition

for her contributions to the village.(10) The fact that she continues to

refer to the Olinka as "the heathen" in her discussions with Nettie implies

that, in spite of her fondness for her grandson, Doris never overcomes a

belief in the essential "difference" of the Africans attributed to her by

the Missionary Society in England: "She thinks they are an entirely

different species from what she calls Europeans. . . . She says an African

daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but totally different kinds"

(115). By promoting a theory of polygenesis opposed to the Olinkan account

of racial origins, Doris calls into question her own ability to treat the

Akwee as kin. The true nature of her "reciprocal" relationship with the

Akwee is revealed when she unselfconsciously tells Nettie that she believes

she can save her villagers from the same displacement the Olinka suffered:

"I am a very wealthy woman," says Doris, "and I own the village of Akwee"


Stripped of both the religious motivation of the other missionaries and the

overt racism of the other whites, Doris Baines through her relationship with

the Akwee lays bare the hierarchy of self-interest and paternalism that sets

the pattern for race relations in larger Africa. Indeed, from the moment

that young Nettie first arrives in Africa she is surprised to find whites

there "in droves," and her letters are filled with details suggestive of the

hegemony of race and class. Nettie's description of Monrovia is a case in

point. There she sees "bunches" of whites and a presidential palace that

"looks like the American white house" (119). There Nettie also discovers

that whites sit on the country's cabinet, that black cabinet members' wives

dress like white women, and that the black president himself refers to his

people as "natives" - as Nettie remarks, "It was the first time I'd heard a

black man use that word" (120). Originally established by ex-slaves who

returned to Africa but who kept "close ties to the country that bought them"

(117), Monrovia clearly reveals a Western influence in more than its style

of architecture, and its cocoa plantations provide the colonial model of

integration that defines the white presence elsewhere in Africa - from the

port town "run by a white man" who rents out "some of the stalls . . . to

Africans" (127) all the way up to the governor's mansion where "the white

man in charge" (144) makes the decision to build the road that ultimately

destroys the Olinka village. Indeed, the later displacement of the Olinka

villagers by the English roadbuilders - the main action in the African

sections of The Color Purple - simply recapitulates the colonial process of

integration already embedded in Nettie's narrative of her travels through

the less remote areas of Africa.

From her eventual vantage point within the Olinka's domestic sphere, Nettie

becomes a first-hand witness to this process of colonization - a process in

which she and the other black missionaries unwittingly participate. For

although Nettie's reasons for going to Africa differ from Doris Baines's in

that they, like those of the other black missionaries, include a concern for

the "people from whom [she] sprang" (111), she is trained by a missionary

society that is "run by white people" who "didn't say a thing about caring

about Africa, but only about duty" (115). Indeed, missionary work is tied to

national interest from the time Nettie arrives in England to prepare for the

trip to Africa:

. . . the English have been sending missionaries to Africa and India and

China and God knows where all, for over a hundred years. And the things they

have brought back! We spent a morning in one of their museums and it was

packed with jewels, furniture, fur, carpets, swords, clothing, even tombs

from all the countries they have been. From Africa they have thousands of

vases, jars, masks, bowls, baskets, statues - and they are all so beautiful

it is hard to imagine that the people who made them don't still exist. And

yet the English assure us they do not. (116-17)

Charting the course of empire through a catalogue of the material culture

appropriated by missionaries from "all the countries they have been" (and,

chillingly, from peoples who no longer exist), this passage brilliantly

underscores Walker's ability to maintain the integrity of the narrative's

personal perspective - here that of a young girl's wonder at her first

glimpse into the riches of her African heritage - even as she simultaneously

invites readers to resituate that perspective in a wider context of race and

class. In fact, throughout the African sections of the novel, Walker's

embedded narrative enables readers to sympathize with the hopes and

disappointments of the black missionaries while it simultaneously exposes

the limitations of their point of view.

This narrative complexity becomes especially important in the passages

concerning Samuel and Corrine's Victorian aunts, Theodosia and Althea, whom

the narrative asks readers both to sympathize with and to judge harshly. On

the one hand, as representatives of a group of black women missionaries who

achieved much against great odds, the narrative asks readers to see these

women and their accomplishments as "astonishing":

. . . no sooner had a young woman got through Spelman Seminary than she

began to put her hand to whatever work she could do for her people, anywhere

in the world. It was truly astonishing. These very polite and proper young

women, some of them never having set foot outside their own small country

towns, except to come to the Seminary, thought nothing of packing up for

India, Africa, the Orient. Or for Philadelphia or New York. (199)

On the other hand, the narrative levies its harshest criticism of missionary

work not against the white missionary Doris Baines but against Aunt

Theodosia - and particularly against the foolish pride she takes in a medal

given to her by King Leopold for "service as an exemplary missionary in the

King's colony." The criticism is levied by a young "DuBoyce," who attends

one of Aunt Theodosia's "at homes" and exposes her medal as the emblem of

the Victorian woman's "unwitting complicity with this despot who worked to

death and brutalized and eventually exterminated thousands and thousands of

African peoples" (200). Like the other political allusions embedded in

Walker's narrative, the appearance of Du Bois in Aunt Theodosia's domestic

sphere recontextualizes Nettie's narrative, and his comments serve as an

authoritative final judgment upon the entire missionary effort in Africa.

By structuring Nettie's letters around missionary work, then, Walker

achieves much. First, that work provides Nettie and the other black

missionaries with a practical and credible pathway into the African domestic

sphere. Second, the institutional, historical, and ideological connections

between philanthropy and colonialism enable Walker to use that domestic

sphere and the example of Doris Baines's integrated family to expose the

missionary pattern of integration in larger Africa. Finally, the embedded

narrative line enables Walker to remain true to her characters even as she

anatomizes the hierarchy of race and class that is first pictured in

miniature on Nettie's envelope.

II. "He said he wouldn't do it to me if he was my uncle"

If the integrated family of Doris Baines and her adopted African grandson

exposes the missionary pattern of integration in Africa as one based on a

false kinship that in fact denies the legitimacy of kinship bonds across

racial lines, the relationship between Miss Sophia and her white charge,

Miss Eleanor Jane, serves an analogous function for the American South.

Sophia, of course, joins the mayor's household as a maid under conditions

more overtly racist than Doris Baines's adoption of her Akwee family:

Because she answers "hell no" (76) to Miss Millie's request that she come to

work for her as a maid, Sophia is brutally beaten by the mayor and six

policeman and is then imprisoned. Forced to do the jail's laundry and driven

to the brink of madness, Sophia finally becomes Miss Millie's maid in order

to escape prison. Sophia's violent confrontation with the white officers

obviously foregrounds issues of race and class, as even critics who find

these issues marginalized elsewhere in The Color Purple have noted. But it

is not only through Sophia's dramatic public battles with white men that her

story dramatizes issues of race and class. Her domestic relationship with

Miss Eleanor Jane and the other members of the mayor's family offers a more

finely nuanced and extended critique of racial integration, albeit one that

has often been overlooked.(11)

Like Doris Baines and her black grandson, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane

appear to have some genuine family feelings for one another. Since Sophia

"practically . . . raise[s]" (222) Miss Eleanor Jane and is the one

sympathetic person in her house, it is not surprising that the young girl

"dote[s] on Sophia" and is "always stick[ing] up for her" (88), or that,

when Sophia leaves the mayor's household (after fifteen years of service),

Miss Eleanor Jane continues to seek out her approval and her help with the

"mess back at the house" (174). Sophia's feelings for Miss Eleanor are of

course more ambivalent. When she first joins the mayor's household, Sophia

is completely indifferent to her charge, "wonder[ing] why she was ever born"

(88). After rejoining her own family, Sophia resents Miss Eleanor Jane's

continuing intrusions into her family life and suggests that the only reason

she helps the white girl is because she's "on parole. . . . Got to act nice"

(174). But later Sophia admits that she does feel "something" for Miss

Eleanor Jane "because of all the people in your daddy's house, you showed me

some human kindness" (225).

Whatever affection exists between the two women, however, has been shaped by

the perverted "kinship" relation within which it grew - a relationship the

narrative uses to expose plantation definitions of kinship in general and to

explode the myth of the black mammy in particular. Separated from her own

family and forced to join the mayor's household against her will, living in

a room under the house and assigned the housekeeping and childraising

duties, Sophia carries out a role in the mayor's household which clearly

recalls that of the stereotypical mammy on the Southern plantation. However,

as someone who prefers to build a roof on the house while her husband tends

the children, Sophia seems particularly unsuited for that role. And that is

precisely the narrative's point: Sophia is entirely unsuited for the role of

mammy, but whites - including and perhaps especially Miss Eleanor Jane -

continually expect her to behave according to their cultural representations

of the black mother. It is, in fact, these expectations that get Sophia into

trouble in the first place, for when Miss Millie happens upon Sophia's

family and sees her children so "clean" (76), she assumes that Sophia would

make a perfect maid and that Sophia would like to come and work in her

household. Similarly, Miss Eleanor Jane assumes that Sophia must return her

family feelings in kind, without considering Sophia's true position in her

household. The young white woman's stereotypical projections become clear

when she can't understand why Sophia doesn't "just love" her new son, since,

in her words, "all other colored women I know love children" (224-25).

An historical appropriation of domestic discourse for political ends,

descriptions of the black mammy were used by apologists for slavery to argue

that the plantation system benefited the people whom it enslaved by

incorporating supposedly inferior blacks into productive white families.(12)

And Sophia explicitly ties her employers to such plantation definitions of

racial difference: "They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell

through because of us. . . . Like us didn't have sense enough to handle it.

All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat"

(89). But through Sophia's experience in the mayor's household, the

narrative demonstrates that it is Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, who is

actually incompetent - who must be taught to drive by Sophia, for example,

and who even then can't manage a short trip by herself. Thus, when she

suddenly decides to drive Sophia home for a visit, Miss Millie stalls the

car and ruins the transmission, the mistress unable to master driving in

reverse. Too afraid of black men to allow one of Sophia's relatives to drive

her back home alone, Miss Millie reveals her childlike dependence upon

Sophia, who must cut short her first visit with her children in five years

to ride home with the distraught white woman. Sophia's position as domestic

within the mayor's household thus enables Walker to subvert the discourse of

plantation kinship by suggesting that it actually supports a group of people

who are themselves incompetent or, in Sophia words, "backward, . . . clumsy,

and unlucky" (89).

Predicated on this plantation model of integration, relations between whites

and blacks throughout the American South reveal a false kinship not unlike

that of Doris Baines and the Akwee. But in this instance the false kinship

is doubly perverse because it conceals an elaborate network of actual

kinship connections. Thus Miss Eleanor Jane's husband feels free to humor

Sophia by referring to the importance of black mammies in the community - ".

. . everybody around here raise by colored. That's how come we turn out so

well' (222) - while other white men refuse to recognize the children they

father with black women. As Celie says of Mr. 's son Bub, he "look so much

like the Sheriff, he and Mr. almost on family terms"; that is, "just so long

as Mr. know he colored" (76-77). Like the apologists for slavery, then, the

Southern whites in The Color Purple keep alive a counterfeit definition of

family while denying the real ties that bind them to African Americans.

In fact, the underlyIng system of kinship that exists in the American South

has more to do with white uncles than black mammies, as is clear from the

scene in which Sophia's family and friends consider various stratagems for

winning her release from prison. By asking, "Who the warden's black

kinfolks?" (80), Mr. reveals that kinship relations between whites and

blacks are so extensive in the community that it may be assumed that someone

will be related by blood to the warden. That someone, of course, is Squeak.

Hopeful that she will be able to gain Sophia's release from the warden on

the basis of their kinship, the others dress Squeak up "like she a white

woman" with instructions to make the warden "see the Hodges in you" (82). In

spite of the fact that the warden does recognize Squeak as kin "the minute

[she] walk[s] through the door" (83) - or perhaps because he recognizes her

- the warden rapes Squeak, denying their kinship in the very act of

perverting it. As Squeak herself recounts, "He say if he was my uncle he

wouldn't do it to me" (85). Both an intensely personal and highly political

act, Squeak's rape exposes the denial of kinship at the heart of race

relations in the South and underscores the individual and institutional

power of whites to control the terms of kinship - and whatever power those

definitions convey - for their own interests.(13)

It is specifically as an act of resistance to this power that Sophia comes

to reject Miss Eleanor Jane's baby and thereby to challenge the Olinka

kinship ideal for race relations. From the time her son is born, Miss

Eleanor Jane continually tests out Sophia's maternal feelings for him,

"shoving Reynolds Stanley Earl in her face" almost "every time Sofia turn[s]

around" (223). When an exasperated Sophia finally admits that she doesn't

love the baby, Miss Eleanor Jane accuses her of being "unnatural" and

implies that Sophia should accept her son because he is "just a little

baby!" (225) - an innocent who, presumably, should not be blamed for the

racist sins of his fathers. From Sophia's vantage point as a persecuted

black woman, however, Reynolds Stanley is not "just a sweet, smart, cute,

innocent little baby boy." He is in fact the grandson and namesake of the

man who beat her brutally in the street, a man whom he also resembles

physically. A "white something without much hair" with "big stuck open eyes"

(223), Reynolds Stanley also takes after his father, who is excused from the

military to run the family cotton gin while Sophia's own boys are trained

for service overseas. To Sophia, Reynolds Stanley is both the living

embodiment of and literal heir to the system that oppresses her: "He can't

even walk and already he in my house messing it up. Did I ask him to come?

Do I care whether he sweet or not? Will it make any difference in the way he

grow up to treat me what I think?" (224). Reminding Miss Eleanor Jane of the

real social conditions that separate her from Reynolds Stanley in spite of

his "innocence," Sophia articulates a strong position counter to the Olinka

kinship ethic of treating everyone like one mother's children: ". . . all

the colored folks talking bout loving everybody just ain't looked hard at

what they thought they said" (226).

In subverting the plantation model of kinship in general and the role of

mammy that it assigns to black women in particular, then, Sophia's position

as an unwilling domestic in the mayor's household underscores the importance

of the personal point of view to the novel's political critique of race

relations. Indeed, the personal point of view of The Color Purple is central

to its political message: It is precisely the African American woman's

subjectivity that gives the lie to cultural attempts to reduce her - like

Sophia - to the role of the contented worker in a privileged white


III. "White people off celebrating their independence. . . . Us can spend

the day celebrating each other"

The Color Purple closes with a celebration of kinship, its concluding action

composed of a series of family reunions: Sophia patches things up with

Harpo; Shug visits her estranged children (for the first time in thirty

years); and the novel's two narrators, Celie and Nettie, are joyfully and

tearfully reunited. Even Albert and Celie are reconciled, his change of

heart signaled by his earning the right to have his first name written.

Coming after Celie has achieved both economic independence and emotional

security, the reunions at the end of The Color Purple testify to the

importance of kinship to the happiness of every individual. Appropriately,

then, when the two sisters fall into one another's arms at last, each

identities her kin: Nettie introduces her husband and the children, and

Celie's first act is to "point up at [her] peoples . . . Shug and Albert"

(243). But in addition to suggesting that the individual realizes her full

potential only within the supporting bonds of a strong kinship group (no

matter how unconventionally that group might be defined), the conclusion to

The Color Purple also addresses the vexing question posed by the Olinka Adam

narrative: Is progress in race relations possible? By bringing to closure

two earlier narrative threads - one dealing with Sophia and Miss Eleanor

Jane, and the other with Sophia's relationship to work - the novel suggests

that progress in race relations is possible. But the narrative's ending also

contains arresting images of racial segregation in both Africa and America

that complicate the idea of progress and ultimately move the narrative

toward a final definition of kinship based on race.

After their falling out over Reynolds Stanley, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane

are reunited when the mayor's daughter finally learns from her family why

Sophia came to work for them in the first place. Miss Eleanor Jane

subsequently comes to work in Sophia's home, helping with the housework and

taking care of Sophia's daughter Henrietta. Clearly an improvement in the

domestic relationship between the two women, this new arrangement expresses

Miss Eleanor Jane's new understanding of their domestic history together: To

her family's question "Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers?"

Miss Eleanor Jane answers, "Whoever heard of somebody like Sophia working

for trash?" For her part, Sophia's acceptance of Miss Eleanor Jane in her

own home also signals progress, although when Celie asks pointedly if little

Reynolds Stanley comes along with his mother, Sophia sidesteps the issue of

her own feelings for the child by answering, "Henrietta say she don't mind

him"(238).(15) Sophia's comment maintains the legitimacy of her own

hard-earned attitudes toward the child, even as it reserves the possibility

that different attitudes may be possible in future generations.

Sophia's employment in Celie's dry goods store also seems to signal an

improvement in race relations, not only because it represents Sophia's final

escape from her position as mammy but also because shops are used throughout

The Color Purple to represent the status of economic and social integration

between blacks and whites. Thus early in the novel Corrine, a Spelman

graduate, is insulted when a white clerk calls her "Girl" (14) and

intimidates her into buying some thread she doesn't want. Later the novel

contrasts the histories of Celie's real Pa and Step-pa as store owners,

histories that comment on the ability of African Americans to achieve

economic integration into the American main-stream.(16) Celie's real father,

in the tradition of the American success story, works hard, buys his own

store, and hires two of his bothers to work it for him. Ironically, his

model of industry and enterprise fails, since the store's very success leads

"white merchants . . . [to] complain that this store was taking all the

black business away from them" (148) Refusing to tolerate free competition

from a black-owned and black-operated business, whites eventually burn the

store and lynch Celie's Pa and his two brothers. The tragic history of

Celie's real Pa thus compels readers to reinterpret Celie's family history

in terms of the historical lack of access of African Americans to the

"American Dream."

Believing that Celie's real Pa "didn't know how to git along," Alphonso, her

step-pa, expresses a different path to economic integration:

Take me, he say, I know how they is. The key to all of 'em is money. The

trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't

want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give

'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what

I did was just right off offer to give 'em money. Before I planted a seed, I

made sure this one and that one knowed one seed out of three was planted for

him. Before I ground a grain of wheat, the same thing. And when I opened up

your daddy's old store in town, I bought me my own white boy to run it. And

what make it so good, he say, I bought him with whitefolks' money. (155)

Alphonso's decision to pay off whites and buy a white boy to work in the dry

goods store establishes him in the tradition of the trickster who plays the

system for his own benefit; however, the model of integration he represents

is finally seen as accommodationist. Alphonso, in fact, is identified with

white power from the beginning of the novel, where he is seen going off with

a group of white men armed with guns (11-12). After he has made his fortune,

Alphonso recalls the compromised African president described in Nettie's

letter - like him Alphonso lives in a house that now looks like a "white

person's house" (153), and like him he establishes paternalistic

relationships with other blacks. Thus when Shug asks Alphonso's new wife, a

"child" not "more than fifteen," why her parents allowed her to marry him,

the girl replies: "They work for him. . . . Live on his land" (154).

Alphonso's marriage thus makes explicit the degree to which his

identification with white paternalism shapes his domestic relationships with

other blacks.

In the context of these earlier histories, Sophia's coming to work in

Celie's dry goods store has wider significance than just her finding

suitable work outside the home. Indeed, for the first time in its history

the store has an integrated workforce, since Celie keeps the "white man" who

works there even as she hires Sophia to "wait on" blacks and "treat 'em

nice" (245). In direct contrast to the white clerk who intimidated Corrine

earlier, Sophia refuses to coerce customers and turns out to be especially

good at "selling stuff" because "she don't care if you buy or not."

Importantly, Sophia also resists the white clerk's attempts to define their

relationship in the terms of plantation kinship: When he presumes to call

her "auntie," she mocks him by asking "which colored man his mama sister

marry" (237-38). While race relations in Celie's integrated store are

obviously not ideal, Sophia's employment there is nonetheless both a

personal and a communal triumph: Sophia finds employment that suits her as

an individual, and the black community is treated with new respect in the


Significantly, these small steps toward progress in race relations come not

from some realization of the Olinka ideal or any recognition of identity

between the races but from an evolving separatism and parallel growth in

racial identity within the African and African American communities. The

possibility of treating everyone like "one mother's children" is achieved

within but not between racial groups by the end of The Color Purple.

Instead, the conclusion leaves readers with images of an emerging

Pan-Africanism in Africa and a nascent black nationalism in the American


In Africa separatism is represented by the mbeles, warriors who "live deep

in the jungle, refusing to work for whites or be ruled by them" (193).

Composed of men and women "from dozens of African tribes," the mbeles are

particularly significant because they comprise a remnant group defined not

by traditional village bloodlines but by their common experience of racial

oppression and their shared commitment to active resistance, which takes the

form of "missions of sabotage against the white plantations" (234). In the

mbeles, The Color Purple accurately depicts the historical origin of many

African "tribes" or nations in the reorganization of older societies

decimated by colonization. Their plans for the white man's "destruction - or

at least for his removal from their continent" (217; italics added) - also

reflect a nascent pan-Africanism among the disenfranchised. Including among

their number "one colored man . . . from Alabama," the mbeles represent a

form of kinship that is defined by racial rather than national identity.

In America, a parallel growth in black identity is suggested by Celie's

final letter in The Color Purple. Indeed, the spirit of celebratory kinship

with which the novel closes is achieved by Celie's group specifically in

isolation from whites, as Harpo explains: "White people busy celebrating

they independence from England July 4th . . . so most black folks don't have

to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other" (242). By juxtaposing

"white people" and "black folks," Harpo distinguishes his kinship group from

the kinship of whites, defined by privilege and national identity.

Importantly, the "folks" that Harpo refers to now include Celie's African

daughter-in-law, Tashi. Also significantly, that group does not include Miss

Eleanor Jane, no matter how strained her relationship with her own family or

how successful her reunion with Sophia. Tashi's easy integration into the

black community effaces her earlier fears that coming to America would rob

her of all kinship ties, leaving her with "no country, no people, no mother

and no husband and brother" (235). Instead, Tashi's quick acceptance by the

Southern women, who make a fuss over her and "stuff her" with food (244),

suggests once again that feelings of black identity make it easy for people

to treat others as "one mother's children."(17)

But if the conclusion to The Color Purple suggests that feelings of racial

identity can transcend national boundaries, the novel provides no such

reassurances that the boundaries between races can be successfully

negotiated. That sober conclusion is confirmed by the outcome of two other

attempts at integration. The first is that of Shug's son, a missionary on an

Indian reservation in the American West. The American Indians refuse to

accept her son, Shug explains, because "everybody not a Indian they got no

use for" (237).(18) The failure of Shug's son to become integrated into the

American Indian community contrasts with Mary Agnes's successful integration

with the mixed peoples of Cuba, but her experience there also emphasizes the

importance of racial identity to kinship definitions. Indeed, it is because

she is a person of color that Mary Agnes is recognized as kin: Even though

some of the Cuban people are as light as Mary Agnes while others are "real

dark," Shug explains, they are "all in the same family though. Try to pass

for white, somebody mention your grandma" (211). Thus in Cuba - as well as

in Africa and North America - feelings of racial identity among marginalized

peoples become the basis for definitions of kinship by novel's end.

Finally, it is not surprising that, in elaborating her domestic trope for

race relations, Walker is able to foreground the personal experience of her

narrators while simultaneously offering an extended critique of racial

integration. As Walker's integrated families remind us, the black family has

seldom existed as a private, middle-class space protected from the

interference of the state; therefore, the African American household is

particularly inscribed with social meanings available for narration. Rather

than opposing public and private spheres, Walker's narrative underscores

their interpenetration. If her narrative does reveal an opposition, it is

not between public and private discourse but between the universalist ethos

of the Olinka ideal for race relations and the historical experience of

African Americans as reflected in the narrative's analysis of specific

integrated family groupings. For if the Olinka ideal questions the true

nature of kinship in the novel's integrated families, these families also

serve to criticize the Olinka myth for tracing the origins of racial

discrimination back to some imaginary sin of black people, rather than to

real, historical discrimination by whites.

It may be, however, that the growing sense of racial separatism at the

conclusion to the The Color Purple is not necessarily at odds with the

Olinka ideal for race relations. Past discrimination itself may dictate that

improved relations between the races must begin with the destruction of

false relations - the discovery of kinship among the disenfranchised the

necessary first step, perhaps, toward recognizing all others as part of the

same family. Like the Olinka Adam myth, the conclusion to Walker's novel

raises the question of the future of race relations, but also like that

myth, the novel offers no certain predictions. One thing is certain,

however. Critics who believe that The Color Purple sacrifices its ability to

critique the public world of blacks in favor of dramatizing the personal

experience of its narrators not only run the risk of reducing the

narrative's technical complexity, but also of overlooking the work's

sustained critique of racial integration levied from within the domestic

sphere. Through its embedded narrative line and carefully elaborated kinship

trope for race relations, The Color Purple offers a critique of race that

explores the possibility of treating all people as "one mother's children" -

while remaining unremittingly sensitive to the distance that often separates

even the best of human ideals from real historical conditions.


1. By characterizing the novel's point of view as "domestic," I mean no

criticism, as my paper will make clear. My approach to The Color Purple is

in sympathy with recent revaluations of the domestic sphere in literature.

See, for example, Barbara Christian, who charts in her discussion of George

Simms (20) the well-known nineteenth-century denigration of sentimental

fiction by male writers; and Jane Tompkins, who has argued that earlier

interpretations of sentimental fiction were shaped by critics who taught

"generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality

with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality -

and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority" (123). Closer at

hand, Alison Light has attributed critics' "fear" of the happy ending in The

Color Purple to similar attitudes toward sentimentality in fiction; Light

points to an" 'androcentricity' implicit and produced" in the "making" of

public and private spheres (92) and notes that "terms like 'sentimental' and

'idealistic' are not themselves transparent descriptions of knowledge or

response" but "carry with them cultural prescriptions and assumptions and

have themselves to be historicized" (93). See also Susan K. Harris and

Claudia Tate.

2. Called Walker's "best but most problematic" novel by Bernard Bell (263),

The Color Purple has generated controversy since its publication in 1982 and

especially since the appearance of the 1985 film of the same title. It

should be noted that academic discussions of Celie's point of view in The

Color Purple are paralleled in interesting ways by a controversy in the

popular media over the representation of black men in novel and film. In

"Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple," Jacqueline Bobo

concludes that arguments in the public media focus on two values that

sometimes seem in conflict: the need for positive images of black people in

the media and the recognition of "the authority of black women writers to

set the agenda for imagemaking in fiction and film" (334).

3. By placing my first reference to race in quotation marks I am following

the practice of Gates and others in "Race," Writing, and Difference. The

quotation marks indicate that "race" does not refer to some essential nature

or fixed difference between people. Gates's collection illustrates a variety

of critical approaches to what he calls "the complex interplay among race,

writing, and difference" (15).

4. Hooks also objects specifically to Walker's linking of the slave

narrative form to that of the sentimental novel, an association that she

believes "strips the slave narrative of its revolutionary ideological intent

and content" by linking it to "Eurocentral bourgeois literary traditions"

("Writing" 465). But hooks's criticism is problematic in light of the

classical slave narrative tradition itself. Female authors of slave

narratives often draw heavily upon the tradition of the sentimental novel to

tell their stories. Note, for example, the case of what today is probably

the best known woman's narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of

a Slave Girl. Until recently Jacobs's autobiographical narrative was thought

to be a sentimental novel. Jean Fagan Yellin details the textual history of

the narrative in her edition of Incidents. See also Sekora's discussion of

the genre of the slave narrative as a "mixed form" that syncretizes several

literary traditions. While disagreeing with hooks about the genre of slave

narratives in general and with her assessment of Walker's use of that

tradition in particular, I want to acknowledge my debt to her work elsewhere

on plantation family structures (as discussed in n14, below).

5. Unlike George Stade and bell hooks, Lauren Berlant and Elliott

Butler-Evans seek not to criticize Walker's handling of the epistolary form

but to uncover one effect that they believe follows from her chosen

approach. Butler-Evans believes that the "restriction of focus to Celie's

consciousness enables the novel to erase the public history and permits

Celie to tell her own story" (166-67). Similarly, Berlant discusses Walker's

"strategy of inversion, represented in its elevation of female experience

over great patriarchal events" (847). Both critics detect an opposition or

separation of discourses in the text, but their analyses differ in important

ways. While sympathetic to Butler-Evans's method of analyzing the "politics

of narration" (17) and especially to his analysis of sexual oppression, I

believe his focus on the gender issues at the center of Walker's narrative

leads him to underestimate both the extent and the importance of the novel's

representation of race. Berlant's sophisticated argument cannot be

summarized here, but if she means to limit - as I believe she does - her

analysis of "nation" to Celie's understanding of the term, then our analyses

may not be so much in conflict as they first appear. My own interest is in

analyzing the narrative's embedded text on racial integration rather than in

defining any particular characters understanding of race or nation. In other

words, I believe that the implied reader of Walkers text is provided a

political vantagepoint wider than that of any particular character in the

novel, including its primary narrator, Celie.

6. Gates has analyzed the extent to which The Color Purple signifies upon

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Signifying 239-58). Note

that, because of its layered narrative line, Walker's text is capable of

another form of "doubleness" - an ability to signify upon itself.

7. While my purpose here is to focus primarily upon the representation of

racial integration rather than gender, I should also note that this domestic

ideal is expressed specifically in terms of matrilineal bonds. The

recognition of all people as "one mother's children" is in keeping, of

course, with the construction of gender elsewhere in the novel. Woman's

love, understood as growing out of the experience of identity between mother

and child (rather than out of the perception of difference between the

sexes) is represented throughout The Color Purple as love that looks beyond

differences in how people "look or act." As Celie tells Shug when the singer

prepares to leave her, "I'm a woman. I love you. . . . Whatever happen,

whatever you do. I love you" (221). For a theoretical alternative to Oedipal

theories of maturation, see Chodorow.

8. While the boy's close proximity in age to Adam and Olivia accounts for

some of his demeanor, his behavior raises issues of race and class


9. Note that Nettie's use of fairy-tale rhetoric to parody Doris undercuts

the gender issues available in the white woman's narration and emphasizes

instead issues of race and class.

10. Linda Abbandonato and others have pointed to Levi-Strauss's

interpretation of the exchange of women as a "system of bonding men" (1109).

Similarly, historian Gerda Lerner argues in The Creation of Patriarchy that

the control of kinship - and especially of women's sexual and reproductive

powers - leads to the historical development of patriarchal political

structures, as power moves from the home and into law. Ironically, Doris

leaves England to avoid becoming a wife, only to become an honorary husband

in Africa. Doris's money has enabled her to escape becoming an object of

exchange but not to escape the petriarchal system of exchange itself, which

is seen to reach across continents.

11. Thus, in an article on "alienation and integration," Frank Shelton

analyzes four kinds of alienation and integration in the novel - but not

racial alienation or integration, probably because he believes that one

component of such an analysis is largely missing from the text: "White

people," he asserts, are "called a miracle of affliction" and then are

"virtually ignored" (382). Rather than being ignored, white people actually

function in the latter half of the novel to underscore the presence of race

and class hegemony in domestic space and to problematize the family ideal

for racial integration.

12. My discussion of the black mammy builds upon the work of Hazel Carby,

Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman), all of

whom have written on literary representations of the African American woman

in the plantation household.

13. For other analyses of Squeak's rape, see Christine Froula's reading of

Squeak's "self-naming" in light of the sexual violence in the novel (639),

and Berlant's discussion of the rape as "the diacritical mark that organizes

Squeak's insertion into the 'womanist' order" (844).

14. In doing so, Walker's novel joins the longstanding feminist critique of

separate-spheres ideology as a false division used for power's

self-maintenance. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's comment that "the

deconstruction of the opposition between the private and public" is

"implicit in all feminist activity" (201).

15. Note that Celie's pointed question to Sophia about Miss Eleanor Jane's

baby demonstrates her own understanding of the race issues involved in

Sophia's relationship with the white baby.

16. See Berlant's reading of Celie's family history, which argues that

Celie's "fairy-tale rhetoric emphasizes the personal over the institutional

or political components of social relations" such that "the nonbiologized

abstraction of class relations virtually disappears from the text" (841-42).

According to Berlant, Celie never understands the economic or class issues

implied by her family history.

17. The conclusion also suggests that feelings of kinship can transcend

gender differences, even when these differences include prior wrongs as

great as Albert's abuse of Celie. The novel resolves tensions between the

sexes - but not those between the races - optimistically, with partners,

husbands, wives, and estates well sorted out by the novel's end.

18. Shug's son may work for the same organization as Nettie, since we learn

early on that the "American and African Missionary Society" has also

"ministered to the Indians out west" (109). In any case, the American

Indians' treatment of Shug's son underscores their own understanding of the

colonial function of missionaries. By calling Shug's son the "black white

man," the American Indians also complicate racial definitions of kinship by

suggesting that the definition of race itself is ultimately located in

social hegemony.

Works Cited

Abbandonato, Linda. "A View From Elsewhere: Subversive Sexuality and the

Rewriting of the Heroine's Story in The Color Purple." PMLA 106 (1991):


Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of

Massachusetts P, 1987.

Berlant, Lauren. "Race, Gender, and Nation in The Color Purple." Critical

Inquiry 14 (1988): 831-59.

Bobo, Jacqueline. "Sifting through the Controversy: Reading The Color

Purple." Callaloo 12 (1989): 332-42.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the

Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia:

Temple UP, 1989.

Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American

Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and The

Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition,

1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Froula, Christine, "The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Feminist

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Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. "Race," Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of

Chicago P, 1986.

-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary

Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Harris, Susan K. 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive

Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American

Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

Hooks, bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End,


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Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Told by Herself. Ed.

Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford UP, 1986

Light, Alison. "The Fear of the Happy Ending." Plotting Change. Ed. Linda

Anderson. London: Edward Arnold, 1993. 85-96.

Sekora, John. "Is the Slave Narrative a Species of Autobiography?" Studies

in Autobiography. Ed. James Olney. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 99-111.

Shelton, Frank W. "Alienation and Integration in Alice Walker's The Color

Purple." CLA Journal 28 (1985): 382-92.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia."

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Stade, George. "Womanist Fiction and Male Characters." Partisan Review 52

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Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction.

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Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.

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