Is the central theme of religion convincing in ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker?
The search for religious truth is a large theme throughout ‘The Color Purple’. Alice Walker states in the preface of the book that it was her “theological work examining the journey from the religious back to the spiritual”. The main character, Celie, searches for God throughout the novel, eventually arriving at a conclusion to what and whom she believes God really is.
There are also two other characters in the book that show signs of a ‘religious awakening’. These are Nettie, as she goes to work with the white missionaries, and Shug, as she tells Celie all about her pantheistic beliefs.
When considering whether the religious theme is convincing, you must consider whether the theme is actually prominent enough in the book to be convincing. The religious theme becomes overshadowed throughout the book by other themes such as racism, personal development and female relationships.
The monotheistic religion that Walker presents as the first religious belief of Celie is Christianity. Christianity is the belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is based upon the teachings of Jesus, and the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Although it is a monotheistic religion it is believed in Christianity that God is a trinity, while still being one being (God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit).
The other religion presented is pantheism, which means that it is the belief that God is in everything. This means that everything has a bit of God in them rather than him being a being who rules over them like a King or Emperor.
Christianity is presented in a positive way in the start of the book, but becomes increasingly negative as Celie becomes more disgruntled with God. For example, all of the letters at the beginning of the book written by Celie are addressed to God. This shows that she believes in God and that she relies on him for support, as she has nobody else to confide in. This is shown when she recognizes that she can “tell nobody but God” about the abuse of her by her stepfather.
On this matter a critic, Stacie Lynn Hankinson said “It is Celie’s strict adherence to traditional Christianity which keeps her locked in the cycle of male jurisdiction”. I agree with this, as it is Celie’s fear of offending God that stops her from standing up to the oppressive patriarchal force which is inflicted upon her. For example, by Mister and her stepfather.
Walker also makes a statement on how conventional societies expected you to be a Christian in that period. This is shown when Celie says that ‘trying to do without him is a strain’. Walker also shows how society expected you to help the preacher, take part in services etc- ‘You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that?’ This extract also gives the impression that Celie could feel that she keeps giving to God, but God never gives anything to her. This is shown when Celie writes to God, ‘You must be asleep’.
Walker presents how religion seemed to many black people to be a thing reserved for white people; when Shug says,‘(Talking about Celie’s image of God being in church) Cause that’s the one that’s in the white folks’ white bible’.
Celie however refutes this notion at first, when she says ‘God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it’ . This makes the reader sympathetic towards Celie’s situation, because it seems like God, the only person that she could turn to for support, had turned his back on her.
Celie however later takes heed of this and realizes that she perceives God to be a big, old, tall, white man. So white people did have something to do with the Bible. When Celie accepts this she begins to question her beliefs, and realizes that she is not happy. ‘God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown’. This then leaves her feeling abandoned by God. She no longer fears offending him. ‘Let ‘im hear me, I say. I he listen to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you’.
Shug Avery introduces pantheism in the novel. ‘God is inside you and inside everybody else’. As Celie has great affection for her, and indeed says that she is in love with her, she naturally takes on board what Shug says.
Walker uses Shug as the ‘ideal’ for Celie. She has broken free from the patriarchal rule that hangs over black women in the book. Shug has also discovered a different religion from Christianity, which she finds more fulfilling, as Celie wants to do. This should make the reader wonder whether the transition between Christianity to Pantheism is Celie’s real spiritual growth, or just a way for her to impress Shug.
Shug sees Christianity as a way of controlling, and manipulating others. She likes the idea of pantheism because in it everybody is equal. So men, who are deemed superior to women, are now put on the same level as women.
Walker presents pantheism in a nicer way than Christianity. This is shown by the more poetic manner in which description of pantheism is made. This more poetic manner however seems to make that idea of pantheism more like a fairytale than a form of religion. For example, ‘Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.’ As a reader this made me think that this had lost its naive charm and become implausible. I think that it could no longer be believable, as it had become silly.
Walker makes the idea of pantheism a lot more personal to Celie than Christianity is to her. This is shown when Shug says how she feels about God- ‘When I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all’ . This is in direct contrast to the feelings of inaccessibility of Christianity, which were shown previously.
I think that Celie would like this because it would be as if Shug is telling her that there is something inside her that is good. This would appeal to her because all through her life the people around her have put her down. It would give her new hope.
As Stacie Lynn Hankinson said ‘Celie’s conversion from a monotheistic view of God to a more pantheistic outlook represents and parallels her movement from feelings of oppression under the domination of patriarchy into a sense of contentedness with others and self-acceptance at which she ultimately arrives by the novel’s end’.
I agree with this review, as I believe that the conversion from Christianity to pantheism does seem to help her become happier with her life, as she gains the confidence to leave Albert, stand up for what she believes in, and start her own business.
Nettie’s ‘religious growth’ runs parallel to Celie’s in the book. Nettie went to work with the white missionaries in Africa. The narrative Walker uses for Nettie’s letters is almost evangelical, which shows her strong religious beliefs. This is shown when she talks about Celie’s children, “God sent the Olivia and Adam…It is a miracle”.
Nettie at first marvels at the work of the British missionary society, which she visits in London. This changes gradually however as she begins to understand how missionaries are used by the British and American governments for colonialisation, and how white men are ruining the ways of the native people. For example, by the road breaking up the tribe settlement.
As the letters from Nettie continue, the reader is made to realize that Nettie is becoming more happy with the tribe’s version of Christianity, than of the white missionaries. She adopts the view of God shown through nature, especially in the “roof leaf” which is important to the tribe.
She also seems to have made a move from Christianity to pantheism. This is shown when she tells Celie “God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal”.
I believe that the ‘religious growth’ of Nettie is more convincing than that of Celie’s. As the letters from Nettie are disjointed, and do not give a full narrative of her actions, as Celie’s do, it gives the impression that there is more in Nettie’s life than the reader finds out. Therefore we only get an impression of the character rather than the full picture which we get with Celie.
Stacie Lynn Hankinson said, “It is difficult to imagine any character, arising from such utter oppression into such a state of bliss and restoration”. I agree with this if it concerns Celie, as her whole world seems to suddenly alter for the better, which is entirely unrealistic. The impression that I get of Celie’s conversion to pantheism is that she only did it to impress Shug, rather than it being a conscious religious decision.
I would however disagree with this statement if it concerned Nettie. I believe that Nettie’s conversion is much more convincing than that of Celie’s. Nettie is well educated, and is surrounded by religion-related things so some ‘religious growth’ is inevitable. She makes an educated decision about her faith, as she is educated in theology. She knows exactly what pantheism and Christianity are, so she can decide, which one she believes more.
I believe that Walker did not fulfill her statement from the preface of the book, with the central character, Celie, but did accomplish it well with a secondary character, Nettie.