Purple America America was in its prime in the 1920’s. A time of many drastic changes, 1920’s Americans enjoyed a booming economy, a prosperous and wealthy upper-class society, and general international and national peace. For African Americans; however, the 1920’s meant facing economic struggle, racial prejudices, and gender stereotypes. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the main character Celie experiences many boundaries within the workforce, domestics, and society of the 1920’s. Through many attempts to better her lifestyle and display her individuality, Celie finds life extremely difficult in the prejudiced, 1920’s South.
Alice Walker did not experience the same discrimination Celie fights against, but, Walker portrays her familial bonds and childhood lessons through Celie’s personal struggles, aspirations, and accomplishments. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple explores the negative stereotypes of the 1920’s against women and blacks, detailing Celie’s mental and physical fight for happiness and freedom while learning to please herself without regard for others’ opinions of her, instilling in Celie a strong sense of self-confidence and self-determination.
From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, the United States went through two dramatic time periods: the Progressive Era and the Roaring Twenties. During the Progressive Era, (1895-1918,) the status of blacks worsened. Expecting to come home from World War One (1914-1918) as national heroes equal to whites, blacks found less job opportunities, encountered stronger racial prejudices than in previous years, and saw an incline in a white superiority mentality.
Similar to the blacks returned from war, women – specifically black women – fought for gender equality even harder once returned men and soldiers took the women’s leading positions in the economy, politics, and business (Whitley). Despite the short amount of time the war allowed women to expand their roles in the work force; however, by the 1920’s “most middle-class women expected to spend their lives as homemakers and mothers” (“Women at Home”).
Females usually worked as teachers, nurses, clerks, or in the domestic services; it was very unusual for a woman to cross into the world of business or finance (“Women in the Labor Force”). In Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie refuses to accept the status quo of women staying home to raise the family, care for the house, and please the husband. Outlining the struggles of women in the early twentieth century, many call Walker’s The Color Purple a feminist novel. Contrary to the much-annihilated use of the word “feminist;” however, Walker describes her novel as “‘womanist’, not ‘feminist’.
A womanist is a woman who…prefers woman’s culture… emotional flexibility…and…strength” (Contemporary Literary Criticism 422). The “womanist” culture of The Color Purple is not meant to undermine the strength of men, nor deny the positive aspects of a co-gender lifestyle and society. Walker focuses on the women’s struggles in her novel; however, to emphasize the importance of a woman’s self-love, strength, and independence. George Stade also notes the novel “does not argue the equality of the sexes; it dramatizes, rather, the virtues of women and the vices of men” (Stade 429).
As Stade describes, The Color Purple is not a sexist novel against males; Walker purely details the lives of a select few women, and in particular of Celie, who struggle against gender-prejudiced men in their lives while the women fight to prove their autonomy and virtue. Celie desires more from life than homemaking, and dreams of leaving her small-town lifestyle behind. Torn between her dreams and reality, Celie questions her fate compared to “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 21). Celie does not know if it is worth the pain to fight for what she believes in while getting hurt by others, or, if she should live discontented, barely provided for, and yet alive throughout the rest of her life. As a black woman of the 1910’s and 1920’s, Celie faces countless prejudices against her role as a woman in society and in the household. By the end of the novel; however, Celie breaks all traditions and stereotypes of blacks and women of the time period by opening her own pants business and living independently.
Though Walker did not directly face the gender and racial prejudices of the 1920’s, mid-century life taught Walker many life lessons which she never forgot, and later described in her writing. Growing up, Walker’s parents taught Walker to reach for her dreams and never give up hope of achieving them. The Color Purple deals with Celie aspiring for great goals similar to Walker: self-respect, pride, and success. Walker’s parents instilled in Walker the ability to choose her own path in life, and to make of it what she wanted (Encyclopedia of World Biography).
Later to write about the fictional character Celie in The Color Purple, Walker portrays her young childhood dreams through Celie’s free-minded and ambitious character. Gloria Steinem writes, “The…pleasure of The Color Purple is watching people…work out the moral themes in their lives (Steinem 424). At first, Celie mentally isolates herself, and reveals her fears, hopes, and emotions solely to God through her daily prayer. Celie believes through religious introversion and keeping secrets from her husband, her life will improve and she will better herself, her lifestyle, and find happiness.
As Celie’s life progresses; however, her daily struggles deepen in severity, and Celie loses confidence in prayer. In a heated argument about the true meaning of religious faith, Celie’s friend Shug speaks Celie’s inner thoughts regarding God, saying Celie is “mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers” (Walker 195). After years of endless prayer asking for a better life and a reunion with Nettie, Celie realizes she has to act on her dreams, not just pray about them. Hoping does not advance Celie’s lifestyle at all; action alone improves Celie’s status.
Late in the book, Celie finally takes charge of her own life and decides to open her own pants-making business – an individual decision which brings immediate pleasure and success to Celie. Celie becomes a stronger, independent, and autonomous woman through her self-made business. A recurrent theme in Walker’s The Color Purple lies in the intricate family bonds among characters. Though characters face numerous difficulties which reveal familial deceit, childhood lies, and parental dishonesty and hate, most characters remain obedient to their households and elders.
Difficult times throughout the novel often break love and trust within families, but, characters come back to their roots to accept the life God made for them. In an interview with Library Journal in 1970, Walker explained, “Family relationships are sacred,” a remark thoroughly depicted in The Color Purple’s close familial bonds and characters’ loyalties to their families (Encyclopedia of World Biography). Though Celie obeys her husband, step-father, and various other men who abuse her, Celie struggles in breaking away from those who hurt her without causing pain in those she leaves.
One of the strongest bonds in the story lies between Celie and her sister Nettie, a relationship inspired by dreams, prayer, writing, and hope. Before Nettie gives up contacting her long-lost sister, she realizes “whether God will read letters or no, I know you will go on writing them; which is guidance enough for me…When I don’t write to you I feel as bad as I do when I don’t pray, locked up in myself and choking on my own heart” (Walker 130).
In a sisterhood love as strong as the one between Nettie and Celie, writing letters to each other without response and praying to God are enough to keep the two sisters together spiritually, though physically separated by an ocean. Throughout the novel, the sisters’ letters to each other speak as if they have been in contact all their lives, though really Nettie and Celie have been separated from each other for decades. In the end of story, when Nettie and Celie reunite, Celie feels whole again, and “so happy.
Matter of fact, I think this is the youngest us ever felt” (Walker 288). Despite years of hardship and a life of uncertainty about whether or not the other sister lived, Nettie and Celie maintain a loving relationship which picks up at old age where it left off as young girls. Celie finally finds happiness in her long life of strife while disregarding the many imperfections the years brought her. The sisterly bond between Nettie and Celie keeps them mentally and spiritually connected though physically separated almost all of their lives.
The United States in the 1920’s posed many dramatic social changes. Though upper-class Americans enjoyed higher standards of living, African Americans struggled in their fight against racial prejudices and gender stereotypes. Alice Walker faced similar prejudices growing up in the South in the 1950’s, and through her writing she expresses the inspirations, dreams, and lessons she grew up with as a child. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple portrays the struggles and aspirations of women and blacks in the early twentieth century of America through the main character Celie.
In history, the 1910’s through the 1920’s brought many changes to the United States within the social networks of society. Women fought for gender-equal rights and roles in and out of the home, blacks spoke out against racial prejudices carried on from centuries passed, and the country went through a social reform revolution. The Color Purple’s Celie finds herself trapped in the suppressive, racial, and sexist tensions of the century, and dares to stand up for her own happiness and dignity. In the process of self-discovery, Celie stumbles upon inner peace and self-confidence for the first time in her life.
While it takes Celie an entire lifetime to reunite with her sister and discover her personal definition of contentedness, Celie finds her lifetime of obstacles worth the resulting love and joy. Works Cited “Alice Walker. ” Contemporary Literary Criticism. vol. 46. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 422. Print. “Alice Walker. ” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Advameg, Inc. 2010. Web. 1 March 2010. Harris, Trudier. “Alice Walker. ” Contemporary Literary Criticism. vol. 46. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 425. Print. National Association for the Advanced Placement Exam. “Women at Home. ” U. S.
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