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The Color Purple: Characterisation » Walker’s approach to characterisation

Real creations

In a brief afterword to the novel, Alice Walker calls herself ‘author and medium’ and expresses her thanks to ‘everybody’ for ‘coming’. This indicates that she thinks of her characters not as inventions or abstract portraits but as real personalities. She has described the experience of writing as waiting for her characters to make themselves ‘known to her’, implying that she regards herself in some way as a spiritual medium rather than a literary author.

Walker’s characters live in her mind, before she writes them into life on the page. When Steven Spielberg was casting for his film adaptation of Walker’s novel, Walker wrote lengthy notes for him, outlining the way she believed her characters should move, how they should look and how their physical performance should reflect their inner selves.

The effect of the past

Characters in The Color Purple often refer to a ‘backstory’ which helps to explain why they have grown up into the adults who have ‘arrived’ in Walker’s novel. For example:

The effect of love

The influence of love and understanding, a major theme in The Colour Purple, is the means by which characters can change for the better:

Gender and character

Walker examines how a person’s gender is distinct from their sexual identity and how the roles that are bestowed on men and women, and the expectations of behaviour that society expects from them, can often be destructive because they are too rigidly enforced.

More on Sex, sexuality and gender?

In The Color Purple Walker includes some women characters who show masculine qualities and also men who enjoy activities that are more commonly associated with women:

Character names 

Another effective characterisation technique is Walker’s choice of names for some of the people in the novel.

Shug Avery has two first names. Her birth name, given to her by her parents, is Lillie, but she is known throughout the novel by her nickname ‘Shug’ which is short for sugar:

Harpo’s second wife Mary Agnes, also has two names which give an idea of what she is and what she would like to be:

Sofia’s name is symbolic. She is named after Sophia, the classical goddess of wisdom (also being associated with that quality in the Christian tradition). It is ironic that despite this, she is not wise enough to realise that defying a white official is extremely dangerous.

Corinne’s husband Samuel (who marries Celie’s sister Nettie after Corinne’s death) is named after an Old Testament prophet. In Hebrew, Samuel means ‘name of God’. This is an appropriate name for a man who is a Christian minister and missionary. Samuel is one of the few male characters in the story who is consistently honest and trustworthy.

Adam, Celie’s son, is also given a symbolic name, that of the first man created by God. Later in the narrative, after he marries Tashi, he also adopts the African name Omatangu which is a reference to the African belief that this was the name of the first created man. Like Samuel, Adam is a man who is honest and good.

Not naming

Sometimes Walker does not even dignify a character with anything other than a title. Celie does not use her husband’s given name of Albert until almost the end of the narrative, although other characters call him either Albert or, like Harpo, ‘Pa’. In referring to her husband as Mr _, Celie indicates her inability to relate intimately to him in any way at all. She uses the term Mr _ in the same way that a black slave would use the term to address the white slave master on a plantation. Walker intends the reader to think of Albert as a black slave-master who treats his wife as a slave. Only when Celie has succeeded in freeing herself from Mr _ ’s domination, can she finally bring herself to call him by his name, investing him with status and asserting their mutual understanding of one another as equal individuals.

the associated meanings of a word; its implications
A figure of speech wherein an apparently contradictory set of ideas is presented as being, in fact, part of the same truth.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
Relating to irony, in which a comment may mean the opposite of what is actually said.
A 'testament' is a covenant or binding agreement and is a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people). The sacred writings of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible). These also form the first part of the Christian Bible.
Someone who conveys God's message to human beings or speaks about the future sometimes through words alone, sometimes through dramatic actions.
1. Language in which the Old Testament was written. 2. Jew, Jewish; belonging to Israel
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Middle French menestre, ministre 'servant'. Someone who serves God and other people; used of those who hold office and lead worship in the Christian Church. Also verb form, to minister
Someone sent on or engaged in a religious mission.