The Color Purple: Characterisation » Walker’s approach to characterisation
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:
- Sofia and Shug both tell Celie that the reason why they are strong, or even aggressive, is because their early home lives made it necessary for them to stand up for themselves
- Albert’s weakness goes back to his domination by his own father
- Harpo is indoctrinated by Albert with the belief that women must be subservient to their husbands and beaten if they fail to obey orders
- Celie spends the whole novel trying to overcome the damage which is done to her by abusive men and a life of constant humiliation and brutality.
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:
- Celie is able to mature and to regain her self-esteem through her love for Shug Avery
- Albert’s narrow mindedness and embitterment are moderated by his devotion to Shug. By the end of the narrative this enables him to understand Celie’s love for Shug and, as a result, he and Celie develop acceptance and friendship.
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:
- Celie, for example, notices that Shug sometimes speaks and acts in a way that is more masculine than feminine. When Shug tells Sofia in Harpo’s juke joint that she looks like a person who enjoys a good time, it is the kind of remark that Celie would have expected a man to make
- Sofia is an excellent wife and mother but also enjoys activities that could be considered to be ’manly’, like carpentry, while her husband Harpo enjoys looking after their children and cooking meals. His efforts at carpentry almost always end in disaster
- Throughout the main part of the narrative, Albert is a stereotypical ‘manly’ man, but gradually he begins to change after Shug leaves him. He manages not only to make his home more comfortable, but also to learn the value of friendship which occurs as he learns to sew.
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:
- ‘Lillie’ could suggest Shug is a conventional female as it has connotations of the lily flower, traditionally associated with purity. The fact that she never uses this name could mean that she thinks it too conservative for the lifestyle she has chosen
- ‘Shug’ is a name which better fits her rebellious life as a sexy nightclub blues singer. Paradoxically, her behaviour is often less than sweet, especially towards people she does not respect.
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:
- She is nicknamed ‘Squeak‘ because of the sound of her singing voice, and the name suggests timidity and lack of importance
- Later in the narrative, after she has been abused by her uncle when she tries to secure Sofia’s release from prison, she insists that she should now be called by her given name, Mary Agnes, as a mark of respect. She subsequently establishes herself as a successful singer under that name.
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.
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.