Letter 1

Synopsis of Letter 1

Following the threat of silence by a voice we assume to be her abuser’s, an unnamed 14-year-old girl writes a letter addressed to God, because she has no one else to confide in. Although not stated explicitly, the understanding is that she has been raped by a man called Fonso (Alphonso) who lives with her mother. The girl’s mother is ill and will not have sexual relations with Alphonso after the birth of her youngest son, named Luscious. The rape of the daughter occurred while the mother was visiting the doctor and the reader does not learn until letter six that the girl, named in letter seven as Celie, believes the rapist to be her father. Celie is shocked and distressed and hopes that God will send her a sign to help her to understand what has happened. She also reveals that her mother is too ill to live long.

Commentary on Letter 1

From the beginning Celie appears as a totally innocent victim, who feels that what has happened to her is in some way her own fault. The naive way in which she describes the rape makes the reader aware not only of her physical suffering and mental shock, but also of her extreme vulnerability. Her lack of comprehension about morning sickness makes it obvious that she does not have any understanding of rape or the probable consequences of it.

The fact that the letter is addressed to God, rather than to a human audience, emphasises the idea that Celie is entirely alone and isolated, not only by the circumstances of her life but also by the guilt that she feels. This is intensified by the fact that she believes that the man who has raped her is in fact her father. (It is only years later that she discovers that he is her stepfather.)

The style of the early letters is plain and on the surface, very simple. The short clipped sentences and elementary vocabulary indicate that the girl is uneducated as well as very young. Using southern American dialect, the girl describes what happens to her in blunt but innocent terms - ‘pussy’ is a vernacular term for female pubic hair.

The point of view is that of a naive first person narrator and remains so, with Celie confiding in God until letter number 52. Celie is also an innocent narrator, a device found in American fiction such as Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by JD Salinger.

Investigating Letter 1

  • What is the impact of having an innocent narrator portray events
    • On the reader’s feelings towards her?
    • On our assessment of what is actually happening?
  • Pick out the non-standard features that convey the southern American dialect and accent.
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