Form and style

The epistolary novel

The epistolary novel is a novel written in the form of letters, sometimes combined with diary or journal entries. It is a genre which stretches back almost as far as the history of the novel itself, for example in mid-eighteenth century novels by Samuel Richardson (Pamela and Clarissa).

This style of writing has the advantage of immediacy. The writer of the letters tells us directly about his or her experiences almost as soon as they have happened, drawing the reader closely into the writer’s world. However, it can pose certain problems. As with all narratives that are written in the first person, the viewpoint is limited and the author cannot describe anything other than that which is personally experienced. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker attempts to overcome this by having not one narrator but two. This widens the range of the narrative, so that it deals with themes from two different viewpoints and from two different countries on opposite sides of the world. This device also enables one character to supply the other with vital information which she would not otherwise have obtained, for example the news that Celie’s children were not incestuously conceived.

Point of view (narrative focalisation)

Put simply, the point of view or ’narrative focalisation’ is the perspective from which the story is told and the relationship of the narrator to the story. When reading any novel it is important to discover which character’s point of view controls the narrative. In other words, who ‘sees’ and who ‘speaks’?

In The Color Purple, Celie is the principal narrator whose letters give her perspective on her life in the rural South of America and Nettie is a secondary narrator who writes about her experiences in Africa.

More on Genette's definitions of narrative focalisation: Gerard Genette’s work on narrative in 1972 and 1983 distinguishes three kinds of focalisation or points of view found in novels:

1. Zero focalisation: The narrator knows more than the characters. He or she may know the facts about all of the people in the story, as well as what they think and what they do. This is the traditional ‘omniscient (all-seeing, all-knowing) narrator’.

2. Internal focalisation: The narrator knows as much as the focal (main) character and filters the information provided to the reader. He or she cannot report the thoughts of other characters. Note that there can be more than one internal narrator, as in The Color Purple, but none is able to report the thoughts of any other character. They write what they think others may be thinking, but they do not know.

3. External focalisation: The narrator knows less than the characters. He or she acts as a sort of camera lens, tracking the protagonists' actions and gestures from the outside, but not commenting on, or even knowing, their thoughts.

The Color Purple as an epistolary novel

The Color Purple is a novel which uses internal focalisation, with two narrators who have different points of view. Although both characters have apparently equal status, it could also be argued that Celie is the main protagonist because her story is much more personal and dynamic. Celie also writes the majority of the letters in the novel – fifty-six letters to God and fourteen to Nettie; compared with Nettie’s twenty-one letters written from Africa to sister Celie.

‘Contrived’ letters

Despite the advantages of immediacy and freshness in terms of recounting incidents, the epistolary form is also rather contrived because it is unrealistic. Few people in real life write long and detailed letters about their lives to someone who is far enough away not to be involved personally in the action, but also sufficiently interested to want minute detail about what has happened to the writer. There must be an intimacy between the person who writes the letter and the person who receives it, combined with a good reason why they cannot meet.

Walker deals with this in The Color Purple by having the two sisters completely separated for thirty years, writing letters to one another to combat their loneliness. Neither writer expects her letters to reach their destination and both write as a means of self-expression. Celie, for example, continues to write to Nettie even after she believes that her sister may be lost at sea during the Second World War. Nettie continues to write letters to Celie at Christmas and Easter, even after she guesses that Albert may have prevented her letters from reaching Celie (and vice versa).

Effect on narrative

As well as contributing to the structure of the novel in terms of viewpoint and style, the use of letters also has an effect on the novel’s timeline and the distribution of incidents in both sisters’ lives. Notice that some of Celie’s letters record the events over a small number of days and then years pass unrecorded. Some of the gaps are noted in the letters, others are not. The reader often has to calculate how much time has passed because there are so few references to dates in either correspondence. Walker seems to have used this elliptical method, deliberately leaving out specific time references in order to cover a period of almost forty years in the space of a relatively short novel of about 70,000 words.


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