A measure of progress

Houses and gardens are closely linked in the novel and have a symbolic function as indicators of Celie’s progress from sexual and domestic oppression to security, prosperity and self-confidence. With every step in her life’s journey, Celie moves to a new house, each time finding a place to live that reflects her development from victim to survivor.

Houses are linked to gardens and appear five times in the narrative, twice as apparent fantasies. The first specific mention of place is the shack that belongs to Albert’s son Harpo and his wife Sofia. Celie’s description indicates that it is very small and used to be a shed that belonged to Albert’s father. Its setting, beside a creek in woodland, symbolically suggests an oasis in which a young married couple can begin their lives together. This is in sharp contrast to Celie’s own experience, having lost the family home which we later discover should have belonged to her.

Houses of threat

If ‘home’ is a place of safety and security, at the novel’s start Celie is virtually homeless, a vulnerable minor living in squalor. Marriage to Albert is little better. Although Albert’s house is set in a large quantity of fertile farmland, it is not a home to her, but a place where she endures hardship, servitude and cruelty. The arrival of Shug Avery changes this perception, seen when Celie sits quilting on the porch and feels for the first time a sense of belonging in a place.

The past erased

An Easter visit to Celie’s childhood home with Shug signifies a new start for Celie, now in a loving relationship with Shug and having begun to design and make clothing which allows her to work and move more freely. Walker’s description presents an idyllic dwelling (in sharp contrast to Celie’s childhood memories) where flowers are blooming, birds are singing and the house set on a hill is surrounded by fruit trees, like ‘some white person’s house’. The childhood home which she remembers almost as hell on earth, is transformed into a rural paradise and the positive impression seems to erase the pain previously associated with the house.

It is significant that the visit takes place at Easter, associated with death followed by resurrection. Symbolically, Celie’s old life has died and there is a promise of a new life for her with Shug. This comes to fruition when she leaves Albert’s house, which has never seemed a home to her, to live with Shug in Memphis.

Shug’s house

Shug’s house is a bizarre, pink mansion set in extensive grounds and decorated inside and out with statues of people, elephants and turtles. Celie is confident enough to notice her environment and how it can be improved. The two women plan a circular dwelling made of mud or concrete and painted pink so that it resembles ‘some kind of fruit’, symbolic of a womb or a breast. Shug declares she cannot live in something square, because she is not ‘square’ (a euphemism for conservative, or ‘straight’).

Celie suggests outdoor seating so that both the garden and house can be enjoyed. For statuary she selects ducks, perhaps symbolising the idea of tranquillity on the surface of the water, with frantically paddling feet below, rather like Celie’s life to date. Although the plans are never realised, the act of sharing thoughts and dreams with her lover illustrates Celie’s new sense of liberation as a woman and a successful entrepreneur.

Home at last

When Fonso dies, Celie inherits the house and land that belonged to her family, but was fraudulently occupied by her stepfather. She finally has a home even better than the one she planned for Shug. It is not the original shack in which her family lived at the start of the novel but a new house, ironically provided by the man who abused and cheated her.

Through their mother’s will, Celie and Nettie inherit not only a large dwelling on a hill, surrounded by orchards and set in fertile land, but also a thriving store. There is enough property to ensure that the sisters and their extended family can live comfortably and prosperously for the rest of their lives, whilst Celie also has an outlet for her business.

The power of continuity in family, home-place and work rounds off the novel with the assurance that it is possible for someone to ‘go home’ and that home can be a place that is somehow an illustration or an extension of what that person has become. Celie’s last letter to God expresses her joyous recognition of this return and celebrates a place and a life that has come full circle.

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