The Color Purple as an epistolary novel

Male constructs

Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747) are seminal examples of sentimental epistolary novels that define the form, so it is tempting to consider The Color Purple as an epistolary novel and perhaps also as a novel of sentiment, because its structure emphasises personal feelings arising from domestic experiences and intimate relationships. Tamar Katz, in an article in Harold Bloom’s Alice Walker (1988) suggests that The Color Purple has ‘roots’ in the ‘didactic form’ of the ‘epistolary style’, tracing Celie’s psychological growth as she matures from teenager to adult.

Female narratives

In The Color Purple: Revisions and Redefinitions (1985), Mae Henderson suggests that Walker, as a womanist,

[appropriates] a form invented and traditionally controlled by men [and by] thematising (sic) the lives and experiences of women […] asserts her authority or right to authorship.

In other words, Walker expresses aspects of female intimacy that are only hinted at by male authors of epistolary novels.

The women in Walker’s novel not only celebrate their own sexuality, but challenge and reform their domestic situations, their relationships, codes of conduct and the values of their world. In traditional epistolary novels, heroines would either submit to patriarchal control, or else conveniently die before they were forced to do so. Neither Sofia nor Shug Avery submit to patriarchal control and both women quite determinedly refuse to die, despite near-death experiences through assault or serious illness.

Celie, the main protagonist, does submit to patriarchal control at the outset, but as the novel progresses she undergoes a significant personal change. From being a victim of patriarchy, Celie evolves, with help and support from a strong group of like-minded women, into an independent, sexually liberated woman who runs a successful business and owns her own property. She discovers that she is in control of her own destiny and is not bound to a life of crippling injustice at the hands of men.

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