Dear English 606,

Where do I start with this Post?  There is so much that I want to focus on concerning the letters between “Celie, Nettie, God and Everyone”.  I’ll do my best to stick to a few points and avoid rambling and digressing…or I will at least try my best.  Focusing on the lack of dates and times within these letters, the point in the “novel” when Celie finds the letters from Nettie, who has possession over letters, (i.e. author, reader, etc…) and I will attempt to come to a conclusion about the identity of these two sisters throughout the text.  Before I get to that, I am wondering what to make of Alice Walker’s own note at the end of the novel:

“I thank everybody in this book for coming.–A.W., author and medium”(289)

While reading this novel, and collection of Celie’s letters, I was not thinking of Walker.  However, I’m not sure if this note is intended for the reader in relation to the letters that Walker technically wrote?  My question is how does the novel change when this note is read from Walker herself?  We are to read these letters as Celie’s whether she has written them or found/received them from Nettie; however, at the conclusion of the novel Walker calls attention to herself as the “true” author but also the medium, indicating she is a kind of tool for the expression of the thoughts of Celie and Nettie along with their identites.  I’m not sure if this note is important or if Walker intended it to be an actual part of the book, or as an aside but either way, she labels herself author and medium which could be read as her self-identification in general, meaning in her life, or, as the author and medium of these specific letter, which is it?  Or, is she the medium between Celie and the reader? I’m not sure there needs to be an answer to this question but I couldn’t help but bring it up in relation to our recent discussions of authenticity concerning the epistolary form.

Now, onto the other points I will attempt to address…

While reading these letters, I couldn’t help but notice that there were not dates on any letter.  There is no indication as to a specific day or how much time has passed between each letter.  The only clue to the reader of time in these letters is the reference of days past, holidays, or seemingly social activism taking place within areas such as Harlem.  As readers, we are given clues to the time period as we know Celie is “…fourteen years old” (1) at the start of her letters and her age is referenced, among other “characters’ ” throughout.  We are also told of the time period when the relationship between African-American’s and white people is addressed, (i.e. when Sofia can’t sit in the front seat with the Mayor’s wife), and the type of work being done such as working in the “fields” and Harpo creating this kind of “speak easy”.  The time period is also made clear through the language used in relation to gender throughout.  However, regardless of the many references we get to the time period, or how much time has passed in between each letter, there are no dates.  I’m not sure what to make of this or if it matters?  In other words, how does the lack of dates influence or contribute to the reading of these letters?  Furthermore, I am wondering why Celie refers to certain people by name and while we know her “husband’s” name is Albert, she writes Mr. ______?  Why is this?  I’m still trying to sort this out….

Another critical moment in this collection is when Celie finds out that Mr. _______/Albert was hiding her letters from Nettie.  I was wondering how Celie was presenting these?  She, (or Walker), writes, “Next one, fat, dated two months later, say,”(130), (also, what is the date?)  Is she copying these letters from Nettie into a kind of diary?  These are letters but they are also a kind of diary to God, so I am wondering if the two epistolary forms are even different?  Furthermore, are they still all part of a collection even when she switches from writing to God in a diary to actually writing to Nettie?  Does she send these letters to Nettie?  All of this is unclear but I also think it contributes to the authenticity of these letters.  What I mean by this is that when reading these letters, they seemed authentic to Celie; she is writing these letters as a kind of confessional to search for her own identity within the world of abuse that she endures.  It seemed as if I was truly reading a collection of letter from this individual, Celie, and have been given this kind of privilege into the most sacred moments of her life even if they were so horrific.  The difference in laguage between Celie and Nettie is so clear which may also influence my assertion that these letters seem to truly be Celie speaking/writing.  As readers, we also see Celie’s tone and language change as she grows more confident with herself and her surroundings.  I’m not sure if it is the content being described/the life Celie had, or the language being used, but these letters did not seem as if they were written by someone else.  In other words, it is as if Celie truly exists which I don’t think is necessarily true of all epistolary texts, real or created by an author.

Also, one interesting moment that made me think of sender and receiver of letters was when Nettie writes, “I tore [the letters] into little pieces and dropped them into the water.  Albert is not going to let you have my letters and so what use is there in writing them”.  She then states, “But now I feel different” (130).  I know we have discussed this before, but this makes me question does it really matter if the letter reaches its intended recipant?

Okay, I think I am digressing a bit here and I still have yet to get to everything I wanted to talk about and I’m not even sure if I have made coherent observations!  I hope to respond more after reading your posts!

Best,

Penelope

 

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7 thoughts on “Dear English 606,

  1. In the spirit of an epistolary novel that relies on the undeliverability of letters, I feel as if I should not reply. Or, rather, I should reply and send them somewhere (perhaps an archive?), on a detour (purloin them?), until they are recovered by someone else.

    Penelope, you have asked a bunch of provocative questions, but I want to focus on this one: “Furthermore, I am wondering why Celie refers to certain people by name and while we know her “husband’s” name is Albert, she writes Mr. ______? Why is this?” I think part of this is the result of a culture of oppression, in which he, as the husband, adopts the role of the slaveowner, treating his wife like his slave. However, I think something else, perhaps more interesting, is going on. If we think about the historical progression of letter writing in this course, we may remember Heloise challenging Abelard for his violation of standard medieval dictaminal conventions. As I mentioned in one of our early classes, medieval teachers of letter writing would devote whole chapters to parts of the letter and the lengthiest discussions had to do with salutations. This meant that letter writers had to stick to standard formulas for addressing those above them, like bishops or popes. And usually, these salutations reflected distance and formality, instead of intimacy and informality. I think this is the case for Celie. She is essentially “going medieval” on her husband.

  2. I loved that you brought up Walker’s final note, Penelope. It made me think of something I have heard many authors say, that their book and its characters have talked to them and so the book has given itself a direction the author might not have intended. Maybe some of the characters in The Color Purple had a life of their own and appeared without planning from Walker. I also asked myself whether it was intended as part of the novel and how it fits in with the rest.

    In my facebook post I also asked in a side-note why Celie addresses her husband as Mr.–––––, especially since I have seen this address many times before when working with early American fiction. My thoughts were along the same line of what Alex brought up, that it was a sign of formality. I remember that at one point spouses addressed each other by their last names in Germany. Did this also happen in the States? I found it very interesting that Celie and Albert’s relationship changed so much in the end, they sit together and sew!? Somehow they found a way to talk to each other. Then, when Shug comes home and Celie shows her her house, she points out that the frog on the mantlepiece is “a little something Albert carve for me” (289). Even Shug is perplexed that Celie, for the very first time, calls Albert by his first name. Is this due to their changed relationship? Or because Celie shared more with him than during their marriage? For the last six pages of the book, and I think also for the rest of her life, she does not go back to address him by his nonexistent last name. (Why is that we never learn his last name?)

  3. Dear classmates,
    Ah, the proper form of address. I like to think that by addressing Albert as Mr.___ it is merely a form of disrespect. Albert doesn’t see it this way, but when Celie speaks it, it has a certain ugliness to it. If we refer to when Celie asks Squeak what her real name is, she says it’s Mary Agnes. Celie replies, “Make Harpo call you by your real name…then maybe he see you even when he trouble” (84). When they all finally refer to Squeak as Mary Agnes she has gained their respect for the sacrifice she has made. I’m not there yet, but has Albert gained respect for something finally?
    “A.W., author and medium” is really interesting Penelope. If we think of her as the “in-between” of the story and the reader, is she not a “medium”? What an awesome way to look at authorship!
    I also liked how you refereed to the letter that was torn up and thrown into the ocean. I can’t help but think that as she (Neddie) was writing she was still connected with Celie, making it just as important as to whether or not Celie ever received the hard copy of that letter. I guess then there are multiple purposes to this writing process and at least on one level the purpose was served.
    Have a great weekend All!
    Art

  4. The lack of dates struck me as well — everything seemed to go by so fast, and maybe that’s how life is in general, but it’s certainly easy to feel that way in particular through reading snippets of a life via the epistolary form, right? It felt like all of a sudden Celie and Nettie were old, and there were these moments when they would mention how much time had gone past and you’d be hit by the weight of it: when Nettie mentions it’d been thirty years since they saw each other again, when Sofia’s twelve years of “jail” time went past almost in a blink, and characters had all these adventures in and out of Celie’s life…even at the beginning, the jump between Celie being 14 years old and her being 20, that’s so much misery compounded into just a few scattered letters…

    I think I agree with you though that all of this adds to the authenticity — not just of Celie’s character, which is so painstakingly well-crafted, but of the novel’s epistolary nature too. Compare to Dracula, where the letters and journal entries are certainly intellectually interesting, but they draw attention to themselves too; whereas here, even though the letters form part of the plot in The Color Purple too (Celie and Nettie wondering about each others, Mr. _____’s machinations about them), they feel more natural. The way people actually would write letters to each other.

  5. Penelope,
    I too will try and give you my insight on some of the very insightful questions you raised in your post. As far as what to make of Walker’s afterword, I think her choice of the word “medium” was carefully chosen in order to represent the ambiguity that I think is present throughout the novel. By naming herself as the medium, she is, on the surface, naming herself as the means to which we can read her novel, and also signing the letters as being penned by her, basically all of what you mentioned above. What I think you may have left out is that she is the medium bringing forth the voices of the spirits of her characters. To make a comparison to reality trash T.V, she is kind of acting as the “Long Island Medium” allowing us to connect to the spirits of so many girls like Celie that have come before this novel and informed Walker in writing this. Sadly, the displacement of Celie and Nettie in the novel was a very real experience for generations of African American families (not just girls or sisters) during times of slavery, and as depicted in this novel even after those times.

    Regarding the lack of dates on the letters, I think that this is another way that ambiguity works in the novel to universalize Celie and Nettie’s experience as one shared throughout African American history. With out the dates of the letters, it is unclear what period in time this is taking place, because it does seem as though Celie is a slave. She was sold off by her father to an older man to be his babysitter and housekeeper? Sounds a lot like slavery. I hate to be the person that tries to relate an African American novel back to slavery, but I do think that the oppression that those people faced before, after, and during slavery influences most African American literature, even contemporary literature. By not including the dates, the names of the characters could be changed and the story would still be one that tells of these sad but common experiences African Americans went through. The way that Celie calls her husband Mr._____ reinforces this notion. Mr._____ could have been any slave owner over any period of African American history. It is likely that Mr.______ the slave owner would have treated Celie, or whoever they enslaved, in a similar manner.

    I have more to say about this ambiguity in response to many of the questions you raised, but for the sake of time I’ll end this here. Hopefully we can discuss this more in class.

    Happy Monday,
    Sam

  6. I actually spent a good deal of time trying to place exactly when this novel was taking place through context clues, as it is never overtly mentioned when the narrative was happening. I finally figured out that it was supposed to be in the forties when Nettie mentioned meeting president Tubman of Liberia (though he was president until the seventies, apparently). My efforts were made obvious when people talked about heading off to war. The time actually really surprised me, as I was somewhat shocked to discover this story was not set in the 19th century. I suppose it is presumptuous of me to have assumed that such a system of ignorant, instilled oppression would not have been in place in the rural south in the mid-twentieth century – and on some intellectual level I suppose I knew it, as I knew that that was the nadir of race relations in the US, but somehow seeing it front and center is much more jarring.

    The one aspect of authenticity that struck me as sort of odd, though, is Celie’s diction in her letters, especially her earlier ones. It’s obvious that the authorial voice in all of the characters’ letters is supposed to reflect their education (compare Nettie’s voice to Celie’s), but if we accept that premise, then Celie’s early letters seem a bit odd. They’re written like a learned writer attempting to most accurately capture a certain phonetic fidelity with Celie’s way of speaking, rather than it being Celie’s actual writing voice. I feel it somewhat disingenuous that Celie would write so ardently phonetic if she had any command of her letters to begin with. Doesn’t take away from the impact of the story, though, I just think it underscores that this is a work of fiction.

  7. Regarding Celie’s addressing her husband as Mr._______, I had a feeling as I was reading your responses that this “dashing” of the last name was not only made for her husband. When she writes about the Mayor she also “dashes” his last name (I don’t know how to call this process!): “Mayor ______ bought Miz Millie a new car,” (102) for example. I feel like Celie does this at other times as well where I was particularly confused about which Mr. was she talking about but now I can’t find the passage I’m thinking about.

    Anyhow! As a victorianist, this is very familiar to me. R. L. Stevenson does this in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with dates, as in it happened in “18___.” This for me is a rhetorical move that serves to make the events of the novel seem more “realistic” as if the author, and in the case of The Color Purple it would be Walker, is trying to protect someone’s identity. After all, she only gives Shug Avery’s last name everyone else is referred to by their first name and I’m certain Shug Avery is not her “real” name. Similarly, and going back to Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” when we are introduced to the criminal, he is only referred to as D__. We are not supposed to know his name because he is a person of importance, which makes the text even more scandalous. However, I have to say that I am fascinated by the idea that for Celie not to give Mr.____ his last name might be a way of empowerment, but I hope this makes some sense!

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