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Alice Walker wrote a famous essay called "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" for Ms. Magazine in the 1970s. In it, she described her discovery of the work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer who wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Like Walker, Hurston came from a town called Eatonville, though Hurston's town was located in Florida and Walker's in Georgia. Their backgrounds were similar enough to resonate strongly in Walker, and she derived a great sense of joy in reading Hurston's works while attending college. Though quite well known and well received in the 1930s, Hurston's novels had gone out of print. In the 1970s, when students and scholars participating in the feminist and civil rights movements began searching for works written by women and people of color, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rediscovered and properly assessed for the first time. Walker was inspired that Walker's novel was written from an African-American woman's point of view and explored the limitations imposed by both racism and sexism. Walker wrote that Hurston enjoyed "racial health."
Unlike protest writers like Richard Wright, Hurston celebrated what it was to be black and praised the richness of the culture of folklore, spirituals, work songs, and blues. Walker decided she would do the same thing in her writing. As a result, she explores in The Color Purple what is hard about being a Black as well as what is beautiful about it. She looks unflinchingly at the domestic abuse in the family, including incest, physical abuse, and exploitation. More importantly, she also lets the reader admire the African-American culture, with its ties to the extended family and its unique music. She also depicts what is beautiful about the human spirit that can live through hardship and retain the ability to love and care for others. In the novel, she provides the hope that people are resilient enough to change and to grow.
There are two primary elements of the novel that are unfamiliar. The first is its epistolary form; that is, it is written as if it were a series of letters. The protagonist writes first to God, then to her sister Nettie, and finally to the world she has grown to love. This choice of narrative technique accomplishes several things for Walker. She is able to capture a sense of time as it occurs in the passing moments. She is also able to give voice to a character who would otherwise be quite inarticulate because she is uneducated as well as silenced by patriarchy. Through the letters, Walker is additionally able to give more than one point of view - that of the protagonist, Celie, a woman living in Macon Country, Georgia, and that of Nettie, a woman living in Africa, who can provide a sense of the cultural roots of African Americans. The letter form also gives the reader a sense of urgency. At first, the letters reveal horrendous things that are happening to the protagonist as she confesses her misery to God. No one other than her abusive father knows what is happening to Celie; therefore, she feels isolated and helpless. Then, the letters she writes are to her sister Nettie, who is in Africa and also unable to help Celie. The reader observes that through the course of her letter writing, the protagonist comes to understand herself and also realizes her own voice. She begins to be self-sufficient and satisfied with herself and her life choices.
The second unfamiliar element in the novel is the southern Black dialect of Celie and the other African-American characters in the book. The rules of grammar in Black English (BE) are often contrary to many rules found in Standard American English (SAE). In SAE, a sentence like "She goes to the market" becomes "She go to the market" in Black English. Pronunciations, and therefore spellings, also differ between BE and SAE. Walker faithfully usually Black English in the novel, for it is the language that her characters would actually speak. Writing the novel in Standard American English, the author would not have captured the real Celie. Walker does such a splendid job of capturing the appropriate dialect that after a few chapters, most readers grow comfortable with it and enjoy its unique cadences, especially when read aloud.