Despite winning several prestigious literary awards of the day, when it first appeared, Alice Walker`s The Color Purple generated critical unease over puzzling aspects of its compositions. In what, as one reviewer put it, was "clearly intended to be a realistic novel," many reviewers perceived violations of the conventions of the realistic novel form, pointing out variously that late in the book, the narrator protagonist Celie and her friends are propelled toward a happy ending with more velocity than credibility, that the letters from Nettie to her sister Celie intrude into the middle of the main action with little motivation or warrant, and that the device of Celie`s letters to God is especially unrealistic inasmuch as it forgoes the concretizing details that traditionally have given the epistolary novel (that is, a novel composed of letters) its peculiar verisimilitude: the ruses to enable mailing letters, the cache, and especially the letters received in return.
Indeed, the violations of realistic convention are so flagrant that they might well call into question whether The Color of Purple is indeed intended to be a realistic novel, especially since there are indications that at least some of those aspects of the novel regarded by viewers as puzzling may constitutes its links to modes of writing other than Anglo-European nineteenth-century realism. For example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has recently located the letters to God within an African American tradition deriving from slave narrative, a tradition in which the act of writing is linked to a powerful deity who "speaks" through scripture and bestows literacy as an act of grace. For Gates, the concern with finding a voice, which he sees as the defining feature of African American literature, links Celie`s letters with certain narrative aspects of Zora Neale Hurston`s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the acknowledged predecessor of The Color Purple.
Gates`s paradigm suggests how misleading it may be to assume that mainstream realist criteria are appropriate for evaluating The Color Purple. But in his preoccupation with voice as a primary element unifying both the speaking subject and the text as a whole Gates does not elucidate many of the more conventional structural features of Walker`s novel. For instance, while the letters from Nettie clearly illustrate Nettie`s acquisition of her own voice, Gates`s focus on "voice" sheds little light on the place that these letters occupy in the narrative or on why the plot takes this sudden jump into geographically and culturally removed surroundings. What is needed is an evaluative paradigm that, rather than obscuring such startling structural features (which may actually be explicitly intended to undermine traditional Anglo-European novelistic conventions), confronts them, thus illuminating the deliberately provocative ways in which The Color Purple departs from the traditional models to which it has been compared.
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