Prayer in The Color Purple
Celie’s relationship with God in the novel fascinated me because the work opens with Celie writing, “Dear God.” The letter that follows is horrifying because discusses her experiences with sexual assault but it also reveals her expectations and view of God; she wants a God who will give her a sign and comfort her because she is forbidden from telling anyone else. These early letters show a desire for a God who interacts directly for Celie and who is all of the people she needs but doesn’t have. She writes to God in lieu of telling her mammy about sexual assault; she writes to God instead of her sister when Nettie must leave, and she writes to God in lieu of any friends. Her letters treat God as both a friend and an all-powerful God who should be able to show a sign of his existence.
Later in the first half of the novel, Celie continues to write to God but her letters become wrapped up in her day-to-day life and her survival. The letters stop appealing to God’s grace and mercy. They suggest that she now feels God is passive, not a god that shows signs or gives mercy but a God who is simply there. The God she writes to becomes a friend and confidante. During this time, Celie’s letters don’t express religious sentiment but instead are more of a diary. Ultimately, this diary-style writing culminates her renouncement of God to Shug. She tells her that God “is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown” (Walker 164). At this point, Shug introduces another image of God. She suggests that God isn’t a white man listening to a black woman’s problems; God is the creator who likes creation to be admired and for humanity to love everything God has created. This possibility surprises Celie who doesn’t dismiss it but doesn’t immediately accept it either.
As the novel continues her ideas and Nettie’s, in the letters, support the belief in a natural God who is “in everything” as Shug says and can be worshipped in the color purple and the roundleaf (Walker 165). This belief seems deeper than a naïve belief in a God who refuses to answer Celie at the start of the novel and doesn’t seem to care about her problems. Instead, Celie begins finding God everywhere and celebrating this new spirituality. Celie’s final greeting in her letter reflects the new understanding of God: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (Walker 242). The opening is personal and genuine; it demonstrates a personal relationship for God that Celie desires throughout the novel. The end of the novel shows a complex but fulfilling relationship with God that did not require traditional religious trappings.
Celie’s relationship with God is complicated by her relationship with men and with white people. This was fascinating for me because it spoke to the intersectionality of all of our identities; Celie isn’t just black, or just a woman, or just a sexual assault survivor, or just a lesbian, or just a Christian; all of these identities affect her. The God she was introduced to however, did not look like her and couldn’t understand or respond to her problems. By changing how she believed in God, Celie changed the relationship she had with God. God became personal because she became able to see it. When God became the tress, the stars, and her family, God became the good in the world and something she could relate to more deeply than a white man in the sky.
In the novel, Walker addresses this reality directly in terms of how religion and spirituality interact with other identities. In particular, Walker looks at how Celie’s identity as a black woman is affected by her religion. The novel doesn’t answer the question of religion but follows Celie’s journey into a deeper understanding of her own faith that acknowledges the role that society and societal identities play in spirituality.