Academic journal article MELUS

"Looking at the Back of Your Head": Mirroring Scenes in Alice Walker's the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy

Academic journal article MELUS

"Looking at the Back of Your Head": Mirroring Scenes in Alice Walker's the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy

Article excerpt

Although Alice Walker insists that Possessing the Secret of Joy is not a sequel to The Color Purple, she has chosen to recast various characters in the later novel. The novels are also alike in that their protagonists, Celie in Purple and Tashi in Joy, are women who experience epiphany-like moments that lead to a fuller, more coherent sense of self. In these moments the presence of a literal or metaphoric mirror enables the protagonists to move from an experience of fragmentation to a vision of a more unified state of self-possession. As Daniel Ross notes, this transformation resembles Jacques Lacan's mirror stage theory.(1)

According to Ross, in The Color Purple there are several mirror scenes that are crucial to Celie's development of selfhood. Before these scenes, Celie endures a barrage of rapes and brutality that causes her to experience her body as fragmented and as being possessed by others, namely her victimizers. At age fourteen, Celie already questions her self-image as a result of her abusive father's repeated rapes. She begins a letter to tell God that she is a good girl and immediately strikes out the word "am," and revises her sentence to say, "I have always been a good girl," demonstrating that she no longer feels certain of her goodness or her identity (1). Celie's violent, loveless marriage to a man she calls "Mr." is no less damaging than her "relationship" with her incestuous father. In her best moments with her husband, Celie imagines herself as the beautiful, grinning Shug Avery and puts her arm around him as she supposes Shug might. Of more dangerous times, particularly when Mr. is beating her, Celie says "It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree" (23). Celie detaches herself from her identity because of her intolerable circumstances. Shug's arrival marks Celie's first opportunity to look, both literally and figuratively, at herself. Just as the living Shug replaces the photograph that Celie carries, Shug's mirroring helps Celie to replace the void left in her by her troublesome past.

Ross suggests that "The repossession of her body encourages Celie to seek selfhood through spoken language" (70). He finds that once Celie can recognize and appreciate her body as complete and belonging to herself, she is able to express love verbally for herself and others. Her apparent desire for selfhood, he further argues, is initiated in a crucial mirror scene in which Shug Avery helps initiate Celie's desire for selfhood. The scene unfolds as an anatomy lesson for Celie under Shug's direction. With Shug's encouragement, Celie's self-reclamation begins as she sees her own genitals for the first time:

   I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick
   the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be
   black. Then inside look like a wet rose.

   "It a lot prettier than you thought, ain't it?" [Shug] ask from the door.
   It mine, I say. (82)

Here Ross suggests that "Celie's immediate response abnegates her previous annihilation and ignorance of her body: `It mine, I say'" (71). Although she previously cared little about herself or her sexual feelings, and even referred to sex with her husband as nothing more than him doing "his business," she now recognizes her genitals as one enjoyable part of a complete sell "I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me ... just enough to tell me this the right button" (Purple 82). Her response is like that of a child in Lacan's mirror stage. It closely resembles Tamsin E. Lorraine's explanation of the stage in that Celie has moved from a premirror experience of passivity and fragmentation to a "jouissance (joy) of fusion with a Gestalt of the human form" (32). In other words, she now recognizes and reclaims the fragmented parts of her body, taking pleasure in that reclamation.

After Celie successfully leaves Albert to live with Shug and begin her folk pants business, Shug inadvertently provides Celie with the opportunity to test her personal growth. …

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