Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

Alice Walker's American Quilt: The
Color Purple and American Literary
Tradition

Priscilla Leder

Quilts and quilting play a key role in The Color Purple. Both the product and the process provide an outlet for thwarted energies, record a family's history by incorporating its discarded garments, and effect reconciliations between characters. Even more importantly, they embody the ideal of unity in diversity which permeates Walker's writings.1 The pieces of a quilt, like individuals in a pluralistic society, retain their original identities while functioning as parts of something else--just as the star-like pieces in the "Sister's Choice" pattern remain recognizable as Shug Avery's yellow dress.

This pluralism, as symbolized by the quilt, suggests a way of reading The Color Purple. Like a skillfully crafted quilt, The Color Purple incorporates recognizable pieces of American literary traditions into its own pattern. This essay will identify some of those pieces and suggest how they have been cut to fit a pattern that incorporates competing literary traditions--the "domestic" tradition once damned by Hawthorne and more recently explored by Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, and the "wilderness" tradition created in the late 1950s and early sixties by a group of critics, notably Richard Chase and Leslie Fiedler, who attempted to characterize "the American novel" and "the American tradition" ( Chase, Fiedler).

The domestic novel, sometimes called the "sentimental" novel, came to prominence in the nineteenth century. As Nina Baym explains in Women's Fictions: A Guide to Novels By and About Women in America, 1820-1870, the author of such a novel, almost always a woman, told "the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she has rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world" (11). Such a heroine wins out by self-discipline, forbearance, and loving-kindness rather than by aggression, and often religious faith helps her develop and maintain those virtues. Her victory usually brings her peace, security, and the love and respect of those around her, including some who have been responsible for her sufferings in the first place.

In the wilderness novel as described by Chase, Fiedler, and others, the (male) protagonist feels cramped and stifled by the strictures of "civilization," usually embodied by city, town, and/or home. He responds to his dilemma by fleeing to an unstructured landscape beyond those strictures. There, he finds

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