Sunday, November 15, 2009

Does Universality Hinder Individuality?

One observation I find particularly interesting in Trudier Harris’ On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence is her assertion that the novel focuses on “a particular depiction of particular black people in a specific black community” rather than “a large and representative slice of black life, U.S.A.” (158). I find this intriguing because I can’t decide whether or not it is at odds with Laura’s claim that we must read The Color Purple as a novel about all kinds of oppression – not just the oppression of African American women in the 1940s south.

Harris emphasizes the specificity of The Color Purple and the dangers of stereotyping. This seems in line with Mary’s comment last week about Celie’s sexuality: she is attracted to one woman, not all women. Sexual identity, like racial identity, isn’t always clear-cut. To assume the experiences of one person apply to all is to devalue individuality. Yet can one simultaneously appreciate the uniqueness of Celie’s situation while also recognizing that she somehow represents the plight of all the oppressed?

I suppose it depends on that which each individual reader is looking to take from the text. If, like Harris’ students, he or she is reading to “see how black people in the deep South really lived” (158) then he or she is surely in danger of stereotyping. If, on the other hand, the reader is looking for a deeper, more symbolic meaning, then hopefully he or she will be able to establish the connection between Celie’s suffering and the world’s suffering. Thus, when reading a novel like Walker’s a delicate balance must be achieved: respect for individuality combined with the ability to recognize universality.

Though I appreciate Harris’ points, I do think she is overly critical. One of her major problems is that “Celie gives in to her environment with a kind of passivity that comes near to provoking screams…” (158). Indeed, she finds Celie unrealistic. Yet just because she has never encountered a person like Celie does not mean that Celie is unrealistic. Because Harris is writing in the 1980s and because she did not have direct experience with Celie’s south, she cannot possibly know whether or not Celie might have existed.

My favorite quote from our readings this week comes from Sandra E. Drake’s response to DuBois’ questions. She states “One could argue, perhaps, that each of these authors would have written better novels had they written differently. This is not necessarily so, however, and in any case they didn’t; and I would not deprive the world of what each did do on account of what he or she might have done” (324). This statement comes the closest to my personal feelings regarding meaningful literature: critique as much as you want, but in the end, the original text remains.

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