Monday, 14 May 2012

Compare the ways in which the authors use for, structure and language to convey the search for individual identity in ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘ The Catcher in the Rye’

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The protagonists’ search for their individual identity in ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is conveyed through the author’s portrayal of their disrupted childhood (with focus on society, sexuality and gender), emphasised by use of form, structure and language.

Both novels are written in first person narrative, in order to create a bond of realism between the protagonist and the reader, providing a direct insight into the identity of both Celie and Holden. Walker employs use of the epistle form to demonstrate a key facet of Celie’s identity; it allows an earnest insight into the girl who is in desperate need of communication and to this end finds letters her only form of relief.

“Celie, in her letters, writes herself into being”

This idea conveys the strength of male oppressors who formed the dominant figures in Afro-American history and in order to gain recognition women had to write their existence through personal letters or diaries, as their lives were not documented by the male driven society. This is reflective of Celie’s life, as she cannot find comfort in talking and possibly cannot bring herself to verbally convey the severity of her abuse, therefore finding solace only in her writing.

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The opening letters are addressed directly to God, suggesting a powerful religious influence over Celie’s life. These epistles form a plea in which Celie questions the course of her life stating;

“Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” 1

This indicates that Celie’s life is full of doubt and confusion, reinforced by the entire opening letter, which depicts acts of sexual abuse and neglect, instantly evoking sympathy form the reader.

Use of the epistle form allows Walker to confront time constraints in which only the significant aspects of Celie’s life are forwarded. However, more importantly, Walker is also able to introduce a second narrative viewpoint in the form of Nettie’s letters. These letters allow the novel to contain multiple narratives that run parallel, each exposing a struggle for identity. Nettie’s letters also help educate Celie in her historic background, as they reveal the origins of Afro-American culture and its relevance on their society. This suggests that in order to discover one’s true identity, it is important to be rooted in the knowledge of how the society in which you live has been moulded.

Contrasting to Walker’s novel, Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, is written in chapter form. The linear narrative form allows Salinger to convey the incessant flow of consciousness that forces the progress of the novel, allowing for tight time and place constraints, resulting in a fast paced exposition of protagonist’s life.

Holden’s idiosyncratic nature allows for the repetition of such phrases as;

“If you want to know the truth”

This phrase is suggestive that Holden is a known liar, which is later confirmed by Holden himself. However, in an attempt to assure the reader that he is telling the truth, he inadvertently casts a shadow of doubt over the reliability or his narration. It is suggested that Holden is able to manipulate a situation that may hold one meaning but blur the details so that it conforms to his pessimistic view of society.

“The Catcher in the Rye” follows the protagonist’s exploration of key events in his life that lead to his inevitable breakdown. The entire novel is written from a retrospective stance in which Holden challenges or faults some of his actions over the crucial period leading to his climatic downfall. Within the progress of the novel, Holden often digresses into flashbacks of his childhood. These periods convey Holden’s desperate need to restore his childhood, as it provides comforting emotions in which he feels protected form the world. (Needs elaboration)

The form of each name in both novels plays an integral part in exposing the symbolic identity of each character. “Holden Caulfield” can hold various connotations, each revealing an element of the character, “Holden”, for example, could represent the desire to cling or “hold-on” to his childhood and state of innocence. “Caul” is the term given to the protective membrane enveloping the foetus thus emphasising the character’s over-powering aspiration to retain a state of purity and virtue. “Field” is representative of the Rye fields in which Holden mentally assumes the position of protector to all children in hope of shielding them from the adult world he fears so much.

“James Castle” is another name within the novel that holds symbolic significance. A “Castle” is a mighty fortress within which a kingdom is governed by the morals and ideals of it’s resident. This is symbolic of the high ideals held by the character and also ironic as he plunged to his death from a window set at great height.

“Phoebe”, when traced back to it’s roots means “Shining” and therefore, indicates her importance in Holden’s life as she personifies his guiding light, rooting him in reality and creating a sense of comforting knowledge.

As within “The Catcher In the Rye”, “The Color Purple” also contains many names with symbolic reference. “Shug Avery” for example represents a powerful influence over Celie. “Shug”, possibly short for ‘Sugar’, suggests something sweet and is reinforced by Celie’s mental and sexual attraction to her. “Avery” is a house for birds and is suggestive of the imagery of flight, which is reflective and also suggests Shug’s influence over Celie’s wish to escape the confines of her dominated life and establish her independence.

Celie constantly refers to her husband as “Mr____”. In dehumanising the character Celie is able to detach herself from their relationship; it is suggestive that Celie does not view him as a human being with emotions but simply as a dominant force in her life. It is not until the introduction of Shug Avery into the novel do we discover that “Mr____’s” real name is “Albert”. By addressing Mr____ on a personal level as “Albert”, Shug establishes herself on a parallel with men, thus showing her lack of fear of female repression. It is not until Celie’s liberation at the end of the novel that she acknowledges her husband as human and allows herself to use his name. This is due to Celie’s newly established sense of freedom and equality, in which she no longer views herself as an inferior being.

Each novel is carefully structured and could be broken down into three movements. Each movement conveys different aspects of the characters identity, foreshadowing the conclusion. Salinger’s novel could be dissected into the different areas of Holden’s experiences, starting with his life at Pencey Prep, leading to his experiences in New York and finally his inevitable demise.

Holden’s depiction of his life at Pencey Prep suggests that he is an isolationist. Whilst the entire school was at a football game Holden retired to Thomsen Hill, alone. His feelings of confusion lead him to believe he does not belong in a society that he believes is “phoney”, as it does not live up to his ideals of expectations.

“Salinger’s intent is to present us with the plight of the idealist in the modern world” 4

This suggests that Holden has an inability to cope with the harsh realities of the modern world, therefore establishing false ideals to which he believes his life should be governed, which eventually lead to his demise. This movement also conveys Holden’s rejection of education, as he willingly fails his subjects with no remorse.

“I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself at all”

This relaxed attitude suggests that Holden is complacent in failing to achieve an education, suggesting that education produces the “phoney” people that he despises so much. Conversely to Holden’s situation, male oppressors, who did not believe women needed an education and therefore retracted them from school, enforce Celie’s isolation. It was believed in such slave orientated societies that the woman’s place was serving their husband, and consequently Celie was forced into a pre-arranged marriage.

The second movement of “The Catcher in the Rye”, consists of Holden’s sexual escapades in New York. This period shows Holden’s hesitant transition from childhood to adulthood. Holden is faced with the desire for sexual fulfilment, and on various occasion is confronted with the opportunity, however he is thwarted by his dubious feelings that suggest sexual adventure is the final barrier between the two worlds he is currently deciding between. He is confronted with the harsh reality of adolescence, destroying his images or purity and innocence, projecting him towards his mental breakdown.

“Holden’s excitement is the excitement of the fantasist he is embarking on a dream which is both universally adolescent, and built into contemporary American mass-culture… the offer of unbelievable possibilities of sexual adventure and satisfaction”5

This suggests that Holden is excited by the prospects of sexual interaction, however, he is conforming to the reality of peer pressure, caused by media, of the importance of sexual experimentation. In following this trend, Holden falls into the “phoney” world he is so desperate to avoid, thus causing great mental pressure, enhancing his forthcoming breakdown.

Similarly to this, Celie’s sexual nature plays a key part in revealing her identity. Her views towards sexual intercourse are stale, stating that she allows Albert to “do his business”1. Her attitude towards sexual encounters could be a result of the sexual abuse she encountered as a child, forever scarring her perception of sexual intercourse. However, it is in this movement that Celie’s sexual feelings are liberated through Shug. Celie’s obsession with Shug started with simple idolisation, as she has never encountered such a dominant, outgoing female before. However, this adoration becomes rooted in sexual emotions, “I love looking at Shug”. Once Celie gets past the confusion, this new form of exploration becomes emancipating, and Celie’s life is able to form direction.

The third movement of “The Catcher in the Rye” reveals Holden’s final breakdown; the cumulative effect of the events that lead him on his misadventures. Holden consciously reverts to a state of childhood comfort in which he draws on characters such as his brother Allie.

“I’d make believe that I was talking to my brother Allie”

This regression is the conclusive movement to the novel, however there is no sense of resolution to the story line, it simply depicts that gradual decline in mental stability of the protagonist. This leaves the reader contemplating the true nature of Holden’s degenerative state, providing many questions surrounding the perception of society and its effect.

Conversely to Salinger’s degenerative story line, Walker’s novel has a positive finale in which the protagonist achieves a sense of liberation and fulfilment. She has progressed in her search for identity throughout the novel, leading her to a state of equality in which she is able to confront her male oppressors; shown through her use of the name “Albert” throwing aside the term “Mr____” in a triumphant realisation of her individual identity.

Symbolism plays a substantial part in revealing depths of the protagonists’ identities. “The Catcher in the Rye “ contains relevant symbolism such as Holden’s red hunting hat. This hat represents the unusual nature of Holden’s personality, as he has to wear it in a particular way, however he is very conscious of wearing it. This represents the contradicting nature of Holden, mirroring his pessimistic, reclusive nature balanced against his overwhelming need for a sense of belonging.

Moreover, Holden’s obsession with the question about ducks in Central Park;

“Do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets frozen over?”

This question reveals the childlike nature of Holden, as well as his lack of education. Consequently, his fixation with this particular question is a clear indication of his declining mental stability, an act of regression to his childhood, and is a key motif running throughout the novel.

“The Color Purple” also holds many symbolic references such as the colour “Purple” itself. To Celie, purple represents strength and royalty, as it is an unaffordable colour whilst Celie is under oppression. Purple is commonly associated with richness and holds many regal connections, therefore Celie believes that Shug should wear this colour’

“She like a queen to me, so I say to Kate, somethin purple”1

This implies that Celie worships Shug as a powerful, untouchable being, however, Celie later makes clothes for herself and shug, each containing purple, thus showing the levelling of the two characters as equals. Purple is also the colour of bruises and is therefore symbolic of the repression and immense cruelties that Celie has faced in her life. However, it is through embracing these events and viewing them as violations of her individuality that Celie is finally able to break free of her dictatorship.

“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”6

This is suggesting that the colour “purple” is representative of feminist movements, an element of nature that can evoke great strength and liberation.

Quilting is a symbolic reference that runs throughout “The Color Purple”. Celie makes quilts along with her other female characters as a form of mental escape. This is representative of Afro- American slave culture as woman often gathered to produce quilts in order to buy their freedom. This idea is encouraged through the novel, as it is through her sewing that Celie is finally able to gain her independence, both physically and financially. The epistle form in which “The Color Purple” is structured mirrors this motif of quilting. As the novel progresses, the epistle begin to form the story of Celie’s life, adding more and more information and exposing Celie to different characters and events that gradually lead to her final emancipation, reflected by the use of sewing to gain that sense of freedom.

The use of language in each novel provides key insights into the identity of each character. Celie’s use of language is basic and often crude, conveying her lack of education. Words such as “titties” and “pussy” are often used in a context that would usually require more dignity. The use of such language also echoes the colloquial nature of her language. Due to her lack in education Celie’s use of language and grammar when writing her letters, is limited, conveying a sense of ignorance and naivety. Sentences are often short with no grammatical structure, and written phonetically, for example she spells “get” as “git”. The use of phonetic spelling emphasises her language barriers and mirrors the society and culture in which she lives. However, through the perseverance of her writing, her grammar and spelling later becomes more coherent with correct use of hyphens and exclamation marks, showing her educational progress.

Holden also makes use of colloquial language such as “chew the fat”, meaning to lie consistently and “helluva”, an abbreviated term for “hell of a…” meaning a lot of. However, Holden’s use of colloquialism is not through lack of education but through choice. Holden has a broad vocabulary and is able to make use of words such as “unscrupulous” demonstrating his clear understand of the English language, it is also ironic that English was the only subject Holden was not failing at school. The ability to combine such colloquial and adult terminology once again reinforces Holden’s sense of unbalance in his adolescence.

Holden’s use of the term “phoney” suggests a world in which people are false suggesting the notion that all adults lie, creating a false persona to which Holden does not agree, however contradictory of his own nature. His overwhelming desire not to fall into this “phoney” environment is depicted through his use of language. Holden’s idiosyncratic nature allows him repetitive use of phrases such as “it really is” showing a subconscious need to reinsure himself that he is staying true to his ideals.

“He would like us to believe that he is a paragon of virtue in a world phoniness but that simply isn’t the case”7

Such a cynical outlook on life forces great pressure on Holden to maintain his sense of value and innocence, nevertheless Holden often conforms to the social mores that he scrutinises so frequently, propelling him to his gradual mental lapse.

Salinger and Walker are both able to explore the search for identity within each of their central characters. Their similar use of structure and language effectively conveys the effects of society, colour, sexuality and gender in determining ones individual identity. Although each author adopts different forms for their novel, each chooses a first person narrative, in order to communicate clearly the personal opinions and emotions of their protagonist. Although Walker chooses a traditional resolution to end her novel, whilst Salinger leaves his novel with an open ending, it is the quest for identity that is the central motif throughout each novel that is clearly conveyed through extensive use of form, structure and language.

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