The Role of the Written Word in Jane Eyre and The Color Purple
It has been the cause of countless wars, broken hearts, fallen monarchs; it has provided relief to otherwise silent sufferers, brought joy to families, friends, sometimes enemies, and offered an escape to anyone willing to accept the gift. Language, tamed and harnessed in the form of symbols, has been mankind’s greatest achievement since the discovery of fire. People take pleasure and solace in recording stories, their own or imaginary ones, because they open a door into foreign lands and a chance to forget, if only for a moment, the reality of the world in which they live. For centuries it was the only means of communication across distances, the sole method of transmitting news, and it has played a crucial role in passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. The world today would be chaos without it. Knowing, then, that writing has always played such an important role in every aspect of life and continues to do so today, it is only fitting that it should be prominent in stories as well. Alice Walker and Charlotte Bronte both understood the power of the written word, realized its significance, and incorporated its importance into their own work; reading books distracts Jane from the hatefulness of the people around her, while Celie entrusts God or Nettie with her secrets via letter-writing. Both characters find strength and solace through reading material after injustices have been done to them, but whereas Jane uses her education in literature and grammar to gain employment, Celie uses her knowledge to fortify the link shared between herself and Nettie.
Both Jane and Celie find comfort in words and use them to escape the misery and injustices in their lives. At the beginning of the novel, after being asked by Mrs. Reed to go somewhere else and “remain silent,” Jane retires to a small window seat with Bewick’s History of British Birds and gets lost in its pages. She explains that “each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting . . .” and “I was then happy . . . I feared nothing but interruption” (Bronte 11). Celie uses writing as one of her few forms of expression, addressing her letters to God, her first confidant, and then later to Nettie. The opening line of The Color Purple is delivered by Alfonso, who states: “You better not ever tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”(Walker 1). It is then that Celie begins writing letters to God, telling him her story, conversing with him as she would a silent, non-judgmental pen pal. When she discovers her sister’s hidden letters years later and comes to believe that Nettie still lives, the younger sister replaces God in Celie’s heart and in her letters. In a correspondence to Nettie, Celie says, “I don’t write to God no more, I write to you” (Walker 199). When discussing these issues with Shug she asks, “What God do for me? . . . If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place” (Walker 199). Now that she has regained her sister, in a sense, she has no need of a God who, from her point of view, would allow her to suffer as she has.
Both women’s strength comes from the abuse of books or letters. At Gateshead, Jane retaliates against her harsh treatment at the hands of John Reed only when he takes the book from her and hurls it at her head. “My terror had passed its climax,” she says; “other feelings succeeded” (Bronte 13). She then proceeds to fight back when he charges her; “[she] received him in frantic sort” (Bronte 13). Celie finally stands up to Mr. Only when she has found the letters that had been concealed from her. When Mr. protests Shug’s announcement that Celie will be going with her to Memphis, Celie steps in to argue her own part: “You took my sister Nettie away from me . . . the only person love me in the world. . . . But Nettie and my children coming home soon. . . . when she do, all us together gon whup you ass (Walker 207). Her sister’s presence, if only in written form, gives her courage to do what she has never been able to do before.
A striking point of contrast between the two protagonists, however, is the way in which each character uses writing. Though Jane shows an affinity for reading, there is nothing to show that she takes an inordinate amount of pleasure from the act of recording her own thoughts. She uses correspondence to place an advertisement in the paper and later to keep in touch with her cousins, the Rivers, but the main use of her skills involves furthering her position in the world and attaining some independence. When she tires of the routine at Lowood, Jane places an advertisement in the paper, marketing herself as “A young lady accustomed to tuition . . . qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education . . .” (Bronte 90). She uses her vocabulary and her education to portray herself as the well-bred, intelligent woman she is. Celie, on the other hand, employs her rough writing abilities to keep a journal of sorts and bring her closer to her sister. Celie says of Nettie, “She be sitting there . . . helping me with spelling and everything else she think I need to know. . . . she a good teacher too. . . . [she] try to git us to think (Walker 17). Teaching Celie to converse via written words is an act of love on Nettie’s part; not only does it provide a means of communication for them further down the line, as seen during Nettie’s departure—“I say, Write. She say, Nothing but death can keep me from it” (Walker 19)—but it also aids in the development of Celie’s single solace, letter writing.
Though there are many differences between the novels, such as race, time, and setting, there are obvious similarities when it comes to the role written language plays in both. Jane and Celie both find solace in ink and paper, and both stand up for themselves only after they have been abused in one way or another—the weapon in both cases being some form of writing. However they put their ink to work for different purposes. While Jane employs her impeccable English skills to attain a more desirable employment, Celie is only concerned with communicating with God and her sister. The inclusion of this device strengthens both novels, allowing the reader to see more deeply into the characters’ souls and to better understand the motivations behind each. The presence of literature is vital to both stories, and the authors display a unique sensitivity to human nature and a large amount of talent by incorporating it so effortlessly into their work.