23 March 2014
The Reciprocal Audience
As we frequently discuss in class, literature often serves as the premise for justice. Specifically authors of banned literature use their books as a way of casting light on social injustice. In doing so, these authors are forcing us to recognize where we may have fallen short of our ideals and are encouraging us to have these extremely difficult and quite uncomfortable conversations. We see this in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; Walker’s protagonist Celie is forbidden to discuss her situation and experiences with others. Living in an oppressive household, a perpetual state of abuse, injustice, and--in many ways-- isolation, Celie finds a loophole; she finds her voice through the letters she writes to God. By writing these letters Celie is able to create a literary realm where she can reside freely and express herself—a self-constructed space where she possesses agency. Here, Walker is highlighting the power of language and of words, not only from an authorial stance, but also through the writing done by her characters from within the text.
I found this to be particularly relevant to my experiences at Tunbridge. Although it may not be as severe as the narratives depicted within Walker’s text--many of the children I work with are the victims of oppressive households. These children live within the confining structures built by their parents or society, leading them to believe they are incapable of change. However, with the help of English and literature, these children are given an opportunity to overcome a life of perpetual stasis; they are given the chance to overcome the oppressive structures that currently govern their lives.
Interestingly though, as we see in Walker’s text with Celie and Nettie, both characters are only liberated when their letters are acknowledged and answered on the receiving end. This becomes apparent with Nettie, when Celie is unable to respond to her letters. Nettie becomes depressed and lonely, she struggles to continue on with her life. In this moment, we see that Nettie is suffering because she relies on Celie to be her support system--her “reciprocal audience”: an audience that is eager and willing to listen to Nettie. It is only after Celie and Nettie are reunited that Celie becomes an active and willing audience, thus allowing Nettie to feel empowered, worthy, and ultimately free. Similarly, without the help of passionate and committed teachers such as Mrs. Metzger and Ms. Lee—teachers who are not only willing to teach their students, but who are willing to cheer for their students and fight for their students-- the children at Tunbridge will also struggle to persevere. Here, once again we see a reciprocal effect—a need for these children to know that there is someone who is willing to listen to them and who will support their endeavors no matter what. It is only once these supports are in place that these children will be able to optimally benefit from literature. By teaching these children how to read and write, we are providing them with the necessary skills and tools to express themselves. Similar to Celie, these children will be able to create a literary space in which they can escape and where they can see the so-called light at the end of the tunnel. A literary or perhaps fictive sphere that will offer them the temporary comfort and confidence to potentially one day make it their reality.
In keeping with the “reciprocation motif”, Walker’s text also reminded me of the essays we read last week by O’Reilley and the Deers, specifically in regards to the role of the reader (or audience) as an active participant within literature. Similar to the students at Tunbridge and their teachers or Celie and Nettie’s need for reciprocal communication, I believe that many authors require this same need. An author feels most accomplished when he/she successfully engages his/her audience and invites this audience to actively participate in the literature at hand; literature becomes more powerful when its audience is able and willing to listen: when the author’s intended message is properly conveyed.
Lastly, the relationship between Celie and Shug reminded me of the relationships we encountered in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Similar to Shakespeare’s notion of love, I think Walker is also suggesting that love exists independently of gender; love only requires two individuals who are willing to reciprocate with one another.