Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2
Critical Essay

JUDY ELSLEY

Read other essays by Judy Elsley published in Weber StudiesVol. 13.3Vol. 17.1, and Vol. 23.2.

 

"Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent":   Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple

In W. B. Yeats's poem "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop," the speaker is a wild old woman, a culturally marginal figure, who meets the epitome of respectability in the form of the Bishop. The Bishop reacts predictably to Jane, despising her broken body and exhorting her to turn his way toward "a heavenly mansion." But social respectability means little to her. She answers his reproof in her strong, life- affirming voice, unintimidated by him or the patriarchal law he represents. Her reply refuses the epistemology of opposition, showing the Bishop that what seems opposed is, in fact, interdependent:

"Fast and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul," I cried . . .
"For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent."

Her aphorisms seem like non-sequiturs to the Bishop and his ilk. Yet they make sense in an untraditional way by asserting that wholeness is composed of that which it is not: fragments.

"Crazy" is just one label attached to women who don't fit in, or who refuse to play the patriarchal game. But Jane is not so crazy. She speaks a wild wisdom which does not coincide with linear reasoning. Jane shows a profound understanding of a way of being for women marginalized by a culture that uses them for its own convenience. Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.

A woman makes the world her own by taking apart the patriarchal ways of being to create a space for herself. That space allows her to accept her own fragmentation, embrace those fragments, and thus validate herself. Recognizing rather than denying her pieces is often a woman's way to become "sole or whole" in a more feminocentric way. In effect, she makes a patchwork quilt of her life.

Elaine Showalter, in her essay "Piecing and Writing," connects patchwork quilts and writing in North American short stories. She asserts that

A knowledge of piecing, the technique of assembling fragments into an intricate design, can provide the contexts in which we can interpret and understand the forms, meanings, and narrative traditions of American women's writing. (227)

Alice Walker's use of the quilt metaphor in The Color Purple illustrates just such a connection.

Walker is herself a quilter who integrates quilting and writing naturally into her daily routine, a mixture of activities that suggest cohesive fragmentation:

My good days were spent teaching, writing a simple history book for use in back child-care centers in Jackson, recording black women's autobiographies, making a quilt (African fabrics, Mississippi string pattern), completing my second book, a novel—and trying to become pregnant. ("One" 367)

Walker speaks specifically of the interdependence of writing and quilting in her essay "Writing The Color Purple ." After searching for a place where her characters would be comfortable enough to speak, Walker says, "I bought some beautiful blue-and-red-and-purple fabric . . . and a quilt pattern my mama swore was easy, and I headed for the hills" (358). As she waited for the characters and plot to take form in her mind, Walker worked on her quilt:

My quilt began to grow. And, of course, everything was happening. Celie and Shug and Albert were getting to know each other, coming to trust my determination to serve their entry . . . into the world to the best of my ability, and what is more—and felt so wonderful—we began to love one another. (358)

Quiltmaking, self-fashioning and the construction of a woman's text are all part of the same process, not only in the life of Alice Walker, but also within the text of The Color Purple.

Whether she uses old clothes or crisp new cottons, the quiltmaker begins work on her patchwork quilt by cutting or ripping her fabrics apart. Indeed, a patchwork quilt cannot come into existence without that rending. This deconstructive act is, paradoxically, also one of her most creative—an act of courage, necessity and faith. Tearing seems a singularly appropriate place to begin because being torn is so familiar an experience for women. We see this illustrated in the person of Celie.

Celie sees herself, both physically and emotionally, as living in irreconcilable fragments. She begins her narrative by writing "I am" which she then negates by crossing out (11), indicating her lack of self-confidence. We learn in the first few letters that her experience of life has been a series of tearings. She has been torn from childhood by Pa's incestuous rapes; torn from the two children she bears him when he takes them from her; and torn from the one person she loves, her sister Nettie, when she is forced into a marriage she doesn't want. Her life is a series of sacrifices—to Pa's destructive desires, to Nettie's safety, to Mister's needs and brutality. Each time the sacrifice is the same: herself. Celie has been fragmented into pieces which are given away to others, mostly at the insistence of the men who dominate her.

Celie's early experience illustrates Luce Irigaray's theory that patriarchal society puts value on women only to the degree that they serve the purpose of commodities of exchange between men. "For woman," says Irigaray, "is traditionally a use-value for man, an exchange value among men; in other words, a commodity" (31). "Celie's fragmentation is most strongly reinforced," says Daniel Ross in a 1988 article, "by the way her stepfather presents her as less than a whole woman to her future husband, convincing him to marry her because "God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed it or clothe it" (75). Celie's enforced hysterectomy has reduced her from person to commodity. Pa gives Celie to Mr.___ as little more than a convenient labor-saving device. "Men make commerce of them [women], but they do not enter into any exchanges with them" (Irigaray 172).

Celie's negated "I am" is problematic in ways she can hardly imagine—there is deep wisdom in her early refusal of a sense of self as single and whole. That way of establishing her identity confirms her status in an order of rational dualism that already categorizes her as "other." The single "I" forces a woman to make choices, not only between self and other, but also between the different pieces of herself. A woman in Celie's position is damaged not strengthened by embracing one part of herself at the expense of denying other parts. She must choose, as Josephine Donovan points out in "Towards a Woman's Poetics," between bad and worse:

The harassed woman is forced into a schizophrenic response: either she can remain identified with her body which has been objectified as a tool for male purposes, in which case she denies her mind and her spiritual self; or she can deny the body and consider the mind the real self. The latter entails an autistic withdrawal from the everyday public world, a silent living thing. (101)

Celie is caught in just such a trap. She defends herself against the physical abuse of rape and beatings by withdrawing into autism, not only from Mr.___, but also from a sense of herself as a person with feelings. "He beat me like he beat the children," she says of Mr.___ in an early letter, "It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man" (30). As a piece of wood, she has no voice of her own. She can only echo back the terms of her oppression, as we see in the same letter when Harpo asks her why she is stubborn. She replies, "Just born that way, I reckon" (30), accepting Mr.___'s estimation of her.

As well as suppressing her feelings, she has disassociated herself from her body. After two children and years of marriage, she admits to Shug that she's never enjoyed sex. "I don't like it at all. He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain't there" (79). Shug responds that Celie is therefore still a virgin. In other words, she has not yet identified herself in any positive way with her body.

Her way to a healthy sense of self comes neither from living as disjointed pieces nor forging a single "I," but in a route that lies between those alternatives. She begins to connect the fragments of herself by connecting with other women. Daniel Ross points to the incident in which Shug helps Celie look at her genitals for the first time as the starting place on that journey. Shug does indeed help Celie to recognize and accept her body, but before she is ready to do this, she has taken an earlier step towards self-acceptance with another woman: Sofia. In the novel's first reference to quiltmaking, Celie and Sofia move through confrontation to reconciliation with each other. Their joint quiltmaking marks the beginning of Celie's journey to selfhood.

By working together, Celie and Sofia break the power of a system of social exchange between men predicated on the use of women as commodities. In order for the system to work, women must remain separate from each other:

[W]omen . . . no longer relate to each other except in terms of what they represent in men's desire, according to the forms this imposes on them. Among themselves, they are separated by his speculations. (Irigaray 188)

Celie has been separated from women all her life, but that changes when she quilts with Sofia. The scene, however, does not begin auspiciously. In an effort to control his powerful wife, Sofia, Harpo asks Celie for advice. She repeats the patriarchal attitude: "Beat her. I say" (43), thus participating in what Helene Cixous calls men's "greatest crime against women":

Insidiously, violently, they [men] have led them [women] to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves. (310)

When Sofia discovers Celie's betrayal she storms over to Celie's house to confront her. The scene is set in rupture and violence, that between Harpo and Sofia, that between the two women, and that within Celie herself as she thinks with shame of the advice she gave Harpo. The honest communication that ensues, as Celie admits her guilt and asks Sofia's forgiveness, is the setting for the two of them to begin their quiltmaking. Putting together the fragments of "messed up curtains," torn in a fight between Sofia and Harpo, the two women reconfigure their bond. Guilt is transformed into quilt as discarded fabric and rejected women are sewn into something valuable and beautiful. As professional quilter Radka Donnell-Vogt says,

The quilt is first of all a speculum by which a woman looks into herself, and when she finds her unknown and disregarded beauty, she can find also the courage to prevail along with others for her share in the world. (56)

Ozzie Mayers, in "The Power of the Pin," argues that sewing is "a redemptive act" (671) for Celie. Sewing is important, but her quilting is the crucial initial act of redemption as Celie, working with pieces of fabric, begins to actively create herself out of the fragments of her life. Layers of fragments exist in that first quilt. Celie starts with curtains that function through their ability to both separate and come together, for the wholeness of curtains lies in their ability to also be fragments. The curtains come to her already torn in a fight between Sofia and Harpo, which makes a second layer of fragments. The fabric is further cut to make up the patchwork pattern, so that the quilt she makes is composed of at least three layers of fragments. Celie's quilt becomes a celebration of fragments, a recognition and reverence for pieces. The self she is creating, like the patchwork quilt she makes, is not so much an integrated whole as it is a vindication of fragments, a celebration of multiplicity.

Celie asserts her right to choose, for the first time, when she begins quilting with Sofia. She chooses a quilt pattern, the two women choose to be sisters, and they choose to work together. Those choices are signified in the quilt design Celie selects, a pattern called "Sister's Choice" (47). (This is a traditional pattern documented by Hall and Kretsinger in their 1935 classic survey of quilt patterns, The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America.) By asserting her right to choose, even in such small ways, Celie takes the first step towards living autonomously.

She is also connected with another woman through her choice of quilt pattern. Although she is not consciously aware of it, Celie is choosing connection with her beloved Nettie, for at the heart of the pattern "Sister's Choice" is a nine-square patch which is the design Corrine chooses to make her African quilt.

Sister's Choice Nine-square block

Celie and Sofia's quiltmaking is a process of healing because they are no longer passive victims who are torn. Quiltmaking turns being torn into tearing, turns object into subject. Active creation replaces passive victimization as the two women, their sisterhood reaffirmed, set about constructing a pattern of their choice out of the fragments of their lives. Celie's decision to make the quilt is thus the turning point in her life because it is the first step to her own empowerment via connection with other women.

Although Celie and her situation have not changed, her perception has. She is still Celie, the curtains are still messed up. But instead of rejecting them, and by extension herself, because they're in pieces, she accepts them by working with them. This change in perception is reflected in two images which embody both separation and wholeness in the way they function. The scissors Pa carries with him when he makes his sexual advances on the young Celie under the pretense of wanting his hair cut form the first image. Like the material cut by a pair of scissors, her sex has been sharply separated, cut into by Pa's rape and then forced open by the birth of her two babies.

The curtains from which Sofia and Celie make their quilt are the second, contrasting image. They also open and close, fulfilling their function, paradoxically, through their ability to find wholeness while also being fragments. They are complete in themselves as they draw together or softly separate, unlike the scissors which need an object to cut to do their work. Celie's choice to interact with the curtains is not accidental. Her association with the curtains is the beginning of her sexual identity in a way we see more explicitly set out by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One. Irigaray describes a woman's sex as two lips in continuous contact with each other so that a woman is "neither one or two" (26). Male oneness or wholeness is alien to woman. If she tries to attain that oneness, she is, like Celie, "put in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess" (30). Irigaray warns women not to "renounce the pleasure that she gets from the nonsuture of her lips" (30); in other words, to accept rather than reject her fragmentation.

The process of making fragments creates a necessary space, one that is often disruptive and destabilizing. From this place, a woman can begin her task of self-creation. "No woman can assume herself because she has yet to create herself, (593)" says Myra Jehlen. In order to begin that process, Jehlen says, "all women must destroy in order to create" (583). The space between fragments gives her room to do that. Quilt artist Radka Donnell-Vogt expresses that same need for space in her creative process:

The double function of quilt-making, to help collect one's thoughts and provide an image of spatial integration that does not freeze one in one place as the observation of stationary paintings, was essential in giving me a base for exploring my situation as a woman and as an artist. (49)

Fragmentation is also an acknowledgement of that common condition of women's lives: interruption. Celie's life, her quilt, and her writing are all made up of discontinuous pieces. Her chosen form of self-expression, letter writing, consists of short, discrete units of discontinuous prose, broken off and interrupted by the demands on her life. Yet Walker makes that discontinuity into a shapely narrative. Celie works with fragments of text as well as textiles.

As one who puts fragments together, Celie becomes what Levi-Strauss designates a bricoleur; that is, a marginal figure who transforms the materials the world has rejected, turning

[B]ack to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it, and, before choosing between them, to index possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problems. (18)

But rather than confine her to a structuralist masculine model, we can see Celie as one who practices what Miriam Schapiro calls femmage, the feminine equivalent of bricolage. This "process of collecting and creatively assembling odd or seemingly disparate elements into a functional, integrated whole," is distinguished from bricolage in that, "Femmage denotes an aesthetic of connection and relationships" (Turner 7). Relationship is essential to femmage because it is essential to women. And appropriate relationship with herself and others is Celie's quest. Celie's quiltmaking gives her constant opportunities to make relationships—between herself and the fabric, between the pieces of fabric themselves, and between herself and other quilters. By the end of the novel her relationships have extended well beyond her quilting. She has successfully created friendships with her ex-husband, her lover, her children, and most importantly, with herself.

Quiltmaking, then, is a paradigm for the way Celie reinscribes her life. What begins with quilting messed up curtains, culminates in facing up to Mr.___. Celie takes all the pieces of her life with him, pulling them together in an assertion of her "I am" that adds up to "You a lowdown dog is what's wrong, I say. It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation" (180). Creation for Celie, of course, is self-creation. When she examines her life, her fragments parallel those messed up curtains: "I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I'm here" (187). That last affirmation, "But I'm here," is the thread that sews the rejected pieces together, transforming them from worthless to valuable. Cixous speaks of those same conjoined fragments, dancing in a heavenly consort in "The Laugh of the Medusa":

If she [woman] is a whole, it's a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that's any more of a star than the others. (317)

When the patchwork quilt is finished, the pattern and stitching continue to stand as a constant reminder that this "whole" is made up of many fragments. Wholeness is an illusion, an artificial construct, that has been replaced by the more viable cohesion of fragments.

The power of the quilt, then, is to transform lives from disparate fragments to a self-fashioned conjoining of pieces. This process becomes a way of life for Celie as the novel concludes:

Me and him and Shug sitting out on the porch after dinner. Talking. Not talking. Rocking and fanning flies. Shug mention she don't want to sing in public no more—well, maybe a night or two at Harpo's. Think maybe she retire. Albert say he want her to try on his new shirt. I talk about Henrietta. Sofia. My garden and the store. How things doing generally. So much in the habit of sewing something I stitch up a bunch of scraps, try to see what I can make. (249)

What she is making, along with the bunch of scraps, is her own life.

Celie's struggle is more dramatic than many women experience, but her journey is a familiar one. All of us in academia, especially those involved in feminist studies, are quiltmakers. We are creating a space for ourselves in order to gather up our fragments into the construction of a pattern to our own liking. Cheryl Torsney uses the quilt metaphor in a recent survey of the history and present status of feminist criticism:

Multipatterned and multicolored, stitched by women and men from various racial and national cultures with various critical predispositions, the feminist critical practice forms a sort of critical quilt, an alternative to the critical methods of the past. Moreover, like a pieced quilt, feminist literary criticism is clearly meant for everyday use, in readings of all genres in all periods. (191)

Fragmentation and diversity become not a limitation but a trademark, a strength, a defining characteristic of feminist critical theory. We have a lot in common with Celie.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 1986. 309-321.

Donnell-Vogt, Radka. Lives and Works: Talks with Women Artists, ed. Lynn F. Miller and Sally S. Swenson. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. 37-56.

Donovan, Josephine. "Towards a Women's Poetics." Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 98-109.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jehlen, Myra. "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism." Signs 6.4 (1984): 575-601.

Levi-Strauss. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Mayers, Ozzie J. "The Power of the Pin: Sewing as an Act of Rootedness in American Literature." College English 50.6 (October 1988): 664-680.

Ross, Daniel. "Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple." Modern Fiction Studies 34.1 (Spring 1988): 69-84.

Showalter, Elaine. "Piecing and Writing." Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 223-247.

Torsney, Cheryl B. "The Critical Quilt: Alternative Authority in Feminist Criticism." Journal of Narrative Techniques, 16, 1986. 220-230.

Turner, Kay. "Mexican American Home Altars: Towards Their Interpretation." Aztlan 13.1 and 2 (Spring and Fall, 1982): 310-323.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.

---. "One Child of One's Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s)." In Search of our Mother's Garden. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 361-383.

---. "Writing The Color Purple." In Search of our Mother's Garden. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 355-360.

Yeats, W.B. Selected Poetry, ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Macmillan, 1965.

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WORKS CITED

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 1986. 309-321.

Donnell-Vogt, Radka. Lives and Works: Talks with Women Artists, ed. Lynn F. Miller and Sally S. Swenson. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. 37-56.

Donovan, Josephine. "Towards a Women's Poetics." Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 98-109.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jehlen, Myra. "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism." Signs 6, No. 4 (1984). 575-601.

Levi-Strauss. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Mayers, Ozzie J. "The Power of the Pin: Sewing as an Act of Rootedness in American Literature." College English, Vol. 50, No. 6, October 1988. 664-680.

Ross, Daniel. "Celie in the Looking Glass: The Desire for Selfhood in The Color Purple." Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 34, No.1, Spring 1988. 69-84.

Showalter, Elaine. "Piecing and Writing." Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 223-247.

Torsney, Cheryl B. "The Critical Quilt: Alternative Authority in Feminist Criticism." Journal of Narrative Techniques, 16, 1986. 220-230.

Turner, Kay. "Mexican American Home Altars: Towards Their Interpretation." Aztlan, Vol.13 No. 1 and 2 (Spring and Fall, 1982). 310-323.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.

---. "One Child of One's Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s)." In Search of our Mother's Garden. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 361-383.

---. "Writing The Color Purple." In Search of our Mother's Garden. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 355-360.

Yeats, W.B. Selected Poetry, ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Macmillan, 1965.