Character Analysis in Developmental Psychology – A Case Study of Celie in The Color Purple

Introduction

The Color Purple, the runaway success by America’s prolific writer, Alice Walker, opens with a letter to God. The protagonist, Celie, seeks closure by writing to God as her life was falling apart; from rape to child abuse, she was horrified by the way things were during the slave days. Like most people of color, Celie was largely uneducated, as evidenced in the substandard English in the opening letter to God. Celie is not complaining rather she just seeks an audience with God since her faith in humanity was slowly drifting away.  Separated with the sister Nattie who had to flee the abusive slave master, Celie learns a thing or two about survival. As the plot unfolds, her spirit grows stronger as she learns perseverance. Her story is inspirational to say the least. The purpose of this paper is to apply human developmental psychology as espoused by various psychologists in the context of Celie’s life.

Psychological Application

The novel opens with a young Celie whose estimated age falls within Freud’s phallic stage and Erikson’s Initiative vs. Guilt developmental milestone. The existential question in the Initiative vs. Guilt phase is “Is it OK for Me to Do, Move, or Act?” As they begin to take note on the events occurring in the immediate environment, children become territorial and possessive, they begin to assert power and command control of the immediate environment. Breakthrough in this phase brings a feeling of productivity. Failure, on the other hand, results to guilt (Erikson, 1968). As seen in her struggles, Celie is not able to control what is happening around her; she feels she has failed to protect her sister and herself from the abusive figure identified only as Mister.

In Freud’s psychology, Celie also undergoes a sexual conflict phase. During this phase, the genital region is the child’s erogenous zone. As the children become more interested in their genitals as well as those of others, conflict arises. Freud designated and labeled this conflict as Oedipus complex (male) and the Electra complex (female). Due to the emergent fixation during this phase, the child develops a phallic character, which is resolute, reckless, self-assured, superficial and excessively vain and proud.  Struggling with sexual abuse has brought about failure to resolve Celie’s fixation at this stage, which causes her to be incapable or afraid of closeness and intimacy.

Freud proceeds to stipulate that resolution of the phallic ‘complex’ or fixation ushers in the latency period. This latency stage is not a psychosexual stage of development, however. Sexual drive lies dormant during this stage. Freud viewed latency as a phase of repression of erogenous impulses and sexual desires. Here, children focus the repressed libidal energy into other asexual pursuits such as athletics, same-sex friendships, and school. As she grows up, Celie is seen developing asexual relationships with the master’s mistress and her child as their caregiver. The mistress gives her hope and renews Celie’s spirit to overcome her tribulations. The mistress and her child are seen to have great impact in the woman into whom Celie becomes in the future. Freud notes that sexual repression does not last long, though, before puberty strikes and refocuses libidal energy back to the genitals (Allen & Marotz, 2003). This is not quite clear in the book but one would suppose so.

Celie also undergoes the human developmental milestone identified as ‘industry versus guilt as espoused by Erikson. This phase is characterized by this existential question: can I make it in the world of people and things? During this phase, children begin to recognize certain skills and special talents. They continue to discover other interests as they pursue their education. After discovering certain talents, they may choose the activities that help them pursue that interest, such as joining the swimming team or the athletics team. They begin to show interest to pursue certain extra-curricular activities. Success at this phase brings the feeling of productivity. However, if they do not get an avenue to discover and pursue their own talents in their own terms, they will develop a feeling of low self-esteem, self-loathing, lack of motivation, and lethargy. Erikson reiterates the need to give children an avenue to pursue their interests to avoid such crises (Erikson, 1968). Celie is seen to be productive since gender roles at the time required women and girls to be domestic workers. She is productive but this productivity does not pay and as such, she is unhappy and frustrated. Likewise, she does not feel appreciated in her endless effort.

Freud explains that as the child’s libido energy returns to the genitals, the hitherto interest in same sex friendship turns into the pursuit for heterosexual relationships. This is called the genital stage of sexual awareness. Children with lesser energy in form of unresolved psychosexual developments (fixation and other complexes) have a greater capacity to build normal relationships with others in the opposite sex. In the event that a child remains fixated since the phallic stage, their development will most probably be troubled since they will continue to struggle with further repression.

In view of the sexual horrors undergone by Celie, she is seen to have an unresolved sexual complex. Her inability to trust males overwhelms her for a while. Freud believed that successful completion of these stages is the transition into adulthood where other dimensions of human developmental milestones emerge (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2004).

Celie also undergoes Erikson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion developmental milestone. The existential question in this stage is: who am I and what can I be? As teenager now, Celie tries to develop a sense of personal identity. In developmental psychology, this marks Celie’s transition from childhood to adulthood. The transition is occasioned by what Erikson terms ‘identity crisis.’ The adolescent boys and girls are confronted by the dilemma of their optimal potential. The question of what constitutes them and their full potential consumes them characterized by the fear of adulthood and the responsibility and obligations that come with it. They are more predisposed to value the advice of their peers as opposed to that of their parents (Erikson, 1968). In the book, Celie is seen being closer to more people such as Shug. Due to her unresolved fixation and sexual complex, Celie is drawn into a homosexual relationship with Shug. Psychologists argue that victims of continued rape as children grow up loathing the culprit and the entire gender they identify with. This may be what drove Celie into homosexuality – this could also be the result of curiosity, as later psychologists espouse.

Erikson explains that during middle adulthood, the stage identified as ‘generativity vs. stagnation’. The existential question being: can I make my life count? This phase is characterized by the fear of becoming irrelevant, which as Erikson calls it ‘stuck in the midlife crisis’ (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2004). Those who are not productive enough stagnate as others continue to progress with a growing satisfaction with their accomplishments (sense of resourcefulness). As she struggles through this phase, Celie tries to make her life count. Her fundamental goal is to stand for something. She is committed towards making her life count. Her mission is for the emancipation of the girl child and women in general. Her motivation is that she could relate to the struggles that women underwent during the horrific slave days. She inherits vast land following the demise of Alphonso. She used this to find strength to return to her home. This indicates her dedication to make things count, beginning with the little things in life.

As the book draws to an end, Celie has managed to command respect from her former slave master who asks for her hand in marriage. Celie respectfully declines as her heart yearns for Shug. She is ultimately reunited with her sister following three decades of separation. In the late adulthood ages, Erikson’s final developmental milestone is “integrity v despair.” The existential question: is it ok to have been me? Adults begin tom reflect upon their lives wondering if they realized their full potential. Those who have a lot to show from the way they lived their lives are full of integrity while others who fell short of expectations wallow in the feeling of despair (Marcia, 1966). As curtails fall, Celie is a dignified woman with integrity as opposed to despair. She reunited with her sister and lover now owns property and she can die happily knowing she is a conqueror. She fulfills the integrity milestone in human developmental psychology.

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