The politics of visuality in Beloved and The Colour Purple

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The brutal history of slavery in America makes literary engagement with slave experience a potent exercise. Contemporary writers seeking to engage with this history face many difficulties, writing in the wake of the traditional slave narrative which was characterised by limited perspective and reliance on externally verifiable factors. This dissertation considers two works, Beloved and The Color Purple, by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker respectively, authors who write against the template of slave narratives by offering intimate and subjective points of view to inform the story-making process. Drawing on visual theory, I consider the politics of visibility, that is to say, the privilege and disempowerment manifest in visual relations. I examine the ways in which visuality extends the efficacy of Morrison and Walker's fictional project, by contributing to a narrative form which privileges the interior life of its characters. Through their story-making process, the novels of my study offer the opportunity both to challenge and to extend an understanding of the politics of visuality. I examine how the novels encourage alternative lines of sight which, by means of their investment in an interior perspective, unsettle a disempowering visual binary and suggest a way for contemporary authors to write into the narrative gaps of history. An alternative perspective offers insight into the imagined lives of obscured or marginalised people and, ultimately, brings a fraught history into view in a way that is life-affirming and empowering.