The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
Winner: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1983; National Book Award
Original Publication: 1982
#272 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
I read The Color Purple years ago and recently re-read it so that I could write this review. I’m so glad that I did – it’s amazing the cultural perspective one gains between ages fifteen and thirty. Set in 1930’s Georgia, Celie is a poor, uneducated black woman who is sexually abused by her father. Her father has taken and sold both the babies she has had by him without telling her – she presumes that they are dead. She takes care of her younger brothers and sisters, and when she is around twenty, a man Celie refers to only as “Mr. _____” comes sniffing around, wanting to marry her much prettier younger sister Nettie. Celie’s father foists Celie onto him instead, and she winds up married to an abusive man she doesn’t love and taking care of his children by his former wife as well (Celie has no more of her own.) Celie’s childhood and young adulthood have been marked by a picture her Pa once brought home of a traveling burlesque dancer named Shug Avery. While everyone else dismisses Shug as a tramp, Celie looks at the photo and sees possibility – that is, the possibility of having independence, confidence, and the ability to defy men.
Celie’s husband reveals that he has been in love with Shug Avery for years (and has had three additional children by her), and announces his intentions to take in a sick Shug and make Celie nurse her back to health. Many wives would be jealous (refusal seems not to be an option that enters these women’s heads;) but given who it is, Celie is fascinated and agrees readily. Meanwhile, Celie’s stepson Harpo has married a woman, Sofia, who is a proverbial pistol – she doesn’t put up with any of the garbage Celie has come to expect from all men. Celie is both horrified and amused when Harpo attempts to beat some obedience into Sofia, and she fights back and beats him badly. Sofia’s feistiness is a source of awe and pride until she gets brutally beaten and jailed for sassing the mayor’s wife, and loses everything. Between Shug Avery and Sofia, Celie’s narrow world view is rapidly expanded to include possibilities she never imagined; both for herself and for the lot of women in general.
Eventually, Shug is well enough to leave for good and Celie realizes that she is in love with her. (Sexual experimentation between the two of them is implied, if not explicit.) Shug invites Celie to come to live with her in Memphis, in her large house. Buoyed by Sofia’s strength, Celie announces to Mr. _____ that she is leaving him and off they go, accompanied by Harpo’s new girlfriend, Squeak. The three of them live together in Memphis with Shug’s new husband, Grady, and Celie discovers an identity unto herself. She begins sewing pants and selling them, eventually starting her own successful business and supporting herself (a feat nearly unheard-of for any woman of the time, let alone a black woman.) I thought that the choice of product was interesting – pants as an object represent equality of women with men, illustrating Celie’s change from submission to men to confidence in herself. I thought it was well-chosen as a literary device.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, however, is that it is also a commentary on the nature of God. It’s an epistolary novel (written via letters or documents rather than told traditionally.) Celie begins telling her story as a series of letters to God, both hopeful and hopeless. “Dear God, why is this happening to me…” The more she sees of the world and its injustices, her letters to God transition into letters to her sister Nettie, whom she believes is dead, and she has all but denounced God. “Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown.” This further transitions into amending her relationship with God into one she can feel comfortable with; illustrated by in-depth conversations with Shug Avery about what God is and is not. She begins by blindly following the vengeful God of her fathers, casts off her entire past in an effort to find who she is, and rebuilds her relationship with God to fit with who she has become. Her later relationship to God is more spiritual than religious “People spend all their time trying to please God. Us don’t realize that God trying always to please us too. I think God don’t like it when us walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” (paraphrased) A reference, of course, to the title.
Fun Fact: The novel was turned into a 1985 movie, which was nominated for 11 Oscars. Whoopi Goldberg starred as Celie, Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, and Margaret Avery as Shug Avery. Danny Glover plays Mr. _____. The novel has consistently been on the American Library Association’s top 100 most-challenged books list, due to its explicit content (mostly for violence.)
Bother If: It’s certainly an engrossing, uplifting story. Celie is a strong female who works very hard to find out who she is, overcome her past, and rise above the societal limitations of her time. I haven’t given away many of the plot points above, so I think you will be surprised at the depth of the story if this is one you have not read. It is a definite modern classic, and provides an interesting glimpse at the American south during the depression era.
Don’t Bother If: You’re a grammar Nazi. Celie is illiterate and her grammar is accordingly poor. As the story is written by way of her letters, it is very distinctive in its use of her voice. Also, this is a pretty intense, heart-wrenching read. If one is particularly sensitive to themes of racial discrimination, incest, rape, domestic violence, lesbianism, female genitalia mutilation (African ritual), scarification, or any of the above, you might pass on this one. I think it’s definitely worth a read, and I didn’t feel that the descriptions of any of the above were terribly explicit, but the book hasn’t been repeatedly challenged for nothing.