The Color Purple has been on my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) list for some time and after another recent recommendation I seemed to see its name pop up everywhere as if some unseen force was urging me to read it once and for all. Winner of The Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award, it is widely regarded as a modern literary classic. It is the life of Celie as told by Celie in the form of diary entries, letters to God, and correspondence between her and her sister, Nettie, as Celie grows into womanhood in the deep south of rural Georgia. In this setting of poverty, The Color Purple explores the social rank of black women, and the violence and exploitation they experience at the hands of black men and white-folk more generally.
In much the same way that the narrative ‘voice’ of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is pitch-perfect, so-too is the narrative voice of Celie, an uneducated black girl of fourteen. Set from the 1930’s onwards, Walker immediately sets a depth of meaning, setting, character and atmosphere in the harrowing opening. We know where we are, and what trouble our protagonist is in. Like many classics, the opening line is wonderful and memorable:
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
This ‘advice’ from her father-figure ‘Pa’ inspires Celie’s letters to God, for she has no-one else to turn to, letters that begin with her harrowing rape as a fourteen-year-old girl by ‘Pa’. It is an uncompromising opening. Celie subsequently bears two babies as a result of these rapes. Her letters continue as she tries to understand her life’s misery. When her children disappear, Celie believes Pa has murdered them – that is until she meets a young girl sometime later in town one day who she believes might be her own Olivia. Celie is forced to marry a man she refers to as “Mr ———.” He originally wanted to marry her younger sister Nettie. His treatment of Celie as his wife is terrible, often beating her, explaining to his sensitive son Harpo that he beats her “cause she my wife.” Nettie comes to live with her married sister to escape the troubles of ‘Pa’, but finds life with Celie and ‘Mr’ no better. ‘Mr’ tries to seduce her and upon failing, Nettie is forced to leave, promising to write to her sister. Yet Celie never receives any letters and assumes that Nettie has died.
Meanwhile Harpo has married Sophia, a strong-willed woman, who fights back when Harpo tries to beat her – following the example set by his father. For poor Harpo, who is portrayed as a real simpleton, (some would say, buffoon!), this is the expected behaviour for a husband. But Sophia fights tooth and nail with him and he always comes off worse-for-wear. Celie initially encourages Harpo’s behaviour; she is both envious and inspired by Sophia’s defiance, but initially envy wins. Celie soon recognises her error and is indeed confronted by Sophia. They soon become friends and Celie has a welcome ally.
But it is only with the arrival of Shug Avery, a showy singer and Mr’s lover – the woman he always wanted to marry – that Celie begins to see a different path for her troubled life open up before her. Shug has arrived sick and initially treats Celie with the disrespect that ‘Mr’ constantly displays to her. But when Shug finds out that ‘Mr’ beats Celie, she decides to stay and protect her. Their burgeoning friendship, indeed love, finds root. Shug stands up to ‘Mr’ and Celie is beguiled by this larger-than-life spirit that has come into their midst and the power she holds. Shug helps Celie to realise her inner strength, her sexuality, and her spirit. A great bond is built between them, a bond which is further strengthened and threatened by Shug’s later relationships with Grady and Germaine.
Things with Celie and ‘Mr’ reach a turning point after Shug asks Celie about her sister Nettie. Nettie’s letters have been intercepted by the cruel ‘Mr’ and hidden in a trunk which Shug knows about. The finding of her long-lost sister Nettie’s letters, so cruelly hidden by her husband ‘Mr’, is particularly moving, and marks a pivotal segment of Celie’s story. Enraged by his deception, Celie is propelled to confront ‘Mr’, and with Shug leaves him, bound for Memphis where Shug sings and Celie begins to make money from sewing pants. These pants are worn mostly by women reflecting their increasing power and status in a time when women wore dresses; it is a further emblem of their liberation. There are other truths and Nettie’s stories of Africa in her letters, as well as other characters (such as Harpo’s relationship with ‘Squeak’ which further serve to highlight the gap between men and women) which I won’t explore here, leaving them for you to enjoy.
Much of the book deals with Celie’s path toward a more empowered life. Much of it also deals with her search for God and a form of God that fits with her understanding of the world. It is something she and the liberated Shug Avery talk about a lot:
“Well, us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking about him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?) Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.
“Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr —–‘s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”
Celie’s ‘old white man’ contrasts with Shug’s view of God:
“I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”
It is an awakening that allows Celie to truly find her own liberated self and is a large part of Celie’s transformation. At first, God is a separate male being from her existence, whereas in the end, God is an ‘It’ and is part of everything around her and in her. Her letters stop being addressed to God and are instead addressed to Nettie, right up until the final letter which is again addressed to God, in thanks for her life and the good that has come into it.
So what of the colour purple itself? Why purple? Purple is the colour of many subtle things in the novel – the eggplant bruises of beatings, the colour of Celie’s private parts (and thus a place of both violation and liberation), the colour of wildflowers in the fields, and the hinted-at regal purple of God too. It is an undercurrent to Celie’s life and part of her final transformation noted above where she wonders at where this colour has sprung from.
Eventually, Celie and ‘Mr’ reconcile, and whilst he misguidedly asks her to ‘re-marry’ him, she declines, deciding instead for friendship, and so they sit on the porch and sew, he helping her with her endeavours. The transformation or enlightenment of ‘Mr’ after Celie and Shug’s departure is stunning and raises some interesting debating points. Indeed, the characterisation of men has been criticised by some for its single-dimension, portraying men as either abusive (‘Pa’ and ‘Mr’), or stupid (Harpo). I’m wavering on this point – I feel as though the abusive behaviour of these men to the women in their lives is, unfortunately, convincing, albeit so universal, it seems, in all men. However, I found the transformation of ‘Mr’ from mean-spirited bastard to cuddly, wisdom-sharing knitting partner of Celie as bordering on improbable, and wildly simplistic.
I also found the co-incidental view of God shared by both Shug and the distant Nettie to be a little forced, almost as if Walker’s view of God had to be shared by all her characters. But this is a quibble, and acceptable given Shug’s free-wheeling exuberance and Nettie’s experiences of the Olinka tribe. Also, for me, the section on Africa seemed overly long (though not indulgent by any means). What it does offer though, is a different perspective on the theme of displacement – racial, economic, and familial. The Olinka tribe, their view of God – the roof-leaf, so crucial to their sense of self, its destruction emblematic of their plight – allows Walker to explore the source of slavery and the disempowerment of a whole people – a disempowerment which in both Walker’s and my own world-view affects humanity as a whole. But, all-in-all, these are very slight drawbacks for me.
For those who love a happy ending, particularly for a protagonist whose life is so ‘impoverished’ when we meet them, you will love The Color Purple. It is beautifully written, and the female characters really ‘sing’. It is suffused with a humour that perhaps only women can muster in lives of such difficulty. It falls short of being a true masterpiece for me, but the story of Celie’s triumphant transformation, from uneducated, impoverished, and violated girl, to a woman of empowerment, independent economic means, and spiritual liberation is an inspiring one, full of the power of the human spirit, and well-worthy of the praise the book has widely received.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
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