The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, follows African-American sisters Celie and Nettie through the hardships women faced in the early 1900s, before the African-American Civil Rights Movement, under the oppression of sexism and racial segregation. If you have seen the movie (with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) or the hit Broadway musical, you will surely understand just how masterful this work is.
Admittedly, I initially had some difficulty adjusting to Walker’s literary style, but this is simply because the diary/letter format was written so clearly in the voice of the characters, particularly Celie. Indeed, the difference between Celie’s condensed, pointedly un-educated voice and Nettie’s progressively eloquent style is a very powerful tool to show just how differently their lives pan out.
There are simply too many things to talk about with this novel, and I don’t really know where to begin. Should I discuss the religious discussions in the text? The differing attitudes towards God and their reflections on the expectations of society? The white-man Jesus and whiter bearded God and Christianity’s slow burning and unwitting racism? And what of Celie’s relationship with men? And women? Just see how the husband she is forced to marry has no given surname, and is simply referred to as Mr -, as is her husband’s father. A simple yet effective tool to show how she views all men in the same light, yet we know exactly who she refers to every time, and need no name to feel like we are sitting in the same room as them.
A character I particularly admired was Sofia, played in the film by Oprah Winfrey. She was perhaps Walker’s greatest tool of addressing the societal attitudes towards men and women. When a woman stands up for herself, why is this considered masculine? Why is she now “wearing the trousers”? Why must the woman clean pots and the man make sure they’re spotless? She is undoubtedly the strongest person in the novel, and goes through the worst hardships (imprisonment, slavery, degradation, physical abuse), and the gradual decline in her health and spirit are arguably the most tragic. Yet, against all odds, she still comes out on top, and demonstrates the finest example of fighting the good fight and maintaining a supportive inner dialogue when external voices are telling you that you’re worthless.
Another topic beautifully discussed is Celie’s love for lounge singer Shug Avery. Her sexuality is never admonished, but it is an important factor in the story, considering attitudes towards homosexuality, not just then, but now.
And then there’s the philosophical discussions in the text! This is the most interesting factor for me. The discussions of God, and of nature, of sexuality, and of men, women, slavery, are often discussed for the sake of discussion, to ask questions, to suggest answers, to learn, which I personally love. But it seems to me (and is reflected in the attitudes of the characters), that many don’t appreciate the luxury of existential thought. But when Mr – finally questions his purpose in life, it seems to Celie, and to me, that this is the first time we gain an empathy for him. Perhaps he isn’t such a bad guy after all. After all, none of us are born bad. We are only shaped by what we see, and how we are taught. Celie has not had the luxury of learning much, so she is like a child. We learn with her.
On many occasions, just seeing the film is a justifiable response to my suggestion of reading the book, but not this time. Read the book. Feel its roots. Experience the Color Purple. Delve into thought. The end may even bring a tear to your eye. It did mine.
My rating: 5/5