The Color Purple
by Alice Walker
Genre: classic, feminism, historical fiction, African American
1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1983 The National Book Award for Fiction (USA)
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number seventeen because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.
REVIEW – very detailed and filled with spoilers
This book doesn’t hold back and starts right off with a shocking scene of child abuse and rape that sets the tone for the rest of the book and gradually grows above it into a surprisingly sweet and uplifting tale of friendship, emancipation, and acceptance. You can always feel hope simmering between the lines of this book, an undefeatable strength and grace of these women. It is one of the many books this year that have deeply touched me and I can’t recommend it more.
The Color Purple takes the vilest parts of human nature and defeats it through acts of love and friendship. Women may be physically weaker and often unprivileged but their cooperation and mutual support makes them rise above their limitations thereby uplifting the rest of society as well. What a powerful message! It would be so easy to utterly vilify the scores of abusive and negligent men we meet but the book shows us that they are victims of a system as well and that showing them another way and supporting them on their road to enlightenment is the only right thing to do. Tackling themes of racism, misogyny or just sexism, but also social norms and domestic abuse, poverty, this book will show you just how closely interconnected these are and what it takes to break free.
“Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
Celie is our protagonist whose diary entries and letters we read throughout the book. We first meet her aged 14 and a victim of abuse in her home where she becomes a surrogate mother to the rest of her siblings. She is immediately someone whom we feel deeply about. You can’t but like Celie, her outlook in life and her silent strength. She may be abused and without power but she still has a will of her own, timid as she may be. Her sister Nettie is the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally and just knowing she matters to someone gives her enough strength to keep on living. Even when her two children, forced upon her by rape, are taken away from her and she herself is sold to a widower to take care of his house and children, and to occasionally function as a bed-warmer, she does not lose herself.
Albert, her new husband, is more like her owner than a man taking care of her. He lets his children boss her around and she can’t do a thing because she knows she’ll be beaten if she tries to discipline them. Thankfully Nettie comes to live with her in the new household fleeing the predatory nature of their father. It does not take long before unwelcome advances by Albert force Nettie away as well but not before she has taught Celie to read and learn. Nettie is advised to seek help with a woman Celie met in town and who is a foster mother to one of Celie’s children. She promises to write but no letter reaches Celie, so she begins to think her sister is dead.
“He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man.”
The cycle of poor decisions continues as Albert’s children grow up – the girls find a man to take them away, soon having children of their own, while the eldest son sticks closer to home. Harpo marries Sofia, an outspoken Amazon of a woman, and they have five children is a short time. He is a kinder, more gentle man than his father but the way Sofia disregards his words makes him feel emasculated and he tries to beat her into submission. This ends badly for him since Sofia is physically stronger than him and far more determined to end the fight as a winner. The marriage is soon in tatters and Sofia often stays with her sisters. It is heartbreaking to see the once happy couple become so miserable by some arbitrary social norms and the use of violence as a solution. I did not find the reverse situation of Sofia brutalising her husband any more palatable than Albert brutalising Celia. It is just wrong and I can’t believe children growing up in such circumstances can thrive. As if poverty and race itself weren’t stumbling blocks enough. 😦
Albert is in love with a jazz singer Shug Avery and he is prepared to turn Celie into a slave to this woman. He brings his old flame to his wife to nurse through an illness many consider to be of venereal kind. It is most likely just a rumour started by jealous townsfolk since Shug does things her own way and takes no consideration to public sentiment – she has a singing career and three children out of wedlock (they are Albert’s). Initially Shug is dismissive of Celie when in the grip of her illness that I’d pronounce to be some kind of pneumonia since it’s connected with fevers and loss of appetite. Shug even declares Celie ugly but the two women become close friends once Shug learns more about the kind Celia and her hard life both in the past and present. When Celie describes their sex life your heart just breaks – he climbs atop her, does his business and falls asleep and she’s made to feel like a used toilet. Shug rightly can hardly recognize the man Celia describes as her Albert and she begins to pay close attention to his attitude towards the shy woman, using his love for her as a tool to protect Celie.
I was so glad that finally someone came along who does not let abuse fly in their presence – even Sofia did not do much to help Celie despite her bravado. Shug is the one who brings Celie out of her shell and who supports her as a friend throughout her life. The two are very close and even become lovers at some point. I’d say they both heal something broken in each other and I found their transition from friends to lovers and friends again to be quite natural. I just loved them and their conversations – they have the most heartfelt moments and when they discussed nature of god, I had to hold myself back from jumping up crying YES, THIS IS WHAT I THINK TOO. God is not a man but creative power, some unifying force.
“Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up the flowers, wind, water, a big rock.”
Shug decides to stay with Celie since Albert doesn’t hit her when she’s there and starts to sing in the juke joint Harpo builds in his empty house. Her career is revitalised by performing there and everyone is happy. Even Albert begins to look differently at Celie when he sees just how close the two women are.Then one day Sofia gets in trouble by speaking back to a white woman and taking a swing at her husband who is none other than the mayor. Sofia is thrown into jail where she is so brutalised by the system that she is just a ghost of her usual self. The racism shows its ugly face in this segment of the book. The treatment of the black population is appalling. Sofia is sentenced to 12 years in prison where she’s nothing more than slave labour living in horrendous conditions. The only thing the family can come up with to help her is to trick the system into believing that a greater punishment for Sofia would be to work as a maid to the woman who got her in trouble in the first place.
Harpo’s new woman Squeak is mixed race – her white father is the Sherriff’s brother, so she’s the one to go and speak on Sofia’s behalf. What happens next will make your blood boil and freeze with ice at the same time. The upstanding Sherriff uncle rapes his illegitimate niece like it is standard practice – to put her in place for acknowledging their blood tie. I was speechless even though the book has delivered one disgusting thing after another. I just didn’t expect it at all and the reactions of the other black people made it clear it was nothing new or even unexpected from the white populace. WHAT?! Are you effing kidding me?! I can’t even…
Sofie does end up working for the mayor’s wife and the treatment she is subjected to there is hardly better than the jail, but at least she is better fed. I always have trouble wrapping my mind around slavery and southern attitude towards black servants – I just can’t believe anyone would treat another person like that. She was kept away from her children! If you don’t like black people, don’t invite them into your home or employ them but also don’t harass them when they live their lives in peace. At the same time don’t expect them to feel grateful to be given crumbs from your table or for your suffering their ‘polluting presence’ in your home. Just NO. The double standards, the hypocrisy, the sheer exploitation of black people by the supposedly morally superior white race make me want to hurl. I’m so glad I have none of American white people’s guilt on my shoulders.
“When the missionaries got to the part bout Adam and Eve being naked, the Olinka peoples nearly bust out laughing. Especially when the missionaries tried to make them put on clothes because of this. They tried to explain to the missionaries that it was they who put Adam and Eve out of the village because they was naked. Their word for naked is white. But since they are covered by color they are not naked. They said anybody looking at a white person can tell they naked, but black people can not be naked because they can not be white.”
The bright side of this book are Nettie’s letters. She found the woman Celie told her about and entered the employ of her husband, reverend Samuel. By some good luck she follows them to Africa where they work as missionaries. Corrine, reverend’s wife, is the foster mother of Celie’s two children, Adam and Olivia. Nettie is glad to be close to them since they are the only tie to her sister. She is also fascinated with the Olinka tribe, their outlook on life, god, and education. She writes many deep letters about the nature of society, gender roles, and religion that I found utterly fascinating. She is ultimately disillusioned with the work of missionaries in Africa and horrified by the exploitation of large corporations, the displacement of the tribes, the rising tension and poverty in a once thriving community. I liked her letters very much and their contrast with Celie’s life in America.
There is some tension between Corrine and Nettie once the children begin to resemble their aunt more and more but this is quickly resolved when the truth comes out. Samuel revels to a shocked Nettie that the man she thought her father is only her stepfather. She is relieved that Celie’s children aren’t a result of incest even though she loved them just for being Celie’s wonderful, kind, and intelligent kids. When the situation in Africa becomes too dangerous years later, she decides to go back home, now Samuel’s wife.
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
Celie in the mean time has found out that Albert is keeping Nettie’s letters from her. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back ad she is so enraged that she’s prepared to kill him and it is only Shug who prevents the tragedy. Still, Celie is done with him and she takes Shug’s offer to live with her and her new husband Grady in Memphis. Even Squeak goes away with them to pursue her singing career.
Before she goes, Celie curses Albert, airing all her grievances and the abuse he put her through. He is speechless but also afraid of her and the way something almost supernatural has come over her in her grief. Even Shug is scared for a moment but I’ve never seen a more charged and significant moment in a book. It was glorious.
“I curse you, I say. What that mean? He say.
I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.
He laugh. Who you think you is? He say. You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.”
Celie finally uses her talent for sewing to open her own business and become independent. When she reconnects with Nettie through letters, her life hits a new high note. At the death of her stepfather, the property he kept away from her comes into her possession, making her doubly independent. Meanwhile, Albert has learned the error of his ways and gradually the two get over the past and are united in their love of Shug. Their understanding of each other, acceptance and friendship is just wonderful and such a powerful message as well. As I’ve noted at the start of this lengthy post, the transformation is fantastic and the mutual respect nothing short of miraculous. They could have had this from the start but social pressure and sheer selfishness blocked communication. How can someone be intimate with you if they never talk with you, get to know you? How can society flourish if people that are family don’t respect each other?
The final scene in the book as the sisters reunite is bittersweet. They are both old now and Celie’s children grown and little more than strangers. Yet we know the family will pull through. How could they not when surrounded with so many good people? Just knowing you are not alone can be catalyst for your growth as a person and these people have learned to cooperate and be there for one another. It is a start of a tight-knit community that has shaken off the vestiges of slavery and that is aware of their rights as fellow human beings and citizens.
“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. It? I ask. Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ask. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you cam feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”
The Color Purple (1985) – MOVIE
There’s an amazing movie adaptation of the book directed by Steven Spielberg. It features an impressive cast of top notch African-American actors and a wonderful touch when dealing with problematic parts of the book. It is a very faithful adaptation as well in the early parts but it does change the ending for dramatic purposes in certain aspects. I heartily recommend it nonetheless.