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Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983)

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I first read The Color Purple when I was 19 years old, and I still remember it making an immense impression on me then. It’s one of the books I’d recommend to almost anyone. Nearly ten years later, I decided to re-read it, and I decided to do it with a group of people, because I wanted to hear about other people’s readings of this novel. That’s how the idea for this group read was born.

Since this epistolary novel is full of turns, I won’t say a lot about the plot. It’s far too rich and complex to summarise it in a few sentences. The Color Purple sets in when the protagonist, Celie, a black girl in the deep US South of the early 20th Century, is fourteen years old. Celie writes to God, because she has no one else to talk to, and the beginning of the novel is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. The Color Purple traces the lives of Celie and her family over several decades. Through her letters, Celie tells us about the birth and loss of her children, and about her forced marriage to a man who really wants to marry her sister, Nettie, but is actually in love with another woman altogether. This woman is Shug Avery, a glamorous singer. Through Shug, Celie slowly discovers real love. She learns to stand up for herself and to make herself a niche in a world that had previously been all but hostile. Celie’s her biggest grievance is the loss of her sister Nettie, whom she believes to be dead. In reality, though, Nettie has become a missionary in Africa, where she makes her own voyage of discovery – of different ways of spirituality, of different societies, and of different approaches to life altogether. Despite the harrowing developments in their lives, Celie and Nettie never lose hope. To be honest, in a time where living in Europe every time you turn on the TV or open a paper all you read about is crisis, I find this kind of optimism comforting: they always find something or someone that rekindles their faith in humanity.

As Iris already pointed out, The Color Purple is an extremely difficult book to write about. It touches on a vast variety of themes. To me, it doesn’t suffer from the themes vs. depth tradeoff problem I discussed recently (whereas for Caroline it does, so the jury is still out on that one). I felt that Alice Walker manages to handle this balancing act very well.

During the course of the novel, both sisters come to reconstruct their religious faith as well, an aspect that I found very interesting. They move away from the kind of faith advocated by religious institutions and more towards a holistic faith. As far as I’m aware, this development mirrors the development of Alice Walker’s own spirituality. Such developments and personal reconstructions of religious faith fascinate me. The way people adjust their faith to their personal circumstances and how it changes during the life course is something I find remarkable, because the fact that this happens, to me, illustrates that there is no absolute truth in this department, no matter how hard religious institutions might try to construe one.

The themes that struck me the most, however, were Walker’s discussion of lesbianism and her focus on the position of women in society. Both are of course intimately related and I think the aspect of The Color Purple that really jumped out at me this time around relates to both topics in a similar way. In his post, Geoff noted Alice Walker’s courage to discuss these themes in the 1980s. But imagine them at the time The Color Purple is set. If these themes were tricky at the time Walker wrote the novel, in the first half of the 20th Century they were impossible to discuss anywhere, not just in the South of the US or a missionary’s social environment. The way Celie comes to bloom in her sexual orientation, and the way Nettie comes to consider the position of women in and their importance for society are notions that are still so contested in some social environments today that communicating them trough the minds of two black women of the early 20th Century makes them all the more radical. Let me give you a (longish) example:

“Adam is the only boy who will speak to Olivia at school. They are not mean to her, it is just – what is it? Because she is where they are doing ‘boys’ things’ they do not see her. But never fear, Celie, Olivia has your stubbornness and clearsightedness, and she is smarter than all of them, including Adam, put together.

Why can’t Tashi come to school? she asked me. When I told her the Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

Indeed, they seem so radical that as I read along, I wondered how “realistically” we could expect such thinking given the societal constraints and reflexes of the time. I couldn’t help asking myself that question and thinking about it. In fact, I’m going to say that to me, this is an aspect that compromises the credibility of the plot to some extent. However, you may come to the conclusion that this doesn’t really matter. What Walker has to say is so important that how she says it only makes its impact stronger. What do the other group readers make of this aspect?

Caroline, for instance, discusses in her post that she felt like Alice Walker was preaching and trying too hard to educate. I’m going to argue that she’s right in the sense that The Color Purple is a novel with an educational mission. Sadly, it seems to me that many people still need a lot of education in this department. With my prescriptive tendencies, I’m going to say that if you feel like The Color Purple is preaching at you and trying to educate you about something you’ve already had plenty of education on, congratulations, you’ve moved beyond being in the target group of The Color Purple. I think this makes a great book for schools, and I know it’s on a lot of high school curricula in the States. I also think this is a good thing. If not a classic, I still believe it’s a very important book because of its themes.

However, finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon an aspect that struck me quite negatively, although Caroline already pretty much said it all very eloquently. The issue is the treatment of Africa through Nettie’s letters in The Color Purple. I find it schematic, over-generalising, and simplistic. While she can appreciate some aspects of the (fictional) African culture she comes in touch with, Nettie clearly views “the Africans” as inferior in many others. Indeed, this shines through in the quote I cited above, although I consider it important for other reasons. I find this very unfortunate, because it discredits The Color Purple to some degree by counteracting its own goal of advocating tolerance and equality. By generalising about Africa, it falls prey to what it is actually preaching against, and this compromises the book.

However, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Nettie’s plot is entirely superfluous, although I know it seemed that way to Caroline and also to Amanda of Dead White Guys, who reviewed The Color Purple a while ago. I think it does add a valuable dimension to Celie’s voice in some ways, by illustrating some points about gender and racial equality in more depth.

I have to say I immensely enjoyed re-reading The Color Purple. I just love Celie’s narrative voice, although I know some people find it very irritating. It will continue to be one of my favourite books, although I have to say I read it much more critically this time around, and noticed some inconsistencies about it that I hadn’t previously considered. Overall, as one of Caroline’s commenters also mentioned, I think The Color Purple is fantastic for younger readers. I don’t believe in shielding teenagers from the cruelties of the world, so I think it’s a perfect read for high school or just after, which was when I first read and came to love it.

Was this a re-read for anyone else and did you get the same feeling?

German title: Die Farbe Lila
Spanish title:  El color púrpura

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

9 thoughts on “Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983)

  1. I don’t think I gave enough credit to the religion aspect of the novel – you really hit it on the head with “The way people adjust their faith to their personal circumstances and how it changes during the life course is something I find remarkable.”

    It’s fascinating how we all pull out something different when we read the same novel.

    • Impossible to give everything credit that’s discussed in this novel in one post, Geoff! There’s just too much. And I agree with you, that’s part of the reason I wanted to do a group read on it because different people will discuss different aspects of it, and The Color Purple is a good book for that.

  2. I always look forward to books with educational mission, because I think no one in this world is perfect. We might know a lot of life aspects, but we often need to be reminded again and again. So, I’m glad I read this book, it reminds me (again) about the strength of love and faith. Thanks a lot for hosting the read along.

    I don’t know where I should put the link to my final thoughts, I already left it in the the group read posts.

    • True, Fanda, one can learn so much from reading. I wonder, though, whether it is really necessary to go on an educational “mission” like Alice Walker does with The Color Purple. Even though I like the book a lot, I can see why people would not like it because it’s mantra is “show and TELL” rather than “SHOW don’t tell”.

      Also, I just linked up the rest of your Color Purple-related post in the sticky post for this readalong. Thank you for participating!

  3. I think the fact that the narrative voice really irritated me is one of the biggest differences in how we view the novel.
    I would have minded it as mmuch if it had chnaged over the course of the novel but it stayed the voice of a child all through the novel.
    I felt the parts about Africa are in the books disfavour and even discredit it.
    I’m glad I read it though.

    • I can totally see were you’re coming from with the narrative voice. I had a similar experience with Huckleberry Finn, whose narrative voice annoyed me no end and sort of ruined the whole book for me, although I don’t quite understand why it bothered me so much in one book and not at all in the other.
      You also drew my attention to an aspect I hadn’t thought about, and that’s the lack of evolution in Celie’s narrative voice. Now that I have thought about it, I have to say I agree with you, it’s not very credible.
      And, as I already said, the parts on Africa are… not good at all.

      • And you know what is very strange, there is a letter towards the end in which she writes about the voice (I mentioned it in one of the comments on my post) and reflects that she could by now write “better” but chose not to. This felt like an excuse from the author and not something Celie would write. I have other books by Walker and despite everything I said, I’m interested to read them.
        Have you read anything else by her?. Possessing the Secret of Joy is interesting as it focuses on Tashi’s story. I wrote in my post I had thought it was well done but I’m not sure about the writing anymore.
        Btw someone else commented on my post yesterday and she also mentions that Huck Finn’s voice annoyed her.

  4. That’s very strange, and it does sound like a cop-out on behalf of Alice Walker.
    I actually haven’t read anything else by Alice Walker. Possessing the Secret of Joy does sound interesting, but to be honest there are too many other books I want to read so much more than this one, so for the moment it’s not going on my reading list.

  5. where is the emotion of fears in this novel and how play vital role to construct
    the character

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