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Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983)

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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