The Color Purple


For so many years, I've avoided Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Based on - who knows what? - I assumed it would depress me, discourage me, saddle me with another preachy narrative about blameless victims being crushed under the heel of faceless tyrants. I heard about the starting premise - that of a 14-year-old girl raped and impregnated twice by her own father - and thought it would be a crushing downer, an everyman story (a la Sister Carrie and The Good Earth) whose characters are more blank slates upon which the reader is supposed to project his- or herself than developed individuals in their own rights. I expected simplistic, undifferentiated portraits drawn in blunt strokes to serve a political purpose.

I could not have been more wrong.

I loved this book like nothing I have read for a long time. Over the course of the ten hours it took me to devour it, I barely surfaced for air. When I did, I walked through my daily tasks with that blazing, triumphant feeling of having traveled hundreds of miles in spirit, and having encountered truth and poetry in the land I discovered. That complete submersion in story and voice that I remember from my childhood reading, of pure connection with a character and, finally, sadness that my time with her is limited to a certain page count. Yes, there are dark themes aplenty here. Abuse of power is rampant: racial and most notably sexual oppression are inescapable, and central to the novel's development. But they are not the overarching "message." The novel does not exist to show the reader that such horrors exist, but to explore the journey and transformation of an unforgettable character within the world that contains them. Celie's voice is taut and consistent; she is one of those narrators (like Holden Caulfield, John Ames, Molly Bloom) whose cadence follows me around in my head well after I've finished the book. She is a complicated, fleshed-out human, and one I found intensely sympathetic. Her world, that of poverty-stricken, depression-era rural Georgia, is palpably present, and the sexual and racial politics of the book are thoughtful.

      Shug halfway tween sick and well. Halfway tween good and evil, too. Most days now she show me and Mr. _______ her good side. But evil all over her today. She smile, like a razor opening. Say, Well, well, look who's here today.
      She wearing a little flowery shift I made for her and nothing else. She look bout ten with her hair all cornrowed. She skinny as a bean, and her face full of eyes.
      Mr and Mr. ______ both look up at her. Both move to help her sit down. She don't look at him. She pull up a chair next to me.
      She pick up a random piece of cloth out the basket. Hold it up to the light. Frown. How you sew this damn thing? she say.
      I hand her the square I'm working on, start another one. She sew long crooked stitches, remind me of that little crooked tune she sing.
      That real good, for first try, I say. That just find and dandy. She look at me and snort. Everything I do is fine and dandy to you, Miss Celie, she say. But that's just cause you ain't got good sense. She laugh. I duck my head.

The Color Purple has a reputation as a feminist classic, and it's true that Celie gathers solace, community, and meaning more from other women than from men. What impressed me, though, is the complexity Walker brings to this dynamic. It's far from a facile "men are evil, women are blameless" depiction. Her women are often downright terrible to one another: they knock each others' teeth out, advise other womens' husbands to beat their wives, and freeze each other out of their affections. But here's something unusual about The Color Purple: true reconciliation is possible. It even happens quite frequently. People actually talk to one another, and when they talk, they often reach understanding of each others' humanity. The women are at an advantage, because they usually break down and talk to one another more quickly than the men. But Walker's men, too - even Celie's husband, who spends the early part of the novel beating her, condescending to her, hiding important facts from her and generally treating her like shit - are capable of getting over their pride and reaching out to other people on a human level. (Nor is Mr. ______'s transformation into the more human Albert presented as a wish-fulfillment scenario for abused women wanting to "change" their men. By the time he's ready to relate to Celie on a human level, she's already moved out of his house, fallen hard in love with his ex-girlfriend, and come to the realization that she's not attracted to men in general. But I was impressed with Walker for her depiction of Celie and Albert's latter-day course from wary circling through rehashing of old history, to, finally, easy, open friendship.)

I've read so many novels obsessed with the unforgivable trespass: the line for whose crossing no amends are possible. I've also read a spate of stories involving love triangles, and even more whose plots revolve around secrets and silence - a lack of conversation that stretches on for years and sometimes lifespans. The Color Purple turns all three of these conventions inside out in ways I found totally exhilarating. In more ways than one, Mr. ______ crosses that unforgivable line. He beats Celie; he brings his mistress into their house; he hides evidence about the only thing she ever cared about before Shug. There is a time, after Celie finds out about this last, when she walks through her days with murder blotting out all other thoughts in her mind. Yet, years later, both she and Albert have become different people. They haven't forgotten or even forgiven the events of years before, but neither do they pick up their interaction in the same place they left off. It's not as if the unforgivable trespass doesn't exist, argues Walker: for any person, the line is there. It's just that with time, Person A becomes Person X - a different individual, whose perspective may bear little resemblance to that of years before.

Likewise, Walker's handling of the love triangle theme was a breath of fresh air after Maugham's more traditional treatment in Of Human Bondage. Usually, in a plot where a husband takes up with a mistress, the wife is expected to be jealous and hostile toward the girlfriend. Much possessiveness and humiliation follow. In The Color Purple, though, Celie never desired or loved Mr. _____, and falls immediately for "the other woman," Shug Avery. Not only that, but the love among the three of them, far from blinding them with passion, allows them all to see each other more clearly. Celie, hearing Shug talk about the Albert she once loved, realizes that there is (or was once) a kinder, more human side to the husband who has always treated Celie as a slave. Shug, seeing clearly how the man she used to love has become cruel and petty, is disgusted and grief-stricken, and sets out to show Celie real love and friendship. And Mr. _____, shocked that Shug could take up with his ugly, submissive wife, is forced to take a closer look at both women and his own behavior. Likewise, when Celie returns to Georgia years later, one of the subjects over which she and Albert bond in friendship is their mutual love for Shug.

Then he say something that really surprise me cause it so thoughtful and common sense. When it come to what folks do together with they bodies, he say, anybody's guess is as good as mine. But when you talk bout love I don't have to guess. I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can't be halted just cause some peopes moan and groan. It don't surprise me you love Shug Avery, he say. I have love Shug Avery all my life.
      What load of bricks fell on you? I ast.

Far from the Proustian, Maugham-esque vision of love-as-sexual-obsession, as a veil that obscures our humanity from one another, Walker insists that love is a force for understanding - that loving other people, as much as it hurts, ultimately makes us better people, improves our lives, and allows us, eventually, to know ourselves. She doesn't argue this in a Little Sally Sunshine way, but in the course of a narrative that acknowledges how difficult it is to love bravely and well, especially within a culture that devalues and oppresses people based on their gender, class, and skin color. A magnificent accomplishment, and one I won't soon forget.


  • I always thought this book sounded too much like a Lifetime movie. Guess I was wrong.

  • I've avoided this one too out of fear that it was melodramatic and preachy; I probably had a similar response to yours. I'm intrigued that you loved it so much. I think I should give this book a try sometime.

  • I read this when it first came out and remember being profoundly moved. Then I tried to read it again last year, and after just a couple of pages, the hurt I felt for Celie - I couldn't do it! But I would definitely recommend it for someone who has never read it - what a wonderful, moving story!

  • EL Fay: Well, having never actually seen an example of the dreaded "Lifetime movie" genre I can't say for sure, but I don't think so. If you mean that it involves a lot of women characters who support each other, and that it has a semi-happy ending, then yes. I actually thought about apologizing for those elements, but then I was like, "wait! fuck that! I've read enough tragedies with women who hate each other or no women at all; I have shit to apologize for." (I cuss more in my head.)

    Dorothy: I think it was the opposite of melodramatic, in that many bad things happen but people don't dwell on them endlessly or need to "process" about them for the rest of their lives. They just get on with living the best they can. One thing I can say that you would be almost guaranteed to like is how strong & consistent Celie's narrative voice is.

  • Rhapsody: Totally. Interesting that your second time through was harder; I would have thought that knowing a semi-happy ending is coming would make it easier. I was surprised at the extent to which I was just pulled along by the quality of the language, though.

  • I also loved this, and the points you took up about their love triangle was, I think, the best thing about this book. It allows the reader a very heartfelt way of looking at things, as opposed to merely "thinking."

  • Love this comment: That complete submersion in story and voice that I remember from my childhood reading, of pure connection with a character and, finally, sadness that my time with her is limited to a certain page count.

    Funny what books strike you, isn't it?

    I had a similar engrossing experience with Love in the Time of Cholera. I hadn't read it yet for various reasons - it's inclusion on various pop-candy best-seller lists, the cover's pronouncement of "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!", the fact that it was one of his less-complicated books... fortunately I was help captive for the better part of a day in airports and airplanes outside of the US (read: no affordable iPhone). It really afforded me the opportunity to sink my teeth into it and give the story a chance. I've gotten terribly slack about books in that regard as of late - if they don't grab me in the first few chapters, then it's on to something else.

    Your review of The Color Purple pleases me - there are several in this category that I've not read for similar reasons. Might have to turn over that new leaf... after I've plowed through the Christmas stack, that is.


  • Claire: Yes, the book as a whole was very grounded, I thought, rather than overly "thinky." Which made a nice change from some of the other stuff I've been reading.

    ARIEL! You're back in blog-land! I often think about the time I unwittingly insulted One Hundred Years of Solitude, and you had to run and get your copy and stroke it reassuringly throughout the rest of the evening. :-) Glad Love in the time of Cholera was another great journey for you - I ADORE the title, & keep meaning to give that novel a shot.

  • Encouraged you liked this so much, Emily. I've been avoiding it more because I saw the movie several years ago and have only lukewarm memories of it, but I'm willing to own up to the fact that any less than fond memories I have of the film version might be due more to two of the people involved (Oprah, Spielberg) than the actual flick itself. No good reason to blame the source material, I know!

  • Richard: Believe me, Oprah's involvement in the movie is a big part of what put me off the book for so long. And I'll be honest: I understand why she & her demographic would be drawn to the plot. I think Walker does a really good job with it, though.

  • I have never read the Color Purple, but want to, even more now that I've read your graceful, emotional review :). I haven't, honestly, read very much of what would be considered African-American Literature at all - in a sense, I think part of the problem is that a focus on diversity in reading sort of intrinsically gives the impression of ghettoizing literature. I mean, nobody reads Jane Eyre because they think it's their moral duty to better understand what middle and upper class 19th century people suffered through. So, you enter a book like this with this message from society that says it ISN'T about you, it's NOT about people like you, it's about these other people, whose experience is so vastly different that you need to understand it, you know? This isn't to demean the books, which are, like you describe this one, often so beautiful and wonderful, but rather the way that we as a culture think about those books. That we think of the Color Purple as being about black people, instead of being about love, understanding, and the power of human healing, or whatever, you know? Or we think of Langston Hughes as being about black people, instead of being about the interplay of justice and individual hope, and the experience of beauty in the 'unbeautiful'.

  • I was also avoiding this book because of the basic premise. I'm so glad to hear that it's a hopeful book in the end!

  • Jason: YES. I totally understand what you're saying, and I think it's a reason I avoided African-American lit for a long time. And the issue is so complicated because it's also an oversimplification to say "everyone's the same" and deny that different demographics have different kinds of experiences, even though it's true that a human is a human is a human. That said, I think specificity and universality dwell together in the best of any genre...

    Rebecca: VERY hopeful. Now that I've had a few days to think about it, I might even say slightly unrealistic in its hopefulness. Nevertheless, quite the experience. :-)

  • A Lifetime movie is usually a heavy-handed melodrama involving a victimized woman. (The bad guy is always male.) Of course, it's important that we acknowledge these types of situations (i.e. rape, domestic violence) and discuss them, but Lifetime frequently handles them in a very preachy, sentimentalized manner. That's what I meant.

    (Plus, the fact that men can also be victims of such crimes is frequently ignored.)

  • EL Fay: Gotcha. Now that you describe it, I know the type. Personally, I thought Walker did a good job writing a story that could potentially be adapted into such a film, but doing it with complexity & compassion (i.e., the cycle of abuse among the men is really explored; the women victimize each other as well as supporting each other; people of all genders are capable of breaking the cycle; etc.). Also, her narrative style is relatively understated, and moves along at a brisk pace (since the novel is epistolary, you just get a series of snapshots of how Celie is feeling). So it has a minimum of Kristin Lavransdatter-esque indefinite belaboring of melodrama. (Oh, and good point about how abuse of men is pushed under the rug.)

  • This is definitely one that is sitting on my shelf to be read sooner rather than later, but your review bumped it up even more.

    Happy holidays!

  • I read this one years ago after the movie came out. I loved the book and I am so glad you liked it and that your expectations/assumptions were changed. Walker is a marvelous writer though I think some of her books get a little New Age-y.

  • Lu: Glad you enjoyed it, and happy holidays to you, too!

    Stefanie: I can see the potential for New Agey-ness in Walker, but yes, this one was great. And you're right; it's always a good experience to have one's assumptions challenged and changed. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography