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.