How’s this for an opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship.
(To fortify you for what’s to come, here’s a fun fact about my copy of The Color Purple: it was once awarded to Ella S at her Year 7 Speech Night, for Excellence in Mathematics of all things, according to the plate stuck in the front. Wherever she is, hope she’s still kicking the quadratic equation’s arse!)
Celie’s story begins, as I said, with her at fourteen years old, living in poverty and lacking any real education. Her story begins in the American South (Georgia, it would seem) in the early half of the 20th century. As if all of that weren’t enough – trigger warning! so many trigger warnings! – she has also been beaten and raped (repeatedly) by her father, Alphonso. She became pregnant, twice, and as far as she knows Alphonso has killed their children. The abuse at the hands of her father, and just about every other man in her life, has left her with very little self-worth or belief, aside from that which she finds in her letters to God. The dialect in which she writes takes a little getting used to at first, but no more so than books like Huck Finn.
The bright spot in Celie’s life is her younger sister, Nettie – a beautiful, clever, and brave girl whom Celie will protect from their father at all costs. An older man (identified only as Mister) comes sniffing around, looking for a bride. Alphonso refuses to let him take Nettie, and Mister begrudgingly accepts Celie instead (he needs someone, desperately, to care for his children and keep his house, ugh). Unfortunately, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Celie, because as Mister’s wife she experiences only more abuse and degradation.
Not long after, Nettie runs away from home. She and Celie know she could never be safe at Mister’s house (he does, after all, still have his rapey eye on her), so Celie recommends she seek out a wealthy stranger she once met in passing to help. Unbelievably, this works, and Nettie joins their household and their missionary trip to Africa. Nettie promises to write, but when Celie never receives any letters, she concludes that her sister must be dead.
About a third of the way through The Color Purple, we’re introduced to the third central character: Shug Avery, a jazz singer and long-time mistress of Mister (whom she calls Albert, weird). When she falls ill, Mister takes her in to be cared for (i.e., by his wife, Celie) until she’s well enough to go back to work. Little does he know, he’s tying his own noose: Celie and Shug fall in love.
Shug is basically everything Celie wishes to be herself: brave, free, talented, beautiful, and worldly (in every sense). Their relationship strengthens and deepens over time, and eventually Celie elects to move away from Shug, abandoning her arsehole husband and his rotten kids. Through Shug, she also learns that her sister Nettie is not dead after all: Mister has been hiding her letters, she is alive and well in Africa, and Celie clings to hope that one day they will be reunited. And I suppose that’s about as far as I can get into describing the plot without getting too spoiler-y…
It actually took me a while to work out when exactly the events of The Color Purple were taking place. Given that the majority of the action occurs in isolated rural areas, and things have been so shitty for women of colour for so long, it could’ve been just about any time since the American Civil War. Towards the end, however, characters started alluding to a(nother) world war, which puts the timeline between 1910 and 1940. I actually liked the timeless quality, with Walker’s focus on the immediate and the minutia of character. It made the story more universal, more ingratiating to readers in the present.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that, with all the God talk and letters that are basically prayers, that this is a religious novel. Walker says in her preface that “this is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realised I had experienced and taken for granted as a child,”. That said, The Color Purple isn’t evangelical or preachy at all. I found it totally accessible and relatable, even as a lifelong atheist. Celie explicitly starts to doubt the “official” version of God (as organised Christian religion would have us believe) about halfway through the novel, and comes to the remarkably progressive conclusion that “god” is in everything. Her last letter is addressed: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”
The core message I took away from The Color Purple was not, despite the impression I might have given, “doesn’t life suck for people of colour”. Instead, it was to marvel at the strength and power of relationships between women. It is through her relationship with Shug, and her persistent belief in the strength of her bond with Nettie, that Celie is able to overcome all that oppresses her. The women in her life are a salve to the wounds inflicted by men and their violence, as Celie herself is a salve to the wounds inflicted on the women she loves. So, despite the rather traumatic and depressing content, the “feel” of The Color Purple is more hopeful and uplifting than you might expect.
The Color Purple was first published in 1982, and went on to win both the National Book Award For Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1983 (making Walker the first black woman to win the latter). It has retained its cultural currency in the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! *eye roll*). It appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009.
There has been a very successful movie adaptation (with Oprah!), and a musical adaptation too, but I actually don’t feel all that inclined to seek either of them out. I feel like the power of the story comes from Celie’s telling of it, in words on paper, and I’m not sure it could translate onto screen or stage. All told, The Color Purple is a brilliant and very moving work of art, one well worth a read (and probably at least one or two re-reads, come to that).
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Color Purple:
- “Life is uncertain and people are generally bad and good. When you can, do the things that make you happy.” – Kelly
- “The book was a lot like the movie but different.” – N. Keith
- “It was very disheartening for to see this book be ruined so with the perversion of lesbianism. Otherwise, it would have been a very good book. It was informative and interesting, but very disgusting because of the sexual perversion of lesbianism.” – Ecclesia
- “incredible sorrry” – jessica Utley