The Color Purple seems to be one of those books that most everyone read in high school. If they didn’t, they saw the movie adaptation with Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. However, I was homeschooled in a very conservative home, so I wasn’t exposed to many popular books, especially not books as controversial as Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize Winning novel.
The Color Purple, written as a collection of intimate letters, conveys the pain, pride, and passion in the life of Celie, a black woman in Georgia. Walker’s novel is heavy with violence and struggle, racism and love, and the turbulent heat of the segregated South.
Celie is born to a life of stomach-churning abuses. Her father rapes her and beats her, and her mother dies when she is very young. For most of Celie’s life, she knows no love except that of her younger sister Nettie. But even that love is ripped away from her, when their father marries her off to another abusive man whose hateful children she must raise.
Celie is utterly alone. Her life is all darkness, until a glamorous woman named Shug Avery comes into it. The mistress of Celie’s husband, Shug Avery fills Celie’s life with hope, excitement and color. She teaches Celie about love and men and sex and God.
“Everything want to be loved,” says Shug. “Us sing and dance, make faces, and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?”
Celie and Shug fall in love with each other, and create their own sense of belonging and happiness out of the suffering they’ve been dealt.
Walker’s writing is brilliant and keen. The entire novel is in the form of letters, mostly from Celie to God or to her long-lost sister, Nettie. Many authors struggle to use this epistolary form well, but Walker masters it. Every letter feels authentic and natural. Although letters might seem to give readers a narrow window into the world of their writer, Celie’s universe is depicted to readers in an abundance of detail and color.
Walker’s characters are also strong, compelling people that demand to be either loved or despised. Although there are many secondary characters, they each jump out of the pages as large as life. They each carry some great pain. They each demonstrate ferocious spirit, for good or for evil.
The Color Purple’s controversial reception as a work of literature stems from an incredible amount of violence and cruelty. Galling sexual violence and assault are major elements in the work. Alongside the violence is an egregious amount of consensual sex. Walker writes about sex with a casual frankness that cheapens it. Admittedly, my sensibilities are more conservative (even “prudish” by many standards), but the level of sexual detail struck me as crude and excessive.
The violence made it difficult to read The Color Purple; I found it painful, imagining that for many people, such suffering at the hands of others was terribly true. Generally, however, I find it worthwhile to read even painful stories, because that pain is a very real part of others’ lives, and I want to understand what other people have had to face. I want to broaden my perspective. I want to learn empathy.
The sexual detail was more of a problem for me. I don’t see how the particulars of characters’ sex lives are useful or necessary. They don’t broaden my perspective in a way that I need it broadened.
Violence and sexuality aside, I enjoyed the bones of the story. Walker opened my understanding to a type of life I hadn’t imagined before, to a history of a broken, oppressed community, but one with fire within it. Celie’s ability to fight for herself–for personal justice, for love, and for a family–is remarkable. In a world that was desperately dark and colorless, she learned to find joy in the color purple.