The Color Purple is a classic of African-American literature and the last entry on my college reading list that I’ve finally gotten to. And all I can think now is Why did it take me so long? What a marvelous novel!
It tells the stories of Celie and Nettie, two African American sisters who grow up in the South in very tough family circumstances that involve incest, emotional and physical abuse, and neglect. Eventually, they get separated when Celie is married off and Nettie runs away shortly after, ending up as a missionary in Africa. (All this takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, by the way, so this is not a slavery novel, but Jim Crow still reigns supreme in the former Confederate states.) They now have to grow up apart, but are still connected mentally and address each over the distance. They do this by writing letters to each other, letters they don’t receive, but still they are writing them, because in writing to the other, they keep the other alive in their hearts and minds.
As this synopsis suggests, the novel is an epistolary novel, consisting of both Celie’s and Nettie’s point of view. Here, Alice Walker’s use of language is exquisitely artful. Celie’s voice employs an uneducated variant of AAVE while Nettie, who has had more opportunity to educate herself, uses Standard English. As a reader, I enjoyed Celie more, because even though I’m not used to it (or precisely because of it?) I value the poetic quality of the way she and her environment speak. It’s no less intelligent, just less educated and nuanced, but it cuts right to the heart of the matter. Beautiful.
This post would grow too long were I to mention all the twists and developments that occur throughout the novel, especially in Celie’s domestic situation, which transforms, over decades, from hell on earth into something of an earthly paradise. Thus, I will restrict myself to just mentioning the major themes important in the work. There are a great many, but two I want to mention here. Most dominant, I would say, is religion or spirituality. Throughout their separate journeys, Nettie and Celie both learn important lessons that affect their outlook on the world and their relationship to God (is he a he, a she, an It?). In the end, we arrive at a very Goethean pantheistic view.
Also, there’s the relationship between men and women. Most prominent men of the story act as weak secondary oppressors who treat their women the way the whites treat the blacks. This is mirrored even in the supposedly less corrupted in native societies of Africa. Men are often weak, whiny and childish; they rely in most things on the work and responsibility of women without acknowledging their self-inflicted inferior status. Instead, they fall back on violence in their insecurity. But Walker doesn’t condemn them for this, and this is where the great quality of this novel is to be found: She shows that men, and on the other scale, whites, are as unhappy in their oppressing as the oppressed. Both sides are caught in a cycle of mutual distrust and pain that maybe can be broken someday. And in Celie’s personal story, this certainly is demonstrated, maybe in a little bit too Disneyesque a way.
If there’s anything I find to criticize about this book, it’s the fairy-tale ending. It could have ended on a more bittersweet note, which would have made the whole of it even more impactful, but that’s just a minor complaint. Most readers will be happier this way, especially given the gloom of the beginning.
Bottom Line: A fantastic novel of wide thematic range that truly deserves its accolades. Don’t let the AAVE scare you off, you get into it almost immediately. A blurb by the nation puts this novel into the tradition of Faulkner, and there’s something to this. Check it out. There’s also a film and Broadway plays, or musicals? Something Hillary Clinton recently attended, anyway.