It’s amazing how coming into a situation blind can really improve your experience. I knew very little about The Color Purple when I picked it up. I knew it was a Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Alice Walker wrote it, it addresses many issues facing women and people of color in the 1930’s, and is an epistolary novel.
None of that prepared me for this journey.
The main character, Celie, begins this book as a 14-year-old. She has already had two children, but they have been given away. She just got married, and we are about to experience her adult life. Her story begins as being told through letters directed to God. Asking questions, explaining what’s happening in her life– Celie is a religious woman who finds God a mystical source of comfort.
Over time, Celie grows. She meets amazing people, experiences both terrible and fantastic moments and finds her faith changing. A turning point for her comes when she starts receiving letters from her sister Nettie. Nettie’s life is very different; she left on a mission and has been spending the majority of her life helping those in Africa. Nettie’s letters are addressed to Celie— and in turn, Celie changes how her letters are addressed. No more to God, but to Nettie.
I could write an essay on that alone.
Faith is a key theme in this book. Not just religious faith– though we see that often enough. But faith in family and community. Knowing that you need to be there for one another no matter what terrible things happen because you’re all you have for each other is a heavy burden. Celie and Nettie love each other passionately, but they are ripped apart through sexual abuse, humiliation, and their own uneducated ignorance. No one taught them, so they didn’t know any better. This is the life they expected and knew, so they accepted it as the truth.
Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.
Also, faith in friendship. Friendship and community are not mutually exclusive. Learning to trust another human being can be a challenge. To become trusted in the eyes of another person you must show vulnerability and weakness. You must share your secrets. In the brutal world of 1930’s rural Georgia that Alice Walker portrays, this is not an easy task. Safety is in keeping things close to the chest. But once you gain the trust of another person, it’s hard to betray it. It’s easy to hurt people, and the faith that Celie shows to Shug Avery, Sofia, Mary Agnes, and even to Albert is incredible. Her strength of character lies firmly in faith. Even when she is wronged, Celie learns to get go and trust in her friends.
If you was my wife, she say, I’d cover you up with kisses instead of licks, and work hard for you too.
Faith in the religious sense. In the beginning (see what I did there?), Celie has blind faith in God. She believes the words of the church and wants to please everyone around her. She is told to be a God-Fearing woman is righteous, and since her current life is so painful, Celie wants nothing more than to be righteous and go to heaven some day. But that faith changes.
I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.
Finally, faith in self. Shug Avery is certainly Celie’s foil when she is introduced in the book. Celie is timid, quiet, and filled with an unacknowledged self-loathing. Her lack of love for herself is clearly apparent to the reader, but something Celie doesn’t realize until she begins to develop a community of women in her life. Celie’s journey of self-discovery is a critical driver for this book. Celie sees more of the world and learns more about herself in these pages than I could ever hope to realize about myself. She does this with strong women surrounding her, but she also wouldn’t have made it as far as she did without personal faith. Faith in self is critical to the breaking point where Celie begins to stand out on her own and be her own woman. There are many moments where she is sad, weak, or despondent, but Celie never rolls over. She refuses to allow herself to bow and break– showing faith in self is the strongest and most important type of faith of them all.
I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.
Alice Walker addresses many other issues and themes in The Color Purple. Racism, sexism, misogyny, sexual abuse, psychological and physical abuse, objectification, society, education, and religion only begin to dust the surface. The Color Purple is not a book which will comfort you. It will push you. It will show you a world that most of us can barely imagine.
The Olinka girls do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.
What can she become? I asked.
Why, she said, the mother of his children.
But I am not the mother of anybody’s children, I said, and I am something.
Our entrance to this world is brutal. Then, we have only Celie’s words to work with for a long time. Celie is a barely-educated black woman of the 1930’s living in rural Georgia. It’s a miracle she can even write. Celie’s words are written in a black vernacular where most words are written phonetically how they are pronounced– and that is often not a “correct” pronunciation as we know them today in modern English. As the novel progresses Celie slowly grows more and more educated. It’s subtle. If one pays close attention, you can experience her growth through habits, language, and grammar. By the end of the book, if you aren’t looking for it, you might not realize Celie has evolved at all. Walker’s subtly is incredible. I strongly encourage anyone who finishes the book to go back to the beginning and read the first letter again. It’ll hit you like a ton of bricks.
I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.
I could write about this book forever. While The Color Purple might not be everyone’s favorite novel, it is certainly powerful and impactful. I strongly encourage everyone to read this at one point in their life.
What do you think?
- Interested in leading a discussion around The Color Purple? Check out my discussion questions.
- Have you read this book before? What are your impressions? Does this book impact you at all?
- Why do you think this book has been banned in schools and libraries? Do you agree or disagree?