This is a review of The Color Purple, for which Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983. It’s a novel that is best known for its narrative style, for its depiction of discrimination in its most normal, and thus cruel, form, and for its breathtaking message.
The narrative style takes the cake. It’s written in the form of letters, a possibility that I had never considered for an entire novel. Another pleasant suprise to me was the fact that one’s English needn’t be perfect to write a masterpiece (to an English speaking audience). The language used in the book is not a refined or grammatically correct English, but one that is more familiar, a more natural human language. This book is proof that it is far more appealing to write on behalf of the character, than to write perfectly.
The book begins with letters from Celie to God, to whom she writes because she has no one else to write to. From Celie’s letters we learn that she is a poor and uneducated girl, whose stepfather beats and rapes her when she’s 14. He impregnates her twice and abducts her children. Celie is then married away to “Mr. _____”, who dearly needs someone to take care of his children. At Mister’s place, Celie lives a life of a sub-human (which is not too different from the life she lived in her father’s house). Celie accepts this treatment, for a while, without complaint:
“He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.”
In the meantime, Nettie, Celie’s young sister, escapes her father’s house and comes to live with Celie. But when Mister makes sexual advances to her, Celie advices Nettie to seek help from a well dressed woman she saw in the marketplace. Celie only wants Nettie to escape the life that she has resigned herself to.
After Nettie escapes, Celie meets another remarkable woman. Mr. ____’s son, Harpo, marries a ‘wayward’ woman, an assertive woman, Sofia; and they live in a cottage by the house. Sofia is rebellious and audacious, and will not take being battered as normal. She even beats up Harpo when he beats her to assert his manhood.
You ever hit her? Mr. ____ ast.
Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.
Well how you spect to make her ind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.
Celie’s life begins to change when Mr._____ brings home his sick mistress, Shug Avery. Shug is a glamorous jazz and blues performer. She is everything that Celie is fascinated by. She has a mind of her own, she seems to have Mister’s full attention, and she seems to be gloriously independent.
Shug and Celie become intimate friends. Celie tells Shug all about Nettie, her little sister. Shug is her protection against Mr. ____’s battering, and Celie is one of Shug’s best friends. It doesn’t take long for Shug and Celie to discover that Mr. ____ had been hiding the letters sent by Nettie, for over thirty years.
Nettie writes about her life with a missionary couple, who also incidentally adopted Celie’s biological children. The letters speak of their time in Africa, about how they struggle to keep themselves afloat, alive, with disbelief and hope, while they live with a tribal group. Nettie’s letters are written in a more literate hand, speaking of African history, and what not, while Celie’s are rough at the edges, but written in a warmer tone. Nettie speaks of a world alien to Celie, and shows her powerlessness as she watches oppression meted out against the natives in Africa. Celie understands, in a way, as she herself is oppressed by Mr. ____, for being a woman, a wife. However, Shug’s conviction that Celie’s life is not hopeless changes Celie’s life, starting with how Mr. ____ treats her.
Throughout most of the book, Celie’s emotions are leashed. She’s almost afraid to speak her feelings – about her father, Mr. ____, Shug. She could be described as stoic, but I think she was numbed by fear. But, by the end of the book, she’s a revelation, like a person who seems to have noticed the purple flowers. Just what happens to Celie, Shug, Nettie, Sofia (what happens to her is slightly amusing, but also awful), Harpo, Mr. ____, and the others (that I haven’t mentioned in the review), is left to you to find out! Do Celie and Nettie ever meet?
The book explores themes such as sexism, feminism, racism, among others. If any of this matters to you, you will connect with its strong, vulnerable, incredibly courageous characters. The awful circumstances that define Celie shows us how much courage it takes to break free of those binds. This book begins to help us understand what we might need, to find ourselves, to not merely exist, but to be alive; to look at the purple flowers. The Color Purple is a lesson in audacity and about the importance of equality of people, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race. My only quibble, if at all, is that there is hardly a good man in the book.
The book’s title comes from what Shug says, about what it means, or takes, to be alive. She says,
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back”.