The Color Purple is a personal favourite of my mum and she has been trying to get me to read it for years now. As often with recommendations from parents, I didn’t initially listen but eventually I caved and picked it up. I did not regret it.
To give a basic plot synopsis to those unfamiliar with the work, the book follows the journey of Celie, a gay black woman who is trying to move forward from her traumatic past. Raped by her step father and then married off to an uncaring and abusive husband, she is left stripped of any autonomy. But as time goes on, through her own strength and the support of those around her, she manages to gain freedom and a chance at a happy life. It’s a beautiful novel, as uplifting as it can be heart-breaking, and I feel genuinely honoured to be able to talk about it.
However, I’m also slightly terrified. This is due both to the weight of the book’s content and the controversy that has surrounded it since its release. Although commended by many for its compelling narrative and unique epistolary style (the book is composed entirely of letters), it has garnered a fair share of criticism; both from conservatives for its depictions of sexual violence and homosexuality, but also from within the black community for what some have complained is a stereotypical and derogatory portrayal of black men.
So, having now read the book, do I feel these assessments have any weight? Well, the conservative argument is insignificant as far as I’m concerned, but what about those within the black community criticising the novel?
In my view, although there are examples of black men committing physical and sexual violence within the novel, Walker isn’t doing this with the purpose of demonising that group. I feel the book’s purpose isn’t to make a caricature out of anybody, but rather to explore the unique, layered discrimination Celie faces as a black, queer, woman within society. This intersectionality lies at the heart of the novel.
As a black person living in America in the first half of the 20th century, Celie is subject to legal, social and economic discrimination.
As a woman, she is a second-class citizen even within her own community.
And as a lesbian, there is no prospect of her ever being able to display her love publicly.
It is not that Walker is unconcerned with racism towards black people as a whole and if you read the novel you’ll see the opposite is true; she is simply trying to emphasise Celie’s hardships in particular.
And the black male characters, for the most part, are not written as malicious figures but as complex and often sympathetic characters. One of my favourite parts of the novel was seeing Celie’s husband gradually redeem himself, leading to a mutual respect between him and his estranged wife which teeters on friendship by the end of the book.
Either way, I think those that focus on the brutality of the book miss that there is an awful lot of love here tooo. In fact, I would argue that the dichotomy between the two makes the tender moments all the more moving.
Many of these touching segments involve Celie and her lover Shug Avery, but there is also a subtle beauty to the relationship between Celie and her long-departed sister Nettie; a love that transcends continents. Nettie’s letters about her missionary work also bring some variety to the novel as well as some fascinating commentary on the complex relationship between Africans and African Americans.
My personal favourite passage in the novel is when Shug and Celie discuss the nature of a higher power. It’s probably my favourite letter of the book and beautifully weaves the novel's title into Shug’s reasoning for learning to love God.
So having heaped this novel with praise do I have any points of criticism? Well personally I did struggle a little at first with the epistolary style; it was unlike anything I had read before so it took some getting used to. I also think this novel can be a little slow at points; though your patience in the quieter moments is rewarded with some brilliant pay off later on.
Overall, I thought The Color Purple was fantastic. It covers plenty of ground: race, religion, gender and sexuality yet somehow never feels unfocused. Lesser authors wouldn’t be able to discuss just one of these issues meaningfully over the course of a book. Alice Walker manages four in a novel which is under 300 pages long.
Great Book. Would Recommend. Go read.
Published Online: 02/10/2023