Book #97

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Set in the deep American south between the wars, this is the classic tale of Celie, a young poor black girl. Raped repeatedly by her father, she loses two children and then is married off to a man who treats her no better than a slave. She is separated from her sister Nettie and dreams of becoming like the glamorous Shug Avery, a singer and rebellious black woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually Celie discovers the support of women that enables her to leave the past behind and begin a new life. 

I last read this book around sixteen years ago, when I was writing an essay for school on violence against women. My copy still has passages highlighted in pencil, and notes in the margins, all clearly showing the hostility and suppression forced upon the women within these pages. Reading now, I can see I was largely misguided on what this novel is about. I should have been highlighting the parts about empowerment, about sisterhood, and about the small flickers of humanity which can be found anywhere. 

Celie writes letters to God, and through these she explains her life, her situation, and her past. We hear her thoughts and feelings, and see her try to make sense of these in the context of a world she doesn’t understand. Her experiences have taught her to be silent, to never express herself, and to be as meek as humanly possible. The epistolary style makes Celie feel both familiar and personal to us, and almost immediately creates a feeling of sisterhood and a strong desire for us to protect this character with all the strength we have.

The letters eventually stop being addressed to God, and begin being addressed to Nettie, Celie’s sister, who is living in Africa as a missionary. Here, Walker masterfully compares the misogyny and racism rampant in America, with misogyny and racism prevalent in communities openly branded as ‘savage’. In America, men expect their women to stay at home and raise the children, the men do the work, the men do the speaking. In Africa, women rarely even meet the eyes of men, nor are they allowed to stray too far from them. In America, men repeatedly objectify and sexually abuse their women. In Africa, they (sometimes forcibly) perform genital mutilations and facial scarifications. Walker makes clear that to call one of these communities civilised, and the other savage, is a stretch. Brutalities are happening to women, and more specifically to black women, the world over.

We see Celie’s life improve by degrees when she meets the mighty Shug Avery; a woman who behaves like a man, who holds her beauty in power, and who shows Celie the importance of making her life into a life. We see Celie, whose original reaction was simply to always say nothing, begin to verbalise her feelings, to say no, and to blossom into the woman she was always meant to be. This friendship and coming together of two women is an important point - your voice can be strengthened tenfold by adding it to the voice of another. You can take strength from others without sapping anything from them. 

Walker’s choice of narrative, her colloquial prose, alongside Celie’s stark voice, make all of the themes here hit home. Everything is so vivid, the characters so tangible, that you cannot do anything but fall inside these pages, laughing and crying at differing moments. It’s so, so potent and visceral - a masterpiece.

This is a life built on sorrow and redemption. It’s a path to glory paved by leaning on others stronger than you are until you are able to match them. It’s fire and water, virtue and sin. It’s unforgettable.

If I had read this book sixteen years ago the way I have read it this week, maybe I would have actually passed that class.

“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.”