After having read a number of Alice Walker’s short stories for classes in college, I was eager to read her famous novel The Color Purple, one of the pinnacles of both African-American and women’s literature.
While The Color Purple is relatively short and can be read quickly, it is by no means an easy read. The subject matter is heavy and Walker does nothing to dress up or dance around what it is she’s discussing. Right there on page one Walker’s main protagonist, Celie, is raped by her father when she is barely fourteen-years-old. From forced incest, Celie is forced to give up two children before she’s married to a much older widower who only needs her to raise his children while he continues to fantasize and chase after the woman he wanted to marry all along (the mother of three of his children, but not his dead wife).
The novel is presented mostly from Celie’s point-of-view and the dialect it is told in can try a reader’s patience but is vital to the presentation of Celie as a character. She couldn’t ask for a more distinctly written voice. There was one moment late in the novel when Celie mentions someone trying to help her speak correctly when I realized that I had truly ceased to notice the way the words were written because Celie’s voice had become so clear to me.
Celie primarily addresses God because writing to him and talking to him are the only ways Celie is comfortable conveying her thoughts and feelings. In fact, the questions of what God is and what a person’s relationship with God should be are among the underlying topics explored in The Color Purple.
More prominent are questions of sexuality and the relationships between men and women as well as women and women. Celie’s relationship with her husband is in many ways a continuation of the abusive relationship she shared with her father, until her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, falls sick and he brings her home for Celie to nurse. The friendship between Shug and Celie is the only comfort that Celie has had since her sister, Nettie, was forced to leave the relative safety of Celie’s husband’s house.
One of the most interesting things about The Color Purple is the fact that it doesn’t examine the relationships between men and women and the relationships between women and other women as being separate and distinct. The way the women treat each other and the way they interact with the men in their lives are very interdependent. The women inspire and encourage one another’s dreams, even addressing the men in another’s life when necessary conspiring to create a greater understanding and contentment.
The connection between the sexes is only one level at which The Color Purple operates. There is a great deal that can be read into the racial tensions of the time between African-Americans and whites in the United States but also within the African-American community at home and abroad. With a representation of African-American missionaries in colonized Africa, another perspective is added (one that I couldn’t help mentally contrasting with The Poisonwood Bible). I found the way the missionaries interacted with native Africans, especially as far as their reactions to the history of American slavery were concerned, a fascinating detail to have drawn Walker’s attention and focus.