The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker was one of the books from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 that I was kind of dreading. I was not very familiar with the story, and I’d never seen the movie, but I’d obviously heard of it. I had a vague idea that it was violent, disturbing, and that horrible things happened to the protagonist. Also, for some reason I had the impression that it took place during slavery, and I just wasn’t sure if I was mentally prepared for such unending misery. In the end, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. In fact, even though many terrible things did happen, the book, as a whole, was more positive and uplifting than I was expecting. The story went places that surprised me. I found it memorable and emotional. I’m assuming everyone but me has read the book or seen the movie by this time, so I’m going to be free with the spoilers below.
I was right that The Color Purple has a lot of dark moments. Celie begins the novel so sad and so trapped that I had no hope for her. She’s only fourteen, living in rural Georgia in the 1930’s. She is beaten and repeatedly raped by her father, bearing him two children that are immediately given away. With her mother recently deceased, her father passes her off to Mister to be married. Mister also treats Celie horribly. She is beaten even more and takes care of Mister’s children with no kindness or care of any kind. I cannot recall another character so downtrodden. Celie’s sister, Nettie, and her only friend in the world, comes to live with Celie and Mister in order to avoid the attentions of their father. But Mister also goes after Nettie, and she is forced to leave. Nettie ends up working for a well-to-do black family with two children that Celie once saw in the street. However, Celie doesn’t hear from Nettie again and she is left alone in a hostile world.
Eventually, Mister’s kids grow up, and Harpo, the oldest boy, marries Sofia, a strong and independent woman who bears him five children. After some time, Sofia gets fed up with Harpo and leaves him. Celie learns something about strength from Sofia because she’d never seen a woman have such control over her life before. (However, bad things happen to Sofia later in the book when she is badly beaten by the police and imprisoned.)
Soon a woman with even more influence comes into Celie’s life: Shug Avery is a relatively famous jazz and blues singer and Mister’s long-time mistress. Celie has been fascinated by pictures of her but doesn’t meet her until Mister brings her back to his house, very sick. Celie helps nurse her back to health and eventually the two become friends. Shug has a more positive effect on Celie’s life than anyone besides her sister. Shug pressures Mister to stop beating Celie, she supports her, and she helps obtain Nettie’s letters that Mister had hid from Celie. Eventually the two become lovers.
When Celie is finally able to read Nettie’s letters, she learns that her sister has gone to Africa as a missionary with the family she had been working for. Celie also learns that their two adopted kids are actually her children. She is so grateful that her sister and children are okay. With Nettie’s letters come a whole new story of colonialism in Africa that had become Nettie’s life.
The story is primarily written with letters from Celie to God, Celie to Nettie, and Nettie back to Celie. Celie’s view of God changes as she grows throughout the novel: from the big Man up in the sky telling her to obey, to a more personal God that can bring happiness and joy. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” (195) The other striking theme of this book was the idea of community, especially among women. Just the idea of Nettie helped Celie get through some incredibly tough times. Shug, Sofia, and Squeak are all unconventional women, but they come together and improve each other’s lives. They stick together and keep going no matter how bad things get. This book was something of a surprise for me. I’m glad I read it, and I’m planning on watching the movie soon.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.