Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

3 comments

The Color Purple by Alice Walker book cover
The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker’s famous womanist novel which, spanning decades, looks at the lives of black women in the early twentieth century and the forces of oppression that govern their lives. The protagonist, Celie, narrates the novel through a series of letters addressed to God as she attempts to make it through the life she has been dealt. Growing up in poverty, Celie is molested by her step-father and only escapes the cycle of abuse and pregnancy that marks her teenage years by being married off to a local man named Albert. He is little better than Celie’s step-father but when she meets her new husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, Celie’s education in life truly begins. Shug is vibrant – a singer, sexually confident, and smart to the world. The pair become more than friends and Shug gives Celie the skills she needs to shake off the passivity that keeps her in her old life, and seek reconciliation with her estranged sister, Nettie, who has ended up living with an African tribe as a missionary by a strange series of events. When Celie eventually learns of her sister’s fate, she begins to dream of being reunited and living amongst her family once more. Throwing off all the patriarchal shackles that have impoverished her life (including the white, male god to whom she writes) Celie puts her faith instead in the women around her and the relationships she has built. There are definite links with the myth of Philomela, which intertwines rape, the silencing of the female voice, and feminine subjectivity. A story of oppression, the strength of female bonds, and a consideration of one’s spiritual place in the world, The Color Purple is a novel that faces the reality of life lived under numerous oppressive forces.

As an intersectional discussion of some of the issues faced by black women in the twentieth century, The Color Purple is important. Walker demonstrates a strength similar to her characters in choosing not to wallow in the oppression and cruelty suffered by her characters, to avoid looking always back to a troubled past. Celie’s solution is an accepting passivity that is finally rewarded with a sense of cosmic justice when she breaks her own shackles, whereas Walker as the author is the complete opposite of passive, digging into the societal issues that allow the lives of her characters to be abused in various different ways from the first page. She challenges ideas of femininity and shows a vast array of modes of femininity. If Ralph Ellison’s invisible man had no voice thirty years before the publication of The Color Purple, then Walker has located in Celie a person whose presence is even less acknowledged by society: the black, poor lesbian.

Critics have questioned whether the broadly negative portrait of black men in the novel is helpful, or whether it perpetuates the racist myth that black men are savages who are not fit to exist in civil society. Undeniably, Walker takes a hard line with her male characters, but all of her characters exist in a framework where oppression is a complex concept, and where black men are both oppressed and oppressors. The lack of a straight-forward dynamic makes the novel a more thought-provoking experience, and blame (remarkably) is rarely thrown about. Walker goes beyond challenging the traditional positions of male and female further by queering the heteronormative family unit through Celie and Shug’s relationship. The missionary trip to Africa of Celie’s sister Nettie also offers an opportunity to compare gender roles in the Olinka tribe that she serves – a group that might be considered ‘savages’ by traditional Western standard – and those in the American South. It’s an interesting discussion and certainly challenges ideas of whom exactly is progressive – while the Olinka have less rigid ideas about gender, they maintain certain archaic traditions like the mutilation of young members of the tribe as a rite of passage, again allowing for few easy conclusions. Though many of the men in the novel are frequently set in a tyrannical stance towards their women, however, The Color Purple is less about the terror of living under patriarchal oppression and more a celebration of the resilience of women, their ability to solve their own problems, and the potentiality of a gender that has been badly stunted by social structures. In short, The Color Purple is a womanist novel, a term coined by Walker in her 1979 short story ‘Coming Apart’.

Celie’s redemption is very much one of the individual succeeding over societal forces. However, through running a small business making pants as well as inheriting property, Celie is tied to the capitalist world where redemption is, in some way, linked to money. This may be a realistic reading of the world, but it both implicates Celie in an economic structure that has endorsed and profited from the suppression and enslavement of black people, and also champions the myth of individualism (despite Celie requiring Shug’s assistance to assert her own individuality). Also problematic is the issue of what Celie does with her freedom when she gets it: unlike Shug, she opts for domesticity and the simple pleasures of family life. Again, this may be realistic to the world but it still leaves Celie having chosen domesticity, an unradical view of femininity.

Celie’s relationship with Shug shows the power of redemptive love as some of Shug’s confidence and self-assurance is passed to Celie, but Walker’s discussion in the novel is larger than human beings. Celie’s move away from a monotheistic view of god and towards a more pantheistic view not only parallels her breaking from traditional patriarchal oppression but is in itself a very important aspect of the novel. There is a danger when reading a book about black characters or written by a black author, because of their sparsity in mainstream publishing, that one assumes the book is intended to somehow speak for the broader “black experience”, whatever that might mean. That is an almighty weight to place on the shoulders of any one author and invariably leads to a perversion of the author’s intentions when reading a work, or simply acts as a prism through which to criticise a work, meaning the author inherits a fight that they have not (necessarily) asked for. The Color Purple is one of those books that has been pulled apart from all kinds of direction and somewhere between the varying critical approaches, the simple human story is somehow subordinated. It’s notable that the colour of the title is discussed far less than the colour of the main character, and that is a shame, as the prominence of the colour purple should highlight to the reader its importance in the text. Purple comes to stand for hope and the wonder of the human spirit, it is a miraculous burst of colour when it appears in nature and indicates the triumph of hope in the face of misery. For Celie it becomes symbolic of the thrown off Christian god and her move towards understanding and interpreting her (spiritual) world not through man-made models of religiosity, but through a more general wonder at the natural world. Spiritual freedom is a concept common to all human life, and whatever else one reads in The Color Purple, one should not forget the importance of the spiritual discussion.

Celie’s search for spiritual identity is part of a wider discussion about identity in The Color Purple. The epistolary form of the novel comes about as Celie is forced into silence by her abusive step-father (a silence reinforced by Albert and the wider society), and so the letters she writes to God are her only means of expression. Indeed, the novel is in no small way about finding a voice, a means of expression. The turning point of the narrative is when Celie asserts her right to existence: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly, and can't cook. . . But I'm here.” It is a courageous act of self-assertion and a moment when Celie’s voice is truly heard by others. Similar to that classic epistolary novel, Pamela, here there is the withholding of a character’s, an abuser’s, surname. For Celie’s husband, Albert, is referred to only as Mr. _____ for the majority of the novel. Names are an important symbol of identity and a constant battleground in the war of oppression. By withholding Albert’s surname (he being the most prominent example of this in the novel – although Celie’s surname is never revealed either), Walker both subverts the patriarchal model that sees married women’s identity subsumed by their husband’s, but also sets Albert up, like Richardson’s Mr. B-, as someone whose identity is too dangerous to reveal.

The Color Purple is arguably as well-known as it is due to the Steven Spielberg film adaptation and thus there are a multitude of opinions voiced on the book, many of which are based more on the film than the original text. Also skewing critical opinion is the fact that if one attempts to read the novel through the lens of Western realism, the contrivances involved in the ending become problematic. Indeed, critics have often pointed to the novel’s rather loose structure, shallow characterisation, and slightly clunky dialogue as faults in Walker’s prose. It would be a mistake to too heavily enforce a realist aesthetic onto a novel that clearly sets itself up as something less rigid, and more clearly rooted in less formal storytelling cultures. The novel is ultimately one of hope – of the belief that amongst all the awful things in life, redemption is possible, that happiness is never an impossible dream. Celie is able to reclaim her own spirituality and her own sexuality, and this is no small thing for a girl who starts life with the world seemingly stacked against her. Innumerable readings are possible, but it is the spiritual and personal journey that Celie goes on which is at the centre of The Color Purple for Alice Walker.

When I picked this up, I was warned it would make me cry. It didn't. But then I am heartless. I enjoyed it enough, with some reservations. Not a great book, but a good one.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)

3 comments:

Laura Hartley said...

Wow great review! I actually had no idea that this book was about such a deep topic, I don't know it passed me by! Don't think this is the sort of thing that I'd want to read when on a holiday but when I get back to working, I'll pick this up!

Laura @ What's Hot?

Becca Lostinbooks said...

Phenomenal review. This book touched me so deeply when I read it six years ago. It weaves complex issues with flowing narrative beautifully. I would have loved to have discussed this book in one of my sociology classes, but, alas, the chance to never occurred. Your review bringing the details back into the forefront of my mind has me thinking it might just be time for a re-read.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks both - it's a book that took me a while to get my head around, but I'm glad you found the review useful. I'd enjoy reading your thoughts if you set them down on a (re-)read. :)