Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker


Rating: B/ Celie isn’t a slave, but she might as well be. At the tender age of fourteen, Celie’s abusive father passes her off to an equally abusive man in an marriage the two have already arranged. Celie’s only joy comes from her younger sister, Nettie, so when Nettie is sent away and becomes a missionary in Africa, Celie is understandably devastated and writes her sister hundreds of letters in order to keep in touch. The Color Purple is written in epistolary format, and the narrative comes either in the form of letters Celie writes to God attempting to reconcile with her horrid living situation or notes that Celie and Nettie write back and forth to each other, attempting to provide comfort in sad and desperate times.

This book is initially a bit hard to appreciate and understand, because Celie’s letters to her sister and God are written in a somewhat frustrating form of pigeon English, reflecting her lack of formal education. I actually tried to read this book a couple of times before, but put it down because Celie’s unfocused narrative made it hard to figure out what was going on. even now, there are still some things I had trouble with, but I stuck it out and ultimately I’m glad I did. The Color Purple is not a pleasant novel and it does not paint a pretty picture of growing up black, impoverished, and abused in Depression-era Georgia, but it’s an important book and ultimately more hopeful than you would expect considering the subject matter.

You might have heard that one of the biggest differences between this novel and the film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg is the handling of Celie’s sexuality.  In the movie, Celie and her husband’s mistress, Shug, are bosom buddies, but nothing is included in the film to explicitly suggest they are anything more. In the novel Celie is gay and she and Shug have a sexual relationship, which, like the elements of sexual abuse, is frankly but not graphically stated. Shug seems to have leanings both ways and enjoys the occasional company of men as well as women, and she actually has feelings for Mister even though he treats women like shit.

Celie, on the other hand, admits that the concept of sex with a man does nothing for her. The Color Purple never implies that Celie is a ‘sexual deviant’ or the she has been ‘turned’ gay by men’s poor treatment of her, and in this way it is surprisingly ahead of it’s time. Her love for Shug, while not entirely unrequited, seems often to bring her more heartbreak than happiness. I don’t think I understood when I watched the film why Mister goes from being an abuser and a rapist to a genuinely remorseful and redeemable guy, it seemed arbitrary and random to me.

I think reading the book I understand to a greater degree why his character made such a drastic change. There is also tons more in the book about Nettie’s life in Africa, and the it brings up subjects like white colonialism that went totally ignored in the movie, but help enrich the book’s themes. There’s a lot of anger in this novel towards men and particularly white people, and I think it could have afforded to be a little more fair-minded.

I know that sounds stupid; there are classic, wonderfully written books that are completely outdated in the way they deal with race and gender and are sometimes downright racist. I think those books are still worth reading, and rather than censor books and movies that hold antiquated views, they should be discussed and appreciated for the things they do get right, while still not ignoring the hurtful stereotypes they present. This book is the flipside of the typical bias in classic literature, which is often written very clearly from the heterosexual, white, male point of view.

In this book, the male characters and the whites are weak, stupid, and sometimes downright evil, and I understand that Walker was trying to portray the oppression of African-American women, but I think she should have been more balanced in her depiction of, well, just about everyone except the black female characters. I will say that not every single white or male character was a total piece of shit, and there were even a couple positively portrayed male (albeit black) characters. But I will also say that that is definitely the exception to the rule.

The problem with modern culture is people’s obsession with trigger warnings and people getting their feelings hurt over a made-up story. The Color Purple is a powerful book but it has been challenged and banned in multiple libraries because of it’s thematic material. You would think parents would be thrilled about kids picking up literature like this instead of crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey (which, incidentally, have also been banned at various times, and I’m not condoning that either.)

I don’t think the subject matter involving child abuse and rape was handled in an excessively graphic manner at all. It was frank, almost painfully so, but it was not portrayed in a way that made it feel explicit or pornographic either. I think overall, it was a smart and honest book, and while it deals with a side of the human experience some people don’t want to read about, either because they prefer to live in a bubble or they are victims of similar atrocities themselves and the book hit ‘too close to home,’ it’s still a side of life that exists, and continues to exist to this day.

If you like this book, I recommend Push by Sapphire (which is written in a very similar style to this one and even contains a homage to The Color Purple) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (which contains certain themes that share common ground with this novel.) I liked this book a lot, but I didn’t love it the way some people do. As I said before, I found it to be frustratingly confusing at times; I even found Precious’ voice in Push to be ultimately easier to understand.

Instead of banning this book, actually read it- now there’s a novel concept!- and think about what Alice Walker is trying to say; about man, God, violence, and prejudice. Emotionally grueling but ultimately rewarding, The Color Purple is a touching story about breaking free of the cycle of hopelessness and abuse, and not being afraid to love passionately and fully, even if that might seem a little weird to some people. I also recommend the film, but as usual, it’s no substitute for the book.

There is so much detail in the novel they left out of the movie, and although the book is heartbreakingly sad at certain moments, there’s nothing like a good cathartic cry, and Alice Walker will help put things in perspective and come to terms with how good many of us have it, despite how enormous our problems sometimes seem. And that love is beautiful and vital, whether it be the platonic love we have for members of our families or a mother for her child, or a romantic love between a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, etc.

Walker includes a wide variety of issues and themes in her novel, and she manages to portray these themes without overextending or cramming them down our throats. People who are uncomfortable with the gay elements of the novel might want to stick with the film (Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie in the film, insists that her character and Shug were ‘just friends,’) but although the Celie’s sexual orientation doesn’t not make or break the character, her identity as a lesbian makes the book an even more interesting experience. Alice Walker deals with topics that other authors of her generation would be afraid to, and that’s something that even modern readers can appreciate.

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