A Timeless Tale: ‘The Color Purple’ and its Ever-Present Themes

Copy of 'The Color Purple' on a wooden shelf, with a plant and a crystal décor object on either side.

TW/CW: mentions of rape, violence, physical and sexual abuse/harassment, sexism and racism.

One of the many books on my summer reading list was The Color Purple by Alice Walker, as recommended to my English Literature A Level class by our teacher. What immediately struck me about this book was how Alice Walker created Celie’s voice to be so truthful and direct and gritty – no details were held back from the reader. But I think that’s what made the read so immersive.

Celie’s life starts as a tragedy and continues that way for a while into the story. As a young black girl living in the deep American South, a society entrenched in racism, she was born into poverty and segregation. The man she calls ‘father’ rapes her repeatedly – resulting in two of her children being given away – before she is taken away from her sister Nettie and forced into an abusive relationship.

It’s only when Shrug Avery, a glamourous singer, falls ill and takes refuge in Celie and Mister’s house, that things gradually start to change for Celie. Shug has taken control of her own future – something which Celie never thought she was able to.

As well as helping her gain confidence in herself, Shug teaches Celie about seeing God as an ‘It’ rather than a ‘He’ and educates Celie on sexuality and how a woman can find sex pleasurable – a topic which is still taboo even today.

“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.” – Shug Avery

Celie’s strongest relationships in the story are those with other women – like her sister, Shug, and Sofia, her daughter-in-law. Sometimes, in novels, we as readers become so enraptured with the romantic relationships that we forget how important friendships can be too. Whilst elements of Celie and Shug’s relationship borders on romantic, they find strength in one another that the men in their lives can’t – a sort of common understanding.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perfectly summed up The Color Purple as “a lush celebration of all that it means to be female, to be a black female, and like the best of celebrations, it is an honest one.” 

The story is told through a series of letters, first from Celie to God. Then, once Celie finds that her husband, ‘Mister’, has been keeping Nettie’s letters from her, the point of view changes again, and continues to alternate between letters from Nettie to Celie and vice versa.

Whilst I initially found this an unusual format to read in, it helped me connect with the plot on a deeper level and I was soon enthralled in the epistolary story telling.

Walker wrote Celie’s voice by drawing on the features of Black English, or African American English. Verbal expression is different in American Black English, which has its own lexicon (vocabulary, terms, codes and word sets), grammar (inflections, syntax and rules) and phonology (speech sounds and pronunciation patterns).

This could lead some readers to be put off continuing to read the story, but whilst reading I embraced it as Celie’s gritty, honest voice and quietened down the writer side of me that wanted to correct all the ‘spelling mistakes’.

As an aspiring writer myself, one of the things that hooked me into the story was how realistic all the characters felt. None of the main characters remained ‘bad’, with Mister changing his ways after Celie leaves him to go to Memphis with Shug. To me, this reflected how non-fictious people can change if they only try hard enough – perhaps a message that Walker was indirectly trying to portray.

Not only does Walker explore racism in Southern America, she also broadens to the fictious Olinka people in Africa, whom Nettie visits and lives with as a Christian missionary. The Olinka tribe live on the west coast of Africa.

They seem to have been created through an amalgamation of characteristics, customs and traditions from a range of African tribes. Here, the importance of female relationships is further presented, as well as allowing Nettie to connect with her African roots.

Through Nettie’s letters to Celie, we come to realise and learn that the status of women in the Olinka tribe is extremely like that of women in the American South.

“The Olinka girls do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.” – Nettie

In societies where women are expected to be dependent on men, both Celie and Nettie are independent and lean more heavily on support from other women as opposed to men – which inevitably led to controversy after the book’s publication.

After publishing The Color Purple in 1982, Alice Walker faced several negative reviews and even split from her partner at the time. Amongst other things, Walker was accused of betraying her race, of damaging black male and female relationships and of being a lesbian.

Personally, I think that Alice Walker was incredibly brave to write and to publish such a controversial book. And this bravery was rewarded as The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 – only a year after its publication – making Alice Walker the first black woman to win the prize.

Final Thoughts

To anyone interested in feminism, issues of racism, and the power of female friendships – you need to read this book. I was deeply moved by it and know that it’ll be a while before I forget about The Color Purple and all the important messages it carries with it.

If I had to, I’d rate this book 10/10 without a doubt. Some people could find the format of the story being written in letters, or Celie’s idiolectal way of spelling to be irritating and off-putting – however I’d insist that they stuck with it. Too many stories are turned away after the first page. But The Color Purple does not, by any account deserve to be cast aside.

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