Set in the deep American South between the wars, THE COLOR PURPLE is the classic tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker – a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.
Some novels you admire; some novels you love; and some novels are so powerful, so thought provoking that they make you grow as a person and give you characters that will live in your heart for the rest of your life. The Color Purple is definitely the latter and is without a doubt one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I’m not the alone in this estimation. When this novel came out, it became a living obsession of Oprah Winfrey, adored by thousands of black women and won a Pulitzer prize in spite of the tendency of POC and women (especially one who is both) to be overlooked. What makes the story so compelling?
First, part of what makes it so special lies in the choice of main character and the writing style itself. It’s main character, Celie, is an uneducated queer African American woman in the early to mid 20th century. This makes her unique in and of herself, as the only group more deprived of a voice than poor black women (aside from trans people) are LGBT people of colour.
Celie’s voice is also part of what makes this book so wonderful. Writing convincingly from the point of view of an uneducated person is excruciatingly hard, as it severely limits the vocabulary you can use. However, Walker does this brilliant. Celie’s narrative is in broken English and often takes things at face value (at least initially). All of her insights are driven by the people around her and through the actions of people in her immediate sphere.
This later contrasts with the letters of Nettie, Celie’s sister. Nettie managed to escape her background and gain an education and (relative) independence. She then travels to Africa as a missionary to the Olinka tribe. While Celie’s narrative is more of a personal journey and her insights are centered almost solely on the people around her, Nettie’s narrative is more sophisticated and her insights are outwards focused. She is charged with being a missionary to the Olinka people in Africa, and her insights into them are deep and complex. A theme of this book is gaining spiritual freedom from changing one perceptions of God from a white male patriarchal figure to a more genderless spirit found in nature. Even though Nettie is a Christian character, unlike the condescending white missionaries whom the Olinka met prior to her, she is able to recognise the merit in how the Olinka see their God (in roofleaves) and not judge them. Moreso, her narrative shines a brutal light on how the Olinka people are being oppressed by the British colonization and this account is absolutely heart wrenching. However, Walker doesn’t romanticize the Olinka culture (though she acknowledges how terrible it is that they are losing their land and culture). Again and again we see deep and natural insights into their patriarchal culture which is done- like all insights in this book- not in a heavy handed lecture, but in a thoughtful way. It also looks at the way women are complicit in their own oppression, as we see in this quote:
They [Olinka women] indulge their husbands, if anything. You should see how they make admiration over them. Praise their smallest accomplishments […] No wonder the men are often childish. And a grown child is a dangerous thing, especially since, among the Olinka, the husband has life and death power over the wife.
This book is so insightful throughout, and yet so readable and emotionally engaging at the same time. This insight in particular is one of the cruxes of the novel. It isn’t just about the oppression of black people, but more specifically the oppression of black women, not just only white people but also by black men– whether it be poorly educated fathers and husbands in the deep South, or by a misogynistic African culture that enforces female genital mutilation. When it comes to the male characters, it caused a lot of controversy from black male critics at the time. This is in part to do with how patriarchal the times were then (even today, when domestic violence and rape are mentioned, I’ve heard men desperately splutter ‘but women rape men too’, as if these rare cases somehow mitigate the fact that this is overwhelmingly a male perpetrated crime regardless of the victim’s gender, and that we shouldn’t talk about or tackle the problem purely to spare their feelings because it makes them feel judged).
But part of their nervousness was completely understandable. Black men were poorly represented in the media-often characterized as thugs- and were victims of a shocking amount of police brutality. Now, on one of the very rare occasions a piece of fiction written by a black person,centering around the black community, the most prominent men in this novel are primarily abusers.
But the story is actually a lot more complex than just being a case of ‘black men are evil oppressors. Let’s fight the patriarchy and start our own country away from those menz.’ There are plenty of terrific black men in this novel; Samuel is an educated, unambiguously moral person, as is Adam who was more horrified by Tashi’s (very complex) choice to undergo female genital mutilation than any of the female characters. Harpo and Celie’s husband both went through redemption narratives, and the former reconciled with his wife while the latter became friends with Celie . And Celie’s SPOILER biological father is portrayed as a good and honest man who was the victim of a hate crime, and also wronged by Celie’s step father after his death. Celie inherited her property from her father, which came across as an act of fatherly love from beyond the grave SPOILER END
What this book really attacks is a patriarchal culture and how a lack of education increases the chance of violence. Celie’s husband and father, though rich, are both poorly educated and the law gives them complete power over women. And- as illustrated by the numerous sex scandals of the seventies that are coming out of the woodwork (primarily committed by white men)- a culture where men are given complete power over women and things are kept private is a culture where abuse thrives. Domestic abuse went against Harpo’s nature, but we see how the terrible example set by his father encourages him down this route.
But for everything I’ve talked about, I’ve yet to mention the one thing that matters more than anything else when it comes to this novel: the relationship between the women. This story is full, of strong, brilliant black women who are utterly likeable and memorable. Sofia, Harpo’s wife, is strong, powerful and won’t let her husband oppress her, fighting tooth and nail every time he tries to beat her. It was the sisters of Celie’s husbands who told her she was worth something for the first time in her life.
But the real important relationship is between Celie and the enigmatic beauty, Shug Avery. Shug Avery is the sexy, promiscuous, sensuous singer that Celie’s husband has loved all his life and has continued an affair with. Celie first finds out about her when she sees her picture and becomes intrigued by her; when Shug Avery finally comes into her life, her fantasies of this woman is soon shattered:
Eyes big, glossy. Feverish. And mean. Like, sick as she is, if a snake cross her path, she kill it.
She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it.
However, after Celie helps nurse her back to health, a friendship forms. In any other book, Shug would be a ‘bitch’ or a ‘villain’ and shamed in the way that the church women do. But this novel never judges her, and portrays her as a good person.
Their intense friendship develops over the years as the two support each other through thick and thin. Celie, a lesbian, is deeply in love with bisexual Shug Avery and it is through her that she awakens to her feelings for women (which I’ll discuss more in a later post). However, the novel makes clear that it isn’t just about attraction or romantic love. There is a deep, intense friendship there, as Shug is not only a lover but a sister and maternal figure. The depth of their friendship culminates in Shug leaving the male of her life because of how he beat Celie. The whole novel is, first and foremost, a beautiful, gripping, powerful testament to female friendship.
VERDICT: The Color Purple is one of the most compelling, deep, heart wrenching, powerful and yet utterly readable novels I have ever come across. It is so simple, and yet so complicated, and is inhabited with some of the most endearing female friendships you will ever encounter. I cannot recommend this novel enough to anyone and everyone and think it should be on everyone’s reading list.
RATING: 5 strong awesome black women / 5