I did not expect the book to be an epistolary novel, so easy to read, entertaining and full of wisdom. The novel takes on a distinct voice of the protagonist who has a very narrow view of the world, particularly since her letters are written in dialect, slangs and from the perspective of a naïve, uneducated adolescent. Warning: If you plan to read this book, my review may contain spoilers.
The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. The tale is told primarily through her own letters, which, out of isolation and despair, she initially addresses to God and then to her sister Nettie. As a young girl she is repeatedly raped and beaten by her father (she didn’t know it was her stepfather then and this book is full of surprises and interesting twists), who then forced Celie into a loveless marriage to Albert (refer as Mr. ___ in the book), a widower with four children, one of them is Harpo who grew an attachment to Celie. Albert however is in love with vivacious and determinedly independent blues singer named Shug (Lillie) Avery. Celie is constantly being slapped and beaten by Albert for not being Shug, despite it all Celie took what fate thrust upon her. When his oldest son, Harpo, asks his father Albert why he beats Celie, he says simply, “Cause she my wife.” For a time Celie accepts the abuse stoically: “He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.”
This novel is set in the early 1900’s and ends in the mid-1940’s, Celie soon found out her sister, Nettie, who she believes is dead is out in Africa with the missionary group to live with the Olinka tribe. For me Nettie’s letters are the most interesting as it describes the life of African, written in a better English (because Nettie was suppose to be the smart one) Nettie’s letter exudes calm and grace, faithfully serving the God’s duty and coincidentally took care of Celie’s children, which were abandoned when Celie was made pregnant.
Soon Celie and Shug struck up a close relationship and with Shug’s encouragement, Celie frees herself from her husband’s repressive control. Bolstered by her contacts with other women more confident than her, i.e. her sister Nettie, Shug Avery, the strong Sofia, Celie found her confidence and starts a business designing and making clothes, specialising in trousers (pants in American language). 🙂
The novel began with a harrowing start. The letters were brutally descriptive and honest that it made my heart wrenched. It is a delightful reading experience to see Celie’s personal evolution and acceptance of herself that eventually lead to Albert to re-evaluation of his own life. As the novel progresses, however, and as Celie grows in experience, her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority and the dialect, once accepted, assumes a lyrical cadence of its own.
There were many charming characters in the book but the letters and honest simple prose belies the fact that behind the characters there were intense emotional impact of love, hurt, disappointment and also forgiveness. Walker showcases the ugliness of a community who is ostracised and sometimes turn against one another to add to the injury. Walker also provides a contrast to native African who lives in their land and being colonised as counter reflection of an African who lives in American.Walker writes which such lucid prose that I get so many entertainment and wisdom through the pages and if there is one take away from the book is from the words of Albert is that we are in world to love each other.
If you know your heart sorry, I say, that mean it not quite as spoilt as you think.
Anyhow, he (Albert) says, you know how it is. You ast yourself one question, it lead to fifteen. I start to wonder why us need love. Why us suffer. Why us black. Why us men and women. Where do children really come from. It didn’t take long to realize I didn’t hardly know nothing. And that if you ast yourself why you black or a man or a woman or a bush it don’t mean nothing if you don’t ast why you here. Period.
So what you think? I ast.
I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he says, the more I love.
And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.
They do, he say, surprise. – page 256
Walker is extremely prolific and her voice is loud and clear. A poignant tale of women’s struggle for equality and independence without the emotional excess. The Color Purple provides for many reading group discussion about the role of male domination in the frustration of black women’s struggle for independence, but at the core of it is a very brilliant novel with a lot of heart in it, with a very distinct voice. Now, I understand why it is a modern classic. Highly recommended.
“If it is true that it is what we run from that chases us, then The Color Purple (this color that is always a surprise but is everywhere in nature) is the book that ran me down while I sat with my back to it in a field” – Alice Walker, introduction.
Paperback. Publisher: Phoenix 2004, originally published in 1983; Length: 261 pages; Setting: South USA. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 26th May 2012.
About the writer:
Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of eight children, to Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant. Her father, who was, in her words, “wonderful at math but a terrible farmer,” earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming. Her mother supplemented the family income by working as a maid. She worked 11 hours a day for USD $17 per week to help pay for Alice to attend college.
After high school, Walker went to Spelman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship in 1961 and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College near New York City, graduating in 1965. Walker became interested in the U.S. civil rights movement in part due to the influence of activist Howard Zinn, who was one of her professors at Spelman College. Continuing the activism that she participated in during her college years, Walker returned to the South where she became involved with voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights, and children’s programs in Mississippi.
The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and National Book Award 1983 and was made into a movie in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.