I re-read one of my favorite books recently, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and forgot how much I loved it. A book about women, oppression, racism, sexism, God, religion and probably most importantly, love- it’s one of those rare books that are an experience, teaching you and staying with you throughout your life.
The Color Purple, written in 1982, is an epistolary novel (fancy way to say that it’s written through letters) about the life of an African-American woman, Celie, her family, her life in rural Georgia in the 1930’s, and her relationship with God. The novel, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was later adapted into a film, created a lot of controversy. Some African-American critics argued that the novel reaffirmed racist stereotypes about black communities and black men in particular, but the novel has also been praised as a great feminist novel.
For me- this book is not only simply a great engaging piece of literature, or indeed a great feminist novel, but also a sort of religious/spiritual text. The ideas about religion and God in the book that Celie adopts correlates with my own spiritual and religious ideas, and actually, thinking of it, when I first read the book back a few years ago it was kind of an awakening for me. I did beleive in God at the time but I was incredibly confused and unsure about my ideas about God or perhaps what religious path I should be taking. Reading this book was like a slap in the face…in the best possible way.
Not only do I treasure this book so much because of the spiritual ideas about God; that God is not male or female, but rather, ‘it’, the trees and flowers and rocks and earth, but also because of the beautiful relationships between the females in the book. Actually- before I get onto that, I want to talk about Celie herself.
From opening, life at home does not seem to be good for Celie.
‘I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me’ a fourteen year old Celie says, as she then tells us about her sick mother and her father ‘pa’ who rapes her. By the very next page, her ‘mama’ is dead.
From these two first pages alone, which are barely even full pages, it’s clear to see that this book is not going to be an ‘easy’ or light read. But that is not to say you should avoid it, sure, Celie is a fictional character, but she feels real and most importantly, she could be real. This book is not a fantasy, it reflects what life was like for a lot of black women growing up in the Southern states of America in the 1930’s, and even now can reflect what some women may go through in some places of the world, being oppressed and abused by men who see women as ‘less than’.
Celie is a strong and incredibly brave character. But in her own eyes, Celie is ‘ugly’ and not as smart as her sister Nettie, and it’s really heartbreaking to read not only other people telling her she is basically worthless, but the fact that she feels that way about herself too.
The book, as mentioned before, is written through Celie’s letters to God, and near the end of the book, her sister Nettie’s letters to Celie. I adore the way this book is written, it feels so incredibly personal and is a great way of really connecting with a character. As Celie is writing to God the letters just feel that much more personal because she tells God everything, holding no bounds. We truly get inside of Celie’s mind and read all her deepest thoughts and feelings.
The relationships between the women in the book are really meaningful and touching. From the beginning, it’s clear to see Celie and Nettie have a very close, loving relationship. When Celie’s husband, known as ‘Mr ___’, tells Nettie she is pretty, Nettie throws those complements right back to Celie-
‘She tell me, your skin. Your hair. Your teefs. He try and give her a compliment, she pass it on to me.’ It’s the little things like this throughout the book that really hit me in my heart.
Celie’s relationship with her husband’s ex-lover is truly my favorite relationship in the book. Celie is in awe of Shug Avery from the very moment she lays her eyes on her. She takes care of her when she is sick, dresses her, feeds her, combs her hair- ‘She got the nottiest, shortest, kinkiest hair I ever saw, and I loves every strand of it.’
Soon, Shug and Celie become closer and a bond is formed, and it’s so touching to actually read about someone being good to Celie and showing her love. The women in the book become who they are, and most importantly survive, through their relationships with each other. The bonds through sisterhood, learning their worth and how to fight for what they truly deserve would not have happened if it wasn’t for the strong women in the book who, although are oppressed and abused, can still manage to show love and kindness.
Overall this book is subtly powerful. It’s a beautiful yet painful story of women breaking free from gender roles, oppression, self hate and religious confines. It’s an incredibly touching story with characters who feel real and alive, and will remain forever in my heart. I know I can read this book again and again and still be touched by the words on the page as if they were the first time I had ever read them. The book covers so many years with Celie, starting just when she is fourteen years old, by the end it truly feels like a lifetime has passed, and in a way, I suppose it has.
‘I thank everyone in this book for coming.’
-A.W., author and medium