Monday, January 3, 2011
Book Review - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple has long been one of my favorite films and one of my favorite book, but I hadn't reviewed it because I felt there was no way I could even begin to do it justice. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, and generally, I dislike epistolary novels very much. In my opinion, most of them are quite simplistic and contain poorly developed plots and thinly drawn characters.
This is definitely not the case with Alice’s Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple. This epistolary novel is one of the deepest and richest and most moving stories I’ve ever read. It’s both heartbreaking and uplifting in the extreme, and its protagonist, Celie, is a girl/woman I fell in love with on the very first page and will cherish for the rest of my life.
When the novel opens, Celie, a poor, black girl in the American South of the 1930s, is only fourteen-years-old. Her brother, Lucious, has just been born, and her mother has fallen ill. Her father, whom she calls “Pa,” is an abusive, self-centered man who indulges his own sexual needs by raping Celie. Celie, who knows nothing about sex or even the rudimentary birth control that was practiced at that time, gives birth to one child and is pregnant with another before her mother dies. Against Celie’s wishes, Pa takes the children away from her...to where, Celie doesn’t know.
Forced to “take her mother’s place,” not only in the bedroom, but as the cook, housekeeper and caretaker of her brothers and sisters as well, Celie is especially protective of her younger sister, Nettie, whom she loves very much.
Being “the woman of the house” doesn’t bring Celie anything even remotely akin to authority. She is, in fact, a victim, a child who is not allowed to be a child; a girl who is so powerless she even finds it impossible to pray.
Although she can’t pray, Celie is a deeply spiritual being who expresses her connection with God in beautifully moving, deeply heartfelt letters. Celie’s first letter to God begins:
I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
Last spring after little Lucious come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say It too soon, Fonso, I ain’t well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by, he pulling on her arm again. She say Naw, I ain’t gonna. Can’t you see I’m already half dead, an all of these children.
As you can see, The Color Purple is written in the dialect of a partially educated girl in the rural South, one who makes many mistakes in grammar, but one who is, above all else, honest and sincere. Although some readers might object to the use of this dialect, I thought it enriched and deepened the book and painted a far more vivid portrait of Celie, herself, than had it been written in “standard English.” And once you begin reading, you quickly adjust to Celie’s idiosyncratic way of writing. I thought the narrative flowed beautifully.
One of the things that renders Celie so powerless in the beginning of this book is sex. The power of sex to either create or destroy will be one of the continuing motifs threaded through the The Color Purple. Celie suffers joyless, abusive sex, first with Pa and later with the man Pa forces her to marry, a man Celie knows only as Mr._____.
The Color Purple is heartbreaking as it details Celie’s life with Pa, but it becomes even more so after her marriage to Mr._____. We desperately want Celie to find happiness but she finds, instead, more misery. She’s beaten, forced to work daily, both inside the house and out in the fields, to the point of exhaustion, and even though Mr._____ does not love or care for Celie (he married her because she’s a good cook and housekeeper), he still forces her to engage in sexual relations with him, something Celie dislikes as much as the beatings.
Celie’s marriage to Mr._____ introduces the Harpo/Sophia subplot, the subplot involving Nettie, and most importantly, the pivotal character of Shug Avery, a flamboyant jazz and blues singer who was once the lover of Mr._____.
Harpo is one of Mr._____’s children, a boy who falls in love with a woman named Sophia Butler. Against Mr._____’s wishes, Harpo impregnates Sophia and marries her. When he tires to emulate his father, though, and beats Sophia, just as Mr._____ beats Celie, Sophia does something Celie doesn’t do...she rebels, eventually taking her children and Harpo’s and leaving Harpo for a prizefighter named Henry Broadnax, or, as he is better known, “Buster.” Not to be outdone, Harpo turns his home into a “jukejoint” and acquires a girlfriend named Mary Agnes, a woman he calls “Squeak.”
Nettie, who is outwardly much prettier than Celie, and who left Pa to live with Celie and Mr._____, was Mr._____’s first choice as a wife. Like Celie, Nettie finds life at Mr._____’s just as bad, if not worse, than life at Pa’s. When Celie arranges for her to live with Reverend Samuel and his wife, Corrine, however, Walker sets up one of the book’s important subplots that will revolve around both Nettie’s time as a missionary in Africa and Celie’s “lost” children.
The catalyst for change, however, is the arrival at Mr._____’s of Shug Avery. Although she’s ill when she arrives, Celie immediately recognizes that Mr._____ and Shug have been lovers. Strange as it might sound, this is something Celie doesn’t resent. In fact, she falls in love with Shug, herself, the moment she sets eyes on her, and although Shug and Mr._____ begin sleeping together, so do Shug and Celie. Ironically, it’s Shug, Celie’s husband’s lover, who awakens Celie to the joys of sexual communion. From this point on in the novel, Celie will begin to grow, to become strong, to realize that she, like every other person on earth, deserves happiness and fulfillment in every aspect of her life.
Celie is, for me, quite possibly the most beautiful, heartbreaking and generous character in all of literature. Her boundless spirit is radiant...dazzling, and I don’t know how anyone could fail to love her. Alice Walker has done such a magnificent job in bringing Celie to life that she truly broke my heart, time and time again.
The other characters are fully realized as well and all are rich and extremely complex. Each character is fighting his or her own personal demons and struggles. Each character is trying to find happiness and the will to survive and none of them are wholly bad or wholly good, not even Celie. The Color Purple, however, despite the depth of characterization, is Celie’s book and it’s with her that we identify and empathize.
Most of the men in The Color Purple are portrayed as cruel and uncaring, something that has led many people to call this book a “feminist” novel. I didn’t see it this way at all. The Color Purple takes place in the rural South of the 1930s. The characters are, for the most part, quite poverty stricken. In that place, during that time, I think many men would have acted much as Walker’s male characters do. And not all of the men are cruel. Buster is quite sympathetic and even Mr._____, eventually, shows us a softer and gentler, more human and vulnerable, side.
The color purple, in this book, is the symbol of spiritual awakening, the recognition of God’s presence in all things and all people. Shug tells Celie that it angers God if a person walks past the color purple without marveling at it simply for no other reason than because it exists. I saw the color purple as a metaphor for Celie, herself. This beautiful girl, who, at the novel’s beginning, believes she has no worth, must somehow come to the realization that she, like the color purple, has worth simply because “she is.”
As The Color Purple progresses, Walker weaves Nettie’s story and Shug’s story around Celie’s. She also reintroduces Celie’s children, a boy and a girl. As Celie grows into the essence of her own personhood, the character of her letters changes. They become deeper, more opinionated, more insightful. Celie begins to see that, though she may suffer pain and humiliation, like the color purple, her worth is inherent and cannot be corrupted.
At one point in the book Celie writes:
I feel a little peculiar round the children. For one thing, they grown. And I see they think me and Nettie and Shug and Albert and Samuel and Harpo and Sophia and Jack and Odessa real old and don’t know much what going on. But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.
That’s perfect. There’s nothing I can add.
The Bottom Line: An extremely beautiful, moving and powerful story of an extraordinary girl growing up in the American South of the 1930s. Quite possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.