Alice Walker’s modern classic The Color Purple portrays the lives and struggles of African American women in the last century, marked by sexual abuse and humiliation, and tells of a beautiful love story between two women.
Celie can hardly read. But as she has no one to talk to, no one to trust, she starts writing letters to God. He – Celie’s God, like all the powerful people she knows, is definitely male – listens as she reports the violence and degradation she experiences almost daily. Abused by her stepfather as a teenager, she is Celie is soon forced into a marriage with Albert, an older widower and father of four who really would have preferred her beautiful sister Nettie. Albert takes her home to care for children that do not want a new mother and fight her every step of the way. Separated from Nettie, the only one who ever truly loved her, all Celie can do is try her best to survive the mistreatment she receives from all sides. The men around her have been raised to use their women for sex, food and shelter. Leaving all work to their wives, all they do is drink, cheat on and beat them.
But hope is given to Celie from an unexpected source. Shug Avery, a scintillating, fiercely independent blues singer has had relations with Albert for years. She is the only woman he is truly in love with – perhaps because he can never fully have her - and one day, Albert brings her home to stay with him and Celie for a while. Suspicious at first, Celie quickly becomes fascinated by this woman who behaves so differently from all the women she knows. And soon, can no longer resist Shug’s magical appeal. Inspired by Shug, Celie and the women surrounding her learn to resist the men’s violence and to see through their veneer of power.
The Color Purple is completely different from what I could have expected but just as powerful as I thought it would be. A brilliant story with so many layers and a narration that is always nuanced and considered. I loved the characters in their complexity and admired the ease with which the relationships unfolded. The richness of the characters’ portrayals draws you into the story and keeps you engaged, even as scenes of violence might make you want to turn away. Celie is certainly one of the strongest, most well-drawn characters I have read so far. Walker’s deep compassion for all her characters has a healing quality, that restores all the hope one might have lost in the devastating moments we witness from page one.
“You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t… He start to choke me, saying you better shut up an get used to it.”
The author peels back all the lies and customs behind which domestic abuse hides and condemns a society in which women are allowed to be treated with utmost disdain. Walker strips naked the men who boost their egos by beating their wives and celebrates women’s heroic bravery and resilience. The novel shows a way out of this seemingly vicious cycle by asserting that women and men have the power to shape their own lives and futures and to define for themselves how to express their gender. No one has to be dominant if no one is forced to submit. The strength of Walker’s female characters and the deep love they share is inspiring and brings a lightness to the story despite all the dark and horrifying themes. And after all the abuse, The Color Purple is a book about finding joy in community, in love, and in living. The result is a book that is incredibly brutal, full of love, devastating and yet quietly uplifting.