The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker's most magnificent and controversial literary achievement. The novel outraged African American male critics as well as a few female critics who argued that Walker's story did not reveal an accurate picture of African American life. One California mother was so insulted by the novel's content that she attempted to ban it from public school libraries. Others claimed that the novel was flawed because it defined a woman's identity in relationship to her sexual experiences. Even the language of the novel's protagonist has been found lacking. Regardless of its initial reception, accolades for Walker's piercing story of an abused, African American woman have included the Pulitzer Prize (1983), the National Book Award (1983), and an Academy Award nomination. It has attracted the appreciation of the masses and ignited passions within both popular culture and academic thought.
The Color Purple is the first African American, woman-authored, epistolary novel. It embodies Walker's womanist views without being reduced to a mere platform for ideological rhetoric. In this novel, Walker's writing reveals the transformative power of female bonding and female love. It offers frank portrayals of bisexual, lesbian, and heterosexual relationships amidst situations that penetrate the core of female spiritual and emotional development.
The novel opens with a demand for silence that leaves a fourteen-year-old girl named Celie with no way to express her pain and confusion except in the letters she writes to God. Celie is raped repeatedly by her stepfather, Alphonso, and has two children by him—children he gives away without her consent. Later, she is forced into a loveless marriage, leaving her sister Nettie alone with Alphonso. Nettie escapes his sexual advances by moving in with Celie and her husband, Mr. Albert. This arrangement is no better than the previous one and Nettie is again forced to leave. She ultimately ends up in Africa where she writes to Celie of her experiences.
For Celie, marriage is nothing more than a shift within the quicksands of abuse and male domination. Albert beats her because she is not Shug Avery, the woman he loves but does not have the courage to marry. Surprisingly, Celie and Shug develop an intimate relationship. More than anyone, Shug's influential presence and acceptance give Celie the strength she needs to redefine herself, take charge of her life, and leave Albert. Shug and Celie move to Memphis where Celie begins a career designing and selling unisex pants. After her stepfather's death, she returns to her family home. Nettie also returns with Celie's two children. The novel ends with a reconciliation of Celie and Albert's friendship.
Both The Color Purple and the subsequent film directed by Steven Spielberg (1985) have opened the minds of millions to the plight of African American women in crisis. If knowledge and personal insight is empowering, then The Color Purple offers those who acknowledge its truths a wealth of strength. And for women like Celie, it is a starting point for change and healing.
Calvin C. Hernton, “Who's Afraid of Alice Walker,” in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature and Real Life, 1987, pp. 1–36.Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Color Me Zora: Alice Walker's (Re) Writing of the Speakerly Text,” in The Signifying Monkey, 1988, pp. 239–258.William Wells Brown, Clotel, ed. Robert S. Levine, 2000.M. Giulia Fabi, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel, 2001.
Subjects: Literature — Music Theatre.
Related content in Oxford Index
Alice Walker (b. 1944) American writer and critic