The Color Purple Alice Walker
(Full name Alice Malsenior Walker) American novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Walker's novel The Color Purple (1982) through 2001. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, and 103.
The Color Purple is regarded as Walker's most successful and critically acclaimed work. Written in an epistolary style, the novel depicts the harsh life of a young African-American woman in the South in the early twentieth century. The Color Purple explores the individual identity of the African-American woman and how embracing that identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Although some reviewers have taken issue with the novel's portrayal of Black men, the novel has largely been celebrated by critics and popular audiences alike, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1983. In 1985 filmmaker Stephen Spielberg directed the film adaptation of The Color Purple, which was nominated for eleven awards—including best picture—by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944, the eighth and last child of sharecroppers Willie Lee and Lou Grant Walker. When she was eight years old, her brother shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye. This disfigurement made her shy and self-conscious, and she began to use writing as a means of expressing herself. The accident also had a permanent impact on her relationship with her father: his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her forever affected her relationship with him, and they remained estranged for the rest of his life. Despite her disadvantaged childhood, Walker won the opportunity to continue her education with a scholarship to Spelman College. After attending Spelman for two years, she became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, entitled Once: Poems (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for Walker. After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca, but they divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author who would have great influence on her later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself when I Am Laughing … and Then again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple.
Plot and Major Characters
The Color Purple begins with fourteen-year-old Celie writing a letter to God, asking for a sign. Celie is a scared, poor, African-American girl living in the South. Her mother has become ill after the most recent of her numerous pregnancies, and the man Celie believes to be her father abuses Celie sexually. He tells her, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy.” Readers discover through subsequent letters that “Pa” fathers two children with Celie, but abducts them from her soon after each birth. Her mother dies during Celie's second pregnancy, and Celie is unable to confirm whether her children are living or dead. After her mother's death, Celie becomes responsible for the upkeep of the house and the rearing of her younger siblings, including her sister Nettie. Nettie is courted by a man her father's age, who asks to marry Nettie, but Pa refuses, and offers the older Celie as a wife instead. Celie marries the suitor, whom she calls Mr. ———. Nettie then becomes the object of Pa's sexual desires, causing her to move in with Celie and Mr. ———. Nettie is later forced to leave when she refuses Mr. ———'s sexual advances. Before Nettie flees, she promises Celie that she will write to her, but Celie never receives any of Nettie's letters. Celie's letters—which advance the narrative of the book—are now written to Nettie instead of God, and relate the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that she endures in Mr. ———'s household. When Mr. ———'s son, Harpo, brings home Sophia—his prospective wife—Celie is exposed for the first time to a proud, strong female figure. Sophia is outspoken and refuses to conform to Harpo's and Mr. ———'s stereotypical model of an obedient spouse. After Harpo repeatedly beats her, Sophia leaves and is eventually arrested for assaulting a white man. A turning point in Celie's life occurs when Mr. ———'s mistress, Shug Avery, moves in to recuperate after an illness. Another strong-willed woman, Shug is a sexy, spirited blues singer, and Celie is obsessively attracted to her. After Celie nurses Shug, Shug begins to heal Celie, first as a mother figure, then as a lover. Through this relationship, Celie begins to feel loved and develops newfound feelings of self-worth. One day, when Shug gets the mail, she brings in a letter for Celie, postmarked from Africa. The letter is from Nettie, and, as Celie discovers, Nettie has been sending her letters for years. A search of the house reveals that all of Nettie's letters have been taken and hidden by Mr. ———. Celie puts the letters in chronological order and begins to read them, learning that Samuel and Corinne, a missionary couple in town, took in Nettie when she was forced to leave Mr. ———'s house. Samuel and Corrine had adopted two children and the two are Celie's lost offspring. Nettie traveled with them to Africa, where they tried to Christianize the people of the Olinka tribe. Nettie's letters also reveal that Celie's Pa is not her father, but is instead her stepfather. In a rage over the theft of these letters, Celie comes close to killing Mr. ———, but is stopped by Shug. Shug convinces Celie that it is better to create than to destroy, and Celie subsequently takes up sewing pants as a creative outlet. Celie leaves Mr. ———, whom she now calls by his given name, Albert, and travels to Memphis with Shug. After Pa dies, Celie inherits her childhood home, which also includes a dry goods store. She returns to her hometown and sets up a small business selling Folkspants—a line of pants of her own creation. Albert eventually returns to Celie as a transformed figure who now respects her, and the two work side by side, with Albert sewing matching shirts for her pants business. At the conclusion of the novel, Celie is reunited with sister Nettie and her own lost children, and she introduces Shug and Albert as her family.
The Color Purple dramatically underscores the oppression Black women have experienced throughout history in the rural South in America. Following the Civil War, most Black Americans remained disenfranchised and were typically viewed as less than human by many members of white society. Women were also regarded as less important than men—both Black and white—making Black women doubly disadvantaged. Black women of the era were often treated as slaves or as property, even by male members of their own families. In The Color Purple, Celie is passed on from Pa to Mr. ——— without any regard for her own desires. She constantly struggles to forge her own self-identity and to not accept the subservient role that society has ascribed to her. In the course of the novel, Sophia becomes Celie's first role model of a Black woman who does not allow the men surrounding her to limit her lifestyle. Additionally, the novel examines themes of sisterhood and methods of sharing among women in their quest for political, sexual, and racial equality. Celie is able to overcome her many hardships because of the love and solidarity she receives from women like Nettie, Sophia, and Shug Avery. By seeing herself as a member of a community, Celie develops a sense of identity and realizes new opportunities in her life. When Shug stops Celie from killing Mr. ———, Celie is inspired to find a new outlet for her passion and creativity. This leads to the creation of Celie's business, which offers her more personal and financial freedom. Spiritual fulfillment is also a recurring theme in The Color Purple. The novel opens with Celie writing to God, an anonymous all-knowing male creator figure. Celie keeps asking for a sign from God to reveal his presence and lift her many burdens, but no signs ever appear. As the story progresses, Celie stops writing to God and begins writing to her sister Nettie. Through her relationship with Nettie and with the other Black women in her life, Celie is able to see tangible signs of hope and spirituality. Walker portrays the typical archetype of the male Christian God as aloof and absent in The Color Purple, while Celie's community of friends and family is portrayed as caring and emotionally nourishing.
Walker has earned high praise for The Color Purple, particularly for her accurate rendering of folk idiom, her use of the oral storytelling tradition, and her characterization of Celie. Although critical response to the novel has been largely positive, there have been several widely-debated aspects of Walker's work. For example, many reviewers have criticized her portrayal of male African-American characters as archetypes of African-American men in modern society. Such commentators have condemned these portrayals as unnecessarily negative, citing the vile and unsympathetic male characters, such as Mr. ———, as evidence of enmity on Walker's part. Some critics have found fault with Walker's characterizations in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Reviewers have also noted temporal and logistic flaws in The Color Purple's narrative, but most scholars have excused these faults, commenting that such lapses are a necessary sacrifice for Walker's total narrative agenda. Walker has been highly praised by feminist critics for vividly portraying the brutality that women have faced throughout the years, but some have argued that the novel's happy ending makes light of the offenses suffered by the female protagonist and runs contrary to reality. Conversely, some reviewers have defended the novel's upbeat ending, claiming that it is not disloyal to feminist concerns, but rather furthers the idea that a woman—especially one surrounded by a community of nurturing women—can overcome adversity.