The Color Purple

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At the center of this triumphant story is Celie, who gradually overcomes her disadvantages and achieves a sense of self-worth. Ranging from the early 1900’s to the 1940’s, the novel consists almost entirely of letters, many written in Celie’s limited but highly expressive dialect.

The first letters, those of the young Celie, are addressed to God: she does not know where else to turn. Raped repeatedly by her stepfather (she believes him to be her natural father), Celie is delivered of three children by him: the first is taken out and killed; the second and third, a boy and a girl, are given to a local couple. Celie’s stepfather forces her to marry Albert, who beats her and badly mistreats her.

Strangely, Albert’s mistress, a blues singer named Shug Avery, frees Celie from Albert’s bondage, first by loving her, then by helping her to start a custom sewing business. From Shug, Celie learns that Albert has been hiding letters written to her from Africa by her sister Nettie, a missionary. These letters, full of educated, firsthand observation of African life, form a moving counterpoint to Celie’s life. They reveal that in Africa, just as in America, women are persistently oppressed by men.

Not a feminist tract, this novel nevertheless shows how black women are the victims of black men, themselves locked into destructive cultural myths concerning the nature of masculinity. In Celie’s relationship with the stubbornly independent Shug Avery, “sisterhood” becomes more than a cliche.

From Shug, Celie gains not only self-respect but also a pantheistic faith in a God that is in everything and everyone. This faith is Alice Walker’s as well, and it gives her unflinching portrait of racial and sexual oppression a transcending hopefulness.


Banks, Erma Davis, and Keith Byerman. Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968–1986. New York: Garland, 1989. A thorough catalog of writings by and about Walker, this bibliography includes numerous book and poetry reviews. An introductory essay provides an overview of Walker’s life and her literary contributions.

Buncombe, Marie H. “Androgyny as Metaphor in Alice Walker’s Novels.” College Language Association Journal 30, no. 4 (June, 1987): 419-427. Offers a helpful look at the treatment of sex roles in The Color Purple in comparison to Walker’s other novels.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Insightful comparative study of the relationship between narrative technique and politics in three African American women writers. Bibliography.

Christian, Barbara. “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward.” In Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1983. Examines thematic patterns in Walker’s work. Points out issues inherent in the role of the black female artist, such as the need for conflict leading to change.

Christophe, Marc-A. “The Color Purple: An Existential Novel.” CLA Journal 36, no. 3 (March, 1993): 280-291.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Focuses on themes and patterns apparent in Walker’s work, from her poetry through The Color Purple. Shows Walker’s need to resolve her intellectualism with her rural roots.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1984. Three excellent essays on the novels of Alice Walker. Includes a biography and selected bibliography. Discusses Walker’s work in the context of African American women’s writing.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. The most comprehensive and well-written collection of essays on Walker. Contains reviews, essays, and interviews. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Harris, Trudier. “From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Studies in American Fiction 14 (Spring, 1986): 1-17. Focuses on the movement from domination to liberation in Walker’s female characters.

Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. Discusses Walker’s fiction as an attempt to create an opposing view to the dominant stories of culture. Analyzes her relationship to language and her relationship to narrative tradition.

Iannone, Carol. “A Turning of the Critical Tide?” Commentary 88 (November, 1989): 57–59. Discusses the political dimension of Walker’s fiction. Claiming that Walker writes from a militant, feminist standpoint, Iannone contends that praise for The Color Purple results from “literary affirmative action.” Ironically, Iannone notes, the down-and-out characters in Walker’s work move toward more conventional, middle-class life-styles.

Marvin, Thomas F. “Preachin’ the Blues: Bessie Smith’s Secular Religion and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 411-422.

Parker-Smith, Bettye J. “Alice Walker’s Women: In Search of Some Peace of Mind.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 1983. Celie affirms herself and finds the strength that she needs by discovering that God is within, that God is herself.

Proudfit, Charles L. “Celie’s Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (Spring, 1991): 12-37. Proudfit offers a good example of a psychoanalytic approach to the development of Celie’s self-concept.

Taylor, Carole Anne. “Humor, Subjectivity, Resistance: The Case of Laughter in The Color Purple.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 462-483.

Towers, Robert. “Good Men Are Hard to Find.” The New York Review of Books, August 12, 1982, 35–36. This often-quoted review points out major flaws in The Color Purple, including the book’s contrived and overly dramatic plotting. Towers, however, concludes that the poetry of Celie’s language transcends the novel’s imperfections.

Tavormina, M. Teresa. “Dressing the Spirit: Clothworking and Language in The Color Purple.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 3 (Fall, 1986): 220-230. A study of language in relationship to sewing and quilting as they relate to the development of the self.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1983.

Walker, Alice. Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-87. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. These essays provide an opportunity to get to know Alice Walker as a person. The earlier volume provides numerous insights into the writing of The Color Purple, the latter on Walker’s reactions to its reception.

Watkins, Mel. “Some Letters Went to God.” The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1982, 7. Comprehensive review of The Color Purple consisting of analysis of theme and technique. Author notes the weakness of Nettie’s stiff voice, yet praises the effective implementation of epistolary style.

Willimon, William H. “Seeing Red over the Color Purple.” Christian Century 103 (April 2, 1986): 319. Highly negative review of the film and novel versions of The Color Purple. Author considers the characters stereotypical, dishonest portrayals of black Americans.