Since its publication, The Color Purple has aroused critics to both praise and sharply criticize elements in the book. Trudier Harris in Black American Literature Forum criticizes the media for dictating the tastes of the reading public. The book “has been canonized,” she states. It has “become the classic novel by a black woman,” because “the pendulum determining focus on black writers had swung in their favor . . . and Alice Walker had been waiting in the wings of the feminist movement."
Harris contends that the popularity of the book has been harmful because it has created “spectator readers,” and it “reinforces racist stereotypes.” Because of the book’s popularity, Harris maintains that Black women critics are particularly reluctant to find fault with the book, even when they find elements in it disturbing. She also questions the novel’s morality, which other critics praise. “What kind of morality is it that espouses that all human degradation is justified if the individual somehow survives all the tortures and ugliness heaped upon her?” The morality other critics find in The Color Purple, Harris feels, “resurrect[s] old myths about black women.” This critic cites Celie’s response to her abuse as an example of the myth of submissiveness of Black women. She also criticizes the sections dealing with Nettie and Africa because she feels they “were really extraneous to the central concerns of the novel” and accuses Walker of including them “more for the exhibition of a certain kind of knowledge than for the good of the work.” The relationship between Celie and Shug, Harris also felt, was silly. Another criticism Harris has of the book is what she considered its fairy tale element. “Celie becomes the ugly duckling who will eventually be redeemed through suffering,” says Harris. The book, she feels, “affirms passivity . . . affirms silence . . . affirms secrecy concerning violence and violation . . . affirms . . . the myth of the American Dream.” Anyone can achieve “a piece of that great American pie.” Harris accuses the author of preparing “a political shopping list of all the IOUs Walker felt that it was time to repay.” In spite of her sharp criticism of The Color Purple, Harris confesses that she is “caught in a love/hate relationship with” it.
Surprisingly, one of the most positive reviewers of the book was Richard Wesley. Writing in Ms. magazine, Wesley says “As an African-American male, I found little that was offensive as far as the images of black men” as they were portrayed in the book and the film. In his review, Wesley sees the character of Mr. as emblematic of “male privilege. As long as black men seek to imitate the power structure that crushes them . . . and as long as black women submit . . . then the morbid relationship of Celie, the oppressed, and Mr., the oppressed oppressor, will continue to be played out in homes all across America.” In his article, Wesley criticizes those who fault The Color Purple for painting a negative image of Black males. “Walker is airing dirty linen in public. She is reminding many of us men of our own failures. She is reminding women of their failures as well. . . . A lot of people do not want to hear that.” His strong support of the novel concludes his review. “No one in America—and black America, especially—should be telling writers what they may or may not say. Writers are the antennae of any society. They have to speak when others dare not.” Another male writer, J. Charles...
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Washington, writes inObsidian that Walker is justified in concentrating on female characters, who have been neglected by male writers. It “does not mean that she is anti-male,” he says, “but that she has less time and energy to devote to exploring more fully the problems of men or the common causes of the oppression of both.”
Also writing in Ms., Gloria Steinem finds much to praise and little to criticize in Walker’s novel. “White women, and women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, also feel tied to Alice Walker. The struggle to have work and minds of our own, vulnerability, our debt to our mothers, the price of childbirth, friendships among women, the problem of loving men who regard us as less than themselves . . . are major themes” of Walker’s writings. “She speaks the female experience more powerfully for being able to pursue it across boundaries of race and class,” Steinem maintains. She finds the author’s storytelling style “irresistible to read.” Countering Trudier Harris’s criticism, Steinem feels pleasure in “watching people redeem themselves and grow.” Its symbolism of purple, Steinem notes, represents “the miracle of human possibilities.”