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The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

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Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, The Color Purple has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it poses challenges—vernacular language and a popular film adaptation—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Color Purple will give them insight into the intersectionality of misogyny and racism, as well as important themes surrounding religion and identity. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1982
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9th and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 66,000
  • Author: Alice Walker
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person 
  • Setting: American South and Africa, 1920s–1950s
  • Structure: Epistolary Novel, Prose
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Allusions, Symbolism
  • Mood: Bitter, Serious, Hopeful

Texts That Go Well With The Color Purple

Beloved (1987), by Toni Morrison, is a novel about Sethe, a former slave, as she navigates the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like The Color Purple, Beloved portrays complex family relationships and conflicts to demonstrate how black American families were impacted by systemic oppression in a white supremacist and patriarchical society. Both novels explore how the traumas and sins of the past—both personal and historical—can seep into the psyche.

Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley, is a novel about a scientist who animates lifeless flesh, creating a hideous being who questions the meaning and worth of his existence. Like The Color Purple, Frankenstein uses the epistolary form to tell a story from the voices of two central characters. Comparing and contrasting the two novels invites a discussion of the possibilities and attributes of the epistolary novel.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), by Maya Angelou, is a widely-acclaimed autobiography about the author’s childhood and adolescent experiences of racism, abuse, and abandonment. Angelou weaves her personal experiences into a bildungsroman that advocates for literature as a means of overcoming trauma. Although Celie and Angelou inhabit different periods of American history, both protagonists struggle with racism and sexual violence in their respective pursuits of personal identity.

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), also by Alice Walker, is a collection of short stories about the strengths and vulnerabilities of black women living in the American South. In Love and Trouble can supplement students’ understanding of Celie’s story with a wide range of stories about the experiences of black American women.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston, follows the emotional and psychological development of Janie Crawford, a young black woman seeking love and independence at a time when black women held few rights in American society. Like The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God explores the ways in which black women assert their identities and navigate oppressive gender roles within communities subjected to white supremacy and misogyny.

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Key Plot Points