The concept of the regenerative power of love and the murderous effects of meanness is manifest in Alice Walker’s works. The author’s novels, short stories, poetry, and essays are all about a search for understanding and truth. Celie’s story is a transcription of her psychological and spiritual growth. Through the device of letter writing, Walker brings her audience into intimate communication with Celie, the principal storyteller in the novel.
As a poor, half-literate black woman, Celie lacks the apparatus for success and happiness. Her transfiguration into a joyful soul proves that redemption is possible for all people open to human kindness and love.
Soulful poetry emerges from Celie’s speech, with its lyrical cadences. “Angels strike they cymbals, one of them blow his horn, God blow out a big breath of fire and suddenly Sofia free,” Celie writes of Sofia’s homecoming. The figurative and expressive qualities of Celie’s language make the novel more than simply a story. Inherent in the epistolary format of the book is the idea that language itself can be salvific. Celie’s letters for a time are her only sustaining lifeline, as they confirm her existence. Celie’s words are evidence of a life lived.
Celie’s relationships, described in Celie’s own disjointed style, are well-drawn and colorful. Her native Georgia community comes to life as a network of individual characters.
Sensitive to conflict in male-female relationships, Walker explores masculine and feminine psyches in The Color Purple. Female love is the strongest emotion in the book. Often called a feminist, Walker prefers the term “womanist,” to indicate the sexual and nonsexual affection among women.
Celie’s struggle to accept or reject abuse dominates her interaction with Albert. Celie is portrayed as basically good, whereas Albert is portrayed as villainous. Critical commentary on these polar characters varies. Some readers believe that the disparate character depictions are historically accurate, while others believe the book’s men are misrepresented as abject beings.
Imagery in the story is drawn from everyday, often domestic, scenery. The image of Celie as a tree suggests that she is a static force, planted in a confining role. Using garden imagery, Walker employs as a primary symbol the purple flowers in the fields. Shug tells Celie, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Knowing the spiritual value of the material world, Shug urges Celie to take pleasures that God gives freely. In this way, Shug gently prods Celie away from her emotional paralysis.
The multiple interpretations of the novel show the book’s depth. As with all good literature, The Color Purple can be examined from many contexts: moral, cultural, political, historical, aesthetic, and spiritual. That so much richness comes from the mouthpiece of a character as naïve as Celie is evidence of the power of honest storytelling.
In The Color Purple, Alice Walker explores the nature of God and religion. Celie shares a traditional Christian view of God with the rest of her community. The church is an essential part of this society, although there is a clear hierarchy within the congregation. The Bible is a guide for correct behavior, and the local preacher uses it to help shape the moral values of the community as a whole. The early letters demonstrate the key role that religion plays in determining Celie’s behavior, even to the point where she refuses to criticize her father for raping her because the Bible says she should honor her father. God, to whom Celie addresses her letters, is both a confidant and a source of protection. She pictures God as he appears in many Christian images, an Old Testament patriarch with long hair and flowing robes. However, after the revelation that Mr.—— withheld her letters for all those years, God suddenly seems a representative of the two groups that abused and betrayed her all her life, men and white people.
Shug Avery, a self-confessed sinner who is denounced by the churchgoing community, defends God. God is not “him” to her, but rather “it.” She espouses a pantheistic view of the world in which all nature is God, and God appears in all nature. God is a joyful and loving being. The novel’s title reflects this as Shug tells Celie that she thinks God may become angry when people walk past a field and fail to appreciate the color purple. In her view, God appears in church only when the people themselves bring him in. Her religion stresses love, compassion, and pleasure.
This contrast between the conventional Christianity of established churches and more nontraditional views is also reflected in Nettie’s letters from Africa. Although the Olinka worship nature and pay homage to the rootleaf plant, the crop that sustains their lifestyle, they listen to stories about the white Christian God. However, the destruction of the rootleaf and their village by the white colonialists causes the Olinka to question all religion because no God has been powerful enough to save them. Samuel and Nettie, too, find failures in conventional religion. They eventually wish to establish a new church in their community, one that honors the spirit of God rather than the image.