First published in 1982, The Color Purple turns 35 this year (2017). The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was made into an award-winning movie in 1985. The photo above is from the cover of her biography, Alice Walker: A Life.
The time and place of this novel are obscure at first, because the narrator is an uneducated young woman who doesn’t supply this information. The details of her life give us clues: this is a time after slavery — Celie’s family owns their own house and land — but before the widespread use of automobiles. Horses and blacksmiths are still prevalent. So we can conclude that the book starts in the early twentieth century. Towards the end of the book, after many years have passed, a character mentions that World War II has begun. Eventually we learn that the place is a small town in Georgia.
Celie tells her story through letters she writes to God. As a teen, she was raped by her father, and her two children have been taken away. The father then forces her to marry a widower with several children. Worse, Celie’s sister Nettie leaves and is never heard from. Celie doesn’t rebel, but puts up with everything and works hard. Her life changes when her husband’s mistress, Sugar “Shug” Avery, comes to stay. Celie and Shug, who is a wealthy singer, develop a close relationship.
Celie’s letters capture the pronunciation and word choice of the African-American dialect she uses:
He act like he can’t stand me no more. Say I’m evil an always up to no good. He took my other little baby, a boy this time. But I don’t think he kilt it. I think he sold it to a man an his wife over Monticello. I got breasts full of milk running down myself. He say Why don’t you look decent? Put on something. But what I’m sposed to put on? I don’t have nothing.
In the meantime, Nettie has been taken in by a missionary couple and has gone with them to Liberia to be a missionary. Celie’s husband hides Nettie’s letters, and when they are eventually found, Nettie’s story provides a broader perspective of the experiences of African-American women.
Although I found the novel somewhat preachy and long-winded towards the end, the story is compelling and the characters are engaging. The Color Purple has been hailed as a feminist classic, and its powerful messages are still relevant today.