The Color Purple follows the emancipation of Celie, married off to a man, Alphpnso, who she doesn't love and who treats her as an object, often being violent, through her meeting of Shug, an emancipated woman who takes a shine on her and leads her to freedom, both financial and emotional. A sub/side plot is provided by the story of Cleie's sister Nettie, who, brutally sent away from Alphonso's farm, ends up becoming a missionary.
The novel is set in the Southern states of America in the 1930s, where Alice Walker's grandmother grew up, and where racism was rife as well as, and this was the big scandal of the novel when it was first published, domestic violence within the Black community was not unheard of. The novel focuses on the violence that ignorant men inflicted on women within the rural communities of these states, rather than on racism coming from the white community, however, the social conditions that brought about this violence were ultimately informed and induced by racism, which kept the Black community poor and uneducated. The importance of education is highlighted throughout the novel as the only way to emancipation, so, Shig teaches Celie how to write, and writing also allows Celie to keep in touch (despite Alphonso's attempts) with Nettie.
This novel looks at the origin of novel writing and uses an epistolary structure; this is because Walker wants to revisit the very birth of the genre through different eyes. So, in the same way as Jane Austen relied heavily on the use of letters when writing Pride and Prejudice, Walker uses letters to present the story. There is a long flashback when Nettie's letters to Celie are discovered, just in the middle of the novel. Letters being basically a form of first person narration, Celie's letter-writing skills evolve, as does her language, reflecting her progress.
This novel is raw in many ways, meaning that it presents a series of episodes with little or longer gaps in the middle. This, however, allows the novel to focus on important and optionally intense episodes, by adhering to the epistolary structure. It is now regarded as a classic, despite being a comparatively recent novel, as it's impact on society has been far-reaching, creating a controversy within the Black community which went to the heart of their society. What is particularly important for me is that this novel also presents two lesbian characters as protagonists, Celie and Shug. Celie in particular follows the pattern many lesbians in the recent past have: from being unaware of why they do not enjoy intimacy with men (Alphonso) to the revelation that they are lesbians. This has often happened with negative financial consequences for the women who discovered they were lesbians later in life, as they often had to re-start their lives and careers at a late stage. Instead, Walker presents this as a way of becoming financially independent, which I think is another very empowering element in this novel.
Book Reviewed by Billy Best
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