The Color Purple by Alice Walker

In her personal journal to God, young Celie tries to make sense of the incestuous rape she’s experiencing from her Pa. A few pages later, she tries to make sense of the unhappy marriage she’s thrust in to. For Celie, life entails hard work, submission, violence, and daily rapes from her (nameless) husband.

Does that sound shocking enough? It is. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (published 1983) is exactly the kind of book I don’t read. Yet, I couldn’t put it down. Although the themes of the book are disturbing and violent, The Color Purple captures a woman’s discovery of hope, her discovery of her own sexuality, and her realization of herself as a woman. She realizes that she doesn’t have to submit, but rather, she can fight back.

As for the title, purple is equated with pain and suffering for much of the novel: it’s the color of a beaten face). When Shug (short for Sugar) arrives it takes on a new meaning. Shug is Celie’s lover and the one who teaches her to fight back and recognize herself as a woman with rights. She says,

I think it pisses God off I you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. (page 196).

The two sides of purple seem to me to define Celie’s life: she’s learning to come to terms with the violence she’s experienced and instead notice the beauty of the world around her.

My favorite scene is at the end, *spoiler* when Mr. and Celie become friends. As they sit on the porch talking, he proposes marriage again. Although Celie is still not interested, to me, it’s sweet because it shows the power of kindness over violence. It shows that while she experienced pain at fighting back, in the end she is respected, so much so that MR. must “court” her as a friend, not a dominating man. *end spoiler*

There were numerous things I disliked. I didn’t like the letter format, for one. I never connected to Nettie and her experiences in Africa. I didn’t like the violence or the excessive sexuality, even though I know that is what this book was about. In general, I don’t like books with those themes.

Suffice it to say, I don’t blame anyone who questions this book’s inclusion in high school reading lists. It’s one of the most frequently “banned” books in the USA and while I don’t believe “banning” is a solution, I also don’t think it’s a book anyone should be forced to read. Although there is an element of hope by the end, it is full of disturbing images and scenes. It’s not one for the faint of heart.

Nonetheless, given its important place in American and African-American literature, I’m glad I’ve read it. Although it’s the story of just one black woman in the 1930s, I’m sure Celie’s story is not an isolated one in history.

Now, how on earth did they make this violent and sexual book into a musical? And why?

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About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. One of my favourite books. I was deeply touched by it in a way that no other African-American novel has touched me since. It’s important African-American literature AND history.
    Although unnecessary sexuality annoys me, I fund that in this one it was vital to her plight and the times. Same with the violence. This is partly what it’s about, that level of submissiveness and lack of choice within their community (similar to Their Eyes Were Watching God, but better told).

    I enjoyed the film as well, although it changes some elements. A musical though?!

    1. Monica, I definitely agree that the sexuality and violence is necessary to the novel! I’m rereading THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD this month too — I remember liking it far more, so I think I may disagree that COLOR PURPLE is better told, though. I also think, though, that THE COLOR PURPLE is not a novel one can say “everyone should read” simply because it’s so very disturbing.

      As for the musical, it’s an Oprah sponsored thing: see here and here. Seems very odd to me too.

  2. This is one of those books that I know I must read despite the violence in it. I’m trying to decide if listening to it or reading it would be better, and after your review, I’m thinking that reading it will be.

    1. Amanda, I don’t think I’d have made it through an audio version. I read much quicker so I could get through it in one night. I may have abandoned it if I’d spread it out over a few days, even.

  3. This is my husband’s favorite book ever. It has been twenty-five years at least since I read it, and I think I must read it again sometime soon!

    My very favorite thing written by Alice Walker is her beautiful short story “Everyday Use.” (I had in the back of my mind that you were a quilter–but that doesn’t seem to be true? If it is, you might especially find the story fascinating.) Here is an online copy of the story: http://faculty.weber.edu/jyoung/English%206710/Everyday%20Use.pdf

  4. I read this one as a high school senior for a book report. I was so incredibly…moved by her story that I couldn’t put the book down and immediately began rereading it when I finished it. I also read it once in college for a class (we also watched the movie), and again, I was so moved by it. It really is an emotional kind of read. I haven’t read it since, but it is on my list and I know that I am going to have to conquer it again. But I really don’t like the violence and anger of the book and it really gets to me when I read it.

    I can’t imagine teaching this book to a class. I don’t think most high schoolers are at the right maturity level for something like this.

    1. Allie, I couldn’t put the book down either! But I honestly don’t want to reread it anytime soon. The issues are just so poignant for me, once is probably enough. And I agree about the high schoolers. If this book was on my child’s high school list, we’d have a serious talk before he read it.

  5. I just reviewed this saying how brilliant I thought the book was. Like you, generally letters cause me to feel distant with the characters, but I found that it worked fine for me here. Also, I think the violence *is* necessary because that is the story that needed to be told, and the fact that it makes us uncomfortable means (in my book, at least) that it was told well.

    But a musical…really?

    1. christina, I agree that the violence is necessary in this book: it’s what it’s about, after all! I wish I connected better with the letters but in this book, it just wasn’t great for me. As for the musical, did you see the link I left above? The musical is an Oprah sponsored thing: see here and here. Seems very odd to me too.

  6. I remember being so shocked by the beginning of this book when I first read it, and I was sure I would never come to love it. But Alice Walker does such an incredible job with the dialect, better than any book I’ve ever read before or since, and the relationships are so moving — the scene at the end with Mr. _____ and Celie, as you say, is marvelous.

    1. Jenny, I was so shocked and I don’t think the shock every really went away, but I certainly couldn’t put it down and I loved the element of hope that comes to the end of it. Definitely a fan of the relationships here.

  7. I read this a few years ago and really liked it. One of these days I would really like to reread it and refresh my memory. I still haven’t seen the movie. After I read it I tried to find a copy, but didn’t have a lot of luck. I should try again now that I am thinking about it.

    1. Kailana, I’m not a movie person, so I definitely don’t think it will be one for me to watch! I hope you enjoy it. It seems most people who loved the book also loved the movie!

  8. I really enjoyed the book, it was such a powerful book for me. While I agree no one in school should be forced to read the book, I think it is important book to be read. And I don’t think it’s to violent for readers in the age 16+ range. I mean look what they watch on TV (TrueBlood anyone?) I feel it’s an important book to be read, but handle with care when teaching it in school.

    1. Jules, I am one of those people who believes no book is one that everyone should read — and I am one who also can’t handle violent tv shows. (Isn’t True Blood a vampire show? I think the comparision fails because that’s not “real” violence, but then again I don’t watch tv and have never seen it, so maybe I’m wrong.) I do believe it’s possible to learn about incest and spousal abuse, for example, without reading this particular book, just like one can learn about post-civil war issues for post-slaves by reading Beloved, which happens to be my favorite book, albeit a horribly violent one (in a different way than this book is). The violence makes it a painful book to read that may impact other people in a different way than it impacted me. I don’t think everyone need read it, even though I think Beloved is a very important book.

      So I guess I’m saying is, I really hope no one has to read The Color Purple if they don’t think they can handle it.

  9. My post on the Color Purple remains the most popular to date. I wonder why. I don’t think I wrote anything controversial. I don’t remember it being overly sexual or violent apart from the first bits. Maybe I’ve read worse. In any way I quite liked the book. The movie was good too.

    1. Mee, I don’t think it was overly descriptive in the sexuality or violence — but for me it was disturbingly so. Just the theme of incest, for example, really bothers me. Those kinds of themes/stories never leave me alone once I read a book about it. I’m NOT going to try the movie of it!

  10. I read this when I was relatively young–thirteen or fourteen, I think?–and although some of the sexuality embarrassed me, I actually don’t think it was as noticeable/significant to me at the time than if I had just picked up the book today (I’m 29 now). It was mostly a story about an abused woman rising above her oppressors to take control of her life–a simple yet powerful message. I completely missed that Celie and Shug were lovers! I will have to read it again to refresh my memory 🙂

    I think the strongest memory that I have from this book is the pocketbook metaphor. I still laugh about that to this day.

    1. Angela, how interesting that the sexuality was really not that noticeable to a younger teen! Celie discovering her sexuality with Shug is absolutely central to the book. I can’t remember the pocketbook metaphor? but I do remember the line “I still don’t like frogs.” That made me laugh so hard.

  11. I love this book too, although I love Their Eyes Were Watching God even more (that’s probably on my Top 10 Books of All Time list).

    The question of high school curricula lists is one with which I’m very glad I don’t have to engage. 🙂 I remember being forced to watch a presentation when I was 15 on driving safety; it was one of those film presentations that try to “scare kids sober” by exposing them to horribly gruesome footage of injuries resulting from drunk driving. Four days before it was scheduled to happen a close friend of mine died in a car crash coming back from the coast with his cousin. The school didn’t cancel the assembly or excuse friends of the victim from attending; we were forced to look at all these mutilated bodies that could easily have been Jordan’s. People were fainting and sobbing; it was terrible. So I definitely see your point about not forcing people to read or view material that will be triggering for them. On the other hand I think having some way to connect emotionally with Important Issues can be really valuable. Such a hard call to make.

    1. Emily, oh that is so awful! What were they thinking showing that video to begin with! That makes me mad and I didn’t have to go through it.

      I think that is one of the reasons why this book seems to be a potentially dangerous one for teens. Either they’re going through hell themselves or they aren’t quite ready to deal with these issues. Some, of course, could deal with the book just fine, but others, not so much, like watching the car wreck that’s a bit too close to home.

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