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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