“Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.”
That’s all I can say, really, after finishing up Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Color Purple.
This book didn’t really take me on a journey through the story so much as it grabbed me by the lapels and threw me into the story with full force. The book is unapologetic, unflinching, grotesque, and violent; but it also uplifting, redeeming, and inspiring.
It’s a book that strikes a nearly perfect equilibrium between light and darkness, good and evil, as it tells the story of how love and cruelty equally can transform lives.
The Color Purple is the story of two sisters—one a missionary to Africa and the other a child wife living in the South—who remain loyal to one another across time, distance, and silence. One sister, Celie, is a poor girl living an empty poor girl’s life and is the victim of an abusive father and an abusive husband who are both cruel and relentless. By the time she is 14, she has been beaten, raped, abused, degraded, and twice impregnated by her father. After he takes her children away from her without a so much as a word, he marries her off like a piece of chattel to her husband, who is so cold, distant, and inhuman to her that she can only refer to him as Mr. ______; and this person deprives her of her sister Nettie, the only one who ever loved her.
However, she is a survivor; and she manages to pull herself up by her bootstraps and find strength within to realize that her life has meaning, that she has worth, that she is special and unique. And by the end of the book, Alice Walker shows us the transformation of a great woman—who she was, what she is capable of, and who she has finally become after years and years of overcoming hardship.
While, certainly, a lot is made of the grotesque and depraved in this book (and justifiably so), I don’t think enough is made of Walker’s writing and the writing style herein. For one thing, she’s an incredible writer and while much of this story definitely stiff arms you, her writing does a lot to pull you in deeper and deeper. And her decision to write this book as a series of letters? Brilliant. That choice automatically endears the reader to Celie and enables the reader to connect with Celie on a very personal level. She’s not going through this alone—she’s got you right there with her (even though you are, of course, powerless to save).
The letters that Celie writes to God, and later to her sister Nettie, symbolize a certain voice that only Celie has and one that she is only able to express in her letters. She is able to express her true desires only in her letter. These letters allow her to display any emotion, and they are very personal to her as well. In the beginning, when she was writing letters only to God, the letters were very private and Celie would not have wanted anyone to see them. The letters are the only way she can represent her true feelings and despair as she is abused. Later, the letters she gets from Nettie give her hope that she will be reunited with her sister again.
Celie writes to God for a lack of someone else to write to. She writes to her sister because she is angry at God because of her past and the people who have been hurt because of it. The last letter she writes is to everyone, including God showing that she has forgiven Him, and that her story has gone through a full circle of maturation—and reading that letter, let me tell you, you’ll want to have a whole box of Kleenex nearby.
The Color Purple is an incredible book that deserves every bit of praise it receives. What is undue, however, is the scrutiny it faces. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number seventeen because of the explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.
Look—I don’t support censorship and I’m not one to make a big deal of a piece of art’s content, particularly if that content is absolutely integral to the overall story (as is the case here).