Task: Read an epistolary novel.
I’m trying to fill in major gaps in my understanding of American literature, since I’ve read an appallingly low number of major works by black writers. I was excited to read The Color Purple, especially since I kept coming across references to it after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God a couple of years ago. I knew the title The Color Purple, I knew Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg were in the movie, and I knew the musical was a big deal. Other than that, I walked into this book completely blind. Just a heads up: there are going to be a lot of spoilers in this post, and if you have also managed to remain ignorant about The Color Purple, I highly recommend you go read it without knowing anything about it.
I expected it to wrestle with race and gender, but I had no idea it also dove straight into same-sex relationships and stark criticisms of American Christianity. There were a lot of “so THAT’S why it’s banned all the time!” moments while I was reading, with the parallel thought, of course – “so THIS is why everyone should read this book!”
Now, I was also aware of a thorny literary controversy about Alice Walker recommending a book generally perceived to be anti-Semitic in a New York Times interview in December 2018 (I’m not trying to be cagey with that “generally perceived” bit – I just don’t know much about it). Here’s a link to a Vox article about the whole thing, which also includes a disappointing rundown of the trend of anti-Semitic threads in Walker’s recent output.
I’m not sure how to comment on this, and I think I’m going to leave it here: The Color Purple is an astonishing book that’s at complete odds with bigotry. That may not mean that its creator is free of it, though.
Anybody who loves Ender’s Game or Roald Dahl’s work knows the drill, I suppose. Still, it’s jarring.
But back to the book itself. I’m so glad I hadn’t seen the movie or run across the gist of the plot before, because the protagonist Celie’s growth over the course of the book was more exciting than the climaxes of most thrillers.
Walker’s use of form to echo Celie’s transformation is genius. At first, Celie is writing letters to God, because she’s too ashamed of her private thoughts and feelings to even speak them out loud. She’s essentially silently screaming into a void. But then about a third of the way through, letters appear from her sister Nettie, who Celie thought might be dead.
Gradually, Celie gathers more and more agency, and her letters to God become letters to her sister. Writing them is still an act of faith, because she has no way of knowing if Nettie is receiving them, but it’s a powerful representation of Celie’s growing confidence and willingness to believe she has a right to the air she breathes.
I recently participated in a (really fun) readalong of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca over at The Ladies of Horror Fiction, and most of the discussion had to do with the narrator’s passivity (or out-and-out spinelessness, depending on your read). In Rebecca, it’s never resolved, and it left us all deeply unsatisfied. But in The Color Purple, Celie’s passivity isn’t a character flaw – it’s a survival mechanism.
Celie lives at an awful intersection of racism and misogyny. A character in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God described black women as “the mule of the world,” and The Color Purple explores that idea in painful detail. Celie is explicitly told that she is nothing, and her early life is characterized by constant abuse and dehumanization. Celie tells God, “but I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive” (17). Getting from there to reimagining her entire sense of self and her concept of God (who at first she pictures as, depressingly, a white man) is powerful stuff. By the end of the book, she can fight. She can also love.
Another strong suite of The Color Purple is its cast of wonderful women. Shug Avery, a sultry, bisexual nightclub singer who starts the book as a fiery, kind of mean impostor (she shows up in Celie’s life as her husband’s mistress) and finishes it as a very gentle spiritual guide/love interest, is the kind of character that ranks up there with Tyrion Lannister and Audrey Horne. Sofia, Celie’s stepson’s wife, is also tremendous fun at first, as she resists her husband’s attempts to control her as casually as swatting away a fly. Sofia’s story takes a turn for the tragic though when she “sasses” the mayor’s white wife and winds up in prison and later in servitude. Nettie’s letters from her Liberian missionary post reveal a thoughtful and courageous woman full of empathy and determination.
First person narration with multiple narrators is really hard to pull off, but there’s never any doubt whether Celie or Nettie is writing. Celie writes in southern country dialect (again, you can feel the connection between Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker), whereas Nettie is very educated and fairly cosmopolitan. The thing is, Celie never sounds stupid or stereotyped. Her voice feels absolutely right.
This is one of those books in the category of fiction that makes people better for having read it. If you haven’t, you should.
Here’s some more reading for you if you’re interested: