There have been so many extensive reviews of The Color Purple that at first I was quite daunted at the prospect of adding my own. But if there is one thing the novel has taught me, it is the importance of finding your voice. So, here goes...
The Color Purple is a novel of contrasts: sexual oppression and sexual liberation; violence and silent protest. What it doesn’t do is dictate a path to follow – it is all about finding your own way, and this is exactly what Celie does. In some ways, the story follows the trajectory of the American Dream: Celie overcomes adversity to win her freedom and gain economic security. Critic Susan Willis argues that it is through education and the process of acquiring written language that Celie begins to raise herself from the underclass to a more powerful place. More importantly, Celie's voice crystallises the experiences of a generation of black women and, arguably, certain women of all nationalities. Though some have criticised Walker's glorification and over-simplification of African culture in The Color Purple, I believe they should be contextualised as the first major attempt in a novel to bring together the experiences of black women from different cultures. She also illustrates the differences, here, between colonisation and freedom.
A movie was made of the book in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, and many readers have been brought to the book through it. Walker herself made various comments about the film. One that perhaps sums up her feelings best is, “I was able to critique the film rather for its virtues than its flaws. Sometimes I would simply say, 'I love the film'. Other times I would say, 'I have mixed feelings'. Occasionally I would say, 'It is a child with at least three parents: it looks like all of them'. Most frequently I said, 'Remember, the movie is not the book'.” One of the most telling omissions in the film is any overt reference to lesbianism.
The book has been called a feminist fable but that is to underestimate its complexity: this is a novel that deserves multiple readings. The personal address of the letters brings the reader into Celie’s private world and we participate in her journey. Ultimately it is a story of the triumph of the soul. Yet this isn’t a lonely journey: Celie comes to surround herself with strong female characters, as symbolised through the act of quilting.
Such sisterly solidarity has drawn disapproval from some male critics. And Walker has been accused of reinforcing racial stereotypes in her depiction of male black characters as abusive and violent. Walker addressed these charges in an interview with Duncan Campbell from the Guardian newspaper, which can be read here. What must not be overlooked is that these men themselves were victims of the cyclical nature of racism and sexism, finding themselves with no community to help them rise above it. At the end of the novel, Albert does show signs of change and development: he even sits to sew with Celie. Walker suggests his engagement in 'women’s work' is a sign of transformation. Only once traditional gender roles have been broken down can men and women alike find fulfilment and freedom. A heavy lesson indeed, but one delivered with such freshness and lightness of touch by Walker that it is never a chore to read.
The Color Purple, at its most basic level, attempts to make space for the voice of one black woman, but actually opens up the reader to feelings of fear and joy. It is not just a story, but a doctrine for survival; it presents humankind at its most evil and its most beautiful. Alice Walker leads the reader to the brink of an abyss where looking away isn’t an option. Turning the first page of The Color Purple is only the start of the journey.
Reader review on Amazon: "The Color Purple is one of the strongest statements of how love transforms and cruelty disfigures the human spirit that this reviewer has ever read."
Helen Dunmore: "A unique blend of serenity and immediacy that makes your senses ache."
New York Daily News: "Trying to synopsize this beautiful novel is like trying to summarize the Bayeux tapestry... It is disturbing, and it is exhilarating."
New York Times Book Review: "Intense emotional impact... indelibly affecting... Alice Walker is a lavishly gifted writer."
Review on National Book Foundation: "The Color Purple is about the search for joy. Reading my copy of it again, I found joy myself."