My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer-Prize-winning, Spielberg-filmed, Oprah-inspiring novel is a contentious contemporary classic. It remains widely read and loved but both the novel and its author have been scrutinized for every sin from New Age sentimentality to complicity with racism.
In fewer than 300 pages, The Color Purple spans three decades and three continents in a fairly brief compass. An epistolary novel, its initial and main narrator is a teenaged girl named Celie. Living among the black rural poor and working class in the South, she writes letters to God confiding what she cannot tell anyone else: that her father has raped her, that she has borne two of his children, and that her mother has gone insane and died. From the first page, Walker sets the novel’s frank and vernacular tone, as Celie narrates her victimization to God in brief, vignette-like epistles:
First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.
Eventually, Celie is married off—in a kind of property trade between men—to an abusive widower named Albert who further mistreats her, as do his children, especially his oldest son, Harpo. Celie’s husband even runs off her sister, Nettie, who had come to live with Celie to escape the further depredations of their father; meanwhile, the two children Celie bore have been adopted by a minister and his wife.
The novel introduces its first major complication when Albert’s mistress, the independent and enchanting blues chanteuse, Shug Avery, arrives on the scene. Her erotic charisma, artistic freedom, and bold lifestyle model for Celie another way to be a woman, and soon Celie, like her husband before her, falls desperately in love with Shug.
By the this time—years have passed since Celie’s marriage—Harpo has also gotten married to another of the novel’s strong-women role models, Sofia. While Sofia eventually humbles Harpo’s proud and arrogant masculinism, she too is challenged by the world when she is first imprisoned for insulting the mayor’s wife and then forced to work as a servant in the mayor’s household. This half-reprieve itself only comes after Harpo’s mistress, Squeak, intervenes with the prison warden, her own uncle, an intervention in the dire form of “allowing” the white man to rape her in exchange for Sofia’s release.
Meanwhile, Celie and Shug eventually consummate their romance, an erotic exchange that is the novel’s heart:
She say, I love you. Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth.
Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back, say, um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other.
I don’t know nothing bout it, I say to Shug.
I don’t know much, she say.
Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth.
Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too.
Shug also reveals to Celie that Albert has been withholding letters from her sister Nettie. Nettie, we now learn, has gone to live with the religious couple, Samuel and Corinne, who adopted Celie’s children. Together this family has travelled first to England and then to Africa, to be missionaries among the Olinka people. Nettie now takes over as narrator as her letters recount her awakening global consciousness, her anguished comprehension of the unities and disunities among the black diaspora.
Walker introduces many more reversals and complications than I have room to list—she is such a brisk, economical writer that years can pass and relationships alter irrevocably from one page to another with fairy-tale speed—but the novel’s main narrative development is Celie’s successful bildung. Through the very letters she writes—both to God and then to Nettie—she finds her voice; in her love with Shug, she discovers her sexuality; and in her development of her craft as a clothing designer, she eventually attains both an art and financial independence.
As in the tradition of the epistolary or first-person sentimental novel on which Walker bases The Color Purple—Richardson’s Pamela is the English model of the form; Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl the first African-American redaction—the heroine finds love, community, and freedom after successfully passing through the inferno of male sexual domination. To this tradition, Walker adds a postmodern and multiculturalist sensibility signaled by the narrative’s African sojourn, which amplifies in turn a religious worldview to challenge the sentimental novel’s customary Christianity.
The novel’s title comes from this spiritual discourse, as Shug helps Celie to identify God not as the old white man of the Christian churches but as the whole of the universe instead:
She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.
God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love— and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
Why, then, is this novel’s reputation controversial, as I said above? There is the fact that its sexual explicitness frequently leads to its banning from schools and libraries, for one thing; I imagine it is many young people’s first “dirty book.” More consequential, though, is its gender politics. This quarrel was covered during the film’s release by the New York Times in an article charmingly headlined, “Blacks in Heated Debate over ‘The Color Purple'”:
Willis Edward, president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argued in an interview that the movie ”never showed the good” about black men.
Others argue that the movie distorts black history and appears to blame the victims of racism for a host of social problems, including a preponderance of broken families and a high incidence of teen-age pregnancy.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a left/right split, though. In a fierce leftist critique of the novel, “Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple” (found in the Harold Bloom-edited volume, Modern Critical Views: Alice Walker), bell hooks likewise accuses Walker of confirming destructive stereotypes:
The image of “the black male rapist” resonates in both racial and sexual stereotypes; Walker’s characterization cannot be viewed in a vacuum, as though it does not participate in these discourses which have been primarily used to reinforce domination, both racial and sexual.
Furthermore, Walker locates the cultural origins of this sexist abuse in African culture. This is one of the great impasses of race- and gender-based liberation movements: on the one hand, #believewomen and #believesurvivors; on the other hand, so much racist discourse, from the Jim Crow South to Nazi Germany, is a kind of extended false rape allegation against a targeted group’s males. (Considering this context, it might be worth mentioning here that Walker is an open anti-Semite. I don’t know if she held such views she wrote The Color Purple.)
From my own perspective—admittedly male!—I found the novel’s gender politics tendentious and bludgeoningly programmatic. I grant that Walker reflects actual painful realities of male abuse, but her narrative design still gives us too flat a solution: she simply reverses gender stereotypes. The world would be a better place, The Color Purple implies, if run by strong, self-sufficient, and even physically violent women, supported by passive men who have relinquished not only all authority but also any conception of strength or self-assertion whatever. Is this practicable or even desirable? I’m not so sure.
But bell hooks’s further critique of The Color Purple for finding its happy conclusion in Celie’s entrepreneurial artistry and familial love is unpersuasive, and all the more unpersuasive for being written in wooden, rebarbative Marxist jargon:
When the novel concludes, Celie has everything her oppressor has wanted and more—relationships with chosen loved ones; land ownership; material wealth; control over the labor of others. She is happy. […] Given these terms, Walker creates a fiction wherein an oppressed black woman can experience self-recovery without a dialectical process; without collective political effort; without radical change in society.
What should Walker have had Celie do? Start a Communist revolution? This is ideological criticism at its most irrelevant, more fantastical than the fairy-tale narrative structure it derides, which at least has psychology on its side.
More searching and unpredictable than its gender politics, if no less ambiguous and politically troubling, is the novel’s manifest ambivalence about the African-American relation to Africa. On the one hand, Nettie expresses pride in the Continent’s cultural achievements, but she also considers the problem that Africans themselves sold their fellows into New World slavery:
In the morning I started asking questions about Africa and started reading all the books Samuel and Corrine have on the subject.
Did you know there were great cities in Africa, greater than Milledgeville or even Atlanta, thousands of years ago? That the Egyptians who built the pyramids and enslaved the Israelites were colored? That Egypt is in Africa? That the Ethiopia we read about in the Bible meant all of Africa?
Well, I read and I read until I thought my eyes would fall out. I read where the Africans sold us because they loved money more than their own sisters and brothers. How we came to America in ships. How we were made to work.
She also sees similarities in patriarchal practice between the Olinka and the black men of the American South:
There is a way that the men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa. They listen just long enough to issue instructions. They don’t even look at women when women are speaking. They look at the ground and bend their heads toward the ground. The women also do not “look in a man’s face” as they say. To “look in a man’s face” is a brazen thing to do. They look instead at his feet or his knees. And what can I say to this? Again, it is our own behavior around Pa.
Celie, having read Nettie’s letters, both delights in African myth but also concludes, “Oh, from what Nettie say, them Africans is a mess.” A postcolonial critic might wonder if Walker, like certain well-known white men before her, is not just another unreliable anthropologist bolstering her sense of self by fictionalizing the other. The query would be a fair one, but still, I appreciate both the novel’s global ambitions and its refusal to resolve this cultural conundrum.
Politics aside, the novel’s literary merit has also been questioned, and I have questions myself. Take, for instance, the spirituality Walker wishes to express, as given above in the passage that provides the novel its title. All that exists is holy, the characters come to learn. But Shug and Celie assert this epiphany—several times—without its being proven in or, more importantly, by the prose. For all this theology’s monism or animism, it never materializes in the language of the novel. Walker just writes “the color purple” without showing us the hue. Despite her well-known admiration for Zora Neale Hurston, she gives us nothing like this famous passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.
Nor like this extraordinary description of ants mating, from a novel roughly contemporaneous with The Color Purple and similar in metaphysics, Toni Morrison’s 1981 Tar Baby:
Once in life, this little Amazon trembled in the air waiting for a male to mount her. And when he did, when he joined a cloud of others one evening just before a summer storm, joined colonies from all over the world gathered for the marriage flight, he knew at last what his wings were for. Frenzied, he flied into the humming cloud to fight gravity and time in order to do, just once, the single thing he was born for. Then he drops dead, having emptied his sperm into his lady-love. Sperm which she keeps in a special place to use at her own discretion when there is need for another dark and singing cloud of ant folk mating in the air.
All three authors want to show nature as a shimmering whole and as a living erotic energy that streams through us all—this against the dualism of European religion and philosophy—but Hurston and Morrison let us feel this thought in their sensuous language, while Walker, ironically, leaves it as argument, as mere abstraction.
This lapse isn’t just a stylistic problem, either, but extends to the ethical: by failing to give Celie a voice or a sensibility that can convey (rather than flatly state) visionary perception, Walker seems haughty and exploitative in portraying this much-abused heroine, in spite of her best intentions. Celie may grow and succeed in narrative terms, but, because Walker will not allow her thoughts or feelings a grander language, she never quite ceases to be pitiable.
At the end of the novel, Walker thanks “everybody in this book for coming” and signs herself “author and medium.” I don’t dispute the supernaturalism—she’s not the first writer to have taken dictation from the beyond—but I wonder if it misled her into valuing inspiration over artistry, even though each requires the other. Wherever the stories and characters and insights come from, they must be given complex and beautiful form to be effective as art.
I have so far observed the etiquette of identity politics by comparing Walker only with other African-American female novelists, but she most reminds me of a white male writer: Kurt Vonnegut. In both Walker and Vonnegut, you find the same homespun moralism and easy radicalism that evade too much of the world’s actual complications, and the same stylistic principle that, with vernacular excuse, artificially restricts the difficulty and grandeur of what can be thought. It’s easy to see why their books are bestsellers, but comparing them with the best of their precursors and contemporaries—Hurston and Twain, Pynchon and Morrison—would quickly reveal their limits.
But we can’t be too quick to criticize popular fiction intellectually and imagine that we have therefore dispelled its power. The Color Purple, questions about its artistry and ideology notwithstanding, lives on its larger-than-life characters and their almost legendary actions. I may wish Walker had found a more intricately-wrought form to give her otherworldly visitors shape, but then The Color Purple as it is has satisfied millions. Maybe the medium has a point, disturbing enough to the critic: it’s enough, for some purposes anyway, that the characters simply come.