Some Thoughts on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983)

To be frank, this is a difficult post as I really struggled to finish this book. A few years ago I have read some books by Alice Walker. One of them was Possessing the Secret of Joy. The book tells Tashi’s story. Tashi is an Olinka woman – a people invented by Alice Walker – who has to undergo circumcision. I remember that I thought it was well done and a very important book. I didn’t know that Tashi already plays a role in The Color Purple. I think The Color Purple also contains a lot of topics that are still important today but it is a book I should have read as a teenager. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first books my mother read to me when I was a child, it made a big impression. If there wasn’t such a lot of violence and some explicit sex in The Color Purple it would be great for children as well. I’m too familiar with the topics by now to care much for the educational intention behind the story and the narrative voice – a childlike voice narrating the story in form of letters addressed to God and later letters addressed to a distant sister – annoyed me a lot. After a hundred pages I could hardly bear to go on reading. Still, as I said, the topics are important and some elements were interesting.

The most important topics are sexism and racism. Cultural heritage and religion. Slavery and freedom. Self-esteem and lack of confidence. Each character embodies one or more topics but with the exception of one of the central characters Shug Avery, the Blues singer and lover of Celie and Celie’s husband, all the characters undergo a journey from a fractured self to a complete self. Only Shug is fully herself from the beginning of the novel until the end and as such functions like a catalyst. She is also the only one who has the “true religion” or rather spirituality. A religion free of false patriarchal images, a religion which celebrates life and God in everything and everyone. This aspect of the novel is interesting and was glad to finally find out what the title of the novel means.

Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You sayin 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.

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from) Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.

Towards the middle of the novel, Celie discovers that her long-lost sister Nettie has been writing to her ever since she left. Her letters form an important part and if they hadn’t been so wordy they would have been a relief as they are not written in spoken language. Nettie’s letters give another dimension and add the topic of Africa to the novel. I’m surprised that there haven’t been a lot of critical voices mentioning the depiction of Africa in the book. Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary and describes in great detail the poverty and illnesses, the illiteracy, the patriarchal society which forces girls to undergo the painful and dangerous circumcision. What I found amazing is that Nettie sees a direct link between the fact that many African people have sold other Africans to whites as slaves and their poverty and illnesses.

Although Africans once had a better civilization than the European (though of course even the English do not say this: I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers) for several centuries they have fallen on hard times. “Hard times “is a phrase the English love to use, when speaking of Africa. And it is easy to forget that Africa’s “hard times” were made harder by them. Millions and millions of Africans were captured or sold into slavery- you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa-having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks-are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. They believe in the devil and worship the dead. Nor can they read or write.

I can’t help it but this passage shocks me. Africa has no homogenous population. It hasn’t and has never had. Africa has always consisted of extremely diverse peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, social systems, governments, religions, etc. From the highly elaborate kingdoms to the hunter gatherer societies there was everything before the white people even arrived. The way this is treated in the book or in this passage makes it sound as if there was such a thing as THE African while there were and are so many different people. While, yes, certain African people were actively selling other Africans – mostly the coastal people sold those from inside the country, the lesser developed people – and without the assistance of Africans slavery wouldn’t have been possible, not everyone has partaken in this. This is simplifying and distorting history. The end of the big cities was brought upon them by the whites. As developed as Africa was, in art and culture, they had no pistols or guns or any such weapons and were brought down relatively easily by a small number of white traders and explorers.

All in all, as I mentioned before, the narrative voice annoyed me. It was very repetitive. I also thought there was much too much in this book. Celie’s and Shug’s story would have been sufficient. There was no need to add a sister who travels to Africa as a missionary. It’s as if she had wanted to touch upon each and every subject related to or important in the life and history of Afro-American women. It may be mean to say so but I don’t think this would received a Pulitzer if it had been published now and not 30 years ago.

As I wanted to read more African – American authors this year, I’m glad I’ve read it but I’m sure, I’ll pick Zora Neale Hurston or one of the novels by Toni Morrison I haven’t read yet, next.

I have read The Color Purple for the readalong hosted by Bettina (Liburuak). If you’d like to read other’s impressions here are the links.

Let me end this post on a provocative note and add a question for the readalong participants or anyone who has read the book.

After having read The Color Purple, do you really consider this to be a classic or is it not rather just a very famous book?

56 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983)

  1. I had to study this for A-Level. I remember writing an essay on it in what I’d now describe as a sort of late-Jamesian style, and being marked down a lot for it for taking the piss. – I’d forgotten everything about it, but your summary brings it all back to mind.

    • I’d love to read that essay. It has never happened to me that I read a book that I haven’t read before and felt I knew each and every single line already. Weird.
      Reading it felt like being lectured…

      • Sadly my essay is no longer extant. I’d like to read it again too. I do remember it began with the three words, “The diaristic discourses … ”

        It is strange the weak tribes in Africa should enslave the strong tribes and send them off to America. You would think it would be the other way round. – There was a view expressed towards the end of c19th about the British, that all the strong members of the society – those with any adventure or drive – had gone off to America, Canada, South Africa, Australia, leaving only the worthless behind – as an explanation of the gradual decline of the British Empire. Of course, those were the days of social Darwinism and eugenics – when people believed such things.

        Is Alice Walker portraying Nettie’s view as true, though? I can’t remember. (I suppose it’s unlikely to be satirical).

        I remember in my mind always pronouncing Shug in the way you would usually, and not – as apparently you should – as a sort of diminutive of “sugar”, as seems to be the proper pronunciation. I had a similar problem with Hermione in A Winter’s Tale. (Of course, these days everyone can pronounce Hermione!).

        • That you should remember the first three words…
          I had a lot of problems with the Africa part which didn’t seem satirical but the idea that the weak ones enslave the strong ones isn’t far fetched at all. It is relatively accurate even. The coastal populations were God kingdomws and trading with the whites, therefore their weapons were certainly better while a lot of the populations that were enslaved were extremely strong physically. That’s one of the reasons why the whites didn’t and couldn’t use the Indian populations. They were not as strong.
          I think strength is purely physical in this context.
          Popular movies can teach yo a thing or two and if it’s only how to pronounce Hermione.

  2. This book came up a lot in my library school classes both because of the cultural context and because it’s frequently challenged. I’ve always meant to get around to reading it one day, but I haven’t yet. I’m thinking I might do better to pick other authors writing on similar themes.

    • This is no must-read at all for me. I thought it was but it isn’t. Maybe other of her books are better but this annoyed me for a lot of different reasons. It’s not even realistic that she writes the same way until the end of the book. It felt like a huge throw-it-all-in kind of book, if you know what I mean. Abuse, rape, violence, heterosexual love, homosexual love, adoption, …. never ending.

  3. I haven’t read this one yet, but I think it is on my list. I’ve seen the movie and I’m not sold on it. However, it is a favorite movie in my household so I’ve seen it more than once. I’m not looking forward to reading this novel since I know it will be depressing and now I’m learning repetitive. Not good. I love Toni Morrison but haven’t read Hurston yet.

    • TBM, I liked the movie quite a bit but I didn’t like the book. I didn’t even move me because it annoyed me too much. That landed on your list because it got the Pulitzer and I think it got the Pulitzer for purely political reasons not for its literary quality.
      Of course it is possible you would like it but I think Zoral Neale Hurston is a better pick. I’ll read something by her very soon.

      • I didn’t even know it received the Pulitzer. The movie is good, but it is so hard for me to watch. The violence and psychological abuse are agonizing for me. I’m curious what Hurston you will read. I’ve been meaning to read her for years. It might be time to bump her higher up on my TBR.

        • Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dust Tracks on A Road her memoir are the next ones but I’ve got a great looking biography as well.
          Yes, the violence is intense in The Color Purple. Sofias story is very hard to read/watch.

  4. I’ve read The Color Purple many many years ago and I don’t remember much about it, except that I kind of liked it. Perhaps I should reread it. Thanks for your great review.

    • Thanks, Nadine. It’s amazing how much we forget, isn’t it? It has interesting elements and I can see why it’s read in schools. It’s also a book which would be great for book clubs as it is bound to trigger a discussion.

  5. I certainly don’t want to read it now. Sorry it was a chore. Was it made into a film?

    I’m also shocked by the quote you mention. It’s too easy to generalise. Does it attempt to hide a non-fiction book into a novel cover-up to avoid serious researches?

    Have you read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? Interesting to read it about missionaries in Africa.

    PS: I tried Toni Morrison several times. Rien à faire. I don’t like her style.

    • Yes, skip it. It had even a Coelho vibe going and I know you’re allergic to him. (I like the ideas in his books but the writing is awfully bad).I was sort of glad that obooki and Guy had the same reaction. I’ve hardly ever read a negative review. While I can see that some parts could be interesting for certain readers, such passages like the one I quoted are horrible. Everyone screams outrage about The Help – but she gets away with something like this. I would love to hear what Africans think about this.
      I haven’t read a lot by Toni Morrison. I didn’t like Jazz at all but I thought Beloved – on a similar theme as The Color Purple – was very well done. Zora Neale Hurston is completely different.

      • Just checked. It was made into a film by Spielberg. Only in French it’s “La couleur pourpre”.

        I didn’t know that purple meant “pourpre” too, I thought it was only for “violet”. Well, I learnt something today. Now I wonder how many times I’ve read about something purple and pictured it violet instead of red. *sigh*

        • But “pourpre” is wrong in this context. Purple can mean violet and crimson. In German the book is called “Die Farbe Lila”. And most book covers I’ve seen which integrated color added something in violet. It’s also the color used by feminists and in circles interested in esoterism and spirituality. I think if she had meant purple in the sense of “pourpre” she would have chosen “crimson”.

        • I always thought that ‘purple’ and ‘violet’ were synonyms for the same colour or were colours which were closer to each other, with maybe a minor difference in shade 🙂

          • In English, I think so, yes, but it could be crimson as well while in French pourpre is crimson and not violet. In German we have Violett and Purpur while Purpur is crimson.

            • I’m completely confused about the exact colour we’re talking about by now ;). In Spanish, it’s also called “El color púrpura”, but unlike in French this actually more or less matches the English meaning. So it seems like only the French translation of the title is actually off, since in German they used “lila”, not “purpur”.
              Checking the wikipedia sites in different languages for “Purpur”, “pourpre”, “purple”, and “púrpura”, each one of them gives you a different hue, or even several. Crazy.

      • And the chorus would be “Mean bad Africans, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault”. And imagine, they are even blacker “donw there” than in the US. (quoting Nettie!)

  6. Wow, I’m really sorry you didn’t like it and felt so frustrated with it. Personally, I love it – and loved reading it again (I’ll post my own thoughts shortly and tell you why). Perhaps part of the reason may be that my own experience with African American authors and the topics of slavery etc. is very limited so I quite literally “don’t know better”.

    A point on which I agree with you, though, is the point about generalisations re: Africa. A fair bit of Nettie’s letters sit uncomfortably with me because her narrative voice sits on such a high horse. Thank you for expressing it so well.

    So is it a classic or just a very famous book? As you said, you’re not sure whether it would win the Pulitzer Prize now, and you didn’t find it innovative. Without having done too much research, I reckon it was quite innovative at the time, and it has inspired discussion and a lot of further works (which is maybe part of the reason it seemed so repetitive to you?). Given this, I would say it depends on your definition of a classic whether you consider it one or not. If a book being seminal is part of the definition, you might say yes, it is a classic. Even though it seems Toni Morrison beat Alice Walker to it in many respects. I have to confess, I also thought about whether I would classify it as a “classic” having re-read it, and came to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t see it “all the way up there”; I don’t think it’s ‘seminal enough’. Still, I think it covers a lot of very important themes that, in my personal opinion, people need to be educated about. If to you it felt like she was preaching and overeducating, you’ve moved beyond being in the “target group” of this book and I’m quite glad about that! Unfortunately, too many people might still “need” The Color Purple.

    • Bettina, this is very well said. I think that’s it, I’m not in the taget group. And I found the bits about Africa not excusable at all. Not coming from someone who fights against all kinds of prejudice.
      The topics are certainly important but here it’s a case of matter over style. And I don’t mean the spoken language. There are other parts.
      For me this is no classic and I doubt that without the movie, the Oprah support – and what not- one would still know it as widely.
      But I’m glad I read it and I don’t mind forcing myself occasionally. I know more now, and that’s a good thing.

  7. Pingback: Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983) | Liburuak

  8. Pingback: The Color Purple Group Read Posts | Liburuak

  9. I’ve heard mixed things about this work over the years, so it’s not all that surprising to me to find out that you had such a strong reaction against it. In my experience, it’s very hard to overcome the presence of an “annoying” narrative voice–so that would have been a dealbreaker for me even without the simplified portrait of a monolithic Africa or the didactic storytelling that you also mentioned as strong negative elements for you.

    • The voice worked in the beginning, when she was supposed to be a very young uneducated girl but it never changed. Nettie’s changed abruptly. In one of the letters Celie even writes a comment – clearly the author looking for an excuse – that she could by now write better but doesn’t want to. Eh?

  10. Hello Caroline,
    Thank you for this review, it has spoken out what i have always wanted to say about The Color Purple. It is such a holy cow for so many people, that saying I didn’t think it was well written is taken as saying I’m racist, or that I neither understand not sympathise with some very sensitive chapters in American history.
    For me, it is just a book that got famous. not a classic in any sense. The narrative is weak, the story is stupid, and the characters are ridiculously unconvincing.
    Thanks again!

    • Thanks for your comment Amritoroupa. It sums up how I felt before writing this review and what I had implied when I wrote that it’s difficult to write about it. It was a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation.
      You are very right about it being like a holy cow and that one could end up being called a racist for criticizing it.
      In my head I stripped it from it’s topics and there was zero story left.
      I see why this is used in schools – but please not in classes on literature – to discuss certain topics but those parts about Africa are so terrible that it can actually not really be included in a syllabus.

  11. Someone I know found The Color Purple it to be a little disappointing too. I have not yet read it but have been meaning to. You mentioned Zora Neale Hurston. I found her “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to be outstanding. Among many points of merit, It had some complex characterization then I expected.

    • Brian, I’m going to read that soon. I’ve read other books by Zora Neale Hurston and find her amazing. Maybe other books by Alice Walker would work better for me bzt this one had so many huge flaws.

  12. I enjoyed reading your impressions of The Color Purple. It’s been a long time since I read it, but everything you wrote came rushing back to me. I agree with your view about writing in dialect. I find it can get so tedious. I understand why some authors do it, but only in rare cases can I get past it enough to enjoy the story. Huckleberry Finn would be one of those exceptions. (Their Eyes Are Watching God is also written in heavy dialect, FYI.) I am also of the opinion that had this novel been written today, it likely wouldn’t have won a Pulitzer.
    If you’re seeking other African American women writers of a literary nature, you might want to look into Gloria Naylor (more contemporary African American themes) and Jamaica Kincaid (Afro Caribbean centric as Kincaid is from Antigua).

    • I think the biggest problem is that, wit the exception of Netie’s later letters, it’s dialect from the beginning to the end. If I’m not mistaken, Zora neale Hurston uses it only in the dialogue, but maybe I’m wrong.
      Thank’s for the suggestions. I’ve read Naylor and Kincaid a long time ago and had totally forgotten about them. I always meant to read more as from what I remember those were writers I liked.
      I’m sure she wouldn’t get the Pulitzer. Yeah well… It’s good to read a famous book and be able to decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth all the fuss. I guess it was important because it gave a voice to the African-American women. And gay women and abuse victims….

  13. I was surprised and shocked when i read for the first time “the color purple”. I was totally mesmerized by Shug Avery and was somewhat inspired by all the characters who transform themselves into a better self.

    As for being a classic, i don’t think so it fits into that category. But one can definitely learn and understand racism, love between women and slavery.

    On retrospect, i think instead of this reading this book, i would like to watch the movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

    • Shug is an amazing character, she is what will stay in my mind. It’s a very well meaning book but there were too mayn things that didn’t work for me to really call it a master piece, important, yes, especially when it came out.

  14. I was surprised and shocked when i read for the first time “the color purple”. I was totally mesmerized by Shug Avery and was somewhat inspired by all the characters who transform themselves into a better self.

    As for being a classic, i don’t think so it fits into that category. But one can definitely learn and understand racism, love between women and slavery.

    On retrospect, i think instead of this reading this book, i would like to watch the movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

  15. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book, as much as you expected to, Caroline. This was one of the books that one of my professors gave to a student group in college and asked the group to present on it. Each student group got a different book and my group got Milan Kundera’s ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’. So, I couldn’t get to read ‘The Color Purple’ at that time. Sometime back, when I was at the bookshop, I read the blurb of ‘The Color Purple’ and I liked what I read – that it is about a woman who suffers until she meets another woman who is free and knows how to be happy and enjoy life. I liked that premise very much – that it is about slavery and freedom and how we can be free inside, even if the outside world is not-so-good. So, I got the book, but it is still lying on my shelf unread. I hope to read it someday and see whether my initial impression of the book still remains. It is interesting that the book covers the whole range of African-American themes and also part of the book is set in Africa. I found your comments on the way the book portrays African culture interesting – how the book says that African culture is one-thing and monolithic while in reality African culture is quite diverse. I think this is a problem with some authors and historians when they are trying to make a point. There is no single, monolithic European culture or Asian culture or a single culture in any other continent, but some books and some ways of cultural thinking seem to depict it that way.

    Thanks for this wonderful review! I can’t wait to find out what you think of Zora Neale Hurston. I want to read her book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ myself.

    • Thanks Vishy, glad you liked it. I hope you will read it and we can discuss. It would be interesting.
      I think I would have liked it if she had condensed the story and focussed on Shug and Celie. I liked Shugh as a character, she is a very free and fulfilled perosn and helps Celie. It was the side story of the sister and the narrative voice in the second half that I had a huge promblem with. The beginning how she meets Shug and how their friendship develops is nice. And the story of Sofia is a heartbreaking. Clearly it has a lot of interesting elements but she overdid it. And, as I wrote, I found the part on Africa not acceptable.
      Mayn people don’t know that withouth the help of some Africans slavery wouldn’t have been possible they way it was done but not everyone participated.
      Generalizations are ever a good way but I found it particularly disappointing in this context.
      Kundera is a very different athor. I think I should read him again one of these days. And I definitely want to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  16. I really like this review…I can understand your struggle to finish it but at the same time it touches a very interesting topic. I knew that slaves were sold by their fellow black man, which is a very sad issue.
    I always admire your determination to finish books that make you struggle…as you know I always drop the book I don’t enjoy.

    I think the book won pulitzer because of the topic not because of the writing or the narative.

    • Thanks, Novia. I often think, the struggle was worth it after finishing. In this case, I think it was and it generated an interesting discussion.
      Slavery and everything behind it is extremely sad, no doubt and man blame the whites only which isn’t totally correct.
      I think when this came out it was an important book and that’s most probabaly what the judges had in mind. Nowadays that woudn’t be enough, I think.

        • Yes, the style is very important but so is the story. I think it received it for the topics. There was no Pulitzer for novels this year, although there was a long list. In the end they decided none of the books was good enough.

  17. Thank you for mentioning the missionaries in Africa thing. I noted down quote after quote after quote because, well, missionaries is something I’m interested in. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortably with some of the portrayals, and also the ethnic essentialism present in the novel. To me the book was clearly dated in that respect.

    I didn’t dislike this book, but I did not love it either. I’m very ambivalent about it. Perhaps that’s why I still haven’t written my own post.

    • I was ambivalent at first but after having finished and read the whole part on Africa and the generalizations I just couldn’t really like it anymore. At the same time I thought it was mean as the other topics felt so important. When a book touches on topics like this it’s hard to say – no this didn’t work for me.
      I think one could also just focus on the role religion plays in the book (unfortunately there are a lot of contradictions). I have a hard time imagining how Celie, Shug and Nettie would speak about religion.
      I really understand why you struggle with your post. It would still be interesting to read it.

  18. I saw the movie (it was HUGE in the U.S.) but didn’t like it that well. Can’t imagine reading the book. Zora Neale Hurston is definitely a better writer.
    Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favorites, so I recommend it highly. All of her books are good, but this is the best, in my opinion.

  19. What an interesting post. I read this in college for a lit class, but that was about 20 years ago and I recall nothing from the book. Maybe it’s one that I’m better off not revisiting–only as a younger woman maybe it would have worked better for me than now as I too have difficulties with certain types of narrative voices. I had thought of reading along but I totally overextended myself last month so just didn’t get to it. That all said now I am sort of curious to read it again, but maybe I would be better off finally reading Zora Neale Hurston who I have also long wanted to read. Even though you ultimately didn’t get on with the book you have given it a fair go and explained why it didn’t work for you.

    • I think this is a book that works better when you are younger. the beginning was quite alright but then it started to drag big time. I’m not going to read it again that’s for sure.
      Maybe it was good you were too busy. 🙂
      I really want to read Zora Neale Hurston and also Kindred by Octavia Butler. Grace just reviewed it and it sounds soo good.

  20. I am glad that there is someone else who thinks that Color Purple is no great shakes. I read it in a group and the others were all so ga-ga over it that I wondered whether I had read it wrong.

    I remember somebody commenting that it was considered a great book because for the first time Afro-American men were shown in a bad light. They had always been depicted as victims earlier but in this book they were shown as perpetrators of crime against women.

    • You’re not alone, I’ve seen a few critical reviews meanwhile. I have a feeling many people do not dare criticizing it. A lot of its fame has something to do with it being the first book on some topics. But it’s far from flawless and has a lot of dubious moments. I’m just reading a book on writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and she also mentiones it as a great book but for the rhythm of the vernacular used. I think Zora Neale Hurston who is lesser known is a much better writer. I wanted to re-read her last year, I should do it this year.

Thanks for commenting, I love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.