Reviewer: J.Gi Federizo
Fourteen years old and Celie was already one big mess—pregnant, poor, under-educated. And black, lest we forget. How could Celie even think of leading her life differently? As her future husband said, “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…, you nothing at all.”
The Color Purple starts with Celie writing a letter – a confession – to God. She has just been molested by her own father. Pa has told her to never tell on him unless she wants her mama to die of heart break, so she doesn’t, but the sick mother dies anyway. Celie is forced to be the surrogate mother of the house. Such is the life she is left to accept. But then Pa seems to be setting his eyes lately on Celie’s younger sister and this worries her.
Celie is eventually married off to widower Mr. _______ who only wants a wife to cook, clean, work and raise his children. Life in the 30s could be so cruel, particularly to black women whose main purpose, it seems, is to be their husbands’ servants. Soon, smart Nettie comes to live with them. The sisters are forced to separate later and Celie doesn’t see Nettie again, breaking her heart and spirit.
Celie continues what she does best: live a life of thankless servitude as she takes care of Mr. _______’s house, his mean kids, and just about everything else. That is, until Shug Avery comes along and teaches her what life should really be about.
Now that I have given you enough background of the story, let me tell you about The Color Purple as a literary work. It is a brave attempt at telling the real black woman’s story with author Alice Walker pulling no punches along the way. It is not for the faint of heart, and I mean that in the most figurative way. You have to have enough heart to understand and relate, if only as a human being. It tackles very sensitive issues in a very bold manner that should make not a few people cringe. Page One and already, you get a sample of the novel’s direct, no-holds barred language in the coming chapters. There is such brutal honesty and graphic storytelling that the book itself has become an issue in the literary world, subjected to negative criticisms, censorship and what-not. Then again, that’s what makes this book a very good study. For one, you are allowed to think – do you like or hate this book? Do you like it despite the unpleasant reactions it keeps getting that must equal the pleasant ones? Would you stand by it?
If you are rather sensitive to strong, violent language, it may not be the book for you. Then again, if you have some fragment of curiosity in you and can get pass all the coarseness, continue at your own risk. Beauty is still in the eyes of the beholder.
The Color Purple is written in quite matter-of-fact tones that you have no choice but to take things as Celie describes them in her letters to God. Yes, letters, because for Walker to make her lonely protagonist tell her story, the character must be able to have an avenue to express herself in such an honest manner to whom she believes is the only one left that understands her pain perfectly. Too under-educated, Celie is not wont to practice the art of sugar-coating, not even for God.
So through the letter-writing or epistolary style, that is how we come to understand Celie and what she is about. She is the voice that is not heard and so she writes. There is no getting around it and the frankness of it all is what most love about the book, I guess. In the world of fiction, to make your characters speak as they are supposed to speak, accent and all, is a powerful way to make your readers understand and hopefully sympathize with realistic characters.
This “wrong” use of words is somewhat acknowledged in the book itself when Celie tells of a younger colored woman trying to correct her atrocious grammar that is a dead give-away of her very low social strata.
The real beauty of The Color Purple is it tackles relevant issues – or developments, depending on how you see it – without fear. There’s quite a bunch; take your pick:
Racism is evident – white trumping black, even black trumping black as apparently, there are blacker blacks than black. Walker deftly walks us (pun intended) through some history dating back to a much earlier time when native Africans considered lighter-skinned blacks as a disgrace and sold them to work for the rich, white people as slaves.
Celie’s own story is set at a time when African-Americans are starting to clamor against racial segregation, a precursor to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. (Discrimination has been a long habit to break, unfortunately, with every color today joining the fray and nobody really wins.)
Feminism or women empowerment, too, is gradually emerging, with two characters setting an example to Celie. Tough-as-nails Sofia is my actual favorite whose personality is probably what makes Celie’s insecure and silly stepson fall for her in the first place. Then this becomes a constant bone of contention as Harpo tries to “make her mind” the way Mr. _______ does to Celie.
Then there’s the enigmatic Shug whose independent nature and charm hold great power over Mr. _______ . Personally, I am not taken by this character. She maybe Celie’s glimmer of light, but she’s not exactly quite a good example either. On the other hand, whoever says she’s perfect? There’s a third one that I should probably mention, then again, that would be too much of a spolier already.
Another big issue is lesbianism, which probably turns off some readers. I have no problem with that; people should be allowed to live as they want to as long as they are not hurting anybody else. As said, I have no problem with any of the characters’ sexual orientation. Not per se; I’m just thinking that it’s not a necessary factor in the story. In fact, it just feeds the wrong notion that feminism is the same as lesbianism.
I think the problem with this book as a whole is it tries to cram all these issues in just 250 pages with big fonts. Issues like child abuse, incest, domestic violence, slavery, gender inequality, etcetera. To be fair, Walker does this in a very cohesive manner. Still, it could be quite overwhelming for the reader to be bombarded like this.
What I love, really, are the letters Celie gets (although suddenly, I feel like history is being forced in again as fast and as much as possible). That makes me feel like I am reading a whole new book, and a whole new book about it would not be a very bad idea. I wouldn’t mind reading more about the Olinka tribe.
So why The Color Purple? I’m not telling. But I can tell you that I do like this book, regardless of the negative criticisms. Yes, I would stand by it. The Color Purple is a contemporary great that any adult reader shouldn’t miss.