I often write about books that few other people have read.
This time, I am sure this is not the case.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is one that I’ve continued to reflect on since I first read it shortly after its publication in the 80s, and is one of the books whose characters I’ve had the deepest connection with over time.
The story is set in early 20th century rural Georgia.
Celie, the protagonist, is raped by her stepfather and abused in many ways by Mr., the husband to whom she is married off and who keeps from Celie the many, many letters Celie’s sister sends to her. Throughout the course of the book, Celie’s relationship with Shug, an entertainer and Mr.’s lover, becomes the catalyst for her finding her voice, shedding Mr., reconnecting with her sister and becoming a successful businesswoman.
I want to be clear that Celie’s growth is not spurred only by knowing Shug, and she is a critical person in Celie’s evolution.
The Color Purple has many gripping moments.
I think often about the scene when Celie is entertaining murderous thoughts while shaving Mister. The moment when the feisty Miss Sofia, another character who is married to one of Mr.’s children, comes homes after being imprisoned and her daughter introduces herself because she does not recognize her mother, always makes tears spring to my eyes.
I have thought a lot about the reconciliation Celie reaches with Mr., when she agrees to be his friend, but not his lover, after getting the strength to leave him.
And, for me, the climax of the book comes when she is departing from the house that has been the scene of so much suffering and abuse. Having told Mr. that everything he has done to her will come back to him, she starts to ride off in the sunset.
He hollers a few final demeaning words her way.
She answers, “I’m poor, black. I may even be ugly. But I’m here.”
That statement of resilience and survival, that assertion of presence, always moves me as a testament to what people can, in Faulkner’s words, not only endure, but prevail.
Celie does prevail.
Some may find the ending a bit treacly, and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment. Still, the rendition of Jim Crow era Georgia, the plight of women, the power of community, the rumble of music and the unbreakable bonds of sisters all are powerfully, and, in my mind, beautifully rendered.
I’m open to hearing what others thinkg about this work, both in terms of Alice Walker’s other works and relative to other writers. For me, I’m looking to another reading of the book that I first read in the mid to late 80s and which has stayed with me since.