I’m kind of ashamed to say that I had absolutely no idea about The Color Purple until very recently. It kept appearing on Top Reads lists and particularly on feminist book lists, but I didn’t have a clue about what it dealt with. I kept thinking about the poem ‘When I’m an Old Woman I Will Wear Purple’ so I kind of linked them together in my mind – embarrassing to admit because they couldn’t be more different!
The Color Purple is a novel about the lives of black women in the southern United States in the 1930s. It was written in 1982 and won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award for Fiction. It’s really short, as novels go, and is an incredibly powerful piece of writing that deals with so many issues pertinent to the world today.
The novel is written in epistolary form, from the point of view of Celie, the main protagonist, and deals with the oppression that she suffers as a black female in Georgia, at all the different stages of her life. Having been raped by her father in her adolescence and having two children as a result of the abuse, she is then given into marriage to an unnamed man in the place of her younger sister, Nettie, who she is always trying to protect.
Oppression due to race and gender is a prominent theme in The Color Purple, which makes it an eye-opening book to read, and an important one for anyone interested in equality. The women in the book face huge amounts of sexism – their place is confined to the house, to work and to obeying their husbands. At least, this is the expectation of women in the community. Their desires are generally not taken into account and Celie suffers physical, emotional and sexual assault at the hands of the men she comes into contact with. Reading about these experiences isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it’s a necessary commentary on social norms of this time, and it’s important that even those of us privileged to not have suffered such oppression are aware of its existence. The experiences of black women are so rarely voiced in popular literature, it’s important to take notice of them when they are.
From a more positive perspective, The Color Purple subverts traditional gender roles, advocating a level of female emancipation from this ingrained oppression, which is something I really loved about it. Shug Avery casts off the shackles of her gender and race by being a popular singer and performer. Despite the criticisms levelled at her for being an unmarried woman, and the abuse she faces for daring to be more than society dictates she should be, she is portrayed as a strong, inspirational female character. Likewise, Sofia, Celie’s stepdaughter in law, defies expectations by refusing to allow her husband to beat her, or order her around. I loved that we had these depictions of strong women in the book, whose presence have an effect on Celie herself as she begins her own journey to freedom, self-discovery and happiness.
The relationships between women in the book are also really heartwarming – there’s a real sense of sisterhood. Celie is so fiercely protective of her younger sister, Nettie, and even the prospect of her death can’t break this bond. Shug & Celie are also close confidantes – it is Shug who protects Celie from the beatings of her husband, despite Shug being Mister’s mistress. Likewise, Sofia and Squeak establish a close relationship, even though Squeak is Sofie’s husband’s mistress. It just demonstrates the power of female relationships, and I really liked that they were elevated to this level of importance, independent of any relationships with the men in the story.
I’m a rather strong feminist so it’s not surprising that these elements of the book appealed, but I think it also offers an important view on racism in this period of American history. As much as the emancipation of the female characters is inspiring because of their gender, it is equally so because of their race. It’s uncomfortable to read about the abuse and injustice received by all the characters, particularly Sofia, but I felt like it’s really important to read about it, to appreciate it, and to realise that although times have changed, there is still oppression around us that we need to do our best to combat.
The Color Purple is short, relatively easy to read (it’s worth noting that it’s written phonetically in Celie’s words – something which I think gives it a great authenticity but that some might struggle with) and fast-moving. The narrative flows quickly and is essentially the story of an oppressed woman’s journey to find her true self and her true purpose in the world – it’s uplifting in that sense, despite the horrors she has to endure on the way.
I loved it – probably appeals more to women than men, but personally I think everyone should read it, if only to educate themselves on a perspective of the need for black and women’s rights.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥