Book 110: The Color Purple – Alice Walker

I must preface this post with the caveat that prior to reading the novel I knew little about it. I vaguely knew that Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey were connected to the film, but that was it. And for future reference, this is how I approach most novels I read.

To be honest, it’s hard to know how to respond to a novel like this. When an author opens a novel with a scene as disturbing as that which opens The Color Purple, how can you respond other than viscerally? How can you relate to something that is foreign to you as a reader?

Take a look at the opening line and you can only imagine where the story goes from there.

“You better not tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”

And that doesn’t even cover the shock/horror I felt in the first few pages of the novel. It doesn’t reveal anything, really. Clearly, however, Alice Walker wrote an amazing novel. Walker keeps the reader riveted, regardless of your relation of the experience, from the brutal opening scene to the emotionally exhausting closing scene.

The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was nominated for a National Book Award when the novel was first released. It has also been turned into an Academy Award nominated film and a Tony nominated Original Broadway production. This novel counts for three challenges (Mount TBRBack to the Classics and The Classics Club) and is actually the first group read (hosted by Bettina at Liburuak) I’ve participated in since I started book blogging.

As usual, this isn’t a real ‘review’ of the novel it’s just my regurgitated feelings and impressions of the novel. Rather than try to write a full post – I’ve pulled out the things which stand out and they are below. There are no explicit spoilers as far as I am aware, however if you don’t want to know general feelings or general observations in response to the novel as a whole (which could give away something as you’re reading) DON’T READ PAST THIS POINT.

  • The first thing I took away is ‘hope prevails.’ Throughout all the trails and tribulations of both Celie and Nettie’s lives (and it felt like the lives of all the characters) they prevailed because they had hope, even if we the readers didn’t know they had hope. Even at their lowest points they found the one thing they might cling to (family, religion, love, friendship, passion or even a ‘simple task’) and they prevailed.
  • The second thing I took away is Walker is a VERY brave woman. She wrote about sexuality, in a positive tone, and religion, in a negative tone, as a southern Black woman in the 1980s. I’m sure race relations were improving but they were NOT good; discrimination of LGBT individuals was prevalent and still is and yet Walker wrote a novel criticizing the institution of the church and about accepting self sexuality. And she did it in such away that I didn’t think it was offensive or crass.
  • The third thing I took away is the epistolary form can be an incredibly powerful tool. Walker uses this form in two distinct ways: as a vehicle to learn a quiet character’s thoughts (the narrator – Celie) and as a vehicle to introduce an additional narrator (Nettie). It also serves as a tangible item towards the end of the novel over access to the letters as well as to heighten the tension towards the end of the novel. It also served as literal example of Celie’s shifting from an institutionally bound religion to a self-aware natural religion.
  • The final thing I took away is that I really should spend more time reading the books that make the ‘Most Challenged’ lists or the ‘Banned Books’ lists. They are the books that move me as a reader and they are the books that truly push us as readers to think differently and to put ourselves in situations and places we would never be in.

Overall I’m incredibly glad I took the time to read The Color Purple. I didn’t feel many emotions throughout the novel other than my first guttural response and the feeling of relieved happiness at the end. And this is directly in response to my seizing up at that first scene, I kept my emotions incredibly guarded. I can’t say for certain but it feels like a lot of southern writers were influenced by this novel, I could see hints of Walker’s story in Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy (’95) , Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (’02) and even more recently and probably the most connected with the writing down of prayers in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (’09).

Opening Line: “You better not tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”

Closing Line: “Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen.” (Whited out.)

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24 thoughts on “Book 110: The Color Purple – Alice Walker

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  4. Thank you very much for participating in this group read, Geoff! I’m very glad you enjoyed The Color Purple. From your post, what particularly struck me is your discussion of Alice Walker’s bravery for discussing these things in the 1980s. Which gives you some food for thought regarding the time of the novel’s setting (mostly the inter-war years). How hard it would have been for all the characters to live their lives during that time, if it was hard to be open about these issues even such a short time ago.

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    • It really was – and that was probably the most understated portion of the novel as I was reading. It was amazing to think about that and how sexual identity is still playing a major role in politics today (especially in the Southern US) and the non-issue Walker made of it.

      I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else picks up from their own unique perspectives!

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  6. I haven’t read this one, but it is on my list. I didn’t read past your “spoiler” alert, but I have a feeling that this book will disturb me. I’ve seen the movie and I have a difficult time watching it. Two people close to me love the movie so I have seen it more than once and each time I am traumatized. I know many people love this novel…but for now I will put it off.

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    • You should definitely read it. I think if you’ve seen the film (or have any inkling what the book is about) it’s probably a little less jarring. I was just put on my guard so graphically and so early on, but I think that’s a credit to Walker’s writing and her storytelling ability.

      And since you didn’t read past the spoiler alert – I’ll just say know it’s not all bad, I was very VERY glad of that when I finished the novel.

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  11. Spoiler alert*******************************I was so moved by this book (and the movie) that I cried. Not many books make me cry, but the scene where the sisters meet up again just breaks me up. You’re right it’s the hope that gets you everytime!

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    • Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

      That hope really does drive the novel and I think that’s a sign of Walker’s genius with the story. She’s able to completely destroy you and put you on your guard with the first 10 pages but then give you hope throughout the rest of the novel that things might not end as bad as you originally think.

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