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Introduction

The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s third novel, was published in 1982. The novel brought fame and financial success to its author. It also won her considerable praise and much criticism for its controversial themes. Many reviewers were disturbed by her portrayal of black males, which they found unduly negative. When the novel was made into a film in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, Walker became even more successful and controversial. While she was criticized for negative portrayal of her male characters, Walker was admired for her powerful portraits of black women. Reviewers praised her for her use of the epistolary form, in which written correspondence between characters comprises the content of the book, and her ability to use black folk English. Reflecting her early political interests as a civil rights worker during the 1960s, many of her social views are expressed in the novel. In The Color Purple, as in her other writings, Walker focuses on the theme of double repression of black women in the American experience. Walker contends that black women suffer from discrimination by the white community, and from a second repression from black males, who impose the double standard of white society on women. As the civil rights movement helped shape Ms. Walker’s thinking regarding racial issues at home, it also shaped her interest in Africa. During the 1960s, a strong interest in ethnic and racial identity stimulated many African Americans to look for their roots in Africa. The primary theme of The Color Purple, though, reflects Walker’s desire to project a positive outcome in life, even under the harshest conditions. Her central character triumphs over adversity and forgives those who oppressed her. This central theme of the triumph of good over evil is no doubt the source of the book’s great success.

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Alice Walker

Alice Walker was born in the rural community of Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944. Most of Eatonton’s residents were tenant farmers. When she was eight years old, Walker was blinded in one eye when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun. Having grown self-conscious as a result of her injury, Alice withdrew to writing poetry. She began her college education at Spelman in 1961 but transferred to Sarah Lawrence in 1963. After graduating in 1965, she went to Mississippi as a civil rights activist. There she met Melvyn Leventhal, a white civil rights attorney, whom she married in 1967. The Leventhals were the first legally married interracial couple to live in Jackson, Mississippi. They divorced in 1976. Alice Walker’s first novel was published in 1970 and her second one in 1976. Both books dealt with the civil rights movement. The Color Purple was published in 1982 and brought Walker overnight success and recognition as an important American writer. In 1989 Walker published The Temple of My Familiar, in which she used a mythic context as a framework to cover a half million years of human history. In this work, Walker explored the social structure of a matriarchal society and the beginning of patriarchal ones. As in her other works, the author explored racial and sexual relationships. Walker’s novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, was published in 1992. Along with novels, Walker has written many collected short stories and books of poetry. Many of her stories have been included in anthologies. An active contributor to periodicals, Walker has had her works published in many magazines, including, Harper’s, Negro Digest, Black World, Essence, and the Denver Quarterly. Besides her writing career, Walker has been a teacher of black studies, a writer in residence, and a professor of literature at a number of colleges and universities. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Award, an O. Henry Award, an American Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

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Plot Summary

A First Period

In The Color Purple, the story is told through letters. The only sentences outside the letters are the first two: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” Silenced forever, the main character, fourteen year old Celie, writes letters to God. Her father has raped her, and she has two children, a girl and a boy, whom “Pa” took away from her. Celie’s mother has died and Pa is looking too much at her little sister, Nettie.

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Characters

A Adam

Adam is Celie’s son who was adopted by the missionary Reverend Samuel and his wife, Corrine. When the Reverend and his family return to America, Celie is reunited with her grown son.

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Themes

A Sexism

Sexual relations between men and women in The Color Purple is a major theme. Alice Walker sets her story of Celie’s transformation from a passive female to an independent woman within the culture of southern black rural society from the 1920s to the 1940s. In the beginning of the story, Celie is dominated first by her father, whom she later learns is really her stepfather, then by her husband, Albert (Mr.). The catalyst for the character change in Celie is the relationship she develops with Shug Avery, her husband Albert’s mistress. Because Celie has been warned by her stepfather, Alphonso, not to tell anyone but God about how he repeatedly rapes her, she begins to write letters to God. It is through the letters that the reader develops a sense of Celie’s being, which at first is self-effacing, but eventually becomes strong and independent.

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Construction

A Point of View

The Color Purple is written in the first person, and the voice is predominately Celie’s, but some of the letters that comprise the book are written to Celie by her sister Nettie. The story covers thirty years of Celie’s life from childhood to her maturity as an independent woman. By having Celie write in black folk English, Walker brings the reader close to the quality and rhythms of life that her characters experience. Celie’s dialect also reflects her lack of formal education. Nettie, who was formally educated, writes her letters in standard English. They are full of information that becomes a source of knowledge for Celie outside the world of her own small community.

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Historical Perspective

A Black-White Relations in the Rural South

After slavery, the social and economic relations for African Americans remained much the same. While no longer slaves, many blacks remained on the land as sharecroppers. They tilled the soil, but the land was owned by their former slave masters. After 1915, economic opportunities in cities of the industrial North encouraged many blacks to leave the South. Those that remained continued to live isolated from white society. Schools and churches were segregated, as well as housing. There were few opportunities for blacks to establish themselves outside of sharecropping. During the period of the novel, segregation between blacks and whites was enforced legally to the point that blacks had to sit in separate parts of movie houses and drink out of separate fountains, and were forbidden from eating at white lunch counters. The laws that were passed to enforce this segregation were called Jim Crow laws, named after a pre-Civil War minstrel character. In The Color Purple Sofia is victimized by this social policy. When she shows defiance to the white mayor’s wife who insults her, she is arrested and given a stiff jail sentence for her actions. The difficulty in relations between black men and women had its source in white male-dominated society. Within white society, men were expected to control the family and had status over women. This attitude filtered into black culture, but the black male, unlike his white counterpart, was humiliated daily for the color of his skin. In frustration, many black males turned their anger towards women. Black women then experienced the double oppression that Alice Walker explores in the novel.

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Questions

Alice Walker has been criticized for portraying negative male characters in The Color Purple. Explain why you agree or disagree with this analysis. Be specific in your discussion by citing passages that support your viewpoint.

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Compare and Contrast

1930s: The relationship between men and women is clearly defined. Men are the breadwinners and the heads of the families. Women stay at home to take care of the children and the housework. Today: Men and women share the economic burden of the household. Many married women with children are in the workplace. Preschool children are cared for in daycare centers or at home with paid baby-sitters.

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