“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
Royalty, nobility, luxury, and ambition are all commonly associated with the color purple.
Could this possibly be a reason why author Alice Walker decided to title her Pulitzer Prize-winning book after it? No matter why the book is titled what it is, The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one of the most critically acclaimed and simultaneously controversial novels relevant in United States history. Despite the amount of scrutiny both the book and movie have received, The Color Purple, to this day, continues to be a book of great historical value. This is because it depicts a fictional but honest account of many historical themes such as racial oppression and the role that gender plays in our society.
The Color Purple is a novel written by an African-American author, Alice Walker, published in 1982. The story of the protagonist, Celie, is told throughout a series of letters that she writes to God. In the first letter, Celie is 14 years old, and she describes the terrible accounts of abuse she faces at the hands of her very own father along with her younger sister Nellie. Celie has 2 children as a result of her father’s rape, but he takes both of them away somewhere unbeknownst to Celie. A man only referred to as Mister is introduced as someone with interest in marrying Nellie because he is in need of a caregiver for his children. Instead, Celie and Nellie’s father offers Mister Celie as a bride, not Nellie. Though her father describes her as ugly and a liar, he states that she is a hard worker and comes with her cow and Mister agrees to marry her. Celie now enters a loveless marriage full of as much abuse and rape as what she endured with her father. Sometime after Celie marries Mister, Nellie leaves her father’s house to take refuge with her sister but is forced to leave the house because of the sexual advances of Mister. Once Nellie leaves, Celie does not hear from her and presumes she is dead.
Time passes and Celie befriends the wife of Mister’s son, Sofia. Celie admires the way that Sofia resists her husband’s desire to control and abuse her the way Mister controls and abuses Celie. Meanwhile, Celie finds out about her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery when she comes to stay at the house due to an illness. Celie takes an interest in Shug while taking care of her, and the two develop a friendship. Shug tries to protect Celie from her husbands’ abuse, and the two eventually develop a more intimate relationship. They discover letters from Nellie that Celie’s husband has been hiding and Celie discovers that her sister is alive and is living in Africa with a missionary couple. In her letters, Nellie writes that she believes that the missionary couple she is with has adopted Celie’s two children that their father took away. After finding out the truth, Celie leaves Mister, moves to Memphis with Shug, and starts a business as a tailor. Though she is uncomfortable with it, Celie does not leave Shug despite her many affairs. On a visit back to Georgia, Celie finds that Mister has reformed his ways and that their father Alphonso, now discovered to actually be her and Nellie’s stepfather, has died. Alphonso’s house and land are now hers, so she moves there. Shug goes off traveling with a member of her band that she has fallen in love with.
In Africa, Nellie, and Celie’s children prepare to return to the US. Celie and Mister meet again back in Georgia and she comes to find that he is a changed man. Mister, his real name revealed to be Albert, apologies for abusing Celie during their marriage, and the two develop a friendship. Shug returns and Celie realizes that she doesn’t need her to be happy and decides to accept Shug’s affairs with other people. Meanwhile, Sofia begins working as a seamstress at Celie’s shop. Nellie returns to the United States and after almost thirty years, Celie and Nettie are reunited. Celie finally meets her children, Adam and Olivia. The novel ends with Celie and Nellie thinking that though they are now old, they feel younger than ever.Just like any piece of literature, setting, and era plays quite a substantial role in The Color Purple. This book takes place in the early 20th century, between 1910-1940, mostly in rural Georgia. Without taking place in the South in the early 20th century, many of the events that occurred throughout the novel would not have taken place. During this time, racial segregation had a major influence on society and the way people were treated, especially in the South.
If one was an African-American living in the pre-Civil Rights South, life was full of Jim Crow Laws, racial oppression, and legal segregation. African-Americans were frequently the targets of bitter discrimination, especially females. Though most of these acts of discrimination were committed by whites, in The Color Purple, Celie reveals African attitudes toward African-Americans are what affect her most, and there is no universal brotherhood among people of the black race. One major historical theme found in this novel and throughout history is the theme of racial oppression. Countless characters throughout the entire story are faced with problems of race and racial oppression. Racial oppression is well evidenced by a situation regarding the mayor’s family and Sofia. Walker writes: ‘Sofia and the prizefighter don’t’ say nothing. Wait for her to pass. The mayor waits too, stands back and taps his foot, watches her with a little smile. Now, Millie, he says. Always going on over colored. Miss Millie finger the children some more, finally, look at Sofia and the prizefighter. She looks at the prizefighter car. She eyes Sofia wristwatch. She says to Sofia, All your children so clean, she says, would you like to work for me, be my maid? Sofia says, Hell no. She says, What you say? Sofia says, Hell no. The mayor looks at Sofia, pushes his wife out the way. Stick out his chest. Girl, what you say to Miss Millie? Sofia says I say, Hell no. He slaps her…’ As a result, Sofia ends up fighting with the mayor and becomes imprisoned because she does not want to work for the mayor. Furthermore, she is forced to spend her time working as a maid.
Although the children are nice to her, Sofia fails to see their generosity and keeps up the facade of racial oppression. Walkers perspective on this theme of racial oppression is both historically accurate and convincing. Another historical theme found in The Color Purple is the theme of men and women and the roles that gender plays in our society. This novel is an extended meditation on the nature of men, women, and their expected gender roles. It is expected that black men of this time, especially in the South, work in the fields, and that women obey them absolutely. In The Color Purple, many female characters are faced with a tough choice: fiercely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) fight against men’s attempts to oppress them, or completely submit and get trampled all over. These expected gender roles are seen in Celie’s relationships with her abusive father, and later her abusive husband Mister. Walker’s historical perspective regarding this historical theme and societal issue is once again both historically convincing and completely accurate. Though throughout the history of our nation, gender roles have become less prominent and gender equality has developed into the new expectation. But there is still plenty of sexism, gender inequality, and expectations in our society even if it is not to the extent portrayed in the novel.
Author Alice Walker is extremely effective at making her argument and conveying her ideas using the platform of writing. While reading this book I learned many things that one would not have thought this book could teach. Among the many lessons I learned are how the lowest points in one’s life can be optimal times for growth, never forget your place or reason for being on this earth, and when life is tough one must always persevere. There are many strengths and weaknesses that one could discuss when talking about this novel. Some strengths being this story, though fictional, honestly and brutally depicts the horrible accounts of abuse, discrimination, and violations of civil rights that undoubtedly occurred in this time and brings to light the strength and perseverance of the individuals who were subjected to these horrible actions. Nevertheless, no novel or story can be completely perfect and this book is no exception. Many critics say that the biggest weakness of The Color Purple is the controversial, violent, and explicit nature of many of the scenes in the book. This makes the reader question if these violent actions too explicit to have written down in a book for anyone to read? No matter the strengths and weaknesses of the book, I know that I learned many lessons while reading it and we can all agree that Walker was very successfully able to efficiently make her argument throughout the book.
This book is a very valuable historical and literary resource due to its considerable exploration of many historical themes such as racial oppression and the role genders play in our society. I would definitely recommend this book to an APUSH student who wishes to learn more about this time, especially if that student wants to observe multiple perspectives on historical events.
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