The Reading List: The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982

Book cover with The Color Purple by Alice Walker in two purple fonts, with a black and white drawing of a small house next to a tree in the background.

Epic, at times depressing, but uplifting story

The Color Purple is one of those mammoths of literature that you feel duty-bound to read at some point in your life. But I must admit that it is one I had been putting off. It has a reputation for being relentlessly depressing, and somehow I never felt I had the energy to give it a go. But I finally summoned the strength, and resolved to give it a try.

Not for the first time my assumptions were proven to be completely wrong. It is not without darkness, but the story is so uplifting. The characters are all so well drawn and realistic – so incredibly human. I found myself desperate to keep reading it, staying up late and catching every possible few minutes to read another page or two. It is an epistolary novel, which perhaps in some ways makes it easier to digest. It tells the story of Celie and her sister Nettie through their letters to each other, and Celie’s addresses to God, which are more like diary entries. Stretching from childhood to old age, the novel is epic in scale, and crosses continents, detailing Nettie’s experiences as a missionary in Africa.

Walker’s handling of race and sexuality manages to be both didactic and totally organic

The novel explores the ideas of race and sexuality in a very holistic fashion – the characters’ lives and relationships are all impacted in some way. White characters are few and far between, but when they do feature, the power dynamic and their privilege as white people is expertly presented. Celie’s relationship with her sexuality is equally deftly presented; we grow with her throughout the novel, so it is almost like we are discovering it alongside her. Walker’s handling of race and sexuality manages to be both ultimately didactic, teaching us about what it was like and how systemic racism impacts the lives of her characters, and totally organic, wrapped up perfectly in the story she is telling, without any sense of stepping out of the characters and their thoughts and experiences, which is so often the case when lesser authors try to get their points across (whatever those points may be).

The novel is beautifully written, and it’s hard to recall when I last encountered such believable characters. They are all so three-dimensional, each growing and changing in ways totally in keeping with what we are shown of their thoughts and behaviour. This is perhaps the most uplifting aspect of the novel: no character is written off as purely ‘evil’, or a lost cause. They are all given the chance to grow and repent, and are shown to be the products of their circumstances. It really clearly captures the way oppression is codified and compounded by a system, and cannot be upheld or cast down by the actions of a single person.

It offers assurance that we all carry the potential to recognise and learn from our mistakes

Ultimately The Color Purple is a beautiful, heart-warming novel. ‘Heart warming’ has rather saccharine associations, but I mean it in the sense that it will leave you feeling cheered and reassured about the essential qualities of human nature. It is a book that could be said, despite the darkness of much of its subject matter, to restore one’s faith in humanity. It doesn’t really offer any answers – on how we fix oppressive systems, for instance – but what it does offer is assurance that we all carry the potential to recognise and learn from our mistakes, and play a personal part in improving the lives of those around us, and finding our own happiness along the way. Each of Walker’s characters find their own route to happiness, but what they share is a sense that happiness is rooted in self-worth and self-understanding. That is certainly a lesson from which we could all benefit.

What did you think of The Color Purple? Have you seen the film? I’ve avoided watching it as I hadn’t read the book, but perhaps now is the time to try! I’d love to hear your recommendations for what I should read next, so please do leave them in the comments below!

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