Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has a reputation. Everyone someone asked what I was reading this week, they mostly responded with an appalled, “Why?” The book (and the movie) has cut such a swath across American culture that even people who haven’t read the novel know that it’s about terrible abuse and suffering. And yet, I chose to read it. It’s a classic of African American literature, but I think I read it just to find out what all the fuss was about.
The Color Purple has two distinct halves. The first half is the most brutal. In the first half, Celie is passed from one abusive man to another. She is raped, beaten, and treated as a domestic drudge. In the second half, Celie finally gains a measure of independence and the tone of the book shifts to astonishing forgiveness. (Astonishing to me. I guess I am not that forgiving.) Over the course of the book, Celie tells us about her life and ponders faith, the motivations of the characters around her, love, family, betrayal, revenge, and a host of other topics in letters to god. In the middle of the book, we also hear Celie’s sister, Nettie, through letters to Celie about Nettie’s life as a missionary.
I suspect that the reason for this book’s heavy reputation is that most readers don’t make it through the first half. It is relentlessly awful watching Celie hurt, beaten down, and debased. It’s so bad that one has to wonder at the purpose of the book. Why are we reading this terrible stuff? It feels voyeuristic to watch. But the second half is something else entirely. It would be easy to take the second half as an appeal for forgiveness for one’s tormentors. In the second half, Celie’s abusive husband (who she eventually separates from through her loving relationship with singer, Shug Avery) finally recognizes Celie’s worth. The relatives Celie thought drowned in the Atlantic return and the book has a surprisingly happy ending. All of the terrible things from the first half of the book are reversed. These reversals, however, were so odd and out-of-character that I started to wonder if Celie had actually died and this was her happier afterlife.
What interested me most was Celie’s relationship to god. All her life, she talks to god, because her father (who did terrible things to her) told her that she better only talk to god about the things he did to her. For the rest of the first half, Celie unburdens herself to god. But in that strange second half, Celie starts addressing her letters to the sister she still believes to be alive. At one point, Celie has a conversation with her friend and lover, Shug, about the nature of god that I thought was a turning point in Celie’s philosophy:
What God do for me? I ast.
She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.
Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.
She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.
Let ’im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. (n.p.*)
Celie never settles on a vision of god, but she knows it is not the white man she was taught about in church. After all, what did that god ever do for her?
In the end, I am more puzzled by The Color Purple than anything else. There’s a lot to think about, sure, but some of the characters never quite became real for me. I found the story flawed and implausible in the second half. I know that we are limited in what we can know and understand about Celie’s life because we only learn about it through the letters she writes. We can only know what she wants us to know. Usually, I can fathom an unreliable narrator’s motive but, even though I think I understood Celie’s mind, I can’t quite figure this book out.
* Quotes from the Open Road kindle edition.