Walker’s tale of survival, fulfilment and independence
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker (Ages 16+)
Follow the lives of two African-American sisters – Celie and Nettie – from the American South to the Olinka Tribe in Africa in Walker’s groundbreaking coming-of-age novel, The Colour Purple.
This epistolary novel is set in 1960s Georgia over the course of roughly 40 years, showing how these two sisters get separated at the beginning of the story and eventually reconnect at the end. Their lives apart are filled with longing, loss, and new loves.
Many letters are from Celie addressed to God; it is in them that she exposes all of the physical, sexual, and verbal abuse she endures throughout the book. From living with her mysterious “Pa” as a youth, to being married off to a far older man that constantly abuses her, Celie endures many struggles. However, alongside trusted, strong women such as Sofia and, later on, Shug Avery, Celie is able to find her voice and use it to free herself from suffering.
This new-found sense of agency is present financially, mentally, spiritually, and legally. As Celie finds her way back to her long-lost sister, Nettie, she finds real love and belonging in her family that has developed from the most unexpected places. However, this never replaces Celie’s ardent desire to see her sister again.
After being forced to cut communication with Celie, Nettie becomes educated as one of the few Black Christian missionaries, travelling to Africa alongside two experienced Black missionaries to do work in the small African village of the Olinka. They immerse themselves in the Olinka tribe, navigating sexism, startling similarities to Georgia society, and the controversial road being built straight through the village that would demolish all of the Olinka’s sacred materials.
One of my favourite aspects of The Colour Purple is its structure and form, as this communicates meaning in a unique way. The epistolary nature of the text showcases Celie’s emotional vulnerability as well as changes in her mental state, as evidenced in who she addresses her letters to. Many parts of Celie’s life are also evident through the form of her letters. For example, Celie is endearingly unapologetic about continuing to express herself in letters despite the education she was deprived of forcing her to write phonetically, and use Southern language such as “us” instead of “we”. I found this unfamiliar form of writing refreshing, though initially a little daunting to acclimate myself to.
The genuine progression of all characters as well as that of their relations with each other is fresh and imaginative. This can be seen in the ever-changing relationship between Celie and Shug Avery, where Celie’s kindness eventually melts Shug’s animosity; their queerplatonic relationship blossoms throughout the novel.
The star-studded musical adaptation of this book will be released in December. As such, perhaps reading the source material will provide insight into the nuances of the new movie for some viewers: The Colour Purple is definitely a must read and a must watch!
I believe that the primary themes of The Colour Purple are survival, fulfilment, and independence. All three of these ideas link to purple’s significance and meaning throughout the novel. I encourage all to delve into Celie’s story of self-actualisation and discover why this compelling book is truly named The Colour Purple.