The Color Purple

Maybe eight years ago, I picked up Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from the library. I only got a few pages in, because (spoiler) the fourteen-year-old narrator is repeatedly raped by her father in the first chapter, and at the time I wasn’t ready for it.

Over the years, though, The Color Purple kept popping up on my radar. A book I read for my queer theory class in grad school included an extensive analysis of Walker’s classic. More recently, I’ve been slowly reading through Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective, and she also works with some of Walker’s philosophy and novels.

A few things stood out immediately when I started The Color Purple for the second time. Typically I’m not a fan of dialect in novels (it seems distracting at best, and at worst it marks race and class biases), but Walker’s use of dialect is so thorough and so consistent that it’s a natural extension of Celie’s character. More impressively, Celie’s dialect slowly changes over the novel as she grows up and becomes more independent and confident—and it’s markedly different from the dialect of Celie’s better educated sister, Nettie, further affirming Walker’s controlled mastery of character and voice.

The typesetting of the novel (at least of the edition I read) has some conspicuous features as well. There are no chapter numbers or running heads, and without these usual novelistic markers, the reader subconsciously feels less like they’re reading a book by Alice Walker and more like they’re simply reading letters from two sisters. The paragraphs in my edition also weren’t justified, which gives the typesetting a less finished look and better mimics the way people deal with line breaks when writing longhand.

Walker’s story is short, fast-paced, and compulsively readable, and what I enjoyed most about it is how complicated and yet believable the characters are. The book covers about thirty years, and in that time the characters change in many ways and yet are still clearly the same people. The shifting relationships between Celie, Mr. ________ (her husband), and Shug Avery are particularly complex. And yet, even as the narrative showcases all their flaws and mistakes, I found myself empathizing with each of them and wanting them to thrive. Shug may be impulsive, selfish, and overly dramatic, but readers also see her vulnerability and her perceptive insights. Mr. ________ is abusive, lazy, and unfaithful early in the book, but he shows real growth by the end, and I wanted him to continue becoming a more healthy and giving person.

The way Walker handles spirituality also stood out to me. Spirituality comes up often (Celie addresses most of her letters to God, after all), and Walker can even get “preachy,” like when Shug lays out her theological outlook to Celie. But the spiritual content never felt out of place or heavy-handed. Many of my characters are spiritual (the lead in my WWII zombie novel, for instance, is mostly lapsed but was raised in a devout Jewish home), but I feel like I still haven’t figured out how to integrate their spirituality naturally into the narrative. As in many other areas of fiction writing, there’s plenty I can learn here from Walker’s The Color Purple.

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