A couple of weeks ago, on the suggestion of a friend, I started what I plan on being a recurring series of reviewing classic novels that have come under considerable controversy for their content and as a result have faced censorship. Reading challenged books can be a great way for people today to explore issues for themselves and also see the world as it truly is.
Today, I’ll be talking about another American literary masterwork: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Published in 1982, this work has earned sometimes-ferocious criticism since then, becoming the 17th-most challenged book in the United States from 2000 through 2009, according to the American Library Association. I read this novel just two months ago, so its many vivid (and controversial) elements are fresh in my mind. In this post, I’ll discuss the highlights of The Color Purple and then go on to discuss why many people have taken issue with Walker’s work.
A unique aspect of The Color Purple is its epistolary format. That is, it’s told by letters. In the first half, Walker has protagonist Celie, a Southern girl in the 1900s who has suffered frequent abuse, address her letters to God. As the novel progresses, though, Celie discovers she has a sister, Nettie, doing missionary work in Africa, and the sisters begin exchanging letters. Celie’s letters reveal the turmoil and deterioration of her life. Her husband treats her so badly that she refuses to name him–instead Celie refers to him as “Mister,” giving him an ominous quality. However, Celie finds her own spirit after a singer named Shug Avery befriends her and tells Celie of her religious beliefs, in which God is found everywhere, especially in the natural world. This novel’s title refers to Shug’s belief that God is angered when people don’t take the time to notice the color purple.
Nettie’s own letters to Celie, although they show Nettie struggling to enjoy her work in Africa, give the sisters hope of a reunification after years of assuming they would never see one another again. In fact, Celie had thought Nettie dead. When it comes to meeting again, though, both women face obstacles, not from within but from those around them: bitter, scheming people who seem at times to see these two as nothing but tools. This makes the ending–spoiler alert! Nettie and Celie finally meet each other–both joyful and tinged in fear, considering what these women have gone through and may well have to endure again.
One of my favorite parts of The Color Purple is it’s honesty. Sometimes brutal honesty, but the truth nevertheless. But this accuracy is also where, from what I’ve researched, Walker’s novel gets in trouble. The explicit violence, including Celie’s father Alphonso and husband Mister sexually assaulting and raping her, and the sexual relationship Celie has with Shug for a portion of the book are two of the main sources of controversy. In both cases, I think Walker was just being as realistic and authentic as she could be with her characters. Besides being an avid reader, I’m also a fiction writer, and one writing rule I’ve learned is to not sugarcoat reality. Thus, I find an honest book that shocks is always preferable to a fake one that pleases and plays the complacency game.
Read what others have to say about The Color Purple on Goodreads.com here.
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