book review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, 2015
originally published in 1982

 

Any of the adjectives you could use to describe The Color Purple – gorgeous, moving, heart-wrenching, etc – unfortunately sound rather trite, but this book is the real deal. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that follows the relationship between two sisters who are torn apart early in life, but who nevertheless spend a lifetime trying to communicate with one another. The protagonist Celie is married off to an abusive husband, while her sister Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Celie’s husband, known only as Mr. ____, hides the letters that Nettie writes to Celie, who believes for years that her sister is dead. Robbed of contact with the only person who ever loved her, Celie contents herself by writing a series of letters that she addresses ‘Dear God’.

Celie’s voice is arguably the strongest element of this novel; Walker captures the voice of a poor, uneducated woman living in the American south in the 1900s with a vibrant authenticity. Nettie’s voice is similarly convincing, though distinct; it’s filled with a similar dialect but more polished and educated – this book is a case study in how to strengthen characterization through voice. The relationship between these two sisters is the heart and soul of The Color Purple, though Celie’s relationship with God and its different manifestations over time provides the novel with one of its most salient themes that develops beautifully over time. The novel’s title comes from an exchange where Celie’s lover challenges Celie’s conception of God as a larger-than-life white man; she tells Celie that she doesn’t think of God as a person, but as an invisible force that’s inside all of us, and then remarks “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

So while this book is relentlessly brutal, documenting rape and abuse and pervasive racism, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it, and it’s ultimately an unexpectedly empowering tale. This book is every bit as beautiful as it is disturbing.

One last note: I don’t want to derail this review too drastically with a lengthy meditation on whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, but suffice to say that being aware of Alice Walker’s well-documented antisemitism did impact my reading experience somewhat, and I don’t think I’ll be able to call this as all-time favorite. But still, it would be wrong to deny this book of its merits and cultural impact. I can’t judge anyone else for deciding not to pick this up out of a discomfort with Walker’s personal beliefs, but if you’re on the fence, I do think it’s well worth reading.

You can pick up a copy of The Color Purple here on Book Depository.

22 thoughts on “book review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

  1. This sounds so good, and it’s one of those reads I’ve always planned to get to one day. It really is a shame about Walker’s awful and frankly bizarre antisemitism. Like you said, it doesn’t detract from this book as a singular work, but it’s so hard to dismiss such uncomfortable context 😔

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    • Same here! It had been on my TBR for years and years, and I was so annoyed to have seen the Walker/David Icke debacle before I had a chance to pick it up 🤦‍♀️ But I’m pleased to say that it is absolutely worth a read, provided you can put aside the author’s ridiculous beliefs long enough to enjoy it.

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    • The art vs. artist convo is so tricky isn’t it?? Because you run the risk of claiming that good art justifies harmful beliefs and behavior, but you also run the risk of unfairly dismissing a piece of work that’s had a tremendously good impact on a marginalized community….. I’m sure the truth about how we should handle these situations is somewhere in between these two extremes.

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      • IA it is so tricky and you did it V V V well!! I think it’s in the acknowledging of harmful beliefs and behavior and then articulating how legacies should be always be multifaceted and the deification of artists for their work erases the context which would enrich conversations RE: empathy and humanity. I mean it’s why good art is so valuable in the first place!!! That line is so thin though it’s difficult to thread. I’m very much a believer that art and artist are inextricable, though I also think that art is its own entity when in conversation with an audience.

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      • That last sentence is ON POINT, I could not agree more. 👏👏👏 I think it’s v. important to consider both the harm and the good that art by ‘controversial’ artists can bring into the world – especially a book like this that gives so much to one minority community while denying so much to another. It’s such a fine line to walk but it makes for an interesting conversation for sure.

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    • Definitely! I still wish I’d been able to read this before learning about Walker’s personal beliefs, so I could have had the chance to form a more sentimental attachment to it. But from a technical and literary standpoint, it was undoubtedly masterful.

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  2. I read this years ago (I am so old!) and loved it at the time, for all the reasons you have said. The art vs artist issue is a tough one, but I tend to fall on the side of the art remaining great. Philip Larkin was a bit of a shit in his time and Enid Blyton had her moments, but I would still read both. I still dance to Michael Jackson and I will probably still listen to Ryan Adams, despite hating his behaviour. I am however, about to go down a google rabbit hole now I imagine when I look up Alice Walker/ David Icke!

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    • It’s so tricky! I think it’s easier when you already have a sentimental attachment to a book or piece of art before learning about the artist’s private life. As in, I never listened to Ryan Adams (though I did see him open for Oasis once now that I think about it) and I am unlikely to start now after reading that article, but if he had already been a favorite artist I doubt I’d stop listening to his music altogether. It’s similar with this book, I think I would have been able to develop much more of a sentimental reaction to it if I hadn’t already known about Alice Walker’s antisemitism when I picked it up. It definitely does not negate this book’s merits, but it does make it difficult to call it a brand new favorite.

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    • Yes! Could not agree more. I think the question ‘what is it morally okay to forget’ attempts to reckon with these works by removing our own humanity from the equation, which just isn’t possible. I do find these discussions interesting about how far a piece of art’s merit alone should be allowed to take it when the author has publicly engaged in harmful beliefs and behavior, but it’s definitely not something that has an easy answer and I think it’s always going to be different for each individual.

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