“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
Celie is a poor black woman who is abused and raped by her father growing up. Her circumstances don’t get much better when she marries ‘Mister’, a mean and abusive man. Celie writes to her sister, Nettie, throughout the novel without receiving any letters in return, so she assumes her sister isn’t alive. She discovers, with her close friend Shug, that Mister has been hiding Nettie’s letters from her. Shug helps Celie find her independence, and from there Celie goes on a journey of creativity and discovery. Along the way, she questions her faith and learns what ‘purple’ really means.
1. Women are not treated well in The Color Purple. Is their treatment a gender or an ethnic identity issue? Or both?
Both. Most of the female characters in the novel are abused. During the time this book was written about, women were still inferior to men and blacks were still inferior to whites. Imagine being a black woman-your treatment would be the worst of the worst. That’s Celie’s life. Alice Walker, an African American as well, portrays what life was really like for the women who had the unfortunate circumstance of being born with the wrong skin color during this time.
2. Is Alice Walker sexist because the men in her story are almost universally mean? Should she have placed more emphasis on race rather than gender?
I think Walker placed a pretty equal amount of emphasis on both race and gender. Those were the two main real-world issues presented in the novel. Black women did the jobs the white women didn’t want to do, and were forced to raise white women’s children. There was a scene where Sofia, one of the characters you’ll come to know, disrespected a white woman (who also happened to be the mayor’s wife) and was beaten and thrown in jail for it. She then was forced to be her maid when she was released, and Sofia spent more time raising those kids than her own.
The men’s behavior in this book is no indicator of sexism on Alice Walker’s part; she was genuinely trying to create a true picture of what life was like for Celie. This is just how most men treated women during that time and Walker’s not at fault for that. It wouldn’t be an accurate description of the past had the men behaved otherwise.
3. Is it important that Nettie’s exile took place in Africa?
The depiction of Africa through Nettie’s eyes is a vital piece of this novel. It’s Celie and Nettie’s ‘home land’ and Nettie was ignorant to a lot of things before moving there. For example, she didn’t know that Africans sold their own people to slavery. She thought the whites forcibly removed them from their homes, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it was their own people. What happens to the village Nettie is living in is symbolic in itself. The villagers are driven out because there are plans for a paved road to be built right through it. This relates to the time of slavery when African people were uprooted from their homes for the sake of others. This piece of the book is ironic because Africa is Nettie’s home land so she should feel most at home there, yet she feels like an outsider.
4. Does it add or detract from the story that Celie-an uneducated woman-narrates the novel?
At the beginning, the story is a little difficult to get through because you don’t read this kind of uneducated language every day. But once you become used to Celie’s lingo, you really appreciate the book for the way it’s written. It gives you a better understanding of what Celie’s life was like because it forces you to feel uneducated at times, hearing the voice in your head saying illiterate things while you’re reading. Being a writer and grammar nazi, I just wanted to mark up the book with a red pen at first; but if you take the time to settle in, I think you’ll find that the language greatly enhances the quality of the story being told from Celie’s perspective. Definitely a smart play on Alice Walker’s part.
5. What does the way the community reacts to Shug’s illness say about the status of women?
Shug is known for her promiscuity. This is a huge sin among the people of her community. When she falls ill, everyone gossips that she has a ‘woman disease’, their way of saying STD. Women’s rights didn’t exist in this time. A man could sleep with however many women he wanted, but if a woman didn’t have a husband or slept with multiple men, she was going to Hell. A woman’s status in society was almost nonexistent.
6. Why do the Olinka not identify with Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie on the basis of race?
The Olinka are the tribe in Africa that Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie live with during their missionary trip. Their sermons go in one ear and out the other because the Olinka don’t understand how amazing it is that other black people from America are here speaking to them. They’ve never experienced racism or oppression in the way that Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie have. The Olinka don’t connect with them on the level that the trio assumed they would. The missionaries thought they’d accept them with open arms and want to hear everything they had to say.
Alice Walker does a phenomenal job of addressing racism, women’s rights, and one woman’s loss of faith. In a well-coordinated and intelligent way, she brings to light the issues I, as a white woman, have never had to face and probably never will face. Therefore, I’m allowed to put myself in Celie’s shoes and try to truly understand the hardships she went through and what other victims of racism/sexism still encounter today.
You’ll meet a character toward the end of the book named Tashi. She goes through a genital mutilation procedure, a ritual performed on women in her tribe. Alice Walker has written Possessing the Secret of Joy, an extension of The Color Purple that’s specifically about Tashi’s story-what she goes through physically and mentally as a result of the procedure and how it affects her marriage to Adam. This novel is on my list to read in the near future.
Please leave me your thoughts on The Color Purple if you’ve read it; I’d love to discuss it with you! Suggestions for other books to read are always welcome as well.