[Note: I originally blogged this in December 2006, only to find now that it's in the BRP . So I'm changing the date, bumping it up and adding links at the end. Easy game!]
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
This book was on my mental to-read list for ages – and with good reason.
It is a novel telling the story of Celie through her letters to God and, later, to her sister Nettie. She writes these letters because of what her Pa told her: You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.
The letters tell, in Celie’s own language – the voice it seems of black people in the southern states of the US – of her life from the time when her Pa first rapes her through her loveless marriage to an abusive husband, her discovery of her own sexuality with the beautiful singer Shug Avery (short for “Sugar”, I think, and presumably not pronounced to rhyme with “slug”!), the missionary life of her sister Nettie who escaped the family home to live with the couple that adopted both of Celie’s children by her Pa. We follow her as she gains in strength and comes to know, against all odds, both contentment and happiness.
The women in the story are amazing. Apart from Celie herself, there is the powerful magnetism of Shug, the hardworking loyalty and determination of Nettie, the uncompromising Sofia, the blossoming Mary Agnes (“Squeak”) and others. They each shine out from the pages.
As for the men… Walker received a great deal of criticism for her portrayal of black men in this novel* – although I’m not remotely convinced that such cricism is justified.
[* I should point out that much - but by no means all - of the criticism followed the release of the film version which, I understand, misses out some of the nice bits about men. That criticism affected Walker so greatly that she responded by writing a book about the film about The Color Purple - The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult.]
It is true that there are some bad men in the novel. Celie’s Pa treated her mother badly, turned his attentions to Celie, and would have treated Nettie in the same way but for Celie’s intervention. Celie’s husband also mistreats her: marrying her purely as a worker to care for his children, beating her and using her sexually. Celie’s stepson Harpo would have gone the same path had he not been married to the extraordinarily tough Sofia.
But these characters are not one-dimensional, they have their own journey to make, and the negative portrayals are balanced by portrayals of better men. There isn’t much to redeem Celie’s Pa, it is true. But her husband (known through the book mostly as “Mr -“) learns the error of his ways, and he later becomes a dear friend. Harpo is straightened out by the women in his life and becomes a valued member of the family. Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack is a quiet man who loves his children and honours his wife. The adoptive father of Celie’s children, Samuel, is a good and respectful man who takes Nettie in and effectively rescues her. Celie’s son Adam grows into a fine young man.
This novel is about abuse that poor black women suffer when living with poverty and racism and misogyny. It is also about sexuality, spirituality and survival. But the backdrop is one of overcoming, and flourshing in spite of, abuse: and a big part of that abuse is that these women are treated badly by black men. That is not the only part, but the part that is closest to home. Walker could not have written this novel, or expressed what her characters go through, without showing some men* in a bad light.
[* And not just black men, either. For example, Mary Agnes is raped by a white man when she goes to him to try and seek help for the imprisoned Sofia.]
In the circumstances, the positivity with which many of the men in this novel are ultimately portrayed is remarkable. Yet what was remarked upon was, instead, the negativity with which the abusers were portrayed. How can one write about abuse without abusers? And how can one write about abusers in a wholly positive light? One can’t. The fact that some people have chosen to condemn the negative portrayal of abusers rather than condemning the abuse merely shows, to me, where their sympathies lie. It is evidently better for women to remain silent about the misogynist abuse they and their sisters suffer, than to talk about it and to risk an accusation of misandry.
And now well over half of my post about this book is taken up with how it is NOT a man-hating novel. Damn those MRA goons.
This book is wonderful. Everyone should read it.
PS Many of the characters in this book appear in others. For example Tashi, the protagonist in Possessing the Secret of Joy is a part of Nettie’s story – and the Olivia and Adam who appear in that novel are Celie’s children. I’ve got to go back and read it again now to see what other links I can spot!
Here’s an Amazon link
I own a copy.