This novel, by Alice Walker takes a little getting used to for a couple of reasons. The first being that the abuse is so harsh it is hard to digest. The second is that the speaker writes so calmly about it. The combination of the stoic and the horror is a contrast that is hard to swallow. The voice is of Celie, a 14 year old girl who is writing letters to God about her mother giving birth to Luciana. I suppose one can more easily write an objective letter to God than to anyone, as what has God not seen? When her mother leaves to visit a doctor in Macon, Georgia, her father rapes her. "He never had a kind word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn't." It's like reading about a bad dream.
When I start to hurt and then my stomach start moving and then that little baby come out my pussy chewing on it fist you could have knock me over with a feather. Ain't nobody come see us. She got sicker and sicker. Finally she ast where is it? I say God took it. He took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kill it out there in the woods. Kill this one too if he can.
As a reader, I had to intake the first letters to God a couple of times, because my reaction was, "Did I just read that? She had babies by her father?" And she did. The novel is very direct in terms of action. There is no explanation of character, no outline of environment or setting. The reader gets thrown into a world as if snooping among a teenage girl's letters.
Celie's mother dies and her little sister, Nettie, is her only loving family member. The range of relationships is kaleidoscopic as the characters are always colorful, there is no empty space and the dynamics are always shifting. Once Celie's mother dies she has a new mammy almost immediately. Her father, she calls "He" and for some reason she can't have children anymore. Celie is given away by her father to a man, she calls Mr. ________.
Nettie's boyfriend is also Mr. _______.
Celie was taken out of school early because of her pregnancies. Nettie tries to keep teaching her. But soon Celie is given to Mr. _______, and she cares for him and his four brats; the oldest boy busts open Nettie's head with a rock, on her wedding day. Mr. ______ has sex with her when she's still bleeding from the head. Celie was shown a picture of Mr. ______ 's girlfriend, Shug Avery who is beautiful, but Mr. ______ told her to leave as she was too much trouble for him. Celie is thin, homely but she works hard and ducks and dodges to survive.
While at the dry goods store, Celie sees her little girl, Olivia. The Reverend and his wife have adopted her. So, at least her children are not dead. Celie follows the Reverend's wife and asks, "How long you had your little girl?" Later, after he is done with his errand, Mr. ______ finds Celie sitting in their wagon laughing to herself.
Nettie moves in with Celie as she ran away from home; and tells Celie she should not let the children rule her like that but Celie says they have the upper hand. Nettie tells her to fight, "But I don't know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive."
Mr. ______ /He tells Celie that Nettie cannot stay there anymore and so Nettie leaves and they do not know where to. Celie tells Nettie to ask the Reverand's wife for help as she is the only woman Celie has ever seen with any money. "I say, Write. She say, What? I say, Write. She say, Nothing but death can keep me from it. She never write."
Mr. ______ sisters come to visit, their names are Carrie and Kate. The latter takes Celie shopping for a dress made just for her. A navy blue one as red is too happy for Mr. ______ and the store doesn't have the color purple. "Buy Celie some clothes. She say to Mr. ______ . She need clothes? he ast. Well look at her. He look at me. It like he looking at the earth. It need somethin? his eyes say."
Harpo, the eldest who busted in Celie's head; he doesn't want to work as he is a man and work is for women. Celie does all the work for the family it seems. She plows, cooks, cleans and raises the children to actually have morals. Harpo falls in love with a girl, Sophia from church. Sophia becomes big soon enough. Neither set of parents of either Harpo nor Sophia think the other is good enough, so Sophia goes to live with her sister until she and Harpo can marry.
They do marry and live well enough together for three years, but Harpo comes to Celie and Mr. ______ to ask what he can do to get Sophia to do what he tells her to all the time. Celie tells him to beat Sophia. The next time they see Harpo, his face is cut and bruised. Everytime he beats Sophia, she gives it right back.
Sophia gives Celie back a gift of curtains and thread. And a dollar extra for their use. Celie says they were a gift and Sophia should keep them. "You told Harpo to beat me, she said."
Celie admits, eventually, that she did say this and says it's because she is jealous, of Sophia for fighting. Plus, if something is done for so long to a person it's hard for that person not to do the same thing to somebody else. Hence cyclic abuse.
Celie felt horrible and could not sleep from the pain of the guilt, but she said it all the same. Sophia forgives Celie and they talk about their lives. "All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain't safe in a family of men."
But men are a part of things. And when Shug Avery Mr. ______ 's old girlfriend becomes sick he takes her in as no one else does, for Celie to care for. "She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain't believe it."
Shug and Mr. ______ commence with their biblical relations and Celie does not mind. Celie is more attracted to Shug than her husband. She and Shug find Nettie's letters together in a trunk of He. Despite that Mr. ______ and Shug have had three children together... "But what was good tween us must have been nothing but bodies, she say. Cause I don't know the Albert that don't dance, can't hardly laugh, never talk bout nothing, beat you and hid your sister Nettie's letters. Who he?"
It stunned Celie, her husband would be that abusive as with all abuse it takes awhile for the real meanness to come out. Celie knew her husband to beat her and treat her like dirt, but to hide letters, to keep her from her own family, she never thought he would do. Nettie wrote to Celie for over thirty years. Nettie, with her education and missionary work writes to Celie with all her ideas of the world and her travels. Celie begins to write Nettie back, about her love affair with Shug and about her work designing pants. Mr. ______ tells Celie that she's ugly and worth nothing but she leaves him anyway to find a better life for herself.
Nettie cares for Celie's children. And they continue to write each other though, for some reason they don't receive each other's letters. Celie gets a telegram saying Nettie's ship was destroyed by a German mine and that Nettie is probably dead. But Celie does not believe it and the two write each other anyway. Celie finds from her sister that their father is not really their biological father, though this should not lessen in any manner his crimes toward Celie.
They are all eventually reunited as a family. And though they are older now, Celie does not feel old. "And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this is the youngest us ever felt." And so is the last statement of The Color Purple, which I do not think represents domestic violence accurately. I've never been given bruises by a man, but with true abuse, the violence just usually never ends. And there is really nothing to learn from it or gain from it. Abuse is actually pretty boring in the sense, that there is nothing new about it to the world. And that in the end the man who rapes Celie when she is 14 is not actually related by blood to her, should not devalue the horror that a father took advantage of his child in such a manner.
I really loved reading this book for its themes related to education, connections as family, the reality of sexual relations, and the victory of independence in the face of abuse. Maybe the ending is a matter of triumphing as a family over abuse, but in doing so it also seems to excuse the inexcusable somewhat. It is as if the author is mocking Shakespeare's, "All's well that ends well."
My favorite part is in the middle of the story, when Celie is talking to Shug about the world and God's perspective. Shug says, "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it." I think the real point is not whether it all ties together happily in the end, but whether or not a person notices the color purple as a gift from God, wherever they happen to go.
By Sarah Bahl