THE COLOR PURPLE is an epistolary novel only in the strictest sense. Its correspondents, named Celie and Nettie, are sisters from a poor black rural background, and though Nettie acquires education and comes to express herself rather well, Celie is barely literate, and writes in a black dialect that sometimes has to be spoken aloud to be understood.
The letters they write are not really exchanges; the two women become separated from each other early in the novel, and through various circumstances write letters with no real faith that anyone is receiving them. Celie's letters, in particular, more closely resemble narrative interior monologues, and the reader's first impression on finishing this novel is of the enormous ground it has covered in a not especially large space: 30 years of action, a wonderfully complicated plot, a wide variety of themes. Alice Walker's method in this novel is somehow extremely effective, and Celie's dialect--which for some people may be rough going--is to my mind positively poetic. It tells its story as oral narratives often do, leaving out the niceties (for some time I had little idea exactly when the story was taking place, but it didn't seem to matter) and also avoiding elaborate description and analysis of feeling. The simple feelings that are expresed thus stand out all the more starkly and vividly:
"I can't remember being the first one in my own dress. Now to have one made just for me. I try to tell Kate what it mean. I git hot in the face and stutter."
The Color Purple is a novel to be read slowly, often perhaps to be read aloud, to be lived with, to be pondered.
Celie addresses her early letters to God, too ashamed to tell her story to anyone else. At the age of 14--barely aware of what is happening, and with no idea what it really means--she is raped by the man whom she believes to be her father, and becomes, in effect, a mother to her sister and brothers. She bears two children of her own, who are taken away from her; eventually she is married off to a man who is very much like her Pa, and who also has children from an earlier marriage, but she does manage to help her sister Nettie escape. Women in this black rural culture are chattels, used for sex and for domestic convenience but not seen as human beings. Men, though in positions of power, are oddly weaker than the women; they are cowed by their fathers, have no real work of their own to do, and are kept soft and comfortable by their subservient mates. They value women for the docility and for their housekeeping abilities, but do not want them even as strong independent sexual partners. There is a long tradition of having a woman who minds, and of beating her to see that she does.
Into this situation steps Shug Avery, a woman blues singer who is from this culture but not of it, and is a former lover of Celie's husband Albert. She is her own woman, who won't be used as a domestic, won't be beaten, won't be raped; as Albert says much later, "She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what." Celie, too, falls in love with her, with something about her style, the way she has transcended her background, and it is Shug who makes a discovery of vast importance to Celie's life: she finds out that Albert has been hiding letters to Celie from her sister Nettie.
That fact is responsible for the first real feelings that Celie has had for years; up to that point she has been positively numb, but now she feels a murderous rage toward her husband. In the letters they find, Nettie has written to Celie as a kind of saint, a woman who sacrificed her life for her, and the letters themselves tell a marvelous story. Nettie has found the couple who adopted Celie's children, a new kind of black people to her, "colored people . . . who want us to know! Want us to grow and see the light!" Without telling who she is, Nettie stays with them, travels with them as a missionary to Africa. There she discovers another new world, of people far blacker than those she had known, people who live in close harmony with nature, who worship a leaf as god; she also discovers a society in which women are at least as oppressed as they were in her southern rural past, kept ignorant and used for domestic tasks, their faces scarred and bodies brought into womanhood with bloody puberty rites. There are ironic parallels with Nettie's own culture, especially in the way that African natives regard the American blacks as something less than human. But Nettie also makes another discovery, of far greater importance to her own and Celie's lives. She finds out from her missionary friends that the man she and Celie had always called Pa is not really their father.
Learning that fact, Celie loses her deep sense of shame about the past. She no longer writes to God, but to her sister, and in fact abandons her belief in God as a kind of bearded white man who listens to her problems. In a long discussion with Shug that is perhaps the intellectual center of the novel, Celie hammers out a belief in a God who has no gender, who is not out there somewhere but within oneself, who wants not formal worship from us but attention and respect for his creation; real religious feeling is a sense of oneness with everything. Accepting themselves for what they are, the women are able to extricate themselves from oppression; they leave their men, find support and sexual love with one another, find useful work to support themselves. In a wonderful scene in which Celie tells off Albert, she pronounces a curse on him which proves to be literally and psychologically true: "Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble."
Walker seems to be saying that it is only once people have removed themselves from this relationship as oppressor and oppressed that they will be able to live as fully-human beings, and that--the situation being what it is--the only way for this change to happen is for women to take matters into their own hands. Men think they have what they want.
As rich as this summary sounds, it only begins to hint at the complexity of this novel; it does not, for instance, mention a number of other vital and vivid characters who are important to the story and who make it live. Alice Walker in the past has sometimes seemed too ideological a writer, her political and feminist convictions standing in the way of her narratives, but in The Color Purple she has found a situation and method which perfectly embodies her views. Some readers, of course, will object to her overall perspective. Men in this novel are generally pathetic, weak and stupid when they are not heartlessly cruel, and the white race is universally bumbling and inept. It is white men who are invisible in Celie's world; they loom as an overwhelming social force, of course, but have no existence as individuals. This really is Celie's perspective, however--it is psychologically accurate to her--and Alice Walker might argue that it is only a neat inversion of the view that has prevailed in western culture for centuries.
Walker's larger view, in fact, is of a terribly chauvinistic world in which all groups are wrapped up in themselves and none sees much worth in any of the others. As she explains in a myth toward the end of the novel, either we will continue in an endless cycle of oppressor and oppressed, with different groups changing sides from time to time, or people will learn to accept one another for what they are. It seems to me that finally, while writing a narrative that is perfectly satisfactory in itself, Alice Walker has also written a fable for the modern world; in showing how a small group of rural blacks make themselves free, she shows us what we all can do. I do not agree with Celie's perspective on the world--I am a white male --but I don't think I am necessarily meant to. I am asked to see it, to try to understand it, to learn from it, to see where it might lead. I am asked to say, as does the inscription to this novel from Stevie Wonder:
Show me how to do like you
Show me how to do it