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The Color Purple (Alice Walker)

March 26, 2010

The last time I read this book, I was a senior in high school. I figured I wouldn’t really remember the story, despite the fact that I remember liking it, but I was wrong. As I read, I continued to recall characters’ names before they were introduced (most especially Shug Avery), and to have an inkling of what direction the events were headed in. However, my pseudo-vivid memories of the novel also made me realize just how much of it went over my head when I read it way-back-when.

I think what made the novel stick so firmly is the depth of the characters. They’re so vivid, more so than even Ellison’s characters (who had nearly 600 pages to develop). This is especially true with Celie, of course, since she’s the one writing most of the letters and we get her inner perspective much more than the other characters. But the character dynamics are probably the most interesting thing to me in this novel. The way their relationships continue to shift and grow in new directions is fascinating, and the way their lives become increasingly connected is also really interesting. I know, I know…”fascinating” and “interesting” are such vague terms. Let me see if I can clarify. The way Walker weaves together her characters’ lives and their always-changing romantic ties to one another seems to be a great feat of verisimilitude on the one hand (because in real life, this constant shifting is always occurring) and idealistic on the other (because all the characters find happiness in their relationships by the end of the novel, which entails a great deal of open-mindedness and acceptance on a level that not all characters actually seem capable of). But the way that the characters change and mellow with age is certainly what keeps the story interesting to read.

To be frank, I love a story with a happy ending, and so this tale appeals to me on that level. However, I think it’s really difficult to write a believable happy ending (much more so than to craft a believable unhappy ending), and Walker has mostly succeeded on that front. It’s not a conventional happy ending, as Disney would most likely want to have; instead, it’s a complicated ending with lots of twists and turns, lots of history, and lots of personal growth for each character. In this sense, I think Walker did an admirable job with it because the ways different characters changed and grew over time was quite believable in most ways.

As for the novel’s form, well, someone told me that it’s the first epistolary novel in the African American tradition. As such, I find it interesting to look at exactly who Celie is addressing her letters to. For the first half of the novel, all the letters are addressed to God. Ordinarily, this would be quite straightforward…except that Walker complicates even this in the second letter of the novel. Celie writes that when her mother asked her where her first baby came from, she replied that it was God’s. Of course, it was her stepfather’s, so this calls the “God” of the letters’ addresses into question. Lending further suspicion to this idea is the fact that when she refers to her stepfather in these early letters, she calls him only “He” — with a capital H just like in the Bible when God is referred to with the same capitalized pronoun. Is Celie, in fact, writing these letters to her stepfather? It’s a question I have no answer to, especially when Celie and Shug have their discussion on religion and the reader is privy to Celie’s ideas of what God looks like (a very large and very old white man with lots of hair).

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