In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The two other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale. This is also #3 of my 20 Books of Summer.
3. The Color Purple: Alice Walker (1982)
The edition I own (L) and an example of some of my copious annotations (R).
I first read The Color Purple in 2003, when I was sixteen, and again in 2004, when I was seventeen. It was one of my AS Level set texts for English Literature, which means that, amusingly, I still have copies of old essays that I wrote on it. Before I’d even finished the novel, I vehemently hated The Color Purple. My violent reaction was related to its presentation of women and men. I felt that the male characters were all stereotyped as abusive and irredeemable, and believed that Walker had done this in pursuit of a feminist agenda. As I wrote in my post on The Handmaid’s Tale, as a teenager, I did not define myself as a feminist. I felt that feminism wanted to lock me into a system where women were oppressed for their ‘feminine’ qualities, qualities which I did not believe I possessed. I preferred thinking of myself as ‘not like other girls’: somebody who was good enough to compete with men on their own terms. I remember being highly satisfied when I managed to get into one of my exam essays that the presentation of the male characters ‘severely weakens the novel’. (I got full marks!)
My reaction to The Color Purple was also conditioned by it being an AS Level set text. I doubt I would have felt so strongly about it otherwise. I think I suspected that it was seen as a text that was suitable for my mostly-girls sixth form (all girls comp with mixed sixth form, but very few boys actually swapped in) because it dealt with topics that we would find relatable. I was cross because I didn’t think The Color Purple was rigorous, real literature; this was also my reaction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, another AS Level set text (I was furious that the boys’ school got to do Persuasion!). In retrospect, I do think it was a shame that we ended up with so many set texts that dealt explicitly with issues of sexual violence (as well as Color and Tess, we did Othello for AS and The Duchess of Malfi for A Level). One text like this would have been fine or even desirable: four does seem a bit like the teachers were making assumptions about what teenage girls would connect with.
When I reread To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt my teenage self was basically right about it being too simplistic and stereotyped. When I reread The Handmaid’s Tale, I was chastened to find that it was a far better novel that I remembered. The Color Purple falls somewhere in between the two. While I appreciate it more as an adult who knows more about feminism, womanism and racism, some of the problems I had with it as a teenager don’t seem to me to be totally off-base.
To start with the good news. More than most novels, I think that The Color Purple really suffered from being picked apart and analysed. Because we read it bit by bit in school, the emotional impact of Walker’s writing was lost, and that was what really struck me on this reread. There are more than a few set-pieces where Walker really brings home the struggles and triumphs of her characters, and they hit the mark every time. The novel’s most famous scene, rightly so, is perhaps when the downtrodden protagonist Celie finally stands up against her abusive husband Mr. —, who has told her ‘You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all.’ Celie, driven by her newfound knowledge that Mr. — has kept her sister Nettie’s letters from her for decades, finds her voice and responds: ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. . . . But I’m here.’
Walker also conveys the poignancy and tragedy of the struggles of her minor characters, such as Sofia, Mr.—‘s daughter-in-law, who serves as a foil for Celie in many ways. Celie’s response to patriarchy, poverty and white supremacy is, for much of the novel, to stay quiet and do what she’s told; Sofia’s response is to fight back. Indeed, as a more traditionally ‘active’ character, Sofia’s story actually eclipses Celie’s for much of the first third of The Color Purple; as Celie is our narrator, this indicates her fascination with a woman who seems so unlike her. But when Sofia is imprisoned for twelve years for ‘disrespecting’ the town’s mayor and his wife, her rebelliousness is forced within her. She says: ‘Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say.’
Sofia was not a character that I remember thinking much about as a teenager beyond the required analyses I had to write for class, but I found her surprisingly compelling on a re-read, especially as even the other black characters seem to think she has overstepped a line in responding with violence: ‘Don’t make her have to look at you like us look at Sofia’, Shug, Celie’s lover, says to her when she wants to kill Mr. — after finding out about Nettie’s letters. Having said that, Sofia’s character would not be so striking if we did not have Celie as her inverse reflection, and Walker’s decision to make her protagonist passive and suffering rather than openly subversive is, I think, very wise, if also very unfashionable.
As I’ve said, my biggest problem with The Color Purple as a teenager was its presentation of the male characters, and this is where I felt most unsatisfied with the novel on a reread as well. Almost all the men in The Color Purple fall into two camps: ‘bad’ (abusive, lazy, patriarchal) and ‘good’ (quiet, supportive of women, willing to do ‘women’s work’). This makes characters like Samuel, Harpo, Alfonso and Jack feel pretty flat, especially as the novel goes on. However, I will give Walker credit for her development of Mr.—, which I wasn’t convinced by as a teenager but liked a lot more on a reread. Mr.— is the only man who is allowed to change in this story; all the others remain good or bad throughout; and this gives him the kind of depth of character that is otherwise only visible in the female cast. On the other hand, though, the sections of the novel set in Western Africa, where Celie’s sister Nettie goes as a missionary, worked less well for me than they did when I was younger. Walker uses Nettie as a mouthpiece to make political points that have not always aged especially well, and, unlike the vividness of Celie’s letters, I could never forget that Nettie’s account was constructed by an external author.
There are a lot of angles from which to criticise The Color Purple, and I still agree with most, if not all of them. However, when I finally read it from cover to cover without stopping to make notes, I was surprised by how deeply I engaged with Celie and her story.
My rating in 2003/4: **
My rating in 2022: ***1/2