The novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a ground-breaking work in American fiction. The topic of emotional/physical abuse, especially that endured by black American women of earlier generations is not openly spoken about or documented in history books. By bringing focus to this sensitive, yet saddening, experience of black women, the novel attracted criticism, censorship and controversy. A careful study of the novel will reveal several themes, symbols and motifs woven-in by the author. This essay will confine itself to highlighting some of the major themes such as the representation (or lack thereof) of God, the interpretation of the color purple that is the title of the work, the symbolic value of the epistolary element in the novel, etc.
One of the prominent themes of the novel is the degree of suppression of the female African voice in early twentieth century American society. This is most evident from the events and circumstances in the life of the protagonist of the story, Celie. During her adolescent years, she was repeatedly raped and sweared at by her stepfather. She even bears his child through the whole term, after which the child is taken away and presumably killed by her stepfather. The oppression and disparaging attitude exhibited by her stepfather is obvious in the following passage:
“Well, next time you come you can look at her. She ugly. Don’t even look like she kin to Nettie. But she’ll make the better wife. She aint smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own. But she can work like a man.” (The Color Purple, Part 1, 1982)
If this was traumatic enough, the unfolding events of her adult life are equally saddening and depressing. Her tumultuous adult life is about finding peace and calm in an existence that is constantly threatened by the abusive husband Albert, while also navigating the emotional confusion cause by her sexual attraction toward Shug. Fortuitously, though, her secret relationship with Shug serves to emancipate Celie to a degree, as she learns to act boldly and assertively like Shug. But the fact remains that the extent of abuse suffered by Celie is not only shocking but also touches the limits of individual tolerance.
Another important theme/symbol in the book is that of God, to whom Celie writes letters regularly, hoping vainly for benign divine intervention in her life. In all the doom and gloom that is Celie’s life, the notion of God offers the only consolation and hope. Celie’s letters addressed to God is also an effective literary device employed by Alice Walker. Through the course of the novel’s narrative, one can see how Celie’s interpretation of God gradually evolves. At first, her view of God is that of a powerful white male. This naïve representation is a product of her personal past experiences and the structure of American society at the time. For example, she notes in one of her earlier letters: