Running Away for Wholeness, Redemption, and Reinvention of One’s Self in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

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Myra here.

I am late to The Color Purple party. It was my abominably-passive involvement with Emma Watson’s Shared Shelf (or virtual book club via Goodreads) that finally prompted me to get a copy of this book for myself.

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The Color Purple

Written by: Alice Walker
Published by: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983 with a New Introduction by Alice Walker written in 2006 and this edition published in 2007 ISBN: 1780228716 (ISBN13: 9781780228716). Book Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1983), National Book Award for Fiction (Hardcover) (1983), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee (1982)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

From the first page alone, one could already sense that this is going to be a riveting and powerful novel that has its own distinct voice. I meant to share this book during our Fearless Females and Courageous Women reading theme, but thought it would make a better fit for our Restlessness and Refuge theme.

It took awhile for me to get used to Celie’s voice, a young black girl, whose narrative is told through the letters that she writes to God. In these short letters, she talks about the man she believes to be her father who, after abusing and impregnating her twice (babies were put up for adoption), practically sold her to another man to be his wife and step mother to his children. In the beginning, the reader sees Celie just coasting through life, a passive recipient to untoward circumstances that only seem to be getting worse each day, with practically no escape in sight. Celie reacts only when loved ones closest to her may be threatened or are in danger, such as her beloved sister Nettie who eventually ran away from an abusive household, especially when Celie was married off to a man Nettie was initially attracted to. It was only much later that Celie found out what happened to Nettie who was actually writing her letters that were kept from her by a no-good husband who treats Celie more like a servant than a wife. Here is an excerpt from one of Nettie’s belatedly-discovered letters (as per usual, I took photos of the page and edited it using an iPhone app):

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It was interesting how Nettie’s life journeys brought her to the heart of Africa, with Jesus providing the door to her missionary work – alongside the kind people who took her in when she ran away from home.

Celie’s own life took a remarkable turn when she met Shug Avery, a glamorous, beautiful, free spirit who is unapologetic for taking liberties with her own life as a traveling singer, and is pretty much indifferent to how other people perceive her. Shug is deeply loved by Celie’s husband, so they make a curious family configuration with the mistress being waited on by Celie, the wife, at a time when Shug was sick and there was no one to take her in. It speaks volumes about women’s affairs, as the reader sees Shug and Celie gravitating towards each other, and the poor horrid man left in the ditch, unsure about what exactly has hit him. The intimacy between Celie and Shug has reached a pivotal point when Celie packed up her bags, left her husband, and went on to live with Shug and redirected the course of her life. Celie discovered her own strengths, her spirit gradually awakening into its own being, acquiring its own distinct colour and voice. I particularly loved the scene when Celie, upon leaving, cursed her own husband who initially did not want her to leave for his own selfish ends:

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Then there are also the interesting discussions about God between Shug and Celie. While the latter was pretty much a fervent believer as evidenced in the letters she wrote to God (this changed, however, during the latter part of the novel as her conception of God expanded in substance and form), Shug was clearly more of a free-thinker, as can be seen in this quote:

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This has a deep influence on Celie’s thinking, who eventually just started writing letters to Nettie rather than God, especially as she begins to question why so many ugly things had to happen to her. Paradoxically, this awakening came about when she witnessed and experienced for herself how beautiful life can possibly be, through her friendship with Shug who removed the boundaries Celie has imposed on herself:

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And so Celie did not just reinvent herself, she has also managed to reshape her own conceptualization of her own Maker, enabling her to derive meaning from things that happened to her. This constant search for answer was also mirrored by Celie’s husband, who managed to shape up when Celie cursed him and was left to his own devices. While much of what he did seemed unforgivable, he was given a certain texture in this story that allowed the reader to somewhat sympathize with him, even just a little, especially when his actions towards the end demonstrated that he was not beyond redemption:

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I have read Alice Walker’s Overcoming Speechlessnessand three of her picturebooks, so I am quite familiar with her style of writing. Yet, Walker seems to have inhabited a different vessel in this narrative allowing her to speak clearly with Celie’s and Shug’s voices. These are real living breathing women, with their hurts and loves and passions forging an unbreakable bond between them, despite their being at odds with each other. This is a woman’s woman book – and one that shows how running away can be a running towards wholeness and liberation of one’s womanity.

For teachers who wish to use this with their students, here is a downloadable 6-paged PDF link that contains suggested activities in the classroom. You may not be aware that this amazing Pulitzer-winning novel has been made into a film and has just recently been made into a play. Here is Cynthia Erivo performing ‘I’m Here’ From ‘The Color Purple’ for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

 Enjoy!

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