Tuesday, August 25, 2009

212. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

History: Published in 1982. It received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.
Plot: The story is told through a series of diary entries and letters. Celie is a poor and uneducated young woman who, at fourteen, is raped and impregnated twice by a man she believes to be her father. After her children are taken away to "be with God," she is forced to marry a widower with four children, who is physically and mentally abusive. After some time of living there, she is joined in her new home by her younger sister, Nettie, whom Celie's new husband had originally wanted to marry. After Celie's husband tries to seduce Nettie and fails he forces her to leave and she goes to the home of a pastor, promising to write to Celie. As time passes, no such letters appear to arrive and so Celie assumes that Nettie is dead.
In her writings, Celie refers to her husband as "Mr." and it is some time in the book until we find out his name is actually Albert. One of his sons, Harpo, falls in love with and marries a strong and physically imposing woman named Sofia. Though both Harpo and "Mr." attempt to treat her as an inferior, Sofia fights back, sometimes even physically, and Celie is amazed by her defiance.
"Mr." has a mistress, singer Shug Avery, and she comes to live with the family because of her poor health. Like "Mr.", Shug at first has little respect for Celie and the life she lives. She copies her lover, abusing Celie and adding to her humiliation. Celie feels intrigued and excited by this effervescent, liberated version of femininity, and she eventually realizes that she is sexually attracted to Shug. They have a relationship and through this relationship Celie realizes she is worthy of being loved and respected. When Shug discovers that "Mr." beats Celie, she decides to remain in the house for a short time in order to protect her.
After a few years of constant fighting, Sofia leaves Harpo, taking their children with her. At the same time, Celie and Shug become intimate and a strong bond grows between them. Shug helps Celie discover her sexuality as a woman. When Sofia returns to town for a visit, she becomes involved in a fight with Harpo's new girlfriend, who is nicknamed "Squeak" because of her high-pitched voice. One day, the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie, asks Sofia to work as her maid. When Sofia declines with the words, "Hell, no," the mayor slaps Sofia. When she returns the blow, knocking the mayor down, she is arrested for hitting a white man. Sofia is severely beaten in jail and is later sentenced to work for twelve years as the mayor's maid. The separation from her family and her freedom breaks her spirit.
Shug comes back, married to a man named Grady. Shug and Celie become closer and start a secret relationship as lovers. However, the relationship between Shug and Celie is not just sexual. Other than Nettie, Shug is the only person who has ever really loved Celie, and this makes the relationship between Celie and Shug closer and easier to grow. One night, when Shug asks Celie about Nettie, Celie says that she believes her sister to be dead, since she had promised to write but Celie had never received any letters. Shug informs Celie that she has seen "Mr." hide numerous mysterious letters in a trunk and suggests that they investigate. When they do so, they find dozens of letters written by Nettie to Celie over the years. These tell of Nettie's travels to Africa with a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine, and their adopted children, Olivia and Adam. When Corrine becomes ill, Samuel tells Nettie how they came to adopt their children and that his wife has suspected that Nettie was their biological mother due to their resemblance. Nettie then learns that Olivia and Adam are Celie's long-lost children, and that she is the children's aunt. She also learns that Alphonso was not her and Celie's father but rather their stepfather. Their biological father, a store-owner, had been lynched by a mob of white men because they believed he was too successful. After Corrine's acceptance of Nettie's story, she dies, and Samuel and Nettie discover that they are deeply in love; they eventually marry.
Having read the letters and learned the truth about her children as well as her biological father, Celie visits Alphonso to confirm the story, which he does. Celie finds a new sense of empowerment, and at dinner one night she releases her pent-up anger at "Mr.", cursing him for the years of abuse that she has had to endure. Shug, Celie, and Squeak decide to move to Tennessee, where Celie begins a lucrative business designing and sewing tailored pants, and continues her sexual relationship with Shug Avery. She returns to Georgia for a visit and finds that not only has "Mr." reformed himself and his ways, but Alphonso has died and all of his land now belongs to her. Celie decides to move back, relocating her business. Soon after, Shug falls for nineteen-year-old Germaine and travels with him across the country in a last hurrah for her youth.
Meanwhile, Nettie and Samuel are preparing for their return to America. Adam falls in love with and marries an African girl named Tashi. Nettie writes to Celie to let her know that the family is on their way.
Celie is now an independent woman. Celie and "Mr." eventually reconcile, and he begins to help her with her business, sewing with her as they sit on the porch. Sofia and Harpo remarry, and Sofia also works for Celie at her pants-making shop. Shug returns, satisfied with her last fling and ready to settle down with Celie. Nettie and Samuel return with the children, and Celie and her sister are happily reunited.
Review: Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. But it was easy to read, and with all the entries as prayers to God, like letters, and written in deep south dialect, I just sailed through it. I have to say, it was predictable, and although it tried to pull at my heart strings, it didn’t. It’s not that I’m not a feminist, or sympathetic to racial divides and inequalities. I find that novels about that sort of thing end up feeling sappy, and feel goodish, instead of realistic. Celie starts out by writing to God but her faith in the divine withers under the abuses she suffers and witnesses. As she encounters other women who inspire her, she comes to place her faith instead in them and, eventually in herself. This is a novel with very strong themes: slavery, abuse, neglect, suffering, subjugation and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. What jars a bit though is how all of this is focused on women and black women to boot. It’s clear who the enemies are: men and all whites. The novel’s medium is a series of letters to God and then exchanged with Celie’s sister. This medium serves the one-sided message of the novel well. There’s a certain irony in the central themes of the novel though as prejudice is fought against with… well… more prejudice. Perhaps it can’t be helped. We’re all human, despite our ethnic differences after all. The writing was good but not overwhelmingly so. The storyline was reasonable but the ending a little too syrupy and perfect for me.
Opening Line: “Dear God, I am fourteen years old.”
Closing Line: “And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen. “
Quotes: “Shug say, girl you look like a good time, you do”
“Have you ever found God in a church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in a church I brought in with me.”
Rating: okay

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