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Free Study Guide for The Color Purple by Alice Walker Free Book Summary

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THEMES


Major Theme

The major theme of the novel is the harm inflicted on the black community, both by their own cycle of violence and the racially motivated hatred of Negroes in the South. Embattled by white racist violence and its constant threat, the rural black Southerners form a tight-knit community; however, they destroy themselves from within by abusing and belittling their women -- mentally, physically, and sexually. black women, such as Celie and Sofia, are truly doubly oppressed; they are discriminated against by racism, which makes them second-class citizens in the larger society, and they are oppressed by their fathers and husbands, which makes them second-class citizens in the home. In neither place can the black woman enjoy the basic human rights of self-determination, freedom from violence, or ownership of their own bodies.

Minor Theme

A minor theme of The Color Purple is the potential strength and joy women can find in solidarity with one another. Powerless in the patriarchal family that isolates them from one another, women become powerful allies to one another when they join together. Part of their oppression as women is their internalized sexism, which teaches them that they and other women deserve the poor treatment they get from men. When they come together to share their pain and joys, women realize that they deserve better and can work together to improve their plights.


MOOD

The Color Purple is written in a mood of endurance with an underlying and unquenchable sense of wonder and hope. Despite the horrendous existence that the protagonist lives under (the triple oppression of poverty, racism, and sexism), she maintains a sense of her own dignity, and when she is given the opportunity, she opens her heart fully to love.


Alice Walker - BIOGRAPHY


Alice Walker was born to a Georgia sharecropping family in 1944. At a young age, an accident seriously damaged her eye. As a result of her disfigurement, she became shy and reserved, suffering from low self-esteem. Walker compensated for what she thought was a lack of physical attractiveness with an intense interest in learning. She won a scholarship to Spelman College, a black University in Atlanta, and then graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1985. In 1968, she published a collection of poetry called Once: Poems.



Alice Walker

Walker has written several novels, all of them combining the struggle for civil rights of black citizens and the struggle for women's rights as equals in the African-American community and family. Her efforts to combine these two struggles have brought her heavy criticism. Embattled by racism, many black critics and public figures have denounced her for calling attention to the internalized racism that feeds sexism in black families. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), is a perfect example of the fine balance of the two struggles. It depicts the cycle of oppression of a sharecropping family. Children are oppressed and turn into oppressive adults. Men are oppressed by their white bosses and then turn around and oppress their wives. Walker, however, writes in her afterword that she believes people can be soul survivors; they can persevere despite hardship and prove the dignity of the human spirit. Her character Grange Copeland does just that.

Walker's second novel, Meridian, was published in 1976. It depicts a woman committed to the civil rights struggle in the South. Then in 1982, Walker published The Color Purple, a story of a black woman who successfully finds herself after being oppressed by her father and her husband. A testament to the human spirit, the novel was received with great enthusiasm by critics. Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for it in the same year it was published. The book also attracted the interest of Steven Spielberg, who made a movie about it with the same title. More recently, Walker has written poetry and published a collection of essays called Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism.


For most of her adult life, Walker has been a tireless activist for the civil rights of African-Americans and Native Americans. She has also joined the fight against nuclear proliferation and environmental protection. In 1968, she married Mel Leventhal, a human rights lawyer, and they had a daughter, Rebecca; they were later divorced. Currently she lives and writes in northern California.


LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION


Alice Walker wrote a famous essay called "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" for Ms. Magazine in the 1970s. In it, she described her discovery of the work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer who wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Like Walker, Hurston came from a town called Eatonville, though Hurston's town was located in Florida and Walker's in Georgia. Their backgrounds were similar enough to resonate strongly in Walker, and she derived a great sense of joy in reading Hurston's works while attending college. Though quite well known and well received in the 1930s, Hurston's novels had gone out of print. In the 1970s, when students and scholars participating in the feminist and civil rights movements began searching for works written by women and people of color, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rediscovered and properly assessed for the first time. Walker was inspired that Walker's novel was written from an African-American woman's point of view and explored the limitations imposed by both racism and sexism. Walker wrote that Hurston enjoyed "racial health."

Unlike protest writers like Richard Wright, Hurston celebrated what it was to be black and praised the richness of the culture of folklore, spirituals, work songs, and blues. Walker decided she would do the same thing in her writing. As a result, she explores in The Color Purple what is hard about being a black as well as what is beautiful about it. She looks unflinchingly at the domestic abuse in the family, including incest, physical abuse, and exploitation. More importantly, she also lets the reader admire the African-American culture, with its ties to the extended family and its unique music. She also depicts what is beautiful about the human spirit that can live through hardship and retain the ability to love and care for others. In the novel, she provides the hope that people are resilient enough to change and to grow.

There are two primary elements of the novel that are unfamiliar. The first is its epistolary form; that is, it is written as if it were a series of letters. The protagonist writes first to God, then to her sister Nettie, and finally to the world she has grown to love. This choice of narrative technique accomplishes several things for Walker. She is able to capture a sense of time as it occurs in the passing moments. She is also able to give voice to a character who would otherwise be quite inarticulate because she is uneducated as well as silenced by patriarchy.

Through the letters, Walker is additionally able to give more than one point of view - that of the protagonist, Celie, a woman living in Macon Country, Georgia, and that of Nettie, a woman living in Africa, who can provide a sense of the cultural roots of African Americans. The letter form also gives the reader a sense of urgency. At first, the letters reveal horrendous things that are happening to the protagonist as she confesses her misery to God. No one other than her abusive father knows what is happening to Celie; therefore, she feels isolated and helpless. Then, the letters she writes are to her sister Nettie, who is in Africa and also unable to help Celie. The reader observes that through the course of her letter writing, the protagonist comes to understand herself and also realizes her own voice. She begins to be self-sufficient and satisfied with herself and her life choices.

The second unfamiliar element in the novel is the southern black dialect of Celie and the other African-American characters in the book. The rules of grammar in Black English (BE) are often contrary to many rules found in Standard American English (SAE). In SAE, a sentence like "She goes to the market" becomes "She go to the market" in Black English. Pronunciations, and therefore spellings, also differ between BE and SAE. Walker faithfully usually Black English in the novel, for it is the language that her characters would actually speak. Writing the novel in Standard American English, the author would not have captured the real Celie. Walker does such a splendid job of capturing the appropriate dialect that after a few chapters, most readers grow comfortable with it and enjoy its unique cadences, especially when read aloud.


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