Epistolary novels are a welcome change from the novels that usually stick to first person or third person narrative. I feel that letters or diary entries are an excellent form to explore what goes in the mind of a protagonist. When you are reading a letter you feel that the matter conveyed is for your eyes alone. It’s as if the writer trusts the reader completely and therefore pours out his/her thought without holding back.
‘The Colour Purple’ is an epistolary novel written by Alice Walker. It comes under the genre of historical fiction. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The protagonist of the novel is Celie, an African-American woman who is abused physically and emotionally by her step-father and later by her husband. The novel traces the transformation of Celie from a downtrodden, voiceless woman to a strong and independent woman. During the major part of the book I felt sympathetic towards her, and then later I appreciated her newfound assertiveness. Celie isn’t a perfect character; she has her share of weak and jealous moments and this makes her real.
The power of friendship between women and their resistance to the traditional roles make this novel stand apart. Celie’s friendship with Shug and Sofia strengthens her, her hope that she would be reunited with Nettie pushes her forward in life. Celie’s decision to accompany Shug to Tennesee marks the first time she does anything for her own happiness. At Tennessee, Celie rejoices in the freedom she has as she doesn’t have to constantly be at the beck and call of her heartless husband. She finally experiences bliss and discovers her talent in sewing. She establishes an apparel store named ‘Folkspants Unlimited’ that sells fashionable pants.
Shug is a beautiful blues singer who lives life on her terms. Her charisma sweeps Celie off her feet and has a lasting impression on her. Shug bows before nobody and puts her interests first. According to her, ‘God’ is an omnipresent spirit that wants everybody on earth to love and admire “its” artistry. She propels Celie to discover her voice and to admire all the beautiful things around her.
The men portrayed in the novel aren’t likeable, except for Samuel. Starting from Alphonso to Harpo, all of them appear to be the worst versions of themselves: Alphonso repeatedly rapes his step-daughter and gives her away to a man who has no love for her; Albert beats Celie and is indifferent to her, and Harpo tries to dominate his strong-willed wife, Sofia, by beating her.
But as the story comes to a close the reader can see stark changes in the personalities of almost all the characters. Albert understands and acknowledges Celie as a human being and even strikes a friendship with her. Harpo develops a good relationship with Sofia. A role reversal occurs as the women take on the duties of the man, and men of women.
Nettie, Celie’s sister has an eventful life. Her time in Africa throws light on the culture of her ancestors. The natives of Africa behave just like how the whites treat the blacks: they scorn at people who don’t fit into their narrow, conservative group. Disillusioned by the state of things there, Nettie returns to America with her husband and children.
‘The Colour Purple’ is a complex novel as all the characters undergo drastic changes. Walker gives the readers a peek into the lives of African-American women. The blacks faced an harrowing level of discrimination in the 1930s. For a black woman it was worse. The author directs our attention to many issues from patriarchy to racism. This book is appeals to the reader’s emotions from the first page to the very last. The significance of the title of the book can be understood from Shug’s words:
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
The colour purple is the result of a combination of shades of red and blue. It’s an unique colour that shouldn’t go unnoticed, similarly women shouldn’t be slighted.
The book ends on a cathartic note and in the process highlights that a woman can be her own master, all she has to do is take a stand.