The Color Purple: Imagery and symbolism » Colours
Although it is not an exact science, colours are thought to have cultural and psychological meanings. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker uses colours to symbolise the ideas and issues she addresses.
The associations of purple
Purple is a secondary colour, being made up of a blend of red (associated with energy and strength) and blue (linked to spirituality and integrity). When mixed together, the shades of purple (violet and lavender) signify the union of body and soul or the balance between physical and spiritual energies. Thus purple can be regarded as the colour of the imagination and high-minded spirituality.
The colour purple is also associated with royalty and nobility and thus can signify luxury, wealth and extravagance. Kings and rulers throughout history have traditionally chosen purple robes to demonstrate their power and status – in the New Testament a purple robe was put on Jesus by Pilate’s soldiers to mock him as a Jewish King.
Purple as a symbol of womanism
Walker herself uses a comparison between purple and lavender to define the difference between feminism (lavender) and her own redefinition of the term for African-American women as ‘womanism’ (purple). She explains that the darker shade gives ‘visibility’ to the experience of black women who have been marginalised and ‘invisible’ throughout history.
Purple in the novel
In Letter 73, Shug tells Celie that she believes that God is angered if someone walks past a field of purple flowers without noticing or admiring the vibrancy and beauty of the colour. This statement summarises Shug’s religious philosophy that God is a spiritual being whose purpose is to encourage all people to appreciate and enjoy life.
In this context, the colour purple therefore represents all the good things in the world that God creates for people to enjoy. Prior to this point in the narrative, Celie’s life has been a joyless struggle to survive. She is physically alive but emotionally and spiritually dead, whilst her belief in God has almost disappeared. It is Shug who teaches Celie that enjoying life’s pleasures, including sex, is a way of expressing love for a God whose desire is simply to make people happy and give them pleasure.
As Celie does learn to love life, she decorates her bedroom in the house she inherits from her natural father in purple and red and also makes matching blue outfits for herself and Shug when they visit Alphonso to find out about Celie’s inheritance.
When Sofia is beaten by the police she is so bruised that her skin is described as being the colour of an ‘eggplant’ (an aubergine), purple representing the colour of a bruise. Its significance is enhanced by the suggestion of black-on-black – perhaps also suggesting the ‘black-heartedness’ of the white men who inflict the beating.
The first time Celie is bought clothes that are new, by Albert’s sister Kate, she asks for something that is purple with a little red in it, colours that she thinks Shug Avery would wear and which signify to Celie the idea of royalty. To Celie, Shug Avery is a queen whom she wants to honour and imitate.
Celie later makes a pair of pants for Sofia with one red leg and one purple leg and dreams that Sofia jumps over the moon when she is wearing them. The contrast between Sofia is a bruised and battered victim of white racism and the regal triumphant figures that women can become when they are free, gives the novel its basic structure. Walker has changed the symbolism of a colour that signifies violence and abuse to one of joy, spirituality and hope.
Some general facts
Traditionally, pink is a feminine colour, associated with love, friendship and affection.
As a softer, less intense variant of red, which represents heat and passion, pink signifies romance and charm. ‘Hot’ pink is sometimes thought of as playful, and light pink or rose pink connote sweetness and tenderness.
Pink in The Color Purple
Probably the most significant use of the symbolic colour pink is found in Letter 35 when Shug explains the practicalities of sex to Celie, whom she describes as a virgin, because Celie has never experienced an orgasm, although married and a mother.
Celie discovers her private parts resemble a ‘wet rose’ which is ‘prettier’ than she thought. Although the colour pink is not specifically named, the associated idea is that that roses are pink and symbolic of love and affection. Celie’s discovery enables her to begin to see that the body may indeed be sexually attractive.
As a larger embodiment of this, Shug’s mansion is painted pink, and the alterations she and Celie design envisage it as round, like ‘some kind of fruit’, symbolic of a womb or a breast. The idea of sexuality and fecundity are linked through Shug’s pink house.
Red in The Color Purple
In Letter 33, Shug wears a skin-tight red dress with thin shoulder straps and ‘sassy’ red shoes for her first singing appearance in Harpo’s juke joint. Red has always been a colour associated with passion, desire, lust and sexuality and Shug’s costume represents not only her sexuality, but also her symbolic role as a ‘fallen woman’. We learn later in the narrative that she was disowned by her family and denounced by her church for having an affair and several illegitimate children by her lover, Albert, so the choice of this dress is an appropriate signifier not only for her scandalous reputation, but also because it is a colour that is associated with strength and courage, for her complete lack of remorse about the life she has chosen for herself.