Approaching essays and exams » Engaging with the text
Reading and working with The Color Purple
What kind of novel is it?
The Color Purple tells not only a story about oppression, injustice, bigotry and discrimination, but also one of courage, determination, self-empowerment and resilience. Walker’s novel examines:
- The experiences of African-American women at the hands of husbands, lovers (male and female)
- Families, friends and acquaintances
- What happens to women who either assert their independence or submit passively to cruelty and abuse
- White domination and bigotry
- The consequences of both active and passive resistance to white oppression and exploitation.
Become accustomed to the language
The novel was written in an epistolary form, as a series of letters from the principal character, Celie, first addressed to God, then later to her sister Nettie, who writes a series of letters to Celie, describing her own experiences as a missionary in Africa:
- Celie’s letters are written in vernacular African-American English, sometimes also called ‘black folk idiom’. Poor grammar and spelling demonstrate that Celie is uneducated, but the form also gives a strong sense of intimacy as the narrative, especially when read aloud, replicates the rhythms of natural speech and gives a strong energy to Celie’s story
- At the beginning of the novel, Celie’s letters recount incidents briefly and sparsely, using short paragraphs, which adds a sense of immediacy to the narrative. As the story develops and Celie becomes more empowered, her letters become longer and more detailed, but the sense of her narrative as a ‘stream of consciousness’ is never lost
- Nettie’s correspondence, in contrast, is almost the polar opposite of Celie’s, featuring carefully composed, functional pieces of writing that reflect the style and tone of the classroom and Nettie’s role as teacher and missionary.
Put yourself into the novel
- Try to imagine what it might be like to be totally powerless, with no right whatsoever to speak out against injustice
- Imagine how an independent woman like Sofia must have felt when she was patronised by the Mayor’s wife. What would you have said? How would you have reacted?
- Think about Shug Avery and how she must have felt on tour, not being able to walk into a white hotel but having to drive for miles until there was a place for black people to eat or use the bathroom
- How would you feel if you had to wear the same clothes for weeks on end? How would you feel if your parents threw you out of the house because they thought you were evil? Would your mouth be packed with ‘claws’?
- Imagine how satisfying it must have been when Fonso employed a white man to work for him in the store. If you were Fonso, what would you have thought? What might you have said to him?
Reading and notes
- Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption
- Make notes as you read: this is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active – note down such things as the relationships between people, perhaps in a diagram form, and the locations of various parts of the story.
Get to know the text
- Read The Color Purple several times: this is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to the novel
- Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in study guides
- BUT don’t rely on plot summaries:
- They tell you nothing about language and style
- They don’t identify themes and motifs in the text
- However detailed, they are intended as reminders, not substitutes.
Read the text in different ways. Once you have a firm grasp of the overall narrative, you may wish to:
- Re-read a particular section, such as the visit that Celie and Shug make to Fonso (Pa) at Easter time (Letter 69)
- Concentrate on a theme or motif, such as the use of natural imagery of flowers, blossom and birds, all of which symbolise new life and regeneration
- Trace the development of a character or a relationship between characters.
Pa, for example, is portrayed from the outset of the narrative as an abusive monster who uses women for sexual gratification, and seems to have no sense of right or wrong. His marriage to a young girl shortly after his wife’s death and Celie’s pregnancies could indicate that Pa, like many other African-American males at that time, had little regard for women other than as domestic chattels. You might want to research this topic further and think about Pa’s relationship with Albert and his behaviour after Celie and Nettie leave the family home. An interesting exercice might be to think about what being someone’s ‘people’ really signifies throughout the novel.
Know the complete text
This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the start of a play or novel well, but not the end. Classroom study often emphasises the beginning of a book or play, where the author introduces characters, themes and imagery, and is then less detailed about the remainder of the text. So:
- Do not ignore the impact of significant scenes or episodes in the later chapters of The Color Purple
- Remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the book goes on
- Remember that characters change and develop and that the reader’s attitude towards them may also change.
Keep a record of your reading
- Make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
- For major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages: one for Celie, say, or for womanism, or for ideas about oppression. However:
- Don’t let your notes become too separate and take care to comment on links and relationships
- Use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.