The Color Purple by Alice Walker has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. It addresses numerous social, cultural and political issues which were rampant at the time Walker wrote this novel. Some of the primary concerns the novel focuses on are violence against women, gender issues, religion and spirituality, love and sexuality, female solidarity and racism.
Walker calls herself a "Womanist" writer. Womanism is a term coined by Walker herself, which says that 'Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender'. According to her, feminism does not encompass the perspectives of Black women. Womanism addresses the race and class issues that are not addressed by white feminism. Womanism also 'seeks to acknowledge and praise the sexual power of Black women while recognizing a history of sexual violence'. This is precisely what the novel does. One of the primary concerns of the novel is to create awareness of how black women are doubly oppressed. They are not only discriminated against for the color of their skin but also oppressed by the men in their own community. They are constant victims of violence, including sexual violence. The protagonist Celie is first raped by her stepfather and then constantly abused by her husband. She is belittled by them to such an extent that she feels like she has no existence of her own in the world. Explicit sexual details are given of Celie's rape in the opening pages of the book. According to Walker, the graphic details of Celie's sexual exploitation were given to "strip away the lie that rape is pleasant, that rapists have anything at all attractive about them, that children are not permanently damaged by sexual pain, that violence done to them is washed away by fear, silence and time..." and Walker successfully voices these concerns in her book. Walker points out that not only Black women of Southern America, but the women of Africa are also oppressed by men. The Olinka tribe believes that "A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something."(140).
One of the main concerns of the novel is to revise images of black women by "taking the familiar and negatively constructed sexual images and imbuing them with power' (Bobo, 1995: p65). Walker emphasizes that gender and sexuality are not as simple as we may believe. Her novel challenges and defies the traditional ways in which we understand women and men. One of the ways in which she does this is through her portrayal of the character Sofia. She is strong willed, stubborn and a hard worker, often appearing very unfeminine. She is portrayed as being more masculine than her husband Harpo, who repeatedly gets beaten up by her and tries hard to suppress her. Walker concedes that the idea of a fair and feminine heroine was no longer acceptable as an illustration of a black heroine. '…although Sofia's physical presence and manner of rebellion are much more omnipresent and overt, her story brings to mind battles by earlier black women…' (Bobo, 1995: p66).
The title of the novel itself suggests one of the concerns focused on by Walker. Shug tells Celie that "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it…" What she means is God puts these little things in the world to show us we are loved. To be able to take joy in little things such as purple flowers is what helps one move on in life. After Shug points this out to Celie, the reader finds a positive transformation in her. "Purple" changes from a color of violence and abuse to one of joy and spirituality.
Religion and spirituality are important concerns of the novel. The image of God is transformed from a white-man's God to one of a gender-less and race-less God. The traditional Christian God is replaced by a more universal and benevolent God. Nettie points out that "It is the pictures in the bible that fool you." (120). All the pictures are of white men, so one starts assuming that God is a white man too. As the novel proceeds and Celie becomes aware of whom her real father is and his lynching, she stops writing to God. Celie sees God as a tall, gray-bearded white man wearing long robes, who acts like all the other men she has known, "trifling, forgitful and lowdown." She blames God for all her suffering. Shug changes Celie's bitter view of God and religion and helps her move towards spirituality. She realizes that loving the world, herself and other people is the way to love God. Walker points out that rejection of religion is not the answer, one has to change one's outlook on the traditional concept of an anthropomorphic God. Not being tied to what God looks like frees us. God cannot be found in religious scriptures rather as Shug points out, "God is inside you and inside everybody else…"
One of the primary concerns of the novel is love and sexuality. Walker does not focus on the traditional idea of love between a man and a woman only; rather it can have various forms. It is about self-sacrifice and unconditional care, as is evident through the relationships of Celie with her sister and Shug. The novel is full of characters exchanging spouses and lovers. The lesbian relationship between Shug and Celie is one of the few examples of genuine love. Indeed, the lack of love in society and the importance of accepting it, in whatever forms it appears are concerns which Walker encompasses in her book. She points out how sex is seen by Celie, a victim of rape, as a form of violence and duty only. This view is revised later on in the book when she experiences a relationship with Shug which is based upon mutual love and respect. Walker provides sexual empowerment to the Black women as is evident through Shug's character.
Female solidarity and sisterhood is an important concern addressed by Walker. In a male-dominated society, women find joy, strength, freedom from oppression, and self-determination only when they stick together and support each other. Sofia's ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters. Nettie's relationship with Celie helps her through years of living in the unfamiliar culture of Africa. Samuel notes that the strong relationships among the Olinka women are the only thing that makes polygamy bearable for them. Celie's strong bond with Shug enables Celie to break free from oppression and develop a sense of self. Samuel's wife refuses this solidarity and is eventually destroyed. When women start forming relationships that have a healing quality to it, it takes on a domino effect and gradually encompasses various women of the community. First, Shug's relationship with Celie emancipates her and then Squeak develops her own identity and rebels against Harpo. Next is Sofia who finally manages to break free from the damaging effects of her imprisonment and her sense of self is restored. Walker makes women's communal empowerment a primary focus of her novel.
Racism and discrimination are also an important social concern of the novel. It reveals the harsh social and economic difficulties facing the black community in the rural South. Celie's father was lynched because he was doing better at business than the whites around him. Sofia is imprisoned because she refuses to become a white woman's maid and tries assaulting the mayor. Instead she is severely beaten, is thrown in jail for eleven years and is bailed out only to become the same white woman's maid.
Another important concern of the novel is the betrayal by one's own people and the consequences of living in denial. Through the story of the Olinka tribe, Walker portrays how betrayal does not necessarily have to come from outside. It can come from one's own people. As Nettie points out, it was the Africans who sold them into slavery and seem to have no regrets about it. In the past, it is the chief of the tribe who sells Olinkan land to a rubber manufacturer and clears the roof-leaf trees which the tribe worships. As a result, many houses are destroyed by rains and whole families are wiped out. Later on, many villagers like the Olinkans themselves help to clear the Olinka forests so that rubber trees can be planted. The tribe's condition becomes worse because "the people live like ostriches" (154). They live in denial and are not ready to confront the harsh reality which awaits them. As a result, their hunting territory and their forests are destroyed. Their land ownership is taken away and they have to pay rent on their land and water tax.
Finally, Walker also acknowledges that "There is so much we don't understand. And so much unhappiness comes because of that."(172). Celie remains miserable until she starts comprehending her surroundings as well as her own self. She bears all the injustices meted out to her by her stepfather and husband because she believes that the Bible orders women to be obedient and subservient to men. Similarly, Samuel's wife Corrine misunderstands her husband's relationship with Nettie and it annihilates her from inside. She only realizes the truth when it is too late.
Walker's novel The Color Purple adequately portrays various social, political and religious concerns which affected the Black community of not only the early twentieth century but also those that are still prevalent in the present time. Indeed some of the primary concerns of the novel are universal.