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Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to "Mister," a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister's letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.
1. What was your perception of this book before you started? Had you read it before? Seen the movie? Always meant to read/watch it? Did your initial perception influence your read-a-long experience?
2. For new readers: Was the book what you expected it to be? What DID you expect? For re-readers: Did your opinion on the book change after reading it again? In what way?
3. In Celie’s first letter to God, she asks for a sign to let her know what is happening to her. Discuss the way confusion and deception become powerful tools for those characters who want to take advantage of Celie. Unravel the layers of lies that are told to her throughout the novel. These can be concrete (Celie’s impression that Pa is too poor to provide properly for her, and the later realization that he had more resources than he ever lets on) or abstract (the assertion that Celie is unintelligent, though she demonstrates constant intelligence in planning for her safety and that of her sister).
4. What is the effect of not knowing Albert’s last name? In early novels, it was not uncommon for authors to use a blank in place of a character’s name, to create the illusion that the character was someone the reader might know—someone whose identity had to be kept secret. What does it mean that Celie must call her husband Mr. ____? When does she at last begin calling him by his first name?
5. Why does Albert tell Harpo to begin beating his wife, Sofia? Why is it so important to Harpo that his wife have no will of her own? Is his relationship with Squeak (Mary Agnes) fulfilling? What do these scenes tell us about the nature of abusive cycles? Is cruelty something that is taught—something that is unnatural? In your opinion, what does it take for someone (male or female) to deserve true respect?
6. Just as Celie grew up being told she was inferior, Shug Avery was always told she was evil. What are your impressions of Shug, from the photo Celie sees early on, to the end of the novel, when Celie and Albert have united in their devotion to Shug? What does Shug teach Celie about being loved, and about finding one’s true self? What price does Sofia pay for being her true self?
7. What does it take for Celie to finally reach her boiling point and reject oppression?
8. What is Celie’s opinion of Grady and his haze of addiction?
9. Why is it difficult for Shug to commit to the people who love her? In what ways does Shug bring both pleasure and heartache to them?
10. Nettie’s life with Corrine and Samuel gives her the first semblance of a healthy family life she has ever known, but Corrine’s jealousy taints this. Only the memory of that crucial early scene, when Celie lays eyes on her daughter at the store, absolves Nettie just before Corrine dies. The Color Purple brims with these intricate turns of plot. List the seemingly minor scenes that turn out to be pivotal in the lives of the characters.
11. Do Celie’s letters to God and her letters to Nettie have a different feel to them or do they seem the same? What do you think of Celie’s habit of ending her letters to Nettie with “Amen”?
12. Why do you think Celie’s husband hid Nettie’s letters rather than destroying them? Does this choice say anything about who he is as a person?
13. What did you think about the fact that Celie’s first born was killed? Do you think that is a realistic portrayal of the way things were?
14. How did you feel about Celie’s and Shug’s relationship? Do you think there is a significant reason that Celie preferred women?
Interview by Elyse Singleton
Like the rest of America, Alice Walker has been digitalized. The new DVD version of The Color Purple features the writer, who won the Pulitzer for the original 1982 novel, in a bonus documentary series about the film’s making.
Warner Home Video states that the movie has been "remastered with all-new digital transfer and enhanced with three newly produced documentaries, which include interviews with (director) Steven Spielberg and (actors) Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover . . ."
When the film version of The Color Purple premiered almost 20 years ago, it colored the screen with more African American actors than any other feature film in the white brat-pack packed 80s. It was heaped with accolades and controversy. It garnered 11 Oscar nominations and won none. One director was incensed by the recognition, nevertheless. He and many other black males felt the film bashed them.
Times changed. Bashing was no longer metaphorical. In real life, unemployment, undereducation and police brutality dwarfed the movie in the nomenclature of black male complaint. (It was hard to imagine Rodney King griping about The Color Purple.) With Boyz in the Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 groundbreaking work about street gangs, even celluloid now seemed to admit that black men had much worse problems than that 1983 movie, or the author who wrote the book upon which it was based.
Alice Walker won the Pulitzer for the book in 1982. Still, in some circles, the ever-soft-spoken author was spoken of as if she were the Osama bin Laden of the 80s. On college campuses she was revered as the foremost black woman author.
Her book is now a part of the standard curriculum in high schools and colleges throughout the nation. Recently Walker talked to a group of journalists about what it was like for her when her book became a movie.
Q. What did you think of The Color Purple, the cinematic product? Did you feel director Steven Spielberg had done justice to the book you wrote?
WALKER: Yes. I had a little hard time the very first time I saw the film because I saw it in an empty theater. And it grew on me, and by the time it opened in New York City, I loved it, as did all of my family. Some of whom came to the opening.
The DVD, I think, is really special because you are able to have some additions to the film itself that I think will really help people see how much commitment and dedication and devotion went into the creation of The Color Purple film.
Q. I once saw an interview with Steven Spielberg in which he said, his one regret about the movie is that he was a bit shy when it came to the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery. How do you feel about that? Do you feel that relationship was explored enough in the movie?
WALKER: Well, no because, you know, his angle was very different. And I'm really at peace with that. It's just that if I had directed it, of course their love life would have been much more vibrant. But, 15 years later or however many years it's been now, when I look at it, I think he did a beautiful, very sensitive job of depicting the depths of their relationship. Because what he manages to do is, he brings in the sweetness. And that is so fine.
Q. Overall, at any point, do or did you ever consider The Color Purple to be somewhat of a voice for those who had shared a similar experience (with domestic abuse)?
WALKER: Absolutely. Definitely. I mean, it is totally that. I mean, it's a way to support men and women who are in abusive relationships, you know? Who are trying to figure out how we got into this position, where after, you know, 400 years of slavery, we're still treating each other like slaves. You know, it's very much that kind of supportive art.
Q. Obviously, you've always been deeply political. And, in fact, in Possessing the Secret of Joy, you ultimately say resistance is the secret of joy. And I wonder, in this political climate, which would strike me as the most right-wing in the last few decades, how do you still resist the forces you find oppressive?
WALKER: Oh, I talk at rallies, I march, I write. In fact, 11 days after 9/11, I – when the President was talking about retaliating by bombing people in Afghanistan, who had nothing to do with it, I made an address by Sent By Earth, in which I talk about how we really do not want to be bombing children and women and people and donkeys and whatever else people have over there. You know? We don't want to be bombing the earth itself. It's wrong.
I mean, what – when we're attacked, and we suffer, what that's supposed to teach us is not that we want to attack other people to make them suffer. What it's supposed to teach us is that we don't want that to happen. You know? War is so obsolete.
So, I do, you know, marching, speaking, writing. And then, every once in a while, I run away to the country, which is where I am now.
Q: Have you sold the rights to any more of your work to Hollywood, to the film industry?
WALKER: Well, I have been kind of not doing that. I do have, The Light of My Father's Smile now with Sarah Greene, one of the producers of Frieda.
Q. When you wrote The Color Purple, there was an era there in which people were criticizing black women writers, yourself included obviously, but at least two or three others, about the portrayals of black men. Seems now that seldom is heard a word about that. And there are a lot of black women writers portraying black men and women in a lot of different ways. Do you think that your book was partly responsible for, in a sense, acclimating people to different sorts of portrayals of black men and women?
WALKER: Well, I think that the book did help to bring in greater freedom for people to express how they view life. And, I'm very happy about that. Because you really can't be a good artist if you can't say what you really feel. And people may be offended, but, you know, that's how you feel, and that is your right, and that is your gift as well.
Q.The Color Purple was up for 11 Academy Awards and it didn’t win even one. How do you feel about that?
WALKER: So, that was good. Now, about the not winning awards I was actually glad, because I felt that the institution of the Academy, in a sense, wasn't right enough. I mean I never knew who those people were who were in it.
But I had my doubts, and I didn't know if they really could give me an award, or give the film an award, really. You know, they could, you know, they could pass out Oscar, but can they really award something? You know, I mean, who are they?
Q. You talk about feeling forgiveness on the DVD. And I wanted to know what lessons can we glean from the forgiving? People of color, women for that matter. How can we overcome what seems to be unforgivable?
WALKER: Well, you know what? Actually, some pain is so severe that there's nothing else you can do. I mean, forgiveness is the only remedy. I mean, unless you want to just worry it to the grave. Because ultimately, it hurts you, you know. The person that you are going on over about usually is often they don't even remember. So there you are with your heart all hard and not forgiving. And wishing they'd fall over dead or something. And they don't even know.
So the best thing is to really work on yourself and opening your own heart and just letting all that stuff go. And it is possible. It's sometimes takes a lot of time; it's not easy. And a lot of sitting. You know, just sitting with yourself and trying to work with your own heart.
The Color of Purple on IMBD.
Check the catalog for availability: The Color Purple [videorecording (DVD)]