It’s one of those marvellous books that restore your belief that people can – and will – change in the face of experience. The oppressed learn to stand up, free themselves and gain the awareness and the confidence to say no. The bullies learn to give in and love people for what they are. Both learn to seek, and find, beauty in the world. Beauty and harmony is for Celie, the heroine, the color puple.
It’s also a book about black Americans, which is probably the most immediately noticeable theme. But I couldn’t help feeling that it was more about being different, or excluded, rather than a story of racial discrimination. All the characters have a cross to carry and somehow, almost magically, succeed in getting through to the universal good and beauty only conventionally called “God”.
There’s actually quite a lot of talk about God in the book. How God seems to be a white man, and therefore alien. How God is a Man, and therefore a bully. The heroine writes her letters to God, then in anger decides to break with him, but in the long run is reconciled to him, as she resets her image of him. Because who is God, after all? It’s the beauty of all things – for Celie, the heroine, it’s the colour purple. Her own, personal, God.
“Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not to find God. (…) My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people.”
Celie and Nettie, two sisters who are separated for half a life-time, write the story of the novel with their letters. At first it’s only Celie’s letters to God, written in an uneducated style and coming over as touchingly innocent and genuine. Later on in the book it’s the two sisters writing to each other, although there is hardly any dialogue between them. Their letters reach the other only years later, so what they are writing are in fact messages in bottles, thrown into an ocean of distance between the two, beyond any rational hope to see each other again alive. Celie and Nettie are re-united at the end of the book – and it’s after this that Celie writes her last letter, to God, trees, people and “everything”.