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About this book

Since its publication in 1982, The Color Purple has polarized critics and generated controversy while delighting many readers around the world. Rachel Lister offers a clear, stimulating and wide-ranging exploration of the critical history of Alice Walker's best-selling novel, from contemporary reviews through to twenty-first-century readings.

This Reader's Guide:
• opens with an overview of Walker's work
• provides a detailed consideration of the conception and reception of The Color Purple
• examines coverage of key critical issues and debates such as Walker's use of generic conventions, linguistic and narrative strategies, race, class, gender and sexual politics
• covers the reception and cultural impact of cinematic and musical adaptations, including Steven Spielberg's 1985 film and the recent Broadway production.

Lively and insightful, this is an indispensable volume for anyone studying, or simply interested in, Alice Walker and her most famous work.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Color Purple

Abstract
The Color Purple is Alice Walker’s third and most famous novel. It has been hailed as ‘an American novel of permanent importance,’1 a ‘sig-nificant cultural intervention,’2 a ‘book of the people’3 and ‘the perfect emancipation novel.’4 First published in America in 1982, the novel immediately attracted critical attention and polarized both reviewers and readers. It would stimulate ongoing political debate and inspire a wealth of critical interpretations. With The Color Purple Alice Walker became the first black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The reputation of the novel precedes it to such an extent that critics have claimed the right to comment on it at length while admitting in the same breath that they have not read it. David Bradley, an admirer of Walker’s early work, reveals that he was so familiar with debates about The Color Purple that he resisted it for a time: ‘I had read enough about the book to want to avoid it like the plague.’5
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. The Conception and Reception of The Color Purple

Abstract
In her essay ‘Writing The Color Purple,’ Alice Walker describes the moment when she discovered the key to the new narrative that she was preparing to write:
■ I was hiking through the woods with my sister, Ruth, talking about a lovers’ triangle of which we both knew. She said: ‘And you know, one day The Wife asked The Other Woman for a pair of her drawers.’ Instantly the missing piece of the story I was mentally writing — about two women who felt married to the same man — fell into place. And for months — through illnesses, divorce, several moves, travel abroad, all kinds of heartaches and revelations — I carried my sister’s comment delicately balanced in the center of the novel’s construction I was building in my head.’1
Walker conceived The Color Purple as a historical novel that would engage a ‘womanist’ vision of history — a history that ‘starts not with the taking of lands, or the births, battles, and deaths of Great Men, but with one woman asking another for her underwear.’2
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Defining The Color Purple: The Question of Genre

Abstract
This chapter presents a wide range of readings exploring Walker’s engagement with various generic traditions. One would be hard pressed to find a critical reading of The Color Purple that does not address the question of its generic identity to some degree. Critics continue to draw on Walker’s use and subversion of generic premises and conventions to sustain readings of the novel’s identity politics.
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Language and Narrative Poetics in The Color Purple

Abstract
In her interview with Gloria Steinem, Walker identified the language of The Color Purple as her ‘first language’ and revealed the ‘real rage’ that she experienced at the thought that ‘black people or other people of color who have different patterns of speech can’t just routinely write in this natural, flowing way.’1 Many critics who differed widely in their responses to Walker’s novel found common ground in their engagement with what Trudier Harris terms the ‘pattern and nuances of Celie’s voice.’ In an otherwise negative review of The Color Purple, Harris concedes that ‘[t]he form of the book, as it relates to the folk speech […] is absolutely wonderful,’ before taking issue with the plausibility of Celie’s prowess as a writer. For Harris, Celie’s language is the only realistic dimension of the novel: it evokes memories of her childhood in Alabama where ‘black women […] made art out of conversation’ and ‘created poetry out of cotton fields and rivaled the blues in the domestic images that came so readily to their tongues.’2 For many reviewers, the language of The Color Purple elevated Walker to the status of ‘poet.’3 Robert Towers praises Walker for ‘know [ing] how to avoid the excesses of literal transcription while remaining faithful to the spirit and rhythms of Black English,’ and he singles her out as the novelist who has most effectively ‘tapped the poetic resources of the idiom.’4
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Language and Subjectivity in The Color Purple

Abstract
In her review of The Color Purple, Maryemma Graham defines the novel as ‘a “coming out” story’ in which ‘the heroine achieves total self-realization.’1 Readers from a range of cultural matrices continue to claim identification with Celie and her journey toward independence and fulfilment. For some critics this has proved problematic; they have argued that Walker prioritizes the personal over the political and claim that the novel does not take sufficient account of the impact of racial, sexual and social ideology on the development of the self. This chapter presents readings that explore Walker’s handling of this development. Readings in the first section address the function of language in shaping Celie’s understanding of her social relationships, her body and her sexuality. The second section examines two psychoanalytical readings: a Lacanian interpretation of Celie’s progress by Daniel W. Ross (b. 1952) and Charles L. Proudfit’s developmental analysis of Celie’s anterior identity.
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Reading Race in The Color Purple

Abstract
In ‘The Black Writer and the Southern Experience’ (1984), Alice Walker urges the black Southern writer to use ‘double vision’ to engage simultaneously with the private and the political: he is ‘in a position to see his own world, and its close community’ and to ‘know[], with remarkably silent accuracy, the people who make up the larger world that surrounds and suppresses his own.’1 Some critics have struggled to find evidence of this double vision in Walker’s work, especially The Color Purple. As we have seen, bell hooks finds that Walker ‘de-emphasiz[es] the collective plight of black people’ by ‘focusing on the individual’s quest for freedom as separate and distinct.’2 Elliott Butler-Evans argues that Celie’s letters function as a ‘textual strategy by which the larger Afro-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the narrative’;3 speaking more generally of Walker’s fictional oeuvre, Keith Byerman contends that ‘[t] he question of race is less important in Walker’s work than it is in that of many other black writers.’4
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. Class and Consumerism in The Color Purple

Abstract
At the end of the novel The Color Purple Celie, like many oppressed heroines before her, is rewarded with financial independence. After she confronts Albert and declares her intention to ‘enter into the Creation’ she moves to Memphis with Shug.1 She lives comfortably in Shug’s stylish home, performing domestic duties and designing and making trousers for members of the community. Each pair of trousers is tailored to the individual’s needs. Celie begins to look for paid work and Shug encourages her to turn her sewing enterprise into a business. When Celie returns to Georgia she finds that Albert has changed dramatically; he now performs the labour that Celie was forced to undertake, looking after the house and working on the land. Once he recognizes Celie, he welcomes her and they build a new friendship. Alphonso, Celie’s stepfather, has also died, leaving her property — her father’s original house and store — and some land. Celie settles in her childhood home, running her business, ‘Folkspants, Unlimited,’ from the store. She employs women from the local community to manufacture her designs of unisex trousers. Her workers include Sofia and a white man initially hired by Alphonso to run the store. The readings in this chapter consider how Celie’s economic progression fits into the novel’s wider socioeconomic politics.
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. The Color Purple: Feminist Text?

Abstract
In his study of contemporary American culture, Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes that ‘works by black women novelists, especially Walker and Morrison, are selling in record-breaking numbers, in part because of an expanded market that includes white and black feminists as well as the general black studies readership.’1 The cross-cultural appeal of Walker’s The Color Purple is often attributed to her engagement with women’s issues that transcend class and race: Alison Light finds that the novel ‘can be popular with a whole range of women readers, cutting across the specificity of its black history, in its concern with family, emotionality, sexual relations, and fantasy life.’2 Judy Elsley affirms that Celie’s journey will strike a chord with all feminists: ‘Celie’s struggle is more dramatic than many women experience, but her journey is a familiar one. All of us in academia, especially those involved in feminist studies, are quiltmakers […] [w]e have a lot in common with Celie.’3
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Gender and Sexuality in The Color Purple

Abstract
The final chapter of this Guide explores criticism that addresses some of the most contentious dimensions of The Color Purple: its gender and sexual politics. There is no aspect of The Color Purple that has provoked as much controversy and debate as Walker’s treatment of black masculinity. Her representation of black men in her most famous novel has fuelled some of the most vitriolic criticism of her work. In his reading of the novel, ‘Sisterhood as Salvation: Black Male Characterization in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple’ (1986), Ralph D. Story states that ‘no other black woman writer has sought or gained so much retrospective retribution from black males exclusively as Walker has in this work’ (Story’s italics).1 The first sections of this chapter present interpretations that reflect or respond to prevalent concerns about the representation of black masculinity in The Color Purple. The final section presents readings that examine the novel’s representation and handling of lesbian sexuality.
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
Championed for its radicalism and rejected for its conservatism, The Color Purple divided critics from the start. Early criticism opened up lines of enquiry into the novel’s generic identity, its formal and narrative strategies and its handling of race, gender and class. The late eighties and early nineties brought queer readings and psychoanalytical explorations of Celie’s development. Critics began to focus on issues pertaining to the reception of the novel, its canonization and its pedagogical potential.
Rachel Lister, Nicolas Tredell
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