The formal devices an author adopts inevitably influence the portrayal of their narrative’s characters. In terms of genre The Color Purple is difficult to classify. On a basic level, it could be regarded as a contemporary historical novel – it is set in rural Georgia during the early twentieth-century. However, the fact that its author is of the same gender and race as her heroine, and that she has stated that The Color Purple is openly concerned with highlighting the weighty issues of gender, race and class, and the effect their intersection has on a hitherto marginalized group in society, inevitably invites a reassessment of the book’s categorization.
In view of these contextual insights, as well as if the novel is read while taking gender into consideration, it could be argued that Walker has chosen to focalize her concerns through her story’s principal female characters. In this light, the novel could be regarded as black feminist fiction. Things are further complicated however when The Color Purple‘s form is taken into account. The story is related entirely through a series of letters, meaning that it is read as an epistolary novel, an approach that has an enormous bearing on narrative structure.
Letter writing is an essential motif in Walker’s novel and its employment effects many factors besides genre. One of these is the sense of intimacy brought about between the reader and Celie: the heroine and narrator. This epistolary approach brings the reader into close proximity with the protagonist’s current status in life, which involves the intersection of gender, race and class – she is oppressed by her abusive husband Albert, who himself is a member of a discriminated underclass. The protagonist’s brutal existence is uncompromisingly direct “Well, sometime Mr. git on me pretty hard… This life soon be over, I say” (p.39), and its impact isn’t softened through any possible filtering that could have been provided by a potential third person narrator. The epistolary form itself isn’t new – it originated in eighteenth-century western writing, specifically in the novels of the British author Samuel Richardson. But it’s the means in which Walker capitalizes on this form that makes her novel so innovative.
The style of language employed in The Color Purple is heavily influenced by the novel’s formal structure. Walker believes that a woman’s identity can be strengthened through successful relationships with other women. It would appear that she regards effective communication and the mastery of language that this entails as being crucial for female empowerment. Such concerns are incorporated into the multi-faceted relationship Celie develops with the sensual lounge singer Shug Avery.
Women’s potential creative possibilities and their contribution to their empowerment are another concern of Walker’s novel. The sewing motif in The Color Purple symbolizes the autonomy women can achieve through channeling their creative energy. The pants sewing business that Celie establishes towards the story’s end can be viewed as a woman achieving economic independence, and therefore having no need for a violent husband. The construction of the quilt echoes the novel’s detective framework but could also be seen as relating to the empowerment theme. Walker herself has stated that the idea of quilting was a means for a silenced group (black women in her case) to express themselves creatively, arguing that if they weren’t so oppressed, they might be writers or artists.
Walker shares the intentions of the English author Virginia Woolf in her concerns regarding women writers. The marginalization of women in The Color Purple‘s Deep South is reminiscent of the suppressive attitudes towards women that the white middle-class Woolf recognized in 1920s Britain. Woolf identified a large body of oppressed women writers throughout history and aimed to represent them collectively in her fictional construct “Shakespeare’s sister”. With The Color Purple, Alice Walker would appear to have similar intentions in telling the stories of marginalized women.
The Color Purple is a powerful work of prose fiction that shares many concerns with women writers of previous eras. Walker utilizes several longstanding narrative devices, such as the epistolary form, as well as symbolism and metaphor, to effectively construct her characters’ identities.