The Taboos and Doubters Alice Walker Defied to Write ‘The Color Purple’
An excerpt from ‘In Search of The Color Purple’
To tell Celie’s epic tale, Alice Walker broke multiple taboos. The first was that of incest. When we first encounter Celie’s own private thoughts to herself, we believe, as she does, that “Pa” is her actual father and only learn much later in the novel that a White mob lynched her real father. Without that knowledge, The Color Purple first appears to be an incest story. And while Walker was not the first African American novelist to capture that horror, she was the only one at that time to capture this violation from the point of view of the rape victim.
Both Ralph Ellison’s 1952 bestselling Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut The Bluest Eye depicted the actual scene of father-daughter sexual abuse through the eyes of the fathers. Unlike Ellison’s novel, whose sympathetic portrayal of the assailant risked turning him into a Southern folk hero, both Morrison’s and Walker’s novels maintained a narrative empathy for their girl victims. However, Walker begins our entire reading experience with the moment of violation and in such vivid detail that she not only subverts our expectations of the bildungsroman but, as the Newsweek review of the book noted in 1982, introduces Celie “at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax.” From that point on, The Color Purple never strays from Celie’s vantage point and forces us to stay present with her even as Pa’s brutal violence against her body makes us want to look away.
Walker eschewed the omniscient third-person narration more commonly used in Western novels, thereby making it unlikely that readers would feel sympathy for Pa by being immersed in his point of view.
Walker admitted as much two years after the novel arrived. “We are used to seeing rape from the rapist’s point of view,” she told the crowd at a National Writers Union conference on censorship and self-censorship held in New York City in the spring of 1984. “I could have written that Celie enjoyed her abuse and done it in such pretty, distancing language that many readers would have accepted…