The Color Purple is not an easy book to read because it is not written in the style of most novels. Walker does not tell us everything about the characters and the setting and why the characters behave as they do. This novel consists of a series of letters, none of which are dated, and in order to have a time frame for the novel, we will have to read through it carefully, watching for clues about social attitudes, clothes, and other telling details.
Only after finishing the book do we realize that the letters begin in a time when people ride around in wagons, and when the letters end, people are driving cars. Thus, the time span of the novel is about forty years.
In addition, we soon realize that there are large gaps between letters, sometimes five years, but this information is not revealed by Walker herself. We gather this information from clues within the letters and by comparing letters. Walker does not write as an all-knowing, omniscient narrator, filling in the gaps and giving us background. We must rely on our own close reading and on the details that the women who write the letters — Celie and her sister Nettie — give us.
There is yet another difficulty in reading this novel. We begin with Celie's letters and we encounter a language problem. Celie's letters are not written in standard English. Celie writes her letters in non-standard dialect, what Walker has called black folk language. Thus, at first, Celie's language might seem awkward to some of us, but most readers respond to this novel more immediately if they read the letters aloud, especially Celie's letters, listening to Celie's voice.
Celie is uneducated, and she is writing exactly as she speaks and thinks. There is nothing artificial about her writing "style." In fact, the most distinctive characteristic about Celie's letters is their naturalness. There is a continuous emphasis on the oral sound and sense of what Celie writes, rather than on the "written" style of the letters.
There is also a keen and enduring quality of honesty throughout Celie's letters. She is writing to God, trusting him as she would trust a best friend for guidance and strength to carry on, despite the terrible, painful unhappiness that she feels within her and all those around her.
You should also note that Celie doesn't sign her letters for a long time, which can be explained by realizing that Celie doesn't think of herself as a person of sufficient worth to sign her name. When we meet Celie, she has very little self-confidence. She feels unloved. No one has made her feel valuable. Thus, she turns to God. But even in God's company, Celie feels of little worth.
It will be a long time before Celie gains enough self-esteem to sign her name with pride, but by then, we will have realized that in reading this long series of letters, we have witnessed a wondrous growth of a black woman who was born with all the odds against her. She began life as a virtual slave, the victim of men, of traditional sexual roles, of racism, and of innumerable social injustices. When the novel is finished, we will have seen Celie grow into a whole human being — as well as into a mature, twentieth-century woman.
There are many fine women in this novel, and each of them has a distinctive, fighting sense of courage. They refuse to be beaten into submission. The fiery-tempered women, of course, are easily recognized, but it is the quiet, growing strength of Celie that finally impresses us most. For over half the novel, Celie's method of resistance to violence of all kinds is stoically to endure — to pretend that she is wood, a tree bending but not breaking. This psychology works for Celie. For a long time, it is enough. But later, she luckily has friends who convince her that it is not enough to simply endure and "be alive." One must fight. By nature, Celie is not a fighter. In fact, she refuses to fight until she realizes how thoroughly cruel her husband has been.
For years, Celie "absorbs" Albert's brutal violence, but when she sees proof that he has hidden all of her sister's letters from her, trying to make her think that Nettie was either dead or that she never wrote to her, Celie can take no more. She revolts. She erupts, cursing her husband, and she leaves him to go to Memphis and find happiness with a woman who loves her.
Celie has struggled for many years, keeping alive the memory of Nettie, believing in Nettie, despite the fact that there was no proof that Nettie was alive. It is Celie's courageous spirit that we admire, her fierce, unflagging love for Nettie. And it is Celie's love for Nettie and for Shug that finally allows her to forgive her husband, Albert, for all of his intentional cruelty. Love heals heartaches, and love leads Celie to forgiveness and reconciliation.
When the novel ends, we feel that Celie is "solid" (an adjective that she once used admiringly to describe Sofia). Love has sustained Celie; she has learned to love herself and to share love despite continually cruel pressures. Celie has endured and learned to fight, and she has won her battles. In fact, not only has Celie won, but she has also claimed a sense of joy that she never realized was possible, as well as the knowledge that her strong, constant faith — and her ability to hold on — reunited her with Nettie and with her own children. The family is whole again. Celie has survived — physically and spiritually.
Now, you are ready for the letters. Walker didn't number them, of course. That would have destroyed the verisimilitude of the novel. But for the sake of referring to a particular letter, or for cross-referencing, it is convenient to number the letters in the book itself, numbering each complete letter. Do not number letters within letters. To double-check your numbering, note that Celie writes Letters 1-51. Nettie's letters begin with Number 52. The letters should end with Number 90.
Above all, don't neglect the opportunity to read aloud as many of Celie's letters as possible. The humor, the love, the pain, and, finally, the faith that sustains Celie are found in her simple, unaffected phrases. By reading Celie's letters aloud, you re-create her voice, and a connection is established between you and this woman who offers you a chance to understand suffering and the need for compassion.