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To the Teacher
Since it was first published in 1982, The Color Purple has become an icon of literature that heals, that enlightens, and that empowers. Its audience has always been broad: the novel garnered major literary awards and dazzled highbrow critics while demonstrating equally strong commercial appeal. Readers from all walks of life have found themselves awed by the novel’s narrator, Celie, a role portrayed onscreen by Whoopi Goldberg in Steven Spielberg’s film version of the story. More recently, producer Oprah Winfrey (who played Sofia in the movie) brought the novel to Broadway in a musical that blends gospel, jazz, blues, and ragtime.
Despite these triumphant images, this is a novel that begins with a fourteen-year-old girl’s cry for help. Celie has suffered repeated rapes and brutal beatings by the man she believes to be her father, who tells her, in the novel’s opening line, “You better not never tell nobody but God.” After becoming pregnant by him twice, she is terrified that he has now set his sights on her younger sister, Nettie. Celie’s initial thoughts are shared with us in the form of her letters to God, written in a voice that uses raw realism—the only language she knows—to convey the facts of her life. It is this authenticity that sets The Color Purple apart; critics who feel offended by Celie’s voice miss the fact that her candor is itself an aspect of her stolen innocence. These opening scenes reveal the dangers of secrecy and misinformation as the heroine pines for one thing: an education. Her tragic home life prevents her from fulfilling that dream.
For Nettie, however, fate holds quite the opposite. She joins a missionary family who encourage her in literacy and learning, eventually taking her with them for an exhilarating though dangerous life in colonial Africa. The price of this freedom is that she and Celie are estranged from one another for most of their adult lives. Yet their devotion as sisters never wanes, and, without even knowing whether the other is alive, their mutual and unconditional love sustains them.
Set in the Deep South during the first half of the twentieth century, The Color Purple traces the lives of both sisters over a period of decades, and delivers innumerable opportunities for thoughtful classroom discussion. Acceptance and context are the keys to unlocking the novel’s riches. Alice Walker’s classic brings to life American history, world history, women’s history, civil rights history, and the history of one remarkable family—a family that asks us to consider questions about the making of an abuser (what are the true roots of controlling, hurtful behavior?) and the recipe for peace (how can we find the courage to eradicate suffering throughout the world?).
We hope that the following discussion topics and activities will enrich your students’ appreciation of this unique, transforming work of modern fiction.
Reading and Understanding This Book
This section gives teachers an opportunity to focus on comprehension, to clarify aspects of the plot, and to allow students to share their own interpretations of certain passages.
1. In Celie’s first letter to God, she asks for a sign to let her know what is happening to her. Discuss the way confusion and deception become powerful tools for those characters who want to take advantage of Celie. Unravel the layers of lies that are told to her throughout the novel, perhaps making lists that compare the fiction she is expected to believe with the truth about her world. These canbe concrete (Celie’s impression that Pa is too poor to provide properly for her, and the later realization that he had more resources than he ever lets on) or abstract (the assertion that Celie is unintelligent, though she demonstrates constant intelligence in planning for her safety and that of her sister). Ask the students to recall their own experience with a revelation: when in their lives has the truth set them free?
2. What is the effect of not knowing Albert’s last name? In early novels, it was not uncommon for authors to use a blank in place of a character’s name, to create the illusion that the character was someone the reader might know—someone whose identity had to be kept secret. What does it mean that Celie must call her husband Mr. ____? When does she at last begin calling him by his first name?
3. Why does Albert tell Harpo to begin beating his wife, Sofia? Why is it so important to Harpo that his wife have no will of her own? Is his relationship with Squeak (Mary Agnes) fulfilling? What do these scenes tell us about the nature of abusive cycles? Is cruelty something that is taught—something that is unnatural? In your opinion, what does it take for someone (male or female) to deserve true respect?
4. Just as Celie grew up being told she was inferior, Shug Avery was always told she was evil. What are your impressions of Shug, from the photo Celie sees early on, to the end of the novel, when Celie and Albert have united in their devotion to Shug? What does Shug teach Celie about being loved, and about finding one’s true self? What price does Sofia pay for being her true self?
5. What does it take for Celie to finally reach her boiling point and reject oppression?
6. What is Celie’s opinion of Grady and his haze of addiction?
7. Why is it difficult for Shug to commit to the people who love her? In what ways does Shug bring both pleasure and heartache to them?
8. Nettie’s life with Corrine and Samuel gives her the first semblance of a healthy family life she has ever known, but Corrine’s jealousy taints this. Only the memory of that crucial early scene, when Celie lays eyes on her daughter at the store, absolves Nettie just before Corrine dies. The Color Purple brims with these intricate turns of plot. List the seemingly minor scenes that turn out to be pivotal in the lives of the characters.
The Cast of Characters, Listed AlphabeticallyALPHONSO: Referred to as “Pa,” he is Celie and Nettie’s stepfather (though at first they are told he is their biological father). CELIE: The novel’s heroine. DORIS BAINES: The wealthy missionary Nettie meets on a ship. ELEANOR JANE: The mayor’s daughter, who is oblivious to hardship when Sofia is forced to become her family’s maid. GERMAINE: The younger man who steals Shug’s heart. GRADY: Shug’s passive husband. HARPO: Celie’s oldest stepchild and owner of the juke joint. KATE: Mr. ____’s sister, who early on urges Celie to stand up for herself. MISS MILLIE: The mayor’s racist wife. MR. 2: Celie’s husband, whom she later calle by his first name, Albert. NETTIE: Celie’s younger sister. OLIVIA and ADAM: Celie’s children. SAMUEL and CORRINE: The minister and his wife, who adopt Celie’s children. SHUG AVERY: The glamorous singer, whose given name is Lillie. SOFIA: Harpo’s headstrong wife. SQUEAK: The nickname for Harpo’s biracial girlfriend, Mary Agnes. TASHI: The Olinka village girl who marries Adam.
The Art of Language
One of the novel’s many achievements is its pitch-perfect use of voice. Celie’s and Nettie’s letters convey two starkly different varieties of English, providing a gateway for students to consider the historical and social aspects of language.
1. Using online resources, a guest speaker from a local university, or textbooks on the history of English (such as McCrum, MacNeil, and Cran’s widely adopted The Story of English) present a history of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), formerly known as Black English among sociolinguists and sometimes referred to as Ebonics. In what ways does language capture a particular experience? Is it a reflection of geography (including rural versus urban areas)? Education level? Peer groups? Age? Immigration status? How are language and identity linked? In the contemporary world, especially in music, does AAVE convey different cues than it did in the 1920s and 1930s?
2. Ask the students to identify the systems and vocabularies that make Celie’s voice distinctive (replacing the digraph “th” with the letter “d,” so “that” becomes “dat;” dropping auxiliary verbs; her use of “hant” to describe a haunting ghost or “migration” for “admiration”). When they have completed their analyses, ask the students to compare Celie’s voice with Nettie’s. What causes the gradual transformation of Nettie’s speech patterns? What does Celie mean when, as Darlene is trying to teach her to speak standard English, she says, “Only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind”?
3. Ask the students to identify their underground speech styles. What are the traits of their formal and informal uses of language? What vocabularies do they use to fit in with their peers, or to keep adults from understanding their messages? What dialects are associated with their own ancestors? What dialects might cause them to be ostracized?
4. Present a unit on the use of vernacular in fiction. Demonstrate that in literature–from older classics such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through contemporary works such as those by Hawaiian author Lois-Ann Yamanaka—dialects have won accolades for authenticity and criticism for promoting what some say are racist or simply “incorrect” examples of American English. Does a fiction writer have more freedom, or even an obligation, to portray marginalized populations with candor? What causes a word—whether a racial slur or a sexual profanity—to be deemed offensive?
1. Celie’s life sets the stage for the civil rights movement, giving context to the years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington (where, in 1963, Alice Walker was able to hear his “I have a dream” speech while perched on a tree limb). What facts about American history are captured in The Color Purple, such as those represented by the lynching and burning of Celie and Nettie’s father?
2. What laws, or lack of laws, were in place in the early twentieth century to restrict the political and economic power of African Americans in the South? Did the Nineteenth Amendment, granting voting rights to women, extend to Celie? Could she have served on a jury?
3. How has society (as well as the legal system) changed to address violence against children and women? How would Alphonso and Albert have fared in twenty-first-century courts?
4. On a map, trace two voyages: the typical route of European slave ships through the Middle Passage, and the route Nettie takes to Liberia. Next, research Liberia’s fascinating history, beginning with the question of why the country is called Liberia. How was presidential power transferred from the dictator Charles Taylor to a Harvard-educated woman, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf?
5. What does Nettie tell us about life in Liberia under President William Tubman, who took office in 1944? How does Nettie reconcile her mixed feelings about the Olinka experience? Is financial greed the root of the suffering portrayed in much of the novel? How does Doris Baines use her financial power?
6. What historical facts are captured in the news that Nettie’s ship was sunk amid the treachery of World War II?
7. Alice Walker honors all aspects of her ancestry, which includes Cherokee Indians through her maternal grandmother. What references to Native American populations does she include in The Color Purple?
A Kaleidoscope of Symbols
1. Celie longs to wear purple, a color she associates with royalty and with vibrant women such as Shug, and a color she thinks God may have created in order to receive love. In the novel’s glorious conclusion, she surrounds herself with purple. What makes this color special—special enough to become the novel’s title?
2. The Color Purple has often been read as a metaphor for the African American legacy. What symbolism exists in the way Celie is separated from her children, denied an education, and valued only for her housekeeping and her sexual capabilities? When Adam and Tashi marry, does this negate any of the injustices of European as well as African slave traders? What do characters such as Miss Millie, who tries to dehumanize and exploit the labor of people of color, reflect about the post-Reconstruction world? What turning point does Sofia’s act of defiance (despite its brutal consequences) reflect?
3. What is the significance of Celie’s success as a manufacturer of pants (in terms of commerce, creativity, defiance, comfort, or other parameters)?
4. How do Celie and Nettie picture God? What interpretation of God does Nettie encounter in Africa?
5. Many of the novel’s characters take note of the melanin content in the skin of others. What do these “degrees of darkness” symbolize to them? Is it associated with status?
6. What determines whether someone is considered beautiful today, versus in the early twentieth century? How do you define beauty? Why were so few people willing to see the beauty in Celie?
1. Note that two of Alice Walker’s later books create an informal trilogy with The Color Purple. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Tashi confronts the emotional and physical damage of female genital mutilation and returns to Africa to inflict vengeance on the elderly woman who performed the procedure on her. The Temple of My Familiar features Celie’s granddaughter, Fanny. Walker’s short stories, especially the widely anthologized “Everyday Use,” also merit literary analysis. The most comprehensive biography of Walker to date is Evelyn White’s Alice Walker: A Life.
2. Other supplemental reading can be drawn from the Harlem Renaissance, to match the time period of the novel (particularly the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and James Baldwin) or from contemporaries of Walker, including Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Sandra Cisneros. The memoir genre also offers a powerful way to enhance this reading, including Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. In addition, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible provides a moving depiction of a misguided American missionary during the time of the Congolese revolution against Belgium.
3. Blues music is an essential supplement to the novel. Recordings of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters could convey the experience of hearing Shug Avery perform; Walker specifically refers to Bessie Smith’s song “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (which also became the title for Flannery O’Connor’s well-known short story). Jazz performers appropriate to the time period include Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday. Scott Joplin’s piano rags set a contemplative tone and capture sounds popular during Celie’s childhood. Recordings by gospel great Mahalia Jackson could be used to demonstrate the kinds of hymns Nettie might have known. Soundtracks from the musical and the film versions of The Color Purple are also available.
About the Author
Born in 1944, Alice Walker was raised in rural Georgia, where her parents worked as tenant farmers. The youngest of eight children, she witnessed frequent economic hardship against the backdrop of racial terror in the segregated South. After graduating from high school as valedictorian, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta, where she became active in the civil rights movement. She later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York and traveled to Uganda as an exchange student before completing her bachelor’s degree. She is the author of three collections of short stories, three collections of essays, six volumes of poetry, and several additional novels, as well as children’s books. Her work has been translated into more than two dozen languages. The mother of a grown daughter, Walker now lives in northern California.
Copyright © 2006 by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. Teacher’s guide written by Amy Root, MFA.
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