The Color Purple is filled with disturbing realities from the very first page. By following the lives of Celie and all those she associates with, we are able to grasp the sort of difficulties that are a part of every day life for the poor black people, especially in her area. We are exposed to the constant violence, oppression, physical and emotional abuse, and confinement that were accepted and, seemingly encouraged, that pervades Celie’s live and the lives of many like her at this point in history. Yet, I don’t find the primary issue to be of race. I find it to be a problem in the education of the people. This life style is contrasted with one that suggests a more modern and free way of thinking as the story goes on, as people experience and learn more. This is done by starting with Celie in her naïve passivity and introducing strong, independant characters who challenge what she knows as the status quo as she begins to grow in this moving buildungsroman.
Celie, we know from the very first page, is uneducated and most likely poor. We can tell this by the voice Alice Walker uses when Celie is speaking. Similar to Huck Finn, Celie cannot use proper English, does not know how to spell, and does not know the right words for things. I believe this is extremely indicative of many people at the time that this was written and Celie is being used as a representative of the oppressed lot in society. We learn in the beginning that Celie was taken out of school by her father and not allowed to be educated, unlike her sister. This uneducated way of life is also carried over in the way Celie thinks about the world and the things she seems to accept. From the beginning, we know that she is abused by her “father” and that she is traumatized by it, yet she never speaks out and she never fights back. This pattern seems to continue on when she is forced to marry Mr. ______ and she allows him to beat her. Due to her uneducated status and her low sense of self worth after years of various types of abuse, she accepts this as the norm and she never challenges. She even encourages Harpo to beat Sophia. Sophia is one of the first character we meet that could be called a progressive woman. Sophia does what Celie does not, she fights back. She respects herself. She was raised in way that allowed her to do so. It is through Sophia that Celie starts to see that the way she is living is not the way that things have to be. This is a theme that is repeated when she meets Shug. Though initially described as mean, Shug grows to be a very important and influential figure in Celie’s live, teaching her about love and religion and about being independent. Finally, we have Nettie. Nettie is the force that really brings Celie around to seeing that there could be a new life for her and she does this through the powerful use of education.
I think that one of the most important points that the book is the importance of knowledge and the importance of learning. As the story goes on, we see changes and growth in Celie and they are changes that are common to a buildungsroman because they are changes found through learning. Though Celie doesn’t have a formal education like her sister, we watch as she learns lessons that her life throws at her. Once people start to talk to her and treat her like a human, people like Sophia and Shug, she begins the steps toward a modern life of an independent woman. We see this much clearer when she begins to read Nettie’s letters. Nettie’s letters serve to educate Celie in the ways of the world, they show her what things are like outside of her small town. This is fitting because Nettie is in fact a teacher. Celie is able to learn about what life is like in Harlem, England, and Africa. She learns about religion and other cultures through Nettie’s letters. I think it isn’t a coincidence that Celie’s self motivation to change and to become independent happens after she gets these informative and emotional letters from her sister. I think that Walker is making a comment on the detriment of ignorance and the important role of education in Society.
I found myself wondering a lot while I was reading about whether or not things today were very different and I found myself answering yes and no. It is obvious that the terrible things that happen to Celie and the other blacks are no longer accepted (rightfully so) however, the problem of the uneducated is still a very large issue. I think that it is one of the biggest issues in the country, that people don’t learn they don’t take advantage of all the resources around them. This limits the possibility for social mobility and leaves people stuck in unfavorable situations. I found myself, not so much worried about the left over sentiments of racism (though I am not saying that they are not still a very present and real issue) but what I got the most out of it was the need for education. If you give people words, they don’t need violence. If you give them education, you give them the ability to move and create a better life for themselves. You give them an escape.