CSLJ Book Club Discussion of The Color Purple – Day 2

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Dear Book Lovers,

Today’s book club discussion of The Color Purple is all about Celie’s letters, the characters’ attempts to speak their truths and be heard, and the novel’s epistolary style. You can share your thoughts and opinions on today’s discussion questions here in the comments or over here on the C. S. Literary Jewelry Facebook page.

1. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which means that it is told primarily through letters. Do you think this format enhances or distracts from the book? Why?

2. Usually, letters represent people communicating with one another but Celie’s letters are mostly associated with secrets and unexpressed feelings. In addition to this, most of Nettie’s and Celie’s letters to each other are never sent or are prevented from reaching their destination. What do you think the author is trying to say with these one-sided correspondences?

3. Why do you think that Celie writes letters (instead of a journal or diary) if no one is going to receive them or read them? Do you think there is any significance to who the letters are written to (God, and then Nettie)? Have you ever kept a journal or written letters you never sent like Celie does? If so, did you find it beneficial? Why?

4. Why do you think that Mister hid Nettie’s letters from Celie instead of destroying them?

5. Many of the characters only come into their own when they develop the courage to speak their truths and be heard, (Celie standing up to Mister, Nettie telling Corrine and Samuel the truth of Adam and Olivia’s parentage), but for Sophia, speaking her mind has disastrous consequences.  What are your thoughts about this?

I’ll be back later on to share my own thoughts and comments about today’s discussion questions.

Until then, happy reading and have a great day!

Kerry

P. S. Missed a day? Click here to check out all the posts and discussion questions from our Color Purple Book Club discussion (so far)

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3 Responses to CSLJ Book Club Discussion of The Color Purple – Day 2

  1. I have a mixed reaction to The Color Purple being told in letters. On one hand, it definitely gives us a lot more insight into Celie’s thoughts and feelings, especially since, for so much of the story, she really isn’t able to express them out loud.

    I am particularly fascinated how the novel starts out in someone else’s voice, demanding Celie’s silence, “You better not never tell nobody but God,” her letters seem like an almost defiant act of assertion that will one day grow into full out independence and agency.

    In a lot of ways, the opening of The Color Purple reminds me of the opening line to The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior starts with the line “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you” as the main character’s mother tells her a story meant to scare her into obedience and submissive to her parents. As the book progresses, the heroine of The Woman Warrior grows and develops her own identity, her own voice, and her own authority over what stories to tell. We see the same thing here in The Color Purple – only Celie’s voice is being silenced by the men in her life, rather than her parents.

    I can also understand how a woman like Celie would be so desperate for connection, for someone to love her, and hear her, and care about her sufferings that she would reach out in any way she could to anyone she thought would be listening. Having said that, I am not sure it is realistic for a character who was denied her education to express herself only in writing. And I could see Celie having trouble getting the time and the paper to write these letters without and having a place to hide them so Mister wouldn’t see them and read them so the believability of the story suffers a little, in my opinion.

    The other weakness of the epistolary is that it puts distance between the reader and the action of the story, especially when that action is happening to someone else. In the movie version of The Color Purple, the scene where Sophia insults the mayor’s wife and is beaten by a mob is much more impactful and felt more immediately because you are seeing it happen – often from Sophia’s point of view. In the book, the incident is recounted after it happens to someone who wasn’t there and by someone other than Sophia. The experience of the scene is much more removed and doesn’t land with the same impact.

    (Interesting piece of trivia about that scene in the movie. I once saw an interview with Oprah Winfrey who played Sophia in the movie. She said that the script, as she read it, was toned down considerably. And when they rehearsed it, they used the more conversative script. But what she didn’t know is that when it came time to actually shoot the scenes, the extras in the mob were instructed to use a much more intense script with more violent and racist language and to behave more aggressively. She was completely unprepared for it and so the panic in her face during that scene was real rather than acting.)

    As for Mister and the letters… I think that Nettie’s rejection of him hurt his pride and made him feel weak – something he couldn’t tolerate with his upbringing. Holding onto those letters gave him a sense of power over her and Celie that let him feel powerful again. Burning or destroying them would give him temporary control but it would be over once the letters were destroyed. Holding on to them allowed him to retain his power and to continue denying the girls their communication. Also, I think in some ways he felt like he was co-opting the love that Nettie had for Celie and kind of taking it for himself in a way. Just my thoughts.

    Developing a voice is a powerful and common theme in literature. The most empowered characters in the book are the ones who aren’t afraid to speak up. Shug. Sophia. Singing and speaking are both signs of a woman to reckon with – one that won’t be stepped upon or kept locked up at home. When Squeak decides that she wants to sign, she also stands up to Harpo, takes her destiny into her own hands and demands that she be called by her proper name instead of the diminishing Squeak. Although her voice is small and funny sounding – compared to someone like Shug – being willing to use it gives her power and she is appreciated for it.

    However, there is a time and a place to use your voice. Sophia, Celie’s father, even Mister, all come to grief thinking that they could speak out without considering the consequences, so I think the author is advocating a sort of happy medium when it comes to speaking out.

  2. I really enjoyed the letters section of the book and after reading your comments Kerry I do see a lot of your points. I personally feel like the letters celie writes while she is still with mister are actually wrote in her mind. I don’t think that she would have had the paper to write them on. I felt like maybe she started writing them for real after she left with shug. I do feel like the reason she goes from writing God to Nettie also shows that she writes those who give her hope. When she was told she could only tell God at the beginning I feel like God became her beacon of hope the only person she felt could know how she really felt and then after finding those letters she held to the hope that she would see her sister again. I feel like even though she loved shug I feel like she still didn’t feel she could entirely be herself with her but with her sister she could. Kerry I think your very on the nose with why mister didn’t destroy the letters. I feel as well that it was so he would feel he had the power over celie and Nettie.

  3. I think you are right about Celie’s letters being internal, Leslie. I also think that maybe the switch from “writing” to God to writing to Nettie might also indicate a little more progress along the road to independence. When Celie started writing her letters, she was almost told who to write to when her stepfather told her she could only tell God what was happening to her. Switching over to Nettie showed a little more personal choice and agency since now she was choosing who to write to and what to say.

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