The Color Purple

Book review by
Kenneth Butler, Common Sense Media
The Color Purple Book Poster Image
Edgy tale of poor, abused woman's journey to independence.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 17+
Based on 6 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The Color Purple presents the plight of voiceless and disenfranchised African-American women in the South before the civil rights movement. The setting is rural Georgia in the 1930s, and the horrors of ignorance, poverty, racism, and sexism are alive on every page. Readers who might take for granted the opportunities available for women of color in today's society will have their eyes opened to the misery suffered in that time and place.

Positive Messages

The positive messages in the text are as timely today as they were in the 1930s, when they story takes place: the need to respect people's basic human dignity, and for freedom, independence, and individuality. The Color Purple also emphasizes the importance of finding one’s own voice and making one’s own way.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Celie, the novel’s protagonist, has always had a miserable existence -- life has thrown her every bad turn imaginable. Still, she is determined to survive, and she evolves into a confident, contented, independent woman. Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, moves to Africa to work as a missionary. She writes letters to Celie for decades, and provides a viewpoint on global imperialism. Shug Avery is a blues singer, first the lover of Celie’s husband, then of Celie herself. She becomes a kind of mentor to Celie and guides her to find her own voice.


Violence is omnipresent, starting with Celie’s rape by her father on the first page, followed by descriptions of Celie’s father’s presumed murder of their child, Celie's sexual abuse and beating by her husband, the ghastly beating of Celie's stepson's wife, Sofia, a lynching, and a female circumcision in Africa.


There is much talk of intercourse and orgasm. Celie has a loving lesbian relationship with Shug, who convinces her to examine her own sexual organs for the first time.


Sexual and degrading slang is ubiquitous -– "pussy," "titties," "his thing," and the "N" word appear regularly. It is mentioned that the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, has "fingered" several African-American children.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many of the characters smoke -- cigarettes, cigars, and pipes -– as a regular part of their daily routines. Drinking, hard drinking, and obvious alcoholism are also a part of the fabric of their lives. One character is a great enthusiast for smoking marijuana, which was not made illegal in the United States until 1937, and there is a mention of harder drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Alice Walker's The Color Purple is a moving, inspirational novel told in letters that includes an abundance of mature content -- explicit sex, rape, incest, sexism, violence toward women, and a lesbian relationship. It won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel vividly portrays the harsh life of rural, poor African Americans -- especially women -- in the pre-civil-rights South, and has been criticized for its negative depiction of African American men. It ranked No. 17 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 2000-2009 due to its  sex, violence, and strong language. The novel was adapted for Steven Spielberg's successful 1985 film version and a 2005 Broadway musical.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent Written bySerenityFish November 11, 2014

Possibly the Best Descision I've Ever Made

I had no idea what I was in for that fateful day when I picked this book off of the shelf. It's a classic in every sense of the word, and ahead of its time... Continue reading
Adult Written byclarence August 6, 2015
Teen, 17 years old Written bymaxiquadrillian April 1, 2015

Modern Classic

Alice Walker's *The Color Purple*, despite its strong descriptions of rape and violence, is a powerful novel showing the empowerment of black women, namely... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byGuatever2k17 April 12, 2018

Horrible book

While the book was well written, the themes of rape, sexual identity, and violence all led me to dislike this book. The author went into too much detail about r... Continue reading

What's the story?

In rural Georgia in the 1930s, 14-year-old Celie is an uneducated African American girl who is sexually abused and impregnated twice by her father. In desperation, she starts writing letters to God. Her father eventually marries her off to a man Celie refers to only as "Mr.," who really wanted to marry Celie's prettier sister, Nettie. After Nettie escapes her father's house and runs to Celie's, Mr. tries to force himself on her, and Nettie runs away and is presumed dead. Mr.'s mistress, Shug Avery, a beautiful blues singer, comes to stay at their house and Celie finds herself sexually attracted to her. Soon Celie and Shug discover a bunch of Nettie's letters -- which Mr. has kept hidden from her for years -- describing her life among missionaries in Africa. The story is told in alternating letters from Celie and Nettie, showing each sister's evolution and charting Celie's journey of self-discovery toward happiness and independence.

Is it any good?

THE COLOR PURPLE gives a vivid, wrenching portrayal of the harsh circumstances and limited opportunities of poor, uneducated African American women in the South before the civil rights movement. It also chronicles a woman's inspiring journey from abuse to independence and self-actualization. The novel was a bestseller when it came out in 1982, has continued to sell well ever since, and is sometimes assigned in high school, although it has been the consistent target of censors due to its mature content, including sex, violence, and strong language. Steven Spielberg's 1985 film version was popular with critics and audiences alike, earning 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. And a 2005 Broadway musical versions earned 11 Tony Award nominations in 2006.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how gender roles and opportunity for people of color have changed in the years since the novel took place (1910-1940). How different are things today?

  • Why might Celie have been more drawn to a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman than a man?

  • How do the white characters, such as Miss Millie, appear condescending through supposed kindness to African Americans?





Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical fiction and tales of African-American experience

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