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The Color Purple



Edgy tale of poor, abused woman's journey to independence.

What parents need to know

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

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.

Not applicable
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.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Color Purple is a moving, inspirational novel told in letters that includes an abundance of mature content -- explicit sex, rape, incest, sexism and violence toward women, and a lesbian relationship. The book 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.

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 cache of Nettie's letters -- which Mr. has kept hidden form 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 won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was the breakthrough work for author Alice Walker. It 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.

Families can talk 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

Author:Alice Walker
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Friendship, History
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Mariner Books
Publication date:January 1, 1982
Number of pages:304
Publisher's recommended age(s):14 - 17

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Teen, 17 years old Written bymaryahg November 30, 2014
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
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. I think that every aspect of this is amazingly and accurately written and it is perfect. I highly recommend this. The content may be challenging, as it's a dense book with lots of meaning to it. In fact, it took me two reads to fully comprehend its meaning and even still with each read I gain something new.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
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 Celie, in the southern United States. Various themes centering around racism, patriarchy, sexuality, and independence are meaningfully developed. It's important to know that the descriptions of rape and violence, however strong, are NOT gratuitous; they are meaningful within the context of the story which, without these aspects, would be a lesser novel.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models