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The Color Purple | Context

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Time Frame

The Color Purple details the journey of Celie, an African American girl living in rural Georgia. In the latter part of the story, Nettie comments 30 years have passed, and Sofia mentions her sons will be serving in "France, Germany or the Pacific." These details give the story a general time frame of 1912–42. Walker makes a point of never stating any exact years that would date the novel. By doing so, she creates a timelessness that allows the story to illuminate issues that cross period boundaries, such as women's rights, oppression, gender disputes, racism, and injustice.

Language of Characters

Celie's letters reflect the country dialect of an uneducated African American from the rural South during this time frame. In contrast, Nettie's letters exhibit her proficient writing, grammar, and vocabulary skills because she was permitted to attend school. Through the sisters' letters, readers can compare and contrast some of the social expectations, customs, and traditions of the early to middle years of the 20th century.

Epistolary Format

The structure of an epistolary novel relies on epistles, or letters. Through letters only, the characters reveal the story's foundational elements—the characters, plot, conflict, and setting—and the structural components of theme, symbolism, tone, and point of view. In The Color Purple, Celie, the primary narrator, writes to God and to her sister Nettie. Almost halfway into the story, Nettie becomes the secondary narrator through her letters to Celie. Crucial to readers' involvement and connection to the story, the letters reveal each narrator's private and public emotions, beliefs, and values.

Other well-known epistolary novels include Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (the diary entries are letters addressed to "Kitty"), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Emails, texts, social media updates, and blogs can be considered contemporary examples of epistolary writing.

Narrators in The Color Purple:

  • Celie narrates the following letters: 1–51 [Celie to God]; 59–61 and 68 [Celie to God]; 69 [Celie to Nettie]; 73–79 [Celie to Nettie]; 82–85 [Celie to Nettie]; 87 [Celie to Nettie]; 89 [Celie to Nettie], and 90 [Celie to God].
  • Nettie narrates the following letters, all written to Celie: 52–58, 62–67, 70–72, 80–81, 86, and 88.

Bildungsroman Genre

A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel. Although the protagonist's journey to find spiritual, emotional, and moral awareness often starts in the person's adolescence, the quest often continues into adulthood. The Color Purple opens when Celie, the 14-year-old protagonist, begins searching for answers that will help her understand her unjust life. Throughout her journey she struggles with the challenges of oppression, male dominance, and racism, and with her personal beliefs about gender roles, sexism, and spirituality. Not until she is middle-aged does she realize joy and wholeness in her existence with family and friends and in the world.

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