Though a relatively simple read, "The Color Purple" deals with themes of abuse, lesbianism and religion that require a mature audience. Teachers should approach this material sensitively, and provide plenty of room for honest and open discussion in the classroom.
Although a fairly short and easy read, in terms of vocabulary and plot, Alice Walker’s classic novel is not one to be taken lightly by any means at all. Not all students can handle the depth of abuse that occurs within the novel, nor can they fully treat the lesbian theme in an adult manner. This novel is best student for 11th or 12th grade students who are studying advanced Literature or Advanced Placement Literature, as those types of students are serious enough to fully appreciate the novel.
Another option for teaching this novel is in a higher level American History or Social Justice class, or even a class on African-American Literature or African-American Studies. However, as stated above, the students in the class must be able to handle the subject matter in an adult way. Additionally, if the book is being taught outside of an English classroom, an English teacher should most likely be consulted about how familiar students are with epistolary novels, and also how best to teach the symbolism embedded within the text.
Another central theme is religion and spirituality, and there is no way to read the text without at least a brief discussion of Celie’s religious beliefs. It goes without saying that God is a key character within the novel, serving as Celie’s confidant and that the faith of all major characters is tested in many ways throughout the course of the novel. It is especially important in a public school to closely monitor these discussions based around the religious overtones of Walker’s book and to make sure each student is comfortable with the discussion.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, because homosexuality is such a key theme in the novel, and the lesbian relationship that occurs between Shug and Celie is the key turning point in the transformation of Celie’s character, a frank statement needs to come from the teacher about keeping personal feelings about homosexuals out of the classroom setting. State from the beginning that no slanderous language can be used when discussing the relationship between the two women.
Although when first distributed, it seems as if Walker’s tale will be an easy read, it is novel best approached with a delicate hand and the time to truly give it the attention it deserves.