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Is the color purple set in the 20th century?

The Color Purple is a classic novel by Alice Walker that tells the story of Celie, a young black woman living in the rural American South. The novel deals with difficult themes like racism, sexism, domestic violence, and incest. A central question about the setting of The Color Purple is whether it takes place in the 20th century or an earlier time period.

The Color Purple was published in 1982 but takes place much earlier. Determining the time period of the novel’s setting has been debated by scholars and readers. While the novel never provides exact dates, contextual clues about technology, transportation, social issues, and other details strongly suggest the story is set in the early 20th century, between 1900-1940. Looking closely at the evidence from the text can give a good indication of when Celie’s story takes place.

Clues about technology

Several descriptions of technology in The Color Purple indicate an early 20th century setting:

  • Letters are written by hand and mailed using envelopes
  • No telephones are mentioned
  • No electronic technology like radios, TVs, or household appliances are described
  • Kerosene or gas lamps are used for lighting homes
  • The camera Shug has is likely an early Kodak box camera from the early 1900s

Overall, the technology is indicative of a rural setting in the early 1900s rather than the mid or late 20th century.

Clues about transportation

The types of transportation also point to an early 20th century setting:

  • People travel by wagon or carriage, pulled by mules or horses
  • Trains are used for longer trips into town
  • No cars or paved roads are mentioned

This transportation reflects a rural Southern setting before widespread automobile usage and highway development.

Clues about social issues

The social issues in The Color Purple, such as racism, sexism, and domestic violence, clearly reflect the early 20th century time period:

  • Slavery had been abolished but segregation and oppression of black people was still institutionalized
  • Women had very limited rights, education, or independence
  • Domestic violence was rarely discussed openly or addressed by the law

The social constraints on the main characters mirror the early 20th century realities for Southern black women.

Other contextual clues

A few other details and references also point to the early 20th century:

  • Celie recalls her mother wore long dresses with hoops and linen
  • Houses have wood burning stoves for cooking and heating
  • Outhouses are used rather than indoor plumbing
  • Gas masks are mentioned as protection during WWI

These details about fashion, housing, and the mention of World War I all indicate the story takes place in the early decades of the 20th century.

Scholarly analysis

Most literary analysis of The Color Purple also places the novel’s setting firmly in the early 20th century:

Source Time Period Description
Jones, Carolyn M. “Finding the truth in fiction.” The Color Purple. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020. “Set in the American South between 1900 and 1940”
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Daughters signifyin(g) history: the example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” CLA Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, 1993, pp. 140-160. “Set between 1900 and 1945”
Hankins, Leslie Kathleen. “The empowerment of African American women in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Griot, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 45-47. “Set in the early 1920s”

This scholarly consensus confirms the early 20th century time period that is evidenced in the novel’s text.


While Alice Walker never provides explicit dates in The Color Purple, an analysis of the textual evidence – details about technology, transportation, social issues, and historical references – clearly indicates that the novel takes place in the early decades of the 20th century. The story opens around the 1910s when Celie is a young girl, and later years are never specified. But based on the rural Southern setting, lack of modernization, and context of gender inequality and racism, the novel can be firmly situated in the first half of the 20th century, between approximately 1900-1940.