The Longman Companion to English defines an epistolary novel as "a novel told through letters written by one or more of the characters." The Color Purple is clearly an example of this genre in that it is written using a series of letters written by the principal character, Celie, and also her sister Nettie. The epistolary novel appeared to peak in Europe during the eighteenth century in novels such as Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa. However, since then, the epistolary form has not been consistently favoured by novelists, only being noticeably utilised in Swinburne's Love's Cross Currents and John Barth's Letters. Walker used this limited use of the form in twentieth century literature to her advantage enabling The Color Purple to have a greater impact on the reader as the epistolary genre was rarely observed in literature at this time. This essay will examine the advantages and also the limitations of this genre, concluding with my view that in writing The Color Purple, Walker successfully overcomes the disadvantages of the epistolary form, re-establishing it as a literary genre. .
According to Forcey, Walker chose the epistolary genre to provide a new experience for reader of her novel: "The reader is required to become his own narrator since the plot is not being directly told by the author." By using a narrative form that had not been used significantly since the eighteenth century, Walker was trusting that the reader would understand the meaning and purpose behind each correspondence. .
In The Color Purple, Walker effectively uses the epistolary genre to communicate the thoughts and feelings of the novel's central character, Celie. Direct contact between Celie and Nettie enables Walker to focus on the characters whom she wishes to expand and, through this form, Walker gives the reader the idea that Celie and Nettie are not simply literary characters but real people. The use of the epistolary form gives the novel a sense of dramatic immediacy as events are revealed to the reader soon after they occur and a full picture of Celie's character gradually emerges.