The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making Walker the first black woman to win the prize. Walker also won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983. Mel Watkins of the New York Times Book Review wrote that it is a "striking and consummately well-written novel," praising its powerful emotional impact and epistolary structure.
Though the novel has garnered critical acclaim, it has also been the subject of controversy. It is 17th on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged or banned books. Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality. The book received greater scrutiny amidst controversy surrounding the release of the film adaptation in 1985. The controversy centered around the depiction of black men, which some critics saw as feeding stereotypical narratives of black male violence, while others found the representation compelling and relatable.