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The Color Purple

The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary, fictional novel written by Alice Walker. The story details the life of Celie, a young, poor black girl growing up in rural Georgia in the American South in the early 1900s. 

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The Color Purple

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The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary, fictional novel written by Alice Walker. The story details the life of Celie, a young, poor black girl growing up in rural Georgia in the American South in the early 1900s.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Alice Walker is best known for her novel The Color Purple and activism.

The Color Purple summary

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a novel that is set in rural Georgia, the United States, between 1909 and 1947. The narrative spans 40 years and chronicles the life and experiences of Celie, the protagonist and narrator. She writes letters to God detailing her experiences. The novel is not a true story however it is inspired by the story of a love triangle in Alice Walker's grandfather's life.

Overview: The Color Purple
Author of The Color PurpleAlice Walker
Published1982
GenreEpistolary fiction, domestic novel
Brief summary of The Color Purple
  • The story of Celie, a poor African-American woman who suffers sexual and physical abuse from her father and later from her abusive husband, Mister.
  • Celie's life changes when she meets and develops a close relationship with Shug Avery, a blues singer who becomes her friend and lover, and who inspires Celie to assert herself and explore her own beliefs and identity.
List of main charactersCelie, Shug Avery, Mister, Nettie, Alphonso, Harpo, Squeak
ThemesViolence, sexism, racism, colourism, religion, female relationships, LGBT
Setting Georgia, United States, between 1909 and 1947
Analysis
  • The novel offers a powerful critique of patriarchal society and its impact on African-American women. The novel's frank depiction of sexual abuse and its exploration of lesbian relationships were groundbreaking for their time. It also presents a complex portrayal of religion and spirituality by challenging traditional interpretations of Christianity and offering a more inclusive and open-minded view of God.

Celie's family life

Celie is a poor, uneducated 14-year-old black girl living with her stepfather, Alphonso (Pa), her mother, and her younger sister Nettie, who is 12-years-old. Celie believes Alphonso to be her father but later finds out he is her stepfather. Alphonso sexually and physically abuses Celie, and has impregnated her twice, giving birth to a girl, Olivia and a boy, Adam. Alphonso had abducted each child following its birth. Celie presumes he killed the children in the woods on separate occasions.

Celie's marriage

A man known only as ‘Mister’ (Celie later finds out his name is Albert), a widower with two sons, proposes to Alphonso that he wishes to marry Nettie. Alphonso refuses and says he can marry Celie instead. After their marriage, Mister sexually, physically, and verbally abuses Celie, and Mister’s sons mistreat her as well.

Soon after, Nettie runs away from home to seek sanctuary at Celie’s house, but when Mister makes sexual advances towards her, Celie advises her to get help from a well-dressed black woman she previously saw in a store. Nettie is taken in by the woman, who readers later find out is the woman who adopted Celie’s children Adam and Olivia. Celie does not hear from Nettie for many, many years.

Celie's relationship with Shug Avery

Mister’s lover, Shug Avery, a singer, becomes ill and is brought to his house, where Celie nurses her to health. After being rude to her, Shug warms up to Celie and the two become friends. Celie is sexually attracted to Shug.

Once her health has returned, Shug sings at the juke joint which Harpo opened after Sofia left him. Shug discovers that Mister beats Celie when she is away, so decides to stay for longer. Sometime later, Shug leaves and returns with Grady, her new husband. Yet she initiates a sexually intimate relationship with Celie.

Celie discovers through Shug that Mister has been hiding away many letters, though Shug is unsure who the letters are from. Shug retrieves one of the letters and it is from Nettie, though Celie presumed her dead because she had not received any letters.

Celie's involvement in Harpo's relationship

Mister’s son Harpo falls in love with and impregnates a headstrong Sofia. Sofia refuses to submit to Harpo when he tries to control her using physical abuse and emulating his father’s actions. Celie’s advice to Harpo that he should be gentler with Sofia is heeded temporarily but then Harpo becomes violent again.

After Celie advises out of envy that Harpo should beat Sofia and Sofia fights back, Celie apologises and admits that Mister has been abusing her. Sofia advises Celie to defend herself and eventually leaves with her children.

Nettie's relationship with Samuel and Corrine

Nettie befriends missionary couple Samuel and Corrine (the woman from the store). Nettie was with them in Africa doing missionary work, where the couple adopted Adam and Olivia. The couple later realise due to the uncanny resemblance that they are Celie’s children.

Nettie also discovers that Alphonso is her and Celie’s stepfather, who took advantage of her mother after she became ill following the lynching of their father, who was a successful store owner. Alphonso wanted to inherit her house and property. Corrine becomes ill and dies, and Nettie and Samuel marry.

What happens at the end of the novel?

Celie begins to lose faith in God. She leaves Mister and becomes a seamstress in Tennessee. Alphonso dies soon after, so Celie inherits the house and land and moves back to the home. Celie and Mister reconcile after he changes his ways. Nettie, along with Samuel, Olivia, Adam, and Tashi (whom Adam married in Africa) return to Celie’s house.

Characters in The Color Purple

Let's introduce you to the characters in The Color Purple.

The Color Purple charactersDescription
CelieCelie is the protagonist and narrator of The Color Purple. She is a poor, black 14-year-old girl whose apparent father, Alphonso, sexually and physically abuses her, and abducts and presumably kills the two children he impregnated her with. Celie is married off to an abusive husband known only as ‘Mister’. Celie later meets Shug Avery, with whom she becomes close and has a sexually intimate relationship.
NettieNettie is Celie’s younger sister, who runs away from home to Celie’s home with Mister. Nettie then runs away again when Mister makes sexual advances towards her. She is encouraged by Celie to seek Corrine, who is a missionary with her husband, Samuel. They all move to Africa to continue their missionary work.
AlphonsoAlphonso claims to be Celie and Nettie’s father, but it is later discovered that he is their stepfather. Alphonso sexually and physically abuses Celie until he marries her off to Mister. Alphonso married Celie and Nettie’s mother and lied about being their father so he could inherit her house and property.
Shug AveryShug Avery is a blues singer who was Mister’s mistress. Shug is taken in by Mister when she becomes ill and she is cared for by Celie. Shug becomes friends, then lovers with Celie. She is Celie’s mentor and helps her become an independent and assertive woman. Shug inspires Celie to consider her views on God. Shug also inspired Celie to start sewing pants for a living, which she does successfully later in the novel.
Mister (later Albert)Mister is Celie’s first husband, to whom she is given by Alphonso. Mister initially wanted to marry Nettie, Celie’s sister, but Alphonso refused. During his marriage to Celie, Mister writes letters to his former mistress, Shug Avery. Mister hides letters from Nettie addressed to Celie. After Celie addresses the abuse she’s suffered and leaves Mister, he undergoes a personal transformation and becomes a better man. He ends the novel friends with Celie.
SofiaSofia is a large, headstrong, independent woman who marries and bears children with Harpo. She refuses to submit to anyone’s authority – including Harpo’s – and she later leaves him because he tries to dominate her. Sofia is sentenced to 12 years in jail because she defies the town mayor and his wife by refusing to be the wife's maid. Her sentence is commuted to 12 years of labour as a maid to the mayor’s wife.
HarpoHarpo is Mister’s eldest son. He follows his father’s behaviours and attitudes, believing that men should dominate women and women should obey and be submissive. Mister encourages Harpo to beat his first wife, Sofia, as an (albeit stereotypical) assertion of male dominance. Harpo enjoys doing things in the home that are stereotypically women’s work, such as cooking and household chores. Sofia is physically stronger than Harpo, so she always overpowers him. He and Sofia reconcile and save their marriage at the end of the novel after he changes his ways.
SqueakSqueak becomes Harpo’s lover after Sofia leaves him for a time. Squeak has mixed black and white ancestry, so she is known in the novel as a mulatto, though the term is now considered inappropriate/offensive. Squeak is beaten by Harpo, but she eventually experiences a transformation as Celie does. She asserts that she wants to be called by her real name, Mary Agnes, and she begins to take her singing career seriously.
Samuel and CorrineSamuel is a minister and, together with his wife, Corrine, a missionary. Whilst still in Georgia, they adopted Adam and Olivia, who are later revealed to be Celie’s children. The couple takes the children to Africa to continue their missionary work accompanied by Nettie. Corrine dies of fever in Africa, and Samuel marries Nettie sometime after.
Olivia and AdamOlivia and Adam are Celie’s biological children she had after she was sexually abused by Alphonso. They are adopted by Samuel and Corrine and go with them to Africa to do missionary work. Olivia develops a close relationship with Tashi, a girl from the Olinka village the family is staying in. Adam falls in love with Tashi and marries her. They all later return to America with Samuel and Nettie and meet Celie.

Themes in The Color Purple

The main themes in Walker's The Color Purple are female relationships, violence, sexism, racism, and religion.

Female relationships

Celie develops relationships with the women who surround her, learning from their experiences. For example, Sofia, Harpo’s wife, encourages Celie to stand up to Mister and defend herself from his abuse. Shug Avery teaches Celie that it is possible for her to be independent and build a life of her own choosing.

A girl child ain't safe in a family of men. But I never thought I'd have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I'll kill him dead before I let him abuse me. - Sofia, Letter 21

Sofia speaks with Celie after Celie advised Harpo to beat Sofia. Celie did this out of jealousy, as she saw how much Harpo loved Sofia. Sofia is an inspiring force to Celie, showing how a woman does not have to endure violence against her. Sofia is astounded when Celie says that she does 'nothing at all' when she is abused and she does not even feel anger at it anymore.

Sofia's reaction to abuse is vastly different to Celie's. The two reconcile at the end of the conversation. Sofia's resolve to not endure violence from her husband is unfathomable to Celie; however, she eventually shows courage by leaving Mister towards the end of the novel.

Violence and sexism

Most of the black female characters in The Color Purple (1982) experience violence against them from the men in their lives. The women are victims of this violence because of the sexist attitudes of the men in their lives.

Some of these attitudes are that men need to assert their dominance over women and that women must be submissive and obey the men in their lives. Women are expected to adhere to the gendered roles of just being an obedient wife and a devoted mother, and there isn’t much more they can be in life apart from that.

Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr. _____ say, Cause she my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for—he don’t finish. - Celie, Letter 13

Mister feels that Celie is his possession to do with as he wishes, simply because she is his wife. He believes this gives him enough authority to abuse her and do anything else he wishes. A sexist attitude reiterated through decades is that all women are good for is sex, and this is likely what Mister was going to say. This quote also shows the general disrespectful attitude towards women exhibited by most of the men in the novel.

Racism

Racism is a prejudice and discrimination against an individual or a community classified as a minority. This discrimination is based on them being a part of a minority racial or ethnic group.

The Color Purple (1982) starts in the southern state of Georgia in the early 1900s, which was before the Civil Rights era in the South. During this time, segregation and the Jim Crow laws were in practice.

Segregation: Racial segregation in the United States was the physical separation of facilities such as medical care, schools, and other areas of life such as employment. This physical separation was based on race. It kept black Americans separate from white Americans.

Jim Crow laws: Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in southern states in the United States. She [Miss Millie] say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

Sofia say, Hell no.

She say, What you say?

Sofia say, Hell no.

Mayor look at Sofia, push his wife out the way. Stick out his chest.

Girl, what you say to Miss Millie?

Sofia say, I say, Hell no. He slap her. -Letter 37

In this scene, the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, wants Sofia to become her maid. Sofia refuses to do so and her retaliation to the mayor's slap results in her initially being sentenced to 12 years in jail. This is commuted to 12 years in Miss Millie's service as her maid. Institutional racism meant that the mayor did not suffer any consequences for hitting Sofia first.

This is an example of institutional racism. It shows how the judicial system was unjust when sentencing Sofia after she retaliated to being assaulted by the mayor and his wife, yet they did not suffer any consequences.

God, religion, spirituality

In The Color Purple, Celie writes her letters first to God, then later to Nettie. Celie details her life experiences to God, who she believes is an old white man with a long beard. Her understanding of God transforms, as she begins to see God as a form of nature’s beauty.

When she meets Shug Avery, Shug teaches her that there is more to God than what is taught in Church. Shug believes that God is about love, and wants people to be loved and be happy, and wants to be loved in return.

Nettie’s time as a missionary with Samuel and Corrine means that she partakes in evangelising the Olinka people (a fictitious people) during her time on the continent of Africa. During her time there, Nettie considers what her ideas of God are. Missionaries discuss God in how God is presented in typical Christian teachings, but Nettie realises that she believes that God is in nature more than Christian teachings say.

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it - Shug, Letter 73

Shug asks Celie whether she takes a moment to appreciate what God has created in, for example, nature. Shug cites this as evidence of God’s love. God provides people with the beauty of nature to show their love. According to Shug, it is only right to show love in return by appreciating it.

Celie's thoughts on spirituality change throughout the novel. Shug is a central part of this and opens her eyes to how she can view religion and spirituality differently.

Genres in The Color Purple

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel as well as domestic fiction.

Novel: a story about events and people/characters. It can be fictional or non-fictional.

Epistolary novel: an epistolary novel is written in the form of documents, for example, a letter or a diary entry.

Domestic fiction: fiction written by, for, and about women. It is also known as 'women's fiction'.

Structure and form of The Color Purple

The Color Purple has an epistolary structure, a series of letters written by Celie and addressed to God and then to her sister, Nettie. The Color Purple is written in first-person narrative, as Celie is the protagonist and narrator, and she shares her life experiences through her letters.

The chapters are very short and initially very basic in how they describe Celie’s experiences, as they show her youth in what she does, hears, sees, and feels. Alice Walker uses vernacular, grammar, and spelling that befits Celie's place in life. For example, she is uneducated, so her grammar and spelling are poor.

The main message and idea of The Color Purple

The Color Purple follows Celie as she grows up in an abusive household and is later married off into an abusive household. Celie encounters characters such as Shug Avery and Sofia, who show her what it is to be independent and refuse to be oppressed.

The Color Purple explores life for young Celie in a racist society and in a patriarchal black community. The main message of the novel is how a young girl can grow up in a racist, patriarchal society and overcome these obstacles to eventually find independence and fulfilment later in life.

The main idea of The Color Purple is that of growing up, overcoming oppression and abuse, and in the case of Celie finding her independence and determining what will fulfil her in life.

Famous quotes from The Color Purple

Let's explore some prominent quotes from the novel.

Don’t let them run over you...you got to fight. - Nettie, Letter 11

Nettie has run away from Alphonso’s home and seeks refuge in Celie’s home with Mister. Nettie tells Celie to keep fighting against the abuse and mistreatment she’s experiencing at Mister’s house. This quote touches on the theme of female relationships. Just as Celie supported Nettie after she ran away from their stepfather, Nettie gives Celie encouraging, empowering words for her to leave her marriage.

'Celie: [to Shug] He beat me when you ain’t here.

Shug: Who do? Albert?

Celie: Mister.

Shug: Why he do that?

Celie: He beat me for not being you.'- Letter 34

Celie tells Shug about the abuse she’s been suffering under Mister’s hands. Celie has nursed Shug, Mister’s mistress, to health and is now singing again. Shug decides to stay at Mister’s home for a bit longer. Celie was not Mister’s first choice – he originally wanted to marry Nettie but was refused by Alphonso.

This quote explores the themes of violence and sexism. Celie is a victim of Mister's violence and she believes the reason is that she is not the woman Mister wanted to marry. Mister mistreats her for reasons she cannot control and is not to blame for.

I don’t like to go to bed with him no more, she [Sofia] say. Used to be when he touch me I’d go all out my head. Now when he touch me I just don’t want to be bothered. - Sofia, Letter 30

Sofia speaks about her relationship with Harpo, Mister’s son. Harpo fell in love with Sofia and her independent and headstrong spirit, and Celie encourages him to be gentle with her and not follow his father’s behaviour.

This quote is an example of violence against women and its effect on Harpo and Sofia's relationship. Harpo is initially loving towards Sofia, but is encouraged to be violent by his father, Mister. This affects their relationship as Sofia no longer desires him because he listened to his father and tried to beat her.

Reception of The Color Purple

The Color Purple was a bestseller and a 1985 movie directed the renowned Steven Spielberg, with a cast featuring stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. The Color Purple was adapted for a 2005 Broadway musical.

Between 1984 and 2013, The Color Purple was banned from school libraries in the United States because it was argued to have graphic sexual content and situations of violence and abuse, which was purportedly inappropriate for school libraries. Some also argued that the novel contained ‘sexual and social explicitness’ and ‘troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality’.

The Color Purple Overview - Key takeaways

  • The Color Purple (1982) is a fictional tale of the life of the protagonist and narrator, Celie, a poor, young black girl growing up in rural Georgia in the 1900s.
  • The main characters in The Color Purple (1982) are Celie, Nettie, Samuel, Corrine, Shug Avery, Alphonso, and Mister ('Albert').
  • The main themes are female relationships, violence, sexism, racism, God, religion, and spirituality.
  • The genres of The Color Purple (1982) are novel, epistolary novel, and domestic fiction.
  • The main message of the novel is a tale of how a young girl can grow up in a racist, patriarchal society and overcome these obstacles to eventually find independence and fulfilment later in life.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Alice Walker (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_Walker.jpg) by Virginia DeBolt (https://www.flickr.com/people/75496946@N00) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Color Purple

The novel is not a true story however it was inspired by the story of a love triangle in Alice Walker's grandfather's life.  

The main message of the novel is how a young girl can grow up in a racist, patriarchal society yet overcome these obstacles to eventually find independence and fulfilment later in life. 

The main idea of The Color Purple (1982) explores growing up, overcoming oppression and abuse for Celie to find her independence and determine what will fulfil her in life.  

Between 1984 and 2013, The Color Purple (1982) was banned from school libraries in the United States because it was argued to have graphic sexual content and situations of violence and abuse, which was considered inappropriate for school libraries. 

The Color Purple (1982) is a fictional tale of the life of the protagonist and narrator, Celie, a poor, young black girl growing up in rural Georgia in the 1900s.  

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