The Color Purple is a cultural touchstone of modern American literature, which portrays the lives of African American women in rural Georgia in the early twentieth century. In spite of their separation as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie remain loyal to and hopeful for each other despite time, distance, and silence.
Through a series of twenty-year-old letters, first, from Celie to God and then from the sisters to each other, the novel draws readers into the experiences and lives of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery and Sofia.
Through narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery, The Color Purple broke the silence surrounding domestic and sexual abuse.
Alice Walker’s epic is a deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined journey towards redemption and love.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Table of Contents
A young black woman who is raped and abused learns through the love of another woman to achieve self-respect and happiness.
In a small farming community near Milledgeville, Georgia, a young Southern black woman named Celie has been sexually abused by Alphonso (“Pa”), the man married to her mother.
Alphonso has warned her not to tell anybody about the experiences since “it’d kill your mammy.” Since Celie innocently believes what she is told, she is afraid to tell anyone. Instead, she writes letters to God in the hopes that He will solve her problems.
When Celie becomes pregnant with Alphonso’s child, her mother curses her and wonders who the father is. Celie gives birth to a daughter, Olivia, but Alphonso abducts the child and later claims that he killed “it.” Her mother dies before Celie gives birth to her second child by Alphonso; it is a boy, and Alphonso sells him to a grateful couple in the nearby town of Monticello.
A man in Celie’s church, Mr.—, wants to marry Celie’s younger sister, Nettie. He has several children by his late wife, and is in love with a blues singer, Shug Avery, but he needs a woman to run his household. Alphonso will not let Mr.— marry Nettie because she is too young; instead, he offers Celie, explaining that she is ugly but a hard worker. Three months later, Mr.— marries Celie, and on their wedding day, his four unruly children greet her by hitting her in the head with a rock.
Celie is in town one day and sees a child whom she believes to be her daughter. She approaches the child’s mother and asks what the little girl’s name is. It is Olivia, and the child is now the daughter of this woman, Corrine, and her husband, the Rev—.
Nettie moves in with Celie, but Mr.— forces her to leave after she refuses his advances. The sisters promise to write to each other, and Celie tells Nettie to try to get work in the home of Olivia’s new parents. Mr.—’s sister, Kate, tells Mr.—’s 17-year-old son, Harpo, to help Celie with the chores. When he says, “Women work. I’m a man,” Kate retorts that he is “a trifling nigger” and orders him to get to work.
She warns Celie to fight back against the men, but Celie “don’t say nothing.” Harpo loves the 15-year-old Sofia Butler, a robust girl whom he hopes to marry. He asks his father why he beats Celie, and Mr.—replies, “Cause she my wife.”
Shug Avery comes to town, and when Celie sees the publicity posters, she gasps at Shug’s beauty. Mr.— goes to hear Shug sing, and returns as lovesick as ever.
When Sofia becomes pregnant, she and Harpo get married and move into the little creek house that Mr.— had used as a shed. On the advice of his father, Harpo beats Sofia to make her obey him, but Sofia fights back and bruises him.
Harpo begins to eat obsessively, and enjoys working on his house more than working in the fields. He wants Sofia to obey him, but she refuses to be his slave.
Shug Avery, the “Queen Honeybee,” becomes ill and Mr.— brings her home to look after her. When Shug lays eyes on Celie, she laughs at Celie’s ugliness, but Celie falls in love with her anyway. While giving Shug a bath, Celie trembles and thinks she has turned into a man because she is so excited by Shug’s naked body. For the first time since Nettie left, Celie has someone to love.
A couple of years pass and it is clear that Harpo and Sofia will never be happy together. Sofia’s sisters move her and the two children into the house of one of her sisters, Odessa. Six months later, Harpo builds a juke joint, and though business is slow at first, it suddenly improves when Shug agrees to “grace it with a song.”
One night, she sings a song called “Miss Celie,” and Celie is quite moved. Shug asks if Celie minds that she and Mr.— (whom she calls Albert) sleep together, and Celie is noncommittal, confessing that she finds sex with men boring.
Shug stays at Mr.—’s house for several months while she grows stronger, then leaves to go on tour. One night, Sofia (who now has six children) arrives at the juke joint with a prize fighter named Buster. After Harpo has a dance with Sofia, his new girlfriend, Squeak (whose real name is Mary Agnes), hits Sofia. Angered, Sofia hits her in the face, then leaves.
A few days later, when Sofia is in town shopping, the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie, asks Sofia to be her maid. Sofia replies, “Hell no,” and the mayor slaps her. Sofia knocks him down and the police beat her badly, then take her to jail; she is sentenced to 15 years. Her body has been badly hurt and her will power is broken.
Squeak and Harpo take turns with Odessa in looking after the children. Squeak, whose uncle is the jail warden, arranges for Sofia to be hired by the mayor as their maid, where she remains for 111⁄2 years without ever seeing her own family.
Shug returns for a visit one Christmas morning, married to a lackluster man named Grady. After Celie painfully tells Shug that she had been raped as a child, she is comforted by Shug and the two make love.
When Celie laments not hearing from her sister, Shug remembers seeing Mr.— take letters from the mailbox “with funny stamps” and realizes he has been hiding Nettie’s letters for years. Shug intercepts Nettie’s most recent letter, postmarked in Africa, in which Nettie tells Celie that she loves her, that Celie’s children are well, and that they will soon be returning to America. Later, Celie and Shug discover dozens of Nettie’s letters in Mr.—’s trunk.
Nettie’s letters reveal that when she left Celie’s house many years earlier, she was followed by Mr.—, who tried to rape her. Nettie fought him off, but Mr.— vowed that Celie would never hear from Nettie again.
She went to see the Rev.— (named Samuel), husband of Corrine (the woman Celie had seen in town), and found that they had adopted Celie’s two children, Olivia and Adam. They were on their way to Africa as missionaries, and asked Nettie to join them.
For several years the five of them have lived in Africa with the Olinka people, who worship the roofleaf plant, which is used to build the roofs of their huts. Because of Nettie’s resemblance to Olivia and Adam, Corrine had jealously believed they were Nettie’s children by Samuel.
But Samuel explained how the children had come to him: A prosperous African American store owner (Celie and Nettie’s father) had owned a successful dry-goods store that threatened some of the white businesses in town.
One night some white men lynched him and burned his store. His widow (Celie’s mother) went crazy after his death, but was later remarried (to Alphonso), taking her two children along with her. It was her second husband who brought the two infants (Celie’s) to Samuel, claiming that his “wife” could no longer care for them.
Celie and Shug go to visit Alphonso and find him living in a beautiful new house with a new wife, Daisy. He became rich after reopening Celie’s father’s store. Nettie writes that she has told Corrine that she is actually the children’s aunt. Corrine has been ill for some time, and before dying, she finally believes Nettie’s explanations.
It has been almost 12 years since Sofia went to work for the mayor’s family, and she is now on parole. Celie decides not to write to God anymore, but to Nettie instead. Shug says God is not a white man in a church who demands obedience but is an “It” who loves people who appreciate the world “It” made.
When the moment is right, Shug announces to Mr.— that she is leaving and taking Celie with her to Tennessee. When Mr.— objects, Celie finally talks back to him and insists that she will no longer tolerate his cruelty. Squeak goes with them in an effort to launch her singing career, and Sofia agrees to take care of Harpo and Squeak’s little girl, Susie O.
Before leaving, Celie curses Mr.— for keeping her and Nettie apart. Infuriated, he tells her, “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman … you nothing at all.” Celie, sure of herself, replies, “But I’m here.”
They go to Shug’s house in Memphis, and while Shug is on the road, Celie sews pants in order to work off her anger toward Mr.—. Before long, she starts a business called “Folkspants, Unlimited.” When Sofia’s mother dies, Celie returns home and finds that Mr.— has changed.
Left alone after Celie’s departure, he had fallen into a depression until Harpo’s love showed him the importance of caring for others. Harpo and Sofia are back together again, living in a new house near the juke joint. Mary Agnes (Squeak) and Grady have fallen in love, and spend most of their time smoking marijuana; soon they will leave together for Panama.
Nettie reports that she and Samuel have married, and have told Adam and Olivia about Celie. Meanwhile, Adam is worried about Tashi, an Olinka woman he loves; she wants to go through the painful face scarification process in order to show solidarity with her people, but Adam finds it barbaric.
When Alphonso dies, Celie discovers that the house and property have been left to her and Nettie by their father. Celie spends the summer there, decorating the house and sleeping in her purple bedroom.
When she returns to Memphis, she is heartbroken to discover that Shug has a 19-year-old boyfriend, Germaine. Feeling excluded, Celie returns home and nurses Sofia’s daughter, Henrietta, who has a blood disease.
One day, while still hoping that Nettie will return to America—even though World War II has begun—Celie receives a telegram saying that Nettie’s ship, headed for the U.S., has been sunk by Germans. But Celie still gets letters from Nettie and does not believe she has drowned.
In talking about their love for Shug, Celie and Mr.— finally come to like each other. Celie reads in one of Nettie’s letters that Adam, too, has undergone scarification in order to please Tashi, whom he has married.
Celie opens a clothing store just like her father’s, and hires Sofia to work there while Harpo stays home and cares for Henrietta. Eleanor Jane, the mayor’s daughter, cooks for Henrietta, and Mr.— sews shirts to go with Celie’s pants.
Shug returns, having sent her boyfriend off to college. One evening, when they are all seated on the porch after dinner, a car drives up to the house, and it is Nettie, Samuel, and the children. A tearful but joyous reunion takes place as Celie and Nettie fall into each other’s arms, having survived the years of pain and separation through the power of hope and love.
Celie Narrator: Age 14 at beginning, early 50s at end. Shy, uneducated, hardworking, authentic. At first, she is repressed, fearful; has been taught that women are objects to be used and enjoyed by men. Raped as adolescent; finds men sexually repugnant. Later, she learns independence and self-worth through love and support of Shug Avery.
Nettie: Celie’s younger sister; age 12 at beginning. Intelligent, loving, devoted to Celie. Goes to Africa as nursemaid for missionary couple; helps to raise Celie’s children.
Shug Avery: Glamorous blues singer; her name is short for “sugar.” Gutsy, sensual, independent, knows about life’s hardships. Ignores social pressures; seeks her own pleasures. Bisexual. Loves Celie and has a sexual relationship with her. At moments, has strong sense of morality: when Celie talks of killing Mr.—, Shug reminds her of the Sixth Commandment.
Alphonso (“PA”): Married to Celie’s mother. Rapes Celie; seizes control of her life. Steals property that belongs to Celie and Nettie.
Mr.—(Albert): Celie’s husband; in love with Shug. Farmer. Selfish brute; he beats Celie, treats her as a “slave.” Hides Nettie’s letters, but later shows concern for others as a result of being abandoned by Shug and Celie.
Harpo: Mr.—’s son. Essentially a good man, but the sexist values taught to him by his father prompt him to beat Sofia in order to make her “obey” him. This ruins his marriage, but his love of children shows him to have feelings of tenderness. Prefers cooking and caring for children to farming.
Sofia Butler: Marries Harpo, but leaves him when he abuses her. Independent, passionate, strong; fights back when mistreated, but suffers for it.
Themes and Ideas
At first, Celie writes letters to “God,” whom she pictures as a blue-eyed white male. But since prayers do not answer her questions, Celie concludes that God “must be sleep.” As the novel progresses, God evolves into a God that is neither male nor female, but an “It” that exists in all things – plants, animals, and people.
Shug believes “God is everything that is or ever was or ever will be.” The Olinka people worship the Roofleaf plant, which they believe protects them, and Nettie concludes, “We know a Roofleaf is not Jesus Christ, but in its own humble way, is it not God?”
After Nettie’s return, Celie writes to “Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.” As Celie’s God develops from a man to an “It,” Celie moves from confusion and fear to happiness and self-confidence.
2. Stereotyped Attitudes Toward Women
Women in the novel are constantly fighting stereotyped images of women and of social behavior expected of them by men. The men claim that women are weak, stupid, and dependent. Even the Olinka believe that women are of no value by themselves and that only to their husbands can they be worth anything.
When men force women to behave in stereotyped ways, the women feel miserable. Harpo beats Sofia to make her obey him. Alphonso prevents Celie from developing her own life. Adam orders Tashi not to have the face scarification ceremony.
Walker’s women, however, prove that men are wrong in their sexist beliefs. Shug can “talk and act sometimes like a man.” Sofia is better at “men’s work” than Harpo. Celie finally runs a successful business similar to her father’s. Walker shows that men, too, suffer when they treat women as inferiors. Harpo ruins his marriage. Mr. – ends up alone. Adam almost loses Tashi.
3. Women Helping Each Other
Women are shown to improve the quality of their lives and achieve happiness through the support of other women. Celie gains her independence through the love of Shug and Nettie. Sofia’s sisters help her assert herself when Harpo abuses her. Squeak learns to sing from Shug while Sofia takes care of her children.
When Shug announces that she and Celie intend to leave together and the men object, the women laugh in their faces. Though Harpo says it is bad luck for women to laugh at men, the women keep on laughing and at the same time accomplish their goals.
4. Black/White Relations
Walker shows that racism – whether it is directed against whites or blacks – is dangerous to society and must be overcome. Celie grows up in a racist community where whites rape black women and lynch black men (including Celie’s father). Sofia wonders why blacks haven’t killed off all the whites.
White characters in the novel are depicted as being malicious, selfish, and foolish, and some critics argue that Walker has stereotyped them, though others counter that the depiction of whites is accurate, especially as viewed through the eyes of blacks. Miss Millie, the mayor’s wife, condescends to Sofia, as if Sofia should feel privileged to be addressed by the mayor’s wife.
Later, when Sofia teaches her to drive, Miss Millie forces Sofia to sit in the backseat. An Olinka myth says that whites are the unwanted children of blacks, and that the reason whites harm blacks is that they were angry about being “throwed out.”
But Walker shows the Olinka rejection of whites to be as foolish and destructive as whites’ racism toward blacks. Her solution is for people to accept others as children of God, “no matter what they look like or how they act.” Love is shown to be the supreme redeeming force in life.
5. Learning and Changing
Walker is an optimist who infuses her novel with the spirit of teaching, learning, and challenging society’s values in order to improve the quality of life. Celie moves from ignorance and fear (“I don’t know how to fight”) to knowledge and self-respect (she becomes a strong, independent woman after Shug teaches her how to love others). Sofia helps Harpo learn that he cannot abuse women.
Mr. – learns from Celie and Shug that love is a tender emotion that will die when brutalized and that genuine concern for others is healthier than his cruel machismo. Nettie tells Tashi that the world is changing and that it is no longer a world “just for boys and men.” Without learning and teaching, there is no possibility of change, and Walker insists that people can change.
1. Powerful Depiction of Strong Female Characters
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is a testament to the strength and resilience of women. Through the novel, Walker brings to life a myriad of female characters who, despite facing unimaginable hardships, find ways to stand up for themselves and fight for their rights.
From Celie, who sacrifices herself to save her sister, to Shug Avery, who teaches Celie to stand up to her abusive husband, each character’s journey is a powerful testament to the strength of women. The novel serves as a reminder that women have always been fighters, challenging societal norms and pushing boundaries for their own betterment.
2. Tackling Complex Themes with Emotional Depth
The Color Purple is not just a story about racial inequality but also delves into themes of gender, sexuality, religion, and personal growth. Walker manages to address these complex issues with emotional depth, showing the characters grappling with their circumstances and learning from their experiences.
The novel encourages readers to look beyond the surface and consider the deeper implications of the characters’ actions. This layered approach to storytelling invites readers to reflect on their own preconceived notions and judgments while allowing them to empathize with the characters’ struggles.
3. An Engrossing and Transformative Reading Experience
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Color Purple is its ability to leave a lasting impact on its readers. Many have described the novel as a transformative experience, prompting them to reconsider their own perspectives on feminism, gender roles, and the history of oppression faced by women.
The novel’s unique narrative style, written in the form of letters, further immerses readers into the world of Celie and her loved ones, making their triumphs and tribulations feel all the more poignant. The Color Purple is a truly unforgettable read that continues to resonate with readers long after they have turned the final page.
1. Dysfunctional Relationships and Disrespect
One of the primary concerns for some readers of The Color Purple is the portrayal of dysfunctional relationships, dissatisfaction, and disrespect among the characters. With multiple instances of infidelity and complex family dynamics, it can be difficult to find any sense of stability or trust within the story.
While the novel does touch upon the resilience of certain characters, the overwhelming chaos and negativity surrounding their personal lives might leave readers feeling disheartened or disconnected from the story.
2. Unconventional Narrative Style
The Color Purple is written in a unique format, composed of Celie’s letters to God and her sister Nettie’s letters to Celie. Moreover, Celie’s use of crude language and poor grammar can be challenging for some readers to appreciate or fully comprehend.
While this narrative style serves to provide an authentic and immersive experience, it may alienate certain readers who struggle to connect with the characters and storyline due to the unconventional structure and language.
3. Graphic Content and Unexpected Themes
The novel contains several graphic scenes of sexual violence and abuse, which can be distressing for some readers. Furthermore, the exploration of lesbian relationships and other mature themes may come as a surprise to those who were not expecting such content.
Although these elements contribute to the overall narrative and character development, they might be off-putting or even offensive to some readers who are unprepared for the explicit nature of the book.
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker is a powerful, thought-provoking, and ultimately inspiring story that explores the complexities of a young girl’s life amidst a backdrop of racism, poverty, and abuse.
Though some of Walker’s other books may have been met with mixed reactions, this classic novel stands out as a testament to her ability to craft a deeply moving and transformative narrative.
Celie’s journey, as expressed through her letters, offers readers a raw and intimate glimpse into her struggle for survival and growth, making the story relatable to readers from diverse backgrounds.
With a beautifully paced story that is both dark and uplifting, “The Color Purple” is undoubtedly a must-read for those seeking an unforgettable and emotionally resonant literary experience.
Alice Walker (1944– ), born in Eatonton, Georgia. One of eight children. Her father was a sharecropper, and his mother, whom she admired deeply, worked as a maid. Walker is a feminist poet, novelist, and essayist.
Studied at Spelman College (Atlanta). Worked for voting rights in the South and as a welfare caseworker in New York. Committed to fighting racism and sexism.
Works include The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), Meridian (1976), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize (1983) and the American Book Award and was made into a movie in 1985.
Walker is a firm believer in spiritualism and psychical phenomena; she dedicated The Color Purple to “the Spirit”; at the novel’s end, in a postscript, she identifies herself as the “author and medium.” Walker is one of the most important black writers of the 20th century.
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