“The Color Purple” is a 1982 novel written by Alice Walker. The novel is told in an epistolary style, through the usage of 90 different letters written by the characters. In 1983, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. Several years later in 1985, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Steven Spielberg that was nominated for eleven Academy Awards.
The story focuses on the life of a young girl named Celie who, at the start of the novel, is living with her sexually and physically abusive father. Celie’s father marries her off to a man who is referred to as ‘Mister’ and Celie endures much of the same torture from him as she did from her father. Mister is also seeing a woman named Shug Avery who is a popular jazz singer and outspoken proponent of women’s rights.
After Celie meets Shug, she discovers that she is sexually attracted to her and the two begin a sexual relationship. Celie and Shug eventually run off together to Tennessee and Celie starts her own successful fashion business. But eventually, Celie goes back to her hometown in Georgia and discovers the life she left behind has improved somewhat. She and Mister are able to bond over their shared love of Shug and Celie inherits her father’s house.
“The Color Purple” is told through the usage of 90 different letters that span over 40 years in the early 20th century. In the opening letter, the main character, Celie is a fourteen-year-old girl who is writing a letter to God. In the letter, she outlines her father’s sexual abuse of her and how he has instructed her not to tell anyone about it. Celie’s father, Alphonso has been raping her for years, as long as her mother has been ill. Celie has already suffered one pregnancy as a result but after the baby was born her father took it away and killed it. Celie’s mother punished her for getting pregnant and demanded to know who the father was but Celie does not want to tell her about Alphonso’s abuse because he warned her that it would ‘kill her mammy’. She only tells her mother that it is God’s child. After Alphonso takes the baby away, Celie tells her mother that it was taken by God. Celie’s mother curses her as she grows more ill and dies.
After Celie’s mother dies, Celie gives birth and Alphonso does take the baby away but he does not kill it. Celie suspects that he sold it to a married couple. Celie is left to suffer the effects of childbirth on her body with no baby to care for. Celie worries that Alphonso might start raping her younger sister, Nettie after their mother’s death and she promises that she will protect her.
Soon, Alphonso brings home a new wife who is Celie’s age. Celie writes that this does not end the sexual abuse that he forces on her. One day, Alphonso beats her for winking at a boy in church although Celie confesses that she wasn’t actually winking and that she only had something in her eye. He later beats her again for dressing inappropriately. A man from church, whom Celie only refers to as Mister, soon begins to show an interest in Nettie. Mister is a widower with three children of his own. His wife was recently killed by her lover. Alphonso’s new wife also tells the girls that Mister has a lover of his own named Shug Avery. The girls see a photo of Shug who is a pretty, glamorous woman that Celie finds fascinating. Celie encourages Nettie to accept Mister’s attentions as she is concerned that their father may start sexually abusing her soon and wishes to find a way to get her out of the house. Alphonso, however, refuses to allow Mister to court Nettie and insists that she is too young to marry a man with three children.
Nettie and Alphonso’s new wife come to realize that Alphonso is sexually abusing Celie. Nettie is so disgusted when Celie confirms this that she vomits. Alphonso’s new wife begins to cry. Alphonso offers to let Mister marry Celie instead, although he allows that she is ugly and ‘spoiled twice’. Mister agrees to marry Celie instead. Celie is distraught as she does not want to get married and she wants to stay in school. Her father tells her that she is too dumb to learn anything anyway and sends her away to get married.
On the day of her wedding, Celie must care for Mister’s children. Mister’s oldest son, Harpo is twelve years old and has been emotionally disturbed since his mother died in his arms. He throws rocks at Celie and strikes her until she bleeds. Celie discovers that Mister actually has four children and not three. She spends the day caring for them and endures the curses and kicks of his daughters as she tries to comb their hair. Celie endures the consummation of the marriage while thinking about Nettie and hoping she is safe. One day, while in town, Celie sees a small girl that she feels may be her daughter, whom she named Olivia. She thinks that she child looks just like her. She speaks to the girl’s mother and offers to take her back home in Mister’s wagon. Celie asks some questions about the child and learns that her named is Pauline and that she is almost seven.
Soon, Nettie runs away from home and comes to stay with Celie and Mister. It soon becomes clear that Mister is still interested in Nettie and she tells Celie that he has been making advances toward her and paying her compliments. Nettie rejects Mister and he decides to kick her out. Celie cannot stop him but she tells Nettie to go into town and find Pauline’s parents, the Reverend and his wife and ask to stay with them. Celie reassures her sister that she will be okay but reveals in the letter’s that she never hears from her again.
Two of Mister’s sisters, Kate and Carrie come to visit and are very kind to Celie. They tell her that Mister’s previous wife, Annie Julia was a terrible housekeeper and a bad mother but tell Celie that she is doing a great job. They tell her that Mister used to run away with Shug Avery for days at a time and leave his wife. Kate reprimands her brother for not buying Celie any new clothes and Mister seems to be surprised to learn that his wife has any needs at all. However, he acquiesces and allows Kate to take Celie shopping. While Kate and Celie are shopping they discuss what color Shug Avery would wear and Celie suggests purple because she thinks of Shug Avery as something of a queen. Later, when Kate leaves she instructs Celie to fight Mister whenever she feels that she is being wronged. But Celie wonders what good fighting him would do.
Shug Avery comes back to town to sing at a local bar and Celie longs to go see her but Mister is the only member of the family who ever sees Shug. Mister spends the weekend with Shug and when he returns home Celie must resist the urge to pepper him with questions about the mysterious woman. Mister’s oldest son, Harpo confesses to Celie that he has fallen in love with a local girl named Sophia but that Sophie’s parents will not allow him to court her because of the scandal in his family. However, Sophie soon becomes pregnant and marriage between she and Harpo is inevitable.
Celie comes to admire Sophia’s spunky attitude and the unflinching way that she stands up to both Harpo and Mister. Celie begins helping the new couple repair an old shack on Mister’s land so that they may live in it. Harpo quickly becomes fed up with his new wife’s vivacious spirit and asks his father and Celie how he should go about getting her to behave. Mister tells his son to beat his wife and Celie agrees out of habit. It is only later that Celie regrets advising Harpo to beat Sophia and wonders if she has sinned against Sophia’s spirit. Celie can’t stop thinking about this and begins to have trouble sleeping. Harpo’s attempts to discipline his wife with corporal punishment do not go as planned and she ends up hurting him more than he hurts her. When Sophia discovers that Celie was the one that advised Harpo to beat her she confronts her and Celie admits that she is jealous of the way Sophia stands up to her husband. Sophia begins to feel sorry for Celie and the two become friends again. This relieves Celie’s guilt and she begins sleeping again.
Soon, Shug Avery becomes sick and is suspected around town that her illness is the result of a sexually transmitted disease. This scandal causes the town to turn on her and her mother and father refuse to take her in and care for her. Mister brings a weak, undernourished Shug back to his house. Though she is weak, Shug is still sarcastic and caustic. Her first words upon meeting Celie are: “You sure is ugly”. However, this acquaintance with Shug’s actual personality does not sour Celie on her obsession with the woman but, in fact, only makes it stronger.
Celie grows more and more infatuated with the woman until she eventually sees Shug naked for the first time and admits in her letters that she feels sexually attracted to her. As Shug’s condition improves, she and Celie begin to become friends. Celie sees the relationship between Shug and Mister for the first time and learns that the woman not only calls him by his first name: Albert but also treats him in an adversarial, strong way.
Harpo confesses that he has been attempting to build muscle and fat in order to get as big as his wife so that he may beat her into submission. This time, however, Celie advises him not to beat his wife and not to base his marriage off of the loveless one between herself and his father. However, Sophia and Harpo’s marriage becomes further strained and she eventually leaves to live with her sister, taking their child with her.
This upsets Harpo and Celie sees him secretly crying.
Shug recovers so much that she begins readying herself to leave. This upsets Celie as she has grown close to Shug and feels that she loves her. Celie confesses to Shug that Mister beats her when she is not around and admits that she feels that he treats her this was because she is not Shug. Shug agrees to stay until she knows for sure that Mister will no longer beat Celie. Shug begins trying to bring Celie and gets her to talk about sex for the first time. Celie admits that she does not enjoy sex and usually pretends that she is somewhere else when she is forced to have sex with Mister. Shug gives Celie the idea to look at her own sexual organs for the first time in a mirror. Celie admits that she is glad that she did this because she has fully seen herself now.
Sophia is soon seen in town with a new boyfriend. She is seen dancing with Harpo by Harpo’s new girlfriend, Squeak and she attempts to punch Sophia but is badly hurt by the other girl instead. However, Sophia’s independent spirit soon gets her in trouble with the law when she is asked to be a maid in the mayor’s house and refuses, curtly. The mayor slaps Sophia across the face for her insolence and she knocks him down, landing herself in jail. Celie visits Sophia in jail and finds her badly beaten and bruised.
Back home, the family decides that they have to do something to get Sophia out of jail. Squeak admits that she is the niece of the white prison warden and the others dress her up nicely so that she can go speak to him and plead Sophia’s case. However, instead of releasing Sophia the warden brutally rapes Squeak and she returns home covered in blood and limping. Sophia is sentenced to work as a maid for the mayor’s wife and Squeak decides to help her, requesting that she be referred to by her real name, Mary Agnes.
Shug announces to the family that she has a big surprise. She has married a man named Grady. Both Mister and Celie immediately dislike Grady and feel desolate that Shug has married someone else. Shug’s singing career has also grown until she has become somewhat famous. She asks Celie if her sex life has gotten any better. Celie tells her that it hasn’t. Shug sleeps in Celie’s bed that night and the two begin talking. Celie confesses her life story to Shug for the first time. She eventually begins crying and Shug kisses her which turns to them having sex.
Celie discovers with Shug’s help that Mister has been hiding letters that Celie has been receiving from Nettie. Shug helps Celie find the letters and read them. Nettie reveals in the letters that years before, when she first left Celie’s house, Mister followed her and tried to rape her. When she managed to get away he yelled after her that she would never see Celie again. Nettie went to live with the Reverend and his wife who is named Corrine. Eventually, they traveled to Africa to do missionary work. Nettie learned that the couple’s two children, Pauline (whom they call ‘Olivia’) and Adam are indeed Celie’s children that her father gave away.
Celie becomes overwhelmed with rage that Mister would hide her sister’s letters from her and remains oblivious to Shug’s attempts to calm her. She feels for the first time like she is not afraid of Mister and decides to leave him when Nettie returns to the United States. Through reading Nettie’s letters, Celie discovers via a conversation that Nettie had with the Reverend that Alphonso is not her natural father and that her mother had remarried after Nettie was born. It is through the Reverend’s relationship with Alphonso that he became the choice for adopting Celie’s two children but he says that he was told they were Alphonso’s wife’s children. At this point in the novel, Celie is so overwhelmed to learn that her father is not who she thought he was that she stops writing her letters to God and begins writing to Nettie instead.
Shug makes the decision to move to Tennessee and asks that Celie comes with her. Celie agrees but wants to go and see Alphonso before she leaves. When they go to Alphonso’s house they find that he has built a new house and remarried and 15-year-old girl named Daisy. Alphonso admits to Celie that he was her stepfather and that her real father was lynched. Celie and Shug then go to the local cemetery but are not able to find her father’s grave. Shug comforts Celie by telling her: “Us each other’s people now” and kissing her.
Nettie confesses to the Reverend and his wife that she is the children’s aunt but Corrine, having been suspicious that Nettie was sleeping with the Reverend does not believe her at first. Nettie eventually convinces her and reminds her of the day that she met Celie. Corrine dies of an illness shortly after this. Celie admits to Shug that she no longer writes to God and Shug attempts to get her to re-imagine God as something different than an old white man.
Meanwhile, after eleven years, Sophia’s servitude to the mayor finally ends and she is released. However, she does not know where to go and discovers that the children she had to give up are now all married and moved away. Harpo and Squeak have since married and now have a daughter of their own.
One night, with everyone visiting, Shug announces to Mister that she and her husband are taking Celie to Tennessee. Celie finally gets angry and tells Mister to his face that he has mistreated her for years and that he needs to make amends. The other’s are all shocked by Celie’s outburst except Squeak who announces that she is going with them to Tennessee.
In Tennessee, Celie begins sewing and eventually starts her own business with Shug’s help. Sophia’s mother dies and Celie returns to Georgia to attend the funeral. She finds that Mister is very much changed and now works hard and cleans his own house. She learns that he became sick after she left and Harpo was the one who nursed him back to health. Sophia and Harpo have resumed their marriage.
Alphonso has died and Celie has inherited his land and home. She moves into the home. Nettie and the Reverend have married and are returning to the United States. However, Adam has fallen in love with an African girl and married her. Celie finds out that Shug is considering having an affair with a much younger man and is hurt. She realizes that Mister is the only one who knows the pain of Shug’s rejection since she cheated on him, too. Celie realizes that she no longer hates Mister because Shug loved him.
Nettie returns to the United States and she and her family arrive at Celie’s house unannounced with Adam’s new wife. The homecoming is very emotional and Celie and Nettie are particularly speechless. Though Celie feels old because her children are fully grown she realizes that this is also the youngest she has ever felt.
Celie – the main character of the novel. The story spans Celie’s life from the age of 14 to 44. Celie starts out the novel as a young girl who is enduring sexual and physical abuse from her father. Since her father tells her that the only person she is allowed to tell about the abuse is God, Celie begins writing letters to God asking him why her life is this way.
Throughout the novel, Celie’s belief in God is shaken by the events of her life and at one point she seems to give up on it entirely. Toward the end of the novel, after enduring rape and abuse not only from her father but from her husband as well, Celie begins addressing her letters to her sister, Nettie instead.
However, at the end of the novel, Celie seems to have reaffirmed her faith, partly due to Shug Avery’s influence in requesting that she stop viewing God as a man and start viewing him in a more abstract sense. Celie’s last letter is addressed to: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.” Apart from just learning about her religious beliefs, Celie has learned much about herself and her place in the world. She goes from a scared, abused child to an affirmed, powerful woman who is no longer afraid of her sexuality.
Mister – Celie’s husband. Mister’s real first name is Albert although his last name is never revealed.
Mister is a divisive character. The antagonist for most of the book, Mister is still shown to have a more vulnerable side in his dealings with Shug Avery. He not only endures her dating and marrying another man but allows her to tell him what to do and seems to be genuinely in love with her. In this way, he has the same motivations as Celie and it is through their mutual love of Shug Avery that the two eventually bond and are able to become friends. However, in his dealings with everyone else, and particularly Celie Mister is a heinous tyrant who insists on getting his own way and does not view women as equals or, for that matter, even people.
Shug Avery – a jazz singer who becomes well known over the course of the book. Shug is Mister’s mistress and Celie’s first love. Shug seems to be somewhat of a force of nature throughout the novel, causing Celie to realize that she is attracted to women and causing the normally argumentative Mister to bend to her will. Shug is also portrayed as somewhat of a wise woman who always has the right advice to give Celie in any situation. Regardless, Shug is a confident woman who is very sure of herself and ahead of her time as far as knowing her own sexuality. Celie seems to worship her for this as well as love her.
Shug can be mean, and comments on Celie’s beauty negatively the first time she meets her. She can also be selfish in the way she deals with her sexual affairs. But Shug’s, purple dress is the namesake for the book and she seems to bring color to the lives of everyone around her.
Nettie – Celie’s younger sister. In the beginning of the novel, Celie confesses that she often protect Nettie in any way she can from their father and Nettie is said to still be in school after Celie was forced to leave due to pregnancy. Nettie enjoys education and stays in school for as long as she can. Nettie escapes her first home when she discovers that her father may be planning to be sexually abusing her in the same way that he did Celie.
After she is forced to leave Mister’s house, Nettie bravely makes a life for herself living with the Reverend and his wife and eventually travels to Africa with them to do missionary work. Nettie seems to take it upon herself to look after Celie’s children while she is with the Reverend and becomes somewhat of a second mother for them. Although Celie and Nettie had not seen each other for years at that point, Nettie writes to Celie religiously and does not get discouraged when she doesn’t get an answer.
Alphonso – Celie and Nettie’s father. Toward the end of the book the girls – now women – discover that Alphonso was actually their mother’s second husband and that he is not their biological father. Alphonso, like Mister, is a selfish, controlling heinous man who regularly rapes Celie. Alphonso seems to be a pedophile as he not only takes advantage of Celie but later marries two teenage girls. When Alphonso is confronted by Celie at the end of the novel he only says: “Now you know”. He dies before the end of the novel.
Alice Walker Biography
Alice Walker was born in Putnam County, Georgia on February 9th, 1944. One of eight children, Walker was the daughter of a sharecropper and a maid. Growing up in the southern U.S. in the mid-20th century, Walker was subject to racial inequality and struggled to be allowed to stay in school. Walker’s mother, Minnie Lou enrolled her in school early and fought every day to make sure that she got to stay.
Walker began writing when she was only eight years old but kept her stories private for fear of ridicule from her family. That same year, Walker was wounded when her brother shot her in the eye with a BB gun. She became permanently blinded in the eye. Regardless of her injury, Walker became very popular in school and attended Spelman College in Atlanta in 1961. Walker became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and was involved in the 1963 March on Washington.
In 1967, she married Melvyn Roseman Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer and the two became the first legally married interracial couple to live in Mississippi. They had a daughter named Rebecca in 1969 but later divorced.
In 1970, Walker’s first novel “The Third Life of Grange Copeland’ was published. In the mid-1970’s, Walker joined the editorial division of Ms. Magazine and was one of the leading scholars who helped to revive interest in the late African-American author Zora Neale Hurston. Walker and fellow Hurston lover Charlotte D. Hunt were responsible for discovering Hurston’s unmarked grave site in Florida and arranging for a new headstone.
Walker’s second novel, “Meridian” was published in 1976 and dealt with the effects of the Civil Rights Movement on activists in the south. “The Color Purple”, Walker’s most well-known work, was published in 1982 and a movie of the same name was made in 1985. The movie went on to be nominated for eleven Academy Awards.
Walker published several more novels, as well as a sequel to “The Color Purple” called “Possessing the Secret of Joy” but none were as well-received. Walker has also published several short story collections and poetry and released new novels as recently as 2013. Walker’s writing focus heavily on themes of sexism and racism and specifically on the lives of black women in America.