Summary of the Novel
The novel focuses upon the growth and development of a girl named Celie. Raped at 14 by her own father and then forced into a marriage with a cruel older man, Celie learns to be quiet and submissive. The person she cares most about, her sister Nettie, is forced out of her own home and kicked out of Celie’s home by her husband, Mr.____. Mr.____ had married Celie so that she could take care of his children and work for him, since he is already in love with Shug Avery.
When Shug Avery falls ill, Mr.____ keeps her at his home. Thanks to Celie’s care, Shug is able to recover and the two women begin a friendship. Over time, Celie learns to stand up for herself and gain self-respect. Celie also learns how to love, as the two women become lovers as well as friends. Shug promises Celie that she will stay and protect her from the abuse of Mr.____.
Nettie, meanwhile, finds refuge at the home of Samuel, the local reverend, and his wife, Corrine. Corrine and Samuel have two adopted children, Adam and Olivia. Celie is actually the mother of these children; they were taken from her by her father before she married Mr.____. Eventually the entire family, including Nettie, is sent to Africa for work as missionaries. They attempt to teach African children about Christianity. Nettie becomes involved in the struggle to educate a young African girl, Tashi, despite the wishes of her father, who believes that women should follow the custom of striving to become good wives. Nettie also enters a conflict with Corrine, who believes that Adam and Olivia are the result of an affair Nettie had with Samuel. Corrine is convinced that this is what happened because the children resemble Nettie so closely.
Nettie finally tells Samuel and Corrine that Celie is the children’s original mother, but by now Corrine doesn’t believe anything she says. When Corrine falls ill with a fever and comes close to death, Nettie becomes more desperate to make her believe the truth. Finally, Corrine remembers an early meeting that she had with Celie and dies understanding that Nettie had never had a relationship with Samuel. As the years pass, however, Nettie and Samuel fall in love and marry. Eventually, the missionaries are unable to save the Olinka tribe, whose land has been taken by developers. They plan to return to America and rescue Celie from her unhappy marriage. Nettie chronicles her adventures in Africa by writing letters to Celie twice a year. These letters, however, are taken by Mr.____ and hidden from Celie, who believes her sister is gone forever.
When Celie, with Shug’s help, finds out that Mr.____ has been hiding these letters, she makes a stand and leaves Mr.____’s house. She learns how to live life on her own and how to take care of others, all the while waiting for Nettie. After her departure from Mr.____’s farm, Mr.____ and his son Harpo learn to be kinder to each other and to others. Celie enjoys a life of independence and eventually accepts and reconciles with the people who have treated her cruelly. The climax of the novel occurs when Nettie returns with Samuel, Olivia, Adam and Tashi, who has married Adam. After a tearful reunion, Celie, after all her suffering, is the happiest she has ever felt in her life.
The unique structure of the novel should be noted. Walker uses first-person narration, that is, the action of the novel is written through the eyes of the character Celie.
Celie’s narration takes place in the form of letters, first to God, then to her sister Nettie. Nettie’s adventures are told through her point of view, through letters written to Celie. Therefore, the plot of the text is actually two separate stories, loosely connected through Celie’s relationship with Nettie. Celie and Nettie comment on their shared experiences, such as Celie’s relationship with Mr.____ and the discovery of Celie’s children, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps left by only one perspective in narration.
The Life and Work of Alice Walker
Alice Walker is one of the most famous and beloved writers of our time, and this is largely due to the novel The Color Purple. Born on February 9, 1944, Walker was the youngest of eight children and the daughter of sharecroppers. She was always a precocious child, but after being blinded in one eye at age eight in an accident with a BB gun, Walker became more insecure and withdrawn. Walker has always given credit to her mother for encouraging her to make something of herself; her father and four of her five brothers failed to give her a positive male role model. She was especially influenced by her father’s brutality, which served as a model for Mr.____ in The Color Purple. She reconciled her feelings with her father once she understood the difficult life he had led and the abuse that he himself experienced (his mother was murdered coming out of church).
Walker entered Spelman College on a scholarship in 1961. Although Spelman was a mainstream college with a moderate point of view, Walker took part in civil rights demonstrations. In 1964, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College. It was during this time that she would suffer a personal crisis that would deeply affect her life. After a trip to Africa, Walker returned to America pregnant, which isolated her from her family and threw her into a deep depression. Even though her father had expected his sons to experiment with sex, he had warned his daughters not to become pregnant. (Winchell, 28). Walker contemplated suicide, and even slept with a razor blade under her pillow, but “...a friend saved her life by giving her the phone number of an abortionist” (Winchell, 9). She recorded her experiences during this phase of her life in a book of poems, which became her first published collection.
Walker became a literary scholar after her graduation, but her work was impeded by “the blind spot” that she felt was in the education that she had received. Walker was fascinated by female writers such as Flannery O’Connor but eventually became frustrated by the lack of black women writers in the curriculum of colleges. Even when she did find black writers being taught, only prominent male writers such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes were ever discussed. Walker eventually “discovered” the works of Zora Neale Hurston, a writer in the mid-twentieth century whose apolitical work was shunned in favor of authors such as Wright. Hurston became the biggest influence on her literary career and life. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston works and is largely responsible for her posthumous popularity. Hurston is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has become a classic in twentieth century American literature.
Like Hurston, Alice Walker’s lifestyle has been controversial and chaotic. She married the white civil rights attorney Melvyn Leventhal in 1968 but divorced in 1976. Unlike Hurston, Walker has been fiercely political; she has been a prominent lesbian and feminist, and her political views have been made the focus of her novels. Her first novels, The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian, both dealt with violence towards black women by black males. The Color Purple also shared many of these themes. Possessing the Secret of Joy was a 1992 novel that dealt with female circumcision, which is used in some African rituals. Critics of Walker have stated that she has portrayed black men as cruel in her works, which has sustained stereotypes of black male violence.
The Color Purple was Walker’s third novel, written in 1982. Her novel received the Pulitzer Prize for literature and an American Book Award. A film was made in 1985, which was critically acclaimed despite the fact that the screenplay departs dramatically from the novel. The most obvious differences are the exclusion of Nettie as a central character, and the almost complete removal of the subplot of Nettie, Corrine, and Samuel in Africa. The lesbian relationship between Shug and Celie is toned down as well, although the violence towards Celie seems as chilling in the movie as it is in the novel. The movie went on to receive 11 Academy Award nominations. In addition to her other novels, two of which, The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy, form a loose trilogy with The Color Purple, Walker has published two collections of short stories, poems, and political essays.
For more information on Alice Walker and her works, read the excellent biography by Donna Haisley Winchell (1992). Two other recommended books concerning black female writers are The Common Bond, a collection of essays edited by Lillie P. Howard, and Black Women Novelists, by Barbara Christian.
Estimated Reading Time
The 295-page novel is divided into 90 “letters,” most of which are between one and two pages long. For the sake of convenience, the study guide is broken into 21 sections, based upon logical pauses in the action of the novel. Readers should be able to complete the novel in 10-12 hours.