Study Guide

The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

The Color Purple Analysis

The Color Purple (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

Written in the form of a series of letters, Alice Walker’s novel portrays the transformation of an African American woman from a physically and psychologically abused person to what Walker has elsewhere called a “womanist”—a strong and independent person who re-creates herself out of the legacy of her maternal ancestors. Under her friend Shug’s influence, Celie matures into a person courageous enough to challenge the traditional social values that have kept her down. The book has been criticized for its realistic depictions of domestic violence, incestuous and homosexual relationships, and its ostensibly irreligious themes. Many schools and libraries have banned the book.

In 1986 the book was filmed by Steven Spielberg with Walker serving as a consultant. Although the film earned eleven Academy Award nominations, it won no Oscars—possibly because of the strong criticism it had received from prominent African Americans. Several critics, including authors Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson, complained that both the novel and the film did harm by helping to perpetuate negative stereotypes of African American men. They suggested that Walker should focus her work on intercultural rather than intracultural conflicts. Other critics also argued that the film’s glossy Hollywood production values betrayed Walker’s original thematic intention.

Bibliography

Banks, Erma Davis, and Keith Byerman. Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968–1986. New York: Garland, 1989. A thorough catalog of writings by and about Walker, this bibliography includes numerous book and poetry reviews. An introductory essay provides an overview of Walker’s life and her literary contributions.

Buncombe, Marie H. “Androgyny as Metaphor in Alice Walker’s Novels.” College Language Association Journal 30, no. 4 (June, 1987): 419-427. Offers a helpful look at the treatment of sex roles in The Color Purple in comparison to Walker’s other novels.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Insightful comparative study of the relationship between narrative technique and politics in three African American women writers. Bibliography.

Christian, Barbara. “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward.” In Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1983. Examines thematic patterns in Walker’s work. Points out issues inherent in the role of the black female artist, such as the need for conflict leading to change.

Christophe, Marc-A. “The Color Purple: An Existential Novel.” CLA Journal 36, no. 3 (March, 1993): 280-291.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Focuses on themes and patterns apparent in Walker’s work, from her poetry through The Color Purple. Shows Walker’s need to resolve her intellectualism with her rural roots.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1984. Three excellent essays on the novels of Alice Walker. Includes a biography and selected bibliography. Discusses Walker’s work in the context of African American women’s writing.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. The most comprehensive and well-written collection of essays on Walker. Contains reviews, essays, and interviews. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Harris, Trudier. “From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Studies in American Fiction 14 (Spring, 1986): 1-17. Focuses on the movement from domination to liberation in Walker’s female characters.

Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. Discusses Walker’s fiction as an attempt to create an opposing view to the dominant stories of culture. Analyzes her relationship to language and her relationship to narrative tradition.

Iannone, Carol. “A Turning of the Critical Tide?” Commentary 88 (November, 1989): 57–59. Discusses the political dimension of Walker’s fiction. Claiming that Walker writes from a militant, feminist standpoint, Iannone contends that praise for The Color Purple results from “literary affirmative action.” Ironically, Iannone notes, the down-and-out characters in Walker’s work move toward more conventional, middle-class life-styles.

Marvin, Thomas F. “Preachin’ the Blues: Bessie Smith’s Secular Religion and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 411-422.

Parker-Smith, Bettye J. “Alice Walker’s Women: In Search of Some Peace of Mind.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 1983. Celie affirms herself and finds the strength that she needs by discovering that God is within, that God is herself.

Proudfit, Charles L. “Celie’s Search for Identity: A Psychoanalytic Developmental Reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (Spring, 1991): 12-37. Proudfit offers a good example of a psychoanalytic approach to the development of Celie’s self-concept.

Taylor, Carole Anne. “Humor, Subjectivity, Resistance: The Case of Laughter in The Color Purple.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 462-483.

Towers, Robert. “Good Men Are Hard to Find.” The New York Review of Books, August 12, 1982, 35–36. This often-quoted review points out major flaws in The Color Purple, including the book’s contrived and overly dramatic plotting. Towers, however, concludes that the poetry of Celie’s language transcends the novel’s imperfections.

Tavormina, M. Teresa. “Dressing the Spirit: Clothworking and Language in The Color Purple.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 3 (Fall, 1986): 220-230. A study of language in relationship to sewing and quilting as they relate to the development of the self.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1983.

Walker, Alice. Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-87. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. These essays provide an opportunity to get to know Alice Walker as a person. The earlier volume provides numerous insights into the writing of The Color Purple, the latter on Walker’s reactions to its reception.

Watkins, Mel. “Some Letters Went to God.” The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1982, 7. Comprehensive review of The Color Purple consisting of analysis of theme and technique. Author notes the weakness of Nettie’s stiff voice, yet praises the effective implementation of epistolary style.

Willimon, William H. “Seeing Red over the Color Purple.” Christian Century 103 (April 2, 1986): 319. Highly negative review of the film and novel versions of The Color Purple. Author considers the characters stereotypical, dishonest portrayals of black Americans.

The Color Purple Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Pa’s home

Pa’s home. Rural Georgia home in which Celie and Nettie live together as young sisters. This place serves as a frame for the novel, which begins and culminates in this small, frame house. Despite the severe psychological and physical abuse to which the girls are subjected in this place, the home is where their formative bonding occurs. Although the girls are treated like slaves in their own home, this place of origin endures throughout the novel as a constant reminder of their only identification as family and the primary source of motivation for a desperately hoped for reconciliation.

The culmination of the novel is directly linked to this place. At the end of the novel, Celie takes possession of the home. The significance of this act is threefold. First, it serves as a validation of her hard-won independence. The house becomes a place in which she makes the important decisions concerning upkeep. After this change occurs, the home becomes prosperous and its inhabitants are at peace, in contrast to Celie’s early years in the home under male leadership. The house also serves as a reward for the faithful endurance of the sisters. Their long suffering results in a happy reunion in the place of their childhood trauma. Finally, the place is a symbol of transformation. Its inhabitants are emotionally transformed into vibrant characters, symbolized by the house’s physical and structural reconstruction.

Mr. _____’s house

Mr. _____’s house. Celie’s home after she marries the unnamed Mr. _____. Representing the nadir of her existence, this house becomes her descent into hell, though the hellishness of the place is masked by its outward appearance within a social context that prohibits a woman from rising to the level of her abusive husband. What goes on behind closed doors in this home is protected by the sham of traditionally accepted behavioral norms and social custom. Within this house, Celie is continuously mistreated by Mr. _____, the ultimate insult coming when he brings his ailing mistress, Shug Avery, into the home and Celie is expected to care for her. In her marriage home, as in her childhood home, Celie has no control over her destiny and receives no more affirmation as a person than a slave might have.

*Memphis

*Memphis. Tennessee city famous for its night life, where Shug Avery, a singer and performer, makes her home. In Memphis, Celie lives with Shug in relative luxury, enjoying the amenities of Shug’s healthy income. Celie learns a trade, and with Shug’s support and economic sense, eventually makes great strides toward becoming financially successful as the owner and manager of her fashion business. Celie’s tenure in Memphis is important because it is the first time in her life that she is free from the bondage of abusive men. For the first time, Celie becomes aware of her options and begins to see herself as a valuable human being.

Olinka village

Olinka village. West African village where Celie’s two children are raised by Nettie and the place where Nettie spends most of her life separated from her beloved sister. The primitivism of this jungle place contrasts with the modernization of America, but more important, despite the obvious contrast, this place is used to parallel the journeys of Celie and Nettie. In both places, the ramifications of female subjection to men are indicated. This village also serves to presuppose the limitations of paganism, apparently contrasting with the Christian background and home of Nettie. However, the reality suggested by the author is that American Christianity, when reinforcing traditional relationships that obscure abuse and prevent female ascension and equality, is suspect.

Harpo’s home

Harpo’s home. Another ordinary home in the impoverished rural southern setting of this novel, and a place in which female retaliation to physical abuse occurs. Like his father, Harpo abuses his wife; however, Sophia fights back before eventually leaving him. Her action contrasts with Celie’s endurance of mistreatment. Left alone, Harpo transforms his home into a juke joint. Shug later sings there, and Squeak also begins her singing career at this place, so this is one place where a woman can be celebrated, provided she is talented and attractive. In contrast to the abusive family relations, the juke joint becomes a place where men in the community gather to celebrate their existence; however, their celebrations are little more than masks to cover the serious mistreatment of women.

Miss Millie’s home

Miss Millie’s home. Home of the white mayor and wife, where Sophia finds herself unjustly sentenced to twelve years of maid service for refusing to cower to Miss Millie. This home serves to remind readers of another layer, beyond the home, in a social nexus that encumbers a black woman seeking validation and independence. Readers see the awful price of racism that Sophia endures because she has sufficient dignity to stand her ground, but her stance contrasts with Celie’s tranquil endurance.

Samuel’s home

Samuel’s home. Home of a local minister, who will become a missionary to Africa, which becomes Nettie’s home when the girls are separated. It is the closest thing to a positive traditional view of domesticity in the novel. However, even this home, despite its overt piety and compassionate motives, reinforces female subjection.

The Color Purple (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

ph_0111201288-Walker.jpgAlice Walker Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Alice Walker’s latest fiction is a marvel of words, rhythms, cadences; a singing of faith in the strength and survival skills of black women; a testament to sisterhood; a tribute to a belief in humanity and a supreme being; an optimistic affirmation that people such as Celie will not merely survive, or “endure,” like William Faulkner’s Dilsey: they will joyfully prevail.

In structure, imagery, and theme, this novel speaks universals by narrating the richness and complexity of the lives of a community of black people—especially the women of that community—in the rural South in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Yes, there are differences—black/white, male/female, educated/ uneducated, traditional African/American—and the novel does not gloss over those differences or belittle their importance in history and culture. The tone of the book at times is bitter about the experience of black people, in this country and in colonial Africa, but, as in all good fiction, the specificity of one woman’s experience helps the reader to recognize commonalities—in being female, in being human—and is ultimately an affirmation of life.

The narrative form Alice Walker chooses gives this novel its special flavor, brings together the disparate plot elements, and augments the main themes. Unlike most epistolary novels, which have the effect of distancing the reader from the events mediated by the letter-writer, The Color Purple uses the letter form to bring the reader into absolute intimacy with the main character—poor, ugly, uneducated Celie, who, for more than two decades, reveals the horrors, drudgeries, and ecstasies of her life in rural Georgia. There is no authorial voice to intrude between Celie and the reader, and Celie’s voice itself in her letters—in its lyrical, rhythmic black folk idiom—speaks in a continuous present. Speakers of black English often omit endings for past tense, third person singular present, and possessives; the same verb form is used for all tenses and persons. Celie’s distinctive language draws the reader into the experience, allowing no distance between narrator and reader. This sense of intimacy is further enhanced by the fact that Celie writes all the letters of the first part of the novel to God, the only one she dares tell the horrors of her adolescent years: being repeatedly raped by the man she believes to be her father; of the two children, born to her before she is sixteen, given away by the same man; of being married off to a widower (who beats her unmercifully) with four unruly children; of her beloved sister, whom she helps escape from the lecherous eyes of this same husband, now believed dead or lost.

It is years after Nettie’s disappearance when Celie receives a letter from her, and she then discovers that her husband, Mr.——, has been hiding Nettie’s faithful and regular missives. The voice in the book has been Celie’s so long that the reader is caught up short with a new narrator who speaks standard English (Celie’s letters constitute more than half of the book). It is only after this point that Celie begins writing her letters to Nettie; this change corresponds with her growing disillusionment with God. The concluding letter again begins “Dear God.” Now, reunited with her sister and children, reconciled with her husband and with her lover Shug, clear about her past and hopeful about her future, her faith restored in a God who is no longer a white man with blue eyes and white flowing hair but instead is a powerful, wonder-creating concept, she writes her final letter. It is more of a thankful prayer than a confession or supplication: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

The letters from Nettie provide important thematic parallels between the traditional Olinka society in West Africa (where Nettie and a black couple are Christian missionaries) and traditional black society in America. Three parallels are evident: the treatment of women (women in Olinka society are valued only in relation to men, as wives or mothers; Nettie, as a single woman, has no value); the ultimate helplessness of a traditional society in the face of colonial capitalist expansion (the Olinka land is literally destroyed to build a British rubber plantation); and, the failure of Christianity to meet the real needs of the people (the missionaries are powerless to stop the destruction of the society as the land is denuded of the essential roofleaf tree). Nettie’s letters also provide essential plot information—Celie discovers that her real father had been lynched and thus that her children were not the result of incest—and they help in Celie’s growth toward self-assertion and redemption. Still, the African letters are the weakest part of the book because the tone, not mitigated by the rhythmic cadences of Celie’s voice, becomes preachy. The reader never identifies with the African characters in the way that he does in other fictional works portraying the breakup of traditional African society with the coming of the white man, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). More important, the African subplot is not satisfactorily resolved in the novel. When the missionaries leave Africa to return to America, taking with them the wife of Celie’s son Adam, the Olinka problems are simply dropped. The rounded fulfillment of Celie’s life in the novel does not include the rest of the world. Facial scarification and clitoridectomy continue among the Olinka in a vain attempt to maintain a dying culture while the economic base of the society has been completely destroyed. Perhaps Walker leaves this thread untied to suggest the magnitude of the problems of developing nations, but in terms of the masterful plotting and structure of the novel, the omission is a defect.

The twin themes of the novel are those of redemptive love as a means of survival as well as an end in itself, and the beauty and necessity of female-bonding. Celie’s survival strengths are her forgiving spirit and her ability to tell herself not to feel—when she has to. Other women in the book are more assertive but are also punished more for it. Sofia, for example, is nearly killed for sassing a white woman. It is Celie, survivor, who is the binder of wounds, the healer, the necessary ingredient in redemption. It is Celie who goes to the battered Sofia in jail, Celie who nurses Shug Avery back to health, Celie who helps Nettie get away, Celie who tames Mr.——’s children. Nevertheless, Celie learns from Shug and Sofia’s fighting spirit; she finally tells Mr.——to get out and has to be restrained from killing him when she discovers he has kept Nettie’s letters from her. “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.” The reader wants to cheer—and Celie’s family are all so surprised they “ain’t chewed for ten minutes.” Helped to a first sexual awakening by Shug Avery (her husband’s mistress), Celie begins to become her own person, asserting her individuality through her love of color (purple) and her sewing ability. Always sewing for others—curtains, dresses, quilts—she begins to branch out creatively and ultimately opens her own business, Folkpants Unlimited, when she goes off to Memphis with Shug. Celie’s pants, each pair carefully fitted and designed for the individual customer, are comfortable, beautiful, unrestraining. For male or female, her pants become the symbol of the redemptive love of the book. Celie dreams while sewing pants for Jack, Odessa’s helpful and loving husband:They have to be camel. And soft and strong. And they have to have big pockets so he can keep a lot of children’s things. Marbles and string and pennies and rocks. And they have to be washable and they have to fit closer round the leg than Shug’s so he can run if he need to snatch a child out of the way of something. And they have to be something he can lay back in when he hold Odessa in front of the fire. . . .

All the strong characters in the book are women, and it is the women who are the catalysts for positive growth and change. Shug Avery’s love for Celie persuades Mr.——to stop beating Celie; Celie’s assertiveness and anger mellow Mr.——(by the end the two sit on the porch, companionably smoking pipes and sewing together, talking about their good times with Shug). Squeak, Sofia’s husband’s mistress, saves Sofia from prison death by allowing herself to be raped by the white prison warden—and then asserts her own individuality, becoming “Mary Agnes” and beginning to sing for a living. Even the white mayor’s family is partially redeemed as Miss Eleanor Jane cooks special food for Sofia’s sickly daughter. This female-bonding is essential in the book; it is the source of strength across class, age, and sometimes even racial lines. The women in The Color Purple are “sisters” even if they both love the same man. There is evidence throughout the novel that degrading treatment of women is not limited to a particular group or race; in one telling incident, black and white men join in mocking the nature of women. It is the women who plan Sofia’s release, using the strategy and tactics of Br’er Rabbit, saying that the worst punishment for Sofia would be making her work for a white woman, that her life in prison was too soft; the men had suggested only useless violence—blowing up the jail. Neither living in traditional African society nor living in dominant white society makes the woman’s situation any better, suggests The Color Purple. Women helping women is what is necessary for survival.

Both black and white critics have faulted Walker’s portrayal of males, but this charge is open to dispute. The main male characters are full, rounded people, and not totally unsympathetic (except for Mr.——, whose conversion seems unrealistic). Odessa’s husband Jack, missionary Samuel, and Celie’s stepson Harpo are all interesting, redeemable characters.

The color purple itself becomes, along with Celie’s sewing, the central symbol in the book. Suggestive of royalty, creativity, surprise, it becomes for Celie symbolic of the wonder of the creativity of God. The first new dress she owns (not a hand-me-down), she wants to be purple. Purple not available, she opts for blue. When, at the end, she finally has her own house, she sleeps in a room painted purple. The pants she sews for Sofia have one red leg, the other purple. Purple is also the symbolic color of lesbianism; Celie’s passionate love for Shug Avery is one of the poignant centers of the plot. When Shug leaves her for a young man, Celie is so crushed she can only communicate to Shug by writing notes: “I pray to die, just so I don’t never have to speak.”

It is Celie’s voice—her language, her style, her imagery—that is the strength of the book. Celie gradually begins to use more standard English, through her contact with Shug and through her correspondence with Nettie. By the end she says, “My hair is short and kinky”; earlier, she would have said, “My hair be short and kinky.” By the end she is using more possessive endings: “any woman’s body”; earlier, she omitted them: “her sister doctor over Macon.” Celie does not lose all of her unique language, however, even when sewing assistant Darlene tries to change her speech patterns, because “peoples think you dumb” when you say “US.” Celie responds: “Every time I say something the way I say it, she correct me until I say it some other way. Pretty soon it feel like I can’t think. My mind run up a thought, get confuse, run back and sort of lay down.” Walker is clearly opting for the importance of retaining what she calls “black folk English”—rather than the pejorative and racist term “dialect.” In an interview with Gloria Steinem, Walker asserts that writing in this, her first language, came easily: “I remember feeling real rage that black people or other people of color who have different patterns of speech can’t just routinely write in this natural, flowing way” (“Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You: A Profile of Alice Walker,” Ms., June, 1982).

Celie may be uneducated and naïve, but she is wonderfully perceptive, and her ability to “peg” a character in a phrase gives the reader some marvelous pictures. On Sofia: “Solid. Like if she sit down on something it be mash.” On Shug Avery: “She look so stylish it like the trees all round the house draw themself up tall for a better look.” Her idiosyncratic language is graphic and often poetic: “Both the girls bigged and gone”; “black plum nipples”; and “dress like a moving star.” She can tell a story economically or draw it out for effect; parts of the book are uproariously funny. Anecdotes are told in a traditional storytelling setting, with a community of people participating, their reactions also recorded. In fact, the oral tradition is very strong in this book: the community of listeners—the extended family—is always very much in evidence, as in the long narrative told by Sofia about teaching her white mistress how to drive. That that community of listeners is always black and mostly female does not detract from the universality of the themes of redemptive love, strength in adversity, independence, and self-assertion through the values of community. Alice Walker’s triumph here is in creating a unique set of people who speak to the human condition. The Color Purple won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for fiction in 1983, honors richly deserved.

The Color Purple Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Color Purple is a series of seventy short letters; the first fifty-one are from Celie to God. Celie’s stepfather, Alphonso, rapes her repeatedly when she is so young that she does not even realize what is happening to her. She does not know that she is pregnant until her first baby is born. Alphonso steals it, as well as a second baby, and threatens her not to tell anybody but God what he has been doing to her; he says that if she tells, it will kill her mother. Celie pours out her confusion and pain in her letters to God. Her mother dies anyway, and Alphonso immediately marries again. Celie, who dropped out of school when she became pregnant, is virtually alone and has neither the strength nor the will to fight for herself.

Alphonso “gives” Celie to Albert, who had asked to marry Celie’s younger sister Nettie. Albert, whom Celie refers to as “Mr.—” through most of the book, abuses Celie even though she has sex with him, cares for his three children, cleans his house, and works in the field. Celie invites Nettie to live with them to save her from Alphonso’s sexual advances. When Nettie refuses sex to Albert, however, he sends her away and hides all of her letters to Celie. Meanwhile, Albert continues his longtime relationship with blues singer Shug Avery. Everyone in the community knows of their relationship, which Albert does nothing to hide.

When Shug is suffering from “that nasty woman’s disease,” Albert brings her home for Celie to nurse back to health. Celie, who has always been fascinated by Shug’s photograph and her scandalous reputation, bathes her, feeds her, combs her hair, and learns to love her. At first, Shug is hateful to Celie, ridiculing her weakness and her inability to stand up to Albert. She then begins to feel close to Celie, learns to respect her, sings to her, composes a song for her, helps her find the letters from Nettie that Albert has hidden, and teaches her to respect herself and to assert her own independence. When Celie realizes that Albert has kept Nettie’s letters from her, she wants to kill him. Shug instead encourages Celie to become more independent, using her artistic talent as a seamstress to make and sell pants.

Harpo, Albert’s oldest son, and his strong and determined wife, Sofia, also encourage Celie and in various ways help her to learn to assert herself. She is also greatly empowered by finding Nettie’s letters and learning that both Nettie and Celie’s own children are alive and well in Africa. She also learns that Alphonso is not her real father; her children are not the products of incest, as she had believed.

By the fifty-sixth letter, Celie is writing to Nettie instead of to God, since she is not sure if she believes in God anymore. Shug has taught her to know and to appreciate her own body and to enjoy sexual pleasure. Shug has listened to Celie recount the story of the brutal abuse that she suffered as a child, while Celie has also listened to the story of Shug’s past, including the circumstances of her relationship with Albert. Much to Albert’s surprise, Shug starts sleeping with Celie instead of him. By the sixtieth letter, Celie is living with Shug in Memphis, has become a successful businesswoman, and for the first time has enough self-respect and dignity to sign her own name to her letters.

When Alphonso dies, Celie inherits the farm, to her surprise and pleasure, and is able to provide a home for herself and Shug and to prepare a place for Nettie and her children when they return from Africa. In the last letter—which Celie begins “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God”—she describes the happy reunion, after thirty years, with her beloved sister Nettie and the children who were stolen from her.

Twenty-two of the letters in The Color Purple are from Nettie to Celie, telling of her life with the missionaries Samuel and Corrine, who have taken in Celie’s children as their own. She finds both of them to be very kind, loving, and well educated. In her letters to Celie, Nettie shares her trips and her adventures in New York City, London, and Africa. In Africa, among the Olinkan people, Nettie finds the same reluctance to educate women, to accept new ideas, and to change traditional behavior that she had experienced in Georgia. Nettie’s spiritual growth and increase in self-respect and self-confidence are in many ways parallel to Celie’s. After Corrine’s death, Nettie and Samuel discover that they love each other and marry so that they can work together more effectively to serve the needs of the African people. Samuel stops preaching the American religion and begins to minister to the sick and care for the children.

Olivia and Adam, Celie’s children, have matured into beautiful, thoughtful adults; both of them love Tashi, a young Olinkan woman who returns to Georgia as Adam’s wife after having undergone the female initiation ceremonies of her own people. Adam demonstrates his love and support of Tashi by having the traditional scarring done to his face just before the wedding.

Harpo and Sofia are part of the family celebration at the end of the story. Sofia left Harpo because he tried to dominate her; she was then thrown in jail for refusing to work for the mayor’s wife. While Sofia served her sentence, Harpo and his new woman, Mary Agnes (or “Squeak”), take care of Sofia’s children. Later Sofia and Harpo, both more mature, are happily reunited.

The Color Purple Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is in the tradition of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston, and deals with many issues dealt with in the novels of Toni Morrison and other outstanding African American women writers.

In the opening pages of the novel, Alice Walker invokes “the Spirit” to assist her in the writing of the book; at the end, she refers to herself as A. W., “author and medium.” In speaking of writing the novel, she frequently refers to the fact that she is simply telling Celie’s story for her in Celie’s own words. This approach to character explains the harsh language and the vividly graphic words Celie uses to describe the brutal treatment that she received and her attitudes toward it; it is important for Celie as well as for other young women to tell their own stories as they recall their experiences. As Celie’s world expands and she begins to heal, her language becomes more “pleasant” and is easier to read. Women need to learn to love and accept themselves and their histories and to have the courage to write their lives in their own words.

Another important message to women in The Color Purple is the importance of women’s supporting one another and encouraging one another in the expression of their unique talents. Sofia and Celie make a quilt together, and even Shug allows Celie to teach her to quilt; quilting symbolizes their solidarity and strong mutual support. Mary Agnes supports and helps Sofia even though Sofia literally knocked Mary Agnes’ teeth out when she first saw her with Harpo. Sofia finally accepts Eleanor Jane’s assistance even though she is white and a member of the family that has treated her so terribly. Corrine finally forgives Nettie for “looking like” Adam and Olivia and for loving them and Samuel so much when she realizes the truth about Nettie not being their mother. Olivia and Tashi are bound by the same love and mutual devotion that Shug and Celie share, and they show the sisterly loyalty that Celie and Nettie feel. Women love and support other women in this novel.

The Color Purple Historical Context

Black-White Relations in the Rural South
After slavery, the social and economic relations for African Americans remained much...

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The Color Purple Quizzes

Letters 1–9: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who is Lucious?

2. What is Celie’s answer when her mother asks her “Whose child is it”?

3. What does Celie think happened to her second child?

4. How old is Celie’s new mother?

5. How did Mr.____’s previous wife die?

6. Why is Celie beaten by her father after she goes to church?

7. How many children does Mr.____ have?

8. Why does Celie’s father reject Mr.____’s request to marry Nettie?

9. According to Celie’s father, why will Celie be a better wife to Mr.____ than Nettie?

10. How long does it take for Mr.____ to decide to marry Celie?

Answers
1. Lucious...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Letters 10–12: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Celie know that it is her daughter at the store?

2. What is Olivia’s foster mother buying at the general store, and why?

3. How old is Olivia now?

4. Why does Nettie show up at Mr.____’s farm?

5. Why does Celie start to feel good about herself?

6. How does Celie react to Nettie’s concern about leaving her alone with Mr.____?

7. Why do Mr.____’s sisters begin to gossip, even though “it not nice to speak ill of the dead”?

8. How does Celie compare with Mr.____’s previous wife, according to Kate and Carrie?

9. What color does Celie want for her dress, and what color does she end up...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Letters 13-18: Questions and Answers

Study Questions

1. What is the reason that Mr.____ gives Harpo for beating his wife?

2. How old is Harpo when he falls in love, and how old is the girl with whom he falls in love?

3. How does Celie know that Shug Avery is going to play at the Lucky Star?

4. Why does Celie want to go to the club?

5. Why does Celie follow Mr.____ back from the cotton fields?

6. Describe Harpo’s recurring nightmare.

7. What does Sofia ask Celie for?

8. Where do Sofia and Harpo eventually marry?

9. Why does Mr.____ start to pay Harpo wages for working?

10. What does Mr.____ mean when he says to Harpo, “I see now she going...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Letters 19–21: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why are Sofia and Harpo arguing at the beginning of this section?

2. Describe Harpo’s wounds.

3. What excuse does Harpo give for his wounds?

4. What does Celie do to try to make herself sleep?

5. How much does Sofia pay Celie for use of her curtains?

6. What will happen if Celie continues to advise Harpo?

7. Why does Sofia feel sorry for Celie?

8. How many children does Sofia’s father have?

9. What does Celie mean when she tells Sofia that sometimes she has to talk with Old Maker?

10. What does Sofia think Celie should do with Mr.____?

Answers
1. Harpo thinks that...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Letters 22–27: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Shug Avery’s nickname?

2. How does the priest characterize Shug in his sermon?

3. Celie says that there is “one good thing” about the fact that Mr.____ doesn’t do any work on the farm. What is that thing?

4. How does Shug survive when she is sicker than Celie’s mama when she died?

5. How many kids has Shug had with Mr.____?

6. Where are Shug’s kids now?

7. Describe Mr.____’s father.

8. What can Mr.____ vouch for about Shug?

9. What does Tobias bring for Shug?

10. Why does Tobias wish his wife, Margaret, was a lot more like Celie?

Answers
1. She is...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Letters 28–31: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What reasons does Celie give for eating?

2. What is clabber?

3. List what Harpo eats when he visits Celie.

4. What is meant when Harpo is asked “When is it due?”

5. Where does Harpo end up sleeping after his fight with Sofia?

6. After Harpo and Sofia fight, Harpo appears at Celie’s house with two black eyes. What bruises does Sofia have?

7. When Mr.____ and Celie have sex, how long does it take for both of them to fall asleep?

8. What does Sofia take when she leaves?

9. Describe Sofia’s sisters.

10. What does Harpo pretend to do while Sofia packs up her things?

...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Letters 32–36: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the name of Harpo’s new club?

2. Why is Harpo puzzled by Shug?

3. How does Shug describe the first time she made love with Mr.____?

4. What does having sex with Mr.____ feel like to Celie?

5. What was the best thing about having children for Celie?

6. How does Shug act like a man?

7. What does Harpo consider a scandal?

8. What is Buster’s “job,” with regards to Sofia?

9. How did Squeak get her nickname?

10. What does “teenouncy” mean?

Answers
1. Harpo’s new club is called “Harpo’s.”

2. Harpo is confused by Shug’s willingness to...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Letters 37-41: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Harpo mope?

2. What does Miss Millie always do, according to her husband?

3. What does Buster do while Sofia is getting beaten?

4. When the sheriff says that Sofia is crazy, how does Mr.____ reply?

5. How badly is Sofia injured from her beating by the police?

6. Who takes care of Sofia’s children while Sofia is in jail?

7. How often is Sofia visited by her friends?

8. What does Squeak remember about her uncle?

9. What is the warden’s justification for what he does to Squeak?

10. What does Mary Agnes mean when she asks Harpo if he loves her or her color?

...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Letters 42–44: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who writes the songs that Mary Agnes sings?

2. Is Mary Agnes still mad that Sofia knocked out her teeth?

3. Why do Sofia’s children love Mary Agnes?

4. Why does Celie consider it impossible to “kill off” the whites?

5. Why does Miss Millie ask the mayor for a car?

6. How does the mayor get revenge for Millie’s insistence?

7. What does Miss Millie mean when she tells Sofia that “this is the South”?

8. How do all of Sofia’s children react when she shows up?

9. What does Miss Millie intend to do?

10. What actually happens that day with Sofia and Millie?

...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Letters 45–48: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Mr.____ think the surprise will be?

2. What doesn’t Celie like about Grady at their first meeting?

3. How did Shug and Grady meet?

4. What would Shug do if she were Celie’s husband?

5. Why does Shug ask Celie if they could sleep together?

6. What are the “freakish things” that Shug thought was only done by “white folks”?

7. What does sleeping with Shug feel like to Celie?

8. How does Grady spend Shug’s money, according to Celie?

9. Where is Grady from?

10. What does Shug mean when she tells Harpo that his nightclub singer “can’t get her ass out the church”?

...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Letters 49–51: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What do stamps look like, according to Celie?

2. What does Nettie’s letter look like?

3. How does Shug cover for Celie’s theft of Mr.____’s razor?

4. What is Shug’s real name, and why is she called Shug?

5. Describe Shug’s relationship with her parents.

6. What did Shug’s sister do for a living?

7. List the things Albert used to do when he went out with Shug.

8. How does Shug describe Annie Julia?

9. Why did Shug want Albert to choose her?

10. What does Shug mean when she says “what was good tween us must have been nothing but bodies?”

Answers
1. Celie...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

Letters 52–60: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Nettie correct herself when she says that Corrine and Samuel have been “like family to me”?

2. Why does Nettie still write to Celie after she realizes that Mr.____ won’t let her have these letters?

3. What does Nettie want to tell Corrine and Samuel about their children, who “were sent by God” to them?

4. When does Nettie come into contact with American prejudice?

5. How do the people of Harlem feel about Africa?

6. How do the so-called “Europeans” of the Missionary Society differ from the “Africans,” according to Nettie?

7. What is the name of the ship that takes Nettie across the Atlantic?

...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Letters 61-63: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Celie learn about the weather in Africa?

2. Describe Joseph, the guide and translator.

3. What does Nettie notice about the Africans’ teeth?

4. How does Nettie describe the jungle?

5. What happened to the white missionary who was at the Olinka village?

6. What food is served at the welcoming ceremony?

7. Describe Nettie’s daily routine.

8. How is Olivia treated at school?

9. What does Tashi’s father want Nettie to do?

10. Why does the way Olinka men speak to women remind Nettie of Pa?

Answers
1. Celie learns that it is “hot like cooking dinner on a big...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Letters 64–69: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why is Nettie proud of the villagers as they talk with the roadbuilders?

2. How have Adam and Olivia changed during their five years in Africa?

3. Describe an Olinka funeral.

4. How is Samuel made uneasy by the relationships between men and women in the Olinka village?

5. What does Nettie mean when she says “a grown child is a dangerous thing”?

6. How does Corrine treat the children now?

7. Why does Corrine want to examine Nettie’s stomach?

8. How did Celie’s mother become mentally unstable after her first husband died, according to the story?

9. What is the “key” to handling white people,...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Letters 70–73: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. When Nettie tells Samuel and Corrine the entire story about Celie, what shocks Samuel the most?

2. What did the dry goods store smell like on the day Celie and Corrine met?

3. What does Corrine mean when she says to Nettie, “Don’t touch my things. I’m not dead yet”?

4. What did Corrine remember about the clerk at the dry goods store?

5. From what college did Corrine graduate?

6. What do the villagers think about women who menstruate?

7. What is Celie’s description of God?

8. Is God a man or woman, according to Shug?

9. Why doesn’t God think that sex is dirty according to Shug?

10....

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Letters 74–77: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who is “Mama” to Sofia’s children?

2. What is the “welcome mat” that Celie is going to use to “enter Creation”?

3. What is wrong with Miss Eleanor’s family?

4. Why must Sofia “act nice”?

5. What is the curse that Celie puts on Mr.____?

6. Why does Shug give Celie a bedroom in the back of the house?

7. What kind of pants does Mary Agnes pick out for herself?

8. Describe how Celie designs a pair of pants for Jack.

9. Does Celie care about Darlene’s teaching her to speak correctly?

10. What does Shug feel about Celie’s speech?

Answers
1. Sofia’s...

(The entire section is 322 words.)

Letters 78–79: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How is Harpo’s and Sofia’s house different from before?

2. What will Sofia’s sisters look like as pallbearers, according to Harpo? What is Sofia’s reply?

3. Why must Sofia always have things her own way?

4. How much does one of Grady’s cigarettes cost?

5. Why is marijuana like whiskey, according to Celie?

6. How does Celie reply when Sofia tells her that Mr.____ is “trying to git religion”?

7. What does Mr.____ say about Sofia’s mother?

8. What does Celie try to remember about Nettie’s letters?

9. What was Mr.____ most scared of when he slept alone?

10. Is it easy for Sofia to...

(The entire section is 337 words.)

Letters 80–81: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How is Nettie surprised by her own appearance?

2. What do Nettie and Samuel now do for the Olinka tribe?

3. What are the signs all over Africa that a war is coming?

4. Why does Doris decide against becoming a nun?

5. What is the pseudonym of Doris Baines?

6. What pleasure is Doris willing to pay handsomely for?

7. What do people that meet Samuel and Nettie on the street in England always say?

8. What are some of the questions that the Olinka tribe always asked the missionaries?

9. What would have happened if Adam struck Tashi?

10. What does Nettie call Samuel in the postscript of her letter to...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Letters 82–85: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How come Celie still calls Alphonso “Pa”?

2. What does Alphonso leave Daisy?

3. How many children is Daisy left with?

4. What fortune does Celie read from her fortune cookie?

5. What did Shug feel about Grady?

6. What has happened to Grady and Mary Agnes?

7. Why does Shug talk about Cuba?

8. Name a recipe that Mr.____ devises to hide the taste of yams.

9. Why does the thought of getting pregnant make Celie want to cry?

10. What supposedly happens to Nettie’s ship?

Answers
1. Celie says that it is “too late to call him Alphonso.”

2. Daisy is left...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Letters 86–87: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why is Samuel pretty confident that his family will not get malaria, even though there is an epidemic in the village?

2. What sort of church does Nettie and Samuel hope to found in America?

3. Why do the Olinka have “shallow” relationships with the missionaries?

4. Name some of the places that Shug and Germaine visit.

5. What does Eleanor Jane do to Sofia that is more annoying than complaining about her problems?

6. According to Stanley Earl, why do white folks “turn out so well”?

7. How does Sofia feel about little Reynolds Stanley Earl?

8. When did Shug’s parents die?

9. What does Mr.____ mean...

(The entire section is 360 words.)

Letters 88–90: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How long were Adam and Tashi gone?

2. What would Tashi still have if Adam deserted her?

3. What happens when Sofia is called “auntie” by a white man?

4. What was the only thing Albert ever wanted in life?

5. Why does Albert think we are here on this earth?

6. What has happened to Germaine?

7. Will Shug ever sing again?

8. Why did Mary Agnes leave Grady?

9. What do people like to eat in Africa, according to Tashi?

10. Why does Celie feel a little peculiar around the children?

Answers
1. Adam and Tashi were gone for two and a half months.

2. Even if Adam...

(The entire section is 245 words.)