The Color Purple (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
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.
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.:...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
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...
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The Color Purple (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
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...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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Letters 1–9: Questions and Answers
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?
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Letters 10–12: Questions and Answers
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...
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Letters 13-18: Questions and Answers
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...
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Letters 19–21: Questions and Answers
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.____?
1. Harpo thinks that...
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Letters 22–27: Questions and Answers
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?
1. She is...
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Letters 28–31: Questions and Answers
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
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?
1. Harpo’s new club is called “Harpo’s.”
2. Harpo is confused by Shug’s willingness to...
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Letters 37-41: Questions and Answers
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
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
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”?...
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Letters 49–51: Questions and Answers
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?”
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Letters 52–60: Questions and Answers
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?
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Letters 61-63: Questions and Answers
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?
1. Celie learns that it is “hot like cooking dinner on a big...
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Letters 64–69: Questions and Answers
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,...
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Letters 70–73: Questions and Answers
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?
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Letters 74–77: Questions and Answers
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?
(The entire section is 322 words.)
Letters 78–79: Questions and Answers
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
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
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?
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
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
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?
1. Adam and Tashi were gone for two and a half months.
2. Even if Adam...
(The entire section is 245 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Collection of essays about The Color Purple by scholars, who discuss such issues as the role of nation and the representation of the senses in the novel.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race,...
(The entire section is 801 words.)