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....
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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.
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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...
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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 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...
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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 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...
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Black-White Relations in the Rural South
After slavery, the social and economic relations for African Americans remained much the same. While no longer slaves, many blacks remained on the land as sharecroppers. They tilled the soil, but the land was owned by their former slave masters. After 1915, economic opportunities in cities of the industrial North encouraged many blacks to leave the South. Those that remained continued to live isolated from white society. Schools and churches were segregated, as well as housing. There were few opportunities for blacks to establish themselves outside of sharecropping. During the period of the novel, segregation between blacks and whites was enforced legally to the point that blacks had to sit in separate parts of movie houses and drink out of separate fountains, and were forbidden from eating at white lunch counters. The laws that were passed to enforce this segregation were called Jim Crow laws, named after a pre-Civil War minstrel character. In The Color Purple Sofia is victimized by this social policy. When she shows defiance to the white mayor's wife who insults her, she is arrested and given a stiff jail sentence for her actions. The difficulty in relations between black men and women had its source in white male-dominated society. Within white society, men were expected to control the family and had status over women. This attitude filtered into black culture, but the black male, unlike his white...
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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?
1. Lucious is Celie’s newborn brother.
2. Celie says that the child is God’s.
3. Celie thinks that her father killed her first child, but believes that he sold her second child.
4. Celie’s father marries a woman who is as old as Celie.
5. Supposedly, Mr.____’s previous wife was shot by her boyfriend when she left church.
6. Her father hits her because he thinks that she winked at a boy in church.
7. Mr.____ says he has three children, but Celie discovers that he actually has four children.
8. Nettie’s father thinks Nettie is too young for a man like Mr.____. He has heard the rumors about the death of Mr.____’s previous wife and his relationship with Shug...
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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 buying?
10. Why does Harpo refuse at first when Kate asks him to bring in a bucket of water?
1. The little girl has Celie’s eyes.
2. Olivia’s foster mother is buying some fabric and thread so that she can make dresses for herself and her daughter.
3. Olivia will be seven in November.
4. Nettie couldn’t take living at home with Pa and might try to find help for the smaller children.
5. Nettie passes on all the compliments that she receives from Mr.____ to Celie.
6. Celie is philosophical, saying that God is still with her.
7. Even though they gossip about Annie Julia, Mr.____’s last wife, they insist that it is still the...
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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 to switch the traces on you”?
1. Mr.____ says that he beats her because she is his wife and “she stubborn.”
2. Harpo is 17, and the girl he is in love with is 15.
3. Celie finds an advertisement for the club.
4. Celie wants “to lay eyes on her.”
5. Celie thinks that Mr.____ is sick, when he is still not over his weekend with Shug Avery.
6. Harpo dreams that he is a witness to his mother’s murder, and ends up cradling his dead mother in his arms.
7. Sofia asks Celie for a glass of water.
8. Sofia and Harpo marry at Sofia’s sister’s house.
9. Mr.____ thinks that wages will encourage Harpo to work...
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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 Sofia spends too much time with her
2. Harpo has a black eye and a cut lip. He also has a hurt hand and he is walking stiffly.
3. Harpo claims that he was kicked by an angry mule, and then walked into the crib door at home. Then, during the evening, he accidentally closed the window on his hand.
4. Celie tries to stay up as late as possible. Before she goes to bed, she takes a warm bath. Then, she puts a little witch hazel on her pillow and makes sure the room is completely dark. If that doesn’t work, she tries drinking a little milk, counting the fence posts, and reading the Bible to fall asleep.
5. Sofia tries to give Celie a dollar for the use of her curtains.
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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 known as the Queen Honeybee.
2. Shug is the nameless “strumpet in short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.”
3. Since Mr.____ never does work in the field, Celie and Harpo never miss him when he leaves the farm.
4. Celie says that Shug is able to survive because she is “more evil than my mama.”
5. Shug Avery has had three children with Mr.____.
6. Shug’s children are now staying with her mother.
7. Old Mr.____ is “a little short shrunk up man with a bald head and gold spectacles.” He clears his throat “like everything he say need announcement.”
8. Mr.____ knows that all of Shug’s children have the same
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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?
1. Celie says that some people eat because “food taste good,” while others “love to feel they mouth work.” Sometimes, it also “might be a case of being undernourish.”
2. Clabber is the thick, sour milk that collects on a butter churn.
3. Harpo eats a piece of fried chicken, a slice of blueberry pie, a glass of clabber, and a slice of cornbread.
4. Harpo has become so fat that he begins to look like he is pregnant.
5. Harpo sleeps in a bed next to Shug’s room.
6. Sofia has only a scratch on her wrist.
7. Both Celie and Mr.____ are asleep in ten minutes.
8. Sofia takes the children and their clothes, as well as her own clothes. In...
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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 say whatever she feels. Harpo’s ideal woman would behave like Celie, and do whatever he wants her to do. Harpo still cannot handle an independent woman.
3. Shug says that the first time was an accident. Feeling carried them away.
4. Celie says it feels like Mr.____ is going to the toilet on her.
5. Celie loved to nurse her children because she used to feel a shiver.
6. Shug talks like a man; instead of talking about hair or health, she compliments another woman on her good looks. Celie becomes slightly aroused when she sees Shug walking around in the club.
7. Harpo thinks that it is “a scandless” that “a woman with five children (Sofia) [is] hanging out in a jukejoint at...
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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?
1. Harpo is quiet and spends most of his time walking up and down the aisle in his club. He also totally ignores Squeak despite her best efforts to get him to say something.
2. The mayor says that Miss Millie is “always going on over colored” children.
3. Sofia keeps Buster from joining in the fight and tells him to look after the children. She knows that with six armed policemen around them, Buster would have been shot if he had tried to make any aggressive move.
4. Mr.____ tells the sheriff that he had tried to tell his son for 12 years that Sofia was crazy. He doesn’t really believe this now, but he is trying to keep on friendly terms with the sheriff in case something can be done for...
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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?
1. At first, Mary Agnes sings Shug’s songs, then she starts writing her own songs.
2. Mary Agnes is still mad, but she understands Sofia’s
3. Sofia’s children love Mary Agnes because she lets them do what they want, which is a big difference from the way Odessa or any other of Sofia’s sisters treat them.
4. Celie thinks that there are just “too many to kill off.”
5. Miss Millie feels that “if colored could have cars than one for her was past due.”
6. The mayor buys Millie a car but doesn’t teach her how to drive. Every night he rubs it in by asking his wife how she is “enjoying” her car, knowing she doesn’t have any friends to teach her....
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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”?
1. Mr.____ thinks that Shug bought him a new car.
2. Celie doesn’t like Grady’s shape, teeth, clothes, or his smell.
3. Grady was the mechanic who fixed Shug’s new car.
4. Shug would work hard for Celie and “cover [her] up with kisses stead of licks” if she were her husband.
5. Mr.____ and Grady go out for a night on the town, and Shug doesn’t like to sleep alone.
6. Celie’s father had raped her while she was cutting his hair, and soon he wants her to cut his hair every time he has sex with her. Shug believed that only “white folks” could be so perverted.
7. Celie tries to compare sleeping with Shug to sleeping with Nettie and...
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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?”
1. Celie thinks that all stamps look the same, with “white men with long hair” on them.
2. Nettie’s letter, according to Celie, has “little fat queen of England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees and say Africa” on it.
3. Shug takes the razor from Celie’s hand and thanks her for getting something to take care of her hangnail. Then she puts the razor back in the shaving box.
4. Shug’s real name is Lillie, but everyone called her Shug because she was “just so sweet.”
5. Her mother did not like physical contact with her children, and would always push Shug away if she tried to kiss her. Although her father liked to hold her, Shug’s mother kept that from...
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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?
8. List Nettie’s itinerary from England to Africa.
9. What doesn’t Nettie like about the Senegalese?
10. What did Christ want to add on to the end of the commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and why, according to Shug?
1. Nettie realizes that Samuel and Corrine have been kinder to her than her own family, so she says that they have been like her own family “might have been.”
2. Nettie is very lonely, and she remembers that Celie still writes letters to God whenever she feels the need to write. Nettie takes Celie for inspiration and continues to send letters because it makes her feel better thinking that her sister might one day read them.
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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 stove in a little kitchen in August and July” in Africa.
2. Joseph is short, fat, and soft, “with hands that seem not to have any bones in them.” He is also “a deep chocolate brown.”
3. Nettie is surprised that the Africans all have perfect, white teeth.
4. Nettie says the jungle is “trees and trees and then more trees on top of that. And vines. And ferns. And little animals.”
5. The Olinka buried the last missionary one year ago.
6. They are given a chicken-and-peanut stew, which they eat with their fingers, and palm wine.
7. Nettie wakes up at five o’clock for a light breakfast and morning classes. They stop at eleven o’clock for lunch and household...
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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, according to Alphonso?
10. Why doesn’t Celie’s father have a marked grave?
1. Nettie is proud of the people of the Olinka tribe because they always show up with foods and gifts for the roadbuilders, proving that they are a generous and loving tribe.
2. Adam and Olivia are almost as tall as Nettie now. Both have learned so much that Adam is afraid that there will be nothing left for Samuel to teach.
3. The women of the village paint their faces white and wear white shrouds. While they “cry in a high keening voice” the body is wrapped in barkcloth and buried.
4. Samuel’s job is “to preach the Bible’s directive of one husband and one wife.” He is also...
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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?
10. What does Shug think about people who always try to please God?
1. Samuel is shocked that Celie was raped by her “father.”
2. The dry goods store smelled like peanut shells.
3. Corrine thinks that Nettie is cheating her husband, and now wants to take her things as well. Corrine wants to remind her that she is still Samuel’s wife.
4. Corrine was upset that the clerk treated her “like any other nigger.”
5. Corrine graduated from Spelman Seminary.
6. Nettie writes that villagers “...think women who have their friends should not even be seen.”
7. God is “big and old and tall and graybearded and white.” Celie also says that...
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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?
1. Sofia’s younger children call Odessa “Mama” and Sofia “Miss Sofia.”
2. Celie wants to use Mr.____’s dead body symbolically to “enter Creation,” since leaving him would be the same to her as entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
3. Jack tells the entire group that there is a lot of drinking in the mayor’s family and that the son (presumably Billy) has had trouble in college.
4. Sofia is still on parole and doesn’t want to end up back in jail.
5. Celie tells Mr.____ that everything that he has done to her is “already done to” him, and everything that he plans to do will come back to haunt him.
6. Shug knows that Celie likes to wake up with the sun on her face.
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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 live with Harpo now?
1. The new house is bigger, away from the juke joint.
2. Harpo thinks that the three sisters will look like “they ought to be home frying chicken.” Sofia replies that since her three brothers will carry the other side of the coffin, they will “look like field hands.”
3. Sofia’s mother had said a long time ago that Sofia thinks her way is as good as anyone else’s.
4. Grady sells his marijuana cigarettes for a dime each.
5. A little drink of whiskey doesn’t bother anyone, but “when you can’t git started without asking the bottle, you in trouble.” Marijuana is the same way to Celie; smoking it once in a while doesn’t...
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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 Celie?
1. Nettie has become “plump and graying.”
2. Nettie and Samuel do nothing now but teach the young children.
3. Roads are being built to where supplies are kept. The trees are being cut down in order to make “ships and captain’s furniture.” Land is being planted with “something you can’t eat,” and the natives are forced to work on these fields. Doris takes all of these events as signs of an impending war.
4. Doris Baines wanted nothing more than to be her own boss. If she chose to become a nun, then God would be her boss.
5. Her pen name is Jared Hunt.
6. For Doris, the pleasure of being alone is without price.
(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 all of Alphonso’s money, along with the clothes and the car. She also takes all of the furniture from the house, saying that Alphonso bought it for her anyway.
3. Daisy has two children from Alphonso and is pregnant with a third.
4. Celie’s fortune says “Because you are who you are, the future looks happy and bright.”
5. Even though Grady was Shug’s husband, all he seemed to think about was “women and reefer.” Celie had noticed that Grady “never brought a sparkle to” Shug’s eyes.
6. Grady and Mary Agnes now own a marijuana farm in Panama. Mary Agnes still sings, but they both smoke marijuana excessively. She cannot remember all the words to the songs.
(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 when he says “If a mule could tell folks how it’s treated, it would”?
10. How do the Olinka interpret the identity of the biblical Adam?
1. Nettie, Samuel, Adam, and Olivia have all survived bouts with malaria.
2. Nettie wants to start a church “in which each person’s spirit is encouraged to seek God directly.”
3. The Olinka know that eventually the missionaries will leave, making a relationship pointless.
4. Celie receives letters from Shug in New York, California, Arizona, and Panama, where she and Germaine were visiting Grady and Squeak.
5. Eleanor Jane starts to bother Sofia whenever anything good happens, insisting that Sofia say...
(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 deserted her, Tashi would still have Olivia. Olivia promises she will always be Tashi’s sister.
3. Sofia asks him which colored man married his mother’s sister.
4. The only thing that Albert wanted in life was Shug Avery.
5. Albert decides that people are here “to wonder,” and “in wondering bout the big things…you learn bout the little ones.”
6. Germaine went off to college after his split with Shug.
7. Shug contemplates retirement, although she would still sing one or two nights at Harpo’s.
8. Mary Agnes was tired of being stoned all the time, and Grady was “no good influence for no child.” She now lives in Memphis, with her mother and Suzie Q....
(The entire section is 245 words.)
Barbara Christian points out that Alice Walker writes in a way that is "organically spare rather than elaborate, ascetic rather than lush," and in fact the letters which constitute the book (especially Celie's early letters to God) rarely fill a page. The literal physical barrenness of the book reflects the painful limitations of Celie's life and, perhaps, her fear of expressing herself — a manifestation of low self-esteem. It is an imaginative technique, but in so short a book it provides too limited a canvas on which the author can work. In the case of The Color Purple, the physical limitations are partly responsible for the many underdeveloped characters. On a more practical level, it is difficult for the reader to accept the notion that thirty years pass when the book itself consists of approximately 250 partly blank pages. Fictional time demands an appropriately weighty text.
And yet Walker tries to have those letters — to God, to Nettie, to Celie — convey the entire story. The epistolary format is not new (Samuel Richardson utilized it in his 1740 novel Pamela), but it is quite unusual for black literature, and critics have had mixed reactions to Walker's handling of it. Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek found the parallel Celie/Nettie correspondence "deeply moving"; Frank W. Shelton believes that Celie's writing to God is a way simply for her to assert that "she is still alive"; and Mel Watkins in the New York Times Book...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
The Color Purple is a novel that invites group discussion. Its construction is such that the absence of an omniscient narrator forces readers to piece together the gaps in the narrative. In a sense, reading this novel is a little like quilt making. And group discussion of the novel's narrative should enrich the individual's reading.
This novel could be viewed as a set of instructions on how to build a self starting at the bottom of American society with no self-esteem and with no advantages. (Could a character have fewer advantages being black, female, poor, and lesbian?) Celie ends up financially independent, psychologically healthy, and a fully realized human being. Certainly the importance and possibility of Walker's prescription calls for discussion.
There are few places, if any, in literature where so many strong female characters are assembled in one novel. It is as though Walker wanted to present as many different, powerful role models for women as possible. These strong characters' individual responses to patriarchal society's domination of them should stimulate discussion of appropriate reactions to violence and oppression.
Discussion groups will inevitably confront the war between the sexes at center stage in the novel. Walker has set forth strong views and a dramatically compelling case for them. The black American male characters seem driven by their desire to dominate the women around them. Their world does not...
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In tracing the life of one woman, Celie, from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s, The Color Purple reveals the harsh emotional, social, and economic difficulties facing blacks (especially women) in the rural South during the first half of the twentieth century. Just as important, it traces how these difficulties can be at least partly resolved by hard work, faith (in oneself, if not in God), and education. As these remarks suggest, the novel veers dangerously close to the platitudes which marred Walker's earlier writings, but the incisiveness with which she presents her material tends to rescue it from sentimentality.
Particularly striking is her uncompromising treatment of black males early in the novel. Both Celie's stepfather Alphonso (usually called simply "he") and her husband Albert ("Mr.") are vicious, amoral men who regard their wives and daughters as ignorant live-in maids and sex objects. As Walker points out, though, their mistreatment of women reflects black men's sense of impotence in a white-dominated society and, concomitantly, the inheritance of social practices: Albert's son Harpo tries to beat his wife Sofia because that is how Albert treated his own wives. More than this, as the series of letters from Celie's sister Nettie, an African missionary, reveal, the systematic mistreatment of women is common among the Olinka tribe: Abuse is in part an African phenomenon unrelated to white oppression in America. On the topic of violence,...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1930s: The relationship between men and women is clearly defined. Men are the bread-winners and the heads of the families. Women stay at home to take care of the children and the housework.
Today: Men and women share the economic burden of the household. Many married women with children are in the workplace. Preschool children are cared for in daycare centers or at home with paid babysitters.
1930s: Racism is condoned throughout the country, and laws in the South enforce segregation. African Americans are kept out of many industries.
Today: Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or disability in the workplace is illegal.
1930s: Violence against women is widespread and ignored by the police.
Today: Violence against women is illegal, and perpetrators are being vigorously prosecuted in both civilian and military life.
1930s: Most religious African Americans belong to either a Baptist or Methodist congregation.
Today: Many African Americans have turned away from Christianity to the Muslim religion.
Strong leadership has developed within the Black Muslim movement to keep it a viable religious alternative for African Americans.
1930s: Colonialism dominates the African continent. It is carved up among the major nations of Europe who exploit it for its rich resources.
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Topics for Further Study
Alice Walker has been criticized for portraying negative male characters in The Color Purple. Explain why you agree or disagree with this analysis. Be specific in your discussion by citing passages that support your viewpoint.
Research the history of the epistolary novel and give three other examples of this form in literature. For each example, include the title, author, date of publication, and a summary of the novel. Many epistolary novels are written from the main female character's point of view. Are there any advantages or disadvantages to using this literary form when the major character is a woman?
Research colonial rule in Africa. Narrow your scope by focusing on one European country and one African country that was colonized by it. Give a history of the African country before, during, and after European colonization.
Sexual violence is a major theme in The Color Purple. From current media reports write an essay on how sexual violence is presented to the public. Include statistical information on sexual violence, such as the extent of increase or decrease in occurrences over the past 20 years. What are the underlying causes of sexual violence? Are there any methods for combating sexual violence that have been proven effective?
(The entire section is 202 words.)
As noted above, the epistolary format owes much to the example of English novelist Samuel Richardson. Further, as various critics have pointed out, it is their letters and diaries which have enabled contemporary historians to reconstruct the private lives of women before the late nineteenth century when, for the first time, the literary marketplace became receptive to "female scribblers." These most intimate of literary genres are thus often identified as the forte of women, and in particular of women who, like Celie, have no other outlets for their emotions and creativity.
Walker's focus on rural Southern blacks may well show her indebtedness to the example of William Faulkner (e.g., Light in August 1932, Go Down, Moses, 1942), although she has indicated that a more important Southern influence on her work is the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. It should be noted, however, that O'Connor exhibits little interest in racial matters, and that her strong Roman Catholic orientation is quite antithetical to Walker's "animism."
Walker's deepest literary interest is in such black writers as Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923) and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937). Hurston is credited with being an early recorder of rural black speech, and it seems likely that Walker was influenced by Hurston's example. There also is some indication that Langston Hughes's folk philosopher "Jesse B. Semple" is evident in Celie's...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
Most of the social concerns and themes of The Color Purple are also evident in Walker's two earlier novels, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and Meridian (1976), although the three books are not part of a sequence or otherwise related. The Third Life of Grange Copeland traces the history of the Copelands, a poor rural black family, from 1920 to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As with The Color Purple, Walker posits the fortunes of the Copeland family (and in particular of the patriarchal Grange) as emblematic of the black experience in the United States for that forty-year period. Walker's second novel Meridian, generally felt to be the best book to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement, is a more ambitious work which features a nonchronological format and a poetic, almost impressionistic style. Both books have been criticized, however, for excessive violence, uneven characterization, and blatant, pretentious symbolism.
Characters introduced in The Color Purple appear in Walker's next two novels. Tashi, Olivia, Adam, Celie and Shug have small parts in The Temple of My Familiar (1989), and Tashi, Olivia, and Adam are the central characters in Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). Walker has said that she has used her authorial prerogative to change the characters slightly, but those novels should not be viewed as sequels. And indeed, they are not.
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Warner Brothers purchased the movie rights of The Color Purple for $350,000; filming began in June of 1985, and the film was released at Christmas. It proved to be an enormous box office success, but it was criticized heavily for the banal and sentimental treatment of some of its most powerful issues and scenes. David Ansen of Newsweek, for example, said that it was like "watching the first Disney movie about incest." Part of the blame went to the Dutch screenwriter, Menno Meyjes, but for the most part critics held director Steven Spielberg responsible for creating a beautiful but superficial "white man's version" of The Color Purple.
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Steven Spielberg directed and produced The Color Purple in 1985. The film starred Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, Danny Glover as Albert, Margaret Avery as Shug Avery, and Willard Pugh as Harpo. While the film was nominated in every major category of the Academy Awards, it won no Oscars. It did, however, win awards from the Directors Guild of America, Golden Globes, and the National Board of Reviews. The film also helped launch the careers of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. It is available as a home video by Warner and Facets Multimedia.
(The entire section is 95 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Maya Angelou's autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970, describes her childhood in segregated Arkansas. The book paints a vivid picture of life in the rural South during the 1930s. When Maya moves to St. Louis with her mother, she is raped and remains mute for a number of years. Like Celie in The Color Purple, she eventually develops self-esteem.
Jane Hamilton's 1988 novel The Book of Ruth is the story of a poor, white, small-town girl, who comes of age through great trauma. Like Celie, she too finds self-realization in spite of the despair of her life circumstances.
In 1959, playwright Lorraine Hansberry became the first black woman writer to have a play produced on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun is about the aspirations of a black family to attain a better life in racist America. Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the play, and it was made into a film in 1961.
Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John's, Antigua. Her 1983 book At the Bottom of the River explores the mother-daughter relationship in the setting of British colonial rule. In this novel, as well as her other works, Kincaid explores themes of racial domination, poverty, and coming of age.
Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison has produced a number of novels that deal with the complexities of black life in America. She depicts how African Americans are threatened...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
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, 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.
Davis, Thadious M. “Alice...
(The entire section is 801 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Trudier Harris, "On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence," in Black American Literature Forum, vol. 18, no. 4, 1984, pp. 155-61.
Gloria Steinem, "Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You: A Profile of Alice Walker," in Ms., June, 1982, pp. 35, 37, 89-94.
J. Charles Washington, "Positive Black Male Images in Alice Walker's Fiction," in Obsidian, Spring, 1988, pp. 23-48.
Winchell, Donna Haisty, Alice Walker, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Walker, Alice, The Color Purple, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1982.
Richard Wesley, "The Color Purple Debate: Reading between the Lines," in Ms., September, 1986, pp. 62, 90-2.
For Further Studv
Richard Abcanan, Negro American Literature, Wadworth, California, 1970.
An early but fundamental commentary on African-American literature, its roots and importance. There is a deep discussion of Richard Wright's novel.
Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, 1954.
An early, fundamental source to understand the problem of prejudice, and racism in general, and to help define concepts such as visibility and difference.
Barbara Christian, editor, Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Texto, University of California Press, 1985.
A number of essays about black literature from the feminist criticism...
(The entire section is 712 words.)