The Color Purple Characters
The main characters in The Color Purple are Celie, Nettie, Albert, and Shug Avery.
- Celie is the novel’s protagonist, who begins the narrative by writing letters to God as a young girl abused by her stepfather.
- Nettie is Celie’s younger sister, who goes to live in Africa with a missionary couple and writes letters to Celie.
- Albert is Celie’s much older, abusive husband, known for much of the novel simply as Mr.——.
- Shug Avery is a blues singer who is Albert’s mistress and becomes Celie’s lover.
Last Updated on June 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554
Celie is a very likable heroine. Grounded in the folk life of African Americans living in the Deep South, Celie is simple yet good, withdrawn yet able to emerge from her self-preserving stoicism.
Throughout her early life, Celie is sustained by her belief in God, which has been the only consistent, safe, and hopeful element in her life. Married to Mr.——, Celie becomes resigned to degradation and denial. Celie, though sad, is never disappointed, since she has never expected her life to be happy. Less attractive in every way than her sister, Nettie, Celie is accustomed to feeling inferior.
Female relationships in the novel serve to support Celie in her loneliness and in her effort to become comfortable with herself. Sofia’s pity for Celie for complying so readily with Albert’s commands points up Celie’s weakness and Sofia’s boldness. Shug’s popularity and physical attractiveness enchant Celie, while Shug’s faithlessness dismays her. Nettie’s voice, projected in her letters, is proper, intelligent, educated, and refined. In contrast, Celie’s native tongue is a thick Black dialect that is humorous in its fresh descriptions, original metaphors, and realistic dialogue.
Celie develops her identity in large measure by coming to know her similarities with and differences from the other women in the story, by accepting herself as she is, and by learning to blossom—like the purple flowers found growing unchecked in Southern fields.
Most of the men in the story are portrayed negatively. Albert, who is lazy and disrespectful, considers work to be women’s domain. Likewise, his son, Harpo, shares some of his father’s patronizing attitudes toward women. Given to drinking, womanizing, and generally indulging themselves, the male characters appear to be weak-willed and amoral.
The exceptions to this pattern are Samuel and Adam. A model Christian, Samuel leaves the rural South, escaping inherited and societal patterns of behavior. Adam’s devotion to his African girlfriend, despite the fact that she has had her face carved in accordance with an African tribal custom, shows compassion and commitment not seen in Adam’s male relatives in Georgia.
The only characters more negatively depicted than Albert are the white townspeople, who appear to be rude, prejudiced, ignorant, and unprincipled. Sofia’s enforced tenure as a maid for the mayor’s wife is punishment for Sofia’s insubordination. Treated as a slave, Sofia is a servant and a convenience for the mayor’s family. The day Sofia is free to visit her family, the mayor’s wife, unable to drive her automobile back home, sees to it that Sofia turns right back around to take her home. When the mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane, visits Sofia with her new baby, it is apparent that the affection between Sofia and this young white girl she has reared is not mutual. Sofia is honest enough to tell Eleanor Jane that, after all the mayor’s family has put her through, Sofia is not endeared to the family’s progeny. In an about-face, Eleanor Jane ends up looking after Harpo’s sick daughter, Henrietta, so that Sofia can work in Celie’s dry goods store. Thus there is at least partial reparation made to Sofia on the part of the mayor’s family, a fact that underscores Celie’s own journey toward reparation and healing.
Last Updated on June 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
Celie is a survivor of sexual and physical abuse who writes intimate letters to God and to her sister, Nettie. She is the owner of Celie Folkpants, Unlimited. Described as Black, poor, and ugly, she is fourteen years old at the beginning of the story....
(This entire section contains 873 words.)
Celie is a terrorized and passive girl with little belief in herself who undergoes a major transformation in attitude and becomes an outrageous, audacious, courageous, and willful woman who enjoys her lesbian sexuality. She gives birth to two children, conceived while she is being raped repeatedly by Alphonso, whom she believes to be her father. Both children are quickly taken from her by him. Celie is married off to Albert but falls in love with Shug Avery, a former lover of her husband. After Celie nurses Shug through an illness, they become lovers; later, they move to Memphis, where Celie starts a pants company. Celie returns to Georgia when she inherits her parents’ house.
Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, is a missionary in Africa. Considered to be very pretty and very clever, Nettie loves Celie and remains devoted to her throughout her life. During a separation of some twenty years, she writes to Celie regularly, telling Celie of her experiences in Africa. Nettie helps take care of and watches over Celie’s two children, who have been adopted by the missionary couple whom Nettie accompanied to Africa. Nettie eventually reunites the family.
Albert is a poor farmer. Abusive and dissatisfied with himself and his life, Albert is in love with Shug, but, because he is incapable of disobeying his father, he married another woman. He beats Celie, his second wife, because she is not Shug. He conceals all the letters that Nettie sends to Celie. Albert thinks little of treating Celie as less than human until she stands up to him and then leaves, at which point he becomes physically and spiritually ill, recovers, begins to lead a moral life, and becomes friends with Celie.
Shug Avery, whose real name is Lillie and who also is called the Queen Honeybee, is a blues singer. Confident, flamboyant, and independent, Shug is considered to be immoral by some church folk but is nevertheless popular and admired as a performer. She is wise in the cultural values of the Black community, and her presence has a transforming effect, especially on Celie but also on others. Shug moves in with Celie and Albert; she is first Albert’s and then Celie’s lover. She marries Grady, becomes lovers with a young blues flutist named Germaine, and eventually returns as Celie’s lover.
Harpo, the owner of a juke joint, is Albert’s oldest son. As a young man, he is very tall, skinny, and dark-skinned. He is insecure in his manhood and frustrated by his inability to make his wife do as he commands. When his wife leaves him because she is exasperated by his attempts to beat her, he turns their house into a juke joint that provides Shug Avery and others with a place to sing the blues.
Sofia Butler is the defiant wife of Harpo. Big, strong, and ruddy-looking, she has the personality of a fighter and refuses to be pushed around by anyone. When the mayor’s wife sees her on the street and asks her to be her maid, Sofia curses, responds to the mayor’s slap by knocking him down, and is then beaten severely by the police. She is sentenced to jail for twelve years but spends most of that time as maid to the mayor’s wife.
Alphonso, called Pa by Celie, is mistaken by Celie and Nettie as their father but really is their stepfather. He is a mean man who has sexual relations with a number of young girls, some of whom he marries. When he rapes Celie, he tells her to say nothing to anyone but God; thus, her subsequent letters are addressed to God.
Mary Agnes, called Squeak, is Harpo’s lover and a late-blooming blues singer. Described as yellow-skinned, Mary Agnes facilitates Sofia’s release from prison into the service of the mayor’s wife by calling on her white uncle, the prison warden, who rapes her during this visit. She leaves Harpo to go with Celie and Shug to Memphis to start a singing career. She becomes lovers with Shug’s husband and moves to Panama with him, then returns to Memphis and her singing career.
Grady is Shug’s husband, who moves to Panama with Mary Agnes in order to run a marijuana plantation.
Olivia, Celie’s daughter and oldest child, is an independent thinker who is reared in Africa by Samuel and his wife, Corrine, both missionaries.
Adam Omatangu, Celie’s son, is a thoughtful and sensitive young man who writes verses and loves to sing. Adam obtains the second name of Omatangu when he marries an African woman.
Tashi Omatangu, Adam’s wife, is one of the Olinka people who joins the mbeles to fight against white colonialists in Africa but is persuaded by Adam to become married to him and return with him to the United States.
Last Updated on June 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553
Adam is Celie’s son who was adopted by the missionary Reverend Samuel and his wife, Corrine. When the reverend and his family return to America, Celie is reunited with her grown son.
Albert is the widower with four children who buys Celie from her stepfather. Albert treats Celie with cruelty, using her to satisfy his sexual needs and to take care of his children. He really loves Shug Avery, who later comes to live with Albert and Celie when she is sick. Celie appreciates Shug’s presence in the house, because Albert treats her better when Shug is around. Albert later in life softens, and Celie takes him in as a helper in her business.
Albert’s father comes to visit when he hears that Albert has taken Shug Avery into his house. He says many nasty things about Shug and expresses his disapproval of what his son is doing. Albert asks him to leave.
Alphonso is Celie’s stepfather. When Celie’s mother is sick and dying, he rapes Celie and continues to do so long enough for Celie to have two children, whom he sells to a local missionary and his wife. He doesn’t tell Celie what has happened to the children, and initially Celie thinks he killed them. Celie later learns that he is not her real father. Her real father was lynched years before by a white mob. Alphonso tells Celie not to tell anyone but God about what he has done to her. He warns her that if she tells, it will kill her mother.
Shug, a blues singer, is the woman that Albert loves. She is a sophisticated and liberated woman. After she comes to stay with Albert and Celie, who care for her while she is sick, she and Celie develop a deep relationship. Shug helps Celie gain self-esteem and teaches her to speak up for herself. She finds the letters from Nettie to Celie that Albert has for years kept hidden away from Celie. Shug also helps Celie get started in her business by encouraging her to sew. Later in the story, Shug returns again to Celie and Albert’s home, but this time with a husband. Along with Sofia and Nettie, Shug is a role model who helps Celie change her life.
Addie Beasley is Nettie and Celie’s teacher, who recognizes the girls’ intense desire to learn. Their stepfather, Alphonso, is contemptuous of her when she tells him that his daughters are smart.
Carrie is a sister of Albert’s who comes to visit. She tells Celie that Celie is a much better housekeeper than Albert’s first wife.
Celie is the heroine of the novel. Most of the letters that comprise the book are letters Celie writes to God or, after learning that her sister, Nettie, is in Africa, to Nettie. Celie does not know about Nettie’s attempts to communicate with her until Shug finds the letters from Nettie that Albert has hidden. Through the character of Celie, the author is able to present her message of sexual liberation and self-determination for women. Through Celie’s voice, which speaks in Black folk English, life in the world of a poor, Black, rural sharecropper family unfolds. In the beginning of the story, Celie is a young girl who has been raped by her stepfather, who later sells her to Albert, her husband. Both men treat Celie cruelly and without any regard for her needs or feelings. Celie is forbearing and a hard worker, for which everyone praises her. When Albert’s mistress, Shug, comes to live with them, Celie becomes liberated from her oppression because of Shug’s intervention on her behalf, and because she learns to stand up for herself with Shug’s encouragement.
Corrine is the Reverend Samuel’s wife. Corrine and Samuel are missionaries who adopt Celie’s children. Nettie becomes their helper, and the missionaries leave for Africa with Nettie and the children. When Corrine dies in Africa, Nettie marries Samuel. She and Samuel, along with their adopted children, Adam and Olivia, return to America when war breaks out in Africa. Adam’s African wife, Tashi, also comes to America with them.
Grady is Shug Avery’s husband, whom she brings to meet Celie and Albert later in the story after some absence from Celie and Albert’s home. Shug and Grady return in a sporty car.
Harpo is Albert’s son. Harpo marries Sofia and they have five children. In his relationship with Sofia, Harpo tries to live up to his father’s role as the domineering male. Because Sofia is a strong-willed young lady, she becomes disgusted with the way Harpo treats her and leaves him for a time. When she returns with a boyfriend, Harpo is jealous. Eventually, they get back together, but their relationship changes. Harpo accepts her strong character and stops trying to dominate her.
Warden Tom Hodges
Warden Tom Hodges is the officer in charge of the prison where Sofia is sent after she insults the mayor’s wife. When his niece, Squeak, comes to see him in an effort to get Sofia released from prison, Hodges rapes her. Walker uses this scene to illustrate the mentality of racism in the South during the period of the novel. Hodges is the brother of Squeak’s white father. Because his niece is Black on her mother’s side, Hodges has no qualms about sexually assaulting her.
Kate is one of Albert’s sisters. On one of her visits she tells Albert to buy Celie some clothes.
Mama is Celie’s mother, who is sickly and dies in the early part of the story. When she refuses to have sex with her husband, Albert, he rapes Celie.
Sofia has a run-in with the mayor of the town and is jailed for insulting the mayor and his wife.
Millie is the mayor’s wife, with whom Sofia has a run-in. Sofia insults Millie and is arrested. After serving her sentence, Sofia is freed only to become the live-in caretaker of Millie’s children.
Nettie is Celie’s younger sister. She is saved from a fate like Celie’s because she has been taken in by the Reverend Samuel and his wife, Corinne. When they leave for Africa on missionary work, Nettie goes with them. Nettie’s letters to Celie are written in standard English to reflect the fact that she received a better education than Celie. In her letters to Celie, Nettie tells her a great deal about Africa, which comes to represent the larger world as well as African American ethnic identity in the novel. When the reverend’s wife dies, Nettie marries him. She continues to raise his adopted children, who happen to be Celie’s by her stepfather. Nettie returns to America and reunites Celie with her children.
Odessa is Sofia’s sister. She takes care of Sofia’s children when Sofia is sent to jail.
Olivia is Celie’s daughter by her stepfather. She was adopted by the Reverend Samuel and his wife, Corinne, along with her brother, Adam, who was also one of Celie’s children. Olivia returns to America with the reverend, Nettie, Adam, and his wife, Tashi, and is reunited with Celie, her birth mother.
When Sofia returns home after leaving Harpo for a substantial absence, she brings a prizefighter with her. He is her boyfriend, and Sofia uses him to make Harpo jealous.
Reverend Samuel is the missionary who adopts Celie’s children from Albert. Celie does not know they have been adopted. She thinks Albert killed them. The reverend, his wife, and Nettie, who has been taken in by them, leave with the children for Africa to do some missionary work there. After the reverend loses his wife, he marries Nettie.
Sofia is one of the three major female characters in the story who have a positive influence on Celie. Celie sees how Sofia stands up for herself to Harpo and to the white community as well. When Sofia becomes disgusted with Harpo’s behavior toward her, she leaves him for awhile. When she returns, she taunts him with her new boyfriend, a prizefighter. Eventually, Sofia and Harpo reunite in a different relationship. When she is insulted by the mayor’s wife, she talks back and causes a scene, for which she is arrested and thrown in jail.
Squeak becomes Harpo’s girlfriend after Sofia leaves him. When Sofia returns she is quite nasty to her, but she also helps Sofia out when she is jailed for standing up for herself from being insulted by white people. When Squeak intercedes for her with her white uncle, Warden Tom Hodges, she is raped by him.
Swain is the musician who performs at the jukejoint Harpo has built.
Tashi is Adam’s African wife, who comes to America with him and the rest of the missionary family when they flee Africa to escape hostilities there.
Tobias is Albert’s brother, who comes to visit Shug while she is sick at Albert’s house. He brings some chocolate, and they socialize while Celie teaches Shug to quilt.
Last Updated on June 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786
The protagonist of The Color Purple is Celie, a woman whose life is traced over a thirty-year period, from the age of fourteen on a poor sharecropper’s farm to success as a middle-aged pants manufacturer. More than half of the novel consists of her letters, addressed first to God and then to her missionary sister, Nettie. The epistolary (letter-writing) format guarantees that readers see the story entirely from Celie’s point of view, and it affords them the opportunity to trace her growth from ignorant child, to abused and despairing wife, to lesbian lover, to independent and self-assured businesswoman. The reader tends to sympathize with Celie, who is based on Walker's great-grandmother, an enslaved woman raped by her owner when she was twelve years old. And perhaps part of the power of the presentation of Celie is due to the fact that another prototype for her was Alice Walker herself: having been blinded in one eye with a BB gun at age eight and raised on a poor Georgia farm, Walker felt she was ugly as a child: “I felt old, and because I was unpleasant to look at, filled with shame.”
As Celie's self-image improves dramatically in the course of the novel, she never resorts to physical or verbal aggression, and she never indulges in self-pity. Even so, there are serious problems with her characterization. As Trudier Harris points out, Celie’s growth “is frequently incredible and inconsistent”; a more blunt commentator, Maria K. Mootry-Ikerionwu, believes that Celie “comes across as a bit stupid and elemental.” True, Walker is trying to make the point that Celie’s unfortunate situation is largely the result of her stultifying environment, but Nettie, the product of the same environment, seems vastly more intelligent and assertive than Celie. This discrepancy is partly the result of Nettie’s escape from that milieu at an early age and is magnified by the differences in the sisters’ speech (Black folk dialect versus standard English); but there still seems to be some justice in Mootry-Ikerionwu's remark that “after 200 pages the reader suspects [Celie is] a case of arrested mental development.”
A deeper, more memorable character is Shug Avery. With her mannish directness and low-cut dresses, Shug (short for “Sugar”) comes across as a tough but tender bisexual with a special passion for weak, physically attractive men. Immune to guilt, she fully enjoys the material goods and sexual favors which her musical ability and unorthodox attitudes have brought her, and of all the characters in The Color Purple she seems to be the most physically whole. Some parts of her characterization do seem untenable, however. How can she be so loving with Celie but so callous about her illegitimate children? And how are readers to respond to a woman who enters into sexual liaisons with no thought for the feelings of anyone else? Challenging sex-role stereotyping is one thing; amorality is quite another. Shug is a more interesting character than Celie, but she is also more problematic.
The least successful major character in The Color Purple is Nettie. Although it is clear that her growth into a missionary is meant to parallel and illuminate Celie’s growth into a successful designer and manufacturer, the fact is that Nettie is too remote from Celie—intellectually, experientially, and geographically—to have any sort of relevance for her. Worse, she means nothing to the reader. Her letters from Africa, which constitute almost half the novel, reveal little about her except for an unappealing pedantry: the reader tires quickly of her lectures on European colonialism in Africa and the condition of British teeth, and even her religious faith seems cloying and naive at times. Far from being an enriching “foil” character for Celie, Nettie is simply a “flat” one.
The plethora of other characters in The Color Purple also suffer from varying degrees of flatness. Celie’s daughter-in-law Sofia seemed to have potential as a fascinating character early in the novel, but after her prison term she seems pallid. The various male characters barely come to life; and although that is understandable for a book written by someone whose admitted career-long interest is Black women, it becomes a problem when Walker attempts to drive home her identity theme by transforming Mr. from a sex-crazed brute to a tender-hearted seamstress. This is worse than unconvincing; it is ludicrous. The flurry of characters who suddenly emerge at the end of The Color Purple (e.g., Henrietta, Miss Eleanor Jane) transparently exist for the sole purpose of conveying particular themes. Although Walker’s handling of characterization is said to be better in this novel than in her previous two efforts, it is still not a strong element of her fictional art.