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 Grounded in the folk life of African Americans living in the Deep South, Celie is simple yet good, withdrawn yet able to emerge from her self-preserving stoicism.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.
Celie, 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. 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, the defiant wife of Harpo. Big, strong, and ruddy looking, her personality is that of a fighter, and she 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, who 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, 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, Shug’s husband, who moves to Panama with Mary Agnes in order to run a marijuana plantation.
Olivia, Celie’s daughter and oldest child, an independent thinker who is reared in Africa by Samuel and his wife, Corrine, both missionaries.
Adam Omatangu, Celie’s son, 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, 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.