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 Grounded in the folk life of African Americans living in the Deep South, Celie is simple yet good, withdrawn yet able to emerge from her self-preserving stoicism.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.