Teaching Approaches

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Last Updated on September 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1877

Theme Revealed Through Symbols: Many of the objects in Celie’s life carry symbolic meaning, such as the quilt that she sews with Sofia, the mailbox, and the pants she sells after moving to Memphis with Shug. The frequent use of symbolism in The Color Purple encourages readers to contemplate both the literal and figurative meanings of objects and how they develop the text’s major themes.

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  • For discussion: Describe the objects that you find significant in The Color Purple. What abstract ideas do these objects represent? Which of the story’s main themes are revealed or developed by these objects?
  • For discussion: As suggested by the novel’s title, purple carries great significance in Celie’s life. What does purple seem to represent? What objects in the book are purple? How does purple develop the novel’s themes?
  • For discussion: Which objects or colors in your own life are symbolic? How so? Compare and contrast the objects you find personally important with the objects that Celie finds important.

The Complexity of Racial Identity and Racism: Celie lives in the American South in the middle of the 20th century, and thus race and racism are major issues addressed in the text. Furthermore, Nettie’s experiences while living among the Olinka invites a consideration of the complexity of racism, particularly within communities that are being exploited or colonized. The characters in the novel understand their racial identities in a variety of ways and experience racism in a variety of ways. The novel thus invites a nuanced conversation around these topics.

  • For discussion: Why is Celie insecure about the darkness of her skin, given that she lives primarily among other black Americans? Why does she think she would feel more attractive if she had lighter skin? 
  • For discussion: Why is Nettie so surprised by her experiences in Africa? What does she learn about the Olinka? How do the Olinka feel about black Americans? 
  • For discussion: Why is Eleanor so surprised and hurt when Sofia refuses to praise her son? What does the exchange between them reveal about the sacrifices that Sofia was forced to make?
  • For discussion: In what ways do the black Americans and the Olinka participate in their own oppression? What function might their participation serve? 

Themes Revealed Through Characterization: Through Celie’s first-person account, readers gain access to her thoughts, feelings, and experiences as she matures and navigates the world. As Celie writes about her experiences, aspects of her character are often revealed through her interactions and relationships with other characters—especially other women, such as Sofia and Shug. The Color Purple can be read as a coming-of-age story in which Celie develops from a helpless, passive, and quiet girl into an independent, assertive, and vocal woman. 

  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Celie’s character traits at the beginning and at the end of the novel. What has she learned? How has her perspective changed? What has she had to overcome?
  • For discussion: Sofia can be read as a character foil for Celie. Compare and contrast Sofia’s and Celie’s character traits, especially regarding their approaches to dealing with abusive husbands. What do the contrasts between Sofia and Celie reveal about Celie? What do they reveal about the novel’s themes? 
  • For discussion: Broadly speaking, how do the relationships Celie forms with women differ from the relationships she forms with men? How do the men in Celie’s life function in the text? How do they treat and relate to Celie? What do they reveal to readers about the story’s themes? 
  • For discussion: How does Celie’s use of language characterize her and her surroundings? How do you think Celie’s lack of formal education shapes her worldview?

A Study of Epistolary Form: The Color Purple is written in epistolary form, meaning that the story is conveyed through a series of letters. When read together, Celie’s letters advance plot events and develop characters and themes in ways that make for an entirely different reading experience than that of a conventional novel. Analyzing the novel’s epistolary form opens up a rich exploration of the storytelling and characterization therein.

  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the reading experience of an epistolary novel and a conventional novel. How does the plot unfold? How are characters introduced and developed? Do you prefer one over the other? Which one, and why? 
  • For discussion: Many of the letters in The Color Purple are never received by the people they are intended for. Why are letters so frequently hidden or simply not read by the intended readers? What would be the impact if Mr. ____ did not hide Nettie’s letters to Celie? 
  • For discussion: The epistolary form typically limits readers’ understanding of the plot to a single character’s point of view. As a result, certain details about events or about other characters may be influenced by bias or prejudice. Is Celie a reliable narrator? How about Nettie, whose letters are sometimes included with Celie’s? Why or why not? What would be the impact if Walker chose to use an omniscient narrator or a typical first-person narrator instead of letters? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the styles of Celie’s and Nettie’s letters. How does the epistolary form enable Walker to convey information about her characters? How might the intended recipients of the letters impact their style and content?

An Examination of Gender Roles: The gender roles assumed by men and women are important in the world of the novel, especially in the context of family life. Men are expected to perform manual labor, whereas women are expected to attend to housework and childcare while obeying the patriarch of the family. The novel invites readers to question the validity and necessity of these fixed roles.

  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the different responsibilities of men and women in the novel. How is each gender supposed to behave? What types of jobs or roles do they fulfill? How do they treat each other? 
  • For discussion: Describe the relationships between men and women in the story. How do men and women relate to each other? Why do so few positive relationships exist? 
  • For discussion: How do the social and historical contexts of the story shape the ways men and women relate to one another? How do those contexts shape the roles men and women adopt?
  • For discussion: Nettie and Shug Avery are two of the novel’s only characters who do not lead traditional lives expected of women by society. How are Nettie and Shug different from most of the traditional women in the story? (How) Do they escape the confines of gender roles? 

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • Ask students to trace events in the novel to actual historical occurrences. How is Celie’s experience reflected in history? What do her letters reveal about what it was like to be a black American woman in the middle of the 20th century? Which of her experiences seem to be reflected by current events?
  • Which abusive characters are reformed by the end of the novel? Which characters finally learn to empathize with the people they have treated so terribly? Why do they seem to feel bad for being abusive? What roles do violence and abuse have in developing the themes of the novel?


Tricky Issues To Address While Teaching

Content Notice: The Color Purple describes specific occurrences of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. The novel as a whole deals with racism, misogyny, and violence.

The Vernacular Diction and Syntax May Be Unfamiliar: The novel’s narration—in the hands of both Celie and Nettie—draws on vernacular words, phrases, sentence structures, and punctuation. Such vernacular language may prove challenging to some students, especially upon first encountering the text.

  • What to do: Encourage students to highlight any passages or linguistic patterns that are particularly difficult to parse. As a class, discuss the denotative and connotative meanings of the highlighted language.

There Is a Popular Film Adaptation of The Color Purple: As is common with influential texts, some students might have already seen the film version of The Color Purple before reading the novel. Still others may watch the film instead of reading the book. 

  • What to do: Remind students that movies and books are different media, so even if a movie recounts a text faithfully, reading the text will be an inherently different experience from watching the movie. 
  • What to do: Point out to students that the movie conveys a subjective interpretation of the story and is not an exact reconstruction. Therefore, the film cannot be substituted for the text. 


Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Color Purple

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching The Color Purple, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.

  • Focus on the character of God. Celie’s relationship with God changes significantly over the course of the novel, especially under Shug Avery’s influence. Compare and contrast the character traits Celie ascribes to God at the beginning and at the end of the novel. What kind of God does Celie initially believe in? What is he like? How do her beliefs change? How does Celie’s relationship with God relate to white supremacy and, later, to nature? 
  • Focus on names and identity. Many characters in The Color Purple have nicknames. Celie implies that to be called by anything other than one’s name erases some degree of one’s identity. Why does she advise Squeak to insist that Harpo call her by her real name? How might calling people by their given names be a sign of respect? Why does Celie refer to her husband as Mr. ____ until the end of the story? 
  • Focus on the inversion of the Adam and Eve story. The Olinka believe in an inverted myth about Adam and Eve, the biblical first man and woman. What does the Olinka’s version of the Adam and Eve story suggest about how they feel about white people, especially the Europeans who have been actively colonizing their land? How might their Adam and Eve story be empowering? 
  • Focus on entertainment as an acceptable occupation for women. There are few roles for women in The Color Purple aside from marriage and motherhood. However, Shug Avery and Squeak gain their independence by singing in bars. Shug is so successful that she becomes wealthy. Given that women have few professional opportunities in Celie’s world, why might entertainment be considered an acceptable profession? What does this suggest about how Celie’s culture values women? 
  • Focus on relationship dynamics between women. Celie and the rest of the women in her community endure significant oppression and abuse. Much of Celie’s self-hatred arises from how terribly men have treated her. However, Celie’s relationships with women become especially important as she begins to form an identity outside of the one that Pa and Mr. ____ forced her to assume. Which relationships with other women are the most important to Celie? Why? How would you characterize those relationships? What does she learn from them?

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