The Color Purple Teaching Approaches
by Alice Walker

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Teaching Approaches

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.

  • 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...

(The entire section is 1,877 words.)