The book begins about 30 years before World War II. It covers the first half of the 20th century, as we follow Celie through thirty or forty years of her life. The setting of Celie’s story is unmistakably among poor blacks in rural areas of the South. As a poor black woman in the rural south, Celie’s bad treatment is largely ignored. Having very little exposure to education or the outside world, Celie lives most of her life very isolated and ignorant.
Celie starts to learn more about herself and the world from people who enter into her life from very different settings than her own. Shug Avery comes from the city – Memphis, Tennessee – where she lives a much more liberated life than Celie. Shug owns her own home, has a car, wears fashionable clothing, is outspoken, and thinks life is meant to be enjoyed. When Celie leaves home and joins Shug in Memphis, Celie also becomes more liberated. Whereas Celie had never before even dreamed of wearing pants (to her they were men’s clothes), Celie now starts a company making pants for both men and women. She also learns to speak up for herself.
Celie’s world is also dramatically expanded as a result of her sister’s travels in Africa. Living a poor, downtrodden life in the South, Celie had never stopped to consider her African heritage until Nettie sends letter describing the West African village she’s living in. Nettie describes her first experiences in Africa as "magical." For the first time, Celie (via Nettie’s letters), comes to see black people not as downtrodden, but as beautiful, noble, and proud. Celie learns that the first humans in the world were black people, originating in Africa. She also learns that Africans had an extremely rich culture and had thriving civilizations far before Europeans did. Although the Olinkan village that Nettie lives in eventually is destroyed by Europeans, through the African setting, both Celie and Nettie begin to feel that their black heritage is a source of pride rather than a cause for shame. They learn that though black people are currently oppressed, that wasn’t always the case, and therefore need not be the case in the future.
Eventually, Celie can return back to her home in Georgia from Memphis, taking with her what she has learned from Memphis and Africa. She goes home, but brings a sense of freshness and the lessons she has learned. In addition, she no longer lives in somebody else’s home: not Pa’s home, not Mr.__’s home, and not even Shug’s. Celie now has her own house, which she inherited from her mother, in which she can live life as she chooses.