The Color Purple is intended to be like the unedited thoughts that go through a person’s mind. And while there may be one or two humorous moments in the novel, this is not a funny story. This is a novel about utter hardship, sadness, tragedy—and a woman who finally figures out how to beat the odds no matter how badly they are stacked against her. Celie, the primary narrator, takes a serious look at her life via letters to God, expressing the sadness of her life in the healthiest way she can. Her letters to God, and later to Nettie, are very honest. She doesn’t hide the hardship that she’s been through, her embarrassment, or her shame—and that's why we love her.
The Color Purple, which is told through letters that Celie writes to God, plumbs the psychological depths of Celie and touches on the experiences of her sister. It is a story of friendship and sisterly love that spans literally a lifetime. When the story begins, the sisters are in their teens but by the time the story ends, they are both gray-haired old women about to embrace grandchildren.
The Color Purple is one of those books that has such an intriguing title, you can't help but pick it up and figure out what it's all about. The title refers to a moment when Shug Avery asks Celie if she takes the time to notice what little things that God does to show us that it (remember, God is neither he nor she in this book) loves us—a different way of reminding Celie to stop and smell the roses. "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it," Shug says.
Celie is forced to admit that she has, in fact, never observed these things. This admission changes her life—and ours.
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 before Celie had never even dreamed of wearing pants (to her, they were men’s clothes), she 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 letters 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 thriving civilizations far before Europeans did. The Olinkan village where Nettie lives is eventually destroyed by Europeans, but through the African setting, both she and Celie 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 it need not be the case in the future.
Eventually, Celie returns 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 home. Celie now has her own house, which she inherited from her mother, in which she can live life as she chooses.
Show me how to do like you.
Show me how to do it.
Epigraphs can sometimes be hard to decipher; this is one of those times. This quote from Stevie Wonder’s song "Do Like You" may refer to the longing Celie felt to be somebody else, anybody but herself. Because she loved and admired Shug Avery so much, and because Shug Avery was almost everything Celie was not (bold, brassy, sexy, outrageous, pushy), it could reference Celie’s desire to be like Shug.
The Color Purple is composed of very short chapters, written as letters to God, that explain in the shortest possible ways the trials and tribulations Celie (and, later, Nettie) experience. Walker presents Celie’s thoughts in the vernacular, with poor grammar and spelling. These emphasize the point that Celie is not an educated woman. Celie’s letters also tend to touch upon topics briefly and sparsely rather than being developed and embellished in long paragraphs. After Nettie and Celie reconnect, Celie’s letters get longer and more detailed. She is happier in her life, and tends to express joy by writing more.
The color purple represents all the good things in the world that God creates for men and women to enjoy. At the beginning of the book, you could say that Celie has no sense of the color purple. She has such a horrible life, she’s not stopping to smell the roses, she’s just surviving. By surviving, we mean, she’s practically dead emotionally, but is physically alive. Shug is the person who points out the concept of the color purple to Celie. Shug says that God does little things for people, like creating the color purple, just to make people happy and give them pleasure in their lives. God wants people to notice the beauty of his/her creation. According to Shug, enjoying the beauty of creation means all of God’s creation, including sex. Shug teaches Celie that enjoying life is exactly what God wants us to do; it’s a way of expressing our love for God. As Celie does learn to love life, she decorates her bedroom in her own home as all purple and red.
When Celie finally breaks free of Mr.__ and patriarchal society, she becomes a person rather than an oppressed woman. Her transformation into a full, unrepressed woman is symbolized by pants. For most of her life, Celie never wore pants because she (and the society she lived in) considered pants to be men’s clothing. When Celie decides not only to wear pants, but to start a successful business in making pants for both men and women, she has become freed from gender stereotypes. Pants, therefore, are a symbol of liberation from patriarchy and sexism as well as economic liberation.
God is Celie’s salvation for most of the book—by communicating with God through letters, she is able to maintain a certain sanity. Halfway through the book, in a discussion with Shug, Celie confesses that she sees God as a white man with a beard. And since Celie has some serious issues with men, she’s now having some issues with God. Through the remainder of the book, and with the help of Shug, Celie comes to realize that God has no gender and no race. God is not male and God is not white. For a while, Celie strays away from God, preferring to write to Nettie. However, her last letter is again written to God. Now we see that Celie’s notion of God has dramatically changed. Celie’s final entry is addressed to "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God." Not only does Celie see God in nature, but in everything, including her fellow human beings.
The narrative is told in the first-person form of letters. The first half of the book is told completely from Celie’s point of view; she addresses God in a sort of diary form to let God know what’s gone on in her life and the lives of those around her. The second part of the book is told in letters between Nettie and Celie.
Celie’s point of view is particularly interested. Unlike Nettie, Celie is an uneducated woman, having been forced to drop out of school around the age of fourteen when she became pregnant by her Pa. Her lack of education is apparent from her poor spelling and grammar. Nettie, however, is educated. Her spelling and grammar are correct, and her letters discuss more complex topics, such as women’s rights, civil rights, religion, politics, and more. However, it isn’t only Nettie who has an interesting story to tell. Despite Celie’s poor educational background, Celie tells a powerful story. In this sense, Walker’s chosen narrator shows that all people, including poor, uneducated, victimized black women, have an important story to tell.
Celie’s life story begins in darkness and continues in darkness. She is raped, her children are stolen from her, and she’s forced to perpetually sacrifice herself in order to protect her sister Nettie. Celie has no person she can turn to for help—except God. So she starts to write letters to God. These letters provide the impetus for her to communicate her story from beginning to end.
Celie gets married to a jerk but at least she now has a home where she can invite Nettie to stay, a place safe from Pa. As horrible as Celie’s life is, she is able to move on with hope because her sister is still in her life.
Celie’s life is a living hell. Mr. kicks Nettie out of the house because she refuses to sleep with him or give him any kind of encouraging attention. Celie is left alone in a house where no one loves her and she loves no one. All she can do is survive.
Celie’s life actually gets a little better during this stage because she quickly becomes fascinated by and falls in love with Shug. The only problem is, Shug spends her time and her love on Mr.__. Though Celie and Shug eventually become friends, Celie is jealous of Shug’s love for Mr.__ and later of Shug’s husband, Grady. Meanwhile, Celie is still separated from the one person who has loved her all her life: Nettie. And she is still under the power of Mr.__.
When Shug and Celie discover Nettie’s letters—oh, that changes everything. Celie discovers Pa wasn’t her real father and that frees her of the shame of incest. She realizes that Mr.__ is evil for purposefully separating her from Nettie, and that frees her from an obligation to him. Celie leaves Mr.__ and begins her own life, a life free of beatings and bad sex, a life full of someone she loves (Shug) and great sex. Although that doesn’t last, Celie has found peace, a sense of self, and even learns forgiveness. Eventually, Mr.__ changes and the two become friends—just in time for Nettie to return home. When Nettie returns home, Celie owns her own home and a successful small business. With Nettie, Celie’s life seems complete. In fact, she remarks that though they may seem old to the youngsters in their lives, they have never felt younger. The rebirth is true and complete.
As the book opens, we see how thoroughly unprotected Celie is by the adults in her life. Her Pa repeatedly rapes her and Celie gives birth to two children by him. Her mama is sick and mentally ill, dying young. Though Celie’s teacher initially comes out to fight for Celie’s right to continue school, she goes away when she sees Celie is pregnant. It’s not clear to anybody whether it’s better for Celie to stay at her house with Pa or to marry Mr.__ when he comes by looking for a wife to take care of his young children.
Celie is forced to marry Mr.__ and sees this as an opportunity to get Nettie out of Pa’s household. However, Nettie is no safer in Mr.__’s home. When Nettie refuses Mr.__’s come-ons, he kicks Nettie out. Celie is alone now, a continual victim. This central conflict sets up the rest of the novel’s themes: one of exile for Nettie (who ends up in Africa) and one of abandonment/oppression for Celie (who spends much of her life under Mr.__’s thumb).
It seems like Celie will be the complete victim when her husband’s mistress Shug Avery moves in, but Celie is relieved. With Shug around, Mr.__ doesn’t beat her and doesn’t sleep with her. She has some relief, but learns jealousy. Now, Celie competes with Mr.__ for Shug’s attention and affection.
Mr.__ has committed the ultimate crime against Celie: He has intentionally kept Celie separated from the only person in the world she loves and who loves her, Nettie. This knowledge gives Celie the ability to rise up in anger against her husband and no longer be victimized by him. She leaves Mr.__ and follows Shug to Tennessee. From Nettie’s letters, Celie learns that Pa is not her actual father after all, another bit of knowledge that gives her strength. Celie finally takes control of her own life and happiness.
Celie returns home and several things happen: Shug falls in love with somebody else, Mr.__ becomes her friend, and Nettie’s ship sinks when Nettie is on her way home from Africa. But it’s not clear if Nettie’s dead for sure. Although most of the plot is now behind us, there is ongoing suspense as we wonder whether Celie and Nettie will be reunited or not.
Life is good. Nettie comes home and is reunited with Celie. Nettie also is able to introduce Celie to Adam and Olivia, Celie’s two children. Nettie’s exile is over and Celie’s period of abandonment has come to an end.
The novel ends on a note that assures you that life for Celie and the other characters just keeps getting better. Now that she has found a voice and is surrounded by people she loves, Celie comments, "I think this is the youngest us [Celie, Nettie, Shug, Albert, etc.] ever felt."
Celie is raped by her Pa, gives birth to children that are taken away from her, gets married, and loses Nettie. In every possible way, Celie is a victim.
Mr.__’s mistress moves in and Celie falls in love with her. She discovers all the letters from Nettie that Mr.__ hid all these decades. Celie finally finds her voice, stands up for herself, and leaves Mr.__.
Celie starts her own life, indulging her interest in sewing pants and starting a small clothing business. Celie waits for her sister to come home. She learns all about Nettie’s life in Africa and her children, Olivia and Adam. Mr.__ changes and the two of them become friends. Eventually, Shug and Mr.__ become like family. And then, at long last, Nettie comes home—and brings her husband and Celie’s children.