Study Guide

The Color Purple Themes

By Alice Walker

  • Violence

    Violence: It's not the answer.

    Still, there's a whole lot of it in The Color Purple. Most of the black female characters in this book tend to be victims of violence, and men attempt to exert their dominance over women—particularly their wives—by beating and raping them.

    The way female characters react to violence varies dramatically. Celie suffers repeated violence from both her father and husband and reacts by shutting down emotionally and being very submissive. Other female characters, however, prove their strength in the face of violence. After suffering so much abuse, many women prove that they will not be dragged down. Eventually, when Celie realizes the extent of the emotional violence committed against her, she finds the strength and the willpower to leave her husband and start a new life.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is the majority of the violence experienced by Celie physical or psychological? Does Celie see one kind of violence as worse than the other?
    2. How does Celie react to violence? How do other characters, like Sofia and Squeak, react to violence?
    3. Who is the most violent character in the novel? Why?
    4. Are love and violence in this novel mutually exclusive?

    Chew on This

    Physical violence may be evil but sinning against another person’s spirit—or emotional violence—is the worst sin of all, according to the characters in this book.

  • Religion

    Celie narrates The Color Purple through a series of letters, most of which are addressed to God. She initially imagines God as an old white man, something like Dumbledore or Gandalf. But as a black woman who's been abused by men all her life, Celie eventually begins to rebel against this image of God. She begins to see God as genderless and raceless, a more universal being who wants humans to enjoy all aspects of life—from nature to sex to the color purple. Sure, this may be a different expression of spirituality than we're used to seeing, but we find it pretty darn inspiring. What would your God look like?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Are the characters in The Color Purple religious? Why or why not?
    2. Does religion help any of the characters work through their problems or bear their suffering?
    3. Are religion and faith the same thing to these characters?
    4. How do Celie's, Nettie's, and Samuel’s ideas about God and religion change over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Though both Nettie and Celie make peace with God and their faith, they ultimately have no use for organized religion.

  • Race

    The Color Purple has a lot to say about race in America. At the beginning of the novel, Celie is extremely downtrodden—almost to the point of being defeated. As an African-American female living in the pre-Civil Rights South, she sees nothing in her race to be particularly proud of. Remember, these were the days of legal segregation and Jim Crow laws; African-Americans were frequently the targets of bitter discrimination. Black women in this book are far too often victims of violent crimes committed by white men. However, as Celie learns about the rich cultures and civilizations that existed in Africa and reimagines her own vision of God, she gains some pride in her ethnic heritage. And you know what? So do we. You go, Celie.

    Questions About Race

    1. Is race or gender a more important factor with respect to prejudice in this book?
    2. Think about the white characters in the novel. Are they portrayed positively or negatively?
    3. How do the characters grow in their understanding of race and ethnicity? Which ones come to new understandings? Is that important to the novel?

    Chew on This

    Though whites have made Nettie’s life difficult, it is African attitudes toward African-Americans that affect her most because she realizes there is no universal brotherhood among people of the black race.

    Though many characters in The Color Purple experience racial oppression, Celie’s life is separate enough from whites that she never does.

  • Love

    The Color Purple can be a harsh read at times, but it's ultimately a book about the power of love—both romantic and familial. Celie's first experience with love comes from her relationship with her little sister Nettie, whom she fiercely protects, even when it means sacrificing her own wellbeing. For the majority of Celie's life, Nettie is the only person she loves—and is also the only one to return the feeling to Celie. Celie's father and husband are anything but loving to her, and she experiences romantic love for the first time with another woman. In this novel, love isn’t necessarily about fidelity, and certainly isn’t about gender or marriage. Love is about self-sacrifice, respect, and unconditional care.

    Questions About Love

    1. Who is loved and who loves in The Color Purple? What are the different types of love? Ultimately, is sexual love very important in this novel?
    2. What are different characters’ definitions of love?
    3. Is love faithful and constant—or fickle? Or both? Why?
    4. Celie says that Shug is good at loving people. In what ways is this the case?

    Chew on This

    Though Celie was abused and love-starved, her relationship with Nettie prepared her for true love when it finally came around.

    Although Shug loved many and loved well, she was unable to love one at a time. Thus, The Color Purple seems to make the argument that healthy love is not necessarily monogamous.

  • Family

    Celie's main concept of family is the connection she feels toward her sister Nettie. Though physically separated from all of her family members, Celie maintains her love and affection for her sister and two children for over thirty years. If that's not love, we don't know what is. During her separation from her biological family, Celie becomes so close to her friends that when she and Nettie are finally reunited, she refers to Shug and Albert as "her people." This reminds us that family can be whoever sticks with you through thick and thin.

    Questions About Family

    1. Is family something people belong to by blood or by choice in The Color Purple?
    2. What is the definition of "family" in The Color Purple?
    3. Who are Celie’s family members?

    Chew on This

    Because they are separated from their blood relations, both Celie and Nettie create families from scratch with the imperfect people that come into their lives.

  • Marriage

    In The Color Purple, most of the marriages we see are pretty miserable. Married people rarely love each other and, even when they do, they use violence to try to control their spouse’s behavior. Romantic relationships also aren’t limited to marriage. This book is full of characters fluidly trading spouses and lovers. The one stable marriage we see exists between Nettie and the Reverend, but their relationship isn’t necessarily better or happier than Celie's relationship with Shug. We don't know about you, but we think Walker might have some things to say about marriage. This gets us thinking—is marriage really all it's cracked up to be?

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Does anybody have a happy marriage?
    2. Marriage, it is often said, is not about love. It’s about helping people grow and about raising children. Is this statement true in The Color Purple? Why or why not?
    3. If you were to write a definition of marriage after reading this novel, what would it be?
    4. Why does Celie choose not to re-marry Mr.__/Albert when he proposes to her near the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    In The Color Purple, marriage is an institution that serves few purposes other than a method and a means for men to control women.

    Though men and women take marriage seriously in The Color Purple, it does not imply monogamy.

  • Sex

    For much of The Color Purple, Celie sees sex as a form of violence and control, or, at best, as an uninspiring obligation to her husband. That is, until she meets a very inspiring woman named Shug. Shug defines "virginity" as an emotional state, rather than a physical one: If you haven’t enjoyed sex, you’re still a virgin. A pretty different attitude than that of, say, the Duggar family. Shug affirms the goodness of sex by straight-up stating that God created sex for humans to enjoy, and guess what? Celie's down. Although Celie had her physical virginity ripped away from her when she was raped by her stepfather, she gives up her emotional virginity through blissful experiences with Shug. We think it's well-deserved. 

    Questions About Sex

    1. Who enjoys sex and who doesn’t? Why?
    2. Is sex associated at all with love? If so, how? If not, why not?
    3. Do other characters agree with Shug that God created sex and it’s a beautiful thing?

    Chew on This

    Although sex is a normal, everyday thing to most characters in this novel, Shug suggests that it transcends the everyday and becomes something sacred and divine.

    Although Celie has already had several children and two sexual partners when she meets Shug, she is indeed a virgin.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Early on in The Color Purple, Celie begins to explain that she doesn’t look at men because they scare her. Instead, she looks at women. Women are the only people who have ever been kind to her. Celie's sexual identity becomes that of a woman who loves a woman. In this novel, sexuality isn’t about loving one gender or the other—it’s about loving individual people. And in Celie's case, she just happens to love a woman. This element of the story has proven controversial over the years, but we think Celie deserves all the love she can get. 

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Does Celie actually identify as a lesbian, or is she just somebody who happens to love Shug?
    2. Do Shug and Sofia have more stereotypically male or female qualities?
    3. Does Celie begin to act in a traditionally masculine or feminine way after she leaves Mr.__? Are the pants a symbol of her sexual identity or not?
    4. Is Celie a person at all before she falls in love with Shug?

    Chew on This

    The Color Purple indicates that love has nothing to do with a person’s sexual identity. Love happens where it happens and nobody can predict it or stop it.

  • Women and Femininity

    In The Color Purple, many female characters are faced with a tough choice: fiercely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) fight against men's attempts to oppress them, or completely submit and get trampled all over. How's that for a cruddy situation? The only women able to stand up for themselves without severe repercussions are the ones who are economically independent, and they're few and far between. Women’s situations can improve, however, when women band together and support each other—like when Destiny's Child banded together and sang this classic song. All the women who independent: Throw your hands up at us.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What does it mean to be a woman in this novel? What do men think of women? What do women think of other women?
    2. Do women find comfort and solidarity with other women?
    3. Which women present strong figures? Is their behavior to be emulated?
    4. Is there a woman held up as the epitome of womanhood in this novel? Who is it and why is she the model? Do you think she’s a good model of femininity?

    Chew on This

    Although women are universally oppressed in The Color Purple, all of them learn to stick up for themselves. Ultimately, men fail to hold onto their power because the women in their lives refuse to abide by it.

    In The Color Purple, men see women as objects to control; to have a healthy relationship, the book implies that most of these women have to turn to other women, like Shug and Celie.