Introduction to The Color Purple
Comprising letter writing or epistolary style, the novel, The Color Purple, appeared in the United States for the first time in 1982 and instantly led to controversies and brouhaha on the national front on account of its thematic strands. Alice Walker, the writer, also hit the new heights of fame when the novel won Pulitzer the very next year followed by National Book Award with various offers for adaptions. The twisted story of Celie and Nettie takes place in the rural areas of Georgia in the United States during the decade of 30s around the Great Depression. The novel has made it to the list of the 100 best novels of all time. In 2003, the book appeared on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s “best-loved novels!”
Summary of The Color Purple
Two African American sisters after bearing the brunt of the wrath of their stepfather, Alphonso, are waiting for some assistance. Celie, the elder one, hits upon the idea of writing letters to God to save her siblings. All her efforts, however, go in vain as she becomes pregnant with her stepfather, who had already impregnated her once. Now she gives birth to her first son, Adam, whom Alphonso takes from her, and causes her to be pregnant the second time, giving birth to a girl, Olivia. Yet, Alphonso again appears to abduct the baby, disappearing with her. Later, Celie learns that somebody Mister is ready to marry Nettie, who is just 12 years of age, but seeing them getting out of his clutches, Alphonso flatly rejects the proposal of Mister Albert for Nettie and accepts for Celie. However, it turned out a mismatch on account of the age differences and the brutal behavior of Mister Albert against Celie, who has to take care of his household as well as his children. Celie leads a pitiful life as she has to do everything and also be beaten and raped by Mr.Albert.
Meanwhile, not seeing any other way out, Nettie, too, joins Celie. Mr. Albert asks Nettie to reward him if she wanted to stay in the house. So, Nettie escapes but is followed by Mr. Albert. However, Celie presumes that Nettie is dead. Shortly after that Mister’s son, Harpo marries Sofia after having impregnated her. Despite his father’s fierce resistance to their marriage, he not only marries Sofia but also has five children from her. Yet, Sofia never becomes submissive before Harpo; rather she makes him dance at her tunes despite Celie’s instigations to Harpo, who finally submits to his father instead of his wife but when he again confronts Sofia, she not only retaliates but also confronts Celie for causing this instigation, making her seek an apology and join hands with her against the brutal duo. Soon Mister takes another lady, Shug Avery, and brings her home, causing Celie to fall to her charms. Despite his father’s estrangement, Mister succeeds in having her at his house after making his father believe that her children are actually his own. Celie, meanwhile, becomes her nurse and befriends her. On the other hand, not seeing Harpo becoming good anymore, Sofia finally leaves him, while Harpo arranges a juke point for Shug to sing after which she becomes closer to Celie. When Harpo hooks Squeak, a new girlfriend, Sofia suddenly visits and thrashes her despite enjoying life with a fighter. The police attack her brutally after breaking Mary’s teeth, sending her behind the bars for 12 years.
Squeak, taking pity, asks Hodges, the sheriff for her release, but is raped by him after which she takes care of Sofia’s household. Sofia is released after some time. On the other hand, Shug helps Celie know about her sister, Nettie whom Mister has been keeping at a secret place. She comes to know later that she has gone to African with a couple, Corrine and Samuel, after they have adopted her son, Adam, and daughter, Olivia. However, Corrine becomes suspicious about her husband’s relationship with Nettie and tries to place restrictions on her. On the other hand, Nettie, too, discloses her disillusionment of preaching in Africa after which she again prods Samuel of the adoption of Olivia and Adam after which she comes to know about the reality of Alphonso, her stepfather, and the past of her real father. She, then, informs him about her relationship with the children as their aunt. It soon happens that Nettie starts becoming religious, impacting Celie whom Shug advises about the existence of God. Then all three, Shug, Celie, and Squeak join hands to end patriarchal oppression. Soon Alphonso breathes his last, leaving everything for Celie, while Shug marries Germaine, causing worries to Celie who still loves her.
Meanwhile, Celie learns about the edification of Mister whom she starts calling Albert yet she rejects his proposal. She leaves Albert and curses him while doing so. When Celie comes to know about Shug having left Germaine, she also feels that she can live without him . Celie starts living a financially comfortable life and Shug returns and decides on retirement. Nettie, on the other hand, marries Samuel and comes back to America, while Adam and Olivia, too, become adults after which Adam marries an African American girl. Celie ends the story with a letter on how happy she is at the moment!
Major Themes in The Color Purple
- Religion: The novel, The Color Purple, shows its theological thematic strand through the presence of God who is abstract as well as dependable in the beginning but highly ambivalent and unresponsive after Celie does not feel invigorated on account of her marriage. However, this perspective quickly changes when she meets Shug who teaches her how to feel loved by God instead of considering the physical persona of God as in colors; white or black. This divine perspective not only challenges the traditional social thinking about God but also sets a new pattern to see God through the blessings a person is blessed with. Shug’s thinking seeps into her psyche so much so that she learns to appreciate her own pleasure and the world around her. Therefore, this transfusion of God from a physical to ethereal persona and then into something spiritual living in her goodness inspires her to learn about things religious in nature through her own understanding.
- Creativity: Creativity is another dominant theme of the novel, The Color Purple. The African American community, considered not intelligent in the matter of spoken or written language correctly, has been represented by Celie, Shug, and Nettie using that language efficiently to communicate philosophical and abstract ideas. However, this use comprises their own accent, style, dance, and gestures. Celie expresses this creativity through her letters written to God, while Shug makes her understand the same theological outreach through her songs and dance. Similarly, Nettie, too, writes letters to her sister which, despite their unresponsiveness, continues. This shows human communication and creativity which does not stay dormant even in the face of discrimination and subsequent oppression and suppression.
- Hope: The novel also highlights the theme of hope despite the worst through which Celie and Nettie have to go through. Celie thinks that even if she has children from her stepfather, they need to have a good future for which she finds Samuel and Corrine very loving due to their religious zeal. She is of the view that Nettie’s help in educating them will secure them a good place in society that they could not achieve otherwise. That is why Olivia works very hard, the reason that the theme of hope appears at various other places too, such as through Doris Baines, a white preacher. His passion for educating his family is based on the good hope for the future, while Eleanor Jane’s love for Sofia, too, is based on the hope that she would bring up her son as a good man.
- Femininity: The novel presents the theme of femininity through its strong female characters who have been put into very vulnerable situations and shown coming out victoriously with hope and resilience. Celie becomes a paragon of resilience despite being impregnated by her stepfather and giving birth to two children from him. It is because she does her best not only to save her children but also her younger sister, Nettie. Similarly, she sides with Sofia to hound Harp and when the chance arises, she switches sides to save Sofia or bring Sofia to her side. Also, it shows that the feminine sympathy also wins support when it is anti-patriarchy, the reason that Sofia finally overpowers Harpo. Shug, too, shows the same resilience as well as dominance when it comes to the assertion of herself. Similarly, Nettie constantly writes to her sister to make her aware of her condition, while Sofia’s sisters assist her by taking care of her kids when she is in jail.
- Color: The theme of color is prominent mostly through the female character of Shug about whom Alice Walker uses colorful terms. She also uses colorful dresses to become seductive, while her gifts comprise yellow and bright colors. This color contrast continues even when both Celie and Kate are on a shopping visit in the case of which Mister’s choice seems dominant to them. Even the songs written by Mary show the dominance of color, yellow, in her tunes and notes. Following this consciousness of colors, Mary Agnes also thinks about them seeping and creeping into her skin.
- Relationships: The novel, The Color Purple, shows the thematic strand of relations and forming relations. Celie, though, initially suffers psychologically, sexually, and physically at the hands of her stepfather, soon learns this skill and marries Mister, an aged man. When Sofia comes to marry her stepson, Harpo, she forms a deep relationship with her and the same goes with Shug. By the end, she learns to experience love and set up her independent business. Similarly, the story also sheds light on twists and turns in relationships such as Sofia’s fight for dominance over Harp and Shug’s likeness for Celie.
- Racism: The theme of race and racism is obvious not only from the title of the novel but also from the background of the characters. Although there is hardly any white character, the life of Celie in the Georgian rural setting and the life of Nettie in the far-off African village show that racial discrimination is marring the social life of Celie, Nettie, and Sofia as well as Harpo and other male members. The consciousness thinking about being a dark-skinned girl having low status constantly reverberates in the mind of Celie, while Sofia, too, suffers from her low status and ends up in prison for injuring Mary Agnes.
- Violence and Suffering: The novel, The Color Purple, shows the theme of violence and suffering as part of the lives of African American families. Not only the African Americans are suffering at the hands of white people such as in the case of Sofia, but they also suffer at the hands of their co-colors such as Celie becomes the victim of sexual and physical torture of her stepfather, an African American male. Shug, too, faces the same fate, though, both join hands to stand up to this atmosphere of torture.
- Self-Discovery: The novel suggests the thematic strand of self-discovery through Cellie, Shug, and Nettie. Celie comes to know her power after she gets freed from the clutches of Mister, while Shug comes to know it after becoming friendly with Celie. Celie also helps Sofia while Nettie comes to know the power of familial love through her assistance to Celie’s children.
Major Characters of The Color Purple
- Celie: Celie is not only the main or central character but also the protagonist through whose eyes the readers see the world of the novel. A 14-year old young girly having caught in the clutches of her stepfather, Celie hardly knows how to get rid of this snare until she learns the power of her sexuality yet she has to save her children as well as her young sister, Nettie, from her stepfather. As time passes, she learns to live with Mister, whom she is wedded with, as well as hopes for the best from God whom she writes directly. After having been awakened by the life experiences, she learns the power of discourse as well as gender and uses it upon Harpo, her stepson, and his wife Sofia, as well as Shug, her female counterpart whom she starts loving. By the end of the novel, she learns about religion, spirituality as well as the power of religion and language in human lives. The journey that she takes from a young and innocent girl to a mature and confident lady, however, does not prove a smooth ride for her.
- Nettie: Younger sister of Celie, Nettie is not only loyal but also an honestly intelligent girl, who immediately makes her way out of the stepfather’s virtual prison after coming to know his predatory behavior. After exploiting her educational capability and opportunity, she leaves for African for preaching with the passion to help her family siblings even if she is away from her sister and proves a good ward for Adam and Oliva, Celie’s siblings. Although Samuel proves a blessing in disguise for her, she has her independent thinking and experience that she demonstrates in her diary entries.
- Alfonso: Often referred to as Pa or Fonso, Alfonso appears in the novel in the early pages and becomes an obsession and stigma for Celie as well as Nettie, though both of them call him Pa. As a symbol of an overbearing patriarch, he not only succeeds in raping Nettie during her early years but also succeeds in silencing Celie, stopping her from writing letters. A selfish predator, he marries Celie to Mister, stopping Nettie’s marriage with the obvious purpose of using her later. Later, he marries Shug Avery and enjoys good life when his son, Harop, marries Sofia. Later, it is proved that he is not their real but stepfather when some white person kills their real father. He dies by the end of the novel.
- Mister: Referred as Albert in the novel, Mr. ——-or Mister is a handsome person who marries Nettie and loves Shug Avery but never marries her. He has set social and conventional barriers in the domestic life of Nettie by stopping her from communicating with her sister. Although by the end of the novel he comes to his senses of having an overbearing attitude toward women, he still stays almost the same and hands over the letters of Nettie to Celie after taking life seriously.
- Harpo: Despite his sensitive nature and loving attitude toward Celie, Harpo is obsessed with his mother and does not see her as a replacement. That is why he could not fit with Sofia for which Celie has to guide him. His consultation with his father plays havoc with his conjugal life including some advice from Celie after which he loses heart and continues living at Sofia’s will.
- Shug Avery: Shug is significant in the novel on account of her Honeybee Queen character as she becomes Celie’s mother-in-law but treats her freely as she becomes fascinated with her looks. Outrageous yet courageous, she takes Celie under her wings and impacts her through her singing popularity. Despite some drawbacks in her character, she exudes confidence that Celie as well as Harpo like in her. In fact, she proves a fresh gale of the breeze in the dry household of Mister, bringing money and entertainment.
- Sofia Butler: Sofia Butler’s character becomes significant in the course of the novel on account of her marriage to Harpo, the son of Mister, and her relationship with Celie and Shug. A domineering lady, she constantly harps on Harpo in a way that Celie has to intervene to advise Harpo on how to handle her. A girl of a fiery temper, she breaks the teeth of Mary Agnes, stays in jail, and comes out again to cause awe and fear among other ladies of the area. What makes her stand tall among other characters is her indomitable spirit and her will to spurn white people at every cost.
- Aunt Odessa: The character of Aunt Odessa is not only significant but also important in that she is the sister of Sofia who has a strong impact on Harpo, Mister’s son, who marries Sofia, and becomes her stooge. She immediately comes to support Sofia when she finds her behind bars on account of causing injuries to Mary.
- Mary Agnes: Popular as Squeak, Mary Agnes appears on the scene when Sofia leaves for prison. Sofia knocks out her teeth when she shows her attitude after Harpo shows his inclination toward her.
- Old Mister: As the father of Albert, Old Mister appears only once, and after berating his son, he disappears. It is he, who causes a stir in the household and brings Albert and Celie close to each other.
Writing Style of The Color Purple
Comprising short letters, the style of the novel, The Color Purple, is very sketchy, haphazard, and disjointed on account of the flashbacks contains in the letters of Celie. However, when the readers end up in the middle, they find the storyline connecting the important dots. This makes it a complete story having all the characters related to each other and helping each other. As the characters are mostly African Americans, they use sub-standard colloquial English which also has been used in the letters. Sentence structure, too, suffers due to this use of colloquial language comprising slang, cliches, metaphors, and similes.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Color Purple
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the life of two African American sisters, Celie and Nettie, with their stepfather and other relations. The falling action occurs when Pa leaves this world, leaving the house for Celie to take care of. The rising action occurs when Celie comes to know about God and the power of sexuality.
- Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. He took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods. Kill this one too, if he can. (p. 09)
ii. An now when I dream, I dream of Shug Avery. She be dress to kill, whirling and laughing. (p. 13)
iii. How good you look. Don’t she look good, Harpo? Harpo stare at me like he never seen me before. (p. 200)
These examples show the repetitious use of “took it”, “kill this”, “I dream” and “
- Allusion: The novel shows good use of different allusions such as,
i. So these Olinka people heard about Adam and Eve from the white missionaries and they heard about how the serpent tricked Eve and how God chased them out of the garden of Eden. (p. 252)
ii. But really white white people lived somewhere else during those times. That’s why the bible says that Jesus Christ had hair like lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is not straight, Celie. It isn’t even curly. (p. 122)
Both of these examples show biblical allusions; the first point to the story of Adam and Eve and the second to Jesus Christ.
- Antagonist: Pa is the antagonist of the novel as he appears to have tried his best to destroy Celie not only physically but also mentally and psychologically.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Celie and Pa and then Celie and Mister, while the internal conflict is going on in the mind of Celie about her status in the world, the reality of God and religion, and the role of the male members in the family.
- Characters: The novel, The Color Purple, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young girl, Celie, is a dynamic character as she shows a considerable transformation in her behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Pa, Mister, Olivia, Shug, and even Nettie.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Celie resolves to join Shug Avery to leave her husband due to his being involved in hiding her sister Nettie’s letters from her.
- Epigraph: The novel shows the use of epigraph such as,
i. Show me how to do like you
Show me how to do it. (Stevie Wonder)
These lines occur in the song of Stevie Wonder. They show how Alice Walker uses it as the epigraph of her novel.
- Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows such as;
i. I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me. (p. 08)
ii. My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. (p. 09)
The use of the words “happening” and “die” shows that Celie is going to confront brutalities in life.
- Hyperbole: The novel shows various examples of hyperboles such as;
i. She bout ten thousand times more prettier then me. I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motocar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some. (p. 13)
ii. She got a fine house in Memphis, another car. She got one hundred pretty dresses. A room full of shoes. She buy Grady anything he think he want. (P. 104)
iii. When us went to town to hear the will read yesterday, you could have knock me over with a feather. Your real daddy owned the land and the house and the store. He left it to your mama. (p. 223)
Both of these examples exaggerate things as beauty, dresses, and shoes, including the role of a feather, have been exaggerated.
- Metonymy: The novel shows the use of metonymy such as,
i. We will fight the white man, they said. But the white man is not alone, said the chief. He has brought his army. (p. 157)
ii. Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. (p. 181)
iii. Then the old devil put his arms around me and just stood there on the porch with me real quiet. (249).
This example shows the white man has been used for the white people, while the man has been used for all the male members of society.
- Metaphor: The Color Purple shows good use of various metaphors such as;
i. Harpo so black he think she bright, but she ain’t that bright. (36)
ii. So and so is blacker than black, he’s blue black.” They are so black, Celie, they shine. Which is something else folks down home like to say about real black folks. (129)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows comparing black to bright and the second black to blue or blue-black and then to a shiny thing.
- Mood: The novel, The Color Purple, shows various moods; it starts with a somber and tragic mood but turns out to be reassuring and hopeful by the end.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, The Color Purple, are color, religion, and letters.
- Narrator: The novel, The Color Purple, has been narrated by the first person, who happens to be Celie, the protagonist of the novel.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as;
i. She so mad tears be flying every which way while she pack. (p. 27)
ii. I think my heart gon fly out my mouth when I see one of her foots come poking out. (p. 49).
iii. Adam has a special aptitude for figures and it worries Samuel that soon he will have nothing more to teach him in this field, having exhausted his own knowledge. (p.52)
iv. And words long buried in my heart crept to my lips. (p. 218).
These examples show as if the tears, heart, knowledge, and words have lives and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Celie is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with her entry into the world and moves forward as she grows young and becomes a lady.
- Repetition: The novel shows the use of repetition such as;
i. You got to fight. You got to fight. (p. 23)
ii. Your skin. Your hair. Your teefs. Everyday it something else to make miration over. First she smile a little. Then she frown. Then she don’t look no special way at all. She just stick close to me. She tell me, Your skin. Your hair, Your teefs. He try to give her a compliment, she pass it on to me. After while I git to feeling pretty cute. (p. 24)
iii. I’ll tell them what to do with their bloody road and their bloody rubber plantations and their bloody sunburned but still bloody boring English planters and engineers. (p. 211)
iv. Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God. (263)
The novel shows a lot of repetitions as shown by these examples such as “You got to fight”, “your”, “bloody”,” and then “dear.”
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as;
Plus What about the scandal his wife cause when somebody kill her? And what about all this stuff he hear bout Shug Avery? What bout that? I ast our new mammy bout Shug Avery. What it is? I ast. She don’t know but she say she gon fine out. (p. 13)
ii. What about all them funny voices you hear singing in church? Shug
say. What about all them sounds that sound good but they not the sounds you thought folks could make? What bout that? Then she start moaning. Sound like death approaching, angels can’t prevent it. (p. 108)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel, The Color Purple, is a small village in Western African and a rural area of Georgia in the United States.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes such as;
i. But she’ll make the better wife. She ain’t smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own. But she can work like a man. (p. 8).
ii. Well, brother must like black. Shug Avery black as my shoe. (p. 20).
iii. The people live like ostriches, never setting foot on the new road if they can help it, and never, ever, looking towards the coast. (p. 157)
These are similes as the use of the word ‘like’ shows the comparison between different things.