THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
Themes in the novel
The novel deals with the struggle, both in America and in Africa, of women to gain recognition as individuals who deserve fair and equal treatment. Male dominance is the norm in both countries. As Albert says "Men s'pose to wear the pants". It takes various forms, not least of which is sexual aggression. In the very first letter, Celie tells of the abuse she suffers at the hands of the man she believes for a long time is her father. Mary Agnes is raped by the white uncle whom she approaches for help to get Sofia out of prison and Mr (Albert) also tries to force Nettie to submit to him before she leaves the house after fighting him off.
Celie's sexual encounters with her husband, Mr- are sordid and unloving "Just do his business, get off, go to sleep" As Shug remarks, Celie "make it sound like he going to the toilet on you."
Physical violence also seems to be a common occurrence, even in relationships which are quite loving, like that between Harpo and his wife Sofia. He beats her because "the woman s'pose to mind." It is a respectable thing for a man to do to his wife, in his view.
Women are exploited very seriously, especially Celie, who is married off to Albert to look after his children and is expected to work on the farm and submit without objection to all of Albert's demands and those of the children. She is also meant to accept Albert's affair with Shug Avery, which extends even to him sleeping with her under the same roof. In fact fidelity is not seen as an important quality by men, although the same behaviour in females is cause for comment. Notice how the preacher attacks Shug by implication because of her loose lifestyle, but men are allowed to behave as they wish.
The novel's message is that women must stand up against the unfair treatment they receive at the hands of men and that they must do this by helping one another. The women in the novel, even those who have interests in the same men, nevertheless band together to support and sustain one another throughout the novel. The bond of sisterhood is important, both literally in the persons of Nettie and Celie, Sofia and Odessa and metaphorically in the persons of Mary Agnes and Sofia, Albert's sister and Celie, Tashi and Olivia and of course Shug Avery and Celie, who embody the twin roles of sisters and lovers in their relationship.
Some of the women in the novel have learned to fight for themselves. Sofia is powerful and physically strong. She is not subservient and has great strength of character as well. She can and does fight for what she wants, but of course her aggression results in her dreadful experience at the hands of the police after she dares to "talk back" to the white mayor, and her subsequent sentence to drudgery as the mayor's servant lasts for many years. The bond between her and Mary Agnes is stronger than their mutual claim on Harpo's affections. Mary Agnes endures rape for Sofia's sake in order to get her released from prison, and when Mary Agnes goes off to be a singer it is Sofia who looks after her child.
Shug Avery is the most "liberated" of the women in the novel, although she also suffers verbal attack from the church elders because of her lifestyle. Her career as a blues singer enables her to experience much more freedom than the other women whose lives are bound by home, work and child care. She is also much more sexually liberated than many other females, having numerous affairs and enjoying her sexuality with no restraints or false guilt.. She has, also, a strong belief in God which is unfettered by convention and her relationship with Celie is a central theme of the novel. It is Shug who liberates Celie in all aspects of her life, guiding her into emotional, sexual and financial independence and combining the roles of sister, friend and lover. Snug possesses equality because of her own integrity as a person, and she passes this on to Celie. It is no accident that the enterprise which gains Celie her independence is, paradoxically, a "woman's job"- sewing - but the product is trousers, for women to wear.
Masculine and feminine temperament are also addressed in the novel. Shug is described by Albert as being "more manly than most men", but as Celie rightly points out to him, those qualities of independence, honesty and integrity are equally valid as womanly qualities. What the novel asserts is that PEOPLE are weak and strong, and gender should not dictate perceptions of qualities which are essentially human.
A sense of racial tension runs throughout the novel alongside the feminist issues dealt with. Celie is the daughter of a successful Negro store owner, lynched by white men for no other reason than his financial success. All the characters in Celie's family and the extended family she comes into contact with through Shug and her husband's children are the poor exploited blacks of the American South. They are almost exclusively ill educated, badly housed, unable to travel or to better themselves. The exceptions to the rule, Nettie's benefactors, Samuel and Corinne, are unable to progress in their homeland, having to travel to Africa to be "successful" as missionaries. Paradoxically, of course, they are not taken seriously by the Olinka people who they set out to evangelise and save, being regarded by them in the same way as they see white men - interfering and useless. When they return to Europe they are treated with suspicion and unease by the white church elders.
All the characters are poor. When Mary Agnes dresses up to visit her uncle to try to get Sofia released from prison, she looks "like she a white woman, only her clothes patch." There is obviously a huge inequality in terms of education. Nettie and Celie go to school but only while they are not needed for domestic toil. As soon a Celie is married, her education stops. Nettie's is carried on as a result other sister's sacrifice. Most of the characters live in sub standard housing, segregated from the white population. They have their own cemetery; church; school and have to wait in line in stores until whites are served. It is common for white residents to treat Negroes as though they were animals. Deeply offensive things are said and done to them. When Nettie is going to Africa, a white bystander remarks "Niggers going to Africa... now I have seen everything."
The few characters in the story who manage to change their fortunes only serve to emphasise the plight of the rest. Shug Avery is a successful blues singer with a life of comparative luxury, able to travel and earn money. Some of this affluence comes also to Mary Anne, and eventually to Celie when she begins her dressmaking business. Nettie is lucky to be fostered by Samuel and Corinne and with their help achieves a career and education, but the majority of the people have to struggle to survive from day to day, trapped by poverty and ignorance.
Even the poorest of the whites consider themselves superior to any black, no matter how successful. (It is worth noting that the real blues singer, Bessie Smith, upon whom Shug Avery is loosely based, died as a result of being neglected after an accident because she could not be treated in a white hospital) The story of Sofia is the main episode in the novel which illustrates the hazards of being black in Georgia in the thirties (and later) Sofia is spirited and strong, assertive and independent and yet she is reduced to total helplessness when she dares to answer back to the mayor's wife - a spineless creature who is herself as weak as Sofia is strong. Sofia refuses to be patronised. She makes the mistake of "looking like somebody" - driving in a car, an unusual thing in those days for anyone, let alone a black woman and replying to the mayor's wife's offer of menial work with a "Hell, no" The beating she receives is out of all proportion to the offence she committed but the white ruling class shows no mercy to an "uppity nigger". The fact that all of her friends accept what has happened to her shows the extent of the madness of the society of the time. They are able to save her from the prison sentence by a trick, but it does not condone the fact that there was no justification at all for the severity of what was done to her in the first place, or the ten years domestic service she endures being ordered about and patronised every single day. The incident of the Christmas visit home shows how ignorant the whites really are, since Miss Millie has no idea that she is being unfair when she insists on being driven home. Slavery in fact was abolished after the Civil war but it lived on in all but name for almost a century.
In the character of Eleanor Jane, Alice Walker manages to show that it is possible for black and white to mend relationships and begin to understand and accept one another. By the end of the novel Eleanor Jane and Sofia are able to relate like equal women rather than black servant and mistress, but only after Sofia has been brutally honest with the younger woman about the reality of the way she feels about her and her child. Eleanor Jane begins to realise that Sofia is a woman, not a faceless black person like all the rest of her race and even turns on her own parents, demanding to know how a woman like Sofia could work for "trash". The main point to note about the racial prejudice shown by whites to blacks is that it is very often unconscious and all the more insidious because of that.
The church is an important part of the social life of the community in which Celie lives. At the beginning of the novel she is a staunch member of the church, and continues to be so, working as hard there as she does for Mr and his children. Her letters are addressed to God and she says "As long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along." She looks to God as a support and a help although in practice she gets very little help from her fellow church goers.
Her faith is naive and childlike, and it undergoes a number of revisions and alterations as the novel progresses. She realises that the God she needs is not the one she originally envisages. It is significant that she sees him as white and old "like some white man work at the bank.". All the angels are white, too and she comes to realise that this God is useless to her. Nettie's letters begin to show her that Jesus was more like her than a white man "with hair like lamb's wool", not "white" at all. She has been conditioned in her belief by the illustrations in the white interpretations of the bible. Her changing perceptions of God are completed by Shug Avery's unconventional interpretations of God and His purpose. Shug rejects the narrow Church and its false perceptions, preferring to have a personal religion in which God figures "Not as a she or a he but a It." She shares this revelation with Celie - the Gospel According to Shug - in order to worship, a person should "lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy." Shug (and later Celie) admires the natural world and its beauty, in all its richness and variety, including sexuality. In fact there is a strong similarity between sexual satisfaction and worship. Celie comments that she and God "make love just fine" later in the novel. The title of the book is derived from this philosophy. Shug asserts that it "pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field..and don't notice it."
Celie accepts this interpretation as part of her general emancipation and it liberates her as much as her sexual fulfilment with Shug and her economic success both do. By the end of the novel she has found a much more open and relaxed attitude to religious belief and a purpose in her life which was not provided by the narrowness other original church upbringing.
Nettie's religious experience is different to Celie's, being more conventional in the missionary setting in Africa, but she, too arrives at a more relaxed and tolerant outlook as the novel ends Her experiences with the Olinka tribe are educational, in that they show her and Samuel that the conventions of organised religions are often restricting, not liberating as they are meant to be - that the message of the Gospel has to be in harmony with the people receiving it. Her acceptance of the ceremony of the roof leaf as "not Jesus Christ, but.in its own humble way is it not God?" is significant, as is her decoration of her hut with native artefacts rather than the stereotypical images of the missionary Jesus and saints. She ends up with a more spiritual and personal relationship with God as a result of her time in Africa, and like her sister comes to realise that the narrowness of conventional belief and practice closes rather than opens the way to a personal contact with the Almighty.
Both the sisters complete a personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of God as the novel ends. Celie's last letter begins. Dear God, dear stars, dear trees, dear sky dear peoples . Dear Everything. Dear God. Simple, naive in the extreme, but sincere and very optimistic.
THE AFRICAN EXPERIENCE
All Nettie's experiences as a missionary in West Africa take up a large part of the novel. Initially she is excited at the prospect of returning to her roots in order to convert her ethnic brothers and sisters. A series of disappointments and disillusionments follow, as she realises that they are uninterested in slavery, the black experience in America, or really in the religion which the missionaries have brought them. Paradoxically, Corinne, Samuel and Nettie are alien outsiders among their own original people. There is no racial unity between the three of them and the Olinkas despite the colour of their skins and their common heritage.
Olinka society is at first fascinating and alluring but as the time progresses Nettie begins to realise that it has deeply disturbing customs. Women are treated abominably, not allowed education or independence and are under the "protection" of men. this protection is no better than dominance and subservience. Nettie, like many of the women in Georgia is not accepted by the men of the Olinka because they mistrust her independence and spirit. Only Tashi comes round to her way of thinking and she is ostracised and leaves the tribe to marry Adam travelling back to America with Nettie and Celie's children.
The practice of female circumcision and facial scarring is also revolting to Nettie, who regards it as degrading but understands it to be a custom which enables the Olinka to cling on to its tribal identity in a changing world. It is a barbaric custom and Nettie feels helpless to influence the tribe or to help the victims.
The saddest part of the African experience is the way in which the people of the tribe are exploited by the white traders who drive their roads into the interior obliterating ancient settlements and destroying lifestyles which have lasted for centuries. The Olinka are hospitable and give the builders food while they destroy the village and the roof leaf supplies. Alice Walker gives us a sad portrait of a dying lifestyle and an obsolete people.
There is a strong sense of outrage that people are driven out of their rightful homes for foreign (white) economic gain, forced to pay for the privilege of living in corrugated huts and becoming prey to disease because their yam crops are destroyed Ultimately Samuel and Nettie are forced to leave and return to America. The link between the people in Georgia and the Africans is that both are victims of white oppression, but tragically, despite their common heritage, they can be of no help to one another.
At the start of the novel Celie is a young girl of fourteen; ignorant and naive. At the end she is a middle aged woman who has succeeded in achieving independence, self-esteem and an increased knowledge of the world. The book charts her progress through a series of letters written by her to God and her sister Nettie, from whom she is parted early in the novel, together with Nettie's replies.
At first Celie is isolated and God is the only person in her life. All the early letters are addressed to him and we find out that she has been betrayed and abused by those who should have cared for her. Her natural father was murdered, her mother goes mad and dies. Her stepfather, Alfonso, abuses her and fathers her two children, then marries her off to his friend , Albert ( known only as Mr by Celie) to look after Albert's children and work his smallholding. Celie is offered as an alternative to Nettie, Celie's sister with the incentive of a free cow to go with her. She is "spoiled", as Alfonso says to Albert, and will not be any trouble. She is abused and beaten, treated as a slave by Mr and his children and deprived of her children, believing them to be dead for a long time.
Her life as a wife and stepmother is horrific, until she meets and falls in love with her husband's lover, the blues singer Shug (sugar) Avery. Caring for her after an illness, she begins the friendship which turns later to love and an enduring relationship which eventually leads to Celie's emancipation and emergence as a mature, self-possessed woman.
Deep affection and care are the most important characteristics of Celie. She is loyal and intensely kind to the women in her life - Shug; Sofia, the wife of her stepson, Harpo; Nettie, her sister, and of course her children, Olivia and Adam. Even though she is treated with gross disrespect by Albert, their mutual interest in and love for Shug enable them to reach an understanding and mutual respect for one another in time. Celie's natural compassion makes it very difficult for her to hate anyone, although she becomes very angry when she finds out how Albert has withheld her letters from Nettie out of spite, and wants to cut his throat with his own razor. Shug dissuades her and gets the letters restored and Celie regains her temper without compromising herself.
Although exploited and abused; ignorant and powerless; Celie is not a weak woman. Her strength, unlike that of Sofia or Shug is not physical or artistic, but it is the strength of integrity. She remains honest and compassionate, caring for everyone she comes into contact with. Although she rejects the conventional church teaching, preferring to accept Shug's creed of personal involvement with nature and the idea of God as a spiritual entity, she actually embodies a great deal of true Christian charity and her reward, through the female in her life is to achieve sexual, economic and spiritual liberation. She takes charge of her life and in doing so manages to achieve in middle age a dominant role with property, a home and money to offer her sister and her children when they come home from Africa.
Her real name is Lillie, but she is known as Shug, short for sugar, throughout the novel. Also referred to as the Queen Honeybee, signifying the hold she has over her friends and audiences. She is a blues singer - very successful and wealthy. Unlike other black women, she is well travelled and quite sophisticated.
The dominant impression of her is that she has enormous vitality. She is not a pleasant person, having a very acerbic, tough exterior. She can be insensitive and cruel, even to people she loves. Celie's first impression of Shug when she nurses her serious illness is that Shug is "evil". Throughout her life she seems to have chosen her own path, sleeping with whoever she pleases and pleasing herself in her lifestyle. She has a number of illegitimate children from a long standing affair with Celie's husband, Albert (the only man she seems to really love) and several passionate affairs with other men, some young enough to be her own son (Germaine is only 19.) She also has a serious love affair with Celie, although there is no indication that she has ever been lesbian before.
Shug's sexuality is a strong element in her character. She is; although very feminine; described as having traits which are masculine. She is dominant, powerful and takes charge of relationships. Celie notices "how Shug talk and act sometimes like a man" and her lover Albert comments that she "act more manly than most men".. This is not seen as a handicap, but as more of an enhancement of her femininity. In fact Shug is a truly liberated woman in many ways, holding down a prosperous career; owning her own home; directing her affairs with men and women to her own liking; travelling as she pleases and enjoying a prominent place in artistic society as an accomplished musician. Significantly also, she is less handicapped than many of the other women by her colour, although she does come in for some criticism from her fellow blacks in church because of her "sinful" lifestyle.
Sexually and in terms of her faith in God, Shug is also liberated more than any of the other characters in the novel. She has no false modesty about intercourse and passes her freedom on to Celie in a practical way. It is Shug, too, who shows Celie the freedom to worship God in the fullness of creation; linking the idea of physical enjoyment to spiritual freedom. It is an unconventional belief, but Celie finds real enlightenment through her association with Shug. Shug also helps Celie in practical ways; restoring Nettie's letters to her and enabling her to find a career in sewing trousers and giving her a home in Memphis while she establishes her new business. Generosity is also extended towards other women, with Shug getting Mary Agnes a start as a singer, even though this leads to her elopement with Shug's husband, Grady.
There is a childish streak in Shug, as there is many of the other characters in the novel. She is naive in many ways and often shows lack of sympathy and understanding for Celie's feelings especially, but fundamentally Shug is admirable when seen as a product of the time and place of the novel's setting. She is warm, loving, generous and kind to those she loves and embodies for Celie the family closeness which she lacks. Shug is mother, sister, friend and lover; as she says "Us each other's peoples now."
SOFIA (AND HARPO)
Sofia marries one of Albert's children; Harpo and this couple play a significant part in the story, especially in the development of the theme of equality in marriage and racial prejudice.
Sofia, like Shug, is a strong character with masculine tendenciesdoes much of the physically demanding work around the farm and the house when she and . She Harpo are first married and she is more capable than Harpo of sustaining hard physical labour. She is also very assertive; contriving to persuade Albert to allow the marriage in the first place by deliberatley getting pregnant and literally dragging Harpo up to Albert's house, "marching hand in hand, like going to war. She in front a little."
She has support from a pack of sisters as strong as she is who provider her with a refuge when she eventually leaves Harpo because he has not been able to match her own strength of character or accept her independent spirit. The stereotypical way Harpo and other men like him has been raised makes him sure that he should beat Sofia for not being submissive. In the only hostile act Celie performs against a woman, she advises Harpo to do that to Sofia, but he comes off very badly, being beaten by Sofia quite badly in return.
Harpo thinks about female roles in a very conventional way, but in fact he is more feminine than masculine in many ways himself. He is a good cook, enjoys looking after and playing with the children and does not relish or perform manual labour very well. Instead of accepting that they can live together harmoniously despite their difference in conventional roles, Harpo tries to assert himself as the dominant male and as a result Sofia leaves him and takes up with the prize fighter, in whose company she is when the mayor's wife asks her to become her maid.
The indignity of Sofia's fate after her refusal to be patronised is a large part of the plot of the novel. Her independence, strength, pride in herself and natural indignation at her treatment at the hands of the whites leads to a twelve year sentence of humiliation and suffering.. Typically her spirit is not beaten, even though she is made to suffer considerable bodily and mental pain. She is, like Celie and the other women in the novel, supported and sustained by their mutual care and tolerance of one another's situations. Mary Agnes, at first a rival for Harpo, later becomes a friend and protector. It is her intervention which leads to Sofia's release from jail and in the end Harpo and Sofia are able to reach a mutual tolerance of one another and care for their assorted children in harmony. In keeping with the general feeling of optimism at the end of the book, Sofia is also able to persuade Eleanor Jane, the mayor's daughter to think carefully about how to relate to black people and there is a suggestion that tolerance and friendship could be achieved eventually between them.
Mary Agnes (Squeak)
Mary Agnes is a minor character - the woman Harpo takes up with after Sofia leaves him and who later goes off with Shug's ex-husband Grady to be a blues singer and drug dealer up North. She is important though in that she provides another picture of assertiveness and support for her fellow women.
She endures the degradation of rape by her white "uncle" when she goes to him to help get Sofia released from jail and shows that she, too, has a creative talent when it is discovered that she has a good blues singing voice. With Shug's help she carves out a career for herself as a singer and makes a good living from it. She is rather unfortunate, or perhaps just weak, because she eventually arrives back home having failed to make a huge success of either her new relationship or her career, the fact that she is reabsorbed into the circle of women shows the strength of their solidarity and the nature of their relationship as one of mutual respect and support.
Nettie and the children
Celie's "lost" sister Nettie and her (Celie's) children, Adam and Olivia, who are taken away from her by her stepfather Alfonso play an impmportant part in the story. Nettie is sent to be cared for by Corinne, the minister's wife early in the story, because Celie fears that Nettie will also be abused if she stays in the family home with Alfonso. Albert originally intends to court Nettie, but is persuaded to make do with Celie instead. She senses, correctly, that Corinne and her husband Samuel are respectable. God fearing people who will look after the girl and provide a home for her. Coincidentally, Corinne also fosters Celie's children, so they are able to be brought up by their Aunt, too.
Nettie is the clever girl of the family, able to continue her education (at Celie's expense) and as a result able to travel as a missionary assistant to Africa with Corinne and Samuel. She maintains contact with Celie, but the jealousy of Albert means that for many years her letters are withheld. Her experiences in Africa; her thoughts and feelings about the relationship between the Olinkas and the Americans; her views on religion and her developing love and eventual marriage to Samuel form the basis of the letters in the second half of the novel. Like Celie she has a strong sense of duty and a devotion to her family. She writes even when she believes that there is no possibility other letters reaching Celie as an act of faith and of course part of the optimism of the novel is the eventual reunion of the sisters .
Nettie remains blameless and tolerant and her reward is marriage to the only male character who shows strength and integrity. Samuel is tolerant, wise and sensitive, he regrets deeply his failure to influence the Olinkas and Nettie, in comforting him, wins his affection and devotion after many years of blameless admiration. Nettie is the only woman in the novel who is chaste until she marries. Corinne suspects her of designs on Samuel but her suspicions are groundless.
Nettie's care for and interest in Celie's children is considerable, as is her regard for Tashi, who eventually marries Adam and comes back with him to America. She (Nettie) is deeply suspicious of the Olinka men's dominance of their women, and she compares this attitude with that of the white Americans to their black countrymen.
Her role, then is one of carer, like her sister, but more importantly she has the role of observer; of the development of Celie's children and of the effect of foreign intervention on the African way of life.
The men - Alfonso, Albert, Grady, Harpo and others
"Wherever there's a man, there's trouble!"
It is hardly surprising that most of the male characters in this novel are presented in an unsympathetic light. They are all, even Samuel, inferior in some way to the women they associate with. They behave deplorably; acting in an aggressive, often brutal way; They show little understanding of women, treating them as slaves, menial workers or sex objects. They seem also to have no solidarity , unlike the females, who band together to support and console one another. The men in this novel seem to be incapable of bonding with one another and show little evidence of communicating on anything other than a very basic, crude level.
Perhaps the least attractive of the men is the stepfather, Alfonso (Celie's spelling - he can be Alphonso if you give him his real name). He violates Celie at the age of fourteen, makes her pregnant twice and then sets out to do the same to Nettie, prevented only by Celie's determination to offer herself as a sacrifice to Albert instead of her sister. After removing her two children, he negotiates with Albert for Celie, offering a free cow as part of the deal, then takes two other wives, both in their teens before he eventually dies. Ironically he has a gravestone which describes him as "an upright husband and father" In addition to his cynical sexual depravity he also defrauds the two girls of their heritage, living in a large house and using the considerable income from the real estate collected by the girls' real father before his death. After Alfonso dies the house and land is restored to Celie and it is to their rightful home that the two women finally come to end their lives with their extended family around them.
Albert, his friend, is known for much of the novel as "Mr" by Celie. She is not even friendly enough with him to use his given name and he makes little effort to get to know her at all until their mutual attraction to Shug Avery forces them together enough to acknowledge their tolerance for one another. In the early days of the marriage, Mr is callous and exploitative; carrying on his affair with Shug under the same roof and making no attempt to treat Celie as anything other than a household chattel. The only mitigating feature about Albert is his devotion to Shug Avery. he has a lifelong passion for her and remains devoted to her even when their physical relationship stops. Apart from that he is thoroughly vindictive, keeping all Nettie's letters from Celie as a deliberate act of meanness because Nettie refuses to sleep with him. Shug is the only woman who has any effect on him. She is able to stop him from beating Celie; she gets Nettie's letters back and eventually she is able to effect a slight reconciliation, after Celie leaves him to go away with Shug. It is their mutual love for Shug which enables Celie and Mr to reach a modus vivendi - that and a proper submissive attitude on his part.
Grady, Shug's (temporary) husband, is repellent and patronising. It is difficult to see why a vital character like Shug Avery decides to take up with such a weak character, but he conveniently acts as a way of accommodating Mary Agnes when she goes off to be a singer. Germaine, also is a strange companion for a woman as strong as Shug, being much younger than she is (nineteen) and very effeminate. The affair is short lived, though, and perhaps serves to illustrate the "masculinity" of Shug and the point that role reversal is possible.
There is no doubt, though that men in general are treated with scant respect by Alice Walker in this novel. She has chosen a collection of brutal, ignorant people to be the partners of her female characters. Artistically and philosophically this is understandable, as it enables her to reinforce the point that women in their own right are quite capable of standing apart from men, becoming independent and self confident as sisters, in a caring and supportive network such as the one which upholds Celie and her friends.
(NB You are not required to believe the philosophy of Alice Walker. You may argue that the novel is exceptionally biased and unconvincing if you wish.)