February 05, 2013

Khalid's 28 Days of Blackness: Day 5: The Color Purple

                        The Color Purple (1982)
 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker that won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction.[1][a] It was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name.
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on female black life in the 1930s in the southern United States, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number seventeen because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.[2][3]

 Plot summary

Celie, the protagonist and narrator, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old black girl living in the South. She starts writing letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats and rapes her. Alphonso has already impregnated Celie once. Celie gave birth to a girl, whom her father presumably killed in the woods. Celie has a second child, a boy, whom her father also abducts. Celie's mother becomes ill and dies. Alphonso brings home a new wife, and continues to abuse Celie.
Celie and her bright, pretty younger sister, Nettie, learn that a man known only as Mr. Johnson wants to marry Nettie. Mr. Johnson has a mistress named Shug Avery, a sultry lounge singer whose photograph fascinates Celie. Alphonso refuses to let Nettie marry, and instead offers Mr. Johnson Celie, "an ugly woman," as his bride. Mr. Johnson eventually accepts the offer, forcing Celie into a difficult and joyless married life. Nettie runs away from Alphonso and takes refuge at Celie's house. Mr. Johnson still desires Nettie, and when he advances on her, she flees. Never hearing from Nettie again, Celie assumes her dead.
Mr. Johnson's sister Kate feels sorry for Celie, and tells her to fight back against Mr. Johnson rather than submit to his abuses. Harpo, Mr. Johnson's son, falls in love with a large, spunky girl named Sofia. Shug Avery comes to town to sing at a local bar, but Celie is not allowed to go see her. Sofia gets pregnant and marries Harpo. Celie is amazed by Sofia's defiance in the face of Harpo's and Mr. Johnson's attempts to treat Sofia as an inferior. Harpo, kinder and gentler than his father, still assumes this means he is doing something wrong and under the advice of Mr. Johnson and a momentarily jealous Celie, attempts to beat Sofia into submission. However, he consistently fails, as Sofia is at least as strong and a more experienced brawler.
Shug falls ill and Mr. Johnson takes her into his house. Shug is initially rude to Celie, but the two women become friends as Celie takes charge of nursing Shug. Celie finds herself infatuated with Shug and attracted to her sexually.
Frustrated by Harpo's consistent attempts to subordinate her, Sofia moves out, taking her children with her. Several months later, Harpo opens a juke joint where Shug sings nightly. Celie grows confused over her feelings toward Shug.
Shug decides to stay when she learns that Mr. Johnson beats Celie when Shug is away. Shug and Celie's relationship grows intimate, and Shug begins to ask Celie questions about sex. Sofia returns for a visit and promptly gets in a fight with Harpo's new girlfriend, Squeak. In town one day, the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, asks Sofia to work as her maid. Sofia replies with a sassy "Hell no!" When the mayor slaps Sofia for her "insubordination", Sofia returns the blow, knocking the mayor down, for which she is sent to jail. Squeak's attempts to get Sofia released are futile. Sofia is sentenced to work for 12 years as the mayor's maid, though she is eventually released from jail six months early.
Despite her new marriage, Shug instigates a sexual relationship with Celie, and the two frequently share the same bed. One night Shug asks Celie about her sister and Celie tells her she assumes Nettie is dead because she'd promised to write Celie but never did. Shug helps Celie recover letters from Nettie that Mr. Johnson has been hiding from her for decades. Overcome with emotion, Celie reads the letters in order, wondering how to keep herself from killing Mr. Johnson.
The letters indicate that Nettie befriended a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine, and accompanied them to Africa to do ministry work. Samuel and Corrine have two adopted children, Olivia and Adam. Nettie and Corrine have become close friends, but Corrine, noticing that her adopted children resemble Nettie, wonders if Nettie and Samuel have a secret past. Increasingly suspicious, Corrine tries to limit Nettie's role within her family.
Nettie becomes disillusioned with her missionary experience, as she finds the Africans self-centered and obstinate. Corrine becomes ill with a fever. Nettie asks Samuel to tell her how he adopted Olivia and Adam. Based on Samuel's story, Nettie realizes that the two children are actually Celie's biological children (whom Alphonso, her stepfather, abducted), alive after all. Nettie also learns that Alphonso is actually only Nettie and Celie's stepfather, not their biological father, who was a store owner whom white men lynched because they resented his success. Alphonso told Celie and Nettie he was their real father because he wanted to inherit the house and property that was once their mother's.
Nettie confesses to Samuel and Corrine that she is in fact their children's biological aunt. The gravely ill Corrine refuses to believe Nettie. Later, Corrine dies, finally having accepted Nettie's story and reconciled thereto just before her death. Meanwhile, Celie visits Alphonso, who confirms Nettie's story, admitting that he is only the sisters' stepfather. Celie begins to lose some of her faith in God, but Shug tries to get her to reimagine God in her own way, rather than in the traditional image of the old, bearded white man.
Celie moves to Tennessee and designs and sews tailored pants, turning her hobby into a business. She returns to her home to learn that Mr. Johnson has changed dramatically, becoming much more considerate and even helping her sew some of the clothing for her business. He proposes that they marry "in the spirit as well as in the flesh," but she declines. She also finds out that Alphonso, her stepfather, has died. Celie inherits the land and moves back into the house. Around this time, Shug has fallen in love with Germaine, a 19-year-old flautist that is part of her blues band, and the news of this crushes Celie. Shug travels across the country and to Panama with Germaine, all the while writing postcards to Celie. Nevertheless, Celie pledges to love Shug even if Shug does not love her back.
Meanwhile, Nettie and Samuel marry and prepare to return to America. Before they leave, Adam marries Tashi, an African girl. Following African tradition, Tashi undergoes the painful rituals of female circumcision and facial scarring. In solidarity, Adam undergoes the same facial scarring ritual.
The end of the novel has Nettie, Samuel, Olivia, Adam, and Tashi arriving at Celie's house. Nettie and Celie embrace, having not seen each other for over 30 years. They introduce one another to their respective families as the novel ends.

Symbols, themes and motifs

The color purple

The title of the book is an important symbol. Celie goes through life having a hard time noticing the beautiful aspects and appreciating them. She had a difficult life and was abused as an adolescent. The color purple is continually equated with suffering and pain. Sofia's swollen, beaten face is described as the color of "eggplant". Purple is the color of Celie's private parts, the site of her sexual violation.[4][5] However, later Shug points out to her that life must be enjoyed. When they are in a field of purple flowers, Shug tells Celie to look at the flowers and embrace their beauty. "You must look at all the good and acknowledge them because God placed them all on earth." After learning this, Celie has a better respect for life and everything it has to offer. When she redesigns her house after inheriting it from Alphonso, her room is themed in purple. Further, purple represents the unattainable. Celie would like to look "like a queen," but the store doesn't have purple. Mr. Johnson wouldn't let her wear red as it is, "too happy lookin," so purple would likely also be seen as inappropriate compared to brown, "maroon, or navy blue."


At the start of the novel, Celie views God as completely separate from her world yet she does not have a clear understanding of who God is. Shug invites Celie to imagine God as something radically different, as an "it" that delights in creation and just wants human beings to love what it has created. She writes to God because she has no other way to express her feelings. Her writing thrusts her into a rich symbolic life that results in her repudiation of the life she has been assigned and a desire for a more expansive daily existence.[6] While her faith is strong, it's dependent on only what other people have revealed to her about God. Later she tells Shug that she sees God as a white man. She has this belief because everyone she knows has said God is white and a male. Later, Shug tells her God has no race or gender. This enables Celie to see God in a different way. She realizes that you cannot attribute qualities to God because God is a part of the unknown. Her faith is now based on her interpretation of God, not one she learned from someone else. Even though Shug helped her with this realization, Celie only used this knowledge to shape her faith. While Shug was a huge influence on Celie's faith, it was Celie who chose how she would express it. Through her writing, Celie symbolizes a shift from an object of someone else's care to being an independent woman.


Celie begins to make pants after she takes her freedom from Mr. Johnson. After going away with Shug, she is finally able to reach industrialized society and make pants instead of working in the outdoors all day. Celie is able to have a job and live the life many women longed for in this time period, especially African American women. With the help of Shug, Celie overturns the idea that sewing is marginal and unimportant women's labor, and she turns it into a lucrative, empowering source of economic independence. The pants represent liberation from the common view of women as householders. Celie made a business out of selling the pants. Also, in this point in history women were supposed to wear dresses while men "wore the pants"; however, Celie made unisex pants, enabling women to be equal to men in this regard.


 Racism and sexism

Almost none of the abusers in the novel possess a stereotypical demon-like demeanor that could be dismissed as pure evil. The characters who perpetuate violence are themselves, victims, often of sexism, racism, or paternalism. In the novel, Harpo only beats Sofia after his father indicated that because of Sofia's resistance, Harpo is less of a man. Although Mr. Johnson is quite violent towards Celie, Celie counsels Harpo to beat Sofia because she is envious of Sofia's strength and assertiveness.

Disruption of traditional gender roles

Many characters in the novel break the boundaries of traditional male or female gender roles. Sofia's strength and sass, Shug's sexual assertiveness, and Harpo's insecurity are major examples of such disparity between a character's gender and they the traits he or she displays. This blurring of gender traits and roles sometimes involves sexual ambiguity, as we see in the sexual relationship that develops between Celie and Shug. Disruption of gender roles sometimes cause problems. Harpo's insecurity about his masculinity leads to marital problems and his attempts to beat Sofia. Likewise, Shug's confident sexuality and resistance to male domination cause her to be labeled a tramp. Throughout the novel, Walker wishes to emphasize that gender and sexuality are not as simple as we may believe. Her novel subverts and defies the traditional ways in which we understand women to be women and men to be men. Throughout the novel, the assertion of what the African-American femininity is compared to the exploration of African-American male struggle with masculinity. The idea of femininity among African-American women is focused around the abilities of the husband to care for the wife and family. The normative roles by men are viewed as the source of oppressive behavior by men. Therefore, if the African American male is not fulfilling his role, it is unlikely for the African-American woman to fulfill her role of femininity because she is predicated on his abilities.



Alice Walker highlights the power of communication through the characters' letter writing form.[7] The letters that Celie writes to God, and later to her sister Nettie, symbolize a certain voice that only Celie has and one that she is only able to express in her letters. She is able to express her true desires only in her letter. These letters allow her to display any emotion, and they are very personal to her as well. In the beginning, when she was writing letters only to God, the letters were very private and Celie would not have wanted anyone to see them. The letters are the only way she can represent her true feelings and despair as she is abused. Later, the letters she gets from Nettie give her hope that she will be reunited with her sister again.
Celie writes to God for a lack of someone else to write to. She writes to her sister because she is angry at God because of her past and the people who have been hurt because of it. She asks God "Why?" which is a question that cannot be answered. The last letter she writes is to everyone, including God showing that she has forgiven Him, and that her story has gone through a full circle of maturation.

 Character analysis


Celie is the main character, who has been oppressed by men her whole life. As an adolescent she is raped by her father and soon thereafter gives birth to two children that are taken away from her. Her father gives her away to be married to Mr. Johnson who befriends Shug Avery, a blues singer. This leads to a sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. Shug has a significant influence on Celie and she begins to model herself after following her views and opinions leading her ultimately to a life of independence. Shug influences not only the way that Celie allows Mr. Johnson to treat her, but also her religious views. In showing Celie that it is all right to commit sin but still believe in and live for God, she broadens Celie's view on religion. It is also Shug who frees Celie from Mr. Johnson's bondage, first by loving her, then by helping her to start a custom sewing business. From Shug, Celie learns that Albert has been hiding letters written to her from Africa by her sister Nettie, a missionary. These letters, full of educated, firsthand observation of African life, form a moving counterpoint to Celie's life. They reveal that in Africa, just as in America, women are persistently oppressed by men.[8]


Nettie is Celie's younger sister, whom Celie saves from living the tragic life that she had to endure. Because Nettie is prettier than Celie, who has been deemed ugly, Mr. Johnson is originally interested in Nettie as a wife, but settles for Celie. Nettie runs away from home to be with Celie, but is unable to stay with Celie as Mr. Johnson tries to get physically attached to her again. As a result Nettie leaves home and before leaving she promises to write to Celie and tells her that only death can keep them apart. Nettie is eventually taken in by Samuel and Corrine, a missionary couple, with whom she travels to Africa as a missionary. While in Africa, Nettie becomes the caregiver of Samuel and Corrine's children and faithfully writes to Celie for decades. Nettie marries Samuel after Corrine's death and moves back to America with Celie's children. Through explaining her experiences to Celie, Nettie encourages Celie to be more enthusiastic and optimistic about life. Nettie finds that while there is not racial disparity in Africa, gender disparity exists. The women of the tribe are not treated as equals, and are not permitted to attend school.

Shug Avery

A sultry blues singer who first appears as Mr. Johnson's mistress, Shug becomes Celie's friend and eventually her lover. Shug remains a gentle mentor who helps Celie evolve into an independent and assertive woman. At first, Shug doesn't appear to be the mothering and nurturing kind, yet she nurtures Celie physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Shug helps Celie discover the long lost letters from her sister Nettie that Mr. Johnson had been hiding for decades. In allowing Celie to view these letters, Shug is supplying her with even more hope and inspiration, letting Celie see that in the end, everything works out for the best.

 Albert / Mr. Johnson

Mr. Johnson is the man to whom Celie is married. Originally, he seeks a relationship with Nettie but settles for Celie. Mr. Johnson mistreats Celie just as her father had although Celie does not understand that she doesn't have to tolerate the abuse. Mr. Johnson uses Celie to help raise his children, who give her a hard time because she is not their biological mother. When Shug Avery comes to town, Johnson falls for her and makes her his mistress. Through Shug's seductive and manipulative influence, Albert begins to treat Celie better. In the end Albert realizes that he has mistreated Celie and seeks a friendship with her.

 Film, theatrical, and radio adaptations

The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1985. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Danny Glover as Albert, and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia. Though nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won none. This perceived snubbing ignited controversy because many critics considered it the best picture that year,[9] including Roger Ebert.[10] Others were upset by the film's depiction of the black male as abusive, uncaring, and disloyal. Other critics felt that Steven Spielberg, then most associated with films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones, was a poor choice for such a complex social drama, and that the film had changed or eliminated much of the book's defense of lesbianism.
On December 1, 2005, a musical adaptation of the novel (based on the film) opened at The Broadway Theatre in New York City. The show was produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and Oprah Winfrey, who was also an investor.[11] It garnered five 2006 Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, including Outstanding Broadway Musical and Outstanding New Score. That same year, the show was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score Written for the Theater, and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (LaChanze). LaChanze did win the Tony Award, though the show itself won no other awards. LaChanze's win was attributed to the variety of roles for which she had garnered positive attention, as well as for a powerful backstory. In April 2007, Fantasia Barrino took over the role. The Broadway production ended its run on February 24, 2008.[12]
In 2008 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of the novel in ten 15-minute episodes as a Woman's Hour serial, with Nadine Marshall as Celie. The script was by Patricia Cumper, and in 2009 the production received the Sony Radio Academy Awards Silver Drama Award.[13]

Boycotting Israel

As part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), the author declined publication of the book in Israel[14] in 2012. Walker, an ardent pro-Palestinian activist, said in a letter to Yediot Books that Israel practices "apartheid" and must change its policies before her works can be published there.[15

Khalid B. Scott, MSW, CADC, MISA I, LCWS, QMHP