The Color Purple

The Color Purple
The Color Purple  
First edition cover
Author(s) Alice Walker
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Publication date 1982
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN 0151191530
OCLC Number 8221433
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 19
LC Classification PS3573.A425 C6 1982

The Color Purple is an acclaimed 1982 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker. It received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. 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 during the 1930s in the Southern United States, addressing the 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.[1]


Plot summary

Celie, the protagonist and narrator of The Color Purple, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen year-old black girl living in rural Georgia. Celie 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 stole and presumably killed in the woods. Celie has a second child, a boy, whom her father also steals. Celie’s mother becomes seriously ill and dies. Alphonso brings home a new wife but continues to abuse Celie.

Celie and her bright, pretty younger sister, Nettie, learn that a man known only as Mr. wants to marry Nettie. Mr. has a mistress named Shug Avery, a sultry lounge singer whose photograph fascinates Celie. Alphonso refuses to let Nettie marry, and instead offers Mr. the "ugly" Celie as a bride. Mr. eventually accepts the offer, and takes Celie into a difficult and joyless married life. Nettie runs away from Alphonso and takes refuge at Celie’s house. Mr. still desires Nettie, and when he advances on her she flees for her own safety. Never hearing from Nettie again, Celie assumes she is dead.

Mr.'s sister Kate feels sorry for Celie, and tells her to fight back against Mr. rather than submit to his abuses. Harpo, Mr.'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 becomes pregnant and marries Harpo. Celie is amazed by Sofia’s defiance in the face of Harpo’s and Mr.’s attempts to treat Sofia as an inferior. Harpo’s attempts to beat Sofia into submission consistently fail, as Sofia is by far the physically stronger of the two.

Shug falls ill and Mr. 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 with Harpo’s consistent attempts to subordinate her, Sofia moves out, taking her children. 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 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 answers with a sassy "Hell no." When the mayor slaps Sofia for her "insubordination", she returns the blow, knocking the mayor down. Sofia is sent to jail. Squeak’s attempts to get Sofia freed are futile. Sofia is sentenced to work for twelve years as the mayor’s maid.

Shug returns with a new husband, Grady. Despite her marriage, Shug instigates a sexual relationship with Celie, and the two frequently share the same bed. One night Shug asks Celie about her sister. Celie assumes Nettie is dead because she had promised to write to Celie, but never did. Shug says she has seen Mr. hide away numerous mysterious letters that have arrived in the mail. Shug manages to get her hands on one of these letters, and they find it is from Nettie. Searching through Mr.'s trunk, Celie and Shug find dozens of letters that Nettie has sent to Celie over the years. Overcome with emotion, Celie reads the letters in order, wondering how to keep herself from killing Mr.

The letters indicate that Nettie befriended a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine, and traveled with them to Africa to do ministry work. Samuel and Corrine have two adopted children, Olivia and Adam. Nettie and Corrine 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, alive after all. Nettie also learns that Alphonso is really only Nettie and Celie’s stepfather, not their real father. Their real father was a storeowner 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. Corrine dies, but accepts Nettie’s story and feels reconciled just before her death. Meanwhile, Celie visits Alphonso, who confirms Nettie’s story, admitting that he is only the women’s 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.

The mayor releases Sofia from her servitude six months early. At dinner one night, Celie finally releases her pent-up rage, angrily cursing Mr. for his years of abuse. Shug announces that she and Celie are moving to Tennessee, and Squeak decides to go with them. In Tennessee, Celie spends her time designing and sewing individually tailored pairs of pants, eventually turning her hobby into a business. Celie returns to Georgia for a visit, and finds that Mr. has reformed his ways, and Alphonso has died. Alphonso’s house and land are now hers, so she moves there.

Meanwhile, Nettie and Samuel marry and prepare to return to America. Before they leave, Samuel’s son, Adam, marries Tashi, a native 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.

Celie and Mr. reconcile, and begin to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Now independent financially, spiritually and emotionally, Celie is no longer bothered by Shug’s passing flings with younger men. Sofia remarries Harpo and now works in Celie’s clothing store. Nettie finally returns to America with Samuel and the children. Emotionally drained but exhilarated by the reunion with her sister, Celie notes that though she and Nettie are now old, she has never in her life felt younger.[2]



At the start of the novel, Celie views God as completely separate from her world. She writes to God because she has no other way to express her feelings. Celie's writing to God thrusts her into a rich symbolic life which results in her repudiation of the life she has been assigned and a desire for a more expansive daily existence.[3] Her faith is strong, but 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 place qualities on 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. Shug was a huge influence on Celie’s faith, but Celie was the one that had to choose how she would express it.

The Color Purple

The title of the book is a very 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 were 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.


The letters that Celie writes to God, and later to her sister Nettie, symbolize a certain voice that only Celie has. She is able to express her true desires only in her letters. 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. They are the only way she can represent her true feelings and let out her anger 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 gets mad at God because of her past and the people who have been hurting because of it. She asks God the question, "Why?" This question cannot be answered. The last letter she writes is to everyone, including God. This is to show that she has forgiven him, and that the story has gone through a full circle of maturation.


Celie begins to make pants after she takes her freedom from "Mr." 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. The pants represent liberation from the common view of women as just homemakers. Celie could make a business selling the pants. Also, in this point in history women were supposed to wear dresses while men "wore the pants"; however, Celie made pants for women too, so they were able to be equal to men in this regard.

Character Analysis


Celie is the main character, who has been oppressed by men her whole life. As an adolescent she is raped by her stepfather and soon thereafter gives birth. Her children are taken away. Her stepfather gives her away to be married to Albert. She becomes friends with Shug, which leads to a sexual relationship between the two. Celie learns many things about herself and her body due to Shug. She models herself after Shug and becomes more independent the more she listens to Shug's views and opinions. Shug influences not only the way that Celie allows Albert 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 Albert'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.[6]


Nettie is Celie's younger sister, whom Celie saves from living the tragic life that she had to endure. Due to the fact that Nettie is prettier than Celie, who has been dubbed ugly, "Mr." is originally interested in Nettie as a wife, but settles for Celie. When Nettie finds life at home unbearable, she runs away to stay with Celie. When "Mr." forces Nettie to leave, she promises to write to Celie and that only God can keep them apart. Nettie is eventually taken in by Samuel and Corrine, a missionary couple. She travels to Africa with them as a missionary. In Africa, she writes Celie a series of letters which depict the life that she is living. Nettie finds that while there isn't a racial disparity there, a gender disparity exists. The women of the tribe aren't treated as equals, and aren't permitted to attend school. When Corrine, the mother, dies, Nettie fills her role and marries her husband. In the end, Nettie travels back to America, and brings Celie's children with her. By telling Celie the things she has seen and done, she helps Celie become more enthusiastic about how the world can be.

Shug Avery

Shug is a very extroverted and transcendental character. She is Albert's mistress, the one who always got away. When she comes back to visit Albert, she shakes up not only his feelings, but also those of Celie. Celie harbors an admiration for Shug and the life that she has lived. Shug enters and exits Celie's life, normally making it for the better. She influences Albert to the point that he ends up treating Celie better than he ever had. Eventually, Shug herself develops a physical relationship with Celie. By showing Celie the wonders of life and her body, she helps Celie develop herself emotionally and spiritually. Shug also helps Celie discover the long lost letters that her sister Nettie had written to her. 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

Albert is the man to whom Celie is married. Albert was married previously, but his wife was murdered by a lover. Originally, he seeks a relationship with Nettie, but settles for Celie. Albert mistreats Celie just as her father had, and she allows it, not understanding that she doesn't have to. Albert uses Celie to help raise his children, who give her a hard time for not being their real mother. When Albert's mistress Shug Avery comes to town, he falls all over her as he normally does. Shug begins to take an interest in Celie, and leads Albert to start treating her better. In the end, Albert realizes that he has mistreated Celie and seeks a friendship with her.

Miss Millie

Miss Millie is the woman who forces Sofia into slavery as punishment for hitting the mayor. She considers herself very liberal, tolerant and humanitarian because she does things like organize fund raisers for black children, but she is revealed to be somewhat deceptive and phony. When she first meets Sofia, she assumes that she is unemployed and cannot understand why she, as a white woman, asking Sofia to be her maid would be offensive to her. Later, after driving Sofia to her first holiday visit with her family in years, Miss Millie has problems driving because she lacks experience. Sofia's family members, most of them men, try to help her get started (and avoid her crashing into the house or hurting herself). But she begins to panic and shout in her fear that a bunch of black men would only want to "attack" a white woman. She states that she will not allow any black person, especially a black man she does not know, to drive her home alone, even if it is one of Sofia's family members; she insists that Sofia drive her, possibly because she does not think Sofia capable of harming children and previous experience with the wrath of the mayor and sheriff. Despite believing herself to be progressive, she is a bigot and a hypocrite.


Sofia is the wife of Harpo, the son of Mr. Johnson. She loves Harpo well, but she insists "she killem dead before he hits her." She is a strong, independent, and feisty character who takes pride in what she does, and cannot be controlled by men, no matter who they are. She is, sadly, humbled -and perhaps even broken- when she is beaten by white people for hitting the mayor, and then forced to work for his wife.

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,[7] including Roger Ebert.[8] 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 like "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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]


See also

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  1. ^ "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009". American Library Association. Retrieved August 12, 2010. 
  2. ^ "The Color Purple - Plot Overview". Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  3. ^ Preston L. McKever-Floyd "Tell Nobody But God: The Theme of Transformation in The Color Purple"
  4. ^ [Shanyn Fiske. Piecing the Patchwork Self: A Reading of Walker's The Color Purple]
  5. ^ "The Color Purple (review)". Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  6. ^ Magill Book Reviews The Color Purple
  7. ^ Rotten Tomatoes page for The Color Purple
  8. ^ Roger Ebert's review of The Color Purple
  9. ^ John Fleming. "Passion for ‘Purple’ has Local Roots". "Saint Petersburg Times".  Dec. 12, 2005
  10. ^ The Color Purple to Close on Broadway Feb. 24
  11. ^ Sony Radio Academy Awards 2009: Dramas

External links

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  • The Color Purple — novel by Alice Walker; 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg based the novel by Alice Walker (starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • The Color Purple —    Voir La Couleur pourpre …   Dictionnaire mondial des Films

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