Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple demonstrates how the mistreatment of a woman cannot prevent her from fulfilling her destiny. The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Celie, is a young, uneducated black girl who is verbally and sexually abused by her supposed father, Alphonso. He fathers two children with her, kidnapping both and presumably killing one, if not both. Because of the unwarranted trauma, she struggles for the rest of her life to recover from his abuse and establish her own power.
Celie has a much smarter and prettier younger sister Nettie, whom she loves, and of whom she is very protective. Celie saves Nettie from marriage to a suitor referred to only as Mr. when their father forces her to marry him instead. Celie’s stepson Harpo, weds a strong-minded woman, Sofia, who is the complete opposite of Celie. Sofia’s refusal to be abused by anyone, – man or woman – sparks a curiosity that makes Celie take a closer look at herself.
The catalyst of the story is Mr. ’s lover, Shug Avery.
Although Celie realizes Shug is her husband’s lover, she does not resent Shug; in fact, Shug becomes Celie’s best friend, lover and even mentor. These influential women, each trying to find their own happiness, fighting their own personal demons, tremendously impact Celie’s life. The women help to educate Celie, whose natural intelligence and talents have been stunted by years of constant humiliation and abuse by her father and husband. It is through each character’s definition of life and struggle within The Color Purple that Alice Walker is able to tell the story of victorious transformation.
Walker’s narrative symbolically illustrates a woman’s psychological journey rising from the mentality of an abused victim of poverty to become a strong, independent and confident woman who establishes her own place within her society. The sexual abuse Celie endures at a very early age leaves her powerless with nowhere to turn. Alphonso’s (Pa) sexual abuse is taken a step further when he gives Celie’s two children away to a family. Celie’s ignorance, due to her age and poor education, prevents her from understanding why the children were taken from her, but she does not believe they are dead.
Alphonso entices Mr. , a widower with four children, to take Celie instead of Nettie, so he will not have to care for her anymore, by throwing in a cow with the deal. Walid El Hamamsy characterizes the combination package of Celie and the cow as further “patriarchal oppression” and a way to continue to “dehumanize” her. Her brutality is continued in her loveless marriage to Mr. , who beats and uses her for sexual convenience. One way to endure the torture is to tell herself “Celie, you a tree” (23). The other way she is able to tolerate her plight of isolation and despair is through writing letters to God.
The letters affords her a voice which otherwise she does not have. Celie’s relationship with her sister Nettie goes beyond just a sisterly bond. Nettie turns out to be the first person to show Celie true unconditional love. With Celie’s children being taken away from her, Nettie fills her void of motherly obligation. Celie wants to guarantee Nettie’s well-being and puts Nettie first for everything. Celie’s view of Nettie as someone filled with potential is in direct contradiction to how Celie sees herself; however, it never stops Nettie from trying to teach Celie so she can open her mind to what is going on in the world around her.
When Celie’s husband tells her Nettie has to leave, it is like a ton of bricks lands on Celie. Nettie is the only person from whom Celie ever felt love. When Nettie leaves, she encourages Celie “to fight,” but Celie is so broken she says she only knows how to “stay alive” (18). Celie’s mental state is still that of an abused victim: she is encapsulated in a world of deep despair, but Nettie has planted a seed that will grow and eventually take her to a place of confidence.
Alice Walker introduces Sofia, a bold, headstrong woman that illustrates assertiveness and self-dignity. Mr. ’s son, Harpo, marries Sofia because he loves her, but later tries to make her succumb to him through brutal force. Harpo has grown up seeing his father physically abuse Celie in order to get his way and when he asks Celie what he should do to get his headstrong wife to submit to him, Celie tells him he should beat her. Celie sees little or no value in herself. She survives victimization by accepting that fighting back will only cause more harm than good.
Anyone can do or say anything they want to Celie since she has accepted her place and submits to the violence. With telling Harpo to beat his wife, Celie is once again showing her abused mentality: she truly believes that physical oppression by husbands is normal. Critic Stacie Lynn Hankinson contends Celie portrays “a survival-of-the-fittest perspective, which pitted her against, rather than aligning her with, other women. ” After Sofia learns of the betrayal of Celie, she boldly confronts her only to figure out Celie is actually on her side.
Sofia tells Celie “All my life I had to fight” (40). Sofia embodies something that would not allow her to be a victim, no matter who she has to fight. Celie professes her jealousy of Sofia because she unfortunately did not have the strength to fight and was continuously a victim. Sofia offers something to Celie she never had before; moral support. Sofia’s constant retaliation against Harpo assists Celie to understand that rebellion, fighting, is a way to escape victimization. Celie’s lack of confidence resides in her fear of not being loved.
When Shug Avery, a Blues singer and her husband’s lover, enters Celie’s life, Celie become conscious of an intimate, trusting love, which empowers Celie to assert herself. Shug enables Celie to freely express herself and talk about all the unfortunate things that have happened to her over the years. Shug also helps Celie find her voice and change how she views herself. After Shug tells Celie “you still a virgin” Celie starts to look at herself less as a victim and gradually lessens her acceptance of ill treatment and stands up for herself (78).
Shug shows Celie how having a powerful voice can be pivotal in changing their life. Walker uses the relationship between Shug and Celie as a way to emphasize consistency and a strong bond. Shug is not only Celie’s confidant but there is a role reversal and Celie becomes Shug’s confidant. Their conversations bring up points not only do they think about, but the reader might as well. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it” (197).
After her conversations with Shug Celie realizes she must strip her mind of the impression of God that her male-dominated society has placed on her and replace it with a holistic one. Celie’s recognition of God as a Creator allows her to establish a place in her society and finally love herself, just as she is. Marc A. Cristophe agrees as he writes in his essay The Color Purple: An Existential Novel, “she has rejoined the community of men and women; she has found herself, her own place …and is able to marvel at the creation, at life itself. ”