The Color Purple

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For the color, see Purple.
The Color Purple
First edition cover
Author Alice Walker
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Publication date
ISBN 0-15-119153-0
OCLC 8221433
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3573.A425 C6 1982

The Color Purple is a 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 the life of African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, 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[edit]

Celie, the protagonist and narrator, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old black girl living in the American South. She writes letters to God because the man she believes to be her father, Alphonso, beats and rapes her. Alphonso has already impregnated Celie once, a pregnancy that resulted in the birth of a boy. Alphonso takes the baby boy away shortly after its birth. Celie has a second child, a girl, whom Alphonso also abducts. Celie's ailing mother dies after cursing Celie on her deathbed.

Celie and her younger sister, Nettie, learn that a man identified only as Mister wants to marry Nettie. Alphonso refuses to let Nettie marry, instead arranging for Mister to marry Celie. Mister, needing someone to care for his children and keep his house, eventually accepts the offer. Mister and his children, whose mother was murdered by a jealous lover, all treat Celie badly. However, she eventually gets Mister's squalid living conditions and incorrigible children under control.

Shortly thereafter, Nettie runs away from Alphonso and takes refuge at Celie's house. Mister makes sexual advances toward her. Celie then advises Nettie to seek assistance from a well-dressed black woman that she had seen in the general store a while back; the woman had unknowingly adopted Celie's daughter and was the only black woman that Celie had ever seen with money of her own. Nettie is forced to leave after promising to write. Celie, however, never receives any letters and concludes that her sister is dead.

Time passes and Mister's children begin to grow up and leave home. Harpo, the only child of Mister who becomes a major character, falls in love with an assertive girl named Sofia. Sofia becomes pregnant with Harpo's baby and, despite initial resistance from Mister, marries Harpo. Harpo and Sofia have five other children in short order.

Celie is amazed by Sofia's defiant refusal to submit to Harpo's attempts to control her. Harpo, kinder and gentler than his father, feels emasculated due to his inability to get Sofia to "mind." Celie advises Harpo not to try to dominate Sofia; she also tells Harpo that Sofia loves him, admitting that she only obeys Mister out of fear. Harpo temporarily follows Celie's advice but falls back under Mister's sway. A momentarily jealous Celie then advises Harpo to beat Sofia. Sofia fights back, however, inflicting serious injuries on Harpo.

After Sofia confronts her, Celie, who was already feeling guilty about what she had done, apologizes and confides in her about all the abuse she suffers at Mister's hands. She also begins to consider Sofia's advice about defending herself against further abuse from Mister.

Shug Avery, a lounge singer and Mister's long-time mistress, falls ill and Mister takes her into his house. Celie, who had been fascinated by the photos of Shug she found in Mister's belongings, is thrilled to have her there. Mister's father expresses disapproval of the arrangement, reminding Mister that Shug has three out-of-wedlock children. Mister proudly states that he knows for certain that all the children have the same father, indirectly admitting to being their father. Mister's father leaves in disgust after drinking a glass of water that Celie spit in. Shug is initially rude to Celie, who has taken charge of nursing her, but the two women become friends. Celie soon finds herself infatuated with Shug.

Frustrated by Harpo's domineering behavior, Sofia moves out, taking her children with her. Several months later, Harpo opens a juke joint where Shug, who has fully recovered from her illness, sings nightly. Shug decides to stay when she learns that Mister beats Celie when she is away. Shug and Celie's relationship grows more intimate.

Sofia returns for a visit and promptly gets into a fight with Harpo's new girlfriend, Squeak, knocking the other woman's teeth out. In town one day, the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, asks one of Sofia's children to work as her maid. Sofia rudely refuses. When the mayor slaps Sofia for "insubordination", Sofia returns the blow. Sofia is subsequently sentenced to twelve years in jail.

Squeak, a mixed-race woman, is Sheriff Hodges' illegitimate niece. Her attempt to blackmail the sheriff into releasing Sofia result in her being raped by the sheriff. Squeak cares for Sofia's children while she is incarcerated and the two women develop a friendship. Sofia is eventually released six months early and begins working for Miss Millie, a job that she detests.

Despite being newly married, Shug instigates a sexual relationship with Celie upon her next visit. One night Shug asks Celie about her sister. Shug helps Celie recover letters from Nettie that Mister has been hiding from her for decades.

The letters indicate that Nettie befriended a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine, the well-dressed woman that Celie saw in the store. Nettie eventually accompanied the two to Africa to do missionary work. Samuel and Corrine have unwittingly adopted Celie's son and daughter, Adam and Olivia. Corrine, noticing that her adopted children resemble Nettie, wonders if Samuel fathered the children with her. Increasingly suspicious, Corrine tries to limit Nettie's role within her family.

Through her letters, Nettie reveals that she has become disillusioned with her missionary work. Corrine becomes ill with a fever. Nettie asks Samuel to tell her how he adopted Olivia and Adam. Realizing that Adam and Olivia are Celie's children, Nettie then learns that Alphonso is her and Celie's stepfather. Their biological father was a store owner whom white men lynched because they resented his success. She also learns that their mother suffered a mental collapse after the death of her husband and that Alphonso exploited the situation in order to control their mother's considerable wealth.

Nettie confesses to Samuel and Corrine that she is in fact their children's biological aunt. The gravely ill Corrine refuses to believe her until Nettie reminds her of her previous encounter with Celie in the store. Later, Corrine dies, finally having accepted Nettie's story. Meanwhile, Celie visits Alphonso, who confirms Nettie's story. Celie begins to lose some of her faith in God. She confides in Shug who explains her own unique religious philosophy to Celie.

Celie, having had enough of her husband's abuse, decides to leave Mister along with Shug and Squeak, who is considering a singing career of her own. Celie puts a curse on Mister before getting in the car and leaving him for good.

Celie settles in Tennessee and supports herself as a tailor. Celie learns that Mister, suffering from a considerable decline in fortunes after Celie left him, has changed dramatically. He gives Celie permission to call him by his first name, Albert. Albert proposes that they marry "in the spirit as well as in the flesh," but Celie declines.

Alphonso dies unexpectedly and Celie inherits the land and moves back into her childhood home. Around this time, Shug falls in love with Germaine, a member of her band, and the news of this crushes Celie. Shug travels with Germaine, all the while writing postcards to Celie. 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.

Just after Celie realizes that she is content in her life without Shug, Shug returns, having ended things with Germaine. 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 thirty years. They introduce one another to their respective families as the novel ends.


Sexism and racism[edit]

Themes of sexism and racism are prevalent in the entire novel, probably as a reflection of the social contexts surrounding the novel's setting. Celie, as the main protagonist and narrator, shows some form of internalized oppression when she advised Harpo to beat Sofia as this was how she was treated by Mister. Shortly after, however, it is revealed that Celie merely advised Harpo in doing that as she was jealous of Sofia's strong-mindedness and assertiveness. Later on in the novel, Celie also begins to find strength within her to reject the violent advances of Mister. Racism as an issue is seen in how Sofia was imprisoned and violently beaten for rejecting the white mayor's wife's offer to be her maid (where the offer in itself was a reflection of racist thinking). Nettie, in her letters, also indicates her reflecting the racial stereotypes held by American Blacks against their African counterparts. Inscribing a copy of the novel for a PEN auction in 2014, Alice Walker wrote on the half-title: "I was mistaken. There is nothing more for me to say about this book."[4]

Disruption of traditional gender roles[edit]

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 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 is 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. Men's normative roles are viewed as the source of oppressive male behavior. 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.


The bond of sisterhood is another major theme in The Color Purple. Walker puts a strong emphasis in the novel on the sisterhood between the different women in the story. She not only draws attention to and recognizes the importance of the literal sisterhood between Celie and Nettie, and how that relationship has helped Celie get through all the hard times she has had to endure since the beginning, but it also recognizes the strong relationships that form between Celie and other characters in the novel such as Shug or Sofia. Celie could not have made all of the personal and internal advancements that she did if it weren’t for her strong relationships that she had with Shug, Nettie, and Sofia. These women can come to understand who they are because of the ties that bring them and bond them together.[5] Celie is able to become a fighter and stand up for what she believes because of the love she is receiving, especially from Shug.[6] Sisterhood, or love, helps Celie to understand her worth in the world, what she really wants out of life, and that she can achieve so much more. This plays a pivotal role in the story and reoccurs as a major contributor to Celie’s advancements towards happiness and freedom from oppression.



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 through which she is able to express her true desires in her letters. These letters are very personal to her, and allow her to display any emotion she wants to convey. 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.

Womens' rights[edit]

Alice Walker shows her affection toward the equality of women, specifically African American women, in The Color Purple in many different ways. Towards the beginning of the book we see Celie married off to the man that Nettie loved. Her husband was referred to as "Mr._______", without any real surname given. Celie was abused throughout her life with Mr._______ and was made to endure that pain without question. As a woman writing letters to her sister, the lack of a surname given to her husband could represent a lack of respect she had for him, in regards to how he treated her. Surnames give meaning to life and meaning to who they are, and by refusing to give her husband that luxury we see her asserting what little dominance she has over him. Charles Heglar wrote an article, "Named and Nameless: Alice Walker's Pattern of Surnames in The Color Purple", which gives the interpretation that Celie was trying to gain any foothold over her husband, because she wanted to have some dominance over him.[8] On the other hand, she could simply be omitting his name out of respect in case those who read her letters knew who she was talking about. She may have been giving him the benefit of the doubt and wanted to keep his name out of it. As we see later in the book she does give her husband a name, although it is only a first name. That seems to be a turning point for their relationship and the connection between characters and their names becomes critical and apparent.

Character analysis[edit]


Celie is the main character and has been oppressed by men her whole life. She is raped by her step father with whom she has two children during her adolescence. Her step father gives away her two children. Her father gives her away to be married to Mr.___ He is in love with Shug Avery, a blues singer. Shug stays with Mr. ___ and Celie, this leads to a sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. Shug has a significant influence on the protagonist and Celie 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.___ to treat her, but also her showing Celie that it is all right to commit actions which others may call 'sin', but still believe in and live for God, she broadens Celie's views on religion and ethics. It is also Shug who frees Celie from Mr.___'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, first hand 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.[9]


Nettie is Celie's younger sister, whom Celie loves and saves from living the tragic life that she had to endure. Because Nettie is prettier than Celie, who has been deemed ugly, Mr.___ 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.___ 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[edit]

A sultry blues singer who first appears as Mr.___'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.___ 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 (known as Mr.___)[edit]

Mr.___ is the man to whom Celie is married. Originally, he seeks a relationship with Nettie but settles for Celie. Mr.___ mistreats Celie just as her stepfather had, although Celie does not understand that she doesn't have to tolerate the abuse. Mr.___ 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, Mr.___ 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[edit]

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,[10] including Roger Ebert.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

Boycotting Israel[edit]

As part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), the author declined publication of the book in Israel[15] 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.[16][16]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Walker won the 1983 award for hardcover Fiction.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Awards history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including the 1983 Fiction.


  1. ^ "National Book Awards - 1983". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-26.
    (With essays by Anna Clark and Tarayi Jones from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  2. ^ "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009". American Library Association. Retrieved January 2013. 
  3. ^ "Alice Walker – biography". Retrieved April 12, 2012. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Talebian Sedehi, Kamelia (2014). "The Color Purple And Women's Time". Journal of Language Teaching and Research: 1328–1333. 
  6. ^ Wan Roselezam Wan, Yahya (2010). "Gender Representation In Alice Walker's Selected Novels". International Journal Of The Humanities: 231–243. 
  7. ^ Dieke, Ikenna (ed.), Critical Essays on Alice Walker, Greenwood Press, 1979, p. 43.
  8. ^ Heglar, Charles J. "Named and Namelessness: Alice Walker's Pattern Of Surnames In The Color Purple." ANQ vol. 13, no. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 38–41.
  9. ^ Magill Book Reviews The Color Purple
  10. ^ Rotten Tomatoes page for The Color Purple
  11. ^ Roger Ebert's review of The Color Purple
  12. ^ John Fleming. "Passion for ‘Purple' has Local Roots". "Saint Petersburg Times".  Dec. 12, 2005
  13. ^ The Color Purple to Close on Broadway Feb. 24
  14. ^ Sony Radio Academy Awards 2009: Dramas
  15. ^ Letter from Alice Walker to Publishers at Yediot Books
  16. ^ a b AP, "Alice Walker rejects Israeli translation of book", June 20, 2012. Yahoo News

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Rabbit is Rich
John Updike
National Book Award for Fiction
With: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty
Succeeded by
Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories
Ellen Gilchrist
Preceded by
So Long, See You Tomorrow
William Maxwell