The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, made up of letters written by Celie to God and by Nettie to Celie. At the start of the novel, Celie is a fourteen-year-old, vulnerable, abused black girl who addresses her letters to “Dear God.” Thirty years later, at the end of the novel, she has forged her own life despite a male-dominated and racially prejudiced society. She fights her way through life and questions everything she has been taught. Her most ambitious challenge is to remake her idea of God as an old, white, bearded male—her antithesis—into a God who encompasses everything and lives within her.
In Celie’s first letter to God, we learn that she has been raped by her father, Alfonso. Alfonso told her that she must not tell anybody what happens, except God. Celie falls pregnant twice and is taken out of school. Alfonso puts the children up for adoption, and they are taken in by a reverend living in the town. After her mother dies, Celie’s father marries her off to Mr. Albert ______.
Married life is also quite painful for Celie. She must raise Albert’s children, take full control of any house chores, endure unenjoyable intimate nights with her husband, and undergo regular, unnecessary beatings from him. Things improve for Celie for a short while after her sister Nettie comes to live with her. Unfortunately, Albert (who always preferred Nettie to Celie and asked Nettie to marry him first) refuses to allow Nettie to stay in his house unless she rewards him. When Nettie leaves, he follows her and tries to rape her, but she escapes and seeks out the Reverend, who is raising Celie’s children.
She gets a job as a maid with the family. The Reverend, whose name is Samuel, and his wife Corrine are both missionaries preparing to go to Africa. After they find that one of their partner missionaries is unable to go, they offer Nettie the chance to join them in Africa. Nettie is delighted and accepts. When Nettie arrives in Africa she begins to write frequently to Celie. She is constantly worried that her letters will not reach her sister and voices her concern, telling Celie that Albert had promised that she would never hear from her again. Celie accordingly is not given a single letter from Nettie for years.
Albert’s eldest son Harpo falls in love with a fifteen-year-old girl named Sofia. She is soon pregnant, and they marry. Harpo tries to dominate Sofia the way his father dominates Celie, but she is stronger and fights back. Eventually Sofia gets fed up with Harpo and leaves him to go live with her sister Odessa.
Albert finds out that his mistress of many years, Shug Avery, is ill. He drives off and brings her home, where Celie is required to take care of her. Celie is happy to do so; she remembers the first time she saw Shug in a photograph before she got married, and she thinks Shug is even more beautiful in the flesh. Shug is ill-tempered and nasty to Celie at first, but she soon starts to like Celie.
Harpo converts his house into a juke joint when Sofia leaves, but no one comes. He decides to ask Shug, who is a well-known jazz singer, if she will sing at his place. She agrees. Albert does not want Celie to go on the first night, but Shug insists that she go. Shug draws a large crowd and dedicates one of her songs to Celie.
Shug plans to leave but, in an attempt to keep her from going, Celie tells her that Albert beats her. Shug promises not to leave until he stops. Shug also learns that Celie has never enjoyed sex. Shug tries to educate Celie about how to get pleasure from sex, but it is soon clear that Celie feels nothing for Albert because she is attracted to women. Later, Celie experiences her first sexual pleasure with Shug.
One day Sofia turns up at Harpo’s place with a new boyfriend named Buster. She sees Harpo, they start chatting, and he asks her to dance. His new girlfriend Squeak is very jealous and slaps Sofia. Sofia immediately punches Squeak back, knocking out several of her teeth. Soon after, out in town, Sofia meets the Major and his wife Miss Millie. Quite taken with the children and impressed by their cleanliness, Ms. Millie asks Sofia to work as her nanny. When Sophia refuses, the Mayor slaps her and, in response, Sofia knocks him down. She is arrested and given twelve years in jail. Squeak is sent on a mission to get Sofia out of jail and move her into the Major’s house to work as a maid. Squeak goes to visit the warden and is raped by him. The visit is not fruitless, however, and Sofia is moved into the Major’s house as a maid. Following her rape, Squeak tells Harpo to call her by her real name, Mary Agnes.
Shug returns to Celie and Albert, bringing with her a new husband named Grady. Shug warns Celie that Albert is hiding letters from her, and they soon discover that Albert has been hiding Nettie’s letters all this time. Celie is furious, but Shug keeps her calm. Together they find all of the letters and start to read them.
Nettie’s early letters explain the beginning of her missionary trip to Africa with the Reverend and his family. The Olinka tribe there worships the roofleaf the people use for their roofs—without it their homes would be destroyed in the rainy season. The natives view Nettie as a second wife of Samuel, which makes Corrine very jealous. Soon she stops Nettie from meeting with Samuel in private or from borrowing her clothes. After a few years, Corrine comes down with a fever and dies, but she learns the truth about Nettie and her adopted children beforehand: Olivia and Adam are not really Nettie’s children by Samuel. Soon after, on a trip to England, Samuel and Nettie are married.
A road is built right through the village of the Olinka by a rubber manufacturing company, and it destroys the entire village. They are forced to relocate to a more barren area with poor water. The new owners of the land charge them for water and for the new tin roofs which the Olinka are forced to use. Many of the people leave to join the mbeles, a group of natives deep in the jungle who are struggling against the white man.
Since arriving in Africa, Adam and Olivia have become very good friends with a young Olinka girl named Tashi. Tashi decides that she must undergo the ritual Olinka scarring ceremony on her face as well as the female circumcision initiation in order to honor her culture. But she becomes so ashamed of the marks that she soon leaves to join the mbeles. Adam goes after her and brings her home, but she refuses to marry him because she is afraid she will not be accepted in the United States. Initially scathing about Tashi’s decision to become scarred, Adam now gets his face marked as well so that they look alike and so that she will not feel ashamed. Tashi and Adam are married, and the whole family then makes plans to return home.
After finding her sister’s letters, Celie decides to leave home with Shug. She tells Albert she is leaving. When he tries to stop her, she stabs his hand with a fork. Before she leaves, she curses him for the way he has treated her and tells him he will be cursed until he changes his ways. In response he refuses to send her any of Nettie’s letters as they keep arriving.
Celie goes to Memphis with Shug, where she starts making a lot of pants. Eventually she gets so good at designing them that she receives regular orders. Shug helps Celie turn the work into a business. Soon after, Celie learns that Alfonso, known to her as Pa, is not her real father after all, just the man who married her mother after her real father (who was a successful businessman) had been killed. After Alfonso dies, Celie receives a phone call telling her that her family home now belongs to Nettie and herself.
Celie fixes up her new house while Shug elopes with her new love interest, a nineteen-year-old flute player named Germaine. Celie is heartbroken, but she meets up with Albert occasionally when she visits Sofia’s daughter Henrietta, and they become good friends—he has changed a lot since the old days. Apparently, after Celie left he let everything go and almost died of malnourishment. Harpo finally forced him to send Nettie’s letters to Celie, and from that point he began to change his life around.
Shug returns and decides to retire, for her flute player has gone to college. Celie is now financially comfortable. She has her new house and her father’s dry goods store (which she also inherited) as well as her business.
Nettie finally returns home with Samuel and with Celie’s grown children. Celie and Nettie fall into each other’s arms and lie on the ground hugging. Celie writes that she has never felt so young before in her life.