The novel opens with a line of dialogue spoken by Alfonso, Celie’s father: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” After this spoken line, Celie begins her letters, written to God. "I am fourteen years old. I am (which is crossed out by the writer) I have always been a good girl." Celie has been raped by her father while her mother was visiting the doctor in town, and Alfonso has told her that she can speak of these matters to none except God.
After having so many children and now being ill, Celie’s mother will not sleep with her husband, so Celie is forced to take her mother’s place. When Celie has a child, her mother screams at her, asking who the father is. Celie can only answer that it is “God’s.” Then the child goes missing, and Celie tells her mother that God took it, though she knows that Alfonso did. Celie is pregnant again when her mother dies. Her second child, a boy, also is taken and sold by Alfonso.
Alfonso then looks interested in Celie’s younger sister, Nettie, but Celie promises that she will protect her Nettie. Alfonso gets remarried to a girl as young as Celie. Nettie meets a man in church who comes around every Sunday and who already has three children of his own.
Celie is beaten by Alfonso for looking at a man, but she writes that she was not looking at any man—if she were going to look at anyone, she writes, it would be a woman because she is not scared of women. Celie felt sorry for her mother because she died trying to believe Alfonso, who had told her that Celie’s children were not his.
Celie encourages Nettie to marry Mr. ______ from church because Alfonso still has his eye on her. Mr. ______ asks Nettie to marry him, but Alfonso will not let him because, he says, he has children already, because his last wife was killed, and because of the scandal surrounding him and his relationship with Shug Avery. Celie is intrigued and asks her stepmother about Shug Avery. Her stepmother produces a photograph of Shug for Celie, who thinks that Shug is the most beautiful woman ever.
The novel begins with a very clear self-reassessment by the writer when she strikes out the words “I am.” Although she is still unsure of who she is now, her letters will provide a canvas on which she can openly explore this and many other subjects, painting herself into her surroundings in new ways. At this point, the opening few diary entries give a very bleak picture of Celie’s life.
Under Alfonso, the women work hard. Celie’s mother has several children to look after, and when she falls ill, Celie takes over the hard work. Alfonso is an idle aggressor. His aggression includes the rape of his own daughter.
Because of Alfonso, Celie begins to write diary entries in order to express herself, for she has been forced into silence by Alfonso, who has told her that she may only speak to God about his treatment of her. The given reason is that the awful news would kill her mother—but after her mother dies, she continues to write. The real reason is that such atrocious behavior must be kept secret from everyone so that Alfonso can continue it.
The language used by Celie in her letters is for the most part ungrammatical, according to the traditional rules of English grammar. This means that the reader is presented with an entirely personal voice, one that speaks in the way that Celie speaks to herself or to God. Her language is not confined to standard rules, and she does not follow many of the usual rules of English. Uneducated and ignorant about how language is “supposed” to be written, Celie unknowingly breaks the traditional rules. In doing so, she writes letters that have more in common with the African oral tradition than with standard novels of the time. That is, she passes her stories on to us in her own voice.
Celie’s letters are written in her folk voice in the style of direct address. We see the world from her perspective. She does not use quotation marks to signal the speech of the other characters; instead the text easily and seamlessly flows from one tongue to another. This means that Celie’s narrative, rather than simply reporting what others have spoken, becomes the voice of the other characters as well. When her mother is on her deathbed, wanting to know what happened to Celie’s child, Celie writes, “She got sicker and sicker. Finally she ast Where it is?’ We can hear Celie’s mother’s distinctive voice, it seems, through the letters because Celie does not edit or shape it for the purposes of her writing. We might initially read Celie’s letters as those of an uneducated child, but through her ignorance she manages to capture and articulate a perceptive African-American voice. In the early twentieth century, that voice had long dismissed by outsiders because it seemed inarticulate, but Walker shows the depth of character behind the words.
This format—Celie’s letters to God in her diary—will continue as the main narrative feature of the novel. God is not well-defined by Celie at this point, but we have no reason to think that he is not the traditional Christian God who is spoken about at church in Celie’s town. Going to church in itself, however, is not necessarily a mark of personal virtue, for the truly horrid Alfonso goes to church as well.
The main imagery or activity in these few entries involves traditional feminine topics: cooking, bringing water from the well, and having children. This makes sense because we are seeing the world through Celie’s eyes.
Celie’s family life is very distressing. Celie’s mother dies as early as Celie’s second diary entry. Celie has children with her own father. Following that, Alfonso marries a girl the same age as Celie. He even becomes interested in pursuing his younger daughter, Nettie, Celie’s sister. This family is not a unit of security but one of fear. It is an understatement to say that the man in the family cannot be trusted.
In contrast to Celie, Nettie has a possibility of escape with a man who does not seem at all as bad as Alfonso. But we have not yet seen Mr. ______ in the privacy of married life. His wife has died, leaving him with numerous children. And what about that scandal?
From these early diary entries, we see that Celie is wary of men in general, even scared of them, not just of her father. She is so distressed by the idea of men that she cannot see them in a potentially sexual way—instead she would rather look at a woman. It is not so surprising, then, when the news of the old affair with Shug and then Shug’s picture make Shug Avery seem rather alluring to Celie. Celie’s life is very troubled, and Shug seems to represent for Celie a liberation.