The Color Purple

The Color Purple Themes

Celie's narrative

This book is Celie's narrative. The first line of the novel is the only line of direct speech and the only line which falls outside the framework of the letters written by Celie and Nettie. The presentation of everything is under Celie's control, although she permits Nettie's letters to present Nettie's perspective. It is never made clear whether or not the first line, spoken by Alfonso, has also been written down by Celie before she starts her letter to God or whether it represents another writer’s hand. If it is Celie's doing, she strangely never repeats this way of recording dialogue. It is also strange that the line is in italics, which is a formal, even academic way of drawing attention to a spoken line. Much more likely, someone else has written the line. Perhaps this is the author, Alice Walker herself, signaling that she is present in the novel.

Interestingly, another line appears after Celie’s last letter: "I thank everybody in this book for coming. A.W., author and medium." This last line is an admission by the author that she has indeed been present throughout--and so has the audience, the book's readers. The narrative, though, is Celie's; the author has merely been the medium, the means by which Celie's story is told, in one sense as the author and in another sense as the novel itself. Indeed, the novel is made up most of all by Celie's own writings, which she began out of the necessity of telling her story after being commanded to otherwise be silent. The author also appears to be thanking each character for contributing to the story. The two framing lines highlight Walker's narrative structure, yet what they frame is the world as perceived by Celie.


As the narrative perspective shifts and develops, so too does Celie's view of God. When Celie writes her first letter to God, we have a very limited idea of what she means by God. At first, God is an abstract, authoritative, and dependable figure to whom Celie can share herself. White white skin and a white beard, he will be there for Celie as long as she believes in him. When Celie tells Shug that she will stop writing to God because he does not listen, Shug teaches her something highly significant. Shug does not tell her to imagine a black God instead, nor does Shug simply tell Celie to keep believing anyway because God will return in the way she remembers him. Rather, Shug tells Celie to feel loved by God by being herself. Shug explains that one does not find God in a church but through oneself. This perspective challenges the general view of God in their society, as though God is someone who can be visited or expected to come when called--or as though God is some white old man with a white-grey beard. Shug shows her own love for God by loving the things she has been given. She appreciates the world, from her own sexual ecstasies to the color purple she finds in nature.

For Celie, God moves from being a person to being something (not someone) inside Celie, a goodness that inspires. Celie learns that she writes from her own view of the world and that every view must be challenged and not taken for granted. Whatever people may think about God, whether the Bible says it or not, Celie learns to find her own meaning in God. Throughout her written letters, we see her writing, perhaps rewriting, her world and the divinity it expresses. Still, it is not until the end of the novel that she most fully sees what she has been doing all along: creating her own story. One has a certain power and responsibility in creating a world or judging a world that has been created by oneself or someone else.

Creative expression

When Africans were taken from their homelands to America, they usually were denied education by their slave owners and were not allowed to speak their own languages, instead being forced to speak English. This meant that the slaves had to create their own forms of communication and expression. This is where the African-American oral tradition began, with style and content often rooted in the stories and tales they had grown up with in Africa. They communicated through dance, song, and gesture, passing on their stories of woe and of freedom from one generation to another. In a similar way, although Celie is forced into silence by Alfonso, by writing her letters she engages in creative expression and communication so that her story is received by all her readers. Her example of persistence in writing to God is her way of persistence in being heard, in writing instead of orally. Although she does not realize it at the time, every word she writes is an assertion that she deserves to be heard. Likewise, sister Nettie, who never knows if her letters will reach Celie, writes religiously to her, and their communication is eventually granted to them. This success is an example of the hope in human struggle, providing courage and strength for readers who do not yet feel able to communicate fully with others.

During the novel several characters find their voices and their own expression: Shug recovers from her illness and continues singing, Mary Agnes starts singing and writing songs, Celie and Sofia start off by making quilts, and Celie eventually runs her own business making pants. Starting small, each enterprise is an example of courage and hard work that pays off in the end.

Hope for the next generation

The novel anticipates a brighter day for the black community and for black women in particular. Of all the black families, Samuel and Corrine’s is the most secure and loving. Celie’s children find their way into the bosom of that family and are protected by it. Their education, with help from Aunt Nettie, allows them to choose at an early age the sort of life they would like to live. Knowing that she does not want to be a subservient wife, Olivia (like Nettie before her) works hard to ensure that she can be independent without a man controlling her life. Within Celie’s family, we can already see change in her children, which opens up endless possibilities for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The white missionary Doris Baines also instills us with hope. Educating her so-called wives in England ensures that another family will be looked after and educated, equipped with the powers to challenge male dominance and racial prejudice. There is also change within the white communities at home. Eleanor Jane loves Sofia as she would a mother, despite her race and because of her care. When she has her son, Sofia comments that when he gets older he will be a problem for her, but we are not inclined to believe her. Sofia may think that this innocent, white, male baby will turn out like all the other white men she has dealt with, but Eleanor Jane demonstrates her hope--with her new perspective and with fresh, forward-oriented thinking--that her son and the next generation will advance in many ways after the struggles of earlier generations.

Female solidarity

At the start of the novel, the young, black female is presented as about the most vulnerable person in society. Celie epitomizes this female: she is abused and denied a voice by her (supposed) father and then by her husband. Along with the racial prejudice young, black women endure, they also tend to struggle against their black, male counterparts. Sofia always fought her brothers, and we see how she has to fight Harpo to assert her equality. Likewise, the Olinka tribe do not believe in educating their women, and although there are no reports of abuse against women by men in Nettie’s letters, female subservience is unchallenged, and the debasing initiation ceremony continues without contest--except from Nettie and her family. Under such conditions, if they want to change the status quo, these women must stick together against male oppression. In fact, the one time that Celie is too disturbed to sleep is when she betrays Sofia by telling Harpo to beat her; the disloyalty to her fellow female is more than she can bear. Usually, however, there is a strong union of support between one woman and another, and this bonding comes from a need to unbalance the male view of themselves that they have total authority over women in their society.

The woman who manages to challenge this male dominance the most is Shug, who asserts her independence by living according to her own laws. It is unsurprising, given the circumstances, that Celie and Shug become involved romantically. Shug is a powerful goddess who refuses to be brought down by men, ever vigilant to maintain the upper hand. Celie is a victim of male abuse who has closed herself off from the possibility of trusting men. When she comforts Harpo, who is crying on the porch, she feels nothing more than she would for a dog. Together, these females free each other: Shug teaches Mary Agnes to sing, Albert’s sister takes Celie shopping when no one else does, Sofia’s sisters look after her children while she is in jail, Nettie writes to Celie and looks after her children for thirty years, Doris Baines sends her "wives" to England for their education, Eleanor Jane cooks nourishing food for Henrietta, and Celie nurses Shug back to health and inspires her songwriting. More than all this, Shug and Celie loves each other with a very strong love born from isolation, desire for something better, and acceptance of one another. By the end of the novel, these women are no longer powerless; they have joined forces and are forging their own lives.


Shug is often described in colorful terms: she is rouged in the photograph Celie first sees of her and twice wears seductive bright red dresses during the course of Celie’s records. She also gives Celie yellow fabric for her quilt. These bright, exuberant colors are full of energy. Contrastingly, the clothes Celie is able to choose from when she goes shopping with Kate are brown, maroon, or navy blue because Kate doesn’t think Mr. ______ will want to pay for her preferred red or purple because they look "too happy." When Mary Agnes first starts writing her own songs, they are songs about color: "they call me yellow/like yellow be my name." As she tries to find her identity apart from her skin color, Mary Agnes explores the shades of color that lie beneath her skin, in her personality--finding these colors within gives her the voice to sing.

When Shug and Celie discuss their idea of God, Shug explains that God is in everything and that God is the beauty in nature. Shug points specifically to "the color purple" (traditionally a color of royalty) and wonders how such a color could grow naturally. Purple seems rare in nature. It as though the color itself were a manifestation of God.

Transcendence and relationships

By the end of the novel Celie has experienced love, started her own business, and learned to accept herself. She is a very different woman from the fourteen-year-old at the beginning. She becomes closer to Mr. ______ through their shared love of Shug and then by their listening to and relating to one another. The lessons both Mr. ______ and Celie learn teach them about themselves, which in turn gives them the confidence to talk to one another without any preconceived ideas of the roles they each fit into. Friendship becomes a vehicle for people to change and grow out of their original selves.

Many of the relationships are disturbed over the course of the novel but are later restored: Sofia returns to her family and to Harpo, Shug returns from her travels with Germaine, and Nettie arrives home with Celie’s children. In these cases, people grow and change separately before coming back together. Although they each travel their own journey and learn their own lessons, when the relationships are restored they are bonded by family and friendships that transcend the pain of the past and the earlier roles that had caused tension.