Sofia and Celie sit together chatting and giggling in Miss Millie’s yard. Sofia is telling stories about the people she works for. The children Sofia looks after are playing ball. When the little boy drops the ball, he asks Sofia to pick it up for him. She refuses to do so, so he readies to kick her in the leg. But she moves her foot and he impales his foot on a rusty nail. When the little boy, Billy, starts crying, his mother comes out to comfort her, but the little girl defends Sofia and says that it was Billy’s fault.
Sofia tells Celie stories about the white people she works for. One time when Sofia was giving Miss Millie driving lessons, Miss Millie decided to drive Sofia home to her family. When they got there, Miss Millie’s car broke down, so Sofia only ended up spending fifteen minutes with her children because she had to go to get the car fixed. It was the first time she had seen them in five years.
Shug arrives back home for Christmas with a new man, her husband Grady. Mr. ______ and Celie are devastated. Shug asks Celie how things are with Albert. Celie replies that she is still a virgin. After Mr. ______ and Grady go off in the car together, Shug asks to stay warm in Celie’s bed with her. Celie tells Shug about being raped by her father. Shug puts her arm around her, and they both cry. Celie tells Shug that no one has ever loved her, but Shug replies that she loves Celie. They start kissing and touching each other. When the men return, Shug goes back to her own room.
Celie receives a letter from Nettie. Nettie writes that she is not dead and that Albert has been keeping her letters from Celie. She also tells Celie that Olivia and her son are well. Celie is so infuriated that all she can think about is murdering Mr. ______. Shug puts her to bed, telling the others that Celie has a fever. That night Shug stays with Celie. Celie finds out that Albert has been storing the letters in his trunk. Together Shug and Celie start reading Nettie’s letters in order.
Nettie’s first letter tells Celie that she has to get away from Albert, for when Nettie left she was followed by him and he tried to rape her, but she fought him off. Because of what she did, he told her that she would never hear from Celie again and that Celie would never hear from her. Then she went off in search of the Reverend Mr. ______’s place. When the door to his house opened, there was a little girl with Celie’s eyes peering out. Nettie relates that the lady she met in town with Olivia that day is named Corrine, her husband is called Samuel, and the son is Adam. They are very good to Nettie and very religious. Nettie writes that she is going crazy. She also is worried that Albert is hiding her letters from Celie. Nettie has asked Samuel to check to see if Celie is ok, but he says he cannot, and she is worried that they will lose touch completely because she is going to have to move out of town because she cannot find any work in town. Corrine and Samuel are moving away to do their missionary work, which is sad for Nettie because they have been like a family to her.
Despite Sofia’s dismal situation, she and Celie still laugh. Even though Celie is a poorly educated writer, who has not been taught how to construct humor (though she recognizes humor when she sees it), the candor of her writing translates humor right off the page. “Sofia would make a dog laugh,” Celie writes. Not only is this anthropomorphic description funny in its own right, but the certainty with which Celie asserts Sofia’s humor is so charming that it also becomes humorous. It is not just that Sofia could make a dog laugh; she would make a dog laugh. This, of course, also has the storytelling quality of recounting days gone by.
The context of a white family does not change the pattern in the novel whereby the males tend to be violent toward the females and the females band together. Using a metaphor, Sofia says that “white folks is a miracle of affliction,” having an amazing power to keep inflicting pain on black folks. After the boy attacks Sofia, the girl defends her. (Note that the recurring image of blood reappears here after the boy stabs his foot with the rusty nail, and it appears again later when Celie remembers being raped.) Again, throughout her life and throughout the span of the novel, the females generally support one another, maintaining a wall of defense against men. Often these alliances are forced apart; consider Celie and her mother, Sofia and her sisters, and Nettie and Celie. These breaks seem unnatural and dangerous for the women. Only Shug, who is largely independent of family, men, and children, can forge her own relationships on her own terms. Shug makes a choice to stay with Celie so long as Mr. ______ beats her.
Sofia is also bringing up children who are not her own. Meanwhile she is denied the opportunity of seeing her own children. By preventing Sofia from bringing up her own children, Miss Millie and her family act as barriers. Sofia truly might have been happier in jail. Miss Millie’s family represents the barriers against harmony within black families and communities which tend to perpetuate the family struggles that feature so heavily in Celie’s story. Here more than elsewhere, we see subordination by race rather than simply by sex. The replacement of Sofia’s children with Miss Millie’s children is a forced mismatch, a fake integration that serves to alienate rather than bring people together.
The love affair between Shug and Celie has been building in suspense to this point, so the beginning of a physical relationship here is unsurprising. Shug continues to represent freedom from the constraints put upon Celie by the other characters in the novel. She is ever more successful, dressing in furs. Her newest fabrics are silk and satin, and her newest color is gold. She knows some jazz greats such as Duke Ellington (again linking the novel to the real world that the readers know). She doesn’t just say “making love”; she freely says “f---.” All of this naturally makes her attractive to Celie, who has suffered from being low in the social hierarchy: Celie is an abused, ill-educated, black female whose power and identity have been hidden everywhere except in her diary—and except to Nettie and, especially, to Shug. Celie’s desire for Shug is also her desire for freedom. Shug’s passion for Celie, for Shug’s part, reinforces her prerogative to choose any lover she wants. People are drawn to her as they naturally are drawn to freedom. Shug chooses Celie now because Shug is also compassionate and protective toward Celie and sees the good in her.
As for Nettie, while Celie has been writing to God, Nettie has been writing to Celie. Nettie has never given up on Celie either. After Celie’s father raped her years ago, he told her she may not tell her mother or anyone—she could only tell God. Later, when Mr. ______ tried to rape Nettie and failed, he told her he would prevent her from communicating with her sister. In both cases, the dominant male stands in the way of the female relationships that could forge solidarity after the negative actions of the male. Alfonso succeeded with Celie, who never told her mother what happened, and for a long time Mr. ______ succeeded with Nettie. But once Celie finds Nettie’s letters, the two finally can correspond again.
All the lost time is, in a way, restored. Holding Nettie’s letter in her hand is like having Nettie herself. Even though Nettie has been hoping that her letters have been reaching her sister, they have not, but Nettie has kept writing and has kept up her side of the correspondence. The two of them have spent years recording their stories independently without anyone reading them. Now, as Celie reads the letters that have been stored in Mr. ______’s trunk, she uncovers her sister’s life, in much the same way that we uncover Celie’s while reading the novel. Shug is interested, too; among other things, she wants to know Nettie’s favorite color.
Celie has been writing to God. If the parallel holds this far, Nettie has been writing to Celie as if to God. Nettie seems to be open and honest about her life. If that parallel holds, the reader of the novel now takes up the role of Celie’s God. We are far from omniscient in the story, but our eyes read the dark story that this vulnerable black female tells, a story that has not been made available to the other characters with anything like the detail that we are permitted.
In Celie’s world, it is very hard for her story to be passed on. But we have it as something of value, a story that must be told and one that finally has indeed been told. The book’s author suggests here that we might feel the same way about the importance of the black storytelling tradition in general. This novel contributes to restoring the tradition in a generation where the old slave narratives are a thing of the past and stories of African life are even farther back, but black Americans still have plenty of stories worth telling and worth hearing. People who feel more like Celie than like Shug can see the hope of becoming more able to express themselves openly, like Shug, or the hope of recording their experiences for posterity, just as Celie’s letters turn out to be available for the world. Or, like Nettie’s letters, one’s creative expressions can be saved, revealed, and then read by a loved one who can best understand and respond to one’s personal experience. The experiences and stories are not lost, despite many struggles.