The Color Purple has characters that suffer in epic proportions both physically and emotionally. The characters’ stories are as heart-wrenching as they are educative. But the characters are admirable for their strength and ability to triumph over their adversities.
Celie is the protagonist of the novel. The story of The Color Purple begins with her as a fourteen-year-old girl who tells God about the abuse she goes through in the hands of her father. Celie is regarded as physically ugly. She has an inquisitive mind and a fervor to learn but is subdued by abuse and adversities and so remains uneducated.
Her idea of defending herself from getting hurt is to submit to her abusers without resistance and try to stay invisible afterwards. She is hardworking, great at keeping a house and taking care of kids and farming. She is very religious but her undemanding and subdued nature reflects in her religiosity, because although she hopes God would intervene in her situation, she makes no demands from him, only telling him what she’s going through.
Celie’s development as a character is drastic. She changes her perception of God from a bearded white old man to an ”it” that can be found in flowers, in the wind, in herself and everywhere. This change of perception becomes empowering and liberating for her. She also begins to experience sexuality in a different way, sex changed from a torturous activity to be endured by the opposite sex into a pleasurable activity that she enjoys with her fellow woman.
With her religious and sexual liberation comes better layers to her personality. She confronts her abusers Mister (Albert) and Alphonso for all the years of abuse she endures in his hands. She discovers she is creative at fashion designing and with Shug Avery’s support and encouragement, makes a business venture out of it and becomes an independent woman. She is forgiving and kind and this is shown in her ability to forgive and become friends with Mister who abused her both physically and emotionally for so many years.
Celie’s relationship with Shug Avery is highly instrumental to her development as a character. While Celie nursed Shug Avery’s sick body back to life, Shug nursed Celie’s ailing spirit back to life.
Nettie is Celie’s younger sister. She is the pretty one between the two sisters. She is intelligent and bright. Nettie is a fighter who tries to fight for her sister to get an education, fights off her father Alphonso who tries to abuse her sexually, and also fights off Mister’s sexual advances. She loves her sister Celie and tries to share with her every privilege she enjoys. When Celie is forced to drop out of school, Nettie tries to teach her everything she learns from school.
When Mister pays her a compliment, she extends the same compliment to her sister Celie. When she begins to travel the world, she tries to make Celie see the world with her by writing passionately detailed letters about everything she experiences in her travels.
Nettie is an intellectual and a good and patient teacher. At first idealistic about their mission to Africa but her experiences in Africa while making her a more seasoned and wiser person, leaves her disillusioned about how much good she can do for the world and her ability to stop exploitation from happening.
She is a good friend and companion to Samuel and Corine who take her in when she has no place to go, she extends her love for her sister Nettie to Samuel and Corine’s children whom she knows are Celie’s biological children but desists from making it known to them.
The villagers of Olinka where she works as a missionary have various perceptions of her. Some see her as a co-wife to Corine who is married to Samuel while some others see her as a pitiable lonely woman. She eventually finds love and companionship with Samuel and they get married and she becomes happiest when she reunites with her sister Celie.
Mister is a widower who marries Celie in order to have someone take care of his home and children. He is handsome and seen as attractive by so many women but is malicious and abusive to his wives, first to Anna Julia and then to Celie because he cannot marry Shug Avery whom he truly loves. His name is Albert but due to the coldness between him and Celie, Celie only refers to him as Mister.
Later on, he adds laziness to the list of his vices and spends long hours at his porch just moping into space while Celie and his son Harpo work at the fields. He is neither a good husband nor a father. He beats, rapes and emotionally abuses Celie and does not take care of his children. He hides Nettie’s letters from Celie as a way to punish both sisters because he knows how much the sisters love each other and would have loved to keep in touch.
He eventually undergoes a great transformation as time goes by. We see him in a new light as a victim himself. He is a victim of stereotypes, gender, and racial barriers imposed on him for generations and he also hurts from not having the only woman he ever loved.
Celie’s outbursts makes him introspective and gets him to realise his errors. He eventually asks Celie for forgiveness and tries to become friends with her. He begins to find religion and appreciate the beauty of nature and eventually takes to reading, collecting seashells, and assisting Celie in sewing.
Harpo is Mister’s eldest son. He is not necessarily bad at heart but behaves badly because he does not have any good example to guide him. He gets a distorted notion of gender and gender roles from his father and therefore believes that women are inferior to men and must bend their will to please men.
He suffers nightmares from seeing his murdered mother die in his arms as a little boy. He is at first resistant to having Celie as a stepmother but later warms up to her and begins to confide in her.
He is physically strong and handsome but has a weak will and little confidence in himself. He falls in love with Sofia and gets her pregnant but at first lacks the independence of mind to defy his father and marry her. He becomes intimidated by Sofia’s physical strength and independence of mind and begins to abuse her physically, following bad advice from his father and Celie.
When Sofia fights back and proves that she’s strong, he begins to eat excessively with hopes of gaining weight and becoming stronger than Sofia.
He loves cleaning up, babysitting, and doing chores around the house but sometimes is ashamed to do them because of what he believes society does not perceive those chores as masculine.
After the emotional turmoil of Sofia taking their five children and leaving him, he eventually learns to be more confident and financially savvy and as the story progresses, he lets go of some of his gender stereotypes.
Sofia is a strong woman who can stand up for herself. She comes from a large family where she had to fight gender subjugation from her father and from some of her brothers. She loves Harpo and gets pregnant for him but refuses to marry him at first when she realises that Harpo cannot stand up to his father.
She marries Harpo and they have five children together but their loving marriage becomes turbulent and violent as Harpo tries to control and physically abuse her and she fights back.
Sofia’s major character flaws are her temper and her lack of tact. She says exactly what she thinks and cannot control her temper when she gets offended. She pays dearly for this as her proud response to the mayor’s wife offends the mayor, leading to a physical assault which she retaliates and ends up in prison for.
She is tortured in prison and blinded in one eye and later sent to serve as a maid to the mayor’s wife for over a decade, a dehumanizing experience that traumatizes her and makes her fight an urge to commit murder. By the time she is released, she has lost out on her children’s childhood and some of them begin to regard her as a stranger but she takes comfort in Squeak’s little daughter SusieQ who is drawn to her.
Shug Avery (Lillie)
Shug Avery is bold, daring, vivacious and free-spirited. Her real name is Lillie but because of her sweet personality, she is called Shug which is short for “Sugar”. She is sometimes cruel and sometimes kind. She is a woman who is not shy to follow her dreams and aspirations, be it love or career. She is a singer who many in her society regard as a woman of questionable virtues simply because she sings in public.
She is the only woman Mister (Albert) has ever truly loved and wanted but could not marry because of his father’s disapproval. She in turn loved Mister but settled for having extramarital affairs with him. She falls ill along the line and everyone she knows deserts her until Mister takes her in and puts her under Celie’s care.
Shug and Celie develop a friendship and bond from their time together. Shug Avery is Celie’s character foil. She is as bold as Celie is timid and while Celie longs for her children who were forcefully taken from her, Shug Avery willingly abandons her own children and does not feel any special attachment to them.
Shug Avery is a strong woman who also serves as a pillar of support to other women around her. She played a pivotal role in Celie’s self-actualisation and encouraged the timid Squeak to pursue a singing career.
The dynamics of Shug and Celie’s relationship is symbiotic as Celie not only helps Shug regain her physical health but also makes her try to establish a relationship with her estranged children while Shug helps Celie stand up and fight for her freedom and independence.
Alphonso is an opportunistic, manipulative, and cruel pedophile. He is the real villain of The Color Purple. He takes advantage of Celie’s mother’s ailing health to have access to her money and properties; he repeatedly rapes Celie and snatches her children away from her after getting her pregnant. He refuses to send Celie to school and marries her off when he feels he has no more use for her.
He begins his predatory sexual advances on Nettie when Celie leaves, making Nettie run away.
He is cunning and tricky and finds a way to manipulate the racist society to favor his interests through bribery. He later marries a fifteen year old girl but treats her better than he treats Celie and Nettie.
He is not sorry or remorseful to Celie when she confronts him about all the wrongs he has done against her.
Squeak (Mary Agnes)
Squeak is Harpo’s girlfriend, whom he begins to date after Sofia, leaves him. She is regarded as beautiful and light-skinned because of her inter-racial origin. Her real name is Mary Agnes, but she is called Squeak because of her uncertain manner of speaking and her lack of confidence.
She at first has a rivalry with Sofia over Harpo but later becomes friends with her. She gets raped by her uncle, who is a police officer, when she goes to plead in favor of Sofia.
A significant development of her character is her demand to be called by her real name Mary Agnes instead of Squeak. This indicates her desire to be taken seriously. She takes a liking to singing and pursues a career out of it through Shug Avery’s encouragement and support.
She later becomes an addict, which adversely affects her career but later recovers her sobriety and continues to pursue her career.
Samuel is a reverend and a missionary who unwittingly adopts Celie’s children. He also takes Nettie in when she runs away from home. He is loving, and kind, and loves his family and his missionary work.
He later marries Nettie after the death of his wife Corrine. And they both have a loving marriage.
Samuel’s wife and the foster mother to Celie’s children. She takes a liking to Nettie, and they become friends but she later becomes apprehensive and suspicious about Nettie’s relationship with Samuel and fears that Nettie and Samuel are the true biological parents of her adopted children.
She develops an illness in Africa and, coupled with her doubts and suspicions of her husband, does not find the will to fight and overcome her sickness and so dies in Africa.
Celie’s first child that was adopted by Samuel and Corrine. He is smart and strong and begins to follow the culture of the African people among whom he grew up.
He falls in love with an African girl and while at first angry at her for going through the cultural rites of female circumcision and facial scarification, decides to get his own facial scars in solidarity with his lover.
Celie’s daughter that was also adopted and raised by Samuel and Corrine. She is intelligent. She becomes friends with an African girl named Tashi and teaches her the school things she knows while Tashi teaches her about their culture.
She loves the rich culture of the African people with whom she lives but worries about the pressure of cultural gender roles placed on women.
An African girl who becomes friends with Adam and Olivia. She is smart and with a curious mind. She easily grasps all the school teachings she gets from Nettie and Olivia.
She battles with cultural identity, she likes the western ways she learns from Olivia, Nettie, and Adam but at the same time is afraid of being an outsider in her own culture. As a way of identifying with her culture, she goes through the cultural rites of female circumcision and facial scarification, a decision which she later regrets.
She later marries Adam and returns with him to America.
Sofia and Harpo’s daughter. She is strong-headed and always skeptical. The family later discovers she is battling a blood disease that leaves her in great pain.
She hates Yam, which is one of the foods she is advised to eat to help with her condition and fights viciously whenever she tries to be fed with yam.
She is surprisingly kind to Eleanor Jane’s baby and helps look after him.
The Mayor’s self-absorbed wife, who thinks that her patronizing but unempathetic treatment of colored people should be received with gratitude from them.
The mayor’s daughter, who is practically raised by Sofia. She believes Sofia is at her beck and call and therefore runs to her whenever she has a problem.
She quarrels with Sofia when Sofia refuses to admit to loving her son. However, she later makes peace with her and offers to help nurse the sick Henrietta which is rather ironic as white people do not serve black people at that time.
The man Shug Avery introduces as her husband after regaining her health and traveling to further her career. He is pompous and clueless. He gets infatuated with Squeak, and they later begin a relationship.
He cultivates and sells an addictive substance called “reefer” and eventually moves to Havana to make a bigger business out of it while taking Squeak further into addiction.
Sofia’s boyfriend, whom she begins to date after leaving Harpo. He is a prizefighter, handsome and huge. He is protective of Sofia but lets her fight her own battles, he respects and loves her and is a perfect gentleman.
Sofia’s sister, who supports her and helps her in times of need. She takes Sofia and her children in when Sofia leaves Harpo. She is childless herself but loves and cares for Sofia’s children like they were her own.
Odessa’s husband, who also cares for Sofia’s children like they were his own. He is huge, strong, and kind.
A teenage girl who Alphonso marries after his cruel years with Celie and Nettie. She is from a poor family but takes advantage of her marriage to Alphonso to extort enough money to better the lot of her family.
One of Mister’s sisters, who tries to organize the home in a way that things will be easier for Celie but gets run off by Mister. She advises Celie to stand up and fight for herself. She is twenty-five years old, unmarried, and beautiful.
Where did Nettie go when she left Mr___ and Celie?
Nettie went to Samuel and Corrine’s house when she left Mr___ and Celie because Celie suggested it to her. Celie had earlier seen Corrine with a little girl whom she believed was her own lost biological daughter and had also seen Corrine spend lavishly. She suggested that Nettie go to Corrine because Corrine was the only woman Celie had seen with money and because she wanted Nettie to be close to little Olivia, who was with Corrine.
How does Shug meet Celie?
Shug first meets Celie on the porch of Albert’s house when Albert brings her home to nurse her in her sickness. Her first words to Celie were to mock Celie for being ugly. They become closer as Celie nurses her, and later they become friends and lovers too.
Who was Celie pregnant by?
Celie was pregnant by Alphonso, the man she grew up believing was her father. Alphonso raped her repeatedly and got her pregnant twice. After each childbirth, he would snatch the baby away from Celie, leading her to believe he had killed the babies.
Celie is at first concerned that her babies would be abnormal because of what Shug Avery told her about children born from incest usually being abnormal. But she is somewhat relieved when she learns that Alphonso was only her step-father and not her biological father.
Why does Shug suggest making pants for Celie?
Shug suggests making pants for Celie as a way to get Celie’s mind off her wrath and fury at Albert. Celie confided in Shug that she was harboring thoughts of murdering Albert and Shug suggested they sew pants in order to keep busy and distract their minds from unsavory thoughts.
Are Celie and Nettie reunited?
Yes, Celie and Nettie get reunited after decades of being apart. At first, the news of Nettie probably dying in a shipwreck nearly crushes Celie, but she manages to keep faith and hope alive, and her faith is rewarded at the end by Nettie’s return.