Alice Walker tells a great story and teaches numerous lessons in The Color Purple. She also uses an interesting narrative style of letter writing to narrate the entire story. Below is an in-depth analysis of some of the themes and symbols in the novel.
Gender is the major theme in The Color Purple. We see the dynamics of gender from different dimensions. Also, we see race, religion, and an array of other themes. Let’s explore some of these themes.
Gender Inequality and Injustice
In The Color Purple, we see the unjust treatment of females by males, subjugation of women by the society, and also women sabotaging their fellow women.
There is the vulnerable girl child that is preyed upon, abused, and raped by cruel individuals in the family units. For instance, we hear Sofia’s melancholy words, as quoted from ‘The Color Purple’:
a girl child ain’t safe in a family of menSofia to Celie (page 41)
Celie’s life is a testimony of the sad truth of the above words by Sofia. We see young Celie who is repeatedly raped by her stepfather from so early an age that as a teenager, she has been impregnated twice. Then her stepfather marries her off without her consent and her husband continues the vicious cycle of abuse that her step-father began.
Then we see in the novel, stereotypes, cultural practices, and beliefs that are created to subjugate women in society. This is most notable in the village of Olinka where the essence of a woman’s existence is in getting married to a man and becoming the mother of the man’s children. In the words of an Olinka mother to Nettie :
A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband does she become somethingAn Olinka woman to Nettie when asked why they do not send their daughters to school (page 171)
The people of Olinka do not permit females to go to school or act independently, there must be a man at every point in her life to “look after” her.
We also see an indication of a patriarchal society that subjugates women in the beliefs and actions of most of the male characters. For instance, when Harpo as a boy is asked by his aunt Kate to help with chores around the house, Harpo replies that ‘Women work. I’m a man’, which shows that he has been trained to believe that chores are only for females and that as a male he is entitled to be in the house without helping out with chores.
The Color Purple is emphatic with the message that women should support their fellow women and that women’s support for each other helps them thrive as individuals and gives them the power to overcome their struggles.
This is most notable in the support and friendship between Celie and Shug Avery, Celie and Nettie, Celie and Sofia, Shug Avery and Squeak, and between the women of Olinka.
Celie cared for Shug Avery when she was sick and her care was instrumental in nursing her back to life. Shug on her part, teaches Celie a new concept of religion that empowers her, and encourages her to leave Albert and begin a business of her own, without the friendship of Shug, Celie’s redemption as an individual might have taken longer to achieve or might not have happened at all. It was Shug who helped Celie control her instinct to murder Albert and helped her direct her energy to something productive. It was also Shug that brought Nettie’s hidden letters to Celie and the loving words in Nettie’s letters contributed to Celie’s healing as an individual.
In Olinka, the women have camaraderie and friendship with each other, even among women that share the same husband and these women work together and care for each other, often excluding their husbands in this friendship.
Sofia’s sister Odessa takes Sofia in when Sofia leaves her marriage and also cares for Sofia’s children when Sofia goes to prison. Sofia encourages Squeak to pursue her singing career and offers to look after Squeak’s daughter in Squeak’s absence which also shows gender solidarity.
Another theme on gender in The Color Purple is that the traditional gender stereotypes for men and women are wrong and often hinders individuals from doing things that make them happy and from being productive.
Albert reminisces on his love for sewing as a youth but how he was forced to abandon sewing because folks made fun of him for doing a chore that they believe is meant for women.
We also have Alice Walker rebuffing some notions of masculinity and femininity through events in the novel. On page 326, Albert describes Shug’s qualities of being upright, honest, speaking her mind without caring what people think, and fighting for her happiness as being ‘manly’. And he also admits that Sofia shares those same qualities. Celie replies that those qualities are rather ‘womanly’ qualities especially since he and his son do not have those qualities and the people that are known to have those qualities are Shug and Sofia who are women.
Walker also deals with the dressing stereotypes for men and women in The Color Purple, fighting the notion that wearing pants is a dressing meant for men alone.
Race is another key issue. The Color Purple gives an unobtrusive depiction of racial discrimination against blacks, particularly in the South of the USA.
The mayor’s wife does not realize that her patronizing treatment of blacks is condescending. The mayor’s wife sees a clean and respectable-looking black woman with a car and her well-dressed children, and instead of her admiration for them to inspire respect, it inspires in her the desire to have the black woman come to serve as her maid.
Sofia’s response of “Hell No” to the mayor’s wife leads to assault by the mayor and by a large group of police officers because it is almost inconceivable for a black woman to talk back sharply at a white woman.
In the USA at the time, there were separate sections for whites and blacks in public trains, which was a glaring indication of racial discrimination.
Beauty standards of the time also reflect a prejudiced notion of being black. For instance, Albert’s sister Carrie does not agree that Albert’s deceased wife, whom Kate described as beautiful was actually beautiful just because Albert’s deceased wife had a dark complexion. Also, Tashi observes that from pictures of women she saw in western magazines, it was clear that the people of America did not like dark-skinned women.
Another pitiable indication of racial discrimination is the case of Squeak, who is biracial and who was asked to act like a white lady in order to plead Sofia’s case with the prison warder but who unfortunately was raped as the prison warder recognized her as a biracial lady and not as a white. This shows how blacks are regarded by the privileged whites.
One of the religious lessons The Color Purple teaches is that God is not restricted to the traditional image of the Christian God. That God can be found everywhere and in everything.
Celie was writing letters to the Christian image of God, to which she felt no connection to and nothing in her life improved until she changed her perception of God and began to feel free and powerful.
Nettie, who went to Africa on a mission to convert the roof leaf-worshipping villagers of Olinka into Christendom, later became confused about what was the true image of God between Jesus Christ and the roof leak.
Tact and Survival
Another theme in The Color Purple is the importance of tact in survival. Walker was passing the message that sometimes one condones unpleasantness in order to avert worse outcomes, especially in situations where one is dealing with people who wield more power than oneself.
Celie was tactful in acting docile in the face of abuse because she was a vulnerable child that had no one to protect her, and she was not powerful enough to protect herself. So she condoned abuse without resistance in a bid to survive.
Sofia is a strong woman and a fighter but lacks tact, for which she paid a great price. She was not tactful in her reaction to the mayor and his wife, and this got her to respond with indignation at the mayor’s wife’s request that she serve as a maid and to retaliate against the physical assault by the mayor, an action which stripped her off twelve years of her freedom and made her lose out on her children’s growing up. She later learned tact the hard way as she began to conduct herself as a submissive and well-behaved prisoner even though underneath that docile exterior, she was furious enough to kill.
Alphonso, though a villain, was tactful enough to avoid being lynched like Celie’s father by using a white person to run his business and by reaching certain compromises with the powerful whites in his area of business.
Imperialism and Exploitation
Alice Walker did some expositions of the exploitative motivations of the Western world in Africa. In The Color Purple, we see how the more powerful countries of the world will always exploit and destroy the less powerful countries and that sometimes, these exploitative motives are disguised as philanthropy, development, or benevolence.
She talks about England looting valuable artifacts from Africa, Holland using cheap labor of Africans on questionably acquired cocoa plantations, and western capitalists’ forceful evacuation of the people of Olinka from their homes and imposing taxes on them.
Analysis of Key Moments
- Celie is fourteen years old and writing to God about being sexually abused by her father, Alphonso.
- Celie’s mother dies. Celie is pregnant for the second time and fears Alphonso will kill the child just as he killed the first one. Alphonso takes the second child away from Celie, too, without letting her know the whereabouts of the child.
- A widower called Albert comes to ask for Nettie’s hand in marriage, but Alphonso persuades Albert to marry Celie instead of Nettie, which he does.
- Albert beats, rapes, and abuses Celie in their marriage and Albert’s spoiled children give Celie a difficult time in her matrimonial home.
- Celie meets a little girl, whom her instincts tell her is her daughter, with a rich woman at a store in town. They talk, and the rich woman introduces herself as the reverend’s wife.
- Nettie runs away from home when Alphonso tries to rape her and goes to Celie
- Albert begins to make sexual advances at Nettie, and when she fights him off, he sends her away from his house. Celie suggests to Nettie to run to the rich woman she saw at the store in town and also makes Nettie promise to write her letters.
- Harpo, Albert’s son, marries a pretty and confident woman called Sofia. After a while, Harpo begins to complain that Sofia does not obey him and asks Celie for advice. Celie advises Harpo to beat Sofia.
- Sofia confronts Celie about the advice to Harpo, and Celie admits guilt and apologizes, and the two women begin to get along.
- Albert brings home his ex-lover, Shug Avery, who is critically ill, and Celie begins to nurse her.
- Sofia complains of being unhappy in her marriage and leaves Harpo, taking their five children with her.
- Harpo converts their home into a juke joint after Sofia and the kids leave.
- Shug Avery regains her health and begins to perform at Harpo’s juke joint.
- Sofia gets arrested for retaliating against a slap by the mayor and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
- Harpo’s girlfriend, Squeak, who is biracial, pretends to be a white lady and goes to plead Sofia’s case with the prison warder but unfortunately gets raped by the prison warder.
- Shug Avery finds out that Nettie had been writing Celie but that Albert had been hiding the letters. Celie begins to read Nettie’s letters.
- Celie learns that Nettie is on a mission in Africa and that the lady she saw at the store and her husband adopted Celie’s two children who are alive and well.
- Shug Avery and Celie become closer as friends and eventually become lovers. Shug advises Celie to start sewing pants to distract her mind because Celie is angry and wants to kill Albert for being an abusive husband to her and for hiding her sister’s letters from her.
- Shug travels to Tennessee, taking Celie and Squeak. And while there, Celie begins to design and sew so many pants and eventually makes a business out of it.
- Celie learns that Alphonso is not her and Nettie’s biological father but only their stepfather. She also learns that her real father was a wealthy merchant who was lynched by white people for being a business competition to them.
- Alphonso dies and Celie discovers that her childhood home, her late father’s store, and all their other properties were left to her by her mother.
- Nettie gets married to Samuel after his wife Corrine dies.
- Albert becomes a changed and better man and asks Celie for forgiveness, and they both become friends, although Celie refuses to stay married to him.
- Nettie returns from Africa with Celie’s children, Adam and Olivia, and they all reunite happily.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
Alice Walker uses letter writing to narrate the entire events in the novel. The epistolary style of The Color Purple takes on three key narrative perspectives. First is Celie’s letters to God, then Nettie’s letters to Celie, again Celie’s letters to Nettie, and the last letter is Celie’s letter addressed to “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God”.
The diction is mostly vernacular as the main narrator Celie is an uneducated southern girl who does not know to spell so many words correctly. There are instances of her limited literacy in her spelling of words like tuberculosis as “two berkulosis” and using the pronoun “us” where “we” should be used.
Alice Walker also makes use of character foils in The Color Purple. Celie and Shug Avery are character foils. Celie is docile and subdued, while Shug Avery is vivacious, bold, and free. The characters Albert and Jack also foil each other; Albert is abusive to women while Jack is supportive of women, Albert is not a loving father even though he has children, while Jack loves and cares for children even though he has none of his own.
Analysis of Symbols
The Color Purple
The color purple symbolizes beauty, especially beauty found in nature. When Shug says she thinks it pisses God off when one walks by the color purple in a field and does not notice, she is referring to missing out on appreciating the beauty of nature all around us(page 223). Celie goes further to ponder on the creativity it took to create the color purple when she admits that she’d been so occupied with thinking about God that she failed to notice creations like the color purple and marvels at where it comes from.
The Juke Joint is a place where people convene in the evening to relax and have a good time. It symbolizes momentary relief in suffering and togetherness. The characters, both friends and adversaries, all sought this relief and came together.
It is also a symbol of Harpo’s coming of age and independence from his father.
This is a symbol of the creativity and resourcefulness of the African-American woman. It is also a symbol of friendship, togetherness, and storytelling. For instance, Sofia and Celie began quilting after reconciling and sharing their stories with each other.
Pants in The Color Purple symbolize the gender stereotype of manliness. It then goes further to show that the quality of manliness is not fit for men alone but for women too.
Shug Avery’s love of elephants symbolizes strength, loyalty, and a nurturing quality in herself. And her love of turtles symbolizes her longevity and a hard exterior that protects a soft inner self.
Celie chooses the duck as an animal that represents her. A duck being an animal that can swim, walk and fly, it represents Celie’s quality of adaptability to circumstances around her.
What is the main theme of The Color Purple?
The main theme of The Color Purple is Gender. The novel exposes gender subjugation and preaches gender solidarity among women. It also tries to break certain gender stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. Some other themes in the novel are race, religion, and imperialism. It talks about the racial discrimination against blacks in the United States, tries to change the notion of God as depicted by Christianity, and laments the exploitation of Africa by western countries.
Does Shug love Celie?
Yes, Shug loves Celie. She begs Celie not to kill Albert because that would make Celie go to prison and she, Shug, cannot bear the thought of losing Celie. Then she also professes her love for Celie as she asks Celie to give her a few months to indulge in one last fling and then return to her.
Why did Alice Walker name her novel The Color Purple?
Alice Walker named her novel The Color Purple to symbolize the beauty of nature. A reference to the title is found on pages 223 and 224 of the novel, where the character Shug Avery tells the protagonist Celie that it pisses God off when one walks by the color purple in the fields and does not notice. Celie also marvels at where such a beautiful color comes from.
What does Celie do that surprises everyone at the dinner table?
Celie shouts back at Albert in outrage. The action surprises everyone at the table because Celie is known to be docile and submissive and never stands up for herself. Her outrage is a result of years of suppressed emotions as a result of the physical and emotional abuse she has suffered in her life.