The Color Purple
About the book:
Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.
About the author:
Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple, which was preceded by The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian. Her other bestselling novels include By the Light of My Father’s Smile, Possessing the Secret of Joy and The Temple of My Familiar. She is also the author of two collections of short stories, three collections of essays, five volumes of poetry and several children’s books. Her books have been translated into more than two dozen languages. Born in Eatonton, Georgia, Walker now lives in Northern California.
Reading and Understanding This Book
This section gives teachers an opportunity to focus on comprehension, to clarify aspects of the plot, and to allow students to share their own interpretations of certain passages.
1. In Celie’s first letter to God, she asks for a sign to let her know what is happening to her. Discuss the way confusion and deception become powerful tools for those characters who want to take advantage of Celie. Unravel the layers of lies that are told to her throughout the novel, perhaps making lists that compare the fiction she is expected to believe with the truth about her world. These can be concrete (Celie’s impression that Pa is too poor to provide properly for her, and the later realization that he had more resources than he ever lets on) or abstract (the assertion that Celie is unintelligent, though she demonstrates constant intelligence in planning for her safety and that of her sister). Ask the students to recall their own experience with a revelation: when in their lives has the truth set them free?
2. What is the effect of not knowing Albert’s last name? In early novels, it was not uncommon for authors to use a blank in place of a character’s name, to create the illusion that the character was someone the reader might know—someone whose identity had to be kept secret. What does it mean that Celie must call her husband Mr. ____? When does she at last begin calling him by his first name?
3. Why does Albert tell Harpo to begin beating his wife, Sofia? Why is it so important to Harpo that his wife have no will of her own? Is his relationship with Squeak (Mary Agnes) fulfilling? What do these scenes tell us about the nature of abusive cycles? Is cruelty something that is taught—something that is unnatural? In your opinion, what does it take for someone (male or female) to deserve true respect?
4. Just as Celie grew up being told she was inferior, Shug Avery was always told she was evil. What are your impressions of Shug, from the photo Celie sees early on, to the end of the novel, when Celie and Albert have united in their devotion to Shug? What does Shug teach Celie about being loved, and about finding one’s true self? What price does Sofia pay for being her true self?
5. What does it take for Celie to finally reach her boiling point and reject oppression?
6. What is Celie’s opinion of Grady and his haze of addiction?
7. Why is it difficult for Shug to commit to the people who love her? In what ways does Shug bring both pleasure and heartache to them?
8. Nettie’s life with Corrine and Samuel gives her the first semblance of a healthy family life she has ever known, but Corrine’s jealousy taints this. Only the memory of that crucial early scene, when Celie lays eyes on her daughter at the store, absolves Nettie just before Corrine dies. The Color Purple brims with these intricate turns of plot. List the seemingly minor scenes that turn out to be pivotal in the lives of the characters.
The Cast of Characters, Listed Alphabetically
ALPHONSO: Referred to as “Pa,” he is Celie and Nettie’s stepfather (though at first they are told he is their biological father).
CELIE: The novel’s heroine.
DORIS BAINES: The wealthy missionary Nettie meets on a ship.
ELEANOR JANE: The mayor’s daughter, who is oblivious to hardship when Sofia is forced to become her family’s maid.
GERMAINE: The younger man who steals Shug’s heart.
GRADY: Shug’s passive husband.
HARPO: Celie’s oldest stepchild and owner of the juke joint.
KATE: Mr. ____’s sister, who early on urges Celie to stand up for herself.
MISS MILLIE: The mayor’s racist wife.
MR. 2: Celie’s husband, whom she later calle by his first name, Albert.
NETTIE: Celie’s younger sister.
OLIVIA and ADAM: Celie’s children.
SAMUEL and CORRINE: The minister and his wife, who adopt Celie’s children.
SHUG AVERY: The glamorous singer, whose given name is Lillie.
SOFIA: Harpo’s headstrong wife.
SQUEAK: The nickname for Harpo’s biracial girlfriend, Mary Agnes.
TASHI: The Olinka village girl who marries Adam.
The Art of Language
One of the novel’s many achievements is its pitch-perfect use of voice. Celie’s and Nettie’s letters convey two starkly different varieties of English, providing a gateway for students to consider the historical and social aspects of language.
1. Using online resources, a guest speaker from a local university, or textbooks on the history of English (such as McCrum, MacNeil, and Cran’s widely adopted The Story of English) present a history of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), formerly known as Black English among sociolinguists and sometimes referred to as Ebonics. In what ways does language capture a particular experience? Is it a reflection of geography (including rural versus urban areas)? Education level? Peer groups? Age? Immigration status? How are language and identity linked? In the contemporary world, especially in music, does AAVE convey different cues than it did in the 1920s and 1930s?
2. Ask the students to identify the systems and vocabularies that make Celie’s voice distinctive (replacing the digraph “th” with the letter “d,” so “that” becomes “dat;” dropping auxiliary verbs; her use of “hant” to describe a haunting ghost or “migration” for “admiration”). When they have completed their analyses, ask the students to compare Celie’s voice with Nettie’s. What causes the gradual transformation of Nettie’s speech patterns? What does Celie mean when, as Darlene is trying to teach her to speak standard English, she says, “Only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind”?
3. Ask the students to identify their underground speech styles. What are the traits of their formal and informal uses of language? What vocabularies do they use to fit in with their peers, or to keep adults from understanding their messages? What dialects are associated with their own ancestors? What dialects might cause them to be ostracized?
4. Present a unit on the use of vernacular in fiction. Demonstrate that in literature–from older classics such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through contemporary works such as those by Hawaiian author Lois-Ann Yamanaka—dialects have won accolades for authenticity and criticism for promoting what some say are racist or simply “incorrect” examples of American English. Does a fiction writer have more freedom, or even an obligation, to portray marginalized populations with candor? What causes a word—whether a racial slur or a sexual profanity—to be deemed offensive?
1. Celie’s life sets the stage for the civil rights movement, giving context to the years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington (where, in 1963, Alice Walker was able to hear his “I have a dream” speech while perched on a tree limb). What facts about American history are captured in The Color Purple, such as those represented by the lynching and burning of Celie and Nettie’s father?
2. What laws, or lack of laws, were in place in the early twentieth century to restrict the political and economic power of African Americans in the South? Did the Nineteenth Amendment, granting voting rights to women, extend to Celie? Could she have served on a jury?
3. How has society (as well as the legal