The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is the story of two sisters, Celie and Nettie. It follows their lives together as children and their desire to return to each other throughout decades of adulthood. Understanding the experience of Celie and Nettie is important in understanding how race and poverty in the southern US limited the freedoms of both women, although free, the women found themselves bound to abusive men in a society with few avenues to “git away.”
Us both be hitting Nettie’s schoolbooks pretty hard, cause us know we got to be smart to git away. I know I’m not as pretty or as smart as Nettie, but she say I ain’t dumb.Celie to God, The Color Purple, pg. 11
The Color Purple is a book that I had heard of and seen on shelves many times but never read myself. I sat down with The Color Purple three times before I was in the right headspace to read the story. The whole book is comprised of short letters written from Celie to God, Nettie to Celie, and Celie back to Nettie, spanning many years. To really tune into the story and understand what was occurring, I needed to read the first 50 pages in one sitting. Because of this, I reread the beginning of the book three times before making it to a point where I remembered and understood everything the next time I returned to the text.
Below I will share the quotes from the novel to which I felt the strongest reaction and that contribute to defining major themes of the novel.
I recommend this book to all. There is a reason Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award for The Color Purple; sit down with this book to learn why.
Celie experiences sexual and physical abuse throughout the story from her stepfather and husband. The sexual abuse begins in her youth. Celie would put herself in harms way knowing that she might be able to protect her younger sister Nettie from their stepfather, who is the father of Celie’s children.
Celie’s husband, Mr ———- physically abuses her as well. He instructs his own son to beat his wife in the following quotation.
Well how you specs to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em known who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.Mr ——— to Harpo, The Color Purple, pg. 35
Celie finds empowerment in a friend as she grows older, but as a young woman, she waits for her life of pain to end, knowing that heaven will bring relief.
Well, sometime Mr ——– git on me pretty hard. I have to talk to Old Maker. But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over, I say. Heaven last all ways.
You ought to bash Mr ——– head open, she say. Think bout heaven later.Celie to Sofia, The Color Purple, pg. 40
Black Missionaries in Africa
One of the reasons that Celie is so far from her city for many years is that Nettie went the African continent to work as a Christian missionary with the Olinka people. During her years spent living with the tribe, Nettie will make many conclusions regarding the Olinka people, their treatment of women, the effects of colonialism, and the ineffective, trivial, and failing aspects of their missionary work.
Did I mention my first sight of the African coast? Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated. Corrine and Samuel felt the same. And we kneeled down right on deck and gave thanks to God for letting us see the land for which our mothers and fathers cried — and lived and died — to see again.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 128
Nettie lives with the Olinka people as a missionary, along with her missionary friends from back home who encompass a nuclear family: Corrine, Samuel, Adam, and Olivia. Nettie comments upon the Olinka’s views regarding their place in the world, how they respect and hold the roofleaf as a God, and the Olinka’s generosity to the very people moving forward the colonial efforts to destroy their way of living.
I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. The Olinka definitely hold this view. And so they naturally thought the road being built was for them. And, in fact, the road builders talked much of how quickly the Olinka will now be able to get to the coast. With a tarmac road it is only a three-day journey. By bicycle it will be even less. Of course no one in Olinka owns a bicycle, but one of the road builders has one, and all the Olinka men covet it and talk of someday soon purchasing their own.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 152
Now the engineers have come to inspect the territory. Two white men came yesterday and spent a couple of hours strolling about the village, mainly looking at the wells. Such is the innate politeness of the Olinka that they rushed about preparing food for them, though precious little is left, since many of the gardens that flourish at this time of the year have been destroyed. And the white men sat eating as if the food was beneath notice.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 170
The Olinka Women
Throughout Nettie’s experiences with the Olinka women, she creates the perspective that the Olinka women are not treated with respect, equality, or dignity. They are ostracized for pursuing education and menstruation. Additionally, the Olinka women are subject to genital cutting in a ceremony and facial scarring that “celebrates” the transition to womanhood, while being completely restricting in talking about or learning about their own bodies.
But many of the [Olinka] women rarely spend time with their husbands. Some of them were promised to old or middle-aged men at birth. Their lives always center around work and their children and other women (since a woman cannot really have a man for a friend without the worst kind of ostracism and gossip). They indulge their husbands, if anything.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 151
Just when I think I’ve learned to live with the heat, the constant dampness, even steaminess of my clothes, the swampiness under my arms and between my legs, my friend comes. And cramps and aches and pains — but I must still keep going as if nothing is happening, or be an embarrassment to Samuel, the children and myself. Not to mention the villagers, who think women who have their friends should not even be seen.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 170
if you talk to an Olinka girl about her private parts, her mother and father will be annoyed, and it is very important to Olivia not to be looked upon as an outsider. Although the one ritual they do have to celebrate womanhood is so bloody and painful, I forbid Olivia to even think about it.
Do you remember how scared I was when it first happened to me? I thought I had cut myself. But thank God you were there to tell me I was all right.Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 170
Black Missionaries on Race
Nettie, Samuel, Corrine, Adam, and Olivia are Black Christian missionaries coming from the United States to the African continent. They are the first Black missionaries that the Olinka tribe encounters. Samuel retells a story to Nettie about how him and Corrine saw the same people they now lived among as “African savages,” while ignoring the apparent connection of skin that connected them as brethren.
Bush? Corrine would snicker to me or me to her. And just the sound of the word would send us off into quiet hysteria, while we calmly sipped our tea. Because of course they didn’t realize they were being funny, and to us they were, very. And of course the prevailing popular view of Africans at that time contributed to our feeling of amusement. Not only were Africans savages, they were bumbling, inept savages, rather like their bumbling, inept brethren at home. But we carefully, not to say studiously, avoided this very apparent connection.Samuel to Nettie, The Color Purple, pg. 211
Samuel continues with his story, and Nettie responds:
She [Corrine] used to say the Olinka resented us, but I wouldn’t see it. But they do, you know.
No, I said, it isn’t resentment, exactly. It really is indifference. Sometimes I feel our position is like that of flies on an elephant’s hide.Samuel to Nettie & Nettie to Samuel, The Color Purple, pg. 212
Celie on God & The Color Purple
The title of this book comes in a conversation between Shug and Celie. Shug empowers and protects Celie, and they share a love that goes much beyond friendship and offers Celie sexual fulfillment that she had never experienced before.
Shug and Celie spend many days throughout many years together, talking and sharing. It is when talking about God that they speak of the color purple.
What God do for me? I ast.
She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.
Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing too is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.
She say, Miss Celie. You better hush. God might hear you.
Let ‘im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.Celie & Shug, The Color Purple, pg. 173
God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.
But what do it look like? I ast.
Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.
Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.
She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happens, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ‘em you enjoys ‘em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 176
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
Yeah? I say.
Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.
You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.
Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?
Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.
Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool.Celie, The Color Purple, pg. 177
Sofia on whitefolks
I love children, say Sofia. But all the colored women that say they love yours is lying. They don’t love Reynolds Stanley any more than I do. But if you so badly raise as to ast ’em, what you expect them to say? Some colored people so scared of whitefolks they claim to love the cotton gin.Sofia to Miss Eleanor Jane, The Color Purple, pg. 240
Uncategorized Other Favorite Quote
Me marry! She hooted. (Really, she has the oddest ideas.)
They did everything to convince me, she said. You can’t imagine. I never saw so many milked young men in all my life as when I was nineteen and twenty. Each one more boring than the last. Can anything be more boring than an upperclass Englishman? she said. They remind one of bloody mushrooms.Doris Baines, The Color Purple, pg. 207
The Fourth of July
One final timely comment made as I post this blog on July 5th.
White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th, say Harpo, so most black folks don’t have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other.Harpo, The Color Purple, pg. 261
The last few quotes go without any of my analysis because I believe they stand on their own or need to be read within the context of the story. I hope that these few passages help engage you in this story of Celie and Nettie writing letters across decades and oceans. At the core of The Color Purple is a story of love and support between women, realizing that God is everything around and it need not be any white man but simply seen in the color purple, and finally that Celie matters because she is here.
I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.Celie, The Color Purple
The Color Purple is brilliant in its structure and poignant in its story and language. It is a must read. I suggest to all, and hope that you enjoy the words of Alice Walker as I have.