As a young girl, Celie is constantly subjected to abuse and told she is ugly. She decides therefore that she can best ensure her survival by making herself silent and invisible. Celie’s letters to God are her only outlet and means of self-expression. To Celie, God is a distant figure, who she doubts cares about her concerns.
Celie does little to fight back against her stepfather, Alphonso. Later in life, when her husband, Mr. ______, abuses her, she reacts in a similarly passive manner. However, Celie latches on to Shug Avery, a beautiful and seemingly empowered woman, as a role model. After Shug moves into Celie and Mr. ______’s home, Celie has the opportunity to befriend the woman whom she loves and to learn, at last, how to fight back.
Shug’s maternal prodding helps spur Celie’s development. Gradually, Celie recovers her own history, sexuality, spirituality, and voice. When Shug says Celie is “still a virgin” because she has never had a satisfying sex life, Shug demonstrates to Celie the renewing and empowering capacity of storytelling. Shug also opens Celie’s eyes to new ideas about religion, empowering Celie to believe in a nontraditional, non-patriarchal version of God.
Nettie’s long-lost letters, which Celie discovers with Shug’s help hidden in Mr. ______’s trunk, fortify Celie’s sense of self by informing her of her personal history and of the fate of her children. As her letters show, Celie gradually gains the ability to synthesize her thoughts and feelings into a voice that is fully her own. Celie’s process of finding her own voice culminates with her enraged explosion at Mr. ______, in which she curses him for his years of abuse and abasement. Mr. ______ responds in his characteristic insulting manner, but his put-downs have no power once Celie possesses the sense of self-worth she previously lacked.
The self-actualization Celie achieves transforms her into a happy, successful, independent woman. Celie takes the act of sewing, which is traditionally thought of as a mere chore for women who are confined to a domestic role, and turns it into an outlet for creative self-expression and a profitable business. After being voiceless for so many years, she is finally content, fulfilled, and self-suf-ficient. When Nettie, Olivia, and Adam return to Georgia from Africa, Celie’s circle of friends and family is finally reunited. Though Celie has endured many years of hardship, she says, “[D]on’t think us feel old at all. . . . Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.”
Our first impression of Shug is negative. We learn she has a reputation as a woman of dubious morals who dresses scantily, has some sort of “nasty woman disease,” and is spurned by her own parents. Celie immediately sees something more in Shug. When Celie looks at Shug’s photograph, not only does Shug’s glamorous appearance amaze her, but Shug also reminds Celie of her “mama.” Celie compares Shug to her mother throughout the novel. Unlike Celie’s natural mother, who was oppressed by traditional gender roles, Shug refuses to allow herself to be dominated by anyone. Shug has fashioned her identity from her many experiences, instead of subjecting her will to others and allowing them to impose an identity upon her.
Though Shug’s sexy style, sharp tongue, and many worldly experiences make her appear jaded, Shug is actually warm and compassionate at heart. When Shug falls ill, she not only appreciates, but also reciprocates the care and attention Celie lavishes upon her. As Shug’s relationship with Celie develops, Shug fills the roles of mother, confidant, lover, sister, teacher, and friend. Shug’s many roles make her an unpredictable and dynamic character who moves through a whirlwind of different cities, trysts, and late-night blues clubs. Despite her unpredictable nature and shifting roles, Shug remains Celie’s most constant friend and companion throughout the novel.
Although Mr. ______’s development is not the subject of the novel, he undergoes just as significant a transformation as Celie does. Mr. ______ initially treats Celie as no more than an object. He beats her like an animal and shows no human connection, even during sex. He also hides Nettie’s letters to Celie from Celie for years.
Mr. ______’s harsh treatment of Celie spurs her development. Celie’s discovery of Nettie’s letters begins her first experience with raw anger, which culminates in her angry denunciation of Mr. ______ in front of the others at dinner. Celie’s newfound confidence, instilled in her by Shug, inspires her to react assertively and forcefully to Mr. ______’s abuse.
When Celie returns from Tennessee, she finds that Mr. ______ has reevaluated his life and attempted to correct his earlier wrongs. Mr. ______ finally listens to Celie, and the two come to enjoy conversing and sewing together. Mr. ______ eventually expresses his wish to have an equal and mutually respectful marriage with Celie, but she declines.
Though younger than her sister, Nettie often acts as Celie’s protector. Nettie is highly intellectual and from an early age recognizes the value of education. However, even though Nettie is smart and ambitious, Mr. ______ effectively silences her by secretly hiding her letters from Celie. In her letters to Celie, Nettie writes that she is lonely, showing that like Celie, Nettie needs a sympathetic audience to listen to her thoughts and concerns.
Critics have faulted Nettie’s letters for being digressive and boring in comparison to Celie’s. Although Nettie’s letters are indeed quite encyclopedic and contain less raw experience and emotion, they play an important role in the novel. As a black intellectual traveling the world in pursuit of “the uplift of black people everywhere,” Nettie has a vastly different experience from Celie. Yet her letters, which recount the problems Nettie encounters in Africa, broaden the novel’s scope and show that oppression—of women by men, of blacks by whites, and even of blacks by blacks—is universal. The imperial, racial, and cultural conflict and oppression Nettie encounters in Africa parallel the smaller-scale abuses and hardships that Celie experiences in Georgia.