Harpo say, I love you, Squeak. He kneel down and try to put his arms round her waist. She stand up. My name Mary Agnes, she say.
This passage is from Celie’s forty-first letter. Squeak has just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to release Sofia from prison. The prison warden raped Squeak, and she returns home battered and torn. However, Squeak is not defeated, and she makes an important act of resistance when she decides to reject the belittling nickname, Squeak, that Harpo has given her. She insists on being called by her given name, Mary Agnes. By renaming herself, Mary Agnes resists the patriarchal words and symbols that Harpo has imposed upon her. Walker repeatedly stresses the importance of language and storytelling as ways of controlling situations and as the first steps toward liberation. Just as Shug renames Celie a virgin, and just as Celie reverses Mr. ______’s words to say, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. . . . But I’m here,” Mary Agnes renames herself to show her refusal to let the man in her life gain interpretive control over her.
In her sixtieth letter, Celie is recovering from the shock of learning Mr. ______ has been hiding Nettie’s letters to her. To help Celie overcome her anger, Shug positions herself as a very maternal or sisterly figure who protects and arranges Celie’s outside environment and makes sure Celie does not act on her instinct to murder Mr. ______. Nonetheless, though Celie and Shug’s relationship becomes more sisterly and familial, the intimate and sexual side does not disappear. In Shug and Celie’s relationship, Walker shows sexuality to be a complex phenomenon. Celie and Shug are sexual with one another, but they are simultaneously maternal, sisterly, friendly, and loving.
It must have been a pathetic exchange. Our chief never learned English beyond an occasional odd phrase he picked up from Joseph, who pronounces “English” “Yanglush.”
In the sixty-fifth letter, Nettie shares with Celie her sentiments about the Olinka villagers. After the Olinka have this “pathetic exchange” with a white man from the English rubber company, the Olinka conclude that it is a waste of breath to argue with men who cannot or will not listen. The cultural barrier between the Olinka and the English is so vast that both parties readily give up, believing no communication is possible. Samuel later mentions that the only way he and the other Americans could remain in Africa is to join the mbeles, the natives who have fled deep into the jungle and refuse to work for the white settlers.
With this discussion of the barrier separating the Olinka from the English, Walker emphasizes that, though narrative can be a powerful force, some differences cannot be overcome. Cultural complexities and gulfs of foreignness sometimes render communication futile. This provides a sobering counterexample to Celie’s success at finding her voice and using it as the key to her discovery of self-worth. Walker admits that some cultural differences are so great that there is little hope for communication. Unfortunately, she suggests no solution to this problem.
Well, us talk and talk about 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?). . . .
In the seventy-third letter of the novel, Celie recalls for Nettie this conversation with Shug. Celie has told Shug that she has stopped writing to God altogether. In response, Shug tries to help Celie develop a new understanding of God, which involves sidelining Celie’s notion of a God who is white and male and with whom she feels she has nothing in common. Shug gently suggests that instead of being mad at God for his injustice, Celie should reimagine God as a figure or entity with which she can more closely connect. Just because Celie’s image of an archetypal old, bearded white man will no longer do, Shug argues, Celie does not need to reject God altogether. Shug urges Celie to be creative and to see the presence of God in everything and everyone, as a sort of disembodied “it” with no race or gender. Shug’s lesson is part of a greater lesson that argues for reimagining one’s oppressors rather than rejecting them. Shug shows Celie that she does not need to reject men altogether. She explains that Celie can have men as friends and that her life does not need to revolve around men exclusively. Instead of dismissing men and God, Shug changes the power dynamic by reimagining them.
Shug act more manly than most men . . . he say. You know Shug will fight, he say. Just like Sofia. She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what.
Mr. ______ think all this is stuff men do. But Harpo not like this, I tell him. You not like this. What Shug got is womanly it seem like to me. Specially since she and Sofia the ones got it.
Celie recounts this conversation she has with Mr. ______ near the end of the novel, in her eighty-seventh letter. Their words of reconciliation concern the acceptance of differences—in gender roles, talents, and sexual orientation. The Color Purple concerns a universe in which traditionally masculine traits such as assertiveness, sexual gratification, and physical strength are present in female as well as male characters. Sofia’s assertiveness and strength are virtually unsurpassed by any of the male characters, whereas the nurturing and care that Harpo displays toward Mr. ______ could be considered feminine.
By the end of the novel, a sort of mixing has occurred, as some characters’ masculine traits have rubbed off onto more feminine characters, and vice versa. Shug, for instance, learns from and reciprocates Celie’s gentleness and care, while Celie picks up some of Shug’s sexual assertiveness and follows Shug’s suggestion that she become owner of a business, a traditionally male role. Mr. ______ and Harpo, conversely, become somewhat feminized. Mr. ______ learns to sew and to be a good listener, and Harpo cooks, changes his baby’s diaper, and kisses his children. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Walker sees fixed gender roles as meaningless and impractical.