The Color Purple opens with Celie’s memory of her father’s command that she stay quiet about his abuse of her. The rest of the novel is composed of letters, and we begin with the first of many private letters Celie writes to God. In her first letter, Celie asks for guidance because she does not understand what is happening to her. Only fourteen, Celie is already pregnant with her second child—the result of rape and incest. Alphonso, Celie’s father, has turned to Celie for sexual gratification because Celie’s mother is ill and can no longer endure Alphonso’s sexual demands.
Celie’s mother dies. Celie writes that Alphonso stole Celie’s first baby while she was sleeping and killed it in the woods, and she believes he will kill her second baby as well. However, Alphonso does not kill the second baby, and Celie suspects that he instead sold the child to a married couple. Celie is left with her breasts filled with milk for no one.
From Celie’s fourth letter to God, we learn that Alphonso has brought home a new wife, though this marriage does not end the physical and sexual abuse Celie endures. Alphonso beats Celie for winking at a boy in church, though she may have just had something stuck in her eye. Later, he beats her again for dressing “trampy.”
Celie and her younger sister, Nettie, learn that a man, to whom Celie refers only as Mr. ______, has shown an interest in marrying Nettie. The man is recently widowed because his first wife was murdered by her lover. Alphonso’s new wife tells Celie and Nettie that Mr. ______ also had a lover outside of marriage, a woman named Shug Avery. The girls find a photograph of Shug, and her bright, glamorous face captivates Celie, who has never seen anyone like her.
Alphonso refuses to hand Nettie over to Mr. ______, stating that she is far too young and inexperienced to marry a man with children. Alphonso wants Nettie to continue her schooling and offers the man Celie instead. Alphonso claims that though Celie is ugly, a liar, and “spoiled twice,” she is older and hardworking and owns her own cow, which she could bring into the marriage.
After brooding over the offer for a few months, Mr. ______ makes up his mind to take Celie. Celie desperately wants to stay in school, but Alphonso says she is too dumb to learn anything. Celie spends her wedding day bandaging a wound from a rock Mr. ______’s son throws at her, untangling her screaming stepdaughters’ hair, and cooking dinner. Celie spends a joyless wedding night with Mr. ______ on top of her, all the while worrying about Nettie’s safety.
While in town one day, Celie catches sight of a young girl who she thinks may be her lost daughter. The girl closely resembles Celie, especially her eyes. The little girl’s mother talks kindly with Celie after she follows them into a fabric store, where Celie learns that the mother calls her daughter Olivia, the same name Celie gave her own daughter and embroidered on her diapers before the infant was taken away. In the store, the racist shopkeeper treats Olivia’s mother poorly, making her buy thread she does not want and tearing off her new fabric without bothering to measure it.
The epistolary, or letter-writing, form of The Color Purple resembles a diary, since Celie tells her story through private letters that she writes to God. Therefore, Celie narrates her life story with complete candor and honesty. As a poor African-American woman in rural Georgia in the 1930s and a victim of domestic abuse, Celie is almost completely voiceless and disenfranchised in everyday society. However, Celie’s letters enable her to break privately the silence that is normally imposed upon her.
Celie’s confessional narrative is reminiscent of African-American slave narratives from the nineteenth century. These early slave narratives, which took the form of song, dance, storytelling, and other arts, ruptured the silence imposed on the black community. Yet, unlike Celie’s letters, these slave narratives employed codes, symbols, humor, and other methods to hide their true intent. Slaves took these measures to prevent slave owners from discovering the slaves’ ability to communicate, articulate, and reflect on their unhappiness, but Celie takes no such protective measures.
Celie’s letters, though completely candid and confessional, are sometimes difficult to decipher because Celie’s ability to narrate her life story is highly limited. When Celie’s cursing mother asks who fathered Celie’s baby, Celie, remembering Alphonso’s command to keep quiet, says the baby is God’s because she does not know what else to say. Similarly, Celie does not know what to say about her mother’s death, her abuse, or her stolen babies. Celie knows how to state the events plainly, but often does not know how to interpret them. Despite the abuses she endures, Celie has little consciousness of injustice and shows little or no anger.
Walker’s use of Celie’s own voice, however underdeveloped, allows Walker to tell the history of black women in the rural South in a sympathetic and realistic way. Unlike a historian’s perspective, which can be antiseptic and overly analytical, Celie’s letters offer a powerful first-person account of the institutions of racism and sexism. Celie’s simple narrative brings us into her isolated world with language that reveals both pain and detached numbness: “My momma dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me.”
Like her voice, Celie’s faith is prominent but underdeveloped. Celie relies heavily on God as her listener and source of strength, but she sometimes blurs the distinction between God’s authority and that of Alphonso. She confesses that God, rather than Alphonso, killed her baby, and she never makes any association between the injustice she experiences in her life and the ability of God to overturn or prevent this injustice.