The Color Purple
Nettie runs away from Alphonso and finds refuge with Celie and Mr. ______. It quickly becomes clear that Mr. ______ still has an eye for Nettie. Whenever Mr. ______ pays Nettie a compliment, she passes it on to Celie. However, Nettie refuses Mr. ______’s advances, and she is soon forced to leave. Never hearing from Nettie again, Celie presumes her sister is dead.
Mr. ______’s two sisters, Kate and Carrie, visit and treat Celie with kindness, complimenting her on her housekeeping and her care of the children. Kate tells her brother that Celie needs new clothes, and though he seems surprised to learn that Celie would have needs, he allows the purchase. Celie is so grateful for her new dress, she does not know how to thank Kate. Kate also demands that Mr. ______’s eldest son, Harpo, help Celie with chores. Harpo has refused to help because he considers chores a woman’s job. Kate’s demand angers her brother, and the two get in a heated fight. When Kate leaves the house, she tells Celie to fight back against Mr. ______, but Celie does not see what good fighting will do.
Harpo confides in Celie that he has fallen in love with a spunky, robust young girl named Sofia. Celie’s thoughts linger on the sexy Shug Avery, who she learns is coming to town to sing at a local bar called the Lucky Star. Celie longs to go to the bar, merely to lay eyes on Shug. However, the only member of the household who sees Shug is Mr. ______, who spends the weekend with her. When he returns, Celie resists the temptation to ask Mr. ______ all the questions she has about Shug’s dresses, her body, and her voice. Instead, Celie and Harpo toil silently through the extra work they are given while Mr. ______ is lovesick and depressed after Shug’s departure. Harpo tries to complain to his father about the heavy workload, but Celie notes that Harpo is just as unskilled at arguing with Mr. ______ as she is.
Sofia’s parents will not let her marry Harpo because of the legacy of his murdered mother, and Mr. ______ is also opposed to the idea. However, after Sofia gets pregnant, marriage becomes inevitable. Celie is struck by the vivaciousness and unflinching strength Sofia displays as she talks back to Harpo and Mr. ______, as defiance is foreign to her own relationships with the two men.
When Sofia and Harpo marry, Celie helps them fix up an old shack on Mr. ______’s land, which they use as a home. Sofia and Harpo are happy newlyweds and doting parents, and Sofia keeps up her spunky spirit, demanding that Harpo help with the chores and refusing to acquiesce to her husband or father-in-law. Frustrated, Harpo asks both Celie and Mr. ______ how to get Sofia to behave, and both give him the only advice they know: to beat her. However, Sofia is physically very strong, and Harpo’s attempts to beat her typically result in more injury to himself than to his wife.
Celie worries that in advising Harpo to beat Sofia she has somehow committed a sin against Sofia’s spirit, and she has trouble sleeping for more than a month. Sofia learns that it was Celie who advised Harpo to beat her, so she angrily confronts Celie. Celie confesses that she is jealous that Sofia knows how to defend herself and fight back against her husband. Sofia feels sorry for Celie’s timidity and submissiveness, and the two make up and laugh about the incident. They talk about their families, and Sofia mentions she has six brothers. She also has five sisters, and all six girls are strong and “stick together.” Now friends, Sofia and Celie decide to make quilt pieces out of the curtains that were torn during Sofia and Harpo’s recent fights. Celie no longer has trouble sleeping.
In this section, Walker begins to develop the idea that people can attain power by strengthening their own voices. The Celie we have seen so far completely lacks power. She is essentially an object of others who is very passive in her interactions, especially those with men. However, Celie shows she is aware that others see her as a powerless object when she tells Sofia she is jealous of her assertive, self-defensive personality. When Kate tells Mr. ______ that Celie needs new clothes, Celie is acutely aware that Mr. ______ thinks of her as little more than dirt, saying that when he looks at her, it’s like he’s looking at the earth, trying to determine if it needs anything.
Initially, Celie’s advice that Harpo beat Sofia seems out of character, but we see that it is a result of the cyclical nature of abuse and oppression. When Harpo asks Celie for advice, Celie is given a rare opportunity to participate in the control and abuse of a woman other than herself. In her weakness and pain, Celie seizes this opportunity, but she quickly realizes that it represents a “sin against Sofia spirit.” Celie interprets her own act with surprising sophistication, realizing and admitting to Sofia that she gave the advice because she is jealous that Sofia knows how to fight back against abuse.
Sofia’s comment to Celie that she has tight-knit relationships with her five strong sisters implies that deep ties among women are a powerful means to combat sexism and abuse. Celie first witnesses Sofia’s assertiveness and autonomy when Sofia meets Mr. ______ and defies his attempts to control her. Sofia denies Mr. ______’s accusation that she is in trouble and therefore will end up on the streets. Sofia refuses to despair at her own pregnancy and rebuffs Mr. ______’s attempts to make her miserable. Likewise, Sofia’s refusal to stop talking when Mr. ______ or Harpo enters the room demonstrates that she does not view her identity as a woman simply in terms of reliance on and subjugation to men. Sofia’s defiance of the customs of patriarchy amazes Celie.
Walker argues that mastering one’s own story and finding someone to listen and respond to it are crucial steps toward self-empowerment and autonomy.
Celie’s lack of voice becomes more obvious in this section, as Nettie observes that seeing Celie with Mr. ______ and his children is like “seeing [Celie] buried.” Nettie is the first of several women who tell Celie to fight back. Celie’s explanation to Kate that she does not want to fight because it is too risky seems fatalistic and self-defeating, but Celie is right—there are significant, possibly even fatal, dangers inherent in resistance. Walker explores this tension between safety and danger throughout the novel.
Celie is also reluctant to resist because she lacks the tools she needs to fight back successfully—namely, a sense of self and an ability to create and express her own story. Nettie tries to help build Celie’s sense of self by passing along to Celie Mr. ______’s compliments, which Celie admits bolster her self-image. Soon after, Celie begins her first efforts at self-expression when she tries to thank Kate for buying her a new dress. She becomes frustrated and flushed, unable to find the words. When Kate tells Celie not to worry and that she deserves more, Celie thinks, “Maybe so.” Celie’s strained attempt to communicate her own feelings and her admission that she feels she deserves more than she has are important first steps in Celie’s process of empowerment. At the same time, Celie’s inability to convey her feelings of gratitude to Kate, a sympathetic audience, demonstrates the depth of Celie’s lack of self-understanding.
Celie has difficulty defining, interpreting and speaking about her self because, as she confesses to God, she has grown so numb in the face of adversity. She admits that, to get by, she pretends she is a tree. Rather than react emotionally or intellectually to adversity, Celie has found it easier and less dangerous to become wooden—to remain stone-faced and unthinking rather than attempt to reflect, interpret, or narrate.
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