The Color Purple
Shug Avery is sick, likely due to a sexually transmitted disease, and no one in the town will take her in. Both her mother and father say that Shug’s promiscuity has gotten her what she deserves. Mr. ______ leaves home unannounced and returns with the feeble Shug in his wagon. Though weak, feverish, and malnourished, Shug still has a razor-sharp tongue. Her first words to Celie upon meeting her are, “You sure is ugly.” Despite Shug’s nasty demeanor, Celie grows increasingly mesmerized by the sexy singer, whose stylish dresses, makeup, and slender figure are unlike anything Celie has ever seen. When Celie sees Shug unclothed for the first time, she confesses that she feels a sexual attraction.
Shug’s condition improves due to Celie’s care, and the two become friends. Shug’s improved disposition does not change the disdainful way she treats Mr. ______, whose first name, we learn from Shug, is Albert. Shug constantly teases Mr. ______ and calls him weak for not standing up to his own father, but he nonetheless remains love-struck. Harpo has been eating like a horse and has gained such a potbelly that the others laugh and ask when his baby is due. Harpo later confesses to Celie that he has been eating so much in an attempt to get as big as Sofia so that he can finally beat her into submission. This time, Celie advises against beating Sofia, telling Harpo that his relationship with his wife is one of genuine mutual love and should not be compared to the callous, loveless marriage between Celie and Mr. ______.
Mr. ______’s father and his brother, Tobias, come to visit. Both men disapprove of Shug staying at the house. Celie overhears Mr. ______’s father criticizing Shug’s promiscuity, so she secretly spits in his drinking water. When Mr. ______’s father reprimands his son for his lifestyle, Celie and Mr. ______ share a moment of eye contact that Celie describes as “the closest us ever felt.”
Sofia confesses to Celie that she is sad because, ever since Harpo has been eating and brooding, the two have lost the sexual vitality that was once a central part of their marriage. Sofia is angry with Harpo for his insistence on trying to take away her independence and assertiveness. Eventually, Sofia decides to move in with her sister, taking her children with her. Harpo tries to hide his feelings when Sofia leaves, but Celie sees him wipe away a tear with his baby’s cloth diaper.
Once Sofia has been gone for six months, Harpo and a friend open a juke joint on their land. By hiring Shug to sing there, they draw a crowd to the place. Shug persuades Mr. ______ to allow Celie to go watch her sing. Celie sits with Mr. ______ and admires Shug onstage. She feels confused, sad, and alone when she notices the special eye contact that goes on between Mr. ______ and Shug. Celie’s spirits lift when she hears Shug call out her name and dedicate a song to her, as this is the first time anyone has ever named anything after Celie. Celie knows that it is right for Mr. ______ and Shug to love each other, but she is confused over the pangs in her own heart and her increasing lovesickness for Shug.
Here, as in the previous section, Celie cannot match what she feels with what she says. When Shug arrives and needs care, Celie feels ecstatic, but she says nothing because she does not know anything and because she feels it is not her place to speak. Celie has been silenced for so long that she has become accustomed to having no voice. Her natural reaction is to say nothing.
However, Celie begins to understand that her perception of herself differs from the way others perceive her. Reflecting on herself and on her lot, Celie writes, “I might as well be under the table, for all they care. I hate the way I look, I hate the way I’m dress.” These beginnings of self-awareness represent a foundational first step toward Celie’s empowerment.
As her sense of self develops, Celie begins to perceive weakness and shortcomings in the men who oppress her. She also begins to react in an assertive manner. Looking at Mr. ______, Celie critically notes that he has a weak chin and wears dirty clothes. Angry at Mr. ______’s father for his unkind words about Shug, Celie retaliates secretly but assertively, spitting in the old man’s drinking water and threatening to put Shug’s pee in his glass the next time he visits. Celie also displays assertiveness when Harpo again asks for her advice about Sofia. This time, Celie finds words to express her true feelings, and she tells Harpo that abusing Sofia is not the answer.
Walker’s idea of the varied, multilayered nature of intimacy among women also emerges in Celie and Shug’s relationship. Walker understands sexuality and sexual orientation as a spectrum of possibilities rather than as two, polar-opposite choices. Thus, like race, sexuality can be difficult to define, and more complex than the simple dichotomy of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Celie’s feelings toward Shug are sexual, but they are also based on friendship, gratitude, camaraderie, and admiration. Celie does feel sexually aroused when she sees Shug naked, but just as important are the feelings of maternal tenderness toward Shug that Celie confesses to God when describing how she nurses Shug back to health.
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