The Color Purple
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.
Celie is upset that Shug is soon leaving the house. Longing for Shug to stay, Celie tells Shug that Mr. ______ beats her when Shug is away. When Shug asks why he beats her, Celie answers, “For being me and not you.” Shug kisses Celie on the shoulder and declares she will not leave until she knows Mr. ______ would not even think about beating Celie.
Shug and Celie’s relationship grows increasingly intimate, and Shug coaxes Celie to talk about sex for the first time. Celie’s words, not surprisingly, are dismal. She says she despises sex and that during the act she typically pretends she is not even there. Shug tells Celie that, in her mind, Celie is still a virgin. To Shug, a woman’s real loss of virginity is not her first sex act, but the first time she experiences the pleasure of an orgasm. Celie finds the idea of pleasure sexy, otherworldly, and shocking.
Shug makes Celie take a mirror and look closely at her own sexual organs for the first time in her life. They act like little girls, giggling and worrying about getting caught. When Celie gets her first long, bold look at herself “down there,” she is not disgusted by what she sees, but states plainly that it is hers. Celie tells Shug that she does not care if Shug sleeps with Mr. ______, but later when she hears them together Celie cries.
Shug continues to sing at Harpo’s juke joint, to increasingly large crowds. Sofia makes a surprise visit one night, looking healthy and happy with a new boyfriend in her arms. Sofia and Harpo dance and make conversation, infuriating Harpo’s new girlfriend, Squeak, a young mixed-race woman who does anything Harpo says. Not knowing the trouble she is getting herself into, Squeak calls Sofia a bitch and slaps her across the face. Sofia promptly knocks out two of Squeak’s teeth, and coolly departs with her new man.
Sofia’s boldness soon gets her in trouble. When the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie, notices the cleanliness of Sofia’s children and asks Sofia to be her maid, Sofia responds with a curt “Hell no.” The mayor slaps Sofia for her sass, and Sofia knocks him down, an offense that lands her in jail. Upon visiting, Celie finds Sofia badly beaten, and her ribs and skull cracked. Celie is scared, but sits down and grooms Sofia. At home, everyone decides they need to get Sofia out of jail. Squeak admits that she is the niece of the white prison warden, so Mr. ______ tells her to go plead for Sofia’s release. Celie and the others dress Squeak up “like she a white woman” and send her off, armed with fraudulent words to trick the warden into granting Sofia’s release.
The warden does not release Sofia and instead brutally rapes Squeak, who comes home limping, her dress in tatters. Devastated, she tells the others what happened. She demands that Harpo call her by her real name, Mary Agnes. Sofia, rather than being released from prison, is sentenced to work as a maid for the mayor’s wife. Squeak helps Sofia with the mayor’s children, and begins to sing—first Shug’s songs, then songs she makes up herself.
Continuing the trend seen in her previous letters, Celie begins to take more pronounced steps in interpreting herself and the world around her. When Celie tells Shug that Mr. ______ beats her “[f]or being me and not you,” she demonstrates that her self-analysis is becoming increasingly developed and sophisticated.
One reason for Celie’s increased self-awareness is the sexual awakening that she experiences through Shug’s education. Shug declares Celie a virgin and renames her Miss Celie, giving Celie a new identity in both a figurative and a literal sense. Shug’s pronouncement of Celie as a virgin and the new name Shug gives Celie are critical to Celie’s empowerment to tell her own story and to her sense of self.
Shug’s renaming of Celie flies in the face of traditional definitions of virginity. Shug redefines virginity in her own terms, saying it is not lost when a man penetrates a woman but rather when a woman chooses to have sex and finds it physically and emotionally pleasurable. By redefining virginity in her own terms, Shug encourages Celie to take similar control over her own situation by interpreting it in a new way. The fact that Shug can suddenly term a married woman with two children a virgin introduces the possibility that there is a submerged, untold story in Celie’s life. Shug helps Celie realize that there are alternatives to the mainstream ways of thinking, perceiving, interpreting, and behaving that the dominant members of society impose upon her. Recognizing the existence of these alternatives gives Celie a sense of control and is an important step in her move toward independence.
Yet Sofia’s punishment makes it clear that challenging and reinterpreting mainstream perspectives often comes at a price. Sofia, who is robust and healthy and has a loving family and a comfortable material existence, is vastly different from white society’s stereo-type of the subservient black woman. Sofia bluntly asserts her unwillingness to conform to this stereotype by answering Miss Millie’s employment offer with a resounding “Hell no.” However, this resistance costs Sofia a cracked skull, broken ribs, a body covered with bruises, and twelve years of her life. Likewise, when Squeak resists by venturing forth in an attempt to free Sofia from prison, she is raped. It is clear that although Walker views resistance as crucial, she does not want to romanticize it as an act free of pain or consequences.
Ultimately, neither Sofia’s nor Squeak’s misfortunes defeat them. For Walker, the most basic indication of victory is the ability to tell one’s story, and neither Sofia nor Squeak loses her voice. Sofia maintains her resistance even when pressed into service as Miss Millie’s maid. Likewise, when Harpo tries to tell the others the story of Squeak’s rape, Squeak interrupts him, telling him to be quiet because she wants to tell her own story. Additionally, in the same way Shug renames Celie a virgin, Squeak renames herself to Harpo, rejecting the diminutive nickname he has given her in favor of her real name, Mary Agnes. Just as Celie’s renaming is enabling her to reinterpret the world, Squeak’s renaming opens up the gifts that have long been hidden inside her, and she starts to sing.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!