Us sleep like sisters, me and Shug.
Sofia complains that the mayor’s family is backward. To illustrate its backwardness, she tells a story: Miss Millie pestered her husband into buying her a car, but he refused to teach her to drive. Miss Millie finally asked Sofia to teach her to drive, which she did, with some success. As a Christmas reward, Miss Millie said she would drive Sofia to see her children, whom she had not seen in five years. Miss Millie said Sofia could visit the children for an entire day. However, only a few minutes into the visit, Miss Millie tried to drive back into town but got stuck in the driveway because she did not know how to operate the car in reverse. Frustrated that she had stripped the car’s gears, Miss Millie refused to allow Sofia’s brother-in-law to drive her into town, saying she could never ride in a car “with a strange colored man.” Miss Millie demanded that Sofia drive her home, even though Sofia had been able to spend only fifteen minutes with her children. Whenever Sofia mentions this incident, Miss Millie calls her “ungrateful.”
Shug writes that she has a big surprise, which turns out to be a new husband, Grady. Grady rubs Celie the wrong way, as he makes a flamboyant display of spending Shug’s money. Celie and Mr. ______ feel left out, as the love of their lives has returned home with another man. During Christmas, Grady and Mr. ______ drink while Shug and Celie spend time together. Shug’s singing career has grown rapidly, and she knows many famous musicians. Shug asks whether sex is going any better between Celie and Mr. ______, and Celie says it has not improved much, so she thinks she is still a virgin. Shug sleeps in Celie’s bed, where the two return to sisterly conversations about sex. Celie finally tells Shug her entire life story. It is the first time Celie tells about the rape by her stepfather, her silence, her pregnancies, and Nettie’s disappearance. When Celie finishes her story, tears flow, and Shug says that she loves Celie. Their conversation, kisses, and intimacy turn highly sexual.
One night in bed Shug asks Celie to tell her more about Nettie because—aside from Shug—Nettie is the only person Celie has every really loved. Celie says she fears Nettie is dead because she has not received any letters from her. Shug mentions that she often sees Mr. ______ taking mysterious letters from the mailbox and hiding them in his coat pocket. A week later, Shug recovers the most recent of these letters, which has stamps from Africa on it. The letter is from Nettie. Nettie says she is alive and well and that she has been sending letters all along. Knowing Mr. ______, she assumes Celie has received none of them.
Celie realizes that Mr. ______ must be keeping all Nettie’s letters in his locked trunk. Shug gets the key, and the two women open the trunk one night when they are home alone. Inside, they find dozens of letters from Nettie, some opened, some still sealed. Shug and Celie steam open the sealed letters and replace the empty envelopes in the trunk. Shug helps Celie put the letters in chronological order. Crying and struggling over unfamiliar words, Celie reads only the first seven letters before Grady and Mr. ______ return.
Celie reads that when Nettie first left Mr. ______’s house years ago, he followed her and tried to rape her. When Nettie fought back, Mr. ______ cursed her, saying that she would never again hear from Celie. It turns out that the woman whom Celie saw in the fabric store years ago, whose daughter looked just like Celie’s daughter, is named Corrine. Nettie became friends with Corrine and her husband, Samuel, who were members of a Christian ministry planning to travel to Africa for missionary work. Nettie developed a huge appetite for learning, and after reading all of Samuel and Corrine’s books about African history, decided to accompany them to Africa to help them start their missionary school. Nettie also learned that Samuel and Corrine’s children, Olivia and Adam, are, in fact, Celie’s lost children. Nettie traveled to New York and marveled at black society in Harlem, where liberated blacks own wealthy-looking houses. Nettie then crossed the Atlantic by boat, stopping first in Senegal, then Liberia, and finally a small village where she is doing missionary work. Nettie writes that she is amazed by the richness of African culture and the darkness of the native Africans’ skin.
Celie is nearly blinded with rage when it sinks in that Mr. ______ has been hiding Nettie’s letters from her. She feels sick and numb and has an overwhelming desire to kill Mr. ______. Trying to keep the peace, Shug tells Celie lengthy stories about her past with Mr. ______, who had once been a fun, sexy young man who made Shug very happy. But Celie remains in her own world, unafraid of Mr. ______ and even numb to Shug.
By listening to Celie’s story, Shug enables Celie to open up emotionally. When Celie finally articulates the hardships she has endured, she no longer reacts like “wood,” instead crying tears when she realizes the sadness of her own narrative. However, though Celie’s newfound life story is a sad one, it is also a hopeful one because of her growing sexual and emotional relationship with Shug. Celie’s sense of self has developed as a result of watching and learning from Shug. Shug serves as a model for Celie, a woman who embodies everything Celie lacks. At the same time, Shug is also a kind of double. In Shug’s sad eyes, Celie sees the image of her own suffering. Gradually, Celie’s and Shug’s impact on each other becomes reciprocal. They have even begun to take on each other’s attributes. Celie’s love and care have softened Shug’s heart and made her more gentle and nurturing, while Celie has become more sexually vibrant and assertive.
This relationship between Celie and Shug is centered around the idea of storytelling. Numerous times, Celie mentions how much she and Shug talk to each other. Their constant communication is a giant step away from Celie’s earlier silence. Nettie’s letters also symbolize a narrative that has been suppressed by silence. In finding and reading the letters, Celie in effect resurrects Nettie’s buried voice and begins to feel independent. However, only with Shug’s help can Celie discover Nettie’s story, put it in order, and decipher the parts of it she cannot understand herself. Learning that Nettie is alive gives Celie the strength necessary for self-reliance, and she ceases to fear Mr. ______ or rely as heavily on Shug.
Nettie’s letters also place Celie’s story within a much larger context. Until now, the plot of The Color Purple has been confined to a small set of people in a small town in rural Georgia. This insulation and isolation contrasts sharply with Nettie’s experience, which has brought her to a village in Africa. Celie remarks that Nettie’s letters are covered with stamps that have the picture of the Queen of England on them, signaling that blacks in Africa are also oppressed and dominated. The images in Nettie’s letters not only open Celie’s eyes to the outside world, but also link the personal oppression Celie has felt with the broader themes of domination and exploitation on the continent of Africa.
Another important element of Nettie’s experience is her exposure to free blacks who are prospering in the North, namely in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The idea of economically successful and independent blacks is largely foreign to Southern black women like Nettie and Celie, who are accustomed only to denigration, denial, and subservience at the hands of both whites and black men. We see that Nettie’s encounter with independent blacks has broadened her idea of opportunity considerably. Even though Celie may not yet realize it, Nettie’s descriptions of Harlem empower Celie and they may be a factor in the economic independence Celie achieves later in the novel. The concept of black prosperity and independence is yet another submerged or suppressed narrative that is now emerging into the foreground of Celie’s consciousness.