Skip over navigation

The Color Purple

Alice Walker

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

How would you describe the relationship between Mr. ______ and his father, and the relationship between Harpo and Mr. ______?

Both of these father-son relationships conform to traditional notions of patriarchal authority and submission. As the legal owner of the family’s property and land, as well as the primary source of income, the father possesses almost total control and authority over the rest of the family. He demands the obedience of his sons and all the women in the household. We see this patriarchal relationship continue in a cyclical nature. Mr. ______’s father forbade his marriage to Shug, and Mr. ______ likewise forbids Harpo to marry Sofia. As the family line continues, the son inherits the father’s property and the right to extract the same obedience from his sons.

At the beginning of Harpo’s relationship with and marriage to Sofia, Harpo seems almost proud of Sofia’s independence and spirit. We get the impression that her fiery personality is what attracted Harpo to Sofia in the first place. However, Mr. ______ threatens Harpo’s masculinity by implying that Harpo is not man enough to control his wife. We get the sense that Harpo would probably never have come up with this idea himself if his father had not burdened him with it, a mark of the cyclical nature of patriarchy and male dominance. In suddenly feeling the need to beat Sofia to “make her mind,” Harpo succumbs to the pressures and expectations that go hand in hand with traditional notions of masculinity and the role of the husband. However, by asserting their objections and independence, the women in The Color Purple break this cycle of patriarchy. Celie’s and Sofia’s resistance and self-assertion transform Mr. ______ and Harpo, and at the end of the novel, the cycle seems broken. Harpo nurses his father back to health and in turn expresses more kindness than dominance over his own children.

2.

What does the way the community reacts to Shug’s illness say about the status of women?

The women in Celie’s church speculate that Shug has a disease contracted through sexual promiscuity. They call it a “woman disease,” even though men are equally susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases. The community considers sexual freedom, which represents a goal and prerogative for men, to be a sin for women. Shug’s constant challenging of and resistance to this double standard makes her the target of many attacks. Ironically, the same women who berate Shug for her affair with Mr. ______ are the ones who flirt with Mr. ______ shamelessly. Additionally, when Shug later returns to the stage, for her first performance in Harpo’s new juke joint, she draws a huge crowd of loving, admiring fans. Showing their fickleness, many of these fans, who were unwilling to take Shug in when she was sick, bend over backward to express concern and proclaim their relief at finding she is still alive.

3.

Why do the Olinka not identify with Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie on the basis of race?

At the time when Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie arrive in Africa, the Olinka have not yet personally experienced the hardships and ravages of racism. Unlike American blacks, who saw during the nineteenth century that their race was a stigma to them, the Olinka see no reason to view their race as such a burden. Therefore, the idealistic preaching of the African-American ministers falls on deaf ears, and their notions that the native Africans would automatically identify with them on the basis of race prove naïve. Walker’s point is that one’s identity is much more complex and wide-reaching than one’s race. Though race may play a part in identity, considerations of gender, class, culture, and nationality are just as important, sometimes more so.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Describe Celie’s relationship with Shug. How does it change? What is significant about Shug’s last fling, with the young man named Germaine?

2. Consider the seemingly ideal world of family and friends that surrounds Celie at the end of the novel. What are the gender roles in this world like? Do you see any benefits or problems with Walker’s vision?

3. What role do you think Sofia plays in the novel? Describe her character and how she contributes to the themes in the book.

4. How are Celie’s letters to God similar to the African-American slave narratives collected in the 1930s? How are they different?

5. Why does Sofia tell Miss Millie “Hell no” when she offers Sofia a job as her maid? What is offensive about Miss Millie’s behavior prior to Sofia’s response?

More Help

Previous Next
Celie's Abuse

by sprinze, April 16, 2014

I think it's important to specify that her abuse was psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual. Rape is one of the most traumatic crimes committed and I'm certain it contributed to her sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness and her revulsion towards sex. Both her husband and her father raped her repeatedly. It's important.

1 Comments

2 out of 3 people found this helpful

Shug and Celie

by sprinze, April 16, 2014

There's no note of sexuality here, which is also important. Celie was raped repeatedly by Mr., her husband, and her step-father. She grew numb to it, which can happen with repeated abuse especially when it happens so often. The only sex she ever enjoyed was the completely consensual and compassionate time she shared with Shug. That makes Celie possibly gay/lesbian/bisexual/queer, or even asexual because she wasn't actually concerned about the act but more the emotional attachment and connection with Shug. Without any other positive sexual ex... Read more

0 Comments

27 out of 32 people found this helpful

Follow Us