Alice Walker’s epistolary coming-of-age novel, The Color Purple, is one of the most well-known works of American literature, given its deep socio-cultural impact. The novel paints a vivid, critical picture of life for an African American woman in the South in the early 20th century, portraying characters who gain the strength to defy its cultural limitations. Walker’s protagonist, Celie, undergoes an arduous journey of self-discovery, helping her overcome conflicts that otherwise would oppress her. She, along with the book’s other female characters, endures violence, subjugation, and abuse from male figures. However, as the events of the novel show, it is the strength and solidarity the women find in each other that helps them define themselves and claim authority over their lives. Their relationships form the weapon with which they resist a world in which they are considered second class citizens.
Throughout the novel, Celie’s major conflict is her struggle to establish her own voice and sense of self-worth, despite the sexual and emotional abuse she experiences at the hands of men. At the novel’s outset, we learn about her father raping her and realize she has little personal agency. Nor does she have a confidante, and when Alphonso warns her to stay quiet about her abuse, she writes letters to “God” instead. Symbolic of the white patriarchal order, the being she addresses does not respond, leaving her trapped in a world with little say in what happens to her.
In her suffering, however, Celie is not alone. Walker initiates the spirit of sisterhood in descriptions of the relationship between Celie and Nettie. The bond between the sisters is evident early in the work, when Celie is forced to marry Mr. ______ and Nettie runs from Alphonso, coming to Celie for protection. When Nettie shares Mr. ______’s compliments with Celie, she demonstrates solidarity with her sister and reveals a degree of personal agency, having rejected Mr. ______’s advances.In Mr. _____’s house, Celie forms additional relationships with women, each helping her find her voice and strength. Sofia, she learns, is assertive and stands up for herself, offering a view into a woman of color’s display of power and agency. Sofia’s bond with her sisters lends one reason for her assertiveness, helping Celie understand that the spirit of sisterhood can give women the strength to resist.
In the novel’s inciting incident, Shug’s arrival at Mr.______’s home, Celie’s journey of self-discovery takes a significant turn. Her relationship with Shug—a singer who first appears as Mr. ____’s mistress—evolves from caregiver to friend, and eventually to lover. Throughout the rising action, Walker emphasizes the value of nourishing supportive female relationships. The bond between Celie and Shug grows, and Celie appropriates a sense of her own sexuality, evident in her response to Shug when she tells her that she is still a virgin. Celie gains the power to redefine herself, learning to feel comfortable in her own skin.
Still, personal agency and rebellion against patriarchal oppression can have risks, including violent consequences, and Walker shows this in the stories of Squeak and Sofia. Sofia is beaten and thrown in prison for being an assertive Black woman, and when Squeak attempts to get her released, she is brutally raped. However, following this incident, Squeak finds her voice, literally and figuratively. She not only demands that Harpo call her by her real name, Mary Agnes, but she begins to sing. Walker thus defies a trope in which women are pitted against each other as sexual rivals, instead showing how support for each other can be empowering and liberating. Where women fail to bond and trust, as in Nettie and Corrine’s story, they suffer; Corrine is left weak and eventually takes her life.
As the novel moves to its climax, Celie continues to discover her voice and self-worth. Letters throughout the work serve as a motif highlighting the power of narrating one’s experiences, and Celie chooses to write letters to Nettie instead of to God. This is an empowering act symbolizing the fact that Shug has taught her to reject oppressive forces and ideas, including definitions of God. The climax of the novel occurs when Celie finally lashes out at Mr. ______ and announces that she is moving to Memphis. The relationships she cultivates with other women throughout her life finally imbue Celie with a sense of self, and she is able to speak up for the first time.
In the novel’s falling action and resolution, this reclamation of power continues, manifesting in external change. Celie starts her own business and eventually becomes the owner of her childhood home. Her journey comes full circle, and as a grown woman, she has taken ownership of her thoughts and opinions and is able to question what is right and wrong. Shug tells Celie at one point in the novel, “Us each other’s peoples now.” This sentiment extends to all the women in the novel, who support and uplift each other and thereby find a way to define themselves and reclaim power.