The Color Purple opens with Celie’s memory of her father’s command that she stay quiet about his abuse of her. The rest of the novel is composed of letters, and we begin with the first of many private letters Celie writes to God. In her first letter, Celie asks for guidance because she does not understand what is happening to her. Only fourteen, Celie is already pregnant with her second child—the result of rape and incest. Alphonso, Celie’s father, has turned to Celie for sexual gratification because Celie’s mother is ill and can no longer endure Alphonso’s sexual demands.

Celie’s mother dies. Celie writes that Alphonso stole Celie’s first baby while she was sleeping and killed it in the woods, and she believes he will kill her second baby as well. However, Alphonso does not kill the second baby, and Celie suspects that he instead sold the child to a married couple. Celie is left with her breasts filled with milk for no one.

From Celie’s fourth letter to God, we learn that Alphonso has brought home a new wife, though this marriage does not end the physical and sexual abuse Celie endures. Alphonso beats Celie for winking at a boy in church, though she may have just had something stuck in her eye. Later, he beats her again for dressing “trampy.”

Celie and her younger sister, Nettie, learn that a man, to whom Celie refers only as Mr. ______, has shown an interest in marrying Nettie. The man is recently widowed because his first wife was murdered by her lover. Alphonso’s new wife tells Celie and Nettie that Mr. ______ also had a lover outside of marriage, a woman named Shug Avery. The girls find a photograph of Shug, and her bright, glamorous face captivates Celie, who has never seen anyone like her.

Alphonso refuses to hand Nettie over to Mr. ______, stating that she is far too young and inexperienced to marry a man with children. Alphonso wants Nettie to continue her schooling and offers the man Celie instead. Alphonso claims that though Celie is ugly, a liar, and “spoiled twice,” she is older and hardworking and owns her own cow, which she could bring into the marriage.

After brooding over the offer for a few months, Mr. ______ makes up his mind to take Celie. Celie desperately wants to stay in school, but Alphonso says she is too dumb to learn anything. Celie spends her wedding day bandaging a wound from a rock Mr. ______’s son throws at her, untangling her screaming stepdaughters’ hair, and cooking dinner. Celie spends a joyless wedding night with Mr. ______ on top of her, all the while worrying about Nettie’s safety.