The Color Purple

by: Alice Walker

Letters 11–21

Summary Letters 11–21


In this section, Walker begins to develop the idea that people can attain power by strengthening their own voices. The Celie we have seen so far completely lacks power. She is essentially an object of others who is very passive in her interactions, especially those with men. However, Celie shows she is aware that others see her as a powerless object when she tells Sofia she is jealous of her assertive, self-defensive personality. When Kate tells Mr. ______ that Celie needs new clothes, Celie is acutely aware that Mr. ______ thinks of her as little more than dirt, saying that when he looks at her, it’s like he’s looking at the earth, trying to determine if it needs anything.

Initially, Celie’s advice that Harpo beat Sofia seems out of character, but we see that it is a result of the cyclical nature of abuse and oppression. When Harpo asks Celie for advice, Celie is given a rare opportunity to participate in the control and abuse of a woman other than herself. In her weakness and pain, Celie seizes this opportunity, but she quickly realizes that it represents a “sin against Sofia spirit.” Celie interprets her own act with surprising sophistication, realizing and admitting to Sofia that she gave the advice because she is jealous that Sofia knows how to fight back against abuse.

Sofia’s comment to Celie that she has tight-knit relationships with her five strong sisters implies that deep ties among women are a powerful means to combat sexism and abuse. Celie first witnesses Sofia’s assertiveness and autonomy when Sofia meets Mr. ______ and defies his attempts to control her. Sofia denies Mr. ______’s accusation that she is in trouble and therefore will end up on the streets. Sofia refuses to despair at her own pregnancy and rebuffs Mr. ______’s attempts to make her miserable. Likewise, Sofia’s refusal to stop talking when Mr. ______ or Harpo enters the room demonstrates that she does not view her identity as a woman simply in terms of reliance on and subjugation to men. Sofia’s defiance of the customs of patriarchy amazes Celie.

Walker argues that mastering one’s own story and finding someone to listen and respond to it are crucial steps toward self-empowerment and autonomy.

Celie’s lack of voice becomes more obvious in this section, as Nettie observes that seeing Celie with Mr. ______ and his children is like “seeing [Celie] buried.” Nettie is the first of several women who tell Celie to fight back. Celie’s explanation to Kate that she does not want to fight because it is too risky seems fatalistic and self-defeating, but Celie is right—there are significant, possibly even fatal, dangers inherent in resistance. Walker explores this tension between safety and danger throughout the novel.

Celie is also reluctant to resist because she lacks the tools she needs to fight back successfully—namely, a sense of self and an ability to create and express her own story. Nettie tries to help build Celie’s sense of self by passing along to Celie Mr. ______’s compliments, which Celie admits bolster her self-image. Soon after, Celie begins her first efforts at self-expression when she tries to thank Kate for buying her a new dress. She becomes frustrated and flushed, unable to find the words. When Kate tells Celie not to worry and that she deserves more, Celie thinks, “Maybe so.” Celie’s strained attempt to communicate her own feelings and her admission that she feels she deserves more than she has are important first steps in Celie’s process of empowerment. At the same time, Celie’s inability to convey her feelings of gratitude to Kate, a sympathetic audience, demonstrates the depth of Celie’s lack of self-understanding.