The Color Purple

Alice Walker
  • Study Guide

Letters 34–43

Summary Letters 34–43


Continuing the trend seen in her previous letters, Celie begins to take more pronounced steps in interpreting herself and the world around her. When Celie tells Shug that Mr. ______ beats her “[f]or being me and not you,” she demonstrates that her self-analysis is becoming increasingly developed and sophisticated.

One reason for Celie’s increased self-awareness is the sexual awakening that she experiences through Shug’s education. Shug declares Celie a virgin and renames her Miss Celie, giving Celie a new identity in both a figurative and a literal sense. Shug’s pronouncement of Celie as a virgin and the new name Shug gives Celie are critical to Celie’s empowerment to tell her own story and to her sense of self.

Shug’s renaming of Celie flies in the face of traditional definitions of virginity. Shug redefines virginity in her own terms, saying it is not lost when a man penetrates a woman but rather when a woman chooses to have sex and finds it physically and emotionally pleasurable. By redefining virginity in her own terms, Shug encourages Celie to take similar control over her own situation by interpreting it in a new way. The fact that Shug can suddenly term a married woman with two children a virgin introduces the possibility that there is a submerged, untold story in Celie’s life. Shug helps Celie realize that there are alternatives to the mainstream ways of thinking, perceiving, interpreting, and behaving that the dominant members of society impose upon her. Recognizing the existence of these alternatives gives Celie a sense of control and is an important step in her move toward independence.

Yet Sofia’s punishment makes it clear that challenging and reinterpreting mainstream perspectives often comes at a price. Sofia, who is robust and healthy and has a loving family and a comfortable material existence, is vastly different from white society’s stereo-type of the subservient black woman. Sofia bluntly asserts her unwillingness to conform to this stereotype by answering Miss Millie’s employment offer with a resounding “Hell no.” However, this resistance costs Sofia a cracked skull, broken ribs, a body covered with bruises, and twelve years of her life. Likewise, when Squeak resists by venturing forth in an attempt to free Sofia from prison, she is raped. It is clear that although Walker views resistance as crucial, she does not want to romanticize it as an act free of pain or consequences.

Ultimately, neither Sofia’s nor Squeak’s misfortunes defeat them. For Walker, the most basic indication of victory is the ability to tell one’s story, and neither Sofia nor Squeak loses her voice. Sofia maintains her resistance even when pressed into service as Miss Millie’s maid. Likewise, when Harpo tries to tell the others the story of Squeak’s rape, Squeak interrupts him, telling him to be quiet because she wants to tell her own story. Additionally, in the same way Shug renames Celie a virgin, Squeak renames herself to Harpo, rejecting the diminutive nickname he has given her in favor of her real name, Mary Agnes. Just as Celie’s renaming is enabling her to reinterpret the world, Squeak’s renaming opens up the gifts that have long been hidden inside her, and she starts to sing.