By listening to Celie’s story, Shug enables Celie to open up emotionally. When Celie finally articulates the hardships she has endured, she no longer reacts like “wood,” instead crying tears when she realizes the sadness of her own narrative. However, though Celie’s newfound life story is a sad one, it is also a hopeful one because of her growing sexual and emotional relationship with Shug. Celie’s sense of self has developed as a result of watching and learning from Shug. Shug serves as a model for Celie, a woman who embodies everything Celie lacks. At the same time, Shug is also a kind of double. In Shug’s sad eyes, Celie sees the image of her own suffering. Gradually, Celie’s and Shug’s impact on each other becomes reciprocal. They have even begun to take on each other’s attributes. Celie’s love and care have softened Shug’s heart and made her more gentle and nurturing, while Celie has become more sexually vibrant and assertive.
This relationship between Celie and Shug is centered around the idea of storytelling. Numerous times, Celie mentions how much she and Shug talk to each other. Their constant communication is a giant step away from Celie’s earlier silence. Nettie’s letters also symbolize a narrative that has been suppressed by silence. In finding and reading the letters, Celie in effect resurrects Nettie’s buried voice and begins to feel independent. However, only with Shug’s help can Celie discover Nettie’s story, put it in order, and decipher the parts of it she cannot understand herself. Learning that Nettie is alive gives Celie the strength necessary for self-reliance, and she ceases to fear Mr. ______ or rely as heavily on Shug.
Nettie’s letters also place Celie’s story within a much larger context. Until now, the plot of The Color Purple has been confined to a small set of people in a small town in rural Georgia. This insulation and isolation contrasts sharply with Nettie’s experience, which has brought her to a village in Africa. Celie remarks that Nettie’s letters are covered with stamps that have the picture of the Queen of England on them, signaling that blacks in Africa are also oppressed and dominated. The images in Nettie’s letters not only open Celie’s eyes to the outside world, but also link the personal oppression Celie has felt with the broader themes of domination and exploitation on the continent of Africa.
Another important element of Nettie’s experience is her exposure to free blacks who are prospering in the North, namely in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The idea of economically successful and independent blacks is largely foreign to Southern black women like Nettie and Celie, who are accustomed only to denigration, denial, and subservience at the hands of both whites and black men. We see that Nettie’s encounter with independent blacks has broadened her idea of opportunity considerably. Even though Celie may not yet realize it, Nettie’s descriptions of Harlem empower Celie and they may be a factor in the economic independence Celie achieves later in the novel. The concept of black prosperity and independence is yet another submerged or suppressed narrative that is now emerging into the foreground of Celie’s consciousness.