Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Narrative and Voice
Walker emphasizes throughout the novel that the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings is crucial to developing a sense of self. Initially, Celie is completely unable to resist those who abuse her. Remembering Alphonso’s warning that she “better not never tell nobody but God” about his abuse of her, Celie feels that the only way to persevere is to remain silent and invisible. Celie is essentially an object, an entirely passive party who has no power to assert herself through action or words. Her letters to God, in which she begins to pour out her story, become her only outlet. However, because she is so unaccustomed to articulating her experience, her narrative is initially muddled despite her best efforts at transparency.
In Shug and Sofia, Celie finds sympathetic ears and learns lessons that enable her to find her voice. In renaming Celie a “virgin,” Shug shows Celie that she can create her own narrative, a new interpretation of herself and her history that counters the interpretations forced upon her. Gradually Celie begins to flesh out more of her story by telling it to Shug. However, it is not until Celie and Shug discover Nettie’s letters that Celie finally has enough knowledge of herself to form her own powerful narrative. Celie’s forceful assertion of this newfound power, her cursing of Mr. ______ for his years of abuse, is the novel’s climax. Celie’s story dumbfounds and eventually humbles Mr. ______, causing him to reassess and change his own life.
Though Walker clearly wishes to emphasize the power of narrative and speech to assert selfhood and resist oppression, the novel acknowledges that such resistance can be risky. Sofia’s forceful outburst in response to Miss Millie’s invitation to be her maid costs her twelve years of her life. Sofia regains her freedom eventually, so she is not totally defeated, but she pays a high price for her words.
The Power of Strong Female Relationships
Throughout The Color Purple, Walker portrays female friendships as a means for women to summon the courage to tell stories. In turn, these stories allow women to resist oppression and dominance. Relationships among women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a world filled with male violence.
Female ties take many forms: some are motherly or sisterly, some are in the form of mentor and pupil, some are sexual, and some are simply friendships. Sofia claims that her ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters. Nettie’s relationship with Celie anchors her through years of living in the unfamiliar culture of Africa. Samuel notes that the strong relationships among Olinka women are the only thing that makes polygamy bearable for them. Most important, Celie’s ties to Shug bring about Celie’s gradual redemption and her attainment of a sense of self.
The Cyclical Nature of Racism and Sexism
Almost none of the abusers in Walker’s novel are stereotypical, one-dimensional monsters whom we can dismiss as purely evil. Those who perpetuate violence are themselves victims, often of sexism, racism, or paternalism. Harpo, for example, beats Sofia only after his father implies that Sofia’s resistance makes Harpo less of a man. Mr. ______ is violent and mistreats his family much like his own tyrantlike father treated him. Celie advises Harpo to beat Sofia because she is jealous of Sofia’s strength and assertiveness.