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Free Study Guide for The Color Purple by Alice Walker Free Book Summary

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The three dominant attributes of Celie's personality are strength and endurance, the ability to love unconditionally, and the constant search for truth. Celie's endurance arises out of a belief in herself, even though she sometimes questions her worth, and out of her connections with others, even though those connections are sometimes tenuous. From adolescence into adulthood, Celie endures sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; still she remains a caring and gentle soul who finds it easy to love when she feels loved. Her resilience is truly miraculous and a tribute to humankind.

Often during the novel, Celie loves others more than she loves herself. In order to save her mother and then Nettie from the cruelty of Fonso, she quietly takes her own abuse. She marries Albert so Nettie will not be forced to marry him. She then sends Nettie away from the farm to protect her from Albert, even though it means she will lose the only family and friend she has in the world. Even before she meets her, she loves Shug, believing her to be the perfect picture of glamour and independence. When Shug loves her back, she finds it hard to believe. When Shug chooses Germaine over her, it breaks Celie's heart, but she understands and wonders why Shug has ever loved her. It is only towards the end of the novel that Celie realizes she can be content without depending on anyone but herself, but it took years of pain to arrive at this sense of self-sufficiency.

The ability to endure under the worst of circumstances is Celie's key to survival. She manages to withstand the sexual abuse of Fonso, the loss of her babies, the cold cruelty of Albert, the loss of her sister Nettie, and the uncertainty of Shug's love -- all coupled with a life filled with poverty, struggles, and prejudice. In spite of the hardships, Celie never gives up faith. At first, she writes letters to God, trusting that He will eventually bless her life. When she feels deserted by God, she places her faith in Nettie, certain that she will again be reunited with her sister. Even when she learns that Nettie has supposedly been shipwrecked at sea, she does not give up her faith. She continues to write letters to Nettie, certain that she is still alive.

The same kind of steadfastness characterizes Celie's love for Shug Avery. Long before she meets Shug, she adores her. When she finally meets Shug, she loves her unconditionally, even though Shug mistreats her. She sleeps with Albert, with Celie in the next room; after saying she loves Celie, she gets bored with her life and marries Grady; she leaves Celie again to have a last fling with Germaine. In spite of this treatment, Celie never wavers in her love for Shug. She even decorates a room for Shug in her house, painting it purple, in hopes that Shug will return to live with her. Celie's patience pays off.

Celie also maintains a steadfast, platonic love for Sofia. When she is imprisoned, Celie goes to the jail and cares for her wounds. She also visits her often during the years of her confinement, encouraging her and giving her strength. After her initial mistake of advising Harpo to beat Sofia, Celie learns the power of women's solidarity through her bond with Sofia.

Celie's constant search for the truth may be the most amazing characteristic of this beautiful character. Celie is at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the South because she is poor, she is black, and she is female. As a female she is abused by her father (really her stepfather) and by her husband, for she lives in a patriarchal social system that does not value a female except as a sexual object and a laborer. From early in the novel, Celie looks for ways to stand up for this unfair system. It is Shug who teaches her about her own self-worth, making her believe in herself. As a result, she finally leaves Albert, her abusive husband, and goes with Shug to make a life of her own. By the end of the novel, she has built a successful business, largely because she never gave in to the reality of her life, but searched for the truth beyond it.

Because Celie is poor, she is denied an education. As the older daughter, she is expected to stay home and care for Fonso and the house, while Nettie attends school. Fortunately, Miss Beasley and Nettie privately teach and coach Celie. It is difficult for her to learn because she is both physically and emotionally beaten by her abuse; but she never gives up trying. When Shug tries to help Celie learn about life, she eagerly soaks up her every lesson. She never forgets that Shug taught her to enjoy and appreciate the little things in life - like the color of purple in a field. Celie also learns from Shug the life-enabling philosophy of believing in herself. It is this philosophy of self-sufficiency that brings the novel to a happy ending for Celie.

Shug Avery

Portrayed as the archetypal blues woman, Shug Avery is unconventional. She reveals to Celie that her mother never really loved her and would not even touch her, while her father made sexual advances. As a result, she learned independence at an early age. She fell in love with Albert early in life, but refused to marry him, for she felt he was weak. Still she returned to Albert over and over again during the novel. She admits to Celie that she has always loved him in some way and always enjoyed sex with him.

Shug's world is the world of the blues, with its earthy wisdom and singer lifestyle. She is a glamorous and beautiful woman that Celie always adores, even before she meets her. To Celie, she is the personification of freedom from the patriarchal system that abuses her. It is no wonder that Celie easily falls in love with Shug. Amazingly, Shug is only portrayed once actually singing in the novel. She writes a song for Celie, in appreciation of her nursing her back to health. She sings this song before a crowd at Harpo's; Celie feels more important than she ever has in her life. As a result, from early in the novel, Shug is picture as a life-giver to Celie.

Shug is always full of earthy wisdom and correct responses, serving as a catalyst to free Celie and the other women. She tells Celie that she believes that God gets angry if a person does not take time to admire the color purple in a field. She convinces Celie that she is really a virgin, although married, since she has never experienced sexual pleasure and teaches her how to gratify herself. She also calls Fonso "a son of a bitch" when she reads his gravestone, praising him as a great parent and person; she does humorously remind Celie, however, that at least he is dead. When Albert does not take Celie's curse seriously, Shug warns him to listen or be sorry. When she tells Celie that she is leaving with Germaine, she promises that it will only be one last fling for six months; then she promises to live with Celie forever.

Shug loves without any boundaries of age or gender. Celie claims that Shug is loved by so many people because she finds it easy to give love. She falls in love with Albert when she is young, but refuses to marry him because he is too weak. Instead, Shug has a constant string of affairs and flings; but she always comes back to Albert to get her grounding and to enjoy some sex. Even though Celie is married to Albert, Shug sleeps with him in the next room. When she returns to Georgia with her new husband, Grady, she begins an affair with Celie that will last, off and on, throughout the novel. Then, when living with Celie, she begins an affair with Germaine, a nineteen-year-old man in her band. She has one last fling with him before permanently settling down with Celie. Although Shug's lifestyle and philosophies are often wild and unconventional, she is a perfectly natural and free spirit. She never questions if it is right or wrong to love a person, be it male or female, young or old. Shug simply loves people who need loving.


Sofia is another strong female character. During the novel, she suffers greatly for her independent spirit and impudence. As husband and wife, she and Harpo do battle for years, for she refuses to follow the expectations of the patriarchal lifestyle. She refuses to be tied only to housework and child rearing and works in the fields, like a man; she also expects Harpo to help with the domestic chores. When Harpo tries to criticize or punish her independent ways, she regularly gives him a beating, since she is larger and stronger than he. In the ends, she finally leaves him, tired of his abuse.

Sofia is then abused by the white power structure. When the mayor's wife suggests that she come to work for her as a maid, Sofia tells her "hell, no." For her impudent manner, the mayor slaps her. In turn, Sofia socks the mayor, knocking him down. She is then beaten, arrested, and put in prison, where she is constantly abused by the white staff. During her years of confinement, both in prison and in the home of the mayor, Sofia survives on hatred, even thinking of murder. In spite of her anger, she is a good nanny to Miz Millie's children, and Eleanor Jane develops a devotion to her. In the end, Sofia is able to love her in return, especially when Eleanor Jane agrees to help care for Henrietta.

After she is freed from her servitude at the mayor's home, Sofia quickly returns to her old self, proving that the white power system does not have to break the spirit of blacks. In many ways she is a reflection of Celie, showing unbelievable endurance in the face of great hardships. It is not surprising that the two women form a strong bond of friendship that last throughout the novel.

Albert (referred to as Mr. ____ for the first part of the novel)

Walker's depiction of Albert as brutish, sexually aggressive, unloving, foolish, bumbling, and lazy has been harshly criticized by the black community, for African-American men have always received similar, often distorted representation. She has also been criticized for portraying the domestic abuse Albert inflicted on Celie. Walker, however, wanted to communicate that gender oppression compounds and complicates racist oppression. Albert became one of her key tools to show this theme.

Walker develops Albert as a multi-faceted character. He grew up under the oppressive thumb of a strict and demanding father, who stood in the way of Albert pursuing Shug, the true love of his life. Too weak to stand up to his father, Shug leaves him; throughout the rest of his life, he regrets that he did not marry Shug.

A victim himself of the cycle of oppression, when Albert married and assumed the role of patriarch, he acted out all the lessons he had been taught. He punished the women in his life and neglected his children. By the time he marries Celie, Albert is truly a hateful, brutish, and lazy man. He expects her to do all the work around the house, care for his rude children, and gratify his sexual needs upon demand; to make himself feel more important and in control, he regularly beats her. Celie puts up with his cruelty for years, but Shug finally convinces her to leave him. The final straw is when she finds out that Albert, through the years, has hidden all of Nettie's letters from her.

Albert cannot believe that Celie is actually leaving him; with true naiveté, he cannot understand why she has not been happy, for the only system he has ever known is the patriarchal one that he follows. Forced to live by himself without a woman to serve him, he softens, learning to care for his children, work for a living, do his own housework, love other people, and appreciate the little things in life, as Shug has taught him (like she taught Celie). When Celie returns to live in Georgia, he comes close to apologizing to her, saying that he did not know how to appreciate her when they were married. He tries to befriend her, helping her in her work and designing shirts to go with the pants that she makes and sells. He still, however, cannot understand Celie's relationship with Shug. His patriarchal mindset does not allow him to see how a woman could prefer another woman over a man. Still, by the end of the novel, Albert is a gentle character whom Celie can forgive.


Nettie is saved by Celie, and she knows it from an early age. Since she is allowed to go to school, while her sister stays home and works, Nettie patiently and faithfully tries to teach Celie. When Celie puts up with incest in order to protect her sister, Nettie becomes forever grateful. Even though she escapes oppression and is allowed to explore the world, Nettie never forgets who facilitated her escape.

In Africa, Nettie faithfully writes to Celie, telling her about Olivia and Adam and about her experiences in the native land. Even though she never hears from Celie (since Celie's letters are returned undelivered), she is not discouraged and thinks someday she may hear from her sister if she continues to write to her. Nettie is important to the novel, for the news she gives Celie about Olivia and Adam help keep the children alive in Celie's heart. Her explanations of African life and philosophies also aid in Celie's growth. Nettie's return at the end of the novel brings the plot of the story full cycle, allowing for a totally happy ending.

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