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

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Most readers will remember this novel for its depiction of domestic violence, which Walker fully develops through Celie's mistreatment at the hands of her stepfather and husband. Additionally, there is a powerful theme about how oppressed people can unite with solidarity to overcome their oppressors. Most of all, however, this book is a feminist novel about a powerful character finding out who she is and valuing what she can become. In the course of Celie's search for truth, she realizes that the patriarchal culture she has endured in the South is abusive to all women. When she meets Shug and escapes from Albert, she learns that women can be equal to men - - in power, in knowledge, and in matters of love and finance. When Celie returns to live in Georgia near the end of the novel, she is no longer weak and submissive; instead, she has become a competent, self-assured female who knows she can be content without depending on anyone but herself. This is the ultimate lesson of feminism, which Walker calls "womanism."

The horror of domestic violence, to both children and wives, is clearly depicted in the novel. The two main recipients of the violence in the novel are Celie and Sofia, who both experience abuse in their childhood and in their marriages. Sofia tries to combat her domestic violence by being violent herself. Because of her size and her strength, she dares to stand up to her oppressor. Celie, on the other hand, is, in the beginning, portrayed as weak and submissive. She endures the incest inflicted by Fonso in order to protect her mother and then Nettie from his cruelty. In order to escape from Fonso, she marries Albert, who is an abusive husband that values her only as a sexual object and a caretaker for his children. To make himself feel more important and prove he is the boss, Albert regularly beats Celie. Because of the violence she endures, Celie's self-esteem is injured as much as her body. She imagines herself to be ugly, unworthy of love, and incapable of enjoying pleasure. Fortunately, Shug breaks the pattern of violence and abuse for Celie. Sofia also escapes her domestic abuse by leaving Harpo.

The two most abused women in the novel, Celie and Sofia, form a deep bond; their suffering brings them together in strong solidarity. In the past, Celie has only known the importance of standing up for other women in her family; she has willingly protected both her mother and her sister from Fonso's abuse by sacrificing herself. At first, Celie is unwilling to help Sofia in her plight; in fact, she tells Harpo to regularly beat his wife, for domestic violence is the only thing that Celie knows and understands. When Sofia questions Celie about the advice given to Harpo, she admits her mistake and works to correct it. From that point on, she and Sofia become fast friends, quilting together, offering advice to each other, and offering mutual aid over the years. When Sofia is in jail, Celie nurses her wounds and gives her comfort.

Shug is another woman in the novel who knows the value of women's solidarity. When she finds how Albert has treated Celie over the years, she loses her desire for him and permanently erases him from her life. She then helps Celie and Mary Agnes escape their lives of domestic abuse and drudgery. In the process, she gives Celie a sense of her own unique beauty and spirit. Even Mary Agnes learns the value of women's solidarity. She comes into the novel first as the other woman, the girlfriend of Harpo. She treats Sofia poorly and wants Harpo to banish her. When they get into a fight, Sofia socks Mary Agnes, knocking out some of her teeth; however, when Sofia is beaten severely by the police in town and left wounded in jail, Mary Agnes tries to get her out and is raped as a result. At the end of the novel, when her daughter Suzie Q snuggles up to Sofia, Mary Agnes says, "children know goodness."

Walker places these first two themes inside the larger context of the misery inflicted by a racist society. Throughout the novel, Celie references the fact that she is discriminated against by the white community. Nettie dreads bringing Olivia and Adam back to America; because they have grown up in Africa, they have never felt or experienced racism. It is clearly racism that lands Sofia in jail. The mayor can slap her and go free, but when she socks the mayor, she is beaten and jailed. When Mary Agnes approaches the warden, her white uncle, about releasing Sofia, she is raped; the warden knows he does not have to worry about being charged with raping a black girl. When Eleanor Jane brings her baby boy for Sofia to bless, Sofia tells her she cannot bless him, for he will probably grown up to be her oppressor, like most white men. Then when Eleanor Jane helps to care for the black Henrietta, the white community is outraged that she would lower herself to be employed by an African-American. Walker clearly indicates in the novel that the long history of racism will be hard to overcome.


In chapter 73, Shug says that she believes that it angers God if a person walks by the color of purple in a field without stopping to notice and admire it. In this statement, Shug summarizes her religious philosophy; to her, God is not some distant deity living on high, but a genderless, raceless being that wants people to appreciate and enjoy life. It is also significant that she chose the color of purple, for it is the color of royalty; and yet a really deep purple seems almost to be black.

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