on the links below to read information on the following themes:
It is possible that you will find yourself faced with a question about themes in the examination, so it might be worthwhile taking the time to note them down as you read through the novel. Below are some ‘food-for thought’ synopses on the ten most important themes in the novel.
This common bond between women is something present in the Olinka section of the novel as much as anywhere else. The fact that Samuel "is confused because to him, since the women [of Olinka] are friends and will do anything for one another" points out that sisterhood is something that only women can understand, and ultimately partake in. While this could be read as a cross-cultural conflict between the an American clergyman and African women, Mr. _______ too, towards the end of the novel confesses to Celie, "I never understood how you and Shug got along so well together."
Sisterhood is not about retaliating against males, though some do choose to do this in the novel. A good example is Celie as she "drop a little spit in Old Mr. _______ water." Instead, sisterhood is about clearing away the "razors" and empowering other women. Such cases are Shug Avery, who liberates Mary Agnes by offering to "bring her before the crowd" at Harpo’s. Celie too, is emancipated from the depressive life she leads in the company of Mr. _______. Shug provides her with the material things she needs in order to exercise her talent. She asks her, "how much money you need this week," before aiding Celie to set her "on her way" and give her economic independence.
The unity of women is however tested progressively throughout the novel. In letter thirty-six, when Harpo begins to "slow drag" with his separated wife Sofia, he asks his girlfriend Squeak, "Can’t a man dance with his own wife?" It is almost as if Harpo is trying to play both parties against one another. As a result, Squeak is jealous but then pays for it by having her two side teeth knocked out. Indeed, it is jealousy that poses the greatest threat towards sisterhood throughout the novel. We learn that Shug treated Celie poorly when she first appeared in the novel at Mr. _______’s house, and "all because Albert married you." The same can be said about the black women’s attitude towards Celie's late mother because "the plans she talked about were grander than anything they could conceive for colored people."
Perhaps the greatest culprit however is Corrine. She not only continually accuses Nettie and Samuel of an affair but tells Nettie that the two should call each other "sister" even though she shows no sisterly love. Corrine’s discrepancy however allows us to see the firm base on which sisterhood is build. "She gets weaker and weaker," writes Nettie "and unless she can believe us and start to feel something for the children, I fear we will lose her." This statement coupled with the fact that Corrine affirms "I believe" before she dies is a testament to the fact that unity is built on faith, on believing in women, even if they share many husbands, or are forced to be married to someone they do not love.
Many would say that Celie’s identity too, lies behind her voice. People find it difficult to separate Celie’s identity away from phrases such as "Sofia make a dog laugh" and "My mind run up a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down." Walker allows us to hear Celie’s voice when nobody else will. Yet, simply written language is not enough. In order to "fight" and "survive," women have to develop a voice that allows them to make themselves literally heard, in a society where women are otherwise invisible.
This concept of androcentricity – a phrase used to mean the invisibility of females – is present throughout the novel from the moment when Celie is told "you better not never tell nobody but God." When Celie is first introduced to Mr. _______, her husband to be admits, "I ain’t never really look at that one." Similarly, when Squeak notices that Harpo is feeling depressed at the news of Sofia’s imprisonment, he simply "looks through her head, blow smoke." The concept of actually finding one’s voice is again linked to something cited in the sisterhood section, the fact that there is a process of empowerment that must be carried out in order for one to find one's voice.
For Celie, this comes when she leaves her husband Mr. _______. I have already made the connection between finding one’s voice and affirming one’s identity, and we witness it as Celie declares "I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here." This however, only came after Shug Avery had asserted Celie’s identity through a song "about some no count man doing her wrong, again" and her voice by speaking for her: "Celie is coming with us."
Having been empowered Celie empowers other people. One of whom is the silent disowned mother Sofia, who after Celie has said to Harpo "if you hadn’t tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would have caught her" speaks and her reply is likened to that of "a voice speaking from the grave." The central point here is that everyone has a voice, and in Celie’s case, a profound and remarkable one, but only if others can help her find it.
However, it is not only black Southern women who fail to find a voice. The very fact that it is a white missionary called Doris Baines who speaks on behalf of the people in Africa through the books that she writes, highlights the fact that the people of Africa have no voice. It might also explain why Addie Beasley refers to the people as "savages" and why others refer to them as "heathen." It is because their way of life is represented through white people’s voices that many African people have come to be seen in this light. As Walker writes about the Olinka tribe, the reader sees that they are hardly heathens, that they have not only their own God but their beautiful lifestyle as well.
The fact that it is men who make most of her decisions in her life, whether she works, goes out or has sexual intercourse, we get the impression that black men are like gods, as they govern women’s lives. In some of the early letters, Alphonso is referred to as "He," the capital letter only usually used in reference to the divine Creator. In the Olinka tribe Nettie says that "men have life and death power over a wife" even though many of them act like "grown children." Even Shug knows this. When religiously educating Celie about the ways of her God, she says, "Man corrupt everything . . . soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God."
Yet, God for Celie is "like some stout white man work at the bank," the message here being that as man is white, then white people – and in particular white men – should be treated with especial reverence and respect. This idea of God as "white man" does however have many connections with slavery, a theme explored later. The implication is that the white God is actually as bad as the white slave owners were. "You telling me God love you and you ain’t never done nothing for him" she asks. Celie believes that in order to be part of God, you have to do work for him, and carry out tasks such as "feed the preacher." At the same time however Celie realises that her God is a passive one, blind to her troubles and "glorifying in being deef." This idea of passivity could even be traced back to the first letter where Alphonso says quite at ease "you better not never tell nobody but God," as if he almost fears no revolt from a force that is as unconcerned with Celie as he is.
Shug’s God however is nature. Celie is no longer a "motherless child," isolated from everybody. When Celie finally "enters into Creation" it is as if she is leaving a land of the dead, and joining one of life. One of Alice Walker’s big ideas is black woman as creator, and in discovering God as "everything" Celie regains the control over her life that she lost at the beginning of the novel. She creates a relationship with Shug and a successful business in "Folkspants Unlimited."
However, we get that sense that religion is not used for totally empowering people. In some cases Nettie’s travels with Samuel and Corrine could be read as wishing to imperialise the Olinka tribe – that is enforce their own norms and values on another place unceremoniously. They talk of the Olinka as "people who need Christ and good medical advice." Yet they are ignorant of the tribe’s own customs and the fact that they fail "so utterly" in providing the people with this doctrine and instead embrace the roofleaf tradition, shows not only the power of the tribe but also the power of nature as God.
The next time we trace nature in the novel, is when "it like the trees all round the house draw themselves up tall for a better look" at Shug Avery when she arrives at Mr. _______’s house. If these trees are read as all of the hard, unfeeling stoical women in the neighbourhood, then it is as if they are looking towards a role model, a woman who, as Celie tells Harpo "will not be beat" and "tell [Albert] his drawers stink in a minute." Moreover, it is almost as if these trees are brought to life by the emergence of Shug Avery. Shug Avery stirs Celie, from an apathetic and unemotional piece of wood, almost to the point of thinking she had "turned into a man."
The other idea concerning nature comes in the Olinka section of the novel where "roofleaf" is praised and worshipped as God. The Olinka admit "roofleaf is not Jesus Christ" and yet they drink "palm wine," which could be read as a natural equivalent to Jesus Christ’s blood that people take in communion celebrations. In this sense then, the "roofleaf" is not a person, a prophet or an idol but is cherished as a saviour and divine protector of the people from the earth’s natural forces.
It could be said that even Corrine and Samuel acknowledge this and the
magnitude of nature means that the missionaries "kneeled down on the
deck and gave thanks." This again seems to allude to Christ and the
many that kneeled before Him as he rode through Jerusalem. So, from
passive and submissive, nature is soon represented as governing and
powerful. Indeed, the storms described in letter sixty-one as
"spears, stabbing away the mud of their walls" again emphasise
nature as a dominant and prevailing force. It is almost as if nature is
damning the tribe for the greed of the earth’s people and the
description here is almost like something from the Bible or even William
So why is there transition in Walker’s attitude towards nature in The Color Purple? The fact that the attributes pass from being passive, to awakened, to a God and then to a powerful, exacting force almost mirrors Celie’s life. She is in this case "like a tree" all the way through the novel. Celie’s physical journey passes through many stages: from having an unfulfilling experience with Mr. _______ and his children to being sexually and emotionally reawakened by Shug Avery; from then on she is able to become her own God, and then – like nature – exert her wrath and revenge on her husband. It is this power that incidentally comes from nature itself. Celie declares that her confidence to speak face-to-face with Mr. _______ "come to [her] from the trees."
In believing that "God is everything", Celie reasserts her alliance with nature and as a result is no longer isolated, but part of one ever-growing, fertile relationship.
The fact that Celie’s letters to God eerily resemble the slave narratives of the 1930s, have caused some critics to read the novel's content in terms of a protest against white people’s attitudes towards black people and a quest for social change. The narratives themselves emphasised racial tension and a desire for political reform. There are also many instances where we see a metaphorical slavery in practice. Adam, Celie’s second child, "is sold to a man over in Monticello" and Celie herself is given away with "a cow she raise down there back of the crib" as a dowry. The rape that Celie was also forced to endure at the hands of Alphonso is also reminiscent of the sex female slaves were made to have with their white land-owning slave masters.
It is however Sofia, the emotionally strongest women in the novel, who suffers most. Not only subjected to purposeless work on "a post," but the very act of Miss Millie "digging in her pocketbook" resembles very much the slave auctions of the 1800s. Just through being a black woman with clean and presentable children means that she is stereotyped as the ideal ‘black mammy.’ This idea is continued by Miss Millie’s daughter, Eleanor Jane and her husband Stanley Earl. When he remarks that "everybody round here raise by colored. That’s how we turn out so good" he is again attempting to place Sofia in a box she is not wanting to occupy.
When Eleanor Jane is "shoving Reynolds Stanley Earl in her face" Sofia turns away. The reason for this is not just because the baby looks like Eleanor Jane’s father who enslaved Sofia in the first place. It is obvious that Eleanor Jane realises this and this accounts for her reiteration of the word "innocent" when referring to the baby. Yet, Reynolds Stanley Earl, baby though he is, is the third generation of the Mayor’s family. In old legal system before slavery was abolished, slaves were not permitted to acquit themselves until the third generation had died. Therefore, if Eleanor Jane were to die, then Sofia would be forced to work for Reynolds Stanley Earl, the next breed of slave driver and this accounts for her behaviour.
Slavery is an idea that Walker will not let white people deny – for their part in working and killing many slaves. Nor will she let black people deny it – for their part in selling slaves on. Sofia captures this when she reiterates the words "I’m a slave" even after her son commands her to say something else. The Olinka too, "do not want to hear about slavery" and acknowledge "no responsibility" for it whatsoever. Yet, Walker will not allow us to ignore our behaviour towards others, even when, as in Mr. _______ case, his actions of treating "wives like children" is a message dangerously spread on to the next generation.
There is, however, always the idea throughout the novel that "bright skin" is more beautiful than black. When visiting Celie, Mr. _______’s sister Carrie criticises his ex-wife Annie Julia for being "too black." Harpo, espouses Sofia for her "bright skin" and on her leaving him, finds himself Squeak, a "yellowskinned girlfriend" who is however intelligent enough to ask after her rape, "do you really love me, or just my color?"
However, this idea of ‘white people as pure people’ does in fact take on more sinister associations. As Celie and Mr. _______ sit sewing together in letter eighty-seven, Celie retells the Olinka’s version of the Story of Creation, and asks Mr. _______, "Guess who the snake is?" to which he replies "Us no doubt." Not only does the serpent evoke evil and distrust in our minds, but during Sofia’s time in jail we see this idea put into action. "Nothing less than sliding on your belly with your tongue on they boots can even git they attention," so in this sense Sofia becomes the snake and the idea is that white people blame black people – the serpent – for all their earthly problems.
It is however the repercussions of this that Walker helps us to focus in on. Racism is a cage. We could even say that the "jail" that Sofia is held is a metaphor for all black people caged by racism. For others, they do not serve time in a literal prison, and instead are confined to servitude and domesticity within their own homes. Yet, whites and blacks can work perfectly well together and this is highlighted as Sofia shows Miss Millie how to drive her newly bought car. It is however the actions of the white woman Miss Millie in crashing the car and then refusing "a pick-up with a strange colored man" called Jack that creates even more racial conflict.
It is however unfair to say that the white characters in the novel are the only ones who ever show racist tendencies. Nettie tells us that "Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe." Later, Nettie tells us about the mbeles, who "harass the white man’s plantations and plan his destruction," the tribe almost being a subversion of the white fundamentalist group the Ku Klux Klan that terrorised black people or any other sub-culture they did not understand. It is here that Walker seemingly makes her central point. Black is beautiful, but not necessarily always right. White is beautiful too though not always right. Racism and thus domesticity evolve out of people’s ignorance. Miss Millie is "scarred of Sofia" and it is a failure to understand that brings about prejudice. Nettie’s comment in letter seventy-two, "there is so much we don’t understand. And so much unhappiness comes because of that" projects Walker’s idea excellently. To love, we must understand.
Yet in the space from where Celie is separated from Nettie to their reunification through Nettie’s letters from Africa, other more powerful forms of education take place. Both Nettie and Mr. ________’s sister Kate tell Celie "you got to fight," and Mr. ________ himself tells his son Harpo "wives is like children" and in doing this, implicitly attempts to educate another generation of violent men. Later on, Shug Avery teaches Celie both sexual and religious education, and once more has the ability to ‘tap into’ Celie’s wavelength and make the communication effective, without complicating matters. "Button? Finger and tongue?" she says. In indoctrinating her into believing that "you can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like" Shug helps Celie to veer away from the usurping white man who only helps those who help Him. When Nettie begins to write regularly to Celie, she not only educates her from first hand experience the ways of Africa and its people, but in doing so she broadens Celie’s horizons.
There are however periods in the novel when some characters educate others wrongly. The fact that "the Olinka do not believe girls should be educated" seems to prove true again the cliché that ‘knowledge is power' and in order to keep females subservient to men, the women and girls in the tribe must not know more than males. Another case for wrong education is that of the missionary project involving Samuel, Nettie and Corrine. They believe that "the heathens" need "Christ and good medical advice" and this is repelled both times. In the case of religion, Samuel and the missionaries are guilty of wishing to change another people’s culture and in both cases fail. Darlene, too, albeit unconsciously, tries to interfere with Celie’s identity, telling her that the way she speaks is wrong, rather than just accepting diversity as the norm.
However, despite the lessons the characters teach themselves and us, the reader, Walker implies that the only way to learn is through your own experience. It is fair to say that Celie is educated in the ‘school of life.’ She learns that to tell Harpo to "beat" Sofia is wrong, and goes against sisterhood. She also learns that by the end of the novel, even her husband the cruel Mr. _______ can be good company. Sometimes education from other people’s mouths is not enough. We might assert that if Nettie had not visited Africa, then she would have carried on believing that "it was a place overrun with savages who didn’t wear clothes." With education Walker shows us knowledge but it is only by experiencing things first hand can we know the truth.
Having sought news that 'Pa not pa' - that is Alphonso is not her father - the next change we see in Celie is when she and Shug "dress up" in "big floppy Easter hats" while all the flowers "lilies and jonquils and daffodils" are in bloom. All of these allusions to new life suggest not only a resurrection of memories for Celie but it may also signify her new life with Shug and a happy realisation that she is detached from Alphonso.
It is not however just in the American South where the reader sees change. Missionaries Corrine, Nettie and Samuel believed their jobs were to impose Christianity on the natives only in the end to see "how powerless we and our God are." Walker shows us plenty of examples of people who want to bring about change in a country with they see injustice but cannot see the right way to go about it, Doris Baines and Aunt Theodosia are examples. Walker herself offers us the right way to change the system, and this is to do what she has done, write. Walker tells us in the eightieth letter "no sooner had a young woman got through Spelminary Seminary than she began to put her hand to whatever work she could do for her people" though "they thought nothing of packing up for India." The phrase 'the pen is mightier than the sword' comes to mind, but perhaps also the idea that the greatest political change has always been brought about by books and the greatest harm by missionary work.
We do though often ask ourselves what Walker is hoping to change through her work. We could speculate that it is people's attitudes towards race or even sex. However, by the end of the novel, we see both these issues dealt with. While Mr. _______ sews we not only see him disregard the sexist values he has held for years, but as he "look at the different color thread" and "tie a knot" we realise through this metaphor how easy it is to integrate people of different skin into different communities.
Walker is therefore not singling out race or sex as one particular problem, but tradition and people's resistance against change. In the Olinka letters, Nettie remarks "custom dies hard" and this is true in America. Shug, when talking of her parents tells her son James "They had a lot of love to give. But I needed love plus understanding." Indeed, the other two characters that resist change of any sort - Alphonso and Tashi's father - both perish, indicating how bad the unwillingness to change is. In short, Walker acknowledges people's religious and personal values but by educating the reader hopes that she can change the mind's of others so that we each regard each other just like the Olinka, each as each other's child.
It is Sofia however who seemingly has the greatest struggle against the racist whites. In asking Sofia "do you know how to drive" and thus implicitly asking her whether she would mind teaching her, Miss Millie gives Sofia the power. In order to reverse the teacher-student relationship back in her favour, Miss Millie announces "I'm gonna drive you home," in order that she may not only be held in favour as a woman with a charitable heart, but by driving her home, she can parade herself as mistress over Sofia. However Miss Millie's incompetence is brought to light when she is "still out there" and "stripping gears aplenty." She "look mad and frustrate both" precisely because she realises that she has to become dependent upon Sofia once again for help in handling the vehicle.
This idea of power not just being in the hands of one group of people is brought to light in the novel. Nettie tells us that men listen "just long enough to issue instructions" and the women "look at the ground and bend their heads toward the ground" when addressing men. Yet, much like in America, where Harpo sobs uncontrollably "boo-hoo" when Sofia reproves him, the men in Africa are said to be "often childish." The power is concentrated, ironically within the most juvenile people and in sending their boys to school and leaving their daughters at home, the tribe educates the next generation before leading them into holding the same attitudes.
The same is true in America. Harpo is told by his father that "wives is like children" and as a result Harpo goes to extreme in order to "make Sofia mind." He tells him you that you have got to show them "who's got the upper hand," and this is a phrase that Nettie reiterates to Celie concerning the children. It would seem that many of the characters are preoccupied with holding power over another party, and in doing so the implication is that there will be always one party who is crushed, one group who is disadvantaged and one who will be subordinate to another.
Walker offers us a solution to the struggle for power and in doing so blames neither white nor black people for the current injustices. The simple reason for the fact that white crush black is because "they was so mad to git throwed out and told they was naked" in the Olinka story of Creation in letter eighty-seven. From there they "made up they minds to crush us wherever they find us." Yet, we are reminded that this quest for power will mean that "everybody gon hate" the white people and in turn "they will become the new serpent." In short, animosity breeds animosity, and in advocating peace and not war, the Olinka suggest that the only way people will not be prejudiced is to regard everyone not as different, but as "one mother's children."
Celie herself has many role models. She envies and is jealousy of Sofia because she can fight, and wishes that she could emulate Nettie's standard of education. She later tells us "Shug Avery like a queen to me" and as she lies with Mr. _______ and says "I put my arm around him" though she later confesses that she hated every sexual experience she had ever had with her husband. Therefore, what we see here is Celie lying to her own self and in doing so she is pretending to enjoy something she does not. Indeed, in terms of Shug Avery we notice that she is not merely a role model but almost like an idol: "I wash her body, it feel like I'm praying." In wishing for "somethin purple, maybe little red in it" she runs the risk of being exactly like Shug, and in doing that she runs the risk of losing her individuality. Having one particular person who inspires you is good, and yet this novel is not the story of one woman attaining the sort of freedom that only Shug Avery has. Shug helps mould Celie's identity - another minor theme in the novel - and only by doing that can Celie assert herself as a real person.
Another issue central to this topic is also: who is our role model? Walker offers the reader advice as to who to find as one's role model, especially as we live in a world where everyone is giving out so much advice that it is difficult whose advice is best to take. She once said that the blackest of black people is the mother of all of us, and it is these whom we should follow, and yet during the novel, many of the black people are debased or defamed precisely because of their blackness. However, both Shug who is described as "black as tar" and the Seneglese people who are so black one could say they were "blueblack" are viewed in the novel as a picture of perfection. In both these instances these very black people are almost like royalty - Shug is the "Queen Honeybee" while the people of Senegal are "wearing brilliant blue robes." What Walker shows us is that these black people are to be honoured not put down for their colour, as they are mothers to us all.
Role models empower and liberate. By the virtue of having one's mother as their role model, one generation should never be subdued by another. Mary Agnes' daughter Suzie Q. illustrates her love for her mother when Celie tells us she "love her singing. Love her perfume. Love her dresses," so just as Mary Agnes herself was empowered by Shug; so too can her experiences allow her to give support to the next generation.
Written by Matthew Kane