Letter 86

Synopsis of Letter 86

Nettie writes to Celie that Tashi and her mother have run away from the Olinka village to join the rebel groups (mbeles) in the jungle, leaving Adam and Olivia heartbroken. Malaria is becoming rife since the villagers’ yam crop, which protected them from the disease, has been ploughed under.

Nettie is afraid that Celie may also be dead, as it is almost thirty years since she heard from her sister, but hopes that Celie’s ‘sturdy soul’ may have enabled her to survive.

She and Samuel now emphasise the spiritual aspect of God, which frees them from conventional expressions of Christianity.

Olivia and Adam are well educated, which Nettie hopes will help them to integrate into American society when they return, but she shares her concern that their ‘African’ characteristics – freedom of expression and outspokenness – will make it difficult for them to accept the ingrained racism and prejudice against black people, prevalent in America. Nettie is also afraid that life will be economically hard for her family when they return.

The letter ends abruptly with the news that Adam has run away into the forest, to find Tashi.

Commentary on Letter 86

If thirty years have passed since the sisters were last together, the date of this letter seems to be either 1940 1941. Following from the news of Nettie’s presumed death at sea, in Letter 86, the question of what really happened to the family on their way back from Africa is left open and creates additional suspense for the reader.

The continuing misfortunes of the Olinka tribe makes the tone as bleak as Nettie’s previous communications with her sister. Armed resistance to colonial rule was something which occurred in some African countries at this time and the term mbele can be translated as ‘lineage’ or more generically as an extended family of people related to the same ancestor.

Nettie’s new perception of the divine echoes the spiritual development of Celie, drawing the sisters closer to the point of reunion. Nettie now understands God as spirit (what conventional Christianity would refer to as the Holy Spirit) who lives within people, rather than focusing on the external, physical manifestation of an identifiable biblical person (Christ), or a natural substance (roof leaf). This is close to Shug’s idea that God is everywhere and in everything (panentheism), a belief which Celie has also adopted. When the two meet, their religious beliefs will not contradict one another.

Nettie’s comments on American racism and her concern that Olivia and Adam may find repatriation a struggle are also significant. Her admiration of the young people’s independence is cleverly counterbalanced with her concern that this may prove to be an obstacle when they returned to the United States.

Investigating Letter 86

  • Add to your character notes on Nettie, Adam and Tashi
  • What do we learn from the last part of this novel about the relationship between black Africans and black Americans?
    • What are the similarities between the two?
    • What are the differences?
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