More on the plot of The Color Purple

Plot summary

The story’s opening setting is that of the first ten years of the twentieth century. The action takes place in the state of Georgia (in the American South) and in Africa. The main characters are black men and women, with occasional subsidiary white characters.

The central character, Celie, is 14 years old at the start of the novel. She lives with her mother, who is mentally ill and her mother’s second husband, Alphonso (Fonso), whom Celie believes to be her birth father. It is later revealed that the cause of the mother’s illness is because her first husband was lynched twelve years previously, by white business rivals.

Celie has a young sister, Nettie and a number of half brothers and sisters. When her mother becomes seriously ill after a difficult pregnancy and refuses to have sex with Fonso, Celie is raped by her stepfather and writes a letter to God, asking for a sign to explain what has happened to her. This is the beginning of a sequence of fifty-one letters from Celie to God that are written over a period of more than thirty years.

Celie bears two children to Alphonso, both of whom he takes away. Celie believes that he has killed them both, but discovers later that they have been given away for fostering. Celie’s mother dies and Alphonso rejects Celie and begins to show sexual interest in Nettie instead. Celie swears to protect her sister.

When she is nineteen, Alphonso marries Celie off to a local farmer, Albert, who is middle-aged and known only as Mr_ by Celie, because she is afraid to use his real name. She is treated brutally by her husband, who beats her and makes her work in his house and on his farm almost like a slave.

On a visit to town, Celie sees her own daughter, now aged six, with the wife of a local black clergyman. The couple have adopted the child, who is referred to as Olivia, the name Celie had embroidered on the child’s nappy before she was taken away.

Nettie comes to live with Celie and Mr_ but she is soon forced to run away because Mr_ is making advances to her. Celie tells Nettie to leave and find the couple who adopted Olivia and ask them for help.

Mr_ has four children by his former wife and Celie cares for them. The eldest boy, Harpo, grows up and marries a strong independently minded woman called Sofia. Sofia refuses to live in subjection to her husband and is quite capable of fighting him physically when necessary. Celie and Sofia, at first antagonists, later become friends.

Mr_ has a long-term lover called Shug Avery, a blues singer, with whom he has fathered several children. When Shug falls ill, Mr_ brings her to his house and makes Celie nurse her. Celie is sexually attracted by Shug and becomes devoted to her. The two women become friends.

Sofia leaves Harpo and goes to live with one of her sisters, taking their five children with her. Harpo converts their former home into a juke joint: a bar with music and dancing. Shug, now recovered, sings there and dedicates a song to ‘Miss Celie’.

Sofia visits the juke joint one night and attacks Harpo’s new girlfriend, Mary Agnes, nicknamed Squeak. A few days later, Sofia quarrels with the wife of the town’s white Mayor. When the Mayor hits Sofia, she punches him and is arrested, beaten and sentenced to twelve years in jail. After serving three years of her sentence she is given a place in the Mayor’s household as a prisoner-maid to his wife, Miss Millie.

Shug leaves Celie and Albert, and tours the country as a blues singer, growing famous and very rich. Several years later Shug returns to visit Mr_ and Celie, with her new husband, a flashy young man called Grady. When Grady and Albert stay out all night drinking, Shug and Celie share a bed for warmth. Celie tells Shug about the abuse she suffered from her stepfather Alphonso; Shug comforts her and they make love. This marks the beginning of an intense lesbian relationship between the two women.

Shug discovers that all the letters that Celie has been writing to her sister Nettie for more than twenty years have not been posted, nor have Nettie’s replies been given to Celie. The letters have been hidden in a trunk by Mr_ (Albert). Nettie’s letters tell the story of her life with her new family, the black preacher Samuel and his wife Corrine, who also took in and adopted both of Celie’s children; Olivia and a boy called Adam.

Samuel has taken Nettie and the family to do Christian missionary work in Africa and Nettie’s letters describe conditions among the Olinka tribe, with whom they have lived and worked ever since. The Olinka are a poor but independent people until their way of life is destroyed by the building of a road and the introduction of rubber plantations, to benefit European foreign interests.

Corrine notices that Olivia and Adam resemble Nettie and becomes jealous, thinking Nettie was Samuel’s lover. She accepts that this is not the truth only on her deathbed. Nettie finds out that Samuel was a friend of Alphonso and he tells her the facts about the sisters’ real parentage. Nettie and Samuel go back to England to try to find help for the Olinka situation and marry there. They return to Africa where Adam acknowledges his love for an African girl called Tashi. Although distressed because she has her face scarred in a traditional African ceremony, he marries her as the family decide to give up missionary work and return to America.

Nettie’s letters are interspersed with letters that Celie writes to her. The news that Alphonso is not the sisters’ natural father is a great relief to Celie. Shug convinces Celie that God is not to be seen as a wise old white man, but worshipped as a natural spiritual force within everyone.

Sofia is released from service in the Mayor’s house and returns to her husband Harpo. Mary Agnes becomes a professional singer and goes to Panama with Shug’s husband, Grady. Celie decides to leave Albert and move to Memphis to live with Shug. Albert is furious, Celie curses him and he denounces her as worthless, poor and ugly.

In Memphis Celie sets up home with Shug and starts a successful business, called Folkspants Unlimited, making unisex trousers. Albert goes into a decline and is nursed back to health by Harpo. He recovers only when he gives the rest of Nettie’s letters back to Celie, thus freeing him from her curse.

On the death of Celie’s stepfather Alphonso, Celie and Nettie inherit his land and also a business that formerly belonged to their natural father who had willed it to his daughters. The legacy had been withheld and the will suppressed by Alphonso. The sisters are now financially secure and can live independently.

Celie is heartbroken when Shug falls in love with Germaine, a young man from her band and goes away on tour with him. Sofia’s sixth child, Henrietta (whose father is not Harpo), becomes sick and Celie nurses her back to health. There is a false report of Nettie’s death during the Second World War when her ship sinks in the Atlantic.

Eventually Shug leaves Germaine and comes back to Celie. Albert has become a reformed character and has even taken up sewing. He and Celie establish a friendly relationship and although they are still married, Celie tells Albert that she will never again live with him as a wife because she has always found men physically unattractive.

The last letter in the collection reconciles all the principal characters. Nettie, Samuel, Adam and his wife Tashi, together with Celie’s other child Olivia, return to America and are reunited with Celie and the extended family. The novel ends with a letter from Celie, addressed to God and offering thanks for happiness, the stars, the trees, the sky, all people and everything.

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