Letter 12

Synopsis of Letter 12

Carrie and Kate, two of Mr_ ’s sisters, come to stay. They admire the fact that Celie is a good housekeeper, telling her that Mr _ ’s former wife, Annie Julia, neglected Mr_ and the children. Celie learns from the two women that Annie Julia had not wanted to get married at all and that her situation had been made worse by the fact that Mr had no regard for her, preferring to stay away from home for long periods in the company of his lover Shug Avery.

Celie is keen to learn more about Shug and when Kate comes again to buy clothes for Celie, Celie tries to choose a dress in red or purple, a colour that she thinks Shug Avery would wear. Celie has to settle for a blue dress and is overcome because it is the first garment that has ever been made for her.

When Kate tells Mr_’s eldest child, Harpo, to help Celie with the household chores, Harpo refuses because he thinks it is work fit only for women. Kate tries to insist, but Harpo tells his father and Kate is sent home for interfering. Kate tells Celie that she must fight ‘them’, meaning men, but neither woman is able to do that. Celie thinks that by doing as she is told she will at least stay alive. She thinks about her sister Nettie who tried to fight then ran away. Celie now believes that Nettie may be dead.

Commentary on Letter 12

The visit of the two sisters provides some positive praise for Celie and the way in which she is running Mr¬_’s household, keeping it clean and caring for his children better than his first wife, Annie Julia. Both women praise Celie and both try to help to make her life more tolerable.

On a subsequent visit, Kate persuades Mr_ to buy Celie some clothes and tries to make Harpo behave more acceptably. Unfortunately we see the lack of power that women have. Harpo’s response to Kate is to tell her that it is women who work in the home, not men, and this is followed by Kate being told to leave by her brother, showing that men have absolute power over all aspects of domestic life.

Shug Avery is mentioned as a disreputable woman, but the sisters’ disapproval of her does not alter Celie’s admiration for Shug. When Celie asks for a purple dress with touches of red, those ‘royal’ colours are associated in her mind with Shug, whom she sees as a queen. This is the first mention of purple in the novel and its connection with Shug is significant. The contrast between Celie’s quiet blue dress and Shug’s fine clothes is reminiscent of fairy stories such as Cinderella.

Investigating Letter 12

  • On a blank piece of paper, start a table where you can record references to colours (in particular the ‘royal’ colours of purple, red and pink) in the novel.
  • On another blank piece of paper, start a spidergram about the character of Shug Avery, making deductions about her character, with evidence to support each one. (Keep this for future notes.)
  • What opinion do Kate and Carrie have about Shug and Mr _?
  • What do you learn about relationships between men and women in this letter?
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