Letter 17

Summary of Letter 17

Harpo is in love with a girl called Sofia Butler but neither her father nor Mr_ approve of the relationship. Sofia’s father objects to Harpo as a husband for his daughter, because Harpo’s mother (Mr_’s wife) was murdered by her boyfriend. Celie reveals that Harpo still has nightmares about the incident, which took place when he and his mother were returning from church. Harpo’s mother was shot in the stomach and died in her son’s arms. Although Celie tries to comfort him, she cannot bring herself to feel real sympathy for the boy. Patting Harpo is, to Celie, like patting a piece of wood. Celie believes that none of Mr_’s children love her, even though she looks after them well.

Despite this, Harpo tells Celie about his relationship with Sofia and asks for her advice. Celie learns that Sofia is already pregnant and has been thrown out of her home by her father. Celie advises Harpo to talk to Mr_ but does not think that he will want to help the couple either.

When Sofia and Harpo visit Mr_’s house, Sofia is crudely insulted because she is heavily pregnant and Mr_ refuses to help the couple by finding them somewhere to live.

Sofia is disappointed when Harpo does not support her, staying silent in front of his father. She returns to her sister’s house, telling Harpo that she and the baby will live there and wait for Harpo to come to her and the child, when he decides that he wants to be free.

Commentary on Letter 17

Some more of Mr_ ’s family background is filled in here. Sofia’s father objects to the marriage because the murder of Mr_’s first wife by her lover was considered to be a disgrace. This is an understandable response on his part, but the strong attraction between the two young people is perfectly reasonable and his opposition results in Sofia’s pregnancy. Harpo naïvely hopes that he will be seen as an acceptable husband if he makes Sofia pregnant, but this has the opposite effect and results in her being sent to live with her sister.

Mr_ also objects to Sofia and shows an astonishing level of hypocrisy when he criticises her because she is expecting an illegitimate child (having himself fathered three illegitimate children with Shug Avery).

In contrast to Harpo’s timidity and indecision, Sofia reveals herself to be a strong, independent young woman, physically large in contrast to Harpo, and always taking the lead in their relationship. Rejected by both fathers, Harpo shows a high level of fear, whereas Sofia reveals that she is quite unafraid of the future and determined to have her own way and her own choice of partner.

Investigating Letter 17

  • On a blank piece of paper, start a spidergram about the character of Sofia, making deductions about her character, with evidence to support each one. (Keep this for future notes.)
  • You may, if you wish, make an additional character sheet with two columns to compare and contrast the characters of Harpo and Sofia
  • Outline the reactions of the men to Sofia over the course of letters 17-21
    • Explain why they respond to her in the way they do.
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