Letter 21

Synopsis of Letter 21

Celie feels guilty about her part in the family troubles between Harpo and Sofia, and is fearful that Sofia will find out. When Sofia tells Celie that she knows, Celie confesses to Sofia that she is jealous because Sofia is brave and can fight back, something Celie cannot do.

Sofia’s childhood in a family of twelve children taught her that girls need to fight and to support one another, in order to be safe from male relatives. Celie confesses that she has never struck anyone and cannot remember the last time she felt angry. She has tried to live by the biblical instruction that a child should honour both its father and its mother at all times (the fifth of the Ten Commandments). Since expressing her anger has resulted in illness, she has schooled herself to feel nothing, instead focusing on the hope that heaven will be better, whilst she endures life on earth. However, Sofia suggests that Celie should bash Mr_’s head open and think about heaven later. They laugh together and then set to work making a quilt from the curtain material.

Commentary on Letter 21

This is one of the few times that Celie feels justifiably guilty, making her character human and credible. Sofia and Celie’s conversation reveals some grim details about the ways in which women have to cope with large families and overbearing husbands or partners. However, there is a sharp contrast between the defiant character of Sofia and Celie’s submissive behaviour.

Sofia’s assertiveness can be seen as a protest against the male dominated society in which all black women live. However, Celie’s passive endurance illustrates the ‘typical’ attitude of most African-American women of the period. Walker highlights Celie’s religious belief in this letter (a means by which she is able to survive), compared with Sofia’s response about heaven.

The women’s quarrel ends in laughter and quilt making. Quilts are a frequent symbol in Alice Walker’s work, signifying cooperation and unity, together with the idea of continuity with the past, because quilts are made out of scraps of old fabric and were often made by a community of women working together.

Investigating Letter 21

  • How far does Alice Walker mean us to see women as victims of society in letters 1 to 21?
  • Why do you think Celie says she has sinned against Sofia's spirit?
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