Letter 61

Synopsis of Letter 61

Celie is worried that her children will be mentally damaged because they were conceived through an incestuous relationship with Fonso, whom she believes is her own father. She longs to be reunited – and move away - with Nettie. She quotes an entire letter from Nettie describing her arrival in the Olinka village in West Africa, where the family is to carry out its missionary work.

Nettie’s letter describes how the family arrived in the Olinka village after travelling. Brown, female missionaries arouse the villager’s curiosity, and some comment on how closely Adam and Olivia resemble Nettie instead of Corinne.

A welcome ceremony highlights the tribe’s belief in the scared properties of ‘roofleaf’, alongside their knowledge about Jesus. The family is presented with a roof for their hut, thatched with the sacred crop.

Commentary on Letter 61

The short introductory paragraph of this letter reminds us of Celie’s experiences at the hands of Fonso and that she believes her children could be mentally damaged because they were conceived through incest. (Walker keeps the reader in suspense before the matter is cleared up in letter 67.) 

Nettie’s letter highlights how the missionaries are complete outsiders in West Africa. Although Nettie is sympathetic about the significance of roofleaf, the fact that the Olinka regard it as a god foreshadows the village catastrophe in letter 80 when the workers are provided with tin to use as roofing for their huts.

The idea of a natural substance being part of a religious belief introduces the theme that religion can take many different forms. As the novel progresses, Nettie’s own faith becomes less rigorous and more tolerant about valuing the spirit behind a religion, rather than its observance through a set of traditional beliefs and customs. Walker introduces the idea of Christianity as a panentheistic belief in a God who is present and active in the world but also far beyond the material universe and human understanding.

Investigating Letter 61

  • Do some research on pantheism and panentheism
  • How does Nettie’s view of traditional Christian belief change from this point in the narrative?
    • What causes the shift in her ideas about God?
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