Letter 76

Synopsis of Letter 76

Celie describes Shug’s house in Memphis, which is large and decorated with statues of turtles and elephants. Shug and Celie have separate bedrooms and there is ample space for Grady and Mary Agnes, who make up the rest of the household.

Shug and Nettie spend time together cooking, reading the newspaper and listening to music before Shug goes back to work, touring with her band for weeks at a time. She declines Celie’s offer to take care of her on the road, wanting her to rest.

While Mary Agnes starts to establish her own singing career as a singer, accompanied by Grady, Celie concentrates on making more and more pairs of trousers until she arrives at the perfect pair for Shug, who is delighted. Mary Agnes chooses a pair and Celie makes some for Odessa’s husband Jack as a thank you for the Army trousers he gave Celie initially. By word-of-mouth, orders begin to come in and Shug encourages Celie to start a home business, giving her use of the dining room as a factory and suggesting that Celie sticks to the design of the trousers, employing a few local women to take care of the manufacture.

Celie designs cool trousers for Nettie as an act of love and signs off with the name of her new business, ‘Folkspants Unlimited’.

Commentary on Letter 76

On moving to Memphis to live with Shug, Celie’s life changes dramatically. The description of Shug’s house, with its elephant and turtle statues in the house and grounds, gives an impression of a childlike environment. The two women enjoy a brief time of innocent pleasure, cooking, working in the garden and reading newspapers before Shug goes back on the road.

Note the oblique reference to conditions faced by black entertainers of the time, who were not permitted to stay in white hotels and often could not find suitable accommodation when they were on tour. This is the reason why Celie offers to accompany Shug, to wash and iron her clothes when she is on the road. Note also Shug’s reason for refusing to let Celie travel with her, saying that she would find it difficult not to show how bored she was, if Celie were in the audience.

Living in an atmosphere which is free from oppression and cruelty brings out Celie’s creativity. The trousers that she makes are original and attractive. The fact that they are not conventional clothing for women symbolises Celie’s subconscious wish for equality with men. It is also significant that many of the first pairs that she makes are given to women, with Odessa’s husband Jack being a notable exception, probably because he is one of the few men so far in the narrative who have been consistently dependable, sympathetic and kind.

The tone of this letter is optimistic and different from all of Celie’s correspondence so far. Living in a predominantly female household with a woman she both admires and loves, as well as developing a career which will make her financially independent, signals a watershed moment in Celie’s life. From this point in the narrative, she begins to assert herself and take control of her own life.

Investigating Letter 76

  • What do you think is the significance of the turtle and elephant statues in Shug Avery’s house?
  • Why do you think Walker has Shug imagine a house which is round and made of mud?
    • What could the reaction to this design symbolise?
  • Why does Celie choose ducks as her own contribution to the decorations?
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