Letter 80

Synopsis of Letter 80

Nettie is furious at the various ways in which the Olinka tribe is losing its cultural and economic heritage. They now believe that the missionaries’ God is as powerless as the missionaries themselves, which is why Nettie and Samuel, along with Olivia and Adam, travel back to England to seek help.

On the journey the family meets the English missionary of whom they’d heard years before. Now retired, Doris Baines turns out to have no religious conviction but to have used family wealth and her earnings as a novelist to buy ‘her’ village and help its inhabitants, becoming a ‘grandmother’ to the children of two honorary ‘wives’. Samuel’s and Corrinne’s aunts were also missionaries. Although their adventurous tales amused and inspired their nephew and niece, their work entailed collusion with the despotic King of the Belgians. In England, the members of the missionary society care little about the plight of the Olinka but focus on Samuel and Nettie’s relationship.

Samuel confesses to Nettie his discouragement at their failure to make a difference to the people of Africa, who are dismissive of help from African-Americans. The two end up admitting their love and marrying, to the pleasure of Adam and Olivia who also discover that Nettie is their aunt and that they may meet their birth-mother Celie.

Olivia tells Nettie that Adam is worried about Tashi, who is considering undergoing the ritual of facial scarring and female genital mutilation in a bid to identify with her people who have lost everything else. Adam’s concern would make his mother proud, says Nettie.

Commentary on Letter 80

In this letter from Nettie to Celie, the longest so far in the series, the narrative shifts back to the troubles of the Olinka tribe and Nettie’s failure to find a practical solution for their situation. There is significant detail about the consequences of colonial expansion for the native Africans. Nettie’s sense of outrage is clear, which Walker contrasts with the indifference and narrow-minded hypocrisy of the white missionary society who care only about conventional behaviour rather than the fate of those they exist to serve.

Walker uses the examples of Doris Baines and Corinne’s and Samuel’s aunts to undercut the significance of faith in their missionary endeavours, seeing it more as a channel for female self-expression (when few were available). She celebrates their spirit and adventurousness but reveals that their efforts are often seen as futile and irrelevant by those with whom they live and work.

The references to ‘a big war’ give the reader a hint as to the novel’s time scheme - 1938 or 1939, prior to World War II. At that time there was considerable development of areas of Africa by white colonists, in order to grow and supply materials to the European fighting forces.

Nettie is now middle-aged and has found happiness in marriage to Samuel. His self-doubt is a device used by Walker to bring the two together. Some commentators have criticised Walker’s sentimentality as Nettie is ‘transported by ecstasy’ in Samuel’s arms, after realising that she has loved him all along. It is a conventional Victorian device similar to that which the nineteenth century female novelist Charlotte Brontë uses in Jane Eyre: ‘Reader, I married him’.

Having introduced, albeit obliquely, the African ritual of female genital mutilation and facial scarring in a previous letter, Walker foregrounds the topic more overtly by recounting Tashi’s decision to undergo facial scarring and clitoridectomy as a gesture of solidarity, to show that the Olinka tribe still has a tribal identity. Although Tashi does not believe in either custom, because she has been well educated (ironically in a missionary school) her gesture is a protest at the annihilation of the tribe by ruthless foreign colonialists. (There is a parallel with Celie whose brutal treatment at the hands of men meant that she reacted as if she had ‘lost’ her clitoris.)

The reader is also prepared for the future development of the relationship between Tashi and Adam which will be played out as the novel draws to its conclusion. There is a resemblance to the relationship between Sofia and Harpo - Tashi and Adam have clashed violently and come to blows because of Tashi’s decision to assert her independence.

Investigating Letter 80

  • Begin a new character study sheet for Tashi and Adam
    • List their individual characteristics
    • Try and match what you find to the characteristics of the other characters you have studied.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.