Letter 87

Synopsis of Letter 87

Celie is unhappy with her aging body and loss of loving relationships, doubting that she will ever find love or happiness again. In her loss she bonds with Albert, who also grieves and now treats her, and his environment, with appreciation. He protects her from unwanted male advances and they share past memories.

Sofia is continually visited by the Mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane, whom she brought up (making Henrietta jealous). Whilst acknowledging that she feels kindly to her former charge, Sofia says she cannot love other whites, such as Eleanor Jane’s husband (Stanley Earl) and baby (Reynolds Stanley Earl), after years of suffering in the Mayor’s household. Eleanor Jane leaves, hurt and bewildered, and Sofia too feels sad, but stands by what she has said.

Shug and Germaine are touring the country and, after seeing Mary Agnes and Grady in Panama, don’t return as promised but visit Shug’s birth children, whom Shug’s late parents brought up. Only one (James) agrees to see her. His situation on a Native American reserve reflects that of Nettie and Samuel with the Olinka.

Shug’s regular letters describe her travels, leaving Celie feeling lonely and longing for Shug’s return, even if accompanied by Germaine. She finds relief in talking of her lover to Albert, who describes how his passion for Shug meant he ill-treated his first wife (Annie Julia) and Celie.

Celie and Albert also talk about trousers (pants), which are symbolic of freedom and power in America, and how African men wear robes and also sew. When he reveals that he liked sewing when he was a boy, Celie invites Albert to sew with her and teaches him.

Celie relays the Olinka version of the Creation story, whereby Adam was not the first man, but the first white man who survived, since previous black people had killed any white (albino) offspring. To the Olinka, whiteness meant nakedness, which entailed banishment – in return whites regarded blacks as the snake that they would like to crush to death. However, white aggression will mean that, in time, they become the ‘snake’ others desire to kill.

The letter ends with Albert telling Celie she is good company and Celie confessing to Nettie that Albert is beginning to be someone she can talk to.

Commentary on Letter 87

Letter 87 is the longest letter Celie has written to Nettie, refusing to give up hope that her sister is still alive. Many topics are addressed and characters’ relationships developed.

Eleanor Jane and Sofia 

The story of the relationship between Eleanor Jane and Sofia is typical of what often happened in the American South between black nannies and the white children they helped to raise. Whilst kindly, it illustrates how firm are the barriers of race. Although Eleanor Jane’s affection for her old nanny means she wants an equal friendship, Sofia understands very well that when Reynolds grows up he will be what she describes as one of ‘them’, that is a racist white man. Eleanor Jane leaves the house in tears, not understanding why she cannot break a racial barrier which has existed for so long. The description of Stanley Earl would seem to indicate that Sofia’s prediction will be accurate - Walker describes him as having bright blue eyes that hardly blink, very short hair and a patronising attitude.

Redressing the previous balance of power, Walker foregrounds Sofia’s forthright honesty and her courage in speaking as an equal to a white woman, compared to the vulnerability of Eleanor Jane. The last time that Sofia spoke so bluntly to a white woman resulted in twelve years of humility and servitude. However, compared to the past, this incident is lightened by the descriptions of how the baby crawls about oblivious to the colour of anyone’s skin. Walker may intend him to symbolise a future where some reconciliation between black and white people might be possible.


Contained within this letter to Nettie is the substance of the correspondence that Shug has sent to Celie while she is travelling with Germaine. Shug has been to visit her own children, two of whom reject her advances, in response to her discarding of them in favour of her career. Discussing her, Albert and Celie reveal their appreciation of her strength of character (even though both have been hurt by it), her style, her sensuality and independence of expression, despite the suffering she has obviously endured.

Their shared understanding of each other’s love for Shug strengthens the friendship which has begun to develop since Celie returned from Memphis.

Varieties of love

Albert recognises that sexuality and its expression varies from person to person and regardless of sexual preference or social disapproval, the love which exists between heterosexual and homosexual people is essentially the same. This is one of the most serious moral points that Walker makes in this narrative. Interestingly:

  • Celie does not identify herself as a lesbian here, but explains her rejection of men by discussing the previous cruel and abusive treatment she has received from them
  • Sofia and Harpo do not acknowledge Celie’s sexual relationship with Shug, but instead try to set her up with various eligible (or otherwise) male partners.

Some critics argue that the reconciliation between Albert and Celie is contrived and unconvincing, as is the rather clumsy juxtaposition of male and female qualities as Albert confesses that he enjoyed sewing as a young man, but again Walker is merely using recognisable authorial techniques as the novel moves towards its conclusion.

‘Colonial’ exclusion

Walker presents the reader with a comparison between the efforts of Shug’s son, James, to teach the Native American Indians and Nettie and Samuel’s activities in Africa. Despite trying to be integrated into the communities they serve, their well-meaning initiatives are dismissed. Though racially black, and subject to discrimination themselves, ironically they are regarded as ‘white’ in trying to import non-native values (for example, about the worth of academic education) and are therefore ultimately rejected.

The Creation narrative

Celie’s retelling of the African story of the first man, which she has learned from Nettie (although this has not been a subject of any letter that Nettie has written so far in the narrative), is interesting in its discussion of the origin of men and of differences of colour and the bloodshed that this has led to. It develops the biblical narrative (see http://crossref-it.info/articles/24/garden-of-eden-adam-and-eve-second-adam?p=1&q_repository=; http://crossref-it.info/textguide/hamlet/1/64; Genesis 2:4-8; Genesis 2:15-25; Genesis 3:1-24) by seeing the serpent as symbolic of human oppression, rejection and aggression. Ironically, they end up honouring the snake for its achievements, a total inversion of the biblical allegory where the snake represents evil and must be shunned.

The moral seems to be that unless everyone accepts everyone else in the world as a child of God, no matter how they look or act, then conflict and bloodshed caused by racial difference will be a constant source of fear and division in the world. In recounting the African version of the origin of mankind, Alice Walker draws a comparison between conventional white patriarchal Christian teaching and African mythology. As the novel draws to a close, the significance of this part of Celie’s letter will become apparent with her acceptance of Tashi and Adam when they return home, both with tribal scars on their faces.

Investigating Letter 87

  • This is a long and complex letter which you should investigate in sections. What do you learn about:
    • Celie’s reasons for not hating Albert?
    • The relationship between black nannies and their white charges (and the consequences)?
    • Shug’s relationship with her children?
    • Albert and Celie’s views on marriage?
    • African and American attitudes to the idea of creation and God?
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