A developing character

At the beginning of the novel Celie is fourteen years old, naive, poor and ignorant. Over the course of the narrative she develops and changes more than any other character. By the end Celie is middle-aged and the reader has experienced her growth both in knowledge of the world and self-realisation. Even the language in which she writes has changed by the end of the novel nd become much more fluent and articulate as she develops in self-confidence.

For information about the language characteristic of Celie’s character, see Narrative > Language style and register > Celie’s language.

Vulnerable and isolated

Celie’s initial letters are addressed to God, because she has literally no one else in her life to speak to. Her mother is inadequate, through illness and mental ill-health, whilst her stepfather, whom she believes to be her birth father, is violent and has abusively fathered two illegitimate children by her. She has no protector.

Celie’s mother, we learn later in the novel, is mentally disturbed because her husband (Celie’s father) was murdered in an act of racial hatred, by white men of the community who resented his business success as a storekeeper. Celie’s mother remarried a man called Alphonso, whom Celie calls ‘Fonso’ or ‘Pa’, but is weakened by a series of pregnancies and dies shortly before Celie’s own second illegitimate child is born. It is never made clear in the narrative whether or not Celie’s mother realises that Fonso is the father of Celie’s two children.

Believing that Fonso is her natural father and that she has been made a party to incest, Celie is overcome with guilt and determined to keep this secret from everyone but God. Her children are taken away and she suspects that Fonso may have killed at least one of them.

The importance of love

The only person in the world whom Celie loves is her young sister Nettie, although in order to protect her from Fonso’s lust Celie is forced to send her away. Despite her suffering, Celie is steadfast and loving. When she is loved in return (as she is by her sister and later Shug Avery), she is able to respond and grow. Alice Walker creates a character who is essentially good and remains so throughout the narrative.

Celie’s intense love affair with Shug Avery is the catalyst which enables Celie to discover her own sexuality and through this to begin to assert herself. Celie learns from Shug that sex is not something shameful but a generous expression of delight between two people. Her previous experience of intercourse with men has been painful, joyless and humiliating. When she and Shug Avery eventually make love together, Celie begins the process of ‘entering into creation’, that is appreciating the world and the joys that it bestows upon the people who live in it, through nature, companionship and mutual support of one another.

Growth towards freedom

Walker presents Celie as a woman who succeeds in freeing herself, body and soul, from the domination of abusive men. At the novel’s start Celie is almost entirely dominated by two abusive males, Fonso and Mr_. By the end of the narrative Celie is self-sufficient, confident and independent, having realised that she does not have to be subservient to men nor conform to traditional ideas of how a woman should behave.

Key relationships

Not surprisingly, it is the companionship and mutual support between women which is the main significance of the novel. Two relationships with women dominate Celie’s life.

Celie and her sister

The two girls are very close throughout their early years, with Celie acting as a protector when the much younger Nettie is threatened by the attentions of both Fonso and Albert. Celie advises Nettie to run away and to seek help from Corinne, the wife of a local clergyman called the Rev Samuel and thus does not see her sister again for many years. The love between them however never diminishes and the letters that each writes to the other form the basis of the epistolary style which Walker uses in the novel.

Celie and God

In Celie’s mind, love for her sister and for God are closely linked. Because she cannot confide in Nettie about her experiences with the men in her life, Celie writes about them in letters addressed to God. When she later discovers the extent of her husband Albert’s cruelty in hiding Nettie’s letters, she decides that addressing her subsequent messages to Nettie is more fulfilling. She has also concluded that she cannot believe in a God who is represented as a white patriarch, the embodiment of the dominant white racist society which has oppressed black people for so many centuries.

Celie and Shug

Celie’s love affair with her husband’s mistress, the blues singer Shug Avery, contributes significantly to Celie’s self-discovery, particularly of her own sexuality. Her previous brutal and abusive sexual experiences resulted in her becoming unresponsive and repressed, unable to either love - or allow herself to be loved - by a man.

Celie’s sexuality is eventually defined through her friendship with Shug Avery. Although Shug herself is not a lesbian but bisexual (enjoying intercourse with both men and women), Celie discovers that she is attracted to Shug almost from their first meeting and their friendship develops into an intense lesbian love affair. This sexual awakening marks a turning point in Celie’s life, as Celie begins to see herself as a worthwhile and valuable human being.

Celie has to come to terms with the fact that Shug also sleeps with men – Albert, Grady and later Germaine. Although unhappy at having to share Shug, Celie is able to accept it because of her own increasing self-confidence. Ultimately none of Shug’s male partners threaten the strength of the friendship, love and trust between the two women.

Dominant characteristics

The three dominant attributes of Celie's personality throughout the novel are strength, resilience and the ability to love unconditionally. Through her sometimes fragile relationship with Shug, Celie learns to believe in herself, even though she sometimes questions her own worth. She remains a caring, gentle woman who finds it natural to care for others and learns to be loved in return. Ultimately she realises that she can be content without depending on anyone but herself.

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