Shug Avery

Queen Honeybee

Shug Avery is a remarkable character, named Lillie by her parents but known to all her admirers as Queen Honeybee, Sugar or Shug. Celie describes her as sweet but many of Shug’s characteristics contradict that idea. She is a woman of great strength of character; feisty, sometimes aggressive, always ready to fight for what she believes in and seemingly unafraid to face anything that life throws at her. As one of her nicknames suggests, she is the dominant character around which many people revolve.

A fractured past

Her first appearance in the novel is as a very sick woman, who arrives at her lover Albert’s house to be nursed back to health from some disease that she has caught while touring nightclubs as a professional blues singer. Although Walker never tells us what caused the sickness, there are hints from townspeople and churchgoers that Shug’s lifestyle has resulted in her catching some kind of ’nasty woman’s disease’ (i.e. sexually transmitted).

Shug reveals to Celie that her mother never really loved her and would not even touch her, whilst her father made sexual advances. As a result, Shug learned to stand up for herself and left home to make her own way in life, achieving independence at an early age (a direct contrast to Celie’s timidity and lack of self-esteem). Although Shug’s affair with Albert has lasted for many years, she has deserted the three children she bore him, leaving them to be brought up by her parents, who have disowned her because of her chosen lifestyle and what they see as her sinful ways.

When Shug performs, she lives up to her name, beguiling the customers, but she can also be savagely sarcastic and quick-tempered. Celie describes Shug at one point as having a mouth that is full of ‘claws’, like a wild animal.

Black success

Untypical for the time in which the novel is set, Shug is a rich and successful black performer, having made enough money to build a large house in Memphis and run a car. Her clothes are elegant and of high quality and she takes pride in her appearance. Walker probably based her character on some of the famous African-American women blues singers of the 1920s and 30s. In Letter 33 for example, Shug claims to be a friend of Bessie Smith (see Synopses and commentaries > Letter 33; also Letter 46), but she is only portrayed once as a performer when she appears in Harpo’s juke joint and dedicates an original song to Celie, in appreciation of her nursing Shug back to health.

Shug is described as having very black skin, which at the time was associated with those at the bottom of the African-American social scale, but this only seems to make Shug more determined to make an impact on the people she meets. It may influence Celie’s physical attraction to her, since Celie’s own skin is also extremely dark.

Comparison with Celie

Shug and Celie may share similar skin but their appearance and personalities are quite different:

  • Celie is consistently described as ugly, whereas Shug is always represented as beautiful
  • Shug’s figure is attractive, whereas Celie is often described as skinny
  • Shug dresses elegantly and Celie’s clothes are only ‘fit for church’
  • Shug is confident and articulate, whereas Celie finds it almost impossible to carry out a conversation and obviously thinks of herself as ignorant and worthless
  • Shug, when performing, can dominate an audience and she dominates her male lovers also. Celie on the other hand never seeks to be in the limelight and is so traumatised by her experiences with men that she can only cope with her shame by imagining that she is made of wood.

Shug’s male relationships

Shug tells Celie that she loves Albert because he is ‘funny’ and ‘little’ and that in the early years of their relationship they once dressed in one another’s clothes. However, despite the attraction between them and the length of their relationship, Shug has never wanted to be Albert’s wife, only to make sure that he prefers her over all other females. Similarly, Shug clearly enjoys the power of attraction she has over younger men like Grady, whom she marries, and the nineteen year old youth Germaine, with whom she has her ‘last fling’, even whilst recognising that such attraction is short-lived.

Altruism or selfishness?

The only people to whom Shug shows consistent kindness (apart from Albert) are Celie and Mary Agnes. She discovers the truth about Albert’s theft of Nettie’s letters and retrieves them for Celie, as well as ensuring that he will stop beating Celie. She also recognises latent talent in Mary Agnes, helping her to establish a career as a blues singer. Again there may be an element of Shug enjoying the power that she has over people’s lives, whether male or female.

Shug’s beliefs

Shug is always too restless to stay in one place for long and could be described as a free spirit. She has many unorthodox views about life, relationships and religion and takes her bisexuality for granted, enjoying sleeping with both men and women.

Shug would conventionally be considered ‘immoral’, yet she has respect for God. Instead of fearing his image as a white patriarchal male, she admires him as a spirit that inhabits every aspect of earthly life. She has little time for any religious teaching that she considers to have been inspired by men, especially white men.

Shug’s strength

Shug is sensual, independent and strong willed. She is also sometimes ruthless, telling Celie how she mistreated Albert’s first wife Annie Julia because she was jealous that he was married to someone other than herself. Shug’s description of herself as ‘wild’ and ‘mean’ is not only accurate but surprisingly honest and reveals the level of trust that exists between the two women.

Shug confesses that she loves men with passion but never intends to be subordinate to any of them. There are several instances in the novel where she is shown to have ‘masculine’ characteristics. She tells Sofia in Harpo’s juke joint, that Sofia looks like ‘a good time’, a comment that surprises Celie as they are words that a woman would not be expected to say.

To Celie, Shug is a great source of strength. Although her morality is unconventional she can at times make a strong moral stand, for example when she succeeds in persuading Albert to stop beating Celie and to attempt to be tender with her instead of just using her as a sex object. It is Shug also who gives Celie an escape route, taking her to Memphis and supporting her financially and emotionally until Celie is able to support herself. In this sense Shug is a symbol of freedom and fulfilment, showing a generosity of spirit that is lacking in many of the men who feature in the narrative.


In a sense Shug is naive and childish. In spite of her apparent sophistication and prosperity, the house in Memphis is not an elegant or tasteful dwelling, decorated as it is with statues of elephants and turtles and painted bright pink. She leads an irresponsible nomadic existence in many ways, appearing to give little thought to her three children and only trying to make contact with them towards the end of the novel. In her single-minded pursuit of Germaine she does not think about the pain this causes others.

However, as someone about eight years senior to Celie, she is the mother/elder sister/caring partner Celie never previously had and the ultimate expression of family closeness. When the two women visit Celie’s stepfather Fonso at the family home and attempt to find Celie’s parents’ unmarked grave, Shug tells Celie that they are now ‘one another’s people’.

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