Thematic significance

Nettie’s history plays an important part in The Color Purple and embodies one of the novel’s major themes - the relationship of the black African to the black African-American experience. As a missionary, working with the Olinka tribe in Africa, Walker uses Nettie as the voice which articulates the evils of colonialism as well as the difficulties of imposing a religious ideology on a race of people who not only do not understand it, but see it as an irrelevance to their culture and lifestyle.

A responsible woman

Nettie is the person who ultimately brings up Celie’s illegitimate children, Olivia and Adam, indicating her sense of responsibility. She has a strong sense of duty and an intense loyalty to her family. Even when she fears that her letters will not reach her sister, Nettie never stops writing throughout their separation and constantly refers to the love that exists between them. She regards it as a privilege to be able to watch over Celie’s children as it gives her an opportunity to express that affection.

Nettie takes education seriously, seeing it as a means by which African-Americans can escape from an oppressive, restricted lifestyle. She is the more intelligent of the two sisters, her fondness of reading illustrated by her use of a more standard form of English in her letters and careful composition (similar to the style found in missionary magazines of the 1920s and 30s). Her horizons are extended when the well-educated Samuel and Corinne teach her as a trainee missionary and take her with them across the globe to work in Africa.

Comparison to Celie

Physically, Nettie is supposed to resemble her sister but is considered to be more attractive. This of course exposes her to the threat Celie faces of sexual advances from both Fonso (Pa) and Albert (Mr_), which results in her leaving.

Celie and Nettie share a common bond in that both are isolated and lonely, literally existing on opposite sides of the globe for a large part of the narrative. Both, to an extent, are also outsiders in the society in which they live. Nettie tries hard to understand the culture of the Olinka people and does succeed in making friendships, although only with a tiny number of Olinka women, most notably the girl Tashi and her mother Catherine.

Just as Shug is initially jealous of Celie, so Nettie arouses Corinne’s mistrust and jealousy and both sisters are further excluded. Despite this, Nettie remains understanding and forgiving and eventually her patience and tolerance are rewarded, after Corinne’s death, by her own marriage to Samuel. There is never the least hint of sexual attraction between the two while Corinne is still living, although they clearly admire one another. One must assume that Walker deliberately creates Nettie as a pure, almost virginal character. Unlike her sister she is not overpowered by the sexual desires of the men she encounters and thus serves as a contrast to Celie’s experience. She also better fits the stereotype of what a dedicated Christian missionary should be.

A nurturing carer

As a substitute mother to Celie’s children, Nettie shows the dedication and resilience common in many of the novel’s female characters. Her attitude towards Olivia and Adam is one of watchful responsibility and her careful, anxious accounts of their lives create an interesting counterpoint to the comments about African society, in particular those that relate to the problems of mothers and daughters. Nettie identifies for example, the misogynist attitudes of the Olinka men with those of white racists towards African-Americans in the United States. Her accounts of the evils of tribal scarring and genital mutilation reflect Walker’s own preoccupation with these issues (customs against which Walker has actively campaigned against for many years).

An under-developed character

In spite of her good qualities, and her extensive accounts about African experience, Nettie’s character never seems to be as fully developed as that of other women in the novel. This may be because so many of her letters are descriptive rather than personal. Walker uses Nettie as an attentive, understanding observer, revealing little of her own personal experiences, whilst being sympathetic towards the people she loves. The reunion of the two sisters at the end of the novel (Letter 90) as recounted by Celie, brings the story full circle and provides a conventional happy ending.

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