A conflicted character

Harpo is Mr __’s (Albert's) eldest son, the only one of Albert’s children by his first wife to play a significant part in the novel. He exemplifies the constraints that Southern Black society placed on men (as it did on women) to behave and express themselves in ‘normal’ ways. Expected to be physically forceful and relationally dominant, in fact Harpo is given feminine character traits by Walker, making him most at home in the kitchen or undertaking domestic tasks such as caring for his children and nursing his sick father. He is slightly built and (probably owing to his father’s aggressive demeanour) is timid and lacking in confidence. He shares his feelings with Celie about his love for Sofia, crying in her arms, as well as showing obvious affection for his children.

Unfortunately, Harpo is a misfit in the male-dominated society of the time. His enjoyment of traditional female work, such as childcare and cooking makes him feel weak and ‘womanish’. His father’s expectations of the way in which men should treat their wives convince Harpo that he needs to beat Sofia in order to make her obey him as head of the household. The eventual result is a savage beating for Harpo at the hands of a furious Sofia.

Despite later sound advice from Celie that Harpo should stop trying to assert his authority over his wife and accept the fact that their love for one another is strong, Harpo makes a ludicrous attempt to give himself a bigger physique by eating huge quantities of food. The attempt fails because Sofia, who is supposed to ‘mind’ him, steadfastly continues to beat him up whenever she wants to. Harpo’s inability to break free from the role expected of him by his culture leads to the eventual breakup of his marriage and the loss of his wife and children.

Personal suffering

Harpo’s choice of Sofia as a wife suggests that he seeks a strong female role model, possibly as a result of witnessing the murder of his own mother when he was a young boy. In Letter 17, Celie recounts how Harpo is troubled by nightmares about seeing his mother shot. Such an experience could not be anything other than traumatic for a child and understandably has a long-lasting effect. Even token comfort from Celie seems to make a difference to Harpo, as from that point in the narrative he begins to confide in his stepmother.

At the same time, Walker often undercuts Harpo’s pain with humour: 

  • When comforting him as a teenager, Celie feels as though she is patting a piece of wooden furniture
  • When trying to assert physical dominance over Sofia by eating to increase his size, Harpo ends up vomiting up all the food he has just consumed in front of Celie, who then puts him to bed
  • When Sofia takes their children away to live with her sister Odessa, his acute distress means that he picks up his youngest baby’s used nappy to wipe away his tears.

By these means, Walker makes Harpo more easily forgiven and understood by the reader and Harpo is one of the few male characters in the novel with whom the reader is able to sympathise.


After Sofia leaves, Harpo discovers that he has a talent for business and opens a successful juke joint on the site of their former home. A new partner, Mary Agnes, allows Harpo to assert a measure of masculine control over a female, although he retains his penchant for Sofia, as is obvious in Letter 36. He is devastated when Sofia is beaten and imprisoned, but also grieves when he sees how badly Mary Agnes is treated by her ‘uncle’. He is clearly hurt when Mary Agnes declares her intention of leaving him, although he masks this with conventional protestations that she can’t leave her male provider (himself) or childcare responsibilities.

However, Mary Agnes’ departure allows space for Sofia to re-enter Harpo’s life. Although each of them has other affairs and children by other people, Harpo and Sofia finally manage to accept one another’s needs and personalities as is illustrated by Harpo’s grudging acceptance that Sofia is a pallbearer at her mother’s funeral.

Enduring love

When Albert falls ill after Celie and Shug desert him, it is Harpo who nurses his father back to health. Despite having previously been intimidated by Albert, Harpo forces his way in. He cleans Albert’s house and spends nights sleeping beside his father to protect him from nightmares. His tenderness reawakens that of Sofia. Shortly afterwards, the couple reconcile and build themselves a new house where they take care of their assorted children together.

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