Violence and suffering

The damage caused by oppression

A major theme in The Color Purple is domestic violence and the suffering it causes, traced through the lives of African-American women from the mid-1900s to the early 1940s in the rural South of the United States. The novel also explores the damaging effects of:

  • Male domination
  • Sexism within the black community
  • White racial oppression of black people both in the United States and Africa.

Through Celie’s experiences, the novel examines the spiritual and psychological damage that results from physical and emotional violence, as well as the way in which male and female relationships are characterised by psychological and sexual oppression.

Celie’s first letters are written when she is fourteen and she addresses them to God because she feels she has no one else to turn to. Her mother is dead and Celie has been repeatedly raped by the man she believes to be her father. Her graphic descriptions of the assaults force the reader to confront the ugliness of child abuse and possible incest at the very beginning of the narrative, illustrating not only the central character’s vulnerability and isolation, but also the brutality of the act and its perpetrator. The callous removal of Celie’s children by ‘Pa’ and his decision to marry her off to a neighbour of his own age (Albert), as a ‘spoiled’ childminder and housekeeper, add to Celie’s dehumanisation. There is little sense of any wrongdoing on the part of her stepfather (as long as it is not talked about) - a man whose responsibility should be to protect and care for his family.

Celie’s dehumanisation

Celie’s marriage to Albert is the end of one episode of abusive violence on the part of her stepfather, but the beginning of another at the hands of her new husband, a widower who abuses Celie verbally, sexually and physically in any way he wishes. She is expected to submit to frequent forced intercourse, which causes her to think of her body as something over which she has no control. Similarly she has no control over her physical environment, being expected to look after Albert’s uncooperative children and to work in the house and the fields. Celie has no value whatsoever as a woman - as females are considered inferior and worthless, men can and do treat them as they please.

The beatings, domestic drudgery and brutish sex mean Celie retreats into an unfeeling emotional state, imagining that she is made of wood, like a tree. She cares for Albert’s children effectively but without feeling – patting Harpo’s back as though he was made of wood also. She ends up feeling that her life has no direction. Feminist Betty Friedan believes that life without purpose makes women lose the sense of who they are, as it is purpose in life that gives all human beings a reason to exist.

Celie’s loss of self-esteem and sense of worth is signified from the first letter by crossing out the words ‘I am’, which signify self-belief – she can only look back to a pre-lapsarian state of ‘have been’. The present remains intensely painful until Celie meets Shug Avery, who enables Celie to regain her self-esteem and reclaim her life. Although initially Celie can hardly maintain the simplest of conversations with the visitor, she gradually finds herself physically attracted to Shug, who helps Celie awaken her own physical responses as well as allowing emotional warmth to resurface.

Shug’s influence

Shug Avery could be seen as the only female character who is not a victim of domestic abuse in that she is never beaten or ill-treated by her male partners. Indeed, she displays a ‘masculine’ sense of autonomy within her community. That does not extend to the white society through which she travels however, where she is denied decent food to eat or clean places to stay and wash herself. She has also had to face social and religious ostracism from family and church, being denounced from the pulpit as a ‘fallen woman’ and rejected by her parents because of her lifestyle and long-term affair with Albert.

Female encouragement

Shug’s strength is her understanding of the value of women's solidarity (perhaps a quality that experience has taught her is important after she initially undermined Annie Julia’s relationship with Albert). In response to Albert’s ill treatment of Celie she removes him from her life and moves with Celie to Memphis. Shug also helps Celie to develop her sewing from a hobby into a thriving business and Mary Agnes to establish a successful career as a blues singer. In doing so, Shug acts as an antidote to domestic abuse, providing each with a home and giving them both the opportunity to discover their individual strengths.

The cycle of violence

Fonso, Albert and Harpo represent patriarchal husbands and fathers, who identify with the racist violence of white culture in the South by imitating that violence in their own relationships:

  • Fonso comforts Celie’s mother who is traumatised by the murder of her first husband, but this does not stop him violently assaulting his step-daughter
  • Albert suffers the repression of his own father, but still instils Harpo with the necessity of domination in relationships
  • Harpo is shaken by witnessing the violent death of his mother, but this does not deter him from beating his wife. Although Sofia responds by being violent herself, a feasible option due to her size and her strength, her love for Harpo is fractured.

The cycle of violence creates misery. Even strong-willed Sofia is eventually crushed by male domination, coupled with racial violence, when beaten then imprisoned for voicing a blunt opinion. Her broken spirit is held together only by murderous thoughts, and it is many years before she is restored to the humanity which understands that ‘meanness kills’.

African oppression and suffering

Nettie’s letters examine issues of violence in an African context:

  • She describes how the Olinka land is effectively ‘raped’ by being taken over and redeveloped for mass cultivation by white colonialists
  • The Olinka people are discriminated against and find themselves economic slaves, forced to pay rent for land and water always regarded as theirs, with no compensation for their loss
  • Men, women and children are forced to work in the fields in order to pay rent and taxes to absentee white businessmen
  • Olinka girls are denied education and women are defined only in terms of the value that they have for their husbands as wives and mothers
  • Tashi feels she has to undergoing the tribal rite of female circumcision and facial scarring in order to be considered as belonging to her people
  • She is a victim of the Olinka belief (common elsewhere in Africa) that women should not enjoy sexual pleasure or appear physically attractive to men. (Alice Walker has campaigned actively against the practice of female circumcision and in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy she carries on Tashi’s story with an account of the devastating consequences of Tashi’s African ordeal. )


Walker also examines the suffering and violence caused by racism:

  • Throughout the novel, Celie references the fact that she is discriminated against by the white community
  • Nettie dreads bringing Olivia and Adam back to America where they will experience racism
  • The white Mayor can slap a black woman and go free, but when the black woman retaliates, she is beaten and jailed
  • Asking for help, as Mary Agnes does of her white uncle, is met by a demand for sexual favours - the warden knows he will never be charged for raping a black girl
  • When Eleanor Jane brings her baby boy for Sofia’s approval, Sofia cannot give it since he will probably grow up to be her oppressor, like most white men
  • Later, when Eleanor Jane helps with the care of Henrietta, the entire white community is outraged because she has lowered herself to be employed by an African-American.


One of the primary concerns of The Color Purple is to raise awareness of how black women are doubly oppressed, not only in being discriminated against for the colour of their skin but also by being victimised by the men in their own black community. Black women were (and still are) victims of all kinds of violence, including sexual violence in both America and Africa.

In a male-dominated society, women find joy, strength, freedom from oppression and self-determination only when they support one another and Walker makes women's communal empowerment a primary focus of her novel:

  • Sofia's ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters
  • Nettie's relationship with Celie helps her through years of living in the unfamiliar culture of Africa
  • The strong relationships among the Olinka women are the only thing that makes polygamy bearable for them
  • Celie's strong bond with Shug enables Celie to break free from oppression and develop a sense of self
  • Corinne, who does not embrace this solidarity, is eventually destroyed.

Celie gradually realises that the patriarchal culture she has endured in the South is abusive to all black women. However, through Shug she learns that women can be equal to men in power, knowledge and in matters of love and finance. At the end of the novel, when Celie returns to live in Georgia, she is no longer a victim of violence and suffering, but a competent, self-assured female who knows she can be self-sufficient and independent.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.