Natural elements


Walker uses natural symbols throughout the novel and images of trees and wood are used both as positive affirmations of the beauty of nature and negatively as symbols of suffering.

In Letter 13, Celie compares herself to a tree, which is resilient and strong, as a means of insulating herself from the emotional and physical pain she experiences as a victim of sexual and domestic abuse. She also states that this makes her understand that trees ‘fear man’, which is an interesting indication of her intelligence. Like a tree, she can be resilient, but the ‘axe’ is always a threat.

Later, in Letter 17, she reveals that her psychological transformation, her ‘woodenness’, also prevents her from showing or feeling affection for Mr _’s children. Patting Harpo, when he has nightmares about seeing his mother murdered, feels to Celie as though she is patting a piece of wood.

Later in the narrative, after she and Shug become lovers, Celie’s response to nature is completely changed. Her final letter to God is a celebration of trees as symbols of nature and the wonder of creation.


Although not specifically named as trees, but as a product of the forest, Nettie’s reference to ‘roofleaf’ is also symbolic of the bounty of nature in Africa. Used by the Olinka people as covering for their homes, the leaves of the forest trees are also worshipped as a god. Initially sceptical, the devout Christian missionaries come to recognise that this pagan custom is in fact an understandable way for the tribe to show its appreciation for something that nature/God provides as a bountiful gift.


The Color Purple has been described as an allegorical novel, somewhat similar to a fairy tale. In fairy tales, frogs turn into handsome princes when they are kissed by the heroine, who is usually represented as white and beautiful. Walker, however, reverses the traditional semiotics of the white fairy tale narrative:

  • The central character is black, described by others and self-confessed as ‘ugly’
  • Her ‘prince’ is an abusive black husband whose physical touch is repulsive to her
  • Celie does regard men as frogs, not because they have been enchanted, but because their genitals resemble slimy swamp creatures.

In Letter 84 Celie tells Albert that no matter how men are kissed, they still remain frogs as far as she is concerned. Far from being offended, Albert is quietly sympathetic and later in the novel he carves a small yellow frog for Celie as a keepsake, possibly intending it to be both a humorous object and a token of apology for his part in causing distress to his former wife.

The rose

In Letter 35, when Celie explores her body, it is described as a ‘wet rose’ and later, as Shug sits back and tells Celie that God is ‘everything’, Shug is described as a ‘big rose’. In both incidents, the rose is a symbol of growth and blossoming. For Celie, it is the beginning of a blossoming awareness of sexual pleasure.

Walker may also be playing with the idea that Shug could be seen as a symbol of religious worship. The Virgin Mary is sometimes referred to as a rose, embodying the idea of the beauty and perfection of nature and God’s creation. In a sense Celie worships Shug and, although the singer is definitely not virgin, it is she who describes Celie as virginal in Letter 35.


In Letter 84, we learn that Albert, now a reformed character, enjoys collecting shells and has a large collection which he shows to Celie. He tells her that Shug Avery once had a big, white shell that looked like a fan and this conversation leads to an exchange in which Albert shares his memories of Celie as a young bride. In the context of Albert’s previous attitudes towards women, his handling of the shell as though it had ‘just arrived’, shows him perhaps recognising his ‘feminine’ side.


Celie’s final letter (Letter 90) begins with ‘Dear God, dear star’. In the way that the North Star is used for navigation purposes, it could be argued that Celie has people in her life, who are fixed points - constant symbols of hope and guidance. Shug Avery guides Celie from a hopeless existence to fulfilment and safety and Celie’s children, Olivia and Adam, are always the hope of her future.

This idea has its origins in slave history, as many slaves followed the North Star when they escaped from slavery. The star is therefore a symbol which Walker uses to represent the road to a better life – an escape from the metaphorical slavery of domestic abuse to self-fulfilment and independence.

Stars are referred to frequently in the narrative. Celie embroiders stars and flowers on her daughter Olivia’s nappies and wants to keep the quilt that she works on with Sofia, because she likes the yellow pieces that remind her of stars. Shug’s original club date is in a juke joint called the Lucky Star and the same posters are used to advertise her appearance in Harpo’s club later in the narrative. At the end of the narrative, in Letter 87, Albert and Celie are finally reconciled and embrace one another as friends ‘under the stars’ on Celie’s porch.

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