Expressing emotion

Music and singing

When Shug Avery sings A Good Man is Hard to Find at Harpo’s juke joint, she is reprising a famous blues song which was sung by Bessie Smith in the 1920s.

More on the development of the blues: African-American music, especially songs, evolved from the singing of slaves on plantations. Work songs, called ‘field-hollers’, involved a call and response style, used to encourage field hands during long working hours. They often employed lyrics which were taken from either biblical texts or heavily disguised references to the hardships of slavery.

Over time these songs evolved into a form of music called the blues which became extremely popular throughout America in the 1920s. African-American men and women expressed their feelings about their lives of poverty and hardship by singing songs in this distinctive style, either a cappella or with guitar accompaniment.

Bessie Smith was one of the most famous blues singers and her life travelling around America singing in juke joints, similar to that which is described in The Color Purple, was probably the inspiration for Walker’s character of Shug Avery.     

In the novel it is the women who sing about their lives and their troubles. For example:

  • Squeak (Mary Agnes) sings a song called They calls me yellow, which refers to her mixed race origins
  • Shug dedicates a song about a man who ‘does a woman wrong’ to Celie in Letter 33.
  • Shug’s performance of A Good Man is Hard to Find illustrates the entire theme of the novel.

Jazz stars

Jazz and blues music did make significant fortunes for black performers during the 1920s and the early 1930s. Walker illustrates this through Shug Avery who makes enough money from performing to build and furnish a large house in Memphis, Tennessee. However African-American performers continued to suffer neglect and contempt, despite their fame. Bessie Smith for example, is reputed to have died because a white hospital refused to treat her when she was ill. In the novel, Shug Avery becomes extremely ill when she is on the road, presumably because of a similar lack of medical help.

Shug’s survival and Mary Agnes’ career are symbolic of a determination to rise above prejudice and oppression in the pursuit of their art. The fact that black music not only survived, but continues to be an integral part of modern day culture, is a testament to that resilience.


The female characters in The Color Purple do not live through humorous situations, but their comments on what they experience often are. Celie’s understated sense of humour makes tragic situations less so through quiet and subtle comments that make the reader smile. Her dismissal of men’s genitals as frog-like, for example, is swiftly followed by a laconic assertion that, no matter how often men are kissed, ‘frogs is what they stay’. That comment, made by a self-confident Celie at the close of the narrative is genuinely amusing and as such it is appreciated by a man who would probably have beaten her if she had dared to say such a thing to him when she was less confident.

When Harpo tries to gain weight to be strong enough to beat Sofia and then fails to do so because Sofia beats him up first, Walker recounts the exchange between Harpo and Celie as though it were a slapstick comedy routine. Harpo piles lie upon absurd lie whilst Celie, as straight man, lets him dig himself deeper and deeper, merely referring to his bruises as ‘accidents’ that have not given him the chance to make Sofia ‘mind’ him.

Harpo’s compulsive eating, recounted in mounting detail by Celie, climaxes with two neat one-liners – that Harpo looks as though he is ‘big’ (pregnant) and a request to know when ‘it’ (the baby) is due. There is also laconic humour in Sofia’s refusal to compliment Eleanor Jane’s baby, simply stating the uncomfortable truths that he is fat, large-headed and hairless.


The belief that the eyes are the windows of the soul can be traced back to ancient times. In New Testament, Jesus teaches that:

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Luke 11:34 ESV

In other words, a person's thoughts can be recognised by looking in his or her eyes.

In Walker’s novel, there are numerous references to eyes and to looking, often contrasting the negative look of suspicion with the positive gaze of admiration.

Oppressive watching

For example, Celie tells God that her Pa beat her because he caught her looking at a boy in church, but explains to God that she was innocent of wrongdoing because she never looks at men, preferring to look at women because they do not make her afraid. Unfortunately the brazen Sofia looks too boldly at the white Mayor and his wife and ends up blinded in one eye from her savage beating.

Fonso tells Mr _ (Albert) that he is free to look at Celie as a prospective wife, just as one would eye up a piece of livestock (or a slave), even though she is ugly and ignorant and inclined to give things away to anyone. He means that Celie is generous, but he expresses her generosity as a negative aspect of her personality. Telling Albert he will have to ‘watch’ Celie indicates his complete lack of trust in his stepdaughter and reveals his own meanness of spirit. In contrast, Nettie writes excitedly to Celie when she discovers that there are black people in the world who are generous and want all black people to ‘see the light’ and grow.

Watching Shug

Shug Avery is the focus of many people’s gazes. Her visual appearance wakes up Celie’s appreciation and understanding:

  • When Celie first sees an image of Shug, she is attracted by her eyes, which signify suffering and endurance, with which Celie identifies
  • When Shug performs in Harpo’s juke joint all the men look at her breasts. The watching Celie also experiences an erotic response
  • The first time Celie sees Shug naked (while bathing her) the sight of Shug’s body makes Celie feel ‘like a man’
  • Shug responds to Celie’s obvious interest by asking her what she is ‘staring at’, then telling Celie to take a ‘good look’ at her, ‘batting’ her eyes at Celie and striking a provocative pose with one hand on her hip
  • Albert and Celie both love ‘looking at Shug’ but initially Shug seems only to love looking at Albert
  • Celie and Albert discuss what it is about Shug that they admire and Celie says that looking into Shug’s eyes shows her what Shug has been through in her life - what she has seen and done and what it has taught her as a result.
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