The Color Purple: Dramatic structure

The Color Purple is constructed quite conventionally with a dramatic opening, a series of rising actions full of conflict and struggle, leading to a dramatic climax that is followed by falling actions and final resolutions.

A basic five-part narrative structure applied to The Colour Purple 

1. The introduction or exposition

  • The introduction reveals the basic characters and setting
  • The major conflict will usually be introduced here, with smaller conflicts following later as the narrative progresses
  • The narrative hook, the point at which the author catches the reader's attention, is often presented within the introduction.

The Colour Purple (Letters 1 - 4): Introduction/exposition 

The central character, Celie, is in an abusive home situation, repeatedly raped by her stepfather and giving birth to two illegitimate children, both of whom are taken away at birth. Celie is an innocent victim from the outset, unprotected by the adults in her life and responsible for looking after her younger sister, Nettie, and an extended family of stepchildren after her mother’s death.

2. Rising action

  • Once the main characters have been established, problems or conflicts central to the plot are introduced and events begin to get complicated
  • Each time this happens, dramatic tension rises and the reader is drawn more closely into the narrative
  • Characters may react or respond to conflict, but no solutions are found
  • Each problem or conflict increases the tension and builds the narrative to a climax.

The Colour Purple (Letters 5 - 48): Rising action and conflicts 

  • Celie’s teacher tries to fight for Celie’s right to stay in school, but fails to convince ‘Pa’ and Celie is forced to leave education because she is pregnant
  • Celie tries to protect Nettie from Pa and then from Mr_, who wants Nettie as a wife
  • Celie is forced to marry Mr_ and sees this as an opportunity to get Nettie out of Pa’s household. Nettie is no safer in Mr_’s home and is forced to leave when she refuses his advances
  • Celie is left alone with an abusive husband and a hostile family of stepchildren
  • Nettie finds refuge with a family of missionaries and moves to Africa. The sisters communicate by letter
  • Mr_’s mistress, Shug Avery, moves into the family home and Celie is attracted to her
  • Mr_ stops beating Celie and does not sleep with her, but Celie is jealous that he is sleeping with Shug and begins to compete with Mr_ for Shug’s attention and affection
  • The close friendship between Celie and Shug develops into an intense sexual relationship.

3. Climax

  • The climax is the turning point of the narrative, where the main character reaches a point of ‘no return’
  • Depending on the kind of conflict facing the protagonist, the climax may be emotional, physical, mental or a combination of all three.

The Colour Purple (Letters 49 - 75): Climax 

  • Shug and Celie discover that for many years Mr_ has deliberately hidden all of Nettie’s letter to her sister. This gives Celie the courage to stand up to her husband and to no longer regard herself as a victim
  • Celie curses Mr_ before she leaves him and follows Shug to her home in Tennessee.

4. Falling Action

  • Falling action could be described as the beginning of the resolution of the conflict
  • The results of actions that the protagonist has taken are outlined
  • The results of decisions that have been made, whether good or bad, are revealed.

The Colour Purple (Letters 76 - 85): Falling action 

  • Celie establishes a sewing business, Folkspants Unlimited, which provides her with an independent income and increases her self esteem
  • From Nettie’s letters, Celie learns that Pa is not her father and therefore her two children were not the result of incest
  • Pa dies and Celie returns to Georgia to learn that Pa has left the family home and dry goods store to her in his will. Celie is now independent and financially secure
  • Shug falls in love with Germaine, a young boy and leaves Celie to travel with him
  • Mr_ and Celie forge a new friendly relationship in Shug’s absence
  • Nettie’s ship supposedly sinks when she is on her way home from Africa and there is ongoing suspense as to whether or not Celie and Nettie will be reunited.

5. Resolution

  • The last plot element is the resolution
  • Loose ends are tied up
  • Conflicts are resolved
  • Outcomes are revealed and a happy or sad ending takes place
  • A resolution can be quite low-key, summarising where the main character(s) end up and does not have to include active events.

The Colour Purple (Letters 85 - 90): Conclusion and resolution

  • Shug returns to Celie and is forgiven
  • Mr__ (Albert) and Celie are reconciled
  • Nettie arrives home with her husband, Samuel and Celie’s children, Adam, with his African wife Tashi, and Olivia
  • At the novel’s conclusion, Celie is surrounded by her family and all the people she loves and the narrative has developed from separation back to wholeness.


In addition to the main plot, outlined above, Walker also weaves several sub-plots into the narrative as follows:

  • The story of Harpo and Sofia’s relationship and the conflict between perceived gender roles in African-American families
  • Sofia’s imprisonment, her experiences as a prisoner-maid in the white Mayor’s household and the conflicts caused by racial discrimination in the rural South
  • Mary Agnes (Squeak’s) relationships with Harpo, Grady and Bubber Hodges and her emancipation through establishing a musical career
  • Nettie, Samuel and Corinne’s missionary work in Africa with the Olinka tribe
  • Olivia and Adam’s relationships with Tashi and the challenges of interracial understanding and cultural differences.
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