The Color Purple – a worked essay example

Essay question

In what ways could The Color Purple be described as a womanist novel?

You are being assessed on your writing skills, therefore your essay must be well structured and include an introduction and a conclusion. Below are a selection of points that could be included to address the essay question, with some good examples from work which shows how you can include metaphorical and narrative features.

  1. Introduction
  2. Womanism worked out
  3. Aspects of plot
  4. Womanist themes and imagery
  5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

  • Definition of womanism
  • African-American patriarchal values and traditional gender roles
  • Celie’s development towards a womanist view of life. 


‘Celie is robbed of her innocence and childhood, abused by her stepfather and her husband and forced to serve and obey men, whatever demands they make upon her. Consequently, her confidence and self-respect are eroded to such an extent that she cannot allow herself to experience any emotions that take her energy away from simply surviving from one day to the next. From the outset of the novel, she seeks refuge from her male oppressors in the company of women, first with her sister Nettie, then her stepson’s wife, Sofia and finally with her husband’s mistress, the blues singer Shug Avery.’

2. Womanism worked out 

Moral, social, political and religious contexts could be included such as:

  • Religious attitudes/rules, church leadership and attitudes towards women
  • Male/female perceptions of God
  • ‘Bad girl’ / ‘good girl’ conflict: Shug Avery as ‘bad’ girl / Sofia as ‘fighter’ / Celie as victim then emancipated/freed
  • Concept of ‘sisterhood’ / female solidarity
  • Male/female physical and sexual expectations/attitudes
  • Independence/becoming an entrepreneur.

3. Aspects of plot

  • Rape and abuse by Pa, loss of children, arranged marriage to Albert (Mr__)
  • Harpo and Sofia, Sofia beaten, Celie’s remorse, friendship with Sofia
  • Shug Avery’s photograph / Celie’s attraction to Shug / ‘Miss Celie’s Song’ / Shug and Celie’s relationship / Celie’s defiance of Albert / the move to Memphis / Folkspants Unlimited / reunions and reconciliations.


‘Celie cannot even call her husband by any other name than ‘Mr__’. Physically Celie imagines herself to be a tree when she is beaten or sexually used by her husband and sees her life to be one of pleasing others rather than herself. Heaven, she believes, will last always, while life on earth will ‘soon be over.’ Sofia’s strength and their developing friendship helps Celie to see that a woman can stand up for herself but it is Shug Avery’s dedication of ‘Miss Celie’s Song’ that marks the beginning of Celie’s realisation that she exists and that her existence has value.’

4. Womanist themes and imagery

  • Eroticism
  • Religious understanding
  • Natural imagery.

Examples of thematic commentary

‘Shug helps Celie to discover her sexuality, first by encouraging her to look at her own genitals and then by encouraging Celie to appreciate the pleasure of erotic stimulation. Celie is a willing and eager pupil and the sexual relationship that later develops between Shug and Celie is based on mutual trust and respect. The relationship also enables Celie to rediscover her ability to love. The sexual/non-sexual love between Shug and Celie is also a ‘womanist’ attribute.’

‘Shug’s spirituality and her understanding of the nature of God enables Celie to discover that God exists in every part of the natural world and that love, both given and received, enables mankind to break free from traditional notions of what is male and what is female. Shug introduces Celie to the idea of panentheism, which allows Celie to free herself from the traditional concept of God as a white male. Shug’s God is neither male nor female, but a spiritual force that exists within all people. Again, this links to Walker’s concept of ‘womanism’.’

‘Celie’s visit to her stepfather’s house at Easter, after beginning her love affair with Shug and designing the trousers that allow her to move and work more freely, is a pivotal moment in the novel. The description of the house and its setting, surrounded by flowers and trees, makes it seem like a kind of Eden. Although Celie cannot imagine her past life in this beautiful place, she dares at this point to place herself in a context and significantly describes the visit in a letter that is addressed not to God, but to her sister Nettie, whom she now knows is alive.’

5. Conclusion


The Color Purple is the story of the growth and development of the central character from an uneducated, abused teenager to an accomplished woman who learns, with the help of a strong and supportive female sisterhood, to stand up for herself and cope with hostile surroundings. By the end of the novel, Celie is a mature adult in charge of a business, a house and her own life. She has acquired a deeper awareness of spirituality and a wider understanding of the nature of God and most importantly she loves and is loved in return. Celie’s story exemplifies the womanist agenda which centres around the natural order of life, family and a complementary relationship between men and women which is all-inclusive and universal.’

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