Celie is a poor, uneducated, 14-year-old girl living in the American South in the 1930s. She writes letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats and rapes her. Alphonso has already impregnated Celie once, a pregnancy that resulted in the birth of a girl. Alphonso takes the baby girl away shortly after her birth. Celie has a second child, a boy, whom Alphonso also abducts. Celie's ailing mother dies after cursing Celie on her deathbed.
Celie and her younger sister, 12-year-old Nettie, learn that a man identified only as Mister wants to marry Nettie. Alphonso refuses to let Nettie marry, instead arranging for Mister to marry Celie. Mister, needing someone to care for his children and keep his house, eventually accepts the offer. Mister and his children, whose mother was murdered by a jealous lover, all treat Celie badly. However, she eventually gets Mister's squalid living conditions and incorrigible children under control.
Shortly thereafter, Nettie runs away from Alphonso and takes refuge at Celie's house, where Mister makes sexual advances toward her. Celie then advises Nettie to seek assistance from a well-dressed black woman that she had seen in the general store a while back; the woman had unknowingly adopted Celie's daughter and was the only black woman that Celie had ever seen with money of her own. Nettie is forced to leave after promising to write. Celie, however, never receives any letters and concludes that her sister is dead.
Time passes and Mister's children begin to grow up and leave home. Harpo, Mister's son, falls in love with an assertive girl named Sofia, who becomes pregnant with Harpo's baby and, despite initial resistance from Mister, marries Harpo. Harpo and Sofia have five more children in short order.
Celie is amazed by Sofia's defiant refusal to submit to Harpo's attempts to control her. Kinder and gentler than his father, Harpo feels emasculated due to his inability to get Sofia to "mind." Celie advises Harpo not to try to dominate Sofia; she also tells Harpo that Sofia loves him, admitting that she, Celie, only obeys Mister out of fear. Harpo temporarily follows Celie's advice but falls back under Mister's sway. A momentarily jealous Celie then advises Harpo to beat Sofia. Sofia fights back, however, inflicting serious injuries on Harpo.
After Sofia confronts her, Celie, who was already feeling guilty about what she had done, apologizes and confides in her about all the abuse she suffers at Mister's hands. She also begins to consider Sofia's advice about defending herself against further abuse from Mister.
Glamorous Shug Avery, a jazz and blues singer and Mister's long-time mistress, falls ill, and Mister takes her into his house. Celie, who had been fascinated by photos of Shug she found in Mister's belongings, is thrilled to have her there. Mister's father expresses disapproval of the arrangement, reminding Mister that Shug has three out-of-wedlock children. Mister proudly states that he knows for certain that all the children have the same father, indirectly admitting to being their father. Mister's father leaves in disgust after drinking a glass of water into which Celie spit. While Shug is initially rude to Celie, who has taken charge of nursing her, the two women become friends, and Celie soon finds herself infatuated with Shug.
Frustrated by Harpo's domineering behavior, Sofia moves out, taking her children with her. Several months later, Harpo opens a juke joint where a fully recovered Shug performs nightly. Shug decides to stay when she learns that Mister beats Celie when she is away. Shug and Celie's relationship grows more intimate.
Sofia returns for a visit and promptly gets into a fight with Harpo's new girlfriend, Squeak, knocking Squeak's teeth out. In town one day, while Sofia is enjoying a day out with her new beau, a prizefighter, and their respective children, the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, approaches the group. She begins to "finger" Sofia's children (physically examine them in a way reminiscent of slaves on an auction block) without bothering, at first, to speak to their mother or ask permission. At first, Sofia silently endures. Miss Millie then looks up and addresses Sofia, remarking on how clean the children are and bluntly asks Sofia if she would like to be her maid. Sofia, who does not work as a maid, straightforwardly refuses saying "Hell no." The mayor then pushes his wife aside, calling Sofia "girl" and daring her to repeat herself. When Sofia does so defiantly, the mayor slaps Sofia. Sofia responds by using her fist to knock the mayor, her assailant, onto the ground. The police quickly arrive at the scene and brutally beat Sofia as she pleads with the prizefighter not to intervene on her behalf and instead to take her children to safety. Sofia emerges from her ordeal with a cracked skull, broken ribs, her face rendered nearly unrecognizable, and blind in one eye. Sofia is subsequently sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Squeak, a mixed-race woman and Sheriff Hodges' illegitimate niece, attempts to blackmail the sheriff into releasing Sofia, resulting in her being raped by the sheriff. Squeak cares for Sofia's children while she is incarcerated, and the two women develop a friendship. Sofia is eventually released and begins working for Miss Millie, which she detests.
Despite being newly married to a person called Grady, Shug instigates a sexual relationship with Celie on her next visit. One night Shug asks Celie about her sister, and Shug helps Celie recover letters from Nettie that Mister has been hiding from her for decades.
The letters indicate that Nettie befriended a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine, the well-dressed woman that Celie saw in the store, whom Nettie eventually accompanied to Africa to do missionary work. Samuel and Corrine have unwittingly adopted Celie's son and daughter (by Celie's father), Adam and Olivia. Corrine, noticing that her adopted children resemble Nettie, wonders if Samuel fathered the children with her. Increasingly suspicious, Corrine tries to limit Nettie's role in her family.
Through her letters, Nettie reveals that she has become disillusioned with her missionary work. Corrine becomes ill with a fever. Nettie asks Samuel to tell her how he adopted Olivia and Adam. Realizing that Adam and Olivia are Celie's children, Nettie then learns that Alphonso is her and Celie's stepfather. Their biological father was a store owner whom white men lynched because they resented his success. She also learns that their mother suffered a mental collapse after the death of her husband and that Alphonso exploited the situation in order to control their mother's considerable wealth.
Nettie confesses to Samuel and Corrine that she is in fact their children's biological aunt. The gravely ill Corrine refuses to believe her until Nettie reminds her of her previous encounter with Celie in the store. Later, Corrine dies, finally having accepted Nettie's story. Meanwhile, Celie visits Alphonso, who confirms Nettie's story. Celie begins to lose some of her faith in God, which she confides to Shug, who explains to Celie her own unique religious philosophy.
Celie, having had enough of her husband's abuse, decides to leave Mister along with Shug and Squeak, who is considering a singing career of her own. Celie puts a curse on Mister before leaving him for good.
Celie settles in Tennessee and supports herself as a seamstress. She learns that Mister, suffering from a considerable decline in fortunes after Celie left him, has changed dramatically; he gives Celie permission to call him by his first name, Albert. Albert proposes that they marry "in the spirit as well as in the flesh," but Celie declines.
Alphonso dies, Celie inherits his land, and moves back into her childhood home. Around this time, Shug falls in love with Germaine, a member of her band, and the news thereof crushes Celie. Shug travels with Germaine, all the while writing postcards to Celie. Celie pledges to love Shug even if Shug does not love her back.
Meanwhile, Nettie and Samuel marry and prepare to return to America. Before they leave, Adam marries Tashi, an African girl. Following an African tradition, Tashi undergoes the painful rituals of female circumcision and facial scarring. In solidarity, Adam undergoes the same facial scarring ritual.
Just after Celie realizes that she is content in her life without Shug, Shug returns, having ended things with Germaine. The end of the novel has Nettie, Samuel, Olivia, Adam, and Tashi arriving at Celie's house. Nettie and Celie embrace, having not seen each other for over 30 years. They introduce one another to their respective families as the novel ends.
Themes of sexism and racism are prevalent in the entire novel as a reflection of the social contexts surrounding the novel's setting. Celie, as the main protagonist and narrator, exhibits internalized oppression when she advises Harpo to beat Sofia, as this was how she was treated by Mister. Shortly after, however, it is revealed that Celie merely advised Harpo in doing that as she was jealous of Sofia's strong-mindedness and assertiveness. Later on in the novel, Celie also begins to find strength within her to reject the violent advances of Mister.
Racism as an issue is seen in how Sofia was imprisoned and violently beaten for rejecting the mayor's wife's "offer" to be her maid (where the offer in itself was a reflection of racism). Nettie, in her letters, also indicates her reflecting the racial stereotypes held by American Blacks against their African counterparts. Inscribing a copy of the novel for a PEN auction in 2014, Alice Walker wrote on the half-title: "I was mistaken. There is nothing more for me to say about this book."
The bond of sisterhood is another major theme in The Color Purple. Walker places a strong emphasis in the novel on the sisterhood between the various women characters. She not only draws attention to and recognizes the importance of the literal sisterhood between Celie and Nettie, and how that relationship helps Celie get through all the hard times she has had to endure, but it also recognizes the strong relationships that form between Celie and other characters such as Shug, Squeak and Sofia. Celie could not have made all of the personal and internal advancements that she did if it weren’t for her strong relationships with Shug, Nettie, Squeak and Sofia. These women can come to understand who they are because of the ties that bring them and bond them together. Celie is able to become a fighter and stand up for herself because of the love she receives, especially from Shug. Sisterhood, or love, helps Celie to understand her worth in the world, what she really wants out of life, and that she can achieve so much more. This plays a pivotal role in the story and recurs as a major contributor to Celie’s advancements toward happiness and freedom from oppression.
Alice Walker highlights the power of communication through the characters' letter writing form. The letters that Celie writes to God, and later to her sister Nettie, symbolize a certain voice that only Celie has, and through which she is able to express her true desires in her letters. These letters are very personal to her, and allow her to display any emotion she wants to convey. In the beginning, when she was writing letters only to God, the letters were very private and Celie would not have wanted anyone to see them. The letters are the only way she can represent her true feelings and despair as she is abused. Later, the letters she gets from Nettie give her hope that she will be reunited with her sister again.
Celie writes to God for a lack of someone else to write to. She writes to her sister because she is angry at God because of her past and the people who have been hurt because of it. She asks God "Why?" which is a question that cannot be answered. The last letter she writes is to everyone, including God showing that she has forgiven It, and that her story has gone through a full circle of maturation.
Alice Walker shows her affection for the equality of women, specifically African-American women, in The Color Purple in various ways. Toward the beginning, we see Celie married off to the man that initially wanted Nettie. Her husband is referred to as "Mr._______", without any surname given, showing that he was master of Celie, not her equal. Celie is abused throughout her life with Mr._______, and is made to endure the abuse without question. As a woman writing letters to her sister, the lack of a surname given to her husband could represent a lack of respect she had for him, in regard to how he treated her. Surnames give meaning to life and meaning to who they are, and by refusing to give her husband that respect, we see her asserting what little dominance she has over him. Charles Heglar's article, "Named and Nameless: Alice Walker's Pattern of Surnames in The Color Purple", suggests that Celie refuses her husband a surname in order to assert what little power she has in the relationship. Her decision later in the book to grant him a name (albeit it a first name and not a surname) could symbolize growing respect between the characters as her estranged husband atones for his abuse.
The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making Walker the first woman of color to win the prize. Walker also won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983. Mel Watkins of the New York Times Book Review wrote that it is a "striking and consummately well-written novel," praising its powerful emotional impact and epistolary structure.
While the novel has garnered critical acclaim, it has also been the subject of controversy. It is 17th on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged or banned books. Commonly cited justications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality. The book received greater scrutiny amidst controversy surrounding the release of the film adaptation in 1985. The controversy centered around the depiction of black men, which some critics saw as feeding stereotypical narratives of black male violence, while others found the representation compelling and relatable.
Celie is the main character and has been oppressed by men her whole life. She is raped by her [supposed] father, with whom she has two children during her adolescence, and who he gives away. Her [supposed] father then gives her away to be married to Mr.___ , who is in love with Shug Avery, a blues singer. When Shug comes to recover from an illness with Mr.___ and Celie, it leads to a sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. Shug has a significant influence on the protagonist, who begins to model herself after the independent Shug, leading her ultimately to independence. Shug influences not only the way that Celie allows Mr.___ to treat her, but also her showing Celie that it is all right to commit actions that others may call 'sin', but still believe in and live for God, thereby broadening Celie's views on religion and ethics. It is also Shug who frees Celie from Mr.___'s bondage, first by loving her, then by helping her to start a custom sewing business. From Shug, Celie learns that Mister [now revealed as Albert] has been hiding letters written to her from Africa by her sister Nettie, a missionary. These letters, full of educated, firsthand observation of African life, form a moving counterpoint to Celie's life. They reveal that in Africa, just as in America, women are persistently oppressed by men.
Nettie is Celie's younger sister, whom Celie loves and saves from living the tragic life that she had to endure. Because Nettie is prettier than Celie, who has been deemed ugly, Mr.___ is originally interested in Nettie as a wife, but settles for Celie. Nettie runs away from home to be with Celie, but is unable to stay with Celie as Mr.___ tries to assault her sexually. As a result, Nettie leaves home and before leaving, promises to write to Celie and tells her that only death can keep them apart. Nettie is eventually taken in by Samuel and Corrine, a missionary couple, with whom she travels to Africa as a missionary. While in Africa, Nettie becomes the caregiver of Samuel and Corrine's children and faithfully writes to Celie for decades. Nettie marries Samuel after Corrine's death and moves back to America with what are revealed to be Celie's biological children. Through explaining her experiences to Celie, Nettie encourages Celie to be more enthusiastic and optimistic about life. Nettie finds that while there is not racial disparity in Africa, gender disparity exists. The women of the tribe are not treated as equals, and are not permitted to attend school.
A sultry blues singer who first appears as Mr.___'s mistress, Shug becomes Celie's friend and eventually her lover. Shug remains a gentle mentor who helps Celie evolve into an independent and assertive woman. At first, Shug doesn't appear to be the mothering and nurturing kind, yet she nurtures Celie physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Shug helps Celie discover the letters from her sister Nettie that Mr.___ had been hiding for decades. In allowing Celie to view these letters, Shug supplies her with even more hope and inspiration, letting Celie see that in the end, everything works out for the best.
Mr.___ is the man to whom Celie is married. Originally, he seeks a relationship with Nettie but settles for Celie. Mr.___ mistreats Celie just as her stepfather had, although Celie does not understand that she doesn't have to tolerate the abuse. Mr.___ uses Celie to help raise his children, who give her a hard time because she is not their biological mother. When Shug Avery comes to town, Mr.___ falls for her and makes her his mistress. Through Shug's seductive and manipulative influence, Albert begins to treat Celie better. In the end, Albert realizes that he has mistreated Celie and seeks a friendship with her.
The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1985. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Danny Glover as Albert, and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia. Though nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won none. This perceived snubbing ignited controversy because many critics considered it the best picture that year, including Roger Ebert. Others were upset by the film's depiction of the black male as abusive, uncaring, and disloyal. Other critics felt that Steven Spielberg, then most associated with films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones, was a poor choice for such a complex social drama, and that the film had changed or eliminated much of the book's defense of lesbianism.
On December 1, 2005, a musical adaptation of the novel (based on the film) opened at The Broadway Theatre in New York City. The show was produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and Oprah Winfrey, who was also an investor. It garnered five 2006 Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, including Outstanding Broadway Musical and Outstanding New Score. That same year, the show was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score Written for the Theater, and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (LaChanze). LaChanze did win the Tony Award, though the show itself won no other awards. LaChanze's win was attributed to the variety of roles for which she had garnered positive attention, as well as for a powerful backstory. In April 2007, Fantasia Barrino took over the role. The Broadway production ended its run on February 24, 2008.
In 2008 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of the novel in ten 15-minute episodes as a Woman's Hour serial, with Nadine Marshall as Celie. The script was by Patricia Cumper, and in 2009 the production received the Sony Radio Academy Awards Silver Drama Award.
As part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), the author declined publication of the book in Israel in 2012. Walker, an ardent pro-Palestinian activist, said in a letter to Yediot Books that Israel practices "apartheid" and must change its policies before her works can be published there. This decision was criticized by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who argued that Walker "resorted to bigotry and censorship against Hebrew-speaking readers of her writings".ISBN 0-606-00587-0 (prebound, 1985)
ISBN 0-671-61702-8 (mass market paperback, 1985)
ISBN 0-671-64745-8 (mass market paperback, 1987)
ISBN 0-671-66878-1 (paperback, 1988)
ISBN 0-15-119154-9 (hardcover, 1992, Anniversary Edition)
ISBN 1-56849-628-1 (library binding, 1995, reprint)
ISBN 0-671-01907-4 (paperback, 1998)
ISBN 0-7641-2064-6 (paperback, 2002)
ISBN 0-15-602835-2 (paperback, 2003)
ISBN 978-0-7538-1892-3 (paperback, United Kingdom, 2004)
ISBN 9781453223970 (ebook, 2011)