The Color Purple

The Color Purple

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Men, Women, and Gender Roles Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
God and Spirituality Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Violence and Suffering Theme Icon
Self-Discovery Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Color Purple, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Men, Women, and Gender Roles Theme Icon

The novel is also an extended meditation on the nature of men, women, and their expected gender roles. In the beginning, Celie is expected to serve her abusive father, and, later, her husband Mr. _____, and Nettie, not wanting to do either, runs away. But Nettie sacrifices the job generally reserved for women—motherhood—in order to educate herself and work for Samuel and Corrine during their missionary labors in Africa. Celie, meanwhile, has two children, whom Nettie then raises in Africa, coincidentally—Celie only leaves behind the drudgery of housework when Shug comes to live with her and Mr. _____ and begins to teach Celie about her body and about other ways of living, outside the control of men. Celie and Squeak, Harpo's second wife, end up living with Shug in Memphis, and Celie is able to start her pants-making company.

The men in the novel, however, experience a different trajectory. It is expected that black men of this time, especially in the South, work in the fields, and that women obey them absolutely. But after Shug and then Celie leave him behind, Mr. _____ realizes just how much he took for granted and how much he, and his son Harpo, have relied on the work of women throughout their lives. Similarly, in Africa, Nettie manages both to achieve the gender role initially expected of her (by marrying the widower Samuel), and keeps working and forging her own path in life, eventually spending over twenty years as a missionary in Africa.

The end of the novel, then, celebrates both the continuity of family, populated both by strong female characters and repentant male ones, and the fact that "families," and the roles within them, are fluid, often overlapping, and part of a long arc toward equality and greater understanding, even if that arc is often dotted with tragedy, abuse, and neglect.

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Men, Women, and Gender Roles Quotes in The Color Purple

Below you will find the important quotes in The Color Purple related to the theme of Men, Women, and Gender Roles.
Letter 1 Quotes

Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker)
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The Color Purple begins with a shocking revelation - that the main character, who is only fourteen years old, is expecting a child. No one knows who the father could be, but all signs indicate that it is someone much older - that Celie has been violated. The Color Purple is thus, from the beginning, Celie's story. It is a narrative of the violence that has been committed against her. And, finally, it is a tale of her own strength in the face of that violence - of the life she makes despite everything that has happened to her.

The letter, importantly, is addressed to God, whom Celie believes is always listening to her. Celie, from the beginning of the narrative, believes that there is hope to found in her situation, as dire and impossible as it seems. She senses that there is someone listening to her. And although God does not reveal himself during the course of the novel, the reader, of course, is listening, and is following the story that Celie lays out letter by letter. 

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Letter 3 Quotes

I keep hoping he fine somebody to marry. I see him looking at my little sister. She scared. But I say I'll take care of you. With God help.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Nettie, Pa (Alphonso)
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie recognizes that her father is capable of dangerous acts of sexual violence against herself and her sister Nettie. Celie's first thought, then, is to protect her sister from this. One way to protect Nettie would be for their father to marry. Although that would be dangerous for the wife-to-be, as their father is a violent man, at least it would spare his children his anger and lust, for a time.

Celie refers to God again in this passage, arguing that, without him, there is no protection against her father and his designs on the family. Celie's faith is reinforced by the difficulty of her circumstances. There is no one in the immediate family to help her, to protect her and her sister from her father's wrath. There is only the prospect of divine salvation, of God's help. Without that, there can be no removal from the impoverished, dangerous circumstances in which the girls find themselves - that is, until the girls grow up and begin seeking out other helpers in the town around them. 

Letter 7 Quotes

Fact is, I got to get rid of her. She too old to be living here at home. And she a bad influence on my other girls . . . . She ain't smart either, and I'll just be fair, you have to watch her or she'll give away everything you own. But she can work like a man.

Related Characters: Pa (Alphonso) (speaker), Celie, Mr. _____ (Albert)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the more morally abhorrent things that Pa does to his daughters. He argues, first, that he does not know who is the father of Celie's children, even though he himself is the father - he's guilty of incest and of raping his own teenage daughter. Then, when Mr. ____ seeks out Nettie's hand in marriage, Pa will not permit this, saying that Celie is a problem and has to leave the house first. 

Pa "talks up" Celie's accomplishments only by saying that she "works like a man" and that she is too unintelligent to fight back against anyone who wishes to dominate her. It is, all told, a horrific display of lack of regard for one's own child. And it is not even the worst, of course, that Pa has done to Celie in her lifetime. But it is one more indication of Pa's selfishness, and of Celie's position, early in the novel, as an object to whom feelings and thoughts are not attributed in public. At least the reader, in private, has access to Celie's thoughts via her letters to God. 

Letter 9 Quotes

I lay there thinking bout Nettie while he [Mr. _____] on top of me, wonder if she safe. And then I think bout Shug Avery. I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it. I put my arm around him.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Nettie, Mr. _____ (Albert), Shug Avery
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie's sexual relationship with Mr. ____ is here described. She allows Mr. ____ to make love to her, although Celie herself allows her mind to wander elsewhere. It is telling that Celie's first concern is for Nettie and her safety. Celie's thought is of Shug Avery, whom Celie doesn't yet know, but with whom Celie is fascinated.

Celie does not, at this stage of the novel, fully understand what her interest in Shug might be, but she already has decided to act like she imagines Shug to act - to pretend to enjoy sex because she assumes Shug enjoys it. Celie does not yet know that Shug has a "bad reputation" around the town - that Shug has been in relationships with several men other than Mr. ____.

Letter 12 Quotes

I can't remember being the first one in my own dress. Now to have one made just for me. I try to tell Kate what it mean. I git hot in the face and stutter.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Kate and Carrie
Related Symbols: Purple
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Katie and Carrie are Mr. ____'s sisters. They are especially kind to Celie, and they do not take pity on her - instead, they seem genuinely to like her, and to want to do nice things for her. They agree to buy Celie some clothes. Celie reveals that she has never purchased her own clothes, indicating the extent to which she has been deprived of any material comfort in her life up till this point. It is also one of the first indications of female friendship for Celie in the novel. Celie is close with her sister, Nettie, and she dreams frequently of Shug, but Katie and Carrie are nice to her for no reason other than wanting to be - and this is a revelation for Celie.

Celie discovers that she loves the color purple, and that she wants shoes of that color, too, but they're too expensive (and she buys blue ones instead). Despite all that she has been through up till this point, Celie possesses a love for life's more whimsical side - and the color purple is an indication of this, and of her desire for independence from the domineering men surrounding her. 

Letter 14 Quotes

Lord, I want to go [to see Shug Avery] so bad. Not to dance. Not to drink. Not to play card. Not even to hear Shug Avery sing. I just be thankful to lay eyes on her.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie's devotion to Shug is here made even clearer. Celie states that she would do anything just to observe Shug as she sings and walks the stage. Celie is enraptured by the power of Shug's personality, even from afar, and she believes that Shug's performance will be a highlight for her - a representation of just what is possible for a woman to achieve, even within the narrow strictures of the society into which Celie has been born.

Celie also takes pains to note here that she is not interested in going to the night club to engage in what might be called "immoral" behavior. Celie retains, for herself, an idea that gambling and drinking lead only to self-destruction. Celie does not ask for much - only to be allowed to enjoy herself in an environment where someone (most notably a man) isn't bullying her or forcing her to work. In the night club, watching Shug, Celie might have a taste of her own independence. 

Letter 18 Quotes

Sofia look half her size. But she still a big strong girl. Arms got muscle. Legs, too. . . . She got a little pot on her now and give you the feeling she all there. Solid. Like if she sit down on something, it be mash.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie is struck by Sofia's strength and independence. In the beginning of her marriage to Mr. ____, Celie had trouble keeping his children in line - they did not appear to want to listen to her, and occasionally, even despite her best efforts, they would fight back, or resist her even modest attempts at discipline.

Sofia, like Shug, represents for Celie a way of behaving, a way of asserting oneself in the world, that is at odds with the modes of feminine behavior in which Celie has been brought up by Pa. Mr. ____, for his part, reinforces Pa's treatment of Celie - Pa himself believed that he took Celie "off his hands" - and so Harp and Sofia's relationship, with a different arrangement of power between man and woman, seems all the stranger to Celie for that. Celie will continue to wonder how she might assert herself in interactions with men as the novel progresses. 

Letter 20 Quotes

They fight. He try to slap her. What he do that for? She reach down and grab a piece of stove wood and whack him cross the eyes . . . She throw him over her back. He fall bam up gainst the stove.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia, Harpo
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a continuation of the description Celie provides, in the previous quote, regarding Harpo's relationship with Sofia. As above, here Celie is taken aback by Sofia's resistance to Harpo's commands. Indeed, Sofia is the one who takes physical charge - she is unafraid of threatening Harpo physically, or indeed of hitting him, when she does not get her way. This inverts the paradigm of male violence committed against women in the novel. Although it is still violence, and Celie is still frightened by it, Harpo's and Sofia's interaction nevertheless makes plain to Celie that other women in the community are standing up to, and fighting with, figures of authority.

Celie, too, is a passionate and quiet observer of the lives around her. This is evident from the start of the novel - which is, after all, her journal. In this scene, Celie is walking by Sofia and Harpo's home - she has not been invited inside, and she does her observing from a remove. There are other instances in the novel when Celie observes her friends and relatives in precisely this detached, generally objective manner.

Letter 26 Quotes

What that song? I ast. Sound low down dirty to me. Like what the preacher tell you its sin to hear. Not to mention sing.

She hum a little more. Something come to me, she say. Something I made up. Something you help scratch out my head.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

The relationship between Shug and Celie deepens in this scene, as Celie combs Shug's hair. Although Celie and Shug do not yet engage in romantic behavior, there is nevertheless an intimate quality to their interaction here.

Shug is a creative spirit, and eventually goes on to spur that creativity in Celie. Celie has long looked for a creative outlet as a part of her journey of self-discovery - she has attempted to find a way to express herself and her feelings. Of course, Celie has been doing this all along without exactly understanding how or why - she has been keeping a journal of the events of her life, the journal that forms the basis of the narrative that the reader reads as the novel itself. Celie will, later on, begin to understand that she is a writer and storyteller - but, for now, she is content with witnessing Shug engage in her own acts of creation. 

Letter 30 Quotes

I don't know, say Sofia. Maybe I won't go. Deep down I still love Harpo, but—he just makes me real tired. She yawn. Laugh. I need a vacation, she say.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia, Harpo
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Sofia and Harpo's marriage forms a counterpoint both to Celie's marriage to Mr. ____ and to Celie's burgeoning relationship with Shug. Sofia controls Harpo physically, often berating him and beating him - and this causes Harpo to want to retaliate, to eat so much that he grows in size. Sofia, understanding that Harpo merely wants to control her, does what she can to imagine a world where she does not rely on any man - just as Celie imagines this world for herself.

The idea of a "vacation" from anything in the novel is, for the characters involved, an inherently humorous wish - as most characters do not have the resources to take a break at all from their working lives. Celie's imaginative life is rich, and she longs, deep down, to live with Shug, and to throw off the burden of caring for Mr. ____, just as Sofia longs to be rid of Harpo. But at this point in the text, these can only be wishes and fantasies - not transferable into reality. 

Letter 32 Quotes

What Sofia gon say bout what you doing to her house? I ast. Spose she and the children come back. Where they gon sleep.

They ain't coming back, say Harpo, nailing together planks for a counter.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Harpo (speaker), Sofia
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Harpo and Sofia undergo their own period of self-realization, as Celie watches and inquires as to what they're doing. Sofia takes the children away, feeling that they are better off apart from Harpo, whose rage has, at this point, become difficult to handle. Harpo decides that he'd like to run a bar, or "juke joint," in order to host singers - and, more importantly for him, to "assert himself" as a man in the community. 

Celie realizes that Harpo has long been worried he is not man enough, or that only Sofia might love him or desire him sexually. Harpo's construction of the juke joint is, therefore, in part an announcement of his own masculinity, and his attempt to present himself as desirable to the women of the community. Celie intuits this, even as she marvels at the fact that a married couple can dissolve in this way, with mother and children going in one direction, and father going in another. 

Letter 40 Quotes

I don't know, say the prizefighter. This sound mighty much like some ole uncle Tomming to me.

Shug snort, Well, she say, Uncle Tom wasn't call Uncle for nothing.

Related Characters: Shug Avery (speaker), Buster Broadnax (speaker), Shug Avery, Buster Broadnax
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Shug is extraordinarily clever, and wishes to release Sofia from her imprisonment by whatever means are available to her. She understands that one role white men and women are comfortable with, for African Americans, is that of maid or servant - and although Shug recognizes that this would in fact be difficult for Sofia to manage, it would be far, far better than Sofia remaining in prison. And so Shug does what she can to court the favor and approval of white society, causing the prizefighter to argue that Shug is enticing Squeak, and indirectly Sofia, to perform for and act obsequious toward white society. This is "uncle Tomming."

Shug goes on to quip, however, that Squeak is in fact related to a white family in town, and the prison warden is in fact her uncle, so "uncle" would certainly be an apt term in this case. Shug maintains her composure and her ability to joke even in the most serious of circumstances - and nevertheless is capable of helping Sofia to improve her lot despite the punishment she is sentenced to in prison.

Letter 46 Quotes

She singing all over the country these days. Everybody know her name. She know everybody, too. Know Sophie Tucker, know Duke Ellington, know folks I ain't never heard of. And money. She make so much money she don't know what to do with it.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Shug's success on the touring circuit in the South is one of the emergent features of the novel. Shug's development as a character involves her getting more and more recognition for the quality of her singing. Celie has long been proud of Shug's accomplishments - indeed, she has held her in awe. Shug, for her part, encourages Celie to pursue her own passions.

In a most immediate sense, these passions are physical. In this section of the novel, Celie confides in Shug that she has never had an orgasm, and therefore considers herself to be a "virgin" with Mr. ____. Celie's realization that Shug has gotten what she wants from life by going out into the world and asserting herself, coupled with Celie's continued journaling, causes her to approach her own enjoyment in a more proactive way. This quality will grow in Celie as the novel continues. 

Letter 53 Quotes

But God, I miss you, Celie. I think about the time you laid yourself down for me. I love you with all my heart.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Celie
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie's letters back to Celie - the existence of which Celie does not know about at the time the letters are written - document the "other side" of the narrative. Nettie has escaped the harsh conditions of the rural South, where Celie continues to live. She raises Adam and Olivia, Celie's biological children, as her own adopted children. And Nettie finds, in the care of the Reverend Samuel and his wife Corrine, a kind of sustained, nurturing family environment that was not available to her in her family home.

Celie's journal, then, is braided into the narrative with Nettie's unanswered letters back to Celie. The fact that Celie does not read them, nor know about them and respond to them, does not deter Nettie from continuing to write. In this way, both Nettie and Celie develop the "story" of The Color Purple, even though they have no evidence that anyone will be able to read it. This determination to bear witness to the events of their lives is one of the most profound and affecting morals of the novel. 

Letter 62 Quotes

Corrine said to me this morning, Nettie, to stop any kind of confusion in the minds of these people, I think we should call one another brother and sister, all the time.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Corrine
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

This conversation has to do with the nature of the Olinka community, where Samuel, Corrine, Nettie, and the children settle. Corrine worries that the Olinka do not understand Samuel's relationship to Nettie - the Olinka believe, in fact, that Samuel has two wives, and that Nettie is the younger, and therefore more desirable, wife. Although Corrine wishes to behave with Christian courtesy both to the community they are visiting and to Nettie, she is visibly upset by the idea, even the merest hint of one, that perhaps Samuel and Corrine have had some form of sexual relationship at some point in the past.

Nettie's interaction with Corrine at this point in the novel makes clear that, despite the loving brother- and sisterhood of Samuel and Corrine's family, everyone in the novel is susceptible to jealousy of a kind. Corrine values the integrity of her marriage and believes that, if the Olinka view Samuel to have taken multiple wives, this integrity might be in jeopardy. 

Letter 71 Quotes

Don't cry. Don't cry, I said. My sister was glad to see Olivia with you. Glad to see her alive. She thought both her children were dead.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Corrine, Olivia
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

For years, Corrine has noted the resemblance between Olivia and Nettie, thinking that perhaps the children are biologically related to Nettie (of course they are, although Nettie is their biological aunt, and Celie their mother). But this goes to Corrine's longstanding feelings of jealousy and anxiety regarding Adam and Olivia's parentage. Corrine fears that Samuel has loved Nettie, and that the family's "coming together" and trip to Africa was, in some sense, a pretext for Samuel and Nettie to continue to be together.

But Corrine, in confiding this to Nettie finally, does free herself of some of the burden of her fear before she dies of an illness. Corrine has been warped by her jealousy - her goodness has changed to bitterness over the time the family has been in Africa. In this way, even though Nettie has found a more supportive and less violent family structure with Samuel and Corrine in Africa, her life is afflicted with many of the same jealousies and divisions as Celie's life in the American South. 

Letter 73 Quotes

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other pope. But one day . . it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

Shug! I say.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery (speaker)
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie is struck by the nature of Shug's religious experiences. Celie, for her part, has stopped writing to God, and now writes to Nettie, just as Nettie has written to Celie for years. And Celie is not sure that Nettie will ever receive her letters, just as Nettie has continued her writing despite total unawareness that Celie has been reading, after a long period of not knowing the letters existed.

For Shug, God is a sensual and spiritual entity that exists in all living things, and that ties living beings together, unifying them even if they do not appear to be unified. Shug takes a great deal of comfort in this unifying energy, and even connects it to her sexuality. Celie, though she is at first surprised to hear that Shug speaks of God in this way, comes to realize that Shug's connection to earthly life and sexuality is a powerful and sustaining one. 

Letter 80 Quotes

You may have guessed that I loved him all along; but I did not know it. oh, I loved him as a brother . . . but Celie, I love him bodily, as a man! I love his walk, his size, his shape, his smell, the kinkiness of his hair.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Samuel
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie confides in Celie here, telling her that, after years, she finds herself married to Samuel, and that she has fallen in love with him. Corrine, of course, feared for a long time that this might happen, and Nettie betrays a small amount of guilt for confirming, even if only after Corrine's death, the fear that she long harbored.

But Nettie is happy and has found a way to cement her familial relationship with Adam and Olivia, and to care for the man she loves. As Nettie describes it, this is a love that is affirming both for her and for Samuel - they feel comfortable doing things together, and take a great deal of satisfaction merely from being in one another's presence. Meanwhile, Celie has similarly recognized over the course of the novel that her lifelong love has been Shug, and that this relationship with her has allowed her further to grow and recognize her own abilities. 

Letter 82 Quotes

Then she took some cedar sticks out of her bag and lit them and gave one of them to me. Us started at the very top of the house . . . and us smoked it all the way down to the basement, chasing out all the evil and making a place for good.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a turning point in the novel. Tapping into some of Shug's ideas of spirituality, Celie moves with her through the home, airing it out, and removing from it the "spirits" that have long haunted it. As part of her journey of self-discovery, Celie, along with Shug, begins to tell herself that her life has been lived in subservience to men - and that life can be so much more than this. Shug has helped Celie to realize that even the oddest or most personal ritual, if genuinely believed, can help one to overcome inner demons - to reassert authority of a world that, for so long, has given Celie nothing.

Indeed, as Celie's journey comes closer and closer to its conclusion, the reader realizes just how much Celie and Nettie's lives have been intertwined, despite the enormous distances between them. Each has lived a life in search of true love and commitment - and each has found it, after years of hardship. 

Letter 87 Quotes

But guess what else . . . When the missionaries got to the part bout Adam and Eve being naked, the Olinka peoples nearly bust out laughing . . . They tried to explain . . . that it was they who put Adam and Eve out of the village because they was naked. Their word for naked is white. But since they are covered by color they are not naked.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most important racial passages in the novel. Celie notes (paraphrasing a letter from Nettie) that the Olinka word for naked is "white," meaning "having no color." For the Olinka, being naked is being without color - and because the Olinkans happen to have dark skin, for them "whiteness" has nothing to do with skin color at all. This is a way for Celie to understand both that the Olinkans are proud of their heritage, traditions, and skin, and that they do not consider their "blackness" to be any kind of categorical or immutable category. Olinkans can be white or black, naked or clothed.

The white Englishmen who come into the village, however, have a much different conception of race - for them, the Olinkans are nearly naked and are black - the Olinkans, for them, simply cannot be white. This means that the European conception of race, compared to the Olinkan, is vastly cruder and less informed. The Olinkans have within their culture a well-developed concept of subtle difference, whereas the English see, literally, only in black and white terms. 

Letter 90 Quotes

And I see they [the children] think that me and Nettie and Shug and Albert and Samuel and Harpo and Sofia and Jack and Odessa real old . . . But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Nettie, Mr. _____ (Albert), Shug Avery, Sofia, Harpo, Samuel, Adam, Olivia, Tashi, Jack and Odessa
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the marvelous closing passage to the novel. After all that has happened to Celie and to Nettie - after all the miles Nettie has traveled, after all that Celie has been through in remaining in the South - time feels, in this passage, not to have passed at all. It is as though time itself was brought to a halt, or a new kind of time is here introduced. Celie and Nettie, reunited, can now make physical the bond that has united them in letters for years. And this bond is made even stronger by the presence of family, both biological and affiliative, that Celie and Nettie have assembled over the many intervening years. Despite their hardships, Celie and Nettie recognize that their stories are stories of family togetherness, of bonds made and sustained despite the incredible difficulty of their circumstances. The Color Purple thus ends triumphantly, as a celebration of the power of love in the face of violence and hatred.