The Color Purple

The Color Purple

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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.
Violence and Suffering Theme Icon

Violence and suffering in The Color Purple are typically depicted as part of a greater cycle of tragedy taking place both on the family level and on a broader social scale. Celie is raped by her stepfather and beaten for many years by her husband, only to have Shug Avery intervene on her behalf. Sofia is nearly beaten to death by white police officers after pushing a white family; she nearly dies in prison. Nettie is almost raped by her stepfather and by Mr. _____, and must run away in order to protect herself. Harpo tries, unsuccessfully, to beat and control Sofia, his first wife, and he beats Squeak until she leaves him for Grady (though Squeak returns to Celie's home at the end of the novel). These cycles of violence are repeated across the South: Celie's biological father and uncles were lynched by whites jealous of their business success, and there is always the threat that, if black people agitate too much for their rights, they will be struck down by the white people who control the local and state government.

In Africa, too, this violence occurs within the local culture and in the relation between whites and blacks. Men in the Olinka village have absolute control over their wives, and a scarring ritual takes place for all women going through permanently, leaving their faces permanently marked. The white British rubber dealers who take over the Olinka land end up killing a great many in the village, without concern for the humanity or customs of the Olinka, who have lived there for many years. But despite all this violence and suffering, there is a core of hope in the novel: the hope that Celie and Nettie might be reunited. It is this hope that, eventually, stops the cycle of violence, at least within Celie's family, and enables the reunion of many of the family members in Georgia at the novel's end.

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Violence and Suffering Quotes in The Color Purple

Below you will find the important quotes in The Color Purple related to the theme of Violence and Suffering.
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 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 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 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 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 43 Quotes

Sofia say to me today, I just can't understand it.
What that? I ast.
Why we ain't already kill them off.

Too many to kill off, I say. Us outnumbered from the start.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia (speaker)
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Sofia's tone here is very interesting. Sofia does not mean seriously to suggest that African Americans ought to kill the white families that oppress them. But she does wonder if that is the only solution that would structurally "solve" the problem of racism in the South. In other words, Sofia seems to understand that only a very, very profound change in the nature of black and white interaction in the South would upend many centuries of prejudice and active discrimination against African Americans.

Celie, however, recognizes something else - that, at this point, American society has been structured around white experience, making it extraordinarily hard to imagine a world in which those advantages are not taken into account. African Americans begin from a position of disenfranchisement; Celie's own experiences of slowly realizing her potential and her own set of skills are an indication in miniature of the effort required to resist anti-black violence in the South, and in America as a whole. Celie is committed to improving her own life, but she recognizes just how much stands in the path of her own progress, and the progress of African Americans more generally. 

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 64 Quotes

Today one of the boys in my afternoon class burst out, as he entered, The road approaches! The road approaches! He had been hunting in the forest with his father and seen it. Every day now the villagers gather at the edge of the village near the cassava fields, and watch the building of the road.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie teaches school among the Olinka, and part of her job, as Samuel has laid it out, is to "Christianize" the members of that community - to disabuse them of some of their local traditions regarding religion, but without utterly changing the culture they are, in fact, visiting. Nettie, then, is struck by the English intrusion into the Olinka community and by the presence of the road builders. For the road is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the road can make the Olinka far more connected to other communities - it can link them, for example, to places for trade, and could improve the economic health of the tribe. But these ideas are vastly outweighed, for the Olinka and for Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie, by the possibility of destruction that the road represents. For the road will cut through the community in severe ways, and the road builders do not seem to mind it what direction it goes, or what they must destroy in order to construct it. Furthermore, most of the "interconnectedness" the road will bring is likely to just mean more white colonizers, and therefore more oppression and exploitation of the Olinka.

Letter 72 Quotes

Now the engineers have come to inspect the territory. Two white men came yesterday and spent a couple of hours strolling about the village, mainly looking at the wells. Such is the innate politeness of the Olinka that they rushed about preparing food for them . . . And the white men sat eating as if the food was beneath notice.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section Nettie teases out what it means to connect, aid, or reconstruct a culture, versus what it might mean to "modernize" and therefore destroy it. The English engineers argue that the road will improve the connection between the Olinka and Western economic structures - just as a road in the American South might help the business relationships between two towns. But Nettie wonders whether this new arrangement among the Olinka would be actually good for the community - or whether it would only benefit the English who are coming in and who eye the land greedily.

Nettie thinks, too, on the nature of change in this section. The Olinka, of course, cannot stay exactly the same - the community has evolved and changed over time. But it has changed of its own accord, and on its own timeline - it hasn't needed Western involvement for that to happen. In this way, Western involvement seems more like intrusion and less like development. 

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.