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