The Color Purple, Themes, Motifs and Symbols:
The Disruption of Traditional Gender Roles
Many characters in the novel break the boundaries of traditional male or female gender roles. Sofia’s strength and sass, Shug’s sexual assertiveness, and Harpo’s insecurity are major examples of such disparity between a character’s gender and the traits he or she displays. This blurring of gender traits and roles sometimes involves sexual ambiguity, as we see in the sexual relationship that develops between Celie and Shug.
Disruption of gender roles sometimes causes problems. Harpo’s insecurity about his masculinity leads to marital problems and his attempts to beat Sofia. Likewise, Shug’s confident sexuality and resistance to male domination cause her to be labeled a tramp. Throughout the novel, Walker wishes to emphasize that gender and sexuality are not as simple as we may believe. Her novel subverts and defies the traditional ways in which we understand women to be women and men to be men.
The Power of Narrative and Voice
Walker emphasizes throughout the novel that the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings is crucial to developing a sense of self. Initially, Celie is completely unable to resist those who abuse her. Remembering Alphonso’s warning that she “better not never tell nobody but God” about his abuse of her, Celie feels that the only way to persevere is to remain silent and invisible. Celie is essentially an object, an entirely passive party who has no power to assert herself through action or words. Her letters to God, in which she begins to pour out her story, become her only outlet. However, because she is so unaccustomed to articulating her experience, her narrative is initially muddled despite her best efforts at transparency.
In Shug and Sofia, Celie finds sympathetic ears and learns lessons that enable her to find her voice. In renaming Celie a “virgin,” Shug shows Celie that she can create her own narrative, a new interpretation of herself and her history that counters the interpretations forced upon her. Gradually Celie begins to flesh out more of her story by telling it to Shug. However, it is not until Celie and Shug discover Nettie’s letters that Celie finally has enough knowledge of herself to form her own powerful narrative. Celie’s forceful assertion of this newfound power, her cursing of Mr. ______ for his years of abuse, is the novel’s climax. Celie’s story dumbfounds and eventually humbles Mr. ______, causing him to reassess and change his own life.
Though Walker clearly wishes to emphasize the power of narrative and speech to assert selfhood and resist oppression, the novel acknowledges that such resistance can be risky. Sofia’s forceful outburst in response to Miss Millie’s invitation to be her maid costs her twelve years of her life. Sofia regains her freedom eventually, so she is not totally defeated, but she pays a high price for her words.
The Power of Strong Female Relationships
Throughout The Color Purple, Walker portrays female friendships as a means for women to…