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The Color Purple | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How do the three identities Celie models—a dutiful daughter and wife, a submissive victim, and a steadfast friend—help and hinder her in Section 3 of The Color Purple?

Celie's three identities share some of the same attributes: compliance, usefulness, attentiveness, and reticence. In the role of Alphonso's daughter and Mr. ___'s wife, Celie's attributes benefit her as she fulfills her domestic duties while keeping her own needs buried so she isn't abused. However, her reticence and inability to fight for herself hinder her opportunity to enjoy an independent, fulfilling life. As a victim of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, she is a convenient object to Alphonso, and she knows to keep silent to protect her sister and mother. As in her role as daughter and wife, she hurts herself by refusing to fight back. Sofia and Shug offer Celie friendship. In return, she agrees with their opinions, supports them when they need her help, understands their needs, and keeps their thoughts private. Friendship gives her a chance to use her attributes to gain the support she desperately desires.

In Section 3 of The Color Purple, what effect does Shug Avery's transformation from a picture to a real person have on Celie?

From the first time she sees the blues singer's picture, Celie desires the life Shug Avery represents. Although the reality of the mean-spirited, tyrannical woman contradicts Celie's initial opinion that the woman's personality would be as softly beautiful as her looks, Celie tolerates her idol's verbal viciousness so she can nurse her idol back to health. Sick Shug has fallen from the pedestal where Celie placed her, and she desperately needs the singer to be a strong woman who defies anyone who tries to oppress her. For that reason, she will sacrifice her time and energy to return Shug to her place of glory. Celie understands that Shug needs to use her as an outlet for her anger. The entertainer cannot show any negativity publicly if she wants to keep her glamorous persona undamaged. Shug's outburst at Mr. ___ with no retaliation makes Celie determined to develop the strength to act as aggressively as her role model. By the time Ole Mr. ___ visits, Celie silently rebels against the nasty man's disdain for Shug by spitting in his glass of water. She considers cracking him on the head with the glass and grins as she pictures the impact of ground glass on the offensive old man's bald skull. From the time she was 15 and first saw Shug's picture, Celie found a strength in the singer that she is determined to emulate. She wants to find the fortitude to stand up to Mr. ___ like the singer shows when she turns her back on other women's scorn. Already the seeds of strength from observing her idol's attitude have replaced some of the weakness in Celie's heart and mind. Now she needs the encouragement to eradicate the remaining ones that only an independent woman like Shug can offer.

How does Mr. ___'s reaction to Shug's illness affect Celie's understanding of bullies and bullying in Section 3 of The Color Purple?

Mr. ___ is so distraught over Shug's illness that he can only sit despondently by his beloved mistress's bed: "Nobody fight for Shug," he tells his wife as tears fill his eyes. His weakness opens a chink in his domineering armor and reveals an understanding heart. Even though the misery she has faced from his fists has bruised her physically, because of the lack of love between them, he has never injured her soul. Understanding his love for Shug, though, Celie sees that a person's spirit—even a bully's—can ache from a loved one's pain. This understanding grows when she sees Mr. ___ wilt under his father's harsh criticisms, just like she does when Mr. ___ brutalizes her or as Harpo does when his father demands obedience. For the first time, she sees that bullies beget bullies, and that Mr. ___ and Harpo are only following the conditioning that they experienced as children and young men. She welcomes the awareness that although bullies inflict abuse, they can also be victimized by the actions of persecutors, be they personal or forced on the people they love. Even though she can now understand the causes of Mr. ___'s abuse and oppression, she is not ready to forgive him. Although he acts like a mouse around Shug, he still wields his dominance over her. She realizes that she is not yet strong enough and confident enough to defy him. By observing his reaction to his bully of a father, she understands how she can dominate him, but that won't give her any satisfaction. She wants his respect and his admission that he has treated her terribly. Mostly, she wants to him to tell her that he is sorry for all of the hurt he has caused her. Bullying won't get her any of that.

In Section 3 of The Color Purple, how is Harpo's constant eating a metaphor for his relationship with Sofia?

Although Sofia is not taller than Harpo, her physical structure is much larger. Because of this contrast, Harpo perceives her physical and mental powers as greater than his. He eats constantly so he will equal her in size. In his mind, if this occurs, he can finally dominate her. Brought up under his father's thumb, he cannot accept Celie's opinion that women like Sofia will never allow anyone to dominate them. Gender role reversal contributes to Harpo's lack of self-esteem. He believes if he has a more powerful physique, he will be happier doing the stereotypical men's work such as plowing and patching the roof. Because he prefers cooking and taking care of the children, tasks society deems "woman's work," he feels emasculated. His hunger isn't for food, but for power.

Beginning in Section 1 and continuing through Section 3 of The Color Purple, why does Celie refer to men by titles instead of their given names?

Celie only refers to adult men by Mr. ___ or He. When Shug calls Mr. ___ Albert, his given name, Celie momentarily wonders who that is. In her opinion, names instill people with humanity and identity and therefore visibility. Men who act collectively and have only treated Celie inhumanely are not deserving of her recognition of their individual identities. Because she fears men and needs to safeguard her inner self against their attacks, she asserts a degree of personal power by stripping them of their individuality, rendering them invisible, and addressing them with empty titles. She even refers to men she barely knows by these designations, such as Ole Mr. ___ and Reverend Mr. ___, indicating her pervasive distrust of men.

In Section 4 of The Color Purple, what causes the transformation in Harpo's character after Sofia leaves him?

Harpo's low self-esteem stems from his life on his grandfather's property and his collection of a wage from his father for tending the crops. When Sofia leaves, he's motivated to turn his home into a juke joint—a nightclub he names Harpo's. Shug offers to be his headline singer, and Harpo trusts his business intelligence to know Shug's fame and talent as a blues singer will turn his business into a moneymaker. When it does, his confidence increases. Now he is his own boss instead of his father's employee. Throughout this experience, he becomes an object of women's attention, too. The strength that he gathers from their attraction to him and from the success of the juke joint fortifies his transformation from a weak man to a confident one. This change is significant because Harpo's confidence evolves from decisions he makes for himself, not from what others think is best for him.

How does Shug's courage to ignore society's rules for women empower Celie in Section 4 of The Color Purple?

Shug's strength to overcome her illness, her ability to counter Mr. ___'s demands, and her courage to achieve her goals in a society that frowns on female independence enable Celie to reach for her own suppressed dreams. Celie realizes that she has survived her life with Alphonso and her husband because she holds these same virtues, even though hers are buds compared to her friend's blooms. Shug's announcement that Celie's ideas led to Miss Celie's Song and the crowd's enthusiastic response fill Celie with pride. When Shug explains she will be leaving soon, Celie voices her concerns about Mr. ___'s abuse. Shug promises she will stay until she is sure, "Albert won't even think about beating you." Celie thrives with self-assurance at Shug's promise to protect her because no one has ever cared enough about her to do so. This act enables Celie to see that she is a worthwhile person. The singer is shocked that her friend has never enjoyed sex, but has always felt misused, objectified, and dirty. Shug teaches Celie how to find sexual passion, and this opens a whole new world for her—one she knows she deserves.

In Section 4 of The Color Purple, why is Sofia willing to endure jail rather than accept racism?

Sofia has never allowed her brothers, father, or husband to hit her or show dominance over her. Neither will she allow any disrespect toward her family. When Sofia is insulted by the mayor and his wife, Miss Millie, a white couple, she refuses to back down—first when Miss Millie asks her to be her maid and again when the mayor confronts and slaps her. Because Sofia will never excuse mistreatment from people, no matter their gender, status in society, or race, she punches the mayor back and fights with the police when they arrive. Sofia's words and actions illustrate the pride and assertive personality she has exhibited throughout the story.

Are the men in The Color Purple shown mainly in a negative light?

To the end of Section 5, the actions of Alphonso, Mr. ___, Harpo, and Ole Mr. ___ show them in a negative light. These men are cruel, brutal, and unjust with their wives and children. Ole Mr. ___ abuses Shug verbally when he speaks of her unsavory reputation. The author uses these men to depict social expectations that men should be domineering, imperious and abusive, if necessary, to preserve the power conferred upon them for generations. On the other hand, Henry Broadnax does not try to possess or control Sofia. He is just thrilled to be with her. His explanation to her family and friends at the juke joint, "My job to love her and take her where she want to go," shows he does not adhere to the male dominance standard.

Considering the skin color comments throughout the story and Squeak's song in Section 5 of The Color Purple, what is the author suggesting about skin tone variations?

Through Sections 1 to 5, skin tone has been mentioned as a description, not as an insult. Celie mentions as a result of working in the fields, she is "coffee bean color," and that Harpo is "black as the inside of the chimney." Harpo tells Celie that Sofia is "pretty ... with bright skin," but Celie describes his wife's skin as "clear medium brown." The author's tendency to include skin tone descriptors seems innocent at times, but disparaging in others. Carrie's comment that Shug is "too black ... she black as my shoe, moves into the disparaging category because of the adverb too. Squeak has a white father and black mother. Celie calls her Harpo's "little yellowish girlfriend." She adds depth to this motif when she says to Harpo, "do you really love me, or just my color?" and then demands to be called Mary Agnes. The song she composes says in part, "But if yellow is a name/Why ain't black the same." The author is suggesting some skin tones are more acceptable than others within a race as well as between races.

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