Literature Study GuidesThe Color PurpleSection 1 Letters 1 13 Summary

The Color Purple | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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The Color Purple | Section 1, Letters 1–13 | Summary


The Color Purple is told entirely in letters written by the main character, Celie, and her sister, Nettie. In this guide, letters dealing with the same broad themes or settings have been combined for the purposes of summary and analysis.


The Color Purple's opening line, "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy," creates an immediate mood of wretchedness. This misery envelops Celie, the 14-year-old protagonist and narrator. Celie relates her story through a series of letters she writes to God—the only ear available to witness her oppression. Celie is sexually assaulted by her father Alphonso, nicknamed Fonso and whom Celie refers to as He, when Celie's mother rejects his advances after giving birth. Celie's mother becomes sick, never really recovering from repeated childbirth, as her daughter begins to exhibit signs of morning sickness.

By Letter 2, Celie's mother is dead, but not before she harshly questions Celie regarding the identity of Celie's baby's father. Celie's reply is simply put: "God." After Celie gives birth to a daughter who almost immediately disappears from the home, Celie's mother demands to know where the baby went. Again Celie's reply is pious: "God took it." In reality, Alphonso arranged for the baby to be adopted to hide his incest with his daughter. Celie gives birth to a second child, a son, who meets the same fate, and Celie begins to worry that Alphonso will begin to abuse her younger sister Nettie.

In the meantime, Letter 4 finds Alphonso remarried to a young girl and Nettie with an older boyfriend who has four children. Celie wishes Nettie would spend more time on schoolwork, a luxury denied Celie after her first pregnancy and who must now take care of her siblings in her mother's absence, and spend less time with the boyfriend. Alphonso beats Celie out of jealousy that she may have flirted with a boy, and Nettie contemplates marriage to her boyfriend to get away from her father. Celie's periods stop, indicating she is unable to have more children.

Nettie's boyfriend, Mr. ___ (aka Albert), asks to marry Nettie, but Alphonso refuses due to Nettie's age and Mr. ___'s alleged relationship with the beautiful, dark-skinned, singer Shug Avery. Instead, Alphonso suggests that Mr. ___ marry Celie. By Letter 8, Mr. ___ agrees to marry Celie so that she can take care of his kids. Celie hopes to bring Nettie with her to Mr. ___'s home and that the two can plan an escape. Nettie uses her schoolbooks to teach Celie, trying to convince Celie that she is something more than Alphonso's servant. On the wedding day, the eldest of Mr. ___'s two sons (he also has two daughters), Harpo, hurls a rock at Celie's head, trying to kill her.

While in town Celie encounters a woman, Corrine, with a seven-year-old daughter whom Celie believes to be her lost daughter. Remembering that she stitched the name Olivia in the child's clothes before she disappeared, Celie asks for the child's name. The woman replies, "Pauline ... [but] I call her Olivia."

When Celie's beloved younger sister Nettie flees Alphonso's sexual advances in Letter 11, Celie's husband allows Nettie to move into their house. He later banishes Nettie because she ignores his sexual advances. Upon departure, Nettie promises to write to Celie, but her letters never arrive.

Celie's sisters-in-law Carrie and Kate visit. Kate convinces her brother to buy Celie a new dress and also implores Celie to fight against male cruelty. Despite this seeming support from Mr. ___'s sister, Celie continues to endure beatings from her husband. Harpo, now 17 years old, tells Celie he'd like to marry a girl from church, but he's never spoken to her.


In Letters 1–13, Walker addresses the basic literary elements she will use to develop Celie's story. The perspective of Celie as voiced in these letters reveals much about her. Her grammar, spelling, and sentence structure errors illustrate her lack of education as well as her hidden strength and insight. The characters Celie, Nettie, Alphonso, Albert, and Shug will prove crucial to Celie's growth from a static to a dynamic character.

The plot and central conflict revolve around Celie's desire for a life where she is loved and respected. The influence of strong women will ignite a fire in her nearly nonexistent self-esteem and fuel her journey to independence. Her journey takes place in a setting that includes rural Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Liberia, Africa. The author never mentions exact years because she prefers readers understand the themes she develops—domination, gender role disputes, racism, and peoples' effect on society and society's effect on people—are timeless concerns.

One of the minor issues—skin color—first arises at the end of this segment in a comment Carrie, Celie's sister-in-law, makes about Shug Avery: "She too black." Comments about the various shades of black and brown skin tones are prevalent throughout the story and indicate an inherited racism among black people who have learned to prefer lighter skin tones. Such forms of inherited racism serve to intensify the oppression perpetrated by the dominant race.

Two of the strongest symbols in this story, letters and God, appear on the first page and form the novel's structure. They connect Celie to God and, later, to her sister Nettie. Finally, the mood of this segment is infused with misery and desolation. Celie has faced her mother's curses and death, two pregnancies, her fear that her father killed her babies, a forced marriage to a cruel man, and the loss of her sister Nettie.

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