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The Color Purple | Section 5, Letters 39–44 | Summary

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Summary

Sofia's family and friends discuss how they can help Sofia endure her jail sentence. Discounting violent means such as blowing up the prison or using guns to free her, they decide someone must talk with the white warden, Bubber Hodges. Because Squeak is his half-white niece, she is chosen to make the pitch. Celie tells her to say Sofia feels she won because the last thing she wanted was to be a white woman's maid. When Squeak returns, her clothes are torn and she is battered. She tells everyone the warden raped her through flawed logic to prove he wasn't her uncle (an uncle wouldn't rape a relative, of course), and then she demands of Harpo, "Do you really love me, or just my color?" When Harpo clearly states he loves her, she rebuts, "My name is Mary Agnes." Six months later in Letter 42, she starts to write her own songs and sing.

A few years later, Sofia's punishment continues, but as Miss Millie's maid and nanny. Sofia refers to the work as slavery, but her son objects, calling it captivity. Billy, the mayor's son, is bossy and contemptuous of Sofia, revealing his bigotry. In contrast, Eleanor Jane, Billy's sister, supports her black nanny. A trace of Sofia's feisty attitude returns as she relates a story about teaching Miss Millie how to drive. Celie says, "Sofia would make a dog laugh, talking about those people she work for." While the driving lesson empowers Miss Millie to take Sofia home for Christmas for the first time in years in Letter 44, the visit is cut to 15 minutes when Miss Millie is unable to back out of the driveway without Sofia's help. Despite the short visit, Miss Millie expects Sofia's gratitude.

Analysis

In this tragicomic series of letters, Celie's narrator role overshadows her position as the protagonist. Celie's voice is the instrument that allows Mary Agnes and Sofia to grow into rounded characters. Sofia's gutsy attitude and indomitable spirit from earlier in the text, though bruised, rises out of her beating and jail sentence. Her monologue about teaching Miss Millie to drive is back lit by her enduring sense of humor in the face of tragedy. Mary Agnes, too, rises above the rape by not allowing it to silence her. Her song shows her pride in her light skin color and her biracial identity, not her shame.

When Mary Agnes explains to the warden Sofia never wants to be "no white woman maid," the term white is meant to connect Mary Agnes with Hodges. Odessa instructs Mary Agnes, "Make him see the Hodges in you," revealing that with the warden, Mary Agnes's white father should be an asset. Mary Agnes's biracial identity is a source of conflict within both communities. Within the black community, she is either resented for her whiteness and its association with the social oppressors, or she valued for it through inherited racism. Within the white community, she is resented as a testament to racial mixing. It is ironic that Hodges rapes Mary Agnes as a way to prove that she does not carry his bloodline.

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