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The Color Purple | Themes


The effects of enduring oppression and domination are the main roots of The Color Purple. These themes are integral to the character and plot development throughout the story. Other themes branch off from these ideas, deriving their existence from these core issues.

Overcoming Oppression

With effort, people will overcome society's injustices. Celie accepts her life of subjugation because she never has experienced any other way of existing. Although she sees other women taking charge of their lives, like Sofia and Shug, she is so mentally crushed she never even comprehends she is capable of controlling her destiny. Jealous that Sofia is strong enough to fight for her freedom from male domination, Celie tells Harpo to beat his wife. Celie tells Kate she doesn't know how to fight when the woman implores her to do so. It isn't until she experiences Shug's friendship, love, and belief in her inner strength that Celie realizes that she has the courage to climb out of her oppressive life.

Mr. ___'s transformation is a result of the emotional pain he suffers after Celie's tirade and abandonment. When he comprehends how wrong he was to act so abusively, he wants Celie's forgiveness. Her friendship enables him to fully forsake the domineering principles that control him. After he and Sofia renew their marriage, Harpo still struggles with his conflicting beliefs, but he loves Sofia enough to submit to some of her ideas. Although she keeps it hidden during her punishment, Sofia shows her mental muscle when she openly tells Eleanor Jane they will never be equal because of prejudice. By the time Shug returns, she has forgiven her parents for what she interpreted as an unwillingness to love her. Her understanding that they did the best they could for her allows her to love herself and to treasure the honest friendship and love she shares with Celie.

Enduring Domination

The assaults Celie endures from Alphonso not only harm her physically but cause her emotional shame because the assailant is her father. Her mother scorns Celie and her sister, Nettie, because they are witnesses to her disgrace. Mr. ___'s beatings and mistreatment objectify Celie and add more layers of shame on her. Until she is in her thirties, Celie's life is an example of the effects of internal and external domination brought on by others.

In contrast the lives of Mr. ___, Harpo, Sofia, and Shug are ruled by their own destructive decisions. Mr. ___, a spectator to Ole Mr.___'s mistreatment of his wife, chooses to be a victim of the man's demand for total obedience. He subjugates his wives and passes these same principles onto his son, Harpo, by beating them in his son's presence. Harpo mentally succumbs to this male dominance tenet, but he cannot do so emotionally because he loves Sofia and her independent spirit. Harpo's inability to resolve this clash of ideals throws him under the heel of oppression, and he loses the children and Sofia when she moves in with her sister. Sofia shows her strength when she leaves Harpo, but her pride leads to a lengthy jail sentence. Her decision to use her dynamic spirit to fight a force as massive as social bigotry ends up restricting her assertive nature. Shug's struggle is caused by her desire for love. Never given the strength that parental love can nurture, she equates lust for love. Until she learns to love herself, she floats from one bed to another, ruled by her opinion that intimacies with others will raise her from a loveless existence to a life of happiness.

Realizing Wholeness

People achieve a fulfilling life when they grasp an understanding about themselves, the world, and their places in it. Celie, Mr. ___, Harpo, Sofia, and Shug all endure oppression from inner and external sources, and they all struggle to overcome the mistreatments they incur from others and from their own choices. Celie's empowerment begins with Shug's belief in her strengths, grows by witnessing Sofia's struggles with Harpo and the town's racism, matures when Mary Agnes finds her voice, develops when she sees God's love in His every creation—including herself—and flourishes when she and Albert become true friends. By admitting to some poor choices, and choosing to forgive themselves, Mr. ___, Harpo, Sofia, and Shug can finally embrace the good in themselves, their families, and their friends. They all understand that to live a fulfilled life, they need to love themselves before anyone else can love them.

Gender Roles

When men and women adopt tasks society assigns to the opposite gender, internal and external conflicts occur. One cause behind of all the characters' oppression stems from conflicts with society's gender role expectations. All of them have to remove the gender role shackles that bind them. Sexism is synonymous with stereotypical gender role expectations in this novel.

The conflict between Harpo and Sofia stems from their dispute about gender roles society designates for men and women. Sofia says, "I rather be out in the fields or fooling with the animals. Even chopping wood. But he love cooking and cleaning and doing little things around the house." After Celie and Albert are friends, he confides he always loved to sew with his mother: "I use to try to sew along with mama cause that's what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me," he explains. Celie responds by handing him a threaded needle and a pair of pants and saying, "Well, nobody gon laugh at you now." In both of these relationships, the men have tried to deal with the gender role issues with physical force. This approach only aggravates the already volatile situations. Only when each couple turns from their society's gender stereotyping by making their own guidelines do they build respectful relationships.


Racism occurs when people choose to reject unfamiliar ethnicities, customs, and traditions instead of trying to understand and respect their right to exist. Social racism is prevalent in The Color Purple. Nettie witnesses it throughout her travels—between races and within the same ethnicities she encounters. Sofia, Shug, Mary Agnes, and Corrine all are victims of prejudice in their hometowns and, for Shug, around the country. Skin color adds to racism when it is mentioned as a derogatory statement and not as a neutral descriptor. In all cases, the author reveals racism as a widespread part of culture.

Domination and oppression destroy peoples' humanity by erasing their worth. Throughout the novel, the author reveals how oppression, injustice, and disrespect make their targets invisible. These negative actions erase peoples' humanity and individuality by treating them as worthless beings. Celie, Sofia, Mary Agnes (when she was known as Squeak), and the Olinka females are invisible as humans in the minds of their oppressors.

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