When the novel opens, Celie is a young black girl living in Georgia in the early years of the twentieth century. She is largely uneducated; her letters to God are written in non-standard dialect. Walker has called the dialect black folk language, and while it may not be polished English, it is raw and honest — and strong. Celie's letters are unusually strong; they are evidence of an unusual strength in a very young woman. They are evidence of Celie's painful struggle to hold on — despite all of the multiple horrors of her life.
Celie is about to go into adolescence, believing that she was raped by her father and that he killed both of their children. She writes to God because she has no one else to help her bear this terrible knowledge. What has happened to Celie is so terrible that she can talk about it only to someone who she feels loves her. Of course, her sister, Nettie, loves her, but Nettie is too young to understand what terrible things have happened to Celie. Only to God can Celie talk honestly and openly about the hell that she has suffered.
And this point is important: Celie is not complaining to God. She simply needs to talk to someone — someone whom she loves and trusts and someone who she feels loves her.
Celie's instinct for survival, however, is more solid than even Celie realizes. She was born into a poor family; her mother was ill much of the time (later, we find out that she was mentally ill as well); there were too many children in the family; and then Celie was victimized by the man who she believed was her father. Celie feels used, and she feels that she is a victim, and she doesn't understand why all this has happened to her. She doesn't complain; she simply wonders why. In fact, so many bad things have happened to Celie that she feels worthless. She has very little self-worth and self-esteem. You should notice that she doesn't even sign her letters to God. Normally, most people take pride in signing their names; our name is one of the first things we learn to write. This is not true of Celie. Her self-worth is so miniscule that she does not even sign her own name.
Slowly, Celie will mature into a woman of enormous confidence — but not before her beloved sister Nettie is taken from her and not before she herself is married to a cruel man who really wanted to marry Nettie.
For a time, Celie is more a slave to her husband than she is a wife. And then a near-miracle happens. Her husband's mistress, Shug, comes to the house to recuperate and Celie becomes her nurse. By nature, Shug is a strong woman; men don't tangle with Shug, unless she wants them to — in bed. As Shug grows stronger physically, and as Celie nurses her, Shug encourages Celie to grow stronger psychologically. Similarly, Celie's daughter-in-law Sofia shows Celie how to stand up to men and how to stand up to prejudice and injustice — and fight.
It isn't easy for Celie to learn how to verbalize her independence, and it is harder still for her to act on these new concepts, but after she discovers how intentionally cruel her husband has been to her, she rebels and throws off her role as a slave to her husband.
By the end of the novel, Celie's newfound strength, as well as her ever-enduring love for Nettie, pays off. All through the years, she has kept the memory of Nettie alive, despite the fact that there was no proof that Nettie was alive. Nettie not only is alive, but she helped raise Celie's two children, and when the book ends, Celie and Nettie and Celie's two children, now grown, are reunited. Despite all the odds, Celie held on. She learned to fight, to stand up for herself, and she was rewarded. She never gave up on her love for Nettie, nor did she give up on her love for God. Celie survived physically and spiritually, and she matured into a full, solid, modern twentieth-century woman.
Many critics of the novel have been annoyed and repelled by the content of the book's opening letter to God. The idea of beginning a novel with the fact of a rape is repugnant to them. Walker's answer is straight to the point. "This is the country in which a woman is raped every three minutes," she says, "where one out of three women will be raped during their lifetimes and a quarter of those are children under 12."
There is no delicate, glossy way to introduce the subject of rape. Accordingly, Walker handles it head-on, immediately. After we have accepted the horror of what we read, we can stand back in awe at Celie's continuing courage in the face of what she has to endure, and we can particularly admire her continuing, sustaining love for her sister, Nettie. This book isn't about rape. It is about what happens after rape.
In fact, one of the central focuses of the book is on Celie's mental and emotional rebirth. Hate and violence have almost killed Celie, but then she meets Shug, a woman who is able to kindle feelings of sexual love and self-love within Celie — for the first time. In a similar way, Celie becomes friends with her daughter-in-law, who teaches her by example what courage is.
The strength of these women, and their caring for one another, offer opportunities for all three of them to continue growing — despite the racist, sexist world they live in. During the course of the book, they cry together, laugh together, affirm life together, and share one another's joys. They respect one another. They live together in a world that Celie could never have imagined when she was fourteen; in fact, it is a world that she never could have imagined until, ironically, her husband brought home his ailing mistress. Never did Albert imagine the mental and physical sense of new health that Shug, his mistress, would bring to Celie. Because of Shug and because of Sofia, Celie is able to triumph — and triumph joyfully — over the sexual and racial oppression that smothered many of her female ancestors.
The Color Purple, then, is a story about growth, endurance, loyalty, solidarity, and joy — all nurtured by the strength of love.