One of the themes running throughout The Color Purple concerns sex roles. Whether the problem of sex roles focuses on Harpo and Sofia, or on Albert and Celie, or on Grady and Shug, there is always a clear-cut sexual division of labor, and tensions usually arise when one half of the couple doesn't like his or her "role," or duties. Likewise, in Africa, tensions arise from very similar problems concerning sex roles.
Nettie, for example, is no one's wife; she is "married" to her missionary work. The Olinka look askance at unwed women. They hold marriage between two people to be the be-all and end-all purpose of a woman's life. To them, Nettie is a non-person. When she, Samuel, Corrine, and the babies arrived, the Olinka wanted to know if she were Samuel's second wife. Had she been, they would have held her in esteem. Since she was not, they think of her as having little status. Catherine, an Olinka woman, tells Nettie, "You are not much. The missionary's drudge." Yet, in spite of being judged to be a social inferior, Nettie has a good appreciation and respect for herself. "I am something," she writes Celie — a statement that, until now, we can't imagine Celie ever saying about herself.
Nettie wants to understand the Olinka; she does not want to offend them by defying their "system," so she doesn't rebel as Shug might have in a similar situation. Instead, she keeps quiet, very much like Celie, but unlike Celie, Nettie has a sense of deep respect for herself that she never loses.
Nettie's niece, Olivia, on the other hand, understands that the Olinka's withholding education from females is a means of suppression not unlike white Americans keeping blacks from learning. Ignorance keeps Olinka women and American blacks limited. The Olinka are puzzled by Olivia's independence. They can interpret Olivia's intelligence as a sign that she might someday marry a chief, but they cannot envision the possibility that Olivia might someday attain importance in her own right.
In this context of women's suppression, it is just possible that Corrine could be pleased to be a sort of non-person as a wife and mother. Remember that she has tried to hide her children's origins. She does not want anyone to know that she is not her children's biological mother. We will discover eventually that she and Samuel suspect that Nettie might be the mother of Adam and Olivia; perhaps, then, this is Corrine's motivation for asking Nettie to call her "sister" and to call Samuel "brother." By suppressing not only herself, but her children's identities, as well as Nettie's identity, Corrine is preserving her own dignity, as well as maintaining the customary status quo for women and, especially, for missionary wives. Her rationalization, of course, is sound: how can she and Samuel hope to convert the Olinka if their Western values appear to be alien and unnatural?
If the Olinka are willing to make small social allowances for Olivia, though, the code is not so elastic concerning one of their own young women — Tashi, Olivia's best friend. The Olinka do not want Tashi to be exposed to the idea that perhaps she too might someday be more than a mere wife, even the wife of a chief. Nettie also wonders if Tashi should be exposed to the idea that women have worth; "Tashi," she says, "knows she is learning a way of life she will never live." Tashi's parents cling to their Olinka tradition because of their ethnocentrism — that is, the attitude that one's group is superior to another group. A daughter who is a misfit, harboring unnatural, "progressive" ideas, can never be acceptable to them. They will never be despotic toward Nettie, whom they judge to be inferior because she is an older, mature, unwed woman, and an outsider. But toward their own people, the Olinka's ethnocentrism is so complete that it makes them not only want to keep Tashi from Nettie's house, but it compels them to want to change Olivia's values. They hope to teach young Olivia "what women are for."
Nettie compares the Olinka's ethnocentrism to that of white Southerners:
I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything is done for them.
Just as the slave traders arrived many years before and robbed Africa of its people, the roadbuilders now rob the Africans of their homes and lands. The Olinka did not realize that the road was going to run through their village. They are symbolically blind to progress that they cannot halt. In Letter 64, they befriended the roadbuilders, who were their distant cousins. Much like the time when blacks sold their brothers into bondage to the white man, the roadbuilders are again executing the will of ruling whites.
Westernization, it is true, destroys frontier forests and sometimes destroys villages, but it brings new hope for women. Girls now attend school. It took the advent of the road to force the Olinka to accept the fact that the real and powerful influence of the outside world could no longer be ignored. The Olinka can rage, but they cannot stop the onward, inward road of Westernization.
Nettie has so much self-assurance that Tashi's parents' outrage at Westernization does not make Nettie feel less of a person. She jokingly calls herself "a pitiful, castout woman who may perish during the rainy season." With humor like this, Nettie will endure. Clearly, she is a strong woman, and just as clearly, Olivia will be an even stronger woman.
The concept of a special sisterhood, or a female fellowship, that exists between women has run throughout the course of this novel. Celie and Nettie are an excellent example of this concept, as were Sofia and Celie when they mended their differences and began to create a quilt together called "Sister's Choice" (Letter 28); they were living out Nettie's observation, a continent away: "It is in work that the women get to know and care about each other."
Focusing on Nettie's situation while remembering Celie's situation, we could profitably imagine that Shug is Albert's "other wife," in the West African sense. Thus, Nettie's statement, "It was through work that Catherine became friends with her husband's other wives," can be understood more fully — thereby linking Nettie's exotic world far away with Celie's plain, country life in the South.
The two worlds, as dissimilar as we might think they are, have striking similarities. Shug and Celie (the mistress and wife of Albert) become friends, and almost immediately, neither woman will allow Albert into their circle. In fact, in Letter 64, Nettie writes about the male Olinka treatment of women, and we are vividly reminded of the way that Fonso treated Nettie and Celie's mother. Notice, too, that Nettie reports that Olinka husbands have "life and death power" over their wives; recall, as a parallel, that almost all of the Southern black men in this novel also attempt to have this fierce, brutal omnipotence over their wives. Their homes are theirs; a wife has claim on nothing. Fonso and Albert have made this edict savagely clear to Celie.
Nettie's relevation, in Letter 67, that Fonso is Nettie's and Celie's stepfather — and not their physical
father — brings as much joy to Celie as did the discovery of Nettie's letters. In addition, we learn that Fonso was a friend of Samuel "long before [Samuel] found Christ." Nettie and Celie were born before Fonso married their widowed mother.
Irony again structures the lives of the two sisters who are continents apart. Both Samuel and Corrine thought that Nettie was the natural mother of Adam and Olivia, and just as Adam and Olivia think that Samuel is their natural father, Nettie and Celie thought Fonso was their natural father. Unlike Fonso, however, Samuel reared his children with patience, love, and Christian values — values that he learned after he was converted. Olivia and Adam will be disappointed to discover that Samuel is not their real father, but both Nettie and Celie are ecstatic and relieved to learn that the evil Fonso is only their stepfather. If Celie thought she knew perfect happiness when she discovered Nettie's letters, her emotions were pale compared to how she feels when she reads "Pa is not our pa!"