Summary and Analysis
Finally, after years of hearing about, thinking about, and dreaming about the fantastic Shug Avery, Celie is at last going to meet Shug. Walker has classically constructed an "entrance scene" for Shug — that is, novelists and playwrights often like to create intense interest and curiosity about a major character before the reader (or viewer) "sees" that character. We, the readers or the audience, hear about this character from several viewpoints; we see a painting or a picture of the character, and thus we are psychologically "baited," anxiously awaiting this person who obviously plays a major role in other people's lives but who has not, as yet, been on stage.
In this case, we are fascinated by this Queen Honeybee, this high-stepping, blues moaning, good looking, sensuous jazz singer who is, to Mr. ________ and to Celie, everything that Celie is not. We have grown fond of Celie and have identified with her mistreatment and her loneliness; now we are at last going to meet a person who has hypnotically fascinated both Celie and Mr. _______. How, we wonder, can this magnetic woman hold such emotional power over two people so diametrically dissimilar as Celie and Mr. ________?
First off, in analyzing Shug Avery, we should note that Shug may be the Queen Honeybee in the jazz club where she sings, but obviously she reigns only while she sings. In this scene, she is ill, but no one offers to take care of her. On her own turf, she may be a queen of sorts, but her turf is a land of booze-and-blues, sort of an unreal after-hours Never-Never-Land, where the queen isn't supposed to get sick like real folks do. Shug's audience only loves her when she sings, and her lovers only enjoy her while they are in bed with her. In the bright light of day, the Queen Honeybee's outspoken individualism, as well as her "bad," cigarette-smoking, gin-drinking reputation, repels people, and her sickness only intensifies that feeling of repulsion. People gossip about Shug ("slut, hussy, heifer") and turn their backs on her and her "nasty woman disease." This sordid image of Shug is a shocking antithesis of what Celie and Mr. ________ have given us to believe was the "real," the glamorous Shug Avery.
Five days after Mr. ________ hears about Shug's being sick and hears her being belittled and damned in church, he returns with her in the back of his wagon. We realize that Mr.________ may be unfeeling and mean toward Celie, but he deeply cares for Shug. Shug is "family" to him; he and Shug have three children together. (He and Celie have none.) In fact, note that Mr. ________ immediately tells Harpo that Shug (and not Annie Julia) should have been Harpo's mother.
As for Shug, the first thing we read about the Queen Honeybee's arrival is Celie's sight of "one of her foots . . . poking out" of the wagon. This is clearly not the entrance of a "queen." Yet, despite the fact that Shug looks literally ill to Celie, Shug looks dazzlingly dressed for the occasion. In contrast, as we read Celie's description of Shug, we get a completely different picture of her. She seems to be something that has already passed over to the next world and returned. She staggers toward Celie with a caked, yellowed, powdered black face smeared with red rouge, her chest heaving with black beads, chicken hawk feathers curving down one cheek, and clutching a snakeskin bag. To Celie, Shug may be ill, but she still seems to be a beautiful creature, "so stylish it like the trees all round the house draw themself up tall for a better look." To us, in contrast, Shug seems to be deteriorating, going downhill fast in body and soul.
Shug's body may be sick, but we soon see that her spirit is clearly intact; in fact, her first words to Celie are loud, cackling, and cruel — particularly when we consider how much Celie reveres this woman. "You sure is ugly," Shug tells Celie, which is probably the most dramatically reinforced proof that Celie has ever had of her own ugliness. She remembers that Fonso called her ugly, but here, Shug proclaims that Celie sure is ugly.
The pain of hearing Shug confirm Celie's ugliness, however, isn't as painful to Celie as is the fact that Celie can't tell Shug to come in; she doesn't feel free to offer to take care of Shug. Celie doesn't feel that she has the right to offer help — "It not my house." Celie feels like Mr._______'s slave; she doesn't even feel as though she is permitted to speak unless given permission to do so by Mr. ________. And from what Celie tells God regarding Shugs statement that Celie sure is ugly, we gather that Mr. ________ has already told Shug that Celie is ugly, and that Shug had doubted that Celie really could be as ugly as Mr. ________ said she was. Now that Shug sees Celie, she is ready to agree with Mr. ________: Celie sure is ugly.
While Shug recovers at Mr.______'s house, there are several matters that one should consider.
First, realize how Celie loves Shug — she loves her as one human being might love another, and she loves her as a Christian might love another human being. When Mr. _______ gives Shug to Celie to care for, it is no chore for Celie. Instead, it is a source of pleasure and excitement. Celie innocently looks at Shug and confesses to God that she thought she had been turned "into a man." Shug's naked body is that exciting to Celie.
At the same time, in a spiritual sense, Celie feels as though she is performing a sacred rite when she is bathing Shug's naked body. This two-edged feeling is in keeping with Celie's attitude toward Shug and toward herself — both with Celie's idea of herself as a lowly servant (waiting on Shug the queen), while in a spiritual sense, Celie feels as though she is performing God's work. By her own admission, she says that when she is washing Shug, "It feel like I'm praying."
Also, be aware that although Celie is a good Christian woman, she is absolutely fascinated by the "evil" that she feels is deeply rooted inside Shug. Shug yells and shouts and curses and is "more evil than [Celie's] mother," but Celie is not repulsed. She remains fixated on the worldly, wicked, and wondrous Shug Avery.
Later, when Shug seems to be recovering, she begins to hum a tune while Celie is tending to her. The tune is a blues song, and Celie is none too happy to hear her humming a blues song, but Shug's humming this song is a sign for us that Shug is coming to life again. Shug, too, realizes what is happening, and she gives all the credit to Celie. Celie may not be pleased to hear the "low down dirty" blues song, but she must feel deeply satisfied when Shug tells her that the music is something that Celie "scratched out" of Shug's head. This acknowledgment is the first appreciative remark that Shug has shared with Celie.
In fact, Shug's brusque veneer begins to dissolve the more she is around Celie. She even asks Celie not to call her "Ma'm"; Shug realizes that they not only share Mr. ________, but that both of them are mothers without their children. The absence of their children and the absence of Mr. ________ when they are together allow them to care for one another.
As further proof that Celie continues to have a deep affection for Shug, despite Shug's vicious tongue and her loose ways, note that Celie hopes someday to fasten some of Shug's hair into her own hair, much as she was anxious earlier to sew a quilt together with Sofia's help (Letter 21). Celie thinks that every inch of Shug is precious. Her caring for Shug is much like taking care of the babies whom she never had a chance to rear. Remember, too, that with Mr._______'s daughters' hair (Letter 9), Celie had little patience, but here, with Shug's hair, she is extremely careful to be gentle.
Like Celie, Albert adores Shug. Even Celie is aware of this. She knows that Mr. ________ and Shug know each other's secrets. Shug knows Mr._______'s first name, Albert, and calls him by it, which indicates that they are equals in their relationship, or even perhaps that Shug has the upper hand. It is an altogether different set-up than what Albert shares with Celie.
However, Albert is not as mean to Celie now that the softening element of Shug is in the house. For the first time, he shows a tiny bit of concern for Celie's feelings — something he has never done before. He wants to know if Celie minds if Shug stays in the house; he wants to know how Celie feels about Shug's being there. Celie is stunned at his concern for her, Celie, and she is more than a little puzzled at the depth of his concern for Shug. She sees his eyes mist over as he tells Celie that "Nobody fight for Shug." Shug brings out both emotion and sensitivity within Albert. But not enough. Albert doesn't realize that no one fights for Celie.
The bond between Celie and Albert is strengthened when Albert's father arrives and expresses disgust that Albert has taken the diseased and dark-skinned Shug into his home. Secretly, Celie spits into the man's glass of water and tells God that "This is the closest us [she and Albert] ever felt." And all because of Shug Avery. Even Albert's brother Tobias comes to assess the situation.
In these scenes, you should be aware that neither Albert's father nor Tobias came to "inspect" Celie, Albert's legal wife. Instead, Albert's sisters, Kate and Carrie, came to inspect Celie's housekeeping. The sexual division, the sexist dimension of this society, is distinct. Women come to evaluate a wife and her work. Men come to question another man's judgment, particularly when a "trifling" love relationship might socially and financially destroy a man. The narrow sexist dimensions of the status quo society of Albert, his family, and Celie stand in stark contrast to the brassy, liberated world of the recovering Shug Avery.