Summary and Analysis
These letters are primarily concerned with Celie's emotional, physical, and geographical isolation and now — because of Shug Avery — these letters focus on Celie's "awakening" from her isolation. This awakening first begins in Harpo's jukejoint. Shug is so grateful that Celie has nursed her back to health that she sings "Miss Celie's Song" to her, and Celie's heart immediately begins to cramp. In other words, Celie's heart begins to come to life again. No one has ever done anything so special for Celie since years ago, when Celie and Nettie were children.
Since then, Celie has been isolated from the external world. The word "plantation" (on Harpo's handbills) appears for the first time in the novel; Celie has been living on a plantation all her life and doesn't even know it. Likewise, she has never heard of the diva of the blues, Bessie Smith. There is no radio or record player in Albert's house, and he doesn't allow Celie to go out to nightclubs. There is irony in the fact that Harpo sought to isolate himself even farther from the police by "secluding" his jukejoint off the road, because it is in this calculated seclusion that Celie begins to discover that she is of value — to herself and to Shug Avery. Shug's song affirms that Celie has worth, and this truth is almost more than Celie can believe.
One might think that Shug would dedicate her song to Mr._______ , to Albert, since he was the one who came and got her and arranged for her to be nursed back to life, but Shug doesn't do the "expected." She gives credit where it is due — to Celie. Shug is an intense, soulful woman full of fire and candor, and she knows whom to appreciate. Once more, Harpo is puzzled. He realizes that Shug does what she wants to do and that she "forgit about polite."
In these letters, we see two parallel sequences of "awakening." Earlier, Celie helped Shug awaken to life again, and now, Celie helps transform the naked woman whom she bathed to be "clothed" again in her "stage self," the Queen Honeybee. This transformation takes some time because a good deal of time has elapsed, and Shug's hair is considerably longer, and pressing her hair is done by using a very hot iron comb. This process is also called "straightening" because it removes the kinky curls from black hair.
Besides Shug's awakening to new life, there is also, as we mentioned earlier, Celie's awakening to a sense of herself. This is the first time since Nettie left that Celie has felt "special" and loved, and she has Shug to thank for it. Shug is the source of Celie's happiness. It is significant that Shug waits until she is onstage to thank Celie. She wants everyone to know. She values Celie that much.
Shug has recovered, but she stays on at Albert's in order to protect Celie from Albert's beatings, and she vows not to leave "until I know Albert won't even think about beating you." The two women share a long embrace that ends in a kiss, bonding their relationship.
In order for Celie to grow as a woman, it is necessary for her to learn who she is — emotionally and physically. And it is at this point that some readers flinch as they read about Shug's showing Celie how to masturbate — a clinical verb with ugly connotations. What Shug is really doing, however, is not ugly; it is beautiful. Shug is teaching Celie how to give herself pleasure, how to make herself feel good. One can never love another person or another body until one has learned to love oneself and one's own body. A person must know what feels good sexually and be able to tell one's partner.
Celie has had two children, but she knows little about her own body. Shug's response to Celie's ignorance is precisely on-target: "Why Miss Celie you still a virgin." That is, Celie has never experienced orgasm or physical pleasure, or even emotional pleasure when she has had sex. Sex, to Shug, is synonymous with delicious pleasure, and if Celie is ignorant of that pleasure, then she is still a virgin to the world of sexuality.
Celie, of course, doesn't know anything about her button of a clitoris and is very naturally confused when she feels shivering, hot pulsing waves of sexual excitement crashing within herself. She is so used to pain that pain seems "normal." She feels guilty about discovering her pleasure center, and it will be a while before she feels free enough to make herself feel good. Shug, remember, is still sleeping with Albert. Celie is sleeping alone. Certainly, Celie could masturbate and bring pleasure to herself, but for the present, she cannot. Celie would like to tell Shug to stop sleeping with Albert, but because she cannot, she masturbates, as Shug has taught her to, but with no pleasure. She cries herself to sleep.