Summary and Analysis
One of the ways to approach this particular series of letters lies in the idea of "strength" — that is, what does "strong" mean? Does it mean physical might? The evidence in this novel seems to indicate that black men use physical might in order to keep their wives in their place — just as white men have used physical might to keep the black man in his place. Certainly, Sofia tends to solve all her problems with physical violence. She learned a long time ago that you have to fight: "All my life I had to fight," she told Celie in Letter 21.
However, in these letters, we see something emerging that is even stronger than physical might. It is the strength of bonding between black blood-sisters and black friend-sisters. Bonding joins these different black women together just as scraps of cloth are joined together to form a new, strong whole creation — a quilt, a central metaphor in Letter 40 and throughout the novel.
To begin with, we are introduced to a man who looks like a professional "strong man." To Celie, he is "Prizefighter," so we assume for the sake of the story that he is one. Prizefighter's name is Henry "Buster" Broadax; he is Sofia's new man. Unlike Harpo, Buster feels no need to beat Sofia into submission since he won her admiration by fighting in the ring. This recognized strong man is not a violent man, however, except professionally. Privately, Buster is a gentleman, explaining that his job is "to love [Sofia] and take her where she want to go."
Sofia, on the other hand, even though she is a mother with six children, always uses violence to solve her problems. Violence is the only weapon that Sofia has against black men and white society. In fact, Letter 36 is proof that Sofia is not above slugging two teeth out of a black sister if that woman is dumb enough to strike out and slap Sofia.
Harpo's mistress, Squeak, ventures into the world of violence for the first time and tangles with the wrong woman. Normally, Squeak is passive — "Like me," Celie says, and we realize that Squeak did not strike out stupidly at Sofia. Squeak was trying to defend her place in Harpo's life and her place in Harpo's home, especially after she heard Harpo tell Sofia that his house, the jukejoint, was still Sofia's house.
In an almost parallel situation, Sofia slugs the white mayor, who is trying to patronize Sofia and take her out of her own home in an effort to try and put her in his wife's kitchen. Sofia, like Squeak, is not going to passively allow another woman to take her away from territory that is hers. But in the case of the mayor, Sofia's violence encounters even a stronger violence than Sofia's — that is, the violence of the white police. Sofia is overpowered and is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Ironically, Sofia's strongman boyfriend, "Buster," cannot save the woman he loves from a force more powerful even than violence — that is, he cannot save Sofia from the iron fist of racism.
Had Sofia not fought back at the whites, however, she still would have been punished because she cursed the mayor's wife, and had she not fought back, she would have always wished she had. There is no way that Sofia can keep her dignity and not offend the mayor and his wife. Ultimately, the whites give Sofia no choice.
We realize anew that there is no justice for blacks in the white system of "law and justice," and yet, despite those odds, Squeak, Shug, Celie, and Odessa (Sofia's sister) make plans to try and defy "the system." By using cunning and deviousness, they hope to keep Sofia from serving twelve years in a prison that is already making her a broken and helpless emotional and psychological cripple.
Just as Albert and Celie earlier befriended Shug from the town gossips, now Shug, Celie, Squeak, and Odessa mean to defend Sofia. These women have witnessed and suffered great pain through years of degrading injustice in their own lives, but they have been able, somehow, to cope with it, and now they realize that Sofia can no longer cope by herself. Celie says, "When I see Sofia, I don't know why she still alive." Sofia's spirit has been broken by the whites. It is almost miracle-like that she manages to stay alive. Touchingly, and yet humorously, Sofia tells Celie that the only way that she survives is by acting "like I'm you. I jump right up and do just what they say." Sofia endures — but just barely. She has become a non-entity in order to survive.
It is totally unexpected that Squeak — Little Miss Mouse — is chosen to be the strongest link in the sisterhood of strength and defiance. Squeak is chosen to be the mediator between the black woman Sofia and the white man who represents Prison. For that reason, perhaps, Walker chooses to have Squeak described as "yellowish." Squeak is half-white and half-black, meaning that she has milky skin. Moreover, Squeak admits reluctantly that she is related to the white prison warden. Racially, Squeak is a link between the two races. Now, that "link" between the two races will be used, hopefully, to free Sofia from her prison sentence.
Squeak agrees to go to her white uncle and plead for Sofia, the woman whose children she has been a stepmother to during Sofia's term in prison. Squeak's role as a mediator demands unusual strength, but Celie recognizes the fierce spirit that is alive and strong within the tiny-voiced, diminutive Squeak. "She carry on," says Celie, "Hair a little stringy, slip show, but she carry on." The power of racism is strong enough to unite (1) Squeak and Sofia, these two women whom we saw fighting between themselves not long ago, as well as unite (2) the dramatically dissimilar Celie and Shug and Odessa.
Letter 40 describes the women's plan: they intend to dress up Squeak like a white woman, which in itself shows us how far the women are willing to go in order to try and manipulate the dominating white power structure. They know that the odds aren't good, but they have hope.
Squeak is wearing a dress, and although it is patched, it is starched and ironed. In addition, Squeak has on high heels and a hat and carries a quilt-design purse and a Bible — a bizarre combination, certainly, almost crazy-quiltlike, but remember that the image of a quilt is one of the metaphorical devices that unifies the fabric of this novel.
The grease that the women wash out of Squeak's hair in order to make her look more persuasive is a petroleum jelly-based moisturizer used to keep Squeak's hair soft. It is applied to soften her hair, but it is shampooed out when she is about to pay her visit to jail because of its smell. It becomes rancid when left in too long. Squeak must appear to be a proper, humble black woman, but one with enough "style" to dress like a white woman. The smell of hair grease wouldn't help her in her charade.
Squeak no doubt resembles on the surface what a white woman in advertisements looks like to Shug and Celie and Odessa. But with God and luck and Squeak's "white" accessories, the women's plan might just work.
One of the central things that you should be aware of in this scene is Walker's focus on the women's preparation for their undertaking. They know that not only is Squeak's appearance important, but that her performance is important also. The women are trying to out-think the white man. They are hoping that he will be naive enough to believe that a black woman is happier in prison than she would be in the kitchen of a white woman. Therefore, using Brer Rabbit psychology, they hope to convince the white man that if he really wants to punish Sofia, he would take her out of prison and make her work for a white woman. Sofia's boldness, they hope he will remember, confirms this fact. Sadly, however, the real truth of the matter is this: Sofia cannot truly be happy in any place that confines her.
The mention of Uncle Tom in this letter is intentional. In literature, Uncle Tom was a clever and intelligent slave who was able to help his people. Harriet Beecher Stowe immortalized him in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Since then, however, the term "Tomming" has come to mean the overly polite actions of a fawning and flattering black person who is trying to win favor with a white person, or escape punishment. It is ironic that Shug tells Squeak to be sure and tell the warden that she, Squeak, thinks that "justice ought to be done." When did a black man or woman, in the time frame of this novel, ever receive justice?
Again, note that one of the keys to this letter lies in the motif of quilts and patches. Both quilts and patches are symbolic of how the black women in this novel, as well as all black people whose families have been torn to scraps by the white man, must unite to fight against the whites. Just as pieces of separate garments are joined together and used to make a warm and enduring patchwork quilt, a sense of strong, patchwork unity can strengthen the women as they attempt to try and save Sofia.