Summary and Analysis
Having thrown off Fonso and Albert's vicious domination, Celie's newfound strength begins to crumble. Why? she asked God in the first letter she wrote to him, and now, she asks why again. Long before Job, people who were victims of injustice cried out to their gods and, when they got no answer, they did what Celie does here — that is, she seemingly renounces God. Celie has sufficient psychological distance now that she can look back on her childhood and on the numerous times that she was raped and beaten. She tries to reconcile all that physical abuse with her unflagging love and belief in God. It is little wonder that Celie wonders if God isn't, after all, "just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown." Celie was strong when the situation called for strength; now that the crisis is past, she lets down and allows herself to feel the awful pain of injustice once again.
For the first time in the novel, Celie resents all of the unnecessary pain she has endured for decades. Significantly, Celie relates all this pain to the way that men have treated her. Seemingly, her faith is gone. But if faith is figuratively like flat land, and Celie's doubts and blasphemy are like debris that covers that flat land, remember that debris does not destroy the land. For the present, Celie thinks that God has betrayed her and ignored her; God seems to be only another callous, uncaring man.
We can accept the likelihood of Celie's feeling this way, but what catches us unaware in Letter 73 is not Celie's anger, but, in contrast, Shug's defense of God. From the beginning, Shug has been a "sinful" person — drinking, smoking, whoring, and so on. In fact, in Letter 22, the minister at church used Shug as an example of a tramp, "a strumpet in short skirts . . . singing for money and taking other women mens."
Shug's ideas about God are quite different from Celie's. Because Shug views life and the world as beautiful, she thinks that God wants all of his children to participate in life as a joyous celebration. "To please God," Shug says, "I can lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy. Have a good time." Shug thinks that it's a sin not to be happy and appreciate beauty — and, furthermore, she thinks that a person should look for beauty. Shug believes that it "pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
Celie's idea of God is wholly different from Shug's. Celie has suffered misery from men, and she has believed that she had to accept it. To her, God was just another man, up in the sky, a white man who was patiently listening to her. Now Celie believes that God allowed her to suffer and paid no attention to her prayers. She is furious. Therefore, Shug patiently has to explain, in essence, that God is not a man and certainly not a white man. God, to Shug, is everything. God is so much everything that he — or more correctly, it — cannot be visualized or expressed completely. God is not white, or black, or male. God is God. He gave Celie, Shug emphasizes, life, good health, and "a good woman [Shug] that love you to death."
It is absolutely believable that Celie would believe that God was a trifling man. As an oppressed black American, she has been taught that white men are the superior source of authority. Likewise, God is omnipotent. For that reason, Nettie's observation that Jesus had lamb's wool-like hair (kinky) was a puzzling idea to her; that kind of hair allows for the possibility that God is black. When Celie says, "If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place," she is saying that God is white, male, and rich. Celie read Nettie's letter about Jesus' hair being kinky, but clearly, she did not believe it. Shug reinforces Celie's notion: "The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky," she says.
Celie's anger continues to lash out against God and against men, and, therefore, Shug, Celie's mother figure, decides that it is time to invite Celie to come to Memphis with her. Celie accepts Shug's invitation, but before she leaves, she seizes the opportunity to release once again all of the pent-up fury and frustration in her soul. Much to the astonishment of everyone, Celie tells Albert off. In her own words, she tells Albert that she's leaving, and that his dead body is "just the welcome mat" she needs to step on in order to "enter into the Creation."
In addition, Celie lashes out against Harpo, blaming him for Sofia's miserable fate. In retaliation, Harpo and Grady and Albert blame their wives for their troubles. Thus, Squeak decides to join the wives — Celie and Shug — and go to Memphis. Squeak wants a career and independence. Shug, of course, already has an exciting career and independence.
In a parallel of Shug and Celie's relationship, in which Celie (the wife) was kind to Shug (the mistress), Sofia (the wife) is kind to Squeak (the mistress). Sofia promises to look after Squeak's child while Squeak lives in Memphis. Almost as an afterthought, Squeak advises Sofia to look after Harpo too, implying that Harpo is still part child himself.
The relationships between mistresses and wives in this novel seem rather unconventional; in most novels, wives battle mistresses, and vice versa. It is possible, however, that Walker intentionally creates relationships based on the West African tradition of polygamy, a tradition in which the wives are bonded through work and friendship as though they were sisters.
Note that Celie, Shug, and Squeak are not going to some mythical Land of Happiness in the North. At that time, there were still Jim Crow laws in the South that prohibited blacks from using the same public facilities as whites, but the women aren't "running"; they are staying in the South, driving to Memphis, through northern Georgia, "going off in the bushes," if necessary, but staying in the country they know — claiming what they can, as long as they can.
As you read Letter 76, recall Nettie's first letters describing Africa. Here, Memphis is just as exotic for Celie as Africa was for Nettie. Both sisters witness rare animals and unfamiliar living quarters; each of them has entered worlds that they never thought they would, and each of them enters by the grace of someone else's sincere kindness. Nettie was not Samuel or Corrine's maid, nor is Celie Shug's maid. Both sisters reach their full independence by striking out on their own; they celebrate their identities when they leave the plantation.
It's not every woman who can sew, but we have seen throughout the novel that Celie is an excellent seamstress. She has sewn several quilts. This is the first time, though, that she's been able to sew creatively. And for her continued growth as a woman, it is necessary for her to begin her sewing business as a pantsmaker — not a "dressmaker." Not long ago, Shug offered to sew some pants for Celie in order for her to work more easily in the fields. Now, it is Celie who is sewing pants for Shug to wear when she sings onstage. Celie proves to be just as good a seamstress as Shug is a songstress. Both women are "originals"; before Celie sewed up her idea, nobody ever made "folkspants" before.
Returning to the plantation, in Letter 78, Celie has "visitor status" now, as opposed to member status. Albert does not even recognize her when he sees her. She looks pretty, feels great, and has smoked marijuana in order to get closer to God. She has Shug to thank for introducing her to both getting high and theism. "Girl, I'm bless. God know what I mean."
Harpo, we see, has become more of a father to Albert than he ever was a son to him. After Celie left, he even bathed Albert, comforting him and holding him in his arms. Albert suffered a kind of emotional stroke when he realized that Shug and Celie left him for each other. Recall that in Letter 74, Celie cursed him, vowing that he would suffer, just as he made her suffer. Albert has suffered; we can believe that he has experienced frustration, humiliation, and depression, and he seems ready to change. Harpo has even made Albert give Celie the rest of Nettie's letters.