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Literature / The Color Purple

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"I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."
Shug Avery

A 1982 novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was later made into a 1985 film and a 2005 musical. In particular, the film version was director Steven Spielberg's first pure-drama film (and one of the very few Spielberg films not scored by John Williams) and the film debuts of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

When we first see the protagonist, Celie, she's fourteen and twice pregnant by her father. Her "Pa" then forces her into a marriage with "Mister," a widower far more interested in her younger sister, Nettie. Fortunately, Celie finds friends with Mister's old flame, Shug Avery, and Sofia, the strong-willed wife of Mister's son Harpo. These friends help Celie find the strength to become her own woman throughout the thirty years the story takes place.


This novel and film contain examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Pa beats, orders around, and sexually abuses Celie.
    • Albert also abuses his children. During a scene he's chasing his son around attempting to whip him with a belt.
  • Adapted Out: The mayor's daughter Eleanor Jane. She is the sole white character who gets an inkling of the injustices Sofia and other blacks have suffered. She attempts to atone for her part in the unjust treatment of Sofia by caring for Sofia's daughter Henrietta, and is the one who reunited Sopfia with her family that eventually leads to the She's Back moment below.
  • And Introducing: This marks the first film for Whoopi Goldberg.
  • The Atoner: Emphasized in the film when Mr. arranges for Celie's children to visit America.
  • Bait-and-Switch Lesbians: Despite an explicit queer romance in the book, in the film Shug and Celie only kiss once but nothing more comes from it and they're still left paired with male lovers (Celie with her abusive spouse, Shug returning with a new male spouse).
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  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: It's revealed that Albert's evil streak was instilled in him by his father, same goes for Harpo by Mister. In addition, Albert is in love with Shug, but is forced to live with someone he doesn't love, Celie — and Celie receives a good amount of abuse for not being Shug.
  • Bloody Handprint: Celie leaves a bloody handprint on a rock on the ground (in graphic view) after being struck by one of her stepchildren.
  • Bookends: The film begins with Celie and Nettie among violets, playing a clapping game. It ends with the two sisters playing the same clapping game when they reunite decades later.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Both the book and the film indicate that Sofia is way ahead of her time, which is what gets her beaten, jailed and spiritually broken for a long while.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Squeak finds out the hard way that it's not a good idea to slap Sofia. Especially after calling her a heifer. Several times.
  • Calling the Old Man Out:
    • Towards the end, Eleanor Jane discovers just how her parents "convinced" Sophia to be their maid. She responds by willingly helping Sophia help Celie run her shop, and when her parents protest this, Eleanor Jane simply tells them that a woman like Sophia didn't deserve to have to work for trash like them.
    • In the film, Albert has his own "Eureka!" Moment when Old Mr. insists what he really needs is a new woman. Albert just shoves him out the door.
  • Closet Key: Shug, for Celie.
  • Cool Big Sis: Shug Avery starts out as this.
  • Curse: Celie gives an epic one to Mister when she prepares to leave for Memphis with Shug: "Until you do right by me, everything you even think about is going to crumble." Though it's heavily implied that Mister's own Heel Realization soon afterward is what turns his life to shambles. He simply gives up any semblance of housekeeping, and only snaps out of it when Old Mr. tells him to get another woman.
  • Dangerously Close Shave:
    • Celie contemplates giving this to Mister before the razor's swiped from her hands.
    • Mister is savvy to this very early on, warning her that if she ever so much as scratches him during a shave, he will kill her.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In all iterations, girls as young as 14 are seen as eligible for marriage, which can be incredibly unsettling to a modern audience. There’s also a rather casual attitude to people of either sex hitting their spouse, and it’s seen as a minor annoyance at best and a necessary discipline at worst. The story is set in the late 1920s to early 1930s, and the movie treats these topics rather critically.
  • Disney Death: Celie believes her two children are killed in infancy by Pa after he takes them away from her after childbirth. Turns out they survived past infancy; they were just sold off to different adoptive families as orphans.
  • Does Not Like Men: Celie, even going so far as to compare them to frogs in the novel. Considering how she's been treated by most of the men she knows, it's hard to really blame her.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Mister telling Harpo that "Wives is like children".
  • Domestic Abuse: Exaggerated. The idea of a husband hitting his wife is seen by most characters as either simply disprespectful at best or a necessary discipline at worst. None of Celie’s friends consider pressing charges, though they do acknowledge that it’s a bad thing and Shug takes Celie with her when she realizes Nettie is alive. Justified in that this is a Period Piece and takes place in 1930s America. And of course it makes sense that black people in that time period wouldn’t trust the cops.
  • Domestic Appliance Disaster: Albert has no idea how to do any household chore, but insists on preparing breakfast for Shug Avery. Thinking the (fire fueled) oven does not work fast enough, he pours too much petrol in it and the inevitable bonfire ensues.
  • Don't Split Us Up: Between Celie and Nettie.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Mister. In the novel, Celie just calls him "Mr. ___" and notes that others call him "Albert;" the film canonizes Albert Johnson as his name.
  • Foreshadowing: As Shug paints her red nails, she is told by one of the children that Celie is shaving Mister. She continues on at first as the camera zooms on her abruptly stopping, hiding her facial expression of seeing the bigger picture.
  • Good Feels Good: Albert finally "doing right by" Celie, by paying for her family to come back from Africa.
  • Grew a Spine: Late in the film, Squeak, inspired by Sofia, rejects her nickname, stating "My name is Mary Agnes".
  • Henpecked Husband: Harpo seems to be one, as Sophia seems to bully him around. Mr. telling him to hit her causes their separation, but it's repaired by the end of the film, when Mr. says, "It sure is good to see... you two together again."
  • Hide Your Lesbians: The lesbian themes of the book gets scrapped in the movie, aside from Celie still finding Shug pretty and one kiss scene.
  • Ill Girl: Henrietta suffers from sickle cell anemia.
  • Incest-ant Admirer: Nettie is aware that Pa wants to sexually abuse her too and is Squicked out by it. Pa keeps trying. That is, until Nettie runs away.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: When they're separated, Nettie declares only death will stop her from writing, but no letters come. Mister, meanwhile, refuses to let Celie at the mailbox, saying he'll beat her if she opens it. He's hiding all of Nettie's letters to spite her for fighting off his rape attempt. Celie and Shug find a whole trove of them.
  • Karma Houdini: Pa is never ever forced to face the consequences of his cruelty.
  • Known Only by Their Nickname: "Shug" is not Shug's real name, but rather a diminuitive of Sugar. There's only one line in the novel that reveals her real name, which is Lilli. When Sophia "comes back to live", Squeak announces her name is not Squeak; it's Mary Agnes.
  • The Lad-ette: Don't try to hit Sofia. You'll get the hardest beating.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: Celie and Nettie learn that their abusive father is their stepfather, not their biological father. Their biological father died when they were too young to remember him.
  • Living with the Villain: From an arranged marriage no less.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Celie and her children.
  • Love Triangle: Mister/Shug/Celie.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Sophia and Harpo, at first. In the novel, Sophia makes mention of how Harpo loves to do traditionally feminine things like cooking, housekeeping and taking care of the children, while she prefers working in the fields and chopping wood.
  • Marital Rape License: After being married off to Albert, Celie has to deal with being raped daily by her husband.
  • Mood Whiplash: The very opening scene, after the two sisters are shown enjoying themselves among the flowers. It immediately cuts to Pa emotionally abusing them, and then stealing Celie's child right out of her arms immediately after she gives birth.
  • Not Worth Killing: Sofia pleads this when Celie has a carving knife against Mister's neck.
  • Obliviously Evil: Miss Millie. She may not be as overtly nasty as the more present antagonists, but she's also too self-absorbed to notice her own abhorrent behavior.
  • Offing the Offspring: What Celie believes has happened to her two children post-birth. Turns out they're still alive.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Celie's stepmother, whom she meets at Pa's funeral, looks barely older she herself was when Pa married her off to Mister. And she has a toddler in her arms.
  • Out with a Bang: Pa dies while having sex with his current wife; when asked how he died, his child bride covers her toddler's ears, and says softly, "On top of me". In the novel, Celie hopes that he'd gotten struck by lightning or died from a terrible disease, and is disappointed when she finds out he died quickly and relatively peacefully.
  • Parental Substitute: In the book, Sophia becomes the mother of Squeak's children with Harpo, her own children having forsaken her.
  • Parental Incest: Celie and Nettie are regularly abused by their father Pa who has sexually abused Celie and impregnated her twice. He later tries to do the same with Nettie but she escapes. It turns out her father was not her biological father.
  • Queer Romance: From the get-go the book makes it clear that Celie is attracted to Shug and that she isn't attracted to men. Shug and Celie's friendship eventually turns sexual, culminating in a rocky romance. The film tones this down to just Homoerotic Subtext.
  • Rape as Drama: In the first few pages of the book... and Walker was just getting started.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Celie delivers a very well-deserved one to her husband, along with a Curse that he had coming.
  • Rejected Apology: Eleanor Jane tries hard to get Sofia to acknowledge Eleanor Jane's son, because from her eyes she was a family member. However, Sofia rejects her, telling her that she just can't. She was victimized by white people and specifically her family and she has no empathy for her or her infant, at all — and assumes that Eleanor Jane will grow up to be as racist as her parents. Eleanor Jane vows that won't be the case, but the book is doubtful too, and never resolves the issue. The film replaces the scene with Sofia being cold towards a white toddler instead.
  • The Reveal: Celie finds out her father wasn't her biological father, so her children were not the result of Parental Incest.
  • Screaming Birth: Celie is depicted going through this in the beginning as she screams, sweats and bleeds profusely through a very painful birth before her second child, a girl she named Olivia, is born.
  • She's Back: Invoked when Sophia returns to her old self after being encouraged by Celie telling off Mister and leaving.
    Old Mr.: The dead has come back to life.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Sofia is reduced to a broken shell after spending prison time for assaulting a racist mayor. An opportunity to crack a good joke later brings her back to her old self again. In the film version, this moment comes when Celie finally stands up to Mister. The film goes on to subvert this trope shortly afterward, when Celie tells Mister straight out that she's prepared to kill him if he tries to stop her from leaving. Sofia visibly shrinks, showing the audience that her old self is still in there, but truly overcoming her time in prison won't be that easy.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Celie is attracted to Shug and only Shug throughout the entire novel.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Unfortunately justified as this book/film takes place in the 1910s/early 1920s and Celie is black, poor and a woman - as Mister points out, who would care?
  • Stalking Is Love / Stalker with a Crush: Celie for Shug, especially after their kiss.
    Celie Shug like honey and I just like a bee.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The arrival of Shug Avery.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: After Sofia returns from prison, it's been so long that she cries because she no longer knows any of her friends or family.
  • Tamer and Chaster: The book has quite a bit of sexuality in it, especially concerning Celie's sexual exploration, which the film removed.
  • Title Drop: Happens while Shug and Celie are passing a field of flowers.
  • Token Black Friend: Deconstructed; Miss Millie is very attached to Sofia, but doesn’t actually care much about Sofia’s needs or the fact that she separates her from her children for EIGHT YEARS. The two also only become friends after Sofia is arrested and forced to work for her lest be given a harsher sentence. It’s also unusual of course, in that Sofia is much more of a prominent character than Miss Millie. It is Miss Millie's daughter, Eleanor Jane, who realizes how screwed up it is and tries to make amends.
  • Tranquil Fury: Celie, when she finally stands up to Mister.
  • Traumatic Haircut: When Celie has a hard time combing her stepdaughters' hair, she suggests shaving the hair off and starting fresh, but Mister disagrees and says that it is "bad luck to cut a woman hair". The girls have to then endure hours of pain as Celie tries her best to detangle their hair.
  • Villainous Incest: Pa with his daughter Celie and attempting to do the same with her sister Nettie, who's later revealed to be not her real father.
  • You're Not My Mother: Uttered by a young Harpo when he hurls a rock at Celie's head, knocking her to the ground.

The Musical contains examples of:

  • In Mysterious Ways: The title of the opening number, where the congregation praises God's ability to bring good out of evil. There's some Alternative Song Interpretation going on... the congregation gossips about some of the abuse going on in Celie and Nettie's house, but do little to help.
  • Lighter and Softer: The musical takes on a more comedic and empowering tone, and while not dismissive of its darker subject matter, the comedic moments are more common. Several characters are also kinder and more encouraging to Celie.