Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for literature. An epistolary novel, it consists of letters written by Celie—first to God, then to her sister Nettie—and her sister Nettie to Celie. In it, Celie tells of her sexual abuse by her father (or stepfather, as she later discovers), her marriage to Mr. _______, who marries her to find a caretaker for his children while he moons over his true love, the singer Shug Avery, and Celie’s own sexual awakening with Shug. Meanwhile, Nettie also escapes from their family, and winds up going to Africa with Samuel and Corinne and their two adopted children (who are actually Celie’s offspring, the product of her stepfather’s rape). The novel ends with an emotional reunion between the sisters and their families.
From the beginning of the novel, Celie is described as “ugly”: her Pa, when trying to convince Mr. _______ to take her off his hands by marrying her, tells him frankly that “She ugly.” Though Mr. _____ is more interested in Celie’s sister Nettie, their Pa is determined to marry of Celie first: “She ugly. Don’t even look like she kin to Nettie. But she’ll make the better wife. She ain’t smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own. But she can work like a man” (18). At this point, Celie has already described her frequent rape by her Pa, and that she’s already born two of his children (which he has killed). This knowledge of her molestation provides an odd context for her Pa’s characterization of her as ugly, a description which implies a certain kind of de-feminization of Celie, as her Pa describes her as able to work “like a man.” And again, when Celie first sees Shug Avery, Shug’s first reaction to Celie (Shug herself being sickly and described in unattractive terms: “Under all that powder her face black as Harpo. She got a long pointed nose and big fleshy mouth. Lips look like black plum. Eyes big, glossy. Feverish. And mean” (50)) is to confirm Celie’s ugliness: “She looked me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it” (50).
Importantly, though, at this point we still don’t know much about Celie’s appearance; when she tries to change her dress before Shug arrives, she admits that, “a new dress won’t help none with my notty head and dusty headrag, my old everyday shoes and the way I smell” (49). Toward the end of the novel, Celie looks in the mirror and sees, “My hair is short and kinky because I don’t straighten it anymore. Once Shug say she love it no need to. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored curly hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh” (229). Despite her characterization as “ugly” by other characters, Celie herself sees nothing incredibly out of the ordinary in her physical appearance. So, even though Walker gives physical descriptions of other characters, Celie’s characterization of “ugly” seems primarily based on her clothing and ability to work “like a man,” perhaps characterizations which to a certain extent mark her as failing to conform to expected gender norms. When combined with her own attraction to women, it seems as if the characterization of “ugly” is more related to her sexual and gender noncomformity than any particularly marked or noticeable physical characteristics. It is her gender noncomformity which people read on her body.
When Celie is talking to Sofia (her stepson Harpo’s wife), Sofia tells her, “The Lord don’t like ugly,” to which Celie replies, “And he ain’t stuck on pretty” (46). This exchange then “open[s] the way for our talk to turn another way,” and they’re able to share more with each other. In this early work, Walker seems to be anticipating the middle way of the Buddhism about which she would write much more explicitly in years to come. Though Walker has been criticized for her portrayal of the black men in this novel, for creating unflattering portraits of violent men who rape and beat their children, I think that such a reading is missing what I read as an important dynamic quality to these characters. By the end of the novel, Mr. _______ has changed enough that he and Celie become friends: partly united through their joint love of Shug, but also through Mr. ______’s maturity and realization of his past wrongs. Celie’s Pa dies and leaves his house to her; while as a reader, this gesture is not enough to make me forgive him for his abuse of Celie, it is more than I had expected of him.