Alice Walker's The Color Purple presents the life-long struggle of Celie, a black Georgia woman, who yearns to obtain confidence and self-esteem. During the early stages of the novel, references to wagons are made, signifying the "old days," whereas towards the end of the work automobiles surface. Though Walker never discusses any specific time or place where the story actually occurs, the change in transportation suggests about a forty-year span of Celie's life, from the beginning of the novel until the end. Written in first person, Celie writes a series of letters to God, explaining the torture that she faces, and begging him for some form of mercy.
After years of abuse, both physically and emotionally, Celie discovers herself searching for some self-respect. Fonso, Celie's abusive father, forces her to marry Albert, also abusive by nature. Celie finds a degree of hope through the depiction of Albert's mistress, Shug.
Shug serves as a tremendous force in Celie's attainment of confidence, as the two eventually form a strong bond. Celie's sister, Nettie, intelligent and caring who "mean[s] everything in the world" to Celie, also faces many of the same obstacles that Celie does, but Nettie first helps Celie overcome hers. As time passes, Celie gains more and more self-respect as well as some respect from others.
The central theme flowing throughout the work remains that man often defeats his problems through the nurturing of close intimate relationships. The bond between Shug and Celie allows Celie to conquer her passive behavior. Likewise, her relationship with Nettie also instills a strong sense of courage and self-esteem within Celie. Celie refuses to allow the horrible deeds of the men in her life to control her towards the latter stages of the novel. The intimate relationships that Celie shares with both the energetic Shug and the loving Nettie provides Celie with hope that she will one day come out of her passive shell.