Shug Avery: A Free Spirit
In The Color Purple by Alice Walker, when Celie, whose brutal story the audience reads about through her letters, meets Shug Avery, Mr. __’s mistress, the audience is immediately confronted with an unlikeable character whose introduction is jarringly negative. Having sympathized with Celie throughout the story, the audience makes the connection that Shug’s opposing personality foils Celie’s in many ways; however, as the story progresses and Shug and Celie’s relationship develops past its initial bounds, the audience sees Shug as someone who is more than a simple, one-dimensional character. As more of her character traits are revealed through her friendship with Celie, Shug is shown to be a free spirit through spite, a caring personality, and a blatant sexual life.
As a pivotal character made prominent in Celie’s letters, one of Shug Avery’s most explicit traits is her spitefulness. Shug is both Mr. __’s mistress and Celie’s idol, and when she is first introduced, Celie writes, “She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. . . . You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believe it” (Walker 46). Shug’s first words to Celie are not only rude but also purposely hurtful. Shug even makes a point to emphasize her action of looking at Celie from “head to foot” before insulting her to make her words cut deeper; Shug knows that she herself is an attractive woman, so lowering Celie’s self-esteem through her appearance is an easy task. Even though Shug does not wish to marry Mr. __ because of his flaws, she feels resentful of Celie for marrying Mr. __ when she could not due to Mr. __’s family’s opposition of her. This spitefulness manifests in her cruel words to Celie when they first meet, even going as far as to say to her face that Celie “sure is ugly.” She does not know Celie at all, but just because Celie is Mr. __’s current wife, Shug’s pettiness at not being allowed that title years ago makes her lash out at Celie without any regard to her feelings. Another example of Shug’s spitefulness is when Mr. __ is complaining about what his wife can and cannot do, to which Shug replies, “. . . Good thing I ain’t your damn wife” (Walker 73). Although Shug initially feels bitter about not being Mr. __’s wife when she first insults Celie’s appearance, Shug sees the way Mr. __ treats Celie, who is his actual wife, and feels so annoyed with his constant ramblings that she sasses Mr. __ through saying it is a “good thing” that she is not his wife. She knows that Mr. __ wanted to marry her in the past and that he still loves her now, so her words cut deeply enough to hush him. Tired of hearing his complaints, she pettily implies that she does not want to be his wife if his complaints are what she will have to confine herself to, just as Celie does. Celie, who Shug does not know at the time, and Mr. __, who is Shug’s lover, both experience her free-spirited lack of restraint with her sharp tongue. Shug’s spiteful nature is an important, unadulterated character trait of hers.
Although Shug Avery is a spiteful woman, she is also just as equally caring. Once Shug mends her rocky relationship with Celie, the two women become close friends and even closer confidants. When Shug learns that Celie endures physical abuse from Mr. __ when Shug is not around, Shug says, “I won’t leave . . . until I know Albert won’t even think about beating you” (Walker 76). Despite being healthy and singing strongly again after recuperating from an illness in Mr. __’s home, Shug decides to halt her own life for Celie’s sake because she does not want her friend to suffer anymore. Shug voluntarily stays longer than she needs to despite her bigger plans because she truly cares for Celie’s wellbeing; even if she loves Mr. __, Shug is not willing to overlook his abuse knowing that Celie will take the brunt of it once Shug leaves. In another instance, when Celie retells her tragic past for the first time in her life outside of her letters, Shug comforts Celie: “Don’t cry, Celie, Shug say. Don’t cry. She start kissing the water as it come down side my face” (Walker 114). In being the first person to ask about Celie’s past whereas not even Celie’s own children or husband had, Shug shows that she deeply cares and feels for Celie. Shug goes from originally resenting Celie to going through great efforts to comfort her, which emphasizes the fact that she has learned to care for Celie. Just to prove that somebody can love Celie unlike what history has shown and that Shug actually cares about her, Shug initiates a pleasurable sexual relationship with Celie built upon mutual trust and understanding. Victoria Bond’s corresponding magazine article “‘The Color Purple’ Is a Cultural Touchstone for Black Female Self-Love” claims, “Celie and Shug don’t end up together in either the novel or the movie, and that’s not the point of the story.” Shug cares about Celie, and though their relationship is not the main highlight of the story, the mere action of Shug showing Celie love not only builds Celie’s self-confidence, but it also proves that Shug is willing to care for someone as broken and tragic as Celie as more than a friend. Shug’s free-spirited nature does not care about the fact that a lesbian relationship is considered extremely odd or that she has conducts a sexual relationship with both Celie and Mr. __, just that she wants to care for Celie in any way possible. By going through such a significant effort to comfort Celie, it shows that Shug truly is a caring person.
According to the customs of the early twentieth century, Shug Avery is considered a very sexual woman by the time period’s standards. When Shug is too sick to care for herself and Celie is put in charge of washing her, Celie writes, “She say, Well take a good look. Even if I is just a bag of bones now. She have the nerve to put one hand on her naked hip and bat her eyes at me” (Walker 46). Although the early 1900s was a conservative period for women, Shug flaunts her body and assets in front of Celie without any shame because she knows she is beautiful. Partially to mock Celie for her inexperience, Shug brags about her attractive appearance through her flamboyant actions instead of ignoring Celie’s admiring look. While women in this era cover up and feel scandalized by the mere mention of sexual appeal, Shug openly embraces it in an unrestrained, independent manner that emphasizes just how free-spirited she is. On the topic of Shug’s relationship with Mr. __, when Celie asks if Shug likes to sleep with Mr. __, Shug replies, “Yeah, Celie . . .I have to confess, I just love it. Don’t you?” (Walker 78). Shug’s open acceptance of sex and how she enjoys it stands in stark contrast to the overall social expectations of women during the first half of the twentieth century, which encouraged women to be pure, innocent, and conservative in showing skin and feeling pleasure. Her free-spirited personality manifests in the way she indulges in sex with Mr. __, who is married to Celie, and even Celie herself without hesitation; Shug’s promiscuous behavior is independent of social norms, and her attitude about sex—that a woman is a virgin until she experiences her first orgasm—contradicts the common belief of sex as something a man does to a woman for his pleasure, not the other way around. In terms of the social norms of the early 1900s, Shug is a very sexual person.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple depicts a character named Shug Avery who, by being spiteful, caring, and sexual, is a free spirit. Although the audience first views Shug as an antagonistic woman, through her interactions with Celie and their powerful friendship, Shug reveals more character traits that define her as unrestrained and independent from social norms of the early 1900s.