Celie's life has never been easy. She's black and lives a life of poverty in the southern United States. At least she can go to school with her little sister, Nettie. Her teacher has never seen two girls more hungry for knowledge.
That changes when Celie's mother decides she's done having babies. In an era before birth control, 14-year-old Celie bears the brunt of her father's pent-up sexual frustration. He rapes her and chokes her and swears her to secrecy. It would kill your mother, he says. But keeping secrets doesn't keep a girl from getting pregnant, and with no other men in the picture, Celie's mother suspects the truth. She dies during Celie's second pregnancy. Although both babies are born healthy, her father steals them in the night. Celie doesn't know if he's killed them or sold them.
Celie's father remarries. His teenage bride is no older than Celie and unable to cope with the demands of an already large family. He still rapes Celie whenever his wife is sick, but Celie has become infertile. Nettie has a boyfriend at church — Mr. ___ (how Celie writes his name throughout the book). He is a widower with four kids. But when he asks for Nettie's hand in marriage, her father refuses.
Mr. ___ is still in love with his former lover, Shug Avery. Celie's new mother gives her a picture of Shug that Mr. ___ dropped. She is a beautiful young woman. Celie begins to dream about Shug. Celie's father offers Celie instead of Nettie to Mr. ___. He finally agrees to marry her after a cow is included in the bargain.
Life at Mr. ___'s house is pretty much the same as life at home. Celie has sex with Mr. ___ and takes care of his small house and unruly children. He beats her. One day in town, Celie sees her daughter. She is being raised by a minister and his wife who are relatively well-off. Celie is glad that she is safe and well.
Nettie runs away from home and comes to live with Celie and Mr. ___. He tries to seduce her but fails. When Nettie refuses his advances, he tells her to leave. Celie tells Nettie about the minister and his wife. Nettie promises to write but never does.
Celie learns that after Mr. ___ married his first wife, he kept seeing Shug. She also learns that Shug is a singer. When Shug comes to town for the weekend, Mr. ___ gets all spruced up to go see her. He disappears for several days. When he returns, he refuses to work and sits moping on the porch all day, every day.
Mr. ___'s oldest son, Harpo, wants to marry Sofia, a girl he meets at church. Her parents don't approve, but he gets her pregnant and then marries her anyway. They live in a converted shed on Mr. ___'s property. Mr. ___ starts paying Harpo for the work he does on the farm. For three years, Harpo lives happily with his little family. But Sofia is different from Celie. She talks back. She doesn't always obey him. Beat her, says Mr. ___. Jealous of their happiness, Celie agrees.
Unfortunately for Harpo, Sofia is bigger — and stronger — than he. Attempted beatings turn into fights. Harpo always loses. Celie apologizes to Sofia for telling Harpo to beat her, but Harpo keeps trying.
Shug gets sick. No one will take her in because people say she has a "nasty woman" disease. Mr. ___ brings Shug home. Celie is delighted to finally lay eyes on Shug and eager to nurse her back to health. Shug is as nasty on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside, but Celie cares for her with fierce loyalty and slowly wins her friendship. The two become very close.
Harpo begins to eat constantly, even when he's not hungry. Sofia knows he's trying to get as big as she is so he can finally beat her. She takes the children and leaves him.
Harpo doesn't go after them. Instead, he works day and night, turning his home into a juke joint. By the time it's built, Shug is almost well. Harpo convinces her to come and sing, and the place is packed. Celie goes to watch, and Shug dedicates a song to her. Celie confides to Shug that Mr. ___ beats her when Shug's not there. Shug convinces Mr. ___ not to beat Celie anymore.
Sofia returns to Harpo's juke joint with her new boyfriend. She dances with Harpo, but Harpo's new girlfriend, Squeak, is jealous and slaps her. Sofia punches Squeak in the face and then leaves. She then gets into a physical altercation with the mayor and his wife and is arrested. She spends most of her 12-year sentence working without pay for the mayor and his wife.
Shug has become a successful singer. She returns to Mr. ___'s house for Christmas with a new car and a new husband, Grady. Shug and Celie become lovers. Grady flirts with Squeak, who wants to become a singer like Shug.
Celie finally gets a letter from Nettie. She is a missionary in Africa with the minister and his wife (Samuel and Corrine) and Celie's two children (Olivia and Adam). Shug tricks Mr. ___ into telling her where he has been hiding Nettie's letters. Celie tries to murder Mr. ___, but Shug stops her. They sneak the letters out of Mr. ___'s trunk and read them.
Nettie writes that Mr. ___ tried to rape her when she left the house, but she escaped. She went to work for Samuel and Corrine, the couple who had adopted Olivia and Adam as their own. She continued her schooling, and when the opportunity came for her to go with them to Africa, she went. For years they ministered to the Olinka tribe with discouraging results, especially when a rubber company destroyed their land and forced the village to relocate. Nettie also learned that her and Celie's father was not actually their biological parent. Their natural father had been a successful store owner before he was lynched. His death drove their mother mad.
After realizing how cruel Mr. ___ has been to keep Nettie's letters from Celie, Shug insists that she return to Tennessee with her. But first, they go to visit Celie's stepfather. His second wife took his children and left, and he married another teenage girl. He is now a wealthy store owner and has a large, beautiful house. He is dismissive to Celie. She and Shug leave after learning that both of Celie's parents are buried in unmarked graves.
Sofia finally comes home. Her children had been raised jointly by Sofia's sister Odessa and her husband and by Harpo and Squeak. Shug, Grady and Celie announce that they are leaving and taking Squeak with them. Celie curses Mr. ___ for everything he's done to her.
While Shug travels and sings, Celie sews pants. Her sewing endeavor turns into a successful business. When Sofia's mother dies, Celie returns. Mr. ___ has changed. He works hard and is not as quick to judge others. Sofia and Harpo have also ironed out their differences and built a new home together. Celie learns that Corrine passed away and that Nettie and Samuel are married. They feel like failures as missionaries and plan to return to the U.S.
Celie's stepfather dies and leaves Celie and Nettie his house and dry goods store. Celie prepares it for the return of Nettie and her family. Shug, who is now pushing 60, falls in love with Germaine, a 19-year-old flute player. She leaves Celie but promises that she'll be back after she has her fling. Celie and Mr. ___ develop a friendship of sorts. He keeps his house spotlessly clean and collects seashells. Then Celie receives a telegram. Nettie and her family drowned when their ship was sunk by mines. All of her letters are returned unopened.
Celie is sad but doesn't believe Nettie is dead. She continues to receive letters from Nettie and Shug. She and Mr. ___ spend time on the porch talking about Shug and about Celie's children in Africa. Mr. ___ listens to her now, and she teaches him how to sew. Nettie writes that Adam has married one of the Olinka girls named Tashi. Sofia works in the dry goods store. Mr. ___ asks Celie to marry him, but she refuses. Shug returns, her fling over. She plans to retire from singing.
One day, Shug, Celie and Mr. ___ are sitting together on the porch when a vehicle drives up. Nettie, Samuel, Adam, and Tashi step out. There is a joyous reunion. Celie's unorthodox family is finally complete. She feels younger than she ever has.