The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. It is composed of letters between Celie and her younger sister, Nettie.

Celie is raped by the man she calls Pa, who threatens her into silence. So Celie addresses her opening letters to God, in which she details the violence and the tragedy of her everyday life. Her only comfort is Nettie.

Celie gives birth to two children. Pa steals them and tells her he has killed them. Celie is later forced into an abusive and loveless marriage with Mr._ (who she does not address by his first name, Albert, until much later). Mr._ continues the cruelty that has become so familiar to Celie. He rapes her, beats her, and treats her like a slave. He is in love with Shug Avery and, frustrated that he cannot marry her, takes this out on Celie.

Eventually, Nettie flees their childhood home and travels to Africa as a missionary with a minister and his wife. She takes care of and teaches the minister’s children. She comes to learn that the children are Celie’s, sold by Pa. As they make their home in Africa they do not join the Olinka tribe, but find their own views of God changing. The minister’s wife dies and Nettie marries him. Celie’s son Adam marries Tashi, an Olinka girl.

Back in America, Celie and Shug Avery develop a deep friendship and become lovers at one point.  Celie begins to see beyond sexual oppression toward sensuality. Through Shug and other women in her community, Celie gains a sense of independence and economic freedom by establishing her pant-making business. Ultimately, she is reunited with her sister and children.