While watching The Color Purple in class today, I was struck by how disturbing and astounding it is that Mr. can be so many different people at once. Or rather, how the same person can treat different people so differently.
In the novel, we’re first introduced to Mr. as Nettie’s “boyfriend” who looks at her in church and comes to their home every Sunday with interest in marrying her (4). Celie even tells Nettie to marry Mr., seeing it as an alternative to having to stay with Pa (5). And when Nettie runs away from home to Mr.’s place, he puts on “his Sunday best” and compliments her on all aspects of her appearance (17). Mr. almost comes off as an acceptable suitor who politely flirts with Nettie from afar. That all changes after Nettie rejects him too many times, resulting in her being kicked to the curb and in Mr. stealing all of her letters to Celie.
When it comes to Celie, Mr. is abusive, ungrateful, and disregards her as a person entirely. Harpo asks Mr. why he beats Celie and his answer is simply “cause she my wife,” as if this is grounds for abuse (22).He has sex with her as if she isn’t even there, just using her to “do his business” (65). Mr. demands that Celie work and cook and care for the children, all while he sits on the porch and smokes.
But with Shug, Mr. becomes Albert. Albert takes Shug into his home when she’s sick, taking her insults and commands without a word in response or even lifting a finger in anger. He even shows an emotion other than anger when Celie finally gets Shug to eat, saying he’s “been scared” and “[covering] up his eyes with his hands” (52).
So with Nettie he’s a casual suitor, with Celie he’s an abusive husband, and with Shug he is totally lost and would do anything to please the woman he loves. For someone to be such a repulsive human being in one setting and yet act strongly out of love in another is so surprising and confusing. I spent the entirety of the book cursing Mr. and being completely befuddled at how Shug could ever have loved him – or love him still. But towards the end of the book, Mr. reveals more and more of his personality as Albert and shows his softer and more grateful sides. And while this in no way makes up for the abuse the he forced Celie to endure, it shows that Mr. was struggling in his own mind too, with his own pain and insecurities.