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What happened to nettie and celie’s real father?

In Alice Walker’s acclaimed 1982 novel The Color Purple, sisters Nettie and Celie endure traumatic childhoods and turbulent young adulthoods. One of the great mysteries of the book is what exactly happened to the girls’ biological father, who abused and impregnated Celie repeatedly before disappearing from their lives.

Though the details are sparse, a careful reading of Walker’s novel provides clues about the father’s likely fate. By examining the timeline of events, contextualizing the setting in rural Georgia, and analyzing the characterization of those involved, we can piece together a probable explanation for the father’s disappearance and what ultimately happened to him.

Celie and Nettie’s childhood

Celie and Nettie grow up poor in the rural American South during the early 20th century. Their childhoods are marked by unimaginable trauma and hardship:

  • Their mother becomes ill and dies when they are very young.
  • Their stepfather sexually abuses Celie repeatedly, starting when she is just 14 years old.
  • Celie gives birth to two children as a result of this abuse, but her stepfather takes them away from her soon after they are born.
  • Nettie tries to intervene and protect Celie, but is unable to stop the abuse.

The abuse goes on for years until Celie is married off to a widowed farmer named Albert, or “Mister.” Nettie refuses to be separated from her sister, so Mister reluctantly agrees to take her in as well.

Clues about the father’s disappearance

It is implied that the girls’ stepfather is in fact their biological father, but the details are kept purposefully vague. A few clues in the novel reveal some of what happened to him:

  • Shortly after Nettie comes to live with Celie and Mister, she mentions that their father was ill but would not let anyone call a doctor.
  • Some time passes without any update on the father’s health or whereabouts.
  • Eventually, Nettie writes in a letter that “Pa died” without providing any further details.

From this, we can surmise:

  • Their father became seriously ill at some point after Celie’s marriage to Mister.
  • He refused medical treatment and likely died as a result of this untreated illness.
  • His death occurred while Celie was living with Mister and Nettie was still back home.

Examining the historical context

To better understand what may have happened, it is helpful to examine some of the historical context around the novel’s setting in rural Georgia during the early 1900s:

  • Limited medical care – The lack of hospitals and doctors meant treatable conditions could easily become fatal.
  • Rural isolation – Distance and lack of transport made it difficult to seek outside help.
  • Self-reliance – People prized rugged self-sufficiency and looked down on relying on others.

With this context in mind, it becomes easier to see how the father could have refused medical treatment and subsequently died of an illness that may have otherwise been treatable if caught earlier.

Examining the father’s characterization

While the father remains a shadowy, barely present figure throughout most of the novel, a few insights into his character can help explain his fate:

  • Controlling – He dominates Celie and Nettie, separating them when he marries Celie off to Mister.
  • Abusive – He repeatedly rapes Celie, exhibiting a horrific abuse of power.
  • Proud – Nettie emphasizes his refusal to let anyone help when he falls ill.

This paints a picture of a man too controlling and proud to admit weakness or seek assistance, even at the cost of his own life. His illness may have been seen as just punishment for his misdeeds.

Putting together the likely scenario

Though the novel leaves the details ambiguous, we can logically infer that:

  1. Celie and Nettie’s biological father remained living in the family home after marrying Celie off to Mister.
  2. At some point he became seriously ill, but was too stubborn and prideful to seek medical help.
  3. With limited access to doctors, his condition progressively worsened until it became fatal.
  4. He died from this untreated illness while Celie was married and Nettie was still living at home.

Nettie’s brief mention of his death with no further details suggests he was not mourned and had become an unpleasant presence in their lives. His abusive behavior toward Celie likely meant neither sister grieved his passing.

Why the ambiguity?

Walker leaves the father’s fate ambiguous, giving just enough clues to piece together a general idea of what happened. There are a few possible reasons for this narrative choice:

  • The father represents the trauma and oppression Celie and Nettie must overcome, so dwelling on his specific fate is less important than focusing on their growth.
  • Obscuring the details reinforces how insignificant he becomes in Celie’s life once she escapes the abuse.
  • Leaving it somewhat open invites the reader to actively engage in interpreting what happens.

Rather than providing definitive answers, the ambiguity around the father’s fate allows the narrative to focus on Celie’s empowering personal journey.


Alice Walker crafts a meaningful narrative without definitively revealing the fate of Nettie and Celie’s biological father. But by piecing together clues from the novel and analyzing them in context, the likely scenario is that he became seriously ill but refused treatment due to his controlling, proud nature, eventually succumbing to the untreated illness while Celie was married to Mister. The ambiguity places the focus firmly on Celie’s growth rather than the abusive father, driving home her inspiring transition from victim to victor.