Alice Walker American Literature Analysis
Walker is at home in many literary forms, managing originality and innovativeness in whatever genre she chooses, be it poetry, essay, or long or short fiction.
Walker identifies diverse literary influences as well: Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, and the nineteenth century Russian novelists among them. Walker’s style is characterized by clarity and experimentation. In particular, the language of her characters marked Walker early in her career as a careful listener and later as a medium through whom the characters speak.
Walker’s experience with the novel form began with The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a straightforward, chronological novel. Meridian moved away from strict chronology, using vignettes as puzzle pieces. Those two novels show the conception of character and language development that bore unique fruit in The Color Purple. Using for that novel a common nonfiction form, a collection of correspondence, Walker functions as a medium through whom two sisters tell the novel, each in changing language that reflects her life’s experience. The Color Purple epitomizes Walker’s control of believable dialogue. Similarly, in The Temple of My Familiar, the characters share narration, which gives the effect of storytelling and reveals much of their personalities through their use of language.
The reader of Walker’s work finds that the common thread binding the varied genres is Walker’s genius of kneading the personal into the political, the unique into the universal. Most of the drama experienced by Walker’s characters points to a larger issue. For example, her black female characters experience much in common with the larger black female population: the search for self-reliance and self-confidence and the embrace of a black feminist stance referred to by Walker as “womanism.”
Although Walker’s characters do not function as autobiographical vehicles for her personal experience as a black woman in the South, neither are they homogeneous composites. Walker strives not to sacrifice character for stereotype merely to fulfill an African American or “womanist” agenda. Instead, she creates believable heroines. Ruth, Meridian, Celie, and Shug are made fine, in part, by their flaws; from their believable experiences, a light may be brought to bear on more universal truths.
Hand in hand with the recurring theme of the black woman’s struggle in a white-dominated society is Walker’s controversial representation of the black man and the black woman’s struggle against him. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian, and The Color Purple, black men react against their economic and social oppression by dominating their wives, lovers, and daughters. Walker has received criticism for these repeated “negative” portrayals, but she creates from a primary moral responsibility to what she believes to be the truth—part of that truth being that, through honesty, understanding and change come. Particularly in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker dissects her black male characters’ violence in an attempt to understand the frustrations and results of repressed anger. Not an apologist, Walker ultimately demands that black men assume responsibility for their actions.
The tension between black men and women usually takes precedence in Walker’s fiction over the issue that, in large part, precipitates it: the oppression of black people by white people. In the tradition of Hurston’s fiction, Walker’s black characters do not think about white people constantly. Walker focuses far more on the internal struggles of black people and the black community than on the relationship between the races. As Walker demands the assumption of responsibility by black men, so she commands all of her black characters to look to themselves, to find their inner strengths and talents and thereby improve their lives. This is not to say that civil rights issues and political activism do not play a role in Walker’s fiction, only that civil rights must begin with personal growth and family relationships.
Ruth is introduced to the Civil Rights movement in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, but Meridian, in particular, portrays one woman’s discovery of the sanctity of change offered by the Civil Rights movement. Meridian realizes that the best way she can help people is to put them before the movement that, to her, becomes a separate entity whose radicalism she cannot embrace; moral integrity overrides a political agenda.
The importance of the family unit is another theme on which Walker varies throughout her fiction and nonfiction. Given the dysfunctional marriages and relationships between black men and women presented in her work, the hope of sanctuary in the family may at first appear absurd. The contradictions fade, however, when Walker’s broader definition of family is understood. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland, for example, Ruth and her grandfather form a family unit based on trust and reciprocity. In The Color Purple, the two sisters’ faith in their relationship, even when separated by years and miles, takes them farther spiritually than God can; Celie’s family expands to embrace Shug and even Albert. Slavery destroyed family relationships for the African American; Walker suggests reclaiming the family as an important element of black self-determinism.
Religion as a theme also appears in Walker’s fiction and nonfiction, religion as a broad concept embracing self-determined redemption, as in the case of Grange Copeland, as well as Nettie’s Christian missionary stance in The Color Purple. In the latter novel, Shug’s belief that God is in everything allows Celie to begin to make peace with the heinous wrongs done to her. The concept of a “womanist” God is further developed in The Temple of My Familiar, in which Shug and her notion of a continually self-renewing female creative principle reappear. The idea of personal integrity and independence becomes a religious concept in The Color Purple and elsewhere in Walker’s work. Walker’s personal spiritual journey toward harmony with the earth’s environment (involving becoming a vegetarian) and with the universe is described and celebrated in Living by the Word.
The concept of the ever-present capacity to change runs through Walker’s life and work. The theme of change accompanies each of the already discussed themes: race, the oppressed and oppressive black male, “womanism,” civil rights, the black family, religion, even the language by which Walker’s characters express themselves.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
A black tenant farmer achieves integrity from a life of oppression, and redemption through love and sacrifice.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker’s first novel, is the chronological story of three generations of a black sharecropping family in the South. The novel addresses several issues that occupy Walker’s career: the abuse of black women by their husbands and fathers, the Civil Rights movement, and the necessities of self-reliance and moral responsibility.
Grange Copeland begins his married life with Margaret as an optimistic sharecropper. By the time their son Brownfield is born, however, the white landowner’s exploitation of Grange’s labor, resulting in irreversible indebtedness, has spawned hopeless frustration. Grange’s feelings of inadequacy precipitate a rage that finds misdirected expression in the abuse of his wife and son. He drinks heavily and begins a sexual relationship with a prostitute. When Margaret retaliates by having sex with white men, which results in a light-skinned baby, Grange abandons Margaret and the children, going north. Completely demoralized, Margaret kills the baby and herself, leaving Brownfield alone.
Brownfield determines not to work for the same white man who controlled his father, but even as he tries to break from Grange’s behavior pattern, he unknowingly becomes involved with Josie, his father’s mistress. This ironic situation takes a positive turn, however, when Brownfield falls in love with and marries Mem, Josie’s educated niece. Walker explains in a later afterword to the novel that she named this character from the French word la meme for “the same,” and Mem proves to be the same kind of victim Brownfield’s mother was and that countless other black women have been.
Mem dreams of a middle-class life for them, and Brownfield believes, as did Grange, that working as a sharecropper will be a stepping-stone to this better life. As was the case with his father, a growing family and indebtedness work against him. Mem’s attractiveness and education, the very traits that drew Brownfield to her, become symbols of his failure, and he sets out to destroy her so she will be the ruined woman that he believes he deserves. Mem, no matter how Brownfield batters her, manages always to hold up her head and tries to improve their situation. Mem’s persistent hope, a trait long gone from Brownfield, finally enrages him so much that he murders her.
Grange had returned from the North before that happened and made an effort to help his son and Mem, but Brownfield bitterly refused the atonement. After Brownfield murders Mem, Grange takes his youngest granddaughter, Ruth, to raise. The reader is told at this point in the novel that Grange’s experiences in New York were no better than life in the South. The crisis of trying to save a drowning white woman, only to have her refuse his hand because it is black, proved a pivotal point for Grange. The woman’s death triggers his active hostility toward all white people, and having finally taken an indirect revenge against them, Grange feels renewed and vindicated. Purged from the old, defining victimization, Grange chooses sanctuary from white people and a self-determined life. He marries Josie, buys a farm, and vows to give Ruth a nurturing environment away from white people and the violence born of frustration.
Ruth matures into an independent young woman who, having been sheltered by Grange, does not share his bitterness toward society. Through the media and the local activities of civil rights workers, Ruth comes to believe in the possibility of social change. Grange humors Ruth’s ideals, but he still cannot bear the thought of a white woman under his roof, civil rights worker or not.
Grange’s greatest battle must still be fought on the home front when Brownfield is released from prison and seeks custody of Ruth, not because of love but in rage against his father. A corrupt white judge gives Ruth to Brownfield, but Grange, having suspected the outcome, shoots his son in the courthouse to prevent Brownfield’s sure destruction of Ruth. Grange and Ruth escape to the farm, where Grange prepares to defend his autonomy to the death. Educated, self-reliant, and full of a hope that Grange himself had lost, Ruth emerges the black woman that Margaret and Mem could have been.
Walker’s novel delivers an ultimately hopeful message of...
(The entire section is 4627 words.)
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