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 possibility of change through love and moral responsibility. Grange finds a productive way out of his anger by himself; his reclusive solution allows Ruth to reenter the world with the inner strength imperative to a black woman’s survival. Walker’s attempts to understand the reasons behind Grange and Brownfield’s violence do not condone it; rather, the motives revealed serve to clarify the means to change it.
First published: 1976
Type of work: Novel
A young, black, single mother becomes involved with the Civil Rights movement, coupling self-determinism with a commitment to poor black people in the South.
Walker’s second novel, Meridian, explores one black woman’s experience in the Civil Rights movement, the psychological makeup of which fascinates Walker more than the political and historical impact it had. Meridian exemplifies Walker’s ability to combine the personal and the political in fiction. Whereas Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, moves chronologically, Meridian is constructed of smaller “chapters” that make up the novel, as Walker has said, much as pieces of cloth compose a quilt.
Meridian Hill grows up in the South, marries a high school boyfriend, becomes pregnant, and has a son. She experiences mixed feelings about motherhood, often fantasizing about killing the baby. After her husband leaves her, Meridian lives in emotional limbo, daydreaming and watching television—on which, one morning, she sees that the nearby house where the voter registration drives are organized has been bombed. She decides to volunteer to work with the movement, more out of curiosity about what the people are like than from any political ideology. One of the workers is Truman Held, a man with whom Meridian will have an ongoing, although stormy, relationship.
Because of her unusually high intelligence, Meridian is offered a scholarship to Saxon College, and when she discovers that Truman attends college in Atlanta, his potential proximity becomes a motivating factor in her decision to accept it. Against the protests of her mother, Meridian gives away her baby, believing that he will be better off with someone else, and leaves for Saxon College. As a former wife and mother, Meridian is not the socially preferred virginal Saxon girl. Much as Walker’s experience at Spelman proved paradoxical, so Meridian feels the pull of her former life, feminism, and the Civil Rights movement.
The world beyond Saxon seems to contradict itself as well. Truman becomes involved with a white exchange student, Lynne, a baffling development to Meridian. Walker’s story explores the difficulties an interracial relationship encounters; the reactions it causes in families, friends, and society in general; and the confusion of a political statement with love.
Throughout Truman’s fascination with Lynne and other white women, he periodically returns to Meridian for spiritual and physical comfort. One of those homecomings leaves Meridian pregnant, and she suffers a subsequent abortion alone, never telling Truman. Although Meridian ultimately reconciles spiritually with Truman, she must learn to love and accept him and Lynne in the act of letting them go.
Letting go becomes a discipline that Meridian perfects as her purpose matures. When the movement demands that she vow to kill for it if need be, Meridian cannot comply. She realizes her willingness to sacrifice and even die for the cause, but when she cannot say what the group wants to hear, Meridian lets them go. She returns to the South, where she lives a spartan life of emotional wealth, working for poor black people in small, everyday ways. Such seemingly insignificant protests, in fact, come to define the Civil Rights movement for many people. Again, Walker extracts the political from the personal.
Meridian’s almost saintly qualities magnify Walker’s belief in the power of personal discipline. Meridian is not perfect, however; her physical maladies and her guilt concerning her mother and child combine effectively to cripple her until she determines to move toward a life of work with which she is morally comfortable. Only then does her strength return. By her example, Truman comes to see the power in her life and dedicates himself to similar work.
Meridian proclaims that true revelation comes from personal change and growth. Although the novel deals with a particular political time period, implications of moral responsibility, love, and sacrifice transcend the specific, making Meridian a novel of timely worth.
The Color Purple
First published: 1982
Type of work: Novel
Celie’s letters to God and to her sister Nettie illustrate her metamorphosis from oppression to confidence; Nettie’s letters from Africa record her experience as a missionary.
Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple, made her famous, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. The novel takes the form of letters: from Celie to God and Nettie, from Nettie in Africa to Celie. The letters afford the characters the opportunity to speak in their own voices, their own unique language. Not only does the language enhance the storytelling qualities of the novel, but the changes in Celie’s language also illustrate her emotional growth.
Warned by her father to tell “nobody but God” about his sexual abuse of her, Celie writes letters to God that tell of repeated rape resulting in the births of two babies, of the babies’ removal by her father, and of being married off to Mr. _______, a man whose name Celie will not speak. Woven into the letters as well are details of day-to-day farming life in the South that involves racism and economic hardship. Celie’s life of mistreatment and drudgery continues unabated until Shug Avery, a blues singer and Mr. _______’s former lover, appears. Shug is beautiful, stubborn, and independent—traits that Celie has never seen in a woman. Their unlikely friendship changes Celie’s life. Shug convinces Mr. _______ to stop beating Celie and encourages her to see herself as a worthwhile person. The feeling between them intensifies, and Shug and Celie become lovers for a time.
It is Shug who discovers and procures the years of letters from Nettie hidden in Mr. _______’s trunk. From Nettie’s letters, written in a language illustrating her education, Celie learns that the man who raped her was not her biological father and that her two children were adopted by the same missionaries with whom Nettie lived and traveled to Africa. Although it intensifies her hate for Mr. _______, the culmination of this knowledge, coupled with loving Shug, frees Celie from the guilt and poor self-image she had developed at the hands of men.
Exemplifying Walker’s theme of self-determinism, Celie, at Shug’s urging, exhibits a “womanist,” entrepreneurial streak and begins to create and sell pants for men and women. The pants allow her a creative expression and suggest Celie’s liberation from men on an economic as well as a physical level. Through Shug’s belief of God’s existence in everything, Celie reclaims her spirituality as she reclaims her body and soul by becoming comfortable with herself, a transformation that occurs in her language as well. This new Celie eventually makes peace with Mr. _______, whom she comes to call Albert. Albert’s maturation and Celie’s forgiveness reflect Walker’s recurrent theme of the possibility of change—that there can be respectful relationships between black men and women.
Nettie, her husband, Samuel, and Celie’s children return from Africa to reunite the family, their missionary work having proved futile. Much as Celie’s was, Nettie’s God has been transformed to an immediate, internal spirituality. Nettie’s faith in Celie, shown through years of unanswered letters, coupled with Celie’s reciprocal faith, even after Nettie’s supposed drowning on the return ship, underscores the kindred spirit of the long-separated sisters.
For all the praise it received, The Color Purple also received much criticism for its negative portrayals of black men. The optimism of the novel outweighs its negativity, however, and Celie’s triumphant embrace of a vital existence reflects Walker’s hope for humanity.
First published: 1981 (collected in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, 1981)
Type of work: Short story
A white rock-and-roll singer becomes famous by singing a song purchased from a black woman blues singer, but he never understands the song’s meaning.
The story “1955” appears in Walker’s collection of stories You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down; it is a creative depiction of one incident of black musicians’ exploitation by the white-dominated entertainment industry. Elvis Presley made Mama Thornton’s ”Hound Dog” a hit; similarly, in “1955,” Traynor sings Gracie Mae Still’s song into stardom.
The story clearly addresses a political issue, but Walker’s approach transcends the political theme by creating multidimensional characters, drawn together by what separates them. Traynor becomes a pitiable character, as victimized by the entertainment industry as Gracie Mae—more so, in that he lacks her sense of self-worth. The greatest irony involves Traynor’s lack of understanding of the song; never being in emotional possession of the song brings Traynor repeatedly to Gracie Mae, who cannot explain what lies beyond his understanding.
Over the years, Traynor gives Gracie Mae a car, a farm, a house, and countless other presents in an attempt to return some of the wealth her talent helped him attain. Traynor’s success debilitates him spiritually, while Gracie Mae maintains a wisdom and integrity that Traynor cannot attain. Walker’s “womanist” message is clear in Gracie Mae’s inner strength and compassion that is great enough to embrace the man she so easily could have hated.
“A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring”
First published: 1981 (collected in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, 1981)
Type of work: Short story
A black student returns South from her northern college for her father’s funeral and sees new worth in what she left behind.
“A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring” appears in Walker’s collection of stories You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down. The story examines a turning point in the psychological development of a black college student who has left Georgia for an exclusive northern college, a scenario reminiscent of Walker’s personal experience, and employs recurring themes of family dynamics, racism, and feminism.
Sarah Davis feels better suited to her northern home and is not pleased with the idea of going South for her father’s funeral. Her opinion of the South and of her father in particular has inhibited her growth as an artist; she cannot render black men on paper at all, not having the strength to draw what she sees as complete defeat. While she is home, however, interactions with her brother and grandfather, made more meaningful by her recent distance from them, open her eyes to her grandfather’s innate dignity and her brother’s youthful promise. Free from a single, oppressed image of all black men, Sarah feels she may now portray her grandfather in stone.
Mirroring Walker’s own diverse experiences, the story underscores the significance of recognizing the worth in one’s diversity. As Walker’s writing is influenced by everything from her sharecropper beginning to the Civil Rights movement, so Sarah’s work is broadened by reopening a door she thought closed. Sarah’s pivotal trip home allows her to see the narrowness of the northern college as well. Choosing not to allow one environment to define her gives her the freedom to define herself.
To Hell with Dying
First published: 1967 (collected in In Love and Trouble, 1973); republished with illustrations in 1988
Type of work: Short story, then children’s book
An old man is loved by the children of his community, who find his company a special gift.
Mr. Sweet is a sick old man whose multiple ailments bring him often to the brink of death; the narrator’s father and the children would call him back from his deathlike state by calling “To hell with death!” and surrounding him with affection. The story describes Mr. Sweet lovingly so that the reader can see that someone others might reject as a person of no account (he gets drunk on his own home brew and chews tobacco) is in fact important to the family and to the town. The “resurrections” in which the children participate hide from them the reality that death is permanent. Finally, when the narrator is away at college, Mr. Sweet gets sick again, and this time no one can call him back. After his death, the family celebrates him, and the narrator accepts the gift of Mr. Sweet’s guitar, which she plays in his memory.
Published originally as adult short fiction and included in Walker’s collection In Love and Trouble, this clear, gentle short story needed only the addition of some fine illustrations to become a children’s book, where its message of acceptance and inspiration is transparent. It is different from other children’s stories of death because it does not hide the unacceptable parts of the main character and because it does not offer any traditional consolations, only that of remembered affection. It represents a child’s viewpoint (remembered, as the narrator is now grown up) of a society in which affection and tolerance for difference are important values.
First published: 1973 (collected in In Love and Trouble, 1973)
Type of work: Short story
A decision over who gets the family quilts helps to define heritage.
The speaker in this story is the mother of two very different girls, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has stayed home with her mother and lived an old-fashioned, traditional life, while Dee has gone off to school and become sophisticated. Dee comes home with a new name, Wangero, and a new boyfriend; she claims that she wants to take the family heirlooms along as a part of claiming her true identity as an African American. She especially wants the quilts, which she plans to display on the wall as artworks because of their fine handiwork. Maggie, on the other hand, had been promised the quilts for her marriage; she loved them because they reminded her of the grandmother who made them. Dee feels entitled to them, but the speaker chooses to give them to Maggie—not to show but, as Dee says scornfully, “for everyday use.” Dee sweeps off with her other trophies, and the mother and Maggie remain together, enjoying a heritage that is experience and memory, not things to put on display.
“Everyday Use” is probably Walker’s most frequently anthologized short story. It stresses the mother-daughter bond and defines the African American woman’s identity in terms of this bond and other family relationships. It uses gentle humor in showing Dee/Wangero’s excess of zeal in trying to claim her heritage, and her overlooking of the truth of African American experience in favor of what she has read about it. Dee has joined the movement called Cultural Nationalism, whose major spokesman was LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). In fact, however, Dee’s understanding of the movement’s basics is flawed, and she is using bits of African lore rather than a coherent understanding of it. Walker doubtless intended this misinterpretation. The contrast is clear—the snuff-dipping, hardworking mother who tells the story has passed her true inheritance, not quilts but love, to the daughter who is not book-educated but who belongs to the tradition.
“The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
First published: 1973 (collected in In Love and Trouble, 1973)
Type of work: Short story
An old African American woman seeks revenge through Voodoo for the needless, careless destruction of her family years ago.
The speaker is the apprentice of Tante Rosie, a Voodoo practitioner consulted by Hannah Kemhuff, a sick, elderly African American woman who desires revenge. Her family was lost because help was refused them during the Depression when they were starving. Because the family seemed too well dressed, having been given some hand-me-downs, a woman would not give them the meager food that was being handed out to the hungry. The woman who turned the family away is now wealthy and self-satisfied, attended by her servant. Tante Rosie offers to help Hannah Kemhuff and prepares to go through the Voodoo ritual, which involves the collection of such objects as fingernails and hair clippings. Her apprentice, the narrator, goes to visit the woman who had caused the disaster, Sarah Marie Holley, and makes her purpose of collecting the physical materials for the ritual clear. Hannah Kemhuff dies of her illness, and Sarah Marie Holley, trying to avoid the Voodoo threat, dies shortly afterward, basically of a wasting illness brought on by terror.
Voodoo brings Hannah her revenge through natural rather than supernatural means. This story creates suspense as to whether its conclusion will affirm a belief in Voodoo, but it does not have the depth of character or sense of community evident in many of the other stories that appear in the collection In Love and Trouble. Its main interest is that, in preparing for the story and researching Voodoo, Walker found the works of Zora Neale Hurston, which opened new doors for her. The story is dedicated to the memory of Hurston.