Study Guide

Alice Walker

Alice Walker Essay - Walker, Alice (Vol. 19)

Walker, Alice (Vol. 19)

Introduction

Walker, Alice 1944–

Walker is a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has consistently reflected concern for the plight of the black American family. Her fiction is noted for its powerful narrative and sensitive portraits of black life in America. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)

Chester J. Fontenot

[The double-consciousness of which W.E.B. Dubois writes,] "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity," produces two warring factions: To be an American and a Black person. The struggle between these two unreconciled strivings threatens to plunge the Black American, in particular the Black artist, into a sort of half-way house, where the artist is neither accepted as a part of the American literary tradition, nor as a Black artist worthy of critical attention. (p. 192)

[Alice Walker's] "The Diary of An African Nun" is a supreme statement of the dilemma. Though this short story is only six pages in length, it contains material for a novella. It is divided into six parts and is set in an African mission school in Uganda, where an African woman has rejected her traditional tribal religion for Christianity. Walker begins Part I by introducing things which are not only foreign to African culture, but which also suggest tension between the "true" spirituality of African culture and the materialistic underpinnings of European culture. (p. 193)

Just as the Europeans question her commitment to the Catholic Church, so does the Black nun feel uneasy about her rejection of African traditional religion and values. She repeats her vows to the Catholic Church, but cannot help remembering the colonization of her people by Europeans. She says that, "I was born in this township, a village 'civilized' by American missionaries."… Walker's usage of quotations around the word "civilized" emphasizes the irony in her using the term. The things which one would call civilized are all materialistic. The first part of the story ends as the nun gazes at the Rewenzori mountains; she tells us that they "show themselves only once a year under the blazing heat of spring."… It is at this time that the snow, which is a false covering, melts and reveals the true nature of the mountains. The nun, like the mountains, is within a sort of superstructure which inhibits natural growth.

Part two seems to suggest the ultimate irony of an oppressed group—that is, the oppressed sees himself or herself through the eyes of the oppressor and seeks to assimilate into the society the oppressor has set up. Once the oppressed achieves this goal, he or she realizes two things: 1) The alien society does not want him or her to be a part of it, and it will never provide the means by which the oppressed can function as a full member of that society; and 2) the oppressed realizes that he or she really doesn't want to become a part of the dominant society…. The oppressed is halfway between the world of the oppressed and that of the oppressor, yet belongs to neither. But the important thing to consider is that to reach a vantage point from where the oppressed can become conscious of his or her predicament requires that the oppressed distance himself or herself from the socio-cultural milieu which confronts him or her. The African nun reaches this ironic stance when she recalls the way she became a nun. (pp....

(The entire section is 1282 words.)

Peter Erickson

One of the major concerns of Alice Walker's art is the exploration of intra-family relationships…. The family dynamic in Alice Walker's work is a key part of the formative influence of "what has gone before." In Walker's first novel, the family configuration is defined by the child's special relationship to her grandfather and by the tension between father and grandfather. The use of the family as an imaginative structure—as a way of organizing experience—then undergoes an important change: the prominence of the grandfather as against the father in the first novel gives way in the second to an emphasis on a daughter's guilt-laden relation to her mother. (p. 71)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland …, a novel which concerns three generations of a rural Southern black family, begins by demonstrating with a vivid matter-of-factness the family's entrapment in a vicious cycle of poverty. Permanently indebted to the white owner of the cotton fields in which he works, Grange Copeland seeks release in drinking, in violence against his wife, and in being "devoid of any emotion."… Particularly convincing is the picture of Grange's submission as seen from the point of view of his son Brownfield, who has begun to work in the fields at the age of six…. (pp. 71-2)

To compensate for his emotionally absent parents, Brownfield dwells in the fantasy created by his "favorite daydream."… (p. 72)

Much of the interest lies in seeing how the novel makes the leap from the pattern of destructive family relationships to the positive image of family at the end…. (p. 73)

The style of narration is deceptively simple. Each element is in itself simple, but the steady accumulation of detail creates a complicated effect of density and generational depth. The novel's forward movement is swift, inexorable, and yet—paradoxically—casual and imperceptible. The numerous shifts of situation through the course of the novel give it an epic-like sweep which makes it seem hard to maintain one's bearings and to keep track of developments as an entire sequence. One crucial event, however, clearly defines the shape of the novel by dividing it in two. This key turning point occurs when Brownfield murders his wife Mem and his father Grange takes away his daughter Ruth…. Prior to this decisive midpoint of the novel, we witness a series of false escapes from despair. Tantalizing hopes are raised to be regularly and cruelly punctured. (pp. 73-4)

Though it is reserved for the second half of the novel, the relationship between Grange and Ruth constitutes the emotional heart of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. This relationship, the most fully developed in the book, is lovingly and often humorously described. Grange's association of Ruth with "innocence" and "miracle" …, the sanctity of family bonds rescued from the threat of degradation, and the air of improbability are reminiscent of Shakespeare's late romance, with the grandfather-daughter tie substituted for father-daughter pairing. In Walker's novel, the relationship between grandfather and daughter is strongly redemptive. Ruth saves Grange; Grange, in turn, saves her. Ruth is the source of Grange's "third life."… Grange nurtures Ruth and, in the end, defends her independence at the cost of his life. The sense of redemption is qualified by the price which has to be paid for it. The novel's conclusion is compelling because it lies somewhere between a happy ending and a melodramatic...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)

Michael Dirda

Walker's poems [in Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning]—dealing with her parents (Willie Lee is her father), friends and lovers, black history—use clean, clear language and syntax. Sometimes they address the reader directly; often they carry morals and are written as allegories, somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Crane's little symbolic story-poems: "Never offer your heart / to someone who eats hearts / who finds heartmeat / delicious / but not rare / who sucks the juices / drop by drop / and bloody-chinned / grins / like a God."

Michael Dirda, "In Praise of Poetry," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), December 9, 1979, p. 11.∗

Mary Helen Washington

From whatever vantage point one investigates the work of Alice Walker—poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and apologist for black women—it is clear that the special identifying mark of her writing is her concern for the lives of black women. (p. 133)

[There] are more than twenty-five characters from the slave woman to a revolutionary woman of the sixties [about whom she has written]. Within each of these roles Walker has examined the external realities facing these women as well as the internal world of each woman.

We might begin to understand Alice Walker, the apologist and spokeswoman for black women, by understanding the motivation for Walker's preoccupation...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)