Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a three-generational account of the Copeland family, begins in rural Georgia in the 1920’s and ends during the early stages of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s. The novel records the impact of racism and poverty on one family by emphasizing what it does to individuals and by showing what individuals must do to keep alive kinship, the strongest weapon black people have to fight injustice.
Using a conventional chronological plot and an omniscient third-person narrative point of view, Walker begins by detailing the lifestyles of Grange and Margaret Copeland. Grange and Margaret work hard to make a life for themselves and their son, Brownfield, but they are unsuccessful in rising above what Walker documents as almost absolute poverty and degradation.
Grange works as a sharecropper, planting, chopping, and picking cotton for a white man named Shipley. No matter how hard he works, he can never get out of debt to Shipley. Grange responds to his cycle of poverty by keeping his best self secret. He never smiles at his son or his wife. He rarely even talks to them, and when he does it is to say something harsh. The immediate consequences of Grange’s reaction to poverty and oppression are that his son and wife fear him. Brownfield develops a barely suppressed hatred for his father, and Margaret goes out of her way to please Grange. As a result of the fights and arguments that invariably crop up between Grange and Margaret over his affair with Josie or his inattention to Margaret and Brownfield, Grange feels inadequate, unhappy,...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
George Copeland’s life stretches from before 1900 to the early 1960’s. It covers roughly three generations of blacks in the state of Georgia, and his three lives roughly correspond to the generations. Alice Walker, however, does not focus exclusively on George Copeland to characterize the three generations. She devotes the first half of the novel to Grange’s son, Brownfield, to reveal what Grange was as a young man; to capture the essence of Grange’s “third life,” she tells the story of Ruth, Grange’s granddaughter. Only the account of the middle period of Grange’s life, his ten-year experience in the North, relies totally on Grange’s own experiences; those are told in flashback, and remain a secret even to Ruth, to whom Grange confides almost everything else. They are the crucial events that make him different from his son and allow him to go beyond a tainted past to cope creatively with the future. Grange’s new attitude toward blacks and American society derives both from his own experience and reflection and from his granddaughter’s fresh, instinctive responses to her world. What begins as a novel of overwhelming depression, of seemingly absolute entrapment, ends as an encouraging tribute to the human spirit.
Brownfield’s life is a repetition of his father’s—up to the crucial moment of change. A visit by his uncle, aunt, and cousins from the North creates for him the illusion that somewhere outside the South exists a world where blacks are, like whites, rich and free. In dreams contentment is confused with whiteness; he never develops a pride in his race. His own family is disintegrating, as his father, Grange, inextricably in debt to a white boss, Shipley, decides there is no hope of a future for him and his wife and children. He takes out his frustrations in wife-beating and unfaithfulness, especially (one learns later) with Josie, a prostitute in Baker County, just to the north. When Grange finally decides to escape to the North, his wife, Margaret, poisons herself and her new baby (not Grange’s but a white man’s). In a symbolic series of moves, Brownfield follows in his father’s footsteps, going only as far as Josie’s Dew Drop Inn. Suggesting a genetic and environmental determinism, Walker has him take up with Josie, as his father had done. After two years of being Josie’s and her daughter’s lover, and...
(The entire section is 965 words.)