The Temple of My Familiar

by Alice Walker

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What are the themes of The Temple of My Familiar?

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This is a challenging question because The Temple of My Familiar has so many obvious and implied themes. Here are two ways to figure out some of the book's main ideas and underlying messages.

  • Examine some of the maxims in "The Gospel According to Shug" (part two, verso, and part five, first chapter). In what ways are these sayings illustrated by characters and events in the book? For example, you could look closely at the first maxim: "Helped are those who learn that the deliberate invocation of suffering is as much a boomerang as the deliberate invocation of joy." Then you could ask yourself questions such as: How is Suwelo helped by remembering the terrifying car accident that killed his parents? How is Fanny helped by remembering the pain of being slapped for kissing a white friend? Or you could reread a less prominent saying, such as "Helped are those who find something in Creation to admire each and every hour." Then you could look for illustrations of it, such as Lissie's mother becoming healthy and productive when she dreams about "milk and fruit and greens" and searches for them until she finds them.
  • Reread Lissie's dream about her temple and her familiar. What does the temple stand for? What do the white men and Lissie's concern over impressing them represent? What do the familiar's appearance and, especially, its behavior suggest? Think about Lissie saying her familiar's constant activity was about freedom and her attempts to stop its distracting "slithering" and "skidding" were ruining their relationship. Then think about her explaining that her betrayal of her "cheerful," "loyal" familiar led to her wind up in front of a "cold stone building" in an unfamiliar world she "would never understand." What deeper messages do these statements convey? How do other parts of the book reinforce these messages? (For example, how do Hal's father's attempts to prevent him from drawing have the same meaning as Lissie's attempts to stop her familiar from "skittering about"?)

For more specific ideas about themes in The Temple of My Familiar, see the link below.

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