Alice Walker

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Alice Walker American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4,627 words.)