Alice Walker

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Alice Walker Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The story of Alice Walker’s childhood scar provides the most basic metaphor of her novels: the idea that radical change is possible even under the worst conditions. Although she was never able to regain the sight in one eye, Walker’s disfigurement was considerably lessened: I used to pray every night that I would wake up and somehow it would be gone. I couldn’t look at people directly because I thought I was ugly.Then when I was fourteen, I visited my brother Bill [who] took me to a hospital where they removed most of the scar tissue—and I was a changed person. I promptly went home, scooped up the best-looking guy, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was valedictorian, voted “Most Popular,” and crowned queen!

The idea that change and personal triumph are possible despite the odds is central to all of Walker’s writing. Her work focuses directly or indirectly on the ways of survival adopted by black women, usually in the South, and is presented in a prose style characterized by a distinctive combination of lyricism and unflinching realism. Walker’s women attempt not merely to survive, but to survive completely with some sense of stability, despite the constant thread of family violence, physical and mental abuse, and a lack of responsibility on the part of the men in their lives. Walker is simultaneously a feminist and a supporter of civil rights, not only for African Americans but also for oppressed minorities everywhere.

Walker’s vision was shaped in part by a work from the first flowering of black writing in America: Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923). She said in 1974 about Toomer’s book that “it has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” Like Cane, the first part of which centers mainly on women in the South, Walker’s novels are made up of nearly equal parts of poetry, portraiture, and drama, broken up into a series of sections and subsections. Other important literary influences on Walker include Zora Neale Hurston, from whom she inherited a love of black folklore; Flannery O’Connor, who wrote of southern violence and grotesqueries from her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, less than ten miles from Walker’s childhood home; and Albert Camus, whose existentialism speaks to the struggle for survival and dignity in which Walker’s characters are engaged.

Walker herself has defined her “preoccupations” as a novelist: “The survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women.” The Third Life of Grange Copeland, on the surface a novel about the cycle of rage and violence torturing the lives of a father and his son, is as much about the recipients of that rage—the women and children whose lives are directly affected. Although the novel is unremitting in its picture of desperate poverty’s legacy of hatred, hopelessness, and cruelty, it concludes optimistically with Ruth Copeland’s hope for a release from sorrow through the redemption promised by the early days of the Civil Rights movement and by the knowledge and love inherited at the sacrificial death of her grandfather. These threads of political awareness and spirituality run throughout Walker’s work.

The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Writing in 1973, Walker observed that her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland , “though sometimes humorous and celebrative of life, is a grave book in which the characters see the world as almost entirely menacing.” This dark view of life is common to Grange Copeland, the patriarch of a family farming on shares in rural Georgia, his son Brownfield, and the wives and daughters of both men. For all these characters, the world is menacing because of the socioeconomic position they occupy at the bottom of the scale of the sharecropping system. Father and son menace each other in this novel because they are in turn menaced...

(The entire section is 5,402 words.)