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Alice Walker 1944–
Black American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.
Walker is a highly regarded writer of powerfully expressive fiction. Her work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues, particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual and political survival. Born into a large family of sharecroppers in the Deep South, Walker managed to obtain a college education in spite of poverty. Her political awareness, her Southern heritage, and her sense of the culture and history of her people form the thematic base of her material.
Walker's poetry, like her short stories, is praised for its honesty and depth of feeling but her literary reputation rests largely on her novels, especially the recently published The Color Purple (1982). Her most acclaimed work to date, this novel was awarded both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
The Color Purple, which is noted for its authentic use of black dialect, explores and expands upon concerns introduced in Walker's earlier works. Like her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and many of the short stories collected in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), The Color Purple portrays the devastating effects of racial and sexual oppression. Walker, who has said that black women are the only people she respects "collectively and with no reservations," in this novel shows an intense empathy for the black woman who faces violent subjugation by black men, as well as white racists. Walker advocates "bonding" between black women as a defense against such oppression. Although grim in many respects, the overriding message of this novel is that "love redeems." While she spares no detail of the violence and painful hardships in the lives she portrays, Walker has a keen eye for the beauty and grace found in the most ordinary people or objects.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, 9, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
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Like the Victorians, we consider certain subjects fit for fiction and others too hot to handle. Unlike the Victorians, however, we don't know we think that—we're too busy congratulating ourselves on our sexual frankness to see that there might be other sorts of blindness and prudery. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the contemporary short story. Anyone browsing among a recent year's worth of American magazines might reasonably conclude that short fiction is by definition a medium in which white middle-class writers express elegiac and seemly sentiments about such noncontroversial topics as divorce and the deaths of relatives and that when those same writers want to talk about what is really on their minds they turn to journalism—as have, many think, their readers.
For this reason I give Alice Walker … much credit for daring to engage in fictional terms (well, quasi-fictional terms, more on that later) some of the major racial-sexual-political issues of our time [in her recent collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down"]. "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" examines the rape of a white civil rights worker by a black civil rights worker from the point of view of the black woman who is the victim's best friend. "The Abortion" dissects the complex effect on a black middle-class marriage of the wife's abortion. "Coming Apart" and "Porn" deal with male sadomasochistic sexual fantasies, as experienced by puzzled and insulted wives and girlfriends.
Its important, frankly political, semi-taboo subject matter should automatically make "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down" fascinating to anyone, black or white, with his head not completely entrenched in the sand. Miss Walker has, moreover, at least one priceless literary gift: that of sounding absolutely authoritative: "And there was the smell of clean poverty … a sharp, bitter odor, almost acrid, as if the women washed themselves in chemicals." "She was attractive, but just barely and with effort. Had she been the slightest bit overweight, for instance, she would have … faded into the background where, even in a revolution, fat people seem destined to go." Then too, she has a watchful eye for … quirky, small details as the church pew, "straight and spare as Abe Lincoln lying down," lugged up from the rural South to decorate an East Village living room, or the "overdressed" Mai Tais in an Alaskan bar: "in addition to the traditional umbrella, there were tiny snowshoes."
These qualities give edge and sparkle to the more conventional stories, the ones in which Miss Walker has imagined herself into one version or other of the spunky, tough, irrepressible "good woman" of the title. I was not surprised, perhaps, but I was charmed by "Nineteen Fifty-Five," in which we hear an old black blues singer (read Big Mama Thornton) contemplate the young white rock-and-roll singer (read Elvis Presley) who has risen to stardom by singing her song (read "Hound Dog"). Equally vivid, and a little more unusual, is "Fame," in which a crotchety, vain and brilliant old black writer receives an award—her 111th literary honor—from a collection of academic toadies she takes great pleasure in privately despising.
These comparatively modest stories, though, are outweighed by those that are at once more overtly political and more stylistically innovative. But as Miss Walker aims for more, she achieves less. These latter stories occupy a sort of middle ground between personal statement, political parable, conventional story and vaguely experimental fiction—and this is not a comfortable place for short stories to find themselves. As fiction, they must be about particular people, but as parable they must be about people as types. As personal statement, or as conventional fiction, they lead us to think we are hearing the voice of the author; the experimental techniques that Miss Walker employs subvert that assumption by calling our attention to the author as inventor and manipulator of every aspect of what we are reading.
Perhaps in order to cover over these conflicts, Miss Walker has relied heavily on the use of an elaborately detached, sardonic, flat-sounding prose style. But this tone is completely wrong for these stories: they are too partisan (the black woman is always the most sympathetic character). They are also too unfocused, too full of loose ends and unanswered questions and of characters that are half odd and interesting individuals and half political or narrative conveniences.
I never believed for a minute, for instance, that the black woman narrator was really the best friend of poor Luna, who allowed herself to be raped by a black man in Georgia rather than scream and possibly precipitate a lynching. A friend would have felt some human sympathy, along with however much political angst, or, if not, would have had to confront this lack. (p. 9)
Only the most coolly abstract and rigorously intellectual writer can bring off this sort of fictional-essayistic hybrid. Those who admired Miss Walker's previous work, in particular her fine novel "Meridian," and her earlier volume of short stories, "In Love and Trouble," will know that her strengths lie elsewhere. As a storyteller she is impassioned, sprawling, emotional, lushly evocative, steeped in place, in memory, in the compelling power of narrative itself. A lavishly gifted writer, in other words—but not of this sort of book. (p. 15)
Katha Pollitt, "Stretching the Short Story," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1981, pp. 9, 15.
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[Alice Walker's Meridian and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down] are difficult in that, to varying degrees, they presuppose a certain special awareness on the part of their readers; they are also, at best, strong and passionately visionary pieces of prose with a quality of the epic poem. They are heirs to the dream of Martin Luther King, and are at the same time committed and coolly clearsighted concerning its progress. The feminism of … [Alice Walker] is the source of … [her] detachment; although the question of racial equality is primary, it is focussed through, and to some extent even diminished by, the often more urgently personal quest for sexual justice…. Her deepest concern is with individuals and how their relationships are affected by their confrontations with wider political and moral issues. The sexism inherent in historical racism and still beleaguering most attempts at honest radicalism is neatly teased out and laid bare.
Meridian is the most accessible of the books, and the most plural in its concerns….
The narrative itself is solidly constructed and makes powerful use of symbols in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison.
The short stories … [in] You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down tend to be less subtly imagined. Often ruggedly open-ended in form, they suggest that Alice Walker is happier with a larger canvas. Some seem rather detached and essay-like…. In the best of them, as in Meridian, considerations of sexual and racial politics are resonant with universal moral overtones. There is the question posed by Luna, for example, a white sympathizer whose problem is "whether in a black community surrounded by whites with a history of lynching blacks, she had a right to scream as Freddie Pye was raping her." Walker has a particular gift for capturing the pathos of sexual love; it is the subject of "Laurel", a story of a black-white triangle in which colour, however, plays only a minimal part…. Walker's work should be admired … not because it represents a flowering of black or female consciousness, but because at best it brings to life the varied scents and colours of human experience.
Carol Rumens, "Heirs to the Dream," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4133, June 18, 1982, p. 676.∗
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Because I have an eerie feeling that any attempt I make to describe what happens in this story is likely to start the summer rush for the beaches, I want to say at once that "The Color Purple" is an American novel of permanent importance, that rare sort of book which (in Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase) amounts to "a diversion in the fields of dread." Alice Walker excels at making difficulties for herself and then transcending them. To cite an example: her story begins at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax, then becomes by immeasurably small steps a comedy which works its way toward acceptance, serenity and joy. To cite another: her narrative advances entirely by means of letters that are either never delivered or are delivered too late for a response, and most of these are written in a black English that Walker appears to have modified artfully for general consumption. (p. 67)
The letters begin with Celie addressing herself to God because she's ashamed to tell anyone else. Celie is black, ugly, not good at school work; she lives in rural Georgia in this century's second decade and is 14 when the man she takes to be her father begins to rape her. She bears this man two children, who are taken away; at his insistence, she marries a man who would rather have had her younger sister, Nettie. Others call Celie's husband Albert, but she cannot; unable to muster his name in her letters, she calls him "Mr.—." "You black, you pore, you ugly," Albert tells his wife, "you a woman … you nothing at all." Albert invites to their home his old mistress, a blues singer named Shug Avery, who arrives ill, with "the nasty woman disease." This event, which should break up any household, proves oddly restorative; a bond between Celie and Shug develops, almost to the exclusion of the useless Albert.
In time—the course of this novel covers more than 30 years—Celie discovers that the despicable Albert has been withholding letters written to her by Nettie, who has gone to West Africa as an apprentice missionary with the couple who adopted Celie's children…. Celie now writes to Nettie letters that her sister never receives. There is, in this parallel correspondence in which no letter ever hopes for an answer, something deeply moving: these sisters need each other desperately, but each must mature and survive without response from the other.
Love redeems, meanness kills—that is "The Color Purple"'s principal theme, the theme of most of the world's great fiction. Nevertheless—and this is why this black woman's novel will survive a white man's embrace—the redemptive love that is celebrated here is selective, even prickly. White folk figure rarely in its pages and never to their advantage, and black men are recovered only to the extent that they buckle down to housework and let women attend to business. For Walker, redemptive love requires female bonding. The bond liberates women from men, who are predators at worst, idle at best. (pp. 67-8)
In the traditional manner, Walker ends her comedy with a dance, or more precisely with a barbecue. "White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th," says Celie's stepson, "so most black folk don't have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other." In this novel, the celebration has been painfully earned. (p. 68)
Peter S. Prescott, "A Long Road to Liberation," in Newsweek (copyright 1982, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCIX, No. 25, June 21, 1982, pp. 67-8.
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Without doubt, Alice Walker's latest novel is her most impressive. No mean accomplishment, since her previous books … have elicited almost unanimous praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer. "The Color Purple," while easily satisfying that claim, brings into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through her past work….
Most prominent [of the book's major themes] is the estrangement and violence that mark the relationships between Miss Walker's black men and women….
[Miss Walker has] dealt with [this] subject before. In her collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down," two stories ("Porn" and "Coming Apart") assess the sexual disaffection among black couples. And the saintly heroine of the novel "Meridian" is deserted by a black lover who then marries a white civil-rights worker, whom he also later abandons. In "Meridian," however, the friction between black men and women is merely one of several themes; in "The Color Purple" the role of male domination in the frustration of black women's struggle for independence is clearly the focus.
Miss Walker explores the estrangement of her men and women through a triangular love affair. It is Shug Avery who forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie, and it is Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship….
What makes Miss Walker's exploration so indelibly affecting is the choice of a narrative style that, without the intrusion of the author, forces intimate identification with [Celie]…. Most of the letters that comprise this epistolary novel are written by Celie, although correspondence from Nettie is included in the latter part of the book. Initially, some readers may be put off by Celie's knothole view of the world, particularly since her letters are written in dialect and from the perspective of a naïve, uneducated adolescent….
As the novel progresses, however, and as Celie grows in experience, her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority and the dialect, once accepted, assumes a lyrical cadence of its own….
The cumulative effect is a novel that is convincing because of the authenticity of its folk voice. And, refreshingly, it is not just the two narrator-correspondents who come vividly alive in this tale. A number of memorable female characters emerge. There is Shug Avery, whose pride, independence and appetite for living act as a catalyst for Celie and others, and Sofia, whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives.
If there is a weakness in this novel—besides the somewhat pallid portraits of the males—it is Netti's correspondence from Africa. While Netti's letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppression by describing customs of the Olinka tribe that parallel some found in the American South, they are often mere monologues on African history. Appearing, as they do, after Celie's intensely subjective voice has been established, they seem lackluster and intrusive.
These are only quibbles, however, about a striking and consummately well-written novel. Alice Walker's choice and effective handling of the epistolary style has enabled her to tell a poignant tale of women's struggle for equality and independence without either the emotional excess of her previous novel "Meridian" or the polemical excess of her short-story collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down."
Mel Watkins, "Some Letters Went to God," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 25, 1982, p. 7.
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There is nothing cool or throwaway in Alice Walker's attitude toward the materials of her fiction. The first book by this exceptionally productive novelist, poet, and short-story writer to come to my notice was Meridian (1976), an impassioned account of the spiritual progress of a young black woman, Meridian Hill, during the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and its aftermath…. Though beset by serious structural problems and other lapses of craft, Meridian remains the most impressive fictional treatment of the "Movement" that I have yet read.
In The Color Purple Alice Walker moves backward in time, setting her story roughly (the chronology is kept vague) between 1916 and 1942—a period during which the post-Reconstruction settlement of black status remained almost unaltered in the Deep South. Drawing upon what must be maternal and grandmaternal accounts as well as upon her own memory and observation, Miss Walker, who is herself under forty, exposes us to a way of life that for the most part existed beyond or below the reach of fiction and that has hitherto been made available to us chiefly through tape-recorded reminiscences: the life of poor, rural Southern blacks as it was experienced by their womenfolk. (p. 35)
I cannot gauge the general accuracy of Miss Walker's account [of Celie's life] or the degree to which it may be colored by current male-female antagonisms within the black community…. I did note certain improbabilities: it seems unlikely that a woman of Celie's education would have applied the word "amazons" to a group of feisty sisters or that Celie, in the 1930s, would have found fulfillment in designing and making pants for women. In any case, The Color Purple has more serious faults than its possible feminist bias. Alice Walker still has a lot to learn about plotting and structuring what is clearly intended to be a realistic novel. The revelations involving the fate of Celie's lost babies and the identity of her real father seem crudely contrived—the stuff of melodrama or fairy tales.
The extended account of Nettie's experience in Africa, to which she has gone with a black missionary couple and their two adopted children, is meant to be a counterweight to Celie's story but it lacks authenticity—not because Miss Walker is ignorant of Africa … but because she has failed to endow Nettie with her own distinctive voice; the fact that Nettie is better educated than Celie—and a great reader—should not have drained her epistolary style of all personal flavor, leaving her essentially uncharacterized, a mere reporter of events. The failure to find an interesting idiom for a major figure like Nettie is especially damaging in an epistolary novel, which is at best a difficult genre for a twentieth-century writer, posing its own special problems of momentum and credibility.
Fortunately, inadequacies which might tell heavily against another novel seem relatively insignificant in view of the one great challenge which Alice Walker has triumphantly met: the conversion, in Celie's letters, of a subliterate dialect into a medium of remarkable expressiveness, color, and poignancy. I find it impossible to imagine Celie apart from her language; through it, not only a memorable and infinitely touching character but a whole submerged world is vividly called into being. Miss Walker knows how to avoid the excesses of literal transcription while remaining faithful to the spirit and rhythms of Black English. I can think of no other novelist who has so successfully tapped the poetic resources of the idiom. (p. 36)
Robert Towers, "Good Men Are Hard to Find," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 13, August 12, 1982, pp. 35-6.∗
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As admirers of The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian already know, to read an Alice Walker novel is to enter the country of surprise. It is to be admitted to the world of rural black women, a world long neglected by most whites, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of willed indifference. The loss is ours, for the lives of these women are so extraordinary in their tragedy, their culture, their humor and their courage that we are immediately gripped by them. (p. 181)
No writer has made the intimate hurt of racism more palpable than Walker. In one of [The Color Purple's] most rending scenes, Celie's step-daughter-in-law, Sofia, is sentenced to work as a maid in the white mayor's house for "sassing" the mayor's wife. In a fit of magnanimity, the mayor's wife offers to drive Sofia home to see her children, whom she hasn't laid eyes on in five years. The reunion lasts only fifteen minutes—then the mayor's wife insists that Sofia drive her home.
The Color Purple is about the struggle between redemption and revenge. And the chief agency of redemption, Walker is saying, is the strength of the relationships between women: their friendships, their love, their shared oppression. Even the white mayor's family is redeemed when his daughter cares for Sofia's sick daughter.
There is a note of tendentiousness here, though. The men in this book change only when their women join together and rebel—and then, the change is so complete as to be unrealistic. It was hard for me to believe that a person as violent, brooding and just plain nasty as Mr.—could ever become that sweet, quiet man smoking and chatting on the porch.
Walker's didacticism is especially evident in Nettie's letters from Africa, which make up a large portion of the book. (p. 182)
Walker's politics are not the problem—of course sexism and racism are terrible, of course women should band together to help each other. But the politics have to be incarnated in complex, contradictory characters—characters to whom the novelist grants the freedom to act, as it were, on their own.
I wish Walker had let herself be carried along more by her language, with all its vivid figures of speech, Biblical cadences, distinctive grammar and true-to-life starts and stops. The pithy, direct black folk idiom of The Color Purple is in the end its greatest strength, reminding us that if Walker is sometimes an ideologue, she is also a poet.
Despite its occasional preachiness, The Color Purple marks a major advance for Walker's art. At its best, and at least half the book is superb, it places her in the company of Faulkner, from whom she appears to have learned a great deal: the use of a shifting first-person narrator, for instance, and the presentation of a complex story from a naïve point of view, like that of 14-year-old Celie. Walker has not turned her back on the Southern fictional tradition. She has absorbed it and made it her own. By infusing the black experience into the Southern novel, she enriches both it and us. (pp. 182-83)
Dinitia Smith, "'Celie, You a Tree'," in The Nation (copyright 1982 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 235, No. 6, September 4, 1982, pp. 181-83.
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The Third Life of Grange Copeland takes the adult life of its title character as the historical delimitation of its fictional action, roughly comprising three generations from the 1920's to the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960's (as marked by systematic black voters' registration, freedom marches and the first struggles for school integration). Half a century of family history is the narrative material used by the novel to dramatize essential changes in the conditions of black people in the rural South of the United States, beginning in total economic and psychological dependence and moving towards a certain measure of self-awareness as the ground for new self concepts and the social roles or life-plans based on them. Grange Copeland as a young man sets out, like millions of black men before him, with the socially propagated illusion that he will be able to provide a home and the necessary subsistence for himself and his attractive wife Margaret via his labor as a sharecropper in the heart of Georgia. Quite soon the efficient system of exploitation by manipulation of debt and wage cutting … begins to close its grip on Grange Copeland. He stops fighting the decay of dilapidated cabins unworthy of human habitation, he seeks escape from the total drain of physical energy and an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the arms of Josie, a prostitute he has known from before his marriage. He totally neglects his wife who after an initial phase of apathy begins to protest against this treatment by craving dissipation for herself, not disdaining even the white boss Shipley, and ends up giving birth to a second son obviously fathered by a white man, half-brother to her first child Brownfield (whose name graphically reflects the hopelessness of his parents). In spite of his basically unchanged affection for his wife, Grange, under the burden of his psychological humiliation and economic defeat goes through the inevitable escalation of violent quarreling and withdrawal and finally resorts to the classical escape of the black man denied any options for responsible action. Grange disappears, Margaret a few weeks later poisons herself and her younger child, leaving the 15-year-old Brown-field who under constant neglect has become so hard-boiled that he instinctively evades Shipley's effort to tie him to the soil and sets out on his own. (pp. 191-92)
Grange Copeland as the explicit central character of the novel dramatizes essential parts of the collective experience of his group. His answer to the total subjugation and discouragement on the economic level by an overpowering, cynical and hypocritical white world is an unshakable moral judgment—expressed at the beginning of the novel by Grange's avoiding to meet the eyes of his oppressor Shipley—a symbolic gesture of non-cooperation and masked contempt of long standing in Afro-American literature (frequently to be met with in the fugitive slave narratives of the 19th century). Grange's calm contempt for the white man's norms—interrupted only temporarily by his rebellious rage in the Harlem phase of his second life—contrasts sharply with Brownfield's attitude whose self-destructive hatred stamps him as a total victim of white domination. Grange and Brownfield are set up as contrasting figures embodying diametrically opposed options for the black man under white supremacy. Grange's flight from the sharecropper's condition is destructive towards his family, but not with regard to his own person: It turns self-aggression into the more constructive act of resistance against the norms of the South and initiates a learning process as prerequisite for a positive self-concept.
In New York Grange gets to know extensively the form of discrimination specific to the urban North, i.e. the exclusion of black people through ignoring them—Ellison's metaphor of invisibility is pointedly taken up by the text…. Grange … [finally returns] to the South where racial antagonism seems more honest to him in its personal virulence than in the impersonal undermining of self-esteem up North. His aloof retirement to his own land (even at the price of purposeful exploitation of a black woman) and his full dedication to [his youngest daughter] Ruth's education are signal acts of individual independence from the dominant culture. It is true that Grange Copeland tends to view his social and moral separatism as a relic of past times, as soon as he is faced with the moral enthusiasm of black and white Civil Rights workers. But from the perspective of post-Civil Rights developments (both as seen in 1970 or in 1980) Grange's independent stance and tough scepticism as to possible changes in the minds of America's white citizens gains new relevance as part of the symbolic action of the novel.
At the same time, however, Grange Copeland as an heroic individual embodying the will to resist and to claim an autonomous base of living must raise serious problems with regard to representative group experience. Both his positive enhancement and its counterpart, Brownfield's negative demonization, result from a reduction of their fictional motivation to individual moral traits. Grange's unlimited ability for individual growth and accumulated insight, the same as Brownfield's progressive moral and practical disintegration, serve as contrasting foils to explicate individual worth or unworthiness. Brownfield in particular is a fictional character totally determined by his function as thematic contrast: The author moves him close to the stock figure of the gothic villain, when Brownfield finds pleasure in pouring poison into streams, or when he gloats (in an account to Josie) over the memory of how he deliberately exposed his last-born child in midwinter to freeze to death while he himself enjoyed a particularly good night's sleep. Just as Brownfield's moral fiber seems unaffected by the collective suffering surrounding him, Grange's individual strength and improved self-image is largely unconnected to any collective culture or experience, neither deriving from them its sustenance nor flowing back into them as a reinvigorating force. Grange is always shown in terms of an individual consciousness struggling for self-assertion, never as part of a community of people with common aspirations. Yet he participates in group-specific networks—the rural and urban "tenderloin," i.e. amusement district, in his first and second life; the sale of moonshine whisky and cardplaying in his third life, used as a means of getting money towards a dowry for Ruth—collective areas of experience with a wealth of black folklore and the implications belonging to such cultural substrata. In contrast, however, to a view of cultural milieus as shaping and maintaining group cohesion which we get in texts like The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) or even in Wright's late novel written in exile The Long Dream (1958), Alice Walker's novel does not try to bring those factors to the fore of its fictional world. Similarly, when Grange is said to delve into the history of his people by reading all he can in New York, this remains clearly an ascription of an educationally or intellectually enlightening experience—it never gains the status of a revolutionizing reorientation from the survival strategy of a hustler to the collectively meaningful perspective of conscious dedication to a common goal…. (pp. 194-97)
Grange, among the characters on his semantic axis, is privileged in being the only one capable of accumulating wisdom and self-assurance—traits of his moral character he hopes to see brought to an as yet unheard of flowering in Ruth. The solidarity between Grange and Ruth (somewhat onesided and precarious, as it must appear) might be taken as at least partly overcoming the repression of black men and black women. Yet for its continuation it would depend on the dream of individual moral perfectibility in a restored or healed society—a dream that circumvents the central fact of sexuality in the relationship of black men and women. Thus the symbolic action of the novel can be said to release male-female solidarity as a model only on a plane of dream fantasy sharply removed from social options. When Grange experiences a kind of Rip-van-Winkle sensation in his confrontation with the vision of the Civil Rights workers—shown as resplendent apparitions of a new age and society—this motif makes explicit Grange's instinctive groping for a concrete utopia similar to the expectations of the Civil Rights era—the only context in which Ruth might be imagined as coming into her own, both as a person and a woman.
Such a vision (implied in Grange's individual attempt at autonomy, and made explicit in Civil Rights optimism) tends to exclude the majority of rural blacks in Grange's world who cannot afford personal intellectual and moral growth the way he does as the sum of a lifetime. With Mem, the mass of black people in the fictional world of The Third Life of Grange Copeland are kept prisoners in the anonymous culture of poverty, a community of stigmatized victims reinforcing their socially dictated dependence by holding back individual members via the classical crab-basket effect (group cohesion to prevent the escape of privileged individuals). These are the assumptions behind Brownfield's and Josie's patterns of action, and at some points in the text they become tangible in key situations (e.g. Josie and Mem not fighting their being pushed back into dependence). Grange, on the other hand, accumulates strength by escaping the conditions of his group rather than by an act of reinterpretation of a collective situation. This can be demonstrated in the way he puts to use inalienable parts of the cultural heritage of his group: In his angry Harlem phase Grange absorbs Uncle Remus folklore and collective history by reading, not via an oral tradition which would imply participation in rituals of collective memory and communicative reenactment. This group lore is then handed on to Ruth in a personal relationship excluding group participation—one could say in an ethically justified private space which while teaching a member of the young generation conclusions from the group experience, at the same time guarantees a splendid isolation of grandchild and grandfather. The 'lifting' of group lore to a morally purified realm is even more apparent in Grange's teaching Ruth to dance at home—the context of the black "tenderloin" as a communication subsystem of the group including its counter-white-protestant-ethic standards and sexual implications has been bowdlerized into a domesticated and respectable family realm and constellation. By extension, folk culture and experience through Grange's example is awarded an enlightening and constructive function only after being filtered by the reflected and consciously political appropriation of a militant individual consciousness—a function it apparently is not granted in its original context of group enactment.
The underlying point of reference for such a perspective is the axiomatic concept of an "inviolate sanctuary" of the individual soul, i.e. of an inherent worth or unworth of the individual and his moral substance…. The ignoring and underrating of group culture and community results in attributing collective insights into the norms of the white world, or the defensive code of the black group, to individual perception (mostly that of Grange as over-life-size impersonator of group experience). On the aphoristic level this comes through in Grange's aside "'Course the rumor is that they is people, but the funny part is why they don't act human'" (where Grange adopts the moral judgment and verbal stance of an unmistakably collective way of perception). With more fictional emphasis a reaction of racial group pride is attributed to Ruth at school: Shocked by a racist school book adorned with the murderous comments of a white fellow student, she challenges her teacher, gets an evasive reaction and storms out of class cursing teacher, class and school system. This incident is presented as further proof for Ruth's moral courage and individual substance (she had already called her father a "son-a-bitch" when a small child), and she is shown as being completely alone in her class in mobilizing this sort of resistance, the rest of the students and the teacher remaining passive and subdued. Ruth's hatred in conjunction with her moral character automatically assumes moral worth and is seen as a token of strength—while Brownfield's hatred, lacking the required individual substance, is programmatically stigmatized by Grange and subsumed under his moral weakness…. (pp. 202-05)
Grange's violent end serves to complement the novel's central normative axis of individual moral worth: It springs from his manichean battle against the abject moral worthlessness of Brownfield, a demonic and destructive force which merely summons forth the additional support of the judicial system of the American South at the novel's end. Grange's main enemy, however, is the threat of thwarted moral growth, in himself as in others. While Brownfield uses white racism as an excuse for his individual moral decay, Grange has used it as crystallizing point for his moral rebirth—both processes, however, are seen in the context of the fictional world of The Third Life as options the individual is responsible for. Group cohesion, group culture or group knowledge remain at best at the periphery of this struggle for heroic self-realization or pathetic self-destruction—they are not seen as constituting factors in the individual's search for identity. (p. 206)
[In The Third Life] Alice Walker can be said to have attempted a kind of encompassing imaginative empathy with the world of the Southern black sharecropper giving due weight to the ubiquitous presence of physical and psychic violence and its burdening effect on the human capacity for self-expression. The deterioration of Mem's educated language under the onslaught of a brutal husband and situation is only the most explicit illustration of a perspective of hopelessness and its concomitant threat of inarticulateness, just as Grange's capacity for cumulative learning is meant to buttress Ruth's claim to more self-realization including self-articulation. (Compared to her Margaret remains inarticulate, Mem gains only a desperate spurt of self-expression, and Josie illustrates the attrition of a latent vague yearning for self-projection). But here again, whether for reasons of didactic emphasis or because of a more bitter vision of life resting on personal experience and temperament, Alice Walker chose to present a stark contrast in her novel between the general conditions of living of rural blacks as a collective group and the concrete utopia of an unusually privileged individual among them. While the author may claim that her first novel represents (as the gift of lonely exploration) "a radical vision of society or one's people that has not previously been taken into account," and is not necessarily fit "to second the masses' motions, whatever they are" [i.e. to encourage temporarily dominant aspirations of a given group], Alice Walker in The Third Life without doubt still falls short of what she has herself indicated as her over-all goal: "I am trying to arrive at that place where black music already is; to arrive at that unselfconscious sense of collective oneness; that naturalness, that (even when anguished) grace." In Alice Walker's eyes, only Zora Neale Hurston among her predecessors can be said to have captured this quality in the medium of narrative prose, being "so at ease with her blackness" that she could "capture the beauty of rural black expression" and saw "poetry" where others merely saw incorrect English. Of Hurston's major novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) Alice Walker said: "There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one."
Measured by this criterion, Walker's first novel only adumbrates the creation of a new world for black men and women on the basis of the destruction of an outlived, insupportable old world in which violence and hate dominated in external conditions as well as in the consciousness of black people. Stopping the self-destruction of black men and women and beginning a process of constructive self-renewal, on a personal as well as a family level, is the novel's thematic proposal. In Ruth's burgeoning expectations the tentatively reconstructed black family would of course call for complementation of the precarious partnership of grandfather and granddaughter by a new relationship of black men and women in general. How this new black family based on new black men and women might become reintegrated into the culture and community of the black group, remains elusive in Alice Walker's first novel…. The "sense of collective oneness" inherent in black music—and this must be said with due respect to the novel's creative achievement—is barely yet in sight, let alone within reach of attainment at the close of the symbolic action of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. (pp. 215-16)
Klaus Ensslen, "Collective Experience and Individual Responsibility: Alice Walker's 'The Third Life of Grange Copeland'," in The Afro-American Novel Since 1960, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer (© 1982, B. R. Grüner Publishing Co.), Grüner, 1982, pp. 189-218.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545
In this arresting and touching novel [The Color Purple], Alice Walker creates a woman so believable, so lovable, that Celie, the downtrodden, semi-literate, rural black woman joins a select company of fictional women whom it is impossible to forget. (p. 93)
Alice Walker is, of course, a feminist and she understands well the circumstances that force a woman into an anti-man stance. Her gallery of women are living examples of man's inhumanity to women: Sophia, wife of Harpo, Albert's eldest son, who only wanting to be herself and not the fantasy woman Harpo thinks she ought to be, changes from a warm, happy woman to a bitter paranoic who only wants to get through her life without killing anyone. Mary Alice, "Squeak," who takes Sophia's place with Harpo when the latter is jailed for sassing the mayor's wife (white), and who allows her uncle, the warden to rape her in exchange for Sophia's freedom. Even Shug, the indomitable, has her share of suffering at men's hands. Only Nettie … seems to have escaped the general mayhem, and she is a curiously colorless character. Her letters, by comparison with Celie's, are pedantic, her nature prim. The other women leap out of the book, Nettie stays safely within its confines, as does her husband, Samuel.
But Alice Walker is too much of an artist to write a purely political novel, and so her feminist impulse does not prevent her from allowing her characters, women and men, to grow and change. The men in her story lead miserable lives, too, but like their women they begin to come to terms with what life doles out to them, and accept it. And the women turn from rage to acceptance as well. One of the best scenes in the book occurs as Mr.—and Celie sit sewing on the front porch, old now and calm together, and talking about the lessons life has taught them. Albert tells her he has learned to wonder, to wonder about all the things that happen and "the more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
"And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.
"They do, he say, surprise. Harpo seem to love me. Sophia and the children …"
They go on sewing and talking and waiting for Shug to come home, and Celie says to herself, "If she come, I be happy. If she don't, I be content.
"And then I figure this the lesson I was supposed to learn."
And so bitterness leaches out into a hard-won wisdom, and the lively characters of Alice Walker's invention become human beings with a life of their own. She is a remarkable novelist, sometimes compared to Toni Morrison, but with a strong, individual voice and vision of her own, and a delicious humor that pervades the book and tempers the harshness of the lives of its people.
Opening with a dedication to the Spirit, the novel ends with a postscript: "I thank everybody in this book for coming. A. W., author and medium." This reader's thanks to the medium; may she call up hosts in the future. (pp. 93-4)
Elizabeth Bartelme, "Victory over Bitterness," in Commonweal (copyright © 1983 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CX, No. 3, February 11, 1983, pp. 93-4.