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What is the spiritual element in Alice Walker’s work? How is God envisioned in The Color Purple? In The Temple of My Familiar?

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What forces does Walker identify as hostile to African American women?

What characteristics identify her later novels as experimental?

What is Walker’s definition of a good community, from the descriptions in her novels of community building?

Do Walker’s stories have villains? What characterizes her “worst” people?

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Alice Walker is known for her achievements in both prose and poetry; in addition to her short-story collections, she has published several novels, volumes of poetry, collections of essays, and children’s books. Her novels The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), and By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) examine the struggles of African Americans, especially African American women, against destruction by a racist society. Her poetry is collected in Once: Poems (1968), Five Poems (1972), Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning: Poems (1979), Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984), and Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 (1991). In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983) is a collection of essays important to an understanding of Walker’s purposes and methods as well as the writers influential on her fiction. A later collection of nonfiction prose is Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (1988). Walker also wrote Langston Hughes: American Poet (1974), To Hell with Dying (1988), and Finding the Green Stone (1991) for children. The anthology she edited entitled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979) did much to revive interest in the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston, the writer she considers one of the major influences on her fiction.


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From the beginning of her career, Alice Walker has been an award-winning writer. Her first published essay, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” won first prize in The American Scholar’s annual essay contest in 1967. That same year she won a Merrill writing fellowship. Her first novel was written on a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. In 1972, she received a Ph.D. from Russell Sage College. Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Lillian Smith Award of the Southern Regional Council in 1973. In Love and Trouble won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1974. The Color Purple, which remained on The New York Times list of best-sellers for more than twenty-five weeks, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won both an American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Walker’s many honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969 and 1977, a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship in 1971-1973, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1977-1978. In 1984, she received a Best Books for Young Adults citation from the American Library Association for In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. She has also won the O. Henry Award (1986), the Langston Hughes Award (1989), the Nora Astorga Leadership Award (1989), the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement (1990), the Freedom to Write Award (1990), the California Governor’s Arts Award (1994), and the Literary Ambassador Award (1998).

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Alice Walker has published many volumes of short fiction, poetry, and essays in addition to her novels, as well as several children’s books. Walker was an early editor at Ms. magazine, in which many of her essays first appeared. Her interest in the then little-known writer Zora Neale Hurston led her to take a pilgrimage to Florida to place a tombstone on Hurston’s unmarked grave and to her editing of I Love Myself When I Am Laughingand Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979); she also provided an introduction to Robert Hemenway’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977). In her collection of essays titled We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness (2006), Walker advocates an appreciation for the times in which we live, when social, political, and environmental progress is needed and can be made.


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Alice Walker’s literary reputation is based primarily on her fiction, although her second book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems (1973), received the Lillian Smith Award and a nomination for a National Book Award. Her first short-story collection, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In addition, Walker has been the recipient of a Charles Merrill writing fellowship, an award for fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has also been a Bread Loaf Scholar and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. Walker’s books have been translated into more than twenty-four languages.

Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was widely and enthusiastically reviewed in publications as varied as The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review, although journals aimed primarily at a black readership were often silent on the work or critical of its violence and graphic depiction of rural black life. With the publication of Meridian, Walker’s second novel, her work as a poet, novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, scholar, and political activist came together. Meridian was universally praised in scholarly journals, literary magazines, popular magazines, and black-oriented journals. Some critics, mainly black male reviewers, objected again to the honest, straightforward portrayals of black life in the South and to Walker’s growing feminism, which they saw as being in conflict with her commitment to her race. Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple, was widely acclaimed. Feminist and Ms. editor Gloria Steinem wrote that this novel “could be the kind of popular and literary event that transforms an intense reputation into a national one,” and Peter Prescott’s review in Newsweek began by saying, “I want to say at once that The Color Purple is an American novel of permanent importance.” These accolades were substantiated when Walker received both the American Book Award and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Temple of My Familiar has been compared to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in its revision of Western history as it has traditionally been understood and in Walker’s use of various techniques such as oral storytelling, letters, and journals. This novel has also been criticized for what some have seen as its sentimental and clichéd language, however. Critics have appreciated Possessing the Secret of Joy for Walker’s willingness to expose and critique the African practice of female circumcision, which Westerners find abhorrent. Some critics argue, however, that the novel is written from an ethnocentric viewpoint and does not consider the practice within the context of African culture. Reactions to By the Light of My Father’s Smile have been widely varied, with some critics praising Walker’s treatment of issues of sexuality, particularly the need for fathers to understand their daughters as sexual beings, and others asserting that Walker let her own political agenda steer the novel’s plot and style. Similarly, while Walker’s prose style in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart has been described as fluent and evocative, the novel has also been criticized for a heavy-handed New Age spirituality.

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Although Alice Walker’s poetry is cherished by her admirers, she is primarily known as a fiction writer. The novel The Color Purple (1982), generally regarded as her masterpiece, achieved both popular and critical success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The Steven Spielberg film of the same name, for which Walker acted as consultant, reached an immense international audience.

Other Walker fiction has received less attention. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), depicts violence and family dysfunction among people psychologically maimed by racism. Meridian (1976) mirrors the Civil Rights movement, of which the youthful Walker was actively a part. Later novels, The Temple of My Familiar (1989), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), and By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) have employed narrative as little more than a vehicle for ideas on racial and sexual exploitation, abuse of animals and the earth, and New Age spirituality. In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973) and You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) revealed Walker to be one of the finest of late twentieth century American short-story writers. She also has written an occasional children’s book (To Hell with Dying, 1988, is particularly notable) and several collections of essays (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, 1983, is the most lyrical) that present impassioned pleas for the causes Walker espouses.


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At numerous colleges, as a teacher and writer-in-residence, Alice Walker established herself as a mentor, particularly to young African American women. Her crusades became international. To alert the world to the problem of female circumcision in Africa, she collaborated with an Anglo-Indian filmmaker on a book and film. She has been a voice for artistic freedom, defending her own controversial writings and those of others, such as Salman Rushdie. In her writings and later open lifestyle, she affirmed lesbian and bisexual experience. However, the accomplishment in which she took the most pride was her resurrection of the reputation of Zora Neale Hurston, a germinal African American anthropologist and novelist, whose books had gone out of print.

Walker won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for In Love and Trouble and received a Charles Merrill writing fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her second book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems, received the Lillian Smith Award and was nominated for a National Book Award. Her highest acclaim came with the novel The Color Purple, for which she won the National Book Award and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. She received the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement in 1990. Walker was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2006.


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Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Though dense, Awkward’s book may be useful in placing Walker within the context of her African American literary heritage and in providing some possibilities for interpreting The Color Purple and for understanding the connections among Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Walker. The book is laden with critical jargon but is nevertheless important in placing Walker in context historically, thematically, and politically. Awkward emphasizes the creative spirit of African American females and their search for self in a nonpatriarchal community as themes of Walker’s fiction. Endnotes may lead researchers to other useful materials on Walker’s fiction as well as on works by and on other African American women.

Bates, Gerri. Alice Walker: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. A well-crafted biography that discussed Walker’s major works, tracing the themes of her novels to her life.

Bauer, Margaret D. “Alice Walker: Another Southern Writer Criticizing Codes Not Put to ‘Everyday Use.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Spring, 1992): 143-151. Discusses parallels between Walker’s In Love and Trouble and stories by William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. Argues that Walker, like these other southern writers, examines the tendency to support social and religious codes at the expense of individual fulfillment.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. An important collection of critical essays examining the fiction, poetry, and essays of Walker from a variety of perspectives. The fourteen essays, including Bloom’s brief introduction, are arranged chronologically. Contains useful discussions of the first three novels, brief analyses of individual short stories, poems, and essays, and assessments of Walker’s social and political views in connection with her works and other African American female authors. A chronology of Walker’s life and a bibliography may be of assistance to the beginner.

Bloxham, Laura J. “Alice [Malsenior] Walker.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A general introduction to Walker’s “womanist” themes of oppression of black women and change through affirmation of self. Provides a brief summary and critique of previous criticism of Walker’s work.

Borgmeier, Raimund. “Alice Walker: ‘Everyday Use.’” In The African-American Short Story: 1970 to 1990, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993. A detailed discussion of the generic characteristics of one of Walker’s best-known stories. Analyzes the tension between the typical unheard-of occurrence and everyday reality as well as the story’s use of a central structural symbol.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Focusing on the connections between gender, race, and desire, and their relationship to the narrative strategies in the fiction of these three contemporary writers, Butler-Evans argues that Walker’s works are “structured by a complex ideological position” oscillating between “her identity as ‘Black feminist’ or ‘woman-of-color’ and a generalized feminist position in which race is subordinated.” Useful discussions of Walker’s first three novels are included. Although no attention is given to short fiction, the student may receive assistance with understanding Walker’s “womanist” position in all her works. Includes somewhat lengthy endnotes and a bibliography.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” Southern Quarterly 21 (1983): 39-53. Reprinted in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. An early but still-useful general introduction to the works and themes of Walker, emphasizing particularly her concern for a sense of identity/self and her folk heritage. Davis discusses most significant works briefly, points out the sense of outrage at injustice in Walker’s fiction, including several short stories, and also makes frequent references to her essays.

Dieke, Ikenna, ed. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. New York: Greenwood Press, 1999. Especially well suited for use in college literature classrooms, this collection gives particular attention to Walker’s poetry and her developing ecofeminism.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Contains reviews of Walker’s first five novels and critical analyses of several of her works of short and long fiction. Also includes two interviews with Walker, a chronology of her works, and an extensive bibliography of essays and texts.

Gentry, Tony. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea, 1993. Examines the life and work of Walker. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Provocative discussions of Walker’s ideas on politics, race, feminism, and literary theory. Of special interest is the exploration of Walker’s literary debt to Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and even Bessie Smith.

McKay, Nellie. “Alice Walker’s ‘Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells’: A Struggle Toward Sisterhood.” In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Shows how the story allows readers to see how women’s cross-racial relationships are controlled by systems of white male power. The story helps its audience understand why black women fail to provide group support for feminists of the antirape movement in spite of their own historical oppression by rape.

Mills, Sara, Lynne Pearce, Sue Spaull, and Elaine Millard. Feminist Readings, Feminists Reading. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Analyzes Walker as a feminist writer from a feminist perspective. The book devotes the discussion of Walker mostly to The Color Purple, which is interpreted as an example of “authentic realism” designed for a female audience and as part of a female tradition beginning in the nineteenth century. More important, Walker is a part of the “self-conscious women’s” revisionist tradition that has been evident since the early 1980’s. Contains endnotes and a bibliography, as well as a glossary of terms related to feminist literary criticism and to literary theory in general.

Montelaro, Janet J. Producing a Womanist Text: The Maternal as Signifier in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1996. Examines themes of feminism, motherhood, and African American women in literature.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” In Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. A skeptical analysis of Walker’s short fiction that contrasts the successful and focused achievement of In Love and Trouble (1973) with the less satisfying You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981). Petry argues that the latter collection suffers in many places from unfortunate unintentional humor, trite and clichéd writing, and reductionism, and a confusion of genres that perhaps owe much to her being a “cross-generic writer.”

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, eds. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. This useful book contains brief analyses of several Walker short stories as well as her first three novels; most of the discussion of Walker is, however, devoted to The Color Purple. Tracing the roots of Walker’s works to folk tradition, this study, a collection of essays on various African American female authors, emphasizes the influence of Zora Neale Hurston as well. Although no essay is devoted entirely to Walker, the book would be of some help in understanding Walker’s literary tradition and heritage.

Wade-Gayles, Gloria. “Black, Southern, Womanist: The Genius of Alice Walker.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. An excellent, thorough introduction to the life and literary career of Walker. Placing emphasis on Walker’s voice as a black, southern woman throughout her works and arguing that Walker’s commitment is to the spiritual wholeness of her people, Wade-Gayles examines several essays that are important to an understanding of her fiction and beliefs, her first three novels, both collections of short stories, and her collections of poetry. Supplemented by a bibliography of Walker’s works, endnotes, and a useful secondary bibliography.

Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Places Walker beside other African American women whose fiction mirrored the racial plight that called forth the Civil Rights movement.

Walker, Rebecca. Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. New York: Riverhead, 2001. A self-indulgent but nevertheless insightful memoir by Alice Walker’s daughter. Rebecca Walker, who describes herself as “a movement child,” grew up torn between two families, two races, and two traditions, always in the shadow of an increasingly famous and absorbed mother.

White, Evelyn C. Alice Walker: A Life. New York: Norton, 2004. The life and accomplishments of Walker are chronicled in this biography through interviews with Walker, her family and friends.

Winchell, Donna Haisty. Alice Walker. New York: Twayne, 1992. Provides a comprehensive analysis of Walker’s short and long fiction. A brief biography and chronology precede the main text of the book. Each chapter refers to specific ideas and themes within Walker’s works and focuses on how Walker’s own experiences define her characters and themes. Following the narrative is a useful annotated bibliography.

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Critical Essays