In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker displays her evolving inventiveness in telling a story. The novel is a series of interior monologues interspersed with a few letters that describe the story’s major events and the major character’s interpretations of and reactions to those events.

Tashi Evelyn Johnson, as the novel’s central focus, has the first interior monologue, which begins “I did not realize for a long time that I was dead.” Subsequent monologues by Tashi and others reveal what leads Tashi to this assessment of her life. Tashi’s opening line gives in miniature Tashi’s state of mind. Walker’s attention to the states of mind of characters provides the novel’s structure.

Shortly into the novel, as Tashi tells about her life, the final major events are revealed. Tashi is in prison awaiting her execution for murdering M’Lissa, a tsunga, the Olinkan woman who has become celebrated in her own country and in the rest of the Western world for her life’s work as a circumciser of females. The novel’s task is to show what led Tashi to kill and why M’Lissa is so celebrated.

As Tashi tells about key moments in her life, she emphasizes the fact that many people believe her to be psychotic. She then begins the process of talking about the vast amount of formal therapy she has received and how none of it has been effective in helping her. If she is insane, then her emotional and mental illness must be connected to why she is in prison awaiting execution for murdering M’Lissa. If so, what did M’Lissa do that could create so much damage in...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When their missionary family arrives at the tribal village of the Olinka, young African Americans Adam and Olivia Johnson see Tashi, the main character of Possessing the Secret of Joy. They observe the six-year-old girl weeping silently alongside her mother; readers later learn that Tashi’s favorite sister, Dura, has just died from complications of a ritual clitoridectomy, performed on all village girls as they approach puberty. The novel weaves back and forth between the early memories of Tashi, Adam, and Olivia, cycling forward as Walker chronicles Tashi’s later American/Western European life, her madness and struggle to accept the horror of female mutilation. While the Johnsons work as missionaries to the African Olinkas, Tashi recounts folktales of female power and plays with Olivia. In Tashi, Adam meets the woman whom he will later make his wife.

The novel pieces together fragmentary reminiscences of the main characters, stories that move toward Tashi’s eventual murder of M’Lissa. Possessing the Secret of Joy does not provide a straight chronological narrative, only fragments of a story seen from the perspectives of different characters. Not until the novel’s conclusion, when Tashi has returned to her native Olinka and is executed for M’Lissa’s murder, does the story make sense in a traditional way.

When Adam makes Tashi his bride, she changes her name to Evelyn; she undergoes a gradual external transformation into a Westernized black woman. Much of Tashi’s story—and, by extension, the stories of her husband, his lover, and...

(The entire section is 649 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Possessing the Secret of Joy expresses, in fictional and direct statements, its author’s resistance to the practice of female circumcision. According to Alice Walker, in 1991 ninety to one-hundred million women and girls living in African, Far Eastern, and Middle Eastern countries were genitally mutilated, and the practice of “female circumcision” in the United States and Europe was growing among immigrants from countries where it was a part of the culture.

Three characters from Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and The Temple of My Familiar (1988) assume major roles in Possessing the Secret of Joy. The ritual mutilation of Tashi, childhood African friend to Celie’s children Adam and Olivia and later wife to Adam, is graphically described, and its physical and emotional effects are explored in this novel.

Olivia speaks first, as others speak later, of her own, Adam’s, and her missionary parents’ introduction to the six-year-old Tashi. Tashi was inconsolable, having just witnessed the death of her sister Dura, victim of genital mutilation. The novel’s action moves back and forth between Dura’s death and the trial of Tashi for the murder of M’Lissa, Dura’s killer and her own mutilator. It ends with the roar of rifle fire as Tashi is punished for her crime.

The aged Carl Jung is introduced to the novel’s list of characters. While he appears only briefly, his psychological and...

(The entire section is 469 words.)