Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664
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 Tashi’s life?
Tashi, Olivia, Adam, Lisette, Benny, Pierre, and a few other characters collectively reconstruct the history that accounts for the novel’s present-time events and that explains the final forms that Tashi and other characters have taken.
Weaving in and out of time from the 1920’s, when Tashi is a child in Africa, to the late 1980’s, when Tashi is awaiting death, the novel scrutinizes an Olinkan ritual and its trail of destruction. Tashi and the females of her tribe are circumcised when they are between the ages of five and eleven. The circumcision is revealed to be one of the most barbaric forms of female mutiliation known. Many of the girls die from infections soon after the ritual is performed. Tashi’s favorite sister, Dura, dies in this way. More important to the novel’s progression are the effects the ritual has on those girls who do not die. Most of them have numerous urinary tract infections throughout their lives. Many of them cannot have sexual intercourse without great pain. Many of the women experience so much pain that their husbands either refuse to have sex with them and seek partners elsewhere or insist that their wives have anal intercourse. If a woman becomes pregnant, which does happen in spite of the fact that sexual penetration is difficult, she almost always has a painful delivery.
In detailing what the Olinkan ritual does to women, Tashi tries to understand why the practice was never stopped. In remembering her own circumcision, she recalls that no one protested against the ritual. She then becomes obsessed with the woman who performed the ritual on her and who killed her sister Dura.
The difficulty of trying to live a normal life after the ritual has been performed is the focus of the novel. Tashi’s monologues reveal that the aftermath of the ritual has literally driven her insane. Her insanity is exacerbated by the fact that once she moves to the United States there are no therapists who can understand the ritual’s long-lasting human damage and help her. As a middle-aged woman, she finally comes to understand that only she can cure herself, by taking action against the woman who has literally or figuratively killed so many Olinkan girls and women.
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