Possessing the Secret of Joy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Reading Alice Walker’s novels is like visiting with special friends who gradually reveal the intimate details of their lives, one small step at a time. Walker’s novel, The Color Purple (1982), stretched the boundaries of traditional literary form by unraveling the precious lessons of protagonist Celie’s world through her letters to God, including her poor grammar and misspellings. Readers came to know Celie through her unique voice and the seemingly mundane events of her world. By reading between the lines, however, one was privileged to discover the innate wisdom that propelled her to seek a life beyond wifely servitude. Celie’s quest for independence was appreciated by male and female readers alike, and the novel was adapted as an award-winning motion picture. Critical acclaim echoed the book’s popularity, resulting in an American Book Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Walker.

In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker again introduces her readers to a twentieth century black heroine whose longing for personal peace echoes the wounded heart- beat of her African roots. This novel delves deeply into the psyche of Tashi, who was mentioned briefly in The Color Purple and again in The Temple of My Familiar (1989). Tashi as an African female character seems to have haunted Walker through those two books, until she became more real and meaningful than a mere footnote in others’ lives. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Tashi effectively tells her own bittersweet tale through Walker’s simple but precise prose. What is revealed is no less than shocking. It triggers the primal emotions that bind women of all races and ages together, as Tashi discovers the secret of joy, although it inevitably precipitates her premature death.

Reminiscent of the classic Japanese film Rashomon (1951), this novel utilizes brief first-person narratives from Tashi and the significant figures in her life, interwoven to allow her story to unfold as if through personal interviews for a documentary film or newspaper feature. It begins when she is already dead: Tashi speaks from the grave, first offering an allegory about listening to the truth of one’s inner voice even if it results in one’s demise. Then other characters begin to insert their versions of her tale, revealing as much about themselves as about Tashi as they recall events in which her impact on their lives was significant.

Entwined with Tashi’s recollections, which contain the wisdom of hindsight as well as the urgency of her own madness and resulting rage, these small bits and pieces of her life story capture the reader’s attention with an emotional hammerlock. Her story ends at last when she is executed for committing murder as a brutal act of revenge and mercy to which she freely confessed. Through this premeditated action and her well-publicized trial, Tashi evolves as a symbol of resistance—to women of the world, not only Africa—while the male judges who sentence her to death seem motivated more by their own primal fears than by societal protection.

The characters through which Walker tells the majority of Tashi’s tale are: Adam Johnson, Tashi’s minister-husband; his sister Olivia; Adam’s French mistress, Lisette; Adam and Tashi’s mildly retarded son, Benny; and Pierre, Lisette and Adam’s son. Tashi’s identity seems to change from chapter to chapter, apparently echoing the mental state that was in command at the time of the events she is retelling and evaluating. Her mental state is the touchstone of the story itself, linked intimately with her constantly evolving identity. At first she is Tashi, the young African girl who can cry freely, flaunts tribal custom by making love in the crop fields, and later chooses to suffer for tribal tradition as a means of bonding with the women of her heritage. When she marries Adam and accompanies him to America, she is given the American name Evelyn Johnson, which seems to mask her inner confusion, resulting in depression that leads to madness. As she gets older and her long-buried rage rises closer to the surface, Tashi takes over once more and is fully released when she commits murder to avenge her sister Dura’s death and her own subjugation through traditional Olinkan female initiation rights. The irony of this is that she is known at this time in her life, through the world press and African legal system, as Mrs. Johnson, an American woman in her fifties who is on trial for her life. It is no wonder that Tashi is swept up in the hurricane of her past—she is struggling to redefine herself while those around her see only the woman who fits their own parameters, worlds apart from her true self.

The novel’s chronology skips around through Tashi’s fifty years of life, although the story essentially begins when Adam and Olivia first meet six-year-old Tashi in her Olinkan village. They have traveled to Africa with their black minister father and mother, who have been sent to bring civilized religion to the “heathen” natives. Olivia is charmed immediately by Tashi, who is crying unabashedly because her beloved older sister, Dura, died earlier that day. Tashi is removed from the village because her tears in front of the visitors embarrass her tribe. It is weeks before she again meets the two young black Americans. Adam ultimately befriends Tashi and plays with her in the fields, where years later they hide out and make love as they reach puberty. Having sex in the fields is taboo among the Olinkans, who think it will poison the crops, a symbolic hint of their cultural perspective on sex based on superstition and tradition rather than personal experience or logic.

When Adam returns to Olinka as a young man to search for Tashi in order to marry her, he is stunned at how different she has become. The free-spirited young girl is now a tribeswoman, complete with Olinkan face markings. Since Africa is in the midst of civil uprisings, Adam is routed to refugee camps, where he is treated suspiciously. His first experience of discrimination echoes Tashi’s own growing disenfranchisement. When he finds her at last, he is sorrowful that she has just recently subjected herself to the tribal initiation rites of womanhood, which usually take place at the onset of puberty. Since Tashi’s mother did not put her younger daughter through this ritual because of Dura’s unfortunate experience, which resulted in her death, this choice is even more crucial to Tashi’s psyche. Her long-buried grief and the remorse she comes to feel over her own circumcision rise up over the next few years to overwhelm her.

As she agrees to...

(The entire section is 2715 words.)