Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Possessing the Secret of Joy advances two major ideas simultaneously: African girls and women are victimized by traditions that do not value the life of girls and women, and Africa should not always be viewed as a panacea of cultural “goodness.” Walker, through Tashi’s story, looks at African traditions and rituals and says that not everything in one’s cultural past should be honored or kept alive.

The novel carefully details how pervasive and destructive the ritual of female circumcision is in several African ethnic groups. In showing one woman’s experience with the effects of the ritual and how Tashi resolves to symbolically end it when she murders M’Lissa, Walker suggests that no cultural tradition is so monolithic that it cannot be defeated.

To indicate how terrible the ritual is, Walker devotes significant amounts of narrative space to graphic renderings of how the ritual is performed, the instruments used, the physical consequences on the subjects of the ritual, and the gynecological problems subjects bear for the remainder of their lives. Walker, in providing such graphic details, insists that readers know and understand the severity of the ritual and its toll on human lives. The novel begins with Tashi saying that she is dead.

As if the rendering of the physical aspects of the ritual is not enough, the novel also charts the heavy psychological toll it has on women. The novel becomes a record of the...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Possessing the Secret of Joy is foremost an exploration of female sexuality and the way that that aspect of a woman’s self-identity is managed on a grand scale—not simply in Third World cultures but also in supposedly progressive societies in Europe and America. Walker equates the position of women in every culture with that of a castrated male; female circumcision is the equivalent to castrating a male, since both surgeries destroy a person’s ability to attain sexual release. In the case of the female, one of the chief locuses of sexual pleasure, the clitoris, is excised. The circumcision of Tashi stands for her personal enslavement to a patriarchal world. In such cultures, women’s needs and women’s desires are not only passed off as unimportant but also considered to be unhealthy aberrations. This is certainly true in the case of Amy Maxwell, whose mother had her young daughter circumcised for masturbating.

Possessing the Secret of Joy is an angry novel. Walker focuses her attack on European colonialism, in its metaphoric castration of Africa and the silencing of Africanness in slaves excised from their mother countries. She also condemns the excision of femaleness from every woman that is performed by patriarchal cultures. Walker clearly parallels these two lines of argument by drawing all of her female characters as needing strong or oppressive males for their validation. For all the women, these relationships diminish...

(The entire section is 540 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The central themes in Possessing the Secret of Joy fit together like a reasoned argument. Established first is a concern central to...

(The entire section is 658 words.)