The Temple of My Familiar

by Alice Walker

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

A central theme in the novel is the challenge marginalized people face everywhere in creating an identity. Fanny, for example, faces two unacceptable roles — either as a victim of racism and sexism or as a possible perpetrator of retaliatory violence. She, like many characters in the novel, seeks a new role. The source of new ideas does not seem to be from traditional books. Witness Suwelo, the college history teacher, and Carlotta and Fanny, college literature teachers who are spiritually lost. The sources seem to come from other places, principally women's lives — specifically from women with past lives in the case of Lissie and Zede, or from dreams which hold archetypal memories as Franny's dreams do. These sources are better guides to achieving a viable identity. Walker puts the importance of these sources of knowledge this way: "a people's dreams, imaginings, rituals, legends . . . are known to contain the accumulated collective reality of the people themselves." In The Temple of My Familiar the wisdom that comes from these founts directs the characters to seek their identities in the connectedness of all things rather than in opposition to anything.

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In Walker's novels, a new identity cannot be achieved without support. There are no lone heroes. Those who struggle up from oppression, those who are lost and find themselves, succeed within a community of support. The first place to look for support is the family. Fanny travels back to Africa to consult her father. She seeks out her mother for advice and makes alliances with her sister. She also tries reading books by little-known women writers, joins consciousness-raising groups, and enters therapy. Carlotta reconciles with her mother, and in an act that demonstrates that she has stopped competing with women for the attentions of men, she befriends Fanny. It is Fanny who, through her massage sessions, puts Carlotta in touch with her body, which she became alienated from in her drive to attract men. Suwelo, who lost his parents in a car accident, finds his support from surrogate parents, Lissie and Hal, who help him undergo values realignment. Arveyda, who lost his mother early in life, falls in love with his wife's mother, who renews his passion. He also discovers a new "spiritual mother," as he calls her, in Snug, The novel ends with the four central characters living communally.

It is no surprise that in a novel with a central theme about the necessity of recreating the world, that the importance of artistic vision would also be a theme. Artists, after all, create worlds. All the major characters in the novel practice some creative art on the way to building a new vision of themselves and their relationships with others. Hal and Lissie, both painters, paint portraits of each other, an act which symbolizes their recreation of each other in their relationship. Arveyda sings his wife, Carlotta, "into understanding her mother." Carlotta, a costume designer, like her mother, takes up painting and eventually becomes a musician, a bell chimist, in order to play with her husband. Fanny takes up playwriting after her father, and with her sister writes a play of her father's life. With her husband, Suwelo, who has taken up carpentry, Fanny designs their house, a symbol of their finally reconstructed relationship. No less important is the fact that all the characters are storytellers — an art which Walker sees as the central art in recreating the world.

In all of Walker's novels the protagonists undergo spiritual transformation from depression and ignorance to hope and understanding. Grange Copeland transforms from self-centered to caring; Meridian Hill, from sickness to physical and spiritual health; Celie, from poor and degraded to financially independent and respected; Tashi, from victim to martyr. The theme of spiritual transformation is central to The Temple of My Familiar as well. Each of the characters search for wholeness.

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They are split by a world in conflict, by a world that is divided into sides — by race, by sex, by religion, by political system, and so on. The novel suggests that by the will to find identity, by community, and by artistic vision people can transform into whole human beings.

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