The Temple of My Familiar

by Alice Walker

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

The Temple of My Familiar contains more characters than all of Walker's other novels combined, including several that reappear from The Color Purple (1982), Drawn from various continents, the number and diversity of these characters are appropriate to the theme of the connectedness of each and all. The concept of the unity of all people is further reinforced by having the central characters, who live continents apart physically and mentally, cross paths and develop intimate relationships during the course of the novel.

Lissie and Zede are the two characters who most clearly carry the novel's message of the need for a new vision. Zede, like Lissie, has "dream memories" of her ancestors who trace their lineage from Latin America back to Africa. In her many incarnations, Lissie has been both animal and human, male and female, white and black. Although she has more often been exploited than the exploiter, she has been and done all. Both characters (especially Lissie), function primarily as symbols rather than realistic characters.

The other female characters, Fanny and Carlotta, struggle to achieve the self-realization Lissie and Zede have already won. They chafe within the narrow roles defined by the dominate culture. Fanny is unhappy with her subordinate role in both her marriage and a racist society. She has a hatred of oppressors that she fears she cannot control. To develop her sense of selfhood she travels to Africa to observe and learn from female relatives. Carlotta, a much different type of woman, faces essentially the same problem. Abandoned by her husband, she becomes the submissive woman for Fanny's husband that Fanny refused to be. She acts and dresses the part but ultimately, like Fanny, remains unsatisfied. Her search for identity also takes her through new age approaches such as massage and yoga. However, she only discovers her identity through community with other womanists, in particular, through her relationship with Fanny.

If female characters in Walker's novel have to learn to reject the marginalized roles assigned them, Walker's male characters have to learn to accept the side of themselves that they have marginalized — the feminine side. Two of the three male characters have a developed feminine side. Hal, Lissie's husband, is so sensitive to the birth of his wife's first child that he gives up sex to avoid causing such pain, yet he loves delivering his wife's babies (who are fathered by other men). He is effective as a symbol, but as a character he borders on the absurd. Arveyda, the other sensitive black male character, is a new age music star, but with a domestic side. He bakes whole-wheat bread and after reading some womanist tracts his wife brings home, he recognizes their author, Shug, as his spiritual mother. Suwelo is the male character most intent on learning to develop his feminine side. Through Lissie's tutelage, he learns to give up his love of pornography, a fetish that symbolizes his desire to continue the oppression of women, and is brought to see women as equals.

By the novel's conclusion, Walker's main characters have all reached the same philosophical viewpoint: nothing is to be excluded from the circle of life except that which oppresses. In The Color Purple, Celie says that if God listened to black women, life would sure be different. The Temple of My Familiar illustrates the efforts of black womanists to transform the world by reviewing the past and countering divisive forces in the present.

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