The Temple of My Familiar

by Alice Walker

Start Free Trial

The Temple of My Familiar

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

Alice Walker’s first work since her highly acclaimed THE COLOR PURPLE is a book about time and change. Though written from a “womanist” viewpoint, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR follows both women and men through what becomes a history of the evolution of humankind. This evolutionary aspect is especially found in the chapters that tell the tales of Miss Lissie’s various incarnations, including a brief, horrifying stint as a white man in a black tribe. The intertwining of all the separate narratives takes place as people only mentioned in passing in one chapter become the focal character in another chapter. For example, the white woman (Mary Jane) who rescues Carlotta and her mother, Zede, from a prison camp in South America ends up in Africa married to Fanny and Nzingha’s black African father, Ola. Fanny is the granddaughter of Mama Shug and Mama Celie, both characters from THE COLOR PURPLE.

Though Shug and Celie play a background role in the narrative, they are two of the most likable and human characters in the book, palpably real in a way that the novel’s more prominent characters are not. Shug and Celie are warm, down-to-earth (especially in expounding “the gospel according to Shug”), and very human. For example, Celie is not very nice to her dog until Shug teaches him to bite the hand that beats him. They are fallible, but not in the strained way that other characters are. When, for example, Carlotta’s husband, Arveyda, leaves her for her mother, Zede, the reader is likely to feel cheated, for no credible motivation has been supplied--a recurring problem throughout the novel. It is hard to feel any deep connection with Walker’s characters, and the resolution of their conflicts is too pat to be satisfying.

Nevertheless, readers who are interested in the theories of University of California at Los Angeles archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who posits an Edenic prehistoric era marked by worship of female deities, will find in THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR a kindred spirit.

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

Walker's principal technique in The Temple of My Familiar is to revise the Western representation of reality, which depicts itself as separate from and superior to other cultures, by telling stories that stress connection and equality. In her own words, Walker has said: "What I'm doing is literally trying to reconnect us to our ancestors. All of us, I'm really trying to do that because I see that ancient past as the future, that the connection that was original is a connection; if we can affirm it in the present, it will make a different future." Fanny unearths stories of black contributions to American history that have been neglected or suppressed. Lissie presents reinterpretations of ancient myths. Zede recounts horrors and heroism that would have been left in the jungle and out of recorded history. This deconstructive technique might well have been acquired from the feminist movement or from modern critical theory; however, Walker was most probably influenced by the Black Aesthetic of the 1960s. As critic Elliot Butler-Evan explains the goals of that movement: "The major thrust of Black Aesthetic narratives as oppositional or alternative texts was the production of alternative representations of black life, positing significant self-reconstruction and definition, and the deconstruction of the ideological assumptions under- pinning Western constructions of reality."

As critic and novelist J. M. Coetzee points out about Walker's rewriting of history, however: ". . . history is not just storytelling. There are certain brute realities that cannot be willfully ignored. Africa has a past that neither the white male historian nor Ms. Walker can simply invent."

Walker employs the same deconstructive technique not only on broad cultural topics but also on the characters' personal relationships. In The Temple of My Familiar the traditional institution of marriage is a failure. Exclusive pairs fail because one of the partners is always privileged. To achieve sexual egalitarianism, paired relationships must open into triangular ones. Triangles are, after all, a woman's sign of peace throughout the novel. Hal and Lissie's relationship is troubled until it opens to include Rafe. Fanny and Suwelo's relationship is exploitative until Arveyda enters in. Arveyda and Carlotra's relationship is marred by jealousy until she is to accept her mother as having been Arveyda's lover. Paired relationships are broken and eventually characters are healed by the love triangle, which in traditional Western literature invariably spelled disaster. In Walker's novels, however, the destructive triangle is transformed into a symbol of cooperation and equality.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

Inasmuch as The Temple of My Familiar can be classified, it resembles a novel of ideas and perhaps it is best approached in that way. A place to start might be with the controversy over a premise influenced by the Black Aesthetic Movement that the history of oppressed peoples can and should be rewritten imaginatively in order to deconstruct "the ideological assumptions underpinning Western constructions of reality." Was Walker successful anywhere in the novel with this technique?

A second thrust of the novel is in advancing ideas about where the world should be headed in areas such as the institution of marriage, directions for social change, attitudes toward racism, mankind's relationship toward animals, and so forth. Walker's ideas should stimulate an interesting discussion.

1. All the central characters seem to evolve to a higher consciousness. What social responsibilities, if any, are part of their new consciousness?

2. Does it seem to be true that Walker's homogenized view of the sexes and races through Lissie dilutes moral responsibility for sexism and racism?

3. What various roles do love triangles play in The Temple of My Familiar?

4. In Walker's novels the central female characters often make a big to-do over their discovery of masturbation. In what ways is masturbation used symbolically in this novel?

5. Does Fanny's experience show the way one can combat racism without becoming a racist?

6. Walker took much criticism for her depiction of black males in The Color Purple. How do the black male characters appear in this novel?

7. Suwelo obviously has much to learn about how to treat women. Does Arveyda share any of his oppressive tendencies?

8. Why does Lissie write to Suwelo in disappearing ink?

9. What relationship does Lissie's story of the familiar have to do with the stories involving the central characters in the novel? What do they need to set free?

10. Is modern African society as it is depicted in the novel any better or any worse than Western Society?

11. Can you identify where the source of all trouble comes from in The Temple of My Familiar?

12. What link does there seem to be between memory and imagination in the novel?

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

In The Temple of My Familiar, Walker tries something almost destined to fail. She challenges the West's Eurocentric vision of the world — its myths of human origins, its concepts of history, its ideas on political relationships, its attitudes toward the environment, its views on male/female relationships. The male-dominated white culture has written the script and cast the players for thousands of years. In The Temple of My Familiar Walker recasts the roles and rewrites the script. Formerly marginalized people (principally African American females) take center stage — a much broader one than just Europe and North America — and play the heroic roles. Walker undoubtedly chose this approach because she knows, as does every chronicler of a people, that a people's concept of themselves and their prospects for the future are influenced by the accepted stories of their past. Those whose pages of history are cast in a dim light or worse, no light at all, must often struggle with an imposed, unacceptable identity or none at all. So, by rescripting history, Walker hopes to better the prospects of people marginalized by the hegemony of the white male.

A central social concern of the novel is the importance of a new vision of human interaction that emphasizes inclusion rather than exclusion. An old saying goes: "There are two kinds of people in the world — the kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't." Walker — who has been accused of seeing the world in terms of black and white, female and male, right and wrong — celebrates in The Temple of My Familiar the connectedness of all things. Certainly racism and sexism are concerns in the novel, but Walker has a larger concern here which has not been central to her fiction previously. Walker is still concerned with race and sexism; she still views the world from the perspective of a black womanist. But with her focus on cosmic consciousness, the label "black womanist" seems too narrow to define her new approach. Although some critics have expanded the label to "new age black womanist," Walker has supplied her own description: "My full title that I've given myself at this juncture is pagan agnostic ecstatic."

Since Walker has always expressed a strong concern for the rights of the excluded and exploited, it is not surprising that she would extend that concern to animal rights and the protection of the environment. The "familiar" of the title, in fact, refers to animals, principally the lion, which have long suffered in their relationship with humanity. According to one of Walker's characters, Lissie, familiars were once treated by women as companions and equals, but that relationship threatened male egos and they were driven away. In other stories in the book, Walker describes with equal indignation the wanton destruction of South American rain forests, African complicity with Western powers who dump radioactive wastes in Africa, and the destruction of the ozone layer. In the face of these assaults on the defenseless, Walker contends that "it is fatal to see yourself as separate." For her, healthy change will come only when society learns to see itself from a holistic perspective and with the understanding that all are one.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

The Temple of My Familiar is a unique novel, with few literary precedents. Much like Lissie's dream familiar, it is not recognizably bird, fish, or reptile. Nevertheless, Walker would claim to owe a debt to Zora Neale Hurston to whom she has often referred as her literary foremother. Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is also concerned with the search for identity in an oppressive and exploitative world.

While both novels are concerned with the same struggle, however, the solutions are different, Hurston's character achieves her identity by adhering to her individual artistic vision, while Walker's characters achieve whole, healthy identities through participation in a community of people with a holistic vision of life.

The Temple of My Familiar has perhaps been most influenced by Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). Walker quotes from the opening of Woolf's novel in an epigraph. Woolf's central character, Orlando, experiences life as a male and later as a female over a period of three centuries. Most importantly, Woolf uses this fantastic technique to expose cultural biases and illustrate the essential equality of the sexes. Walker quotes a passage in Orlando in which the young man is batting at the shrunken and suspended head of a Moor, It could be that Walker, while acknowledging her predecessor, is also calling attention to Woolf's selective view of equality.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access