The Third Life of Grange Copeland

by Alice Walker

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker’s first novel, is the chronological story of three generations of a black sharecropping family in the South. The novel addresses several issues that occupy Walker’s career: the abuse of black women by their husbands and fathers, the Civil Rights movement, and the necessities of self-reliance and moral responsibility.

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Grange Copeland begins his married life with Margaret as an optimistic sharecropper. By the time their son Brownfield is born, however, the white landowner’s exploitation of Grange’s labor, resulting in irreversible indebtedness, has spawned hopeless frustration. Grange’s feelings of inadequacy precipitate a rage that finds misdirected expression in the abuse of his wife and son. He drinks heavily and begins a sexual relationship with a prostitute. When Margaret retaliates by having sex with white men, which results in a light-skinned baby, Grange abandons Margaret and the children, going north. Completely demoralized, Margaret kills the baby and herself, leaving Brownfield alone.

Brownfield determines not to work for the same white man who controlled his father, but even as he tries to break from Grange’s behavior pattern, he unknowingly becomes involved with Josie, his father’s mistress. This ironic situation takes a positive turn, however, when Brownfield falls in love with and marries Mem, Josie’s educated niece. Walker explains in a later afterword to the novel that she named this character from the French word la meme for “the same,” and Mem proves to be the same kind of victim Brownfield’s mother was and that countless other black women have been.

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Mem dreams of a middle-class life for them, and Brownfield believes, as did Grange, that working as a sharecropper will be a stepping-stone to this better life. As was the case with his father, a growing family and indebtedness work against him. Mem’s attractiveness and education, the very traits that drew Brownfield to her, become symbols of his failure, and he sets out to destroy her so she will be the ruined woman that he believes he deserves. Mem, no matter how Brownfield batters her, manages always to hold up her head and tries to improve their situation. Mem’s persistent hope, a trait long gone from Brownfield, finally enrages him so much that he murders her.

Grange had returned from the North before that happened and made an effort to help his son and Mem, but Brownfield bitterly refused the atonement. After Brownfield murders Mem, Grange takes his youngest granddaughter, Ruth, to raise. The reader is told at this point in the novel that Grange’s experiences in New York were no better than life in the South. The crisis of trying to save a drowning white woman, only to have her refuse his hand because it is black, proved a pivotal point for Grange. The woman’s death triggers his active hostility toward all white people, and having finally taken an indirect revenge against them, Grange feels renewed and vindicated. Purged from the old, defining victimization, Grange chooses sanctuary from white people and a self-determined life. He marries Josie, buys a farm, and vows to give Ruth a nurturing environment away from white people and the violence born of frustration.

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Ruth matures into an independent young woman who, having been sheltered by Grange, does not share his bitterness toward society. Through the media and the local activities of civil rights workers, Ruth comes to believe in the possibility of social change. Grange humors Ruth’s ideals, but he still cannot bear the thought of a white woman under his roof, civil rights worker or not.

Grange’s greatest battle must still be fought on the home front when Brownfield is released from prison and seeks custody of Ruth, not because of love but in rage against his father. A corrupt white judge gives Ruth to Brownfield, but Grange, having suspected the outcome, shoots his son in the courthouse to prevent Brownfield’s sure destruction of Ruth. Grange and Ruth escape to the farm, where Grange prepares to defend his autonomy to the death. Educated, self-reliant, and full of a hope that Grange himself had lost, Ruth emerges the black woman that Margaret and Mem could have been.

Walker’s novel delivers an ultimately hopeful message of the possibility of change through love and moral responsibility. Grange finds a productive way out of his anger by himself; his reclusive solution allows Ruth to reenter the world with the inner strength imperative to a black woman’s survival. Walker’s attempts to understand the reasons behind Grange and Brownfield’s violence do not condone it; rather, the motives revealed serve to clarify the means to change it.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a three-generational account of the Copeland family, begins in rural Georgia in the 1920’s and ends during the early stages of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s. The novel records the impact of racism and poverty on one family by emphasizing what it does to individuals and by showing what individuals must do to keep alive kinship, the strongest weapon black people have to fight injustice.

Using a conventional chronological plot and an omniscient third-person narrative point of view, Walker begins by detailing the lifestyles of Grange and Margaret Copeland. Grange and Margaret work hard to make a life for themselves and their son, Brownfield, but they are unsuccessful in rising above what Walker documents as almost absolute poverty and degradation.

Grange works as a sharecropper, planting, chopping, and picking cotton for a white man named Shipley. No matter how hard he works, he can never get out of debt to Shipley. Grange responds to his cycle of poverty by keeping his best self secret. He never smiles at his son or his wife. He rarely even talks to them, and when he does it is to say something harsh. The immediate consequences of Grange’s reaction to poverty and oppression are that his son and wife fear him. Brownfield develops a barely suppressed hatred for his father, and Margaret goes out of her way to please Grange. As a result of the fights and arguments that invariably crop up between Grange and Margaret over his affair with Josie or his inattention to Margaret and Brownfield, Grange feels inadequate, unhappy, and empty. He resolves to leave his wife and son.

His leaving, however, only means that his wife and son are left to fend for themselves, and neither fares very well. Margaret, who has had an affair with Shipley and given birth to Shipley’s son, cannot go on without Grange. She kills herself and the baby. After his mother’s death, Brownfield strikes out on his own, thinking that if he can get to the North he might yet have a chance of having a happy life. With no family support, he only gets as far as a neighboring county, where he meets and is temporarily supported by Grange’s old flame, the prostitute Josie.

Brownfield falls in love with the gentle and kind Mem, Josie’s niece. He marries her and initially has high hopes of creating a warm and loving family. Walker makes it clear that Brownfield has not seen or learned how to love, how to be a good husband and father. Brownfield and Mem soon have several children, and the only way Brownfield can support his family is by hiring out as a sharecropper. Like Grange, Brownfield hates himself because he is unable to escape the cycle of poverty associated with sharecropping. Like Grange, he takes his own inadequacies and frustrations out on his wife.

While Brownfield is bent on destroying his own wife and family, Walker lets the reader know that Grange is in New York City trying to piece his life together. In New York, he feels better when he directly confronts those who oppress him, and he learns that as one man he cannot do battle against all white people. He returns to Georgia to find a place of his own where he can be left alone. Josie, who owns her own business—a juke joint—and has money, is the financial key Grange needs to buy his own farm. He marries Josie and tries to be a grandfather to Brownfield’s daughters.

Grange reasons that Brownfield is beyond help, but he tries to help his grandchildren and Mem. After Brownfield murders Mem, Grange vows to accept responsibility for raising his granddaughter Ruth. His two other granddaughters go to live with Mem’s relatives in the North. Grange becomes the sort of paternal figure he should have been with Brownfield.

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