The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Grange is the title character, the majority of characters in the novel are black women, and the novel progresses as an account of the women in Grange’s life and what he has done directly or indirectly to them. In structuring major parts of the novel around Grange’s struggles to find himself and to be a responsible man, Walker presents his character primarily from an interior perspective. Although the external conditions of racism and poverty are important to the novel’s meanings, how Grange responds to those conditions is the key to his character presentation.

In his first life, when he thinks of himself as a victim of injustice, he responds to his condition by taking his frustrations out on those closest to him, his wife and his son. He treats both cruelly, because expressing his love outwardly and in positive ways would mean acknowledging his inability to do anything for his family that might change their condition. Beyond his abuse of his family, he retreats into himself and avoids who he is through excessive drinking and by having an affair with Josie. Walker depicts Grange as a coward, a man afraid to face up to his kinship responsibilities. This point is made when Walker has Grange use the occasion of his wife’s affair with Shipley as a rationalization for leaving his family.

Grange, however, is not a static character. He confronts new experiences and a second life in New York City, and he begins the process of coming to terms with who he is and what he might do to make up for his failures in his first life. A growing sense of a new self marks his reentry to...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Walker’s purpose in this novel is to provoke an empathetic as well as critical response to the race problem in America. She writes primarily for readers who do not understand racism and its effects on personality—hence her strategy to create black characters that feel intensely the pressures of the situation, characters that are agonizingly human. She gives her characters a real setting, the American South that she knows so well. In fact, when she leaves the cotton fields, the dusty clay roads and quiet woods, the drafty tenant shacks, and travels north to Central Park, she loses the touch of immediacy. Walker is also successful with dialogue; she knows the dialect of her people. Nothing captures better the color, the humor, and the pain of the black experience than her manipulations of nonstandard English, and her vivid and often raunchy metaphors. In order to reveal the motivation behind the characters’ behavior, Walker assumes an omniscient point of view and moves the center of consciousness from one character to another. First one sees the world through Brownfield’s eyes, understands why he develops such hatred for his wife, his father, and his daughter. From his own perspective, his father never loved him. Grange’s abandonment is, for him, a selfish, unfeeling act. From Brownfield, Walker transfers the reader to Josie’s mind, where the keys to her weakness and her prostitution still dwell in her unconscious, in her dreams. In many scenes, Walker assumes total omniscience, reporting not only observable events but also the thoughts of various characters. In the second half of the novel, she mainly reports the thoughts of Grange and Ruth. One comes to understand that Grange’s abandonment of his family was the result of extraordinary sensitivity and frustration, that Grange and Ruth, whom the society regards as crazy, are isolated examples of sanity, and that Ruth’s dogged independence and defensiveness derive from the horrible...

(The entire section is 797 words.)