Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
This first novel by Alice Walker is in some respects more ambitious and more satisfying than a later novel, The Color Purple (1982), which many have called her best work and which won for Walker the American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The two books have much in common. They both reveal a preoccupation with the Southern black family; the problem and the solution for individual blacks are inseparable from the homes that nurture or fail to nurture love and self-respect. She studies especially the cause of deterioration in the family—the black male who (understandably, perhaps) cannot withstand racist pressures and sadistically takes out his frustrations on his wife and children. Hence, neither book offers a close look at a fulfilling sexual relationship within marriage. The male with no identity of his own resorts to oppression and violence. The Color Purple has two males on the edge of definition and, far away in Africa, a third who has already found it, yet in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker has already created an epic figure of a black man, an exception to be sure, who attains spiritual and intellectual strength that does not require physical violence to assert itself. He discovers the identity too late to be a husband but not too late to be a father.
To emphasize the difficulty of transformation, both novels stretch over the entire lifetime of the protagonist. In both, the pattern is the same, a depressing, even hopeless beginning and eventual salvation through enlightenment, emotional honesty, and love. What is impressive about The Third Life of Grange Copeland is that Walker traces the transformation in a man and does it convincingly. What is especially satisfying is the unobtrusiveness of its moral. One cannot say the same for The Color Purple, yet Walker’s imagination and narrative skill, even there, make palatable a heavy didactic strain—her gratuitous lessons on African culture and her promise of success to those who find themselves.