Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker’s first novel, is a poignant preface to her fictional canon. In this novel, published when Walker was only twenty-six years old, many of her later artistic concerns are present, including the creation of “real” black women, the sexual and racial oppression of black women, the preoccupation with the inner lives of characters, the repressed or thwarted creativity of black women, the exploration of the effects of racism and discrimination on individuals from an inside perspective, the legacy of parental values transmitted to children, and the use of African American history and cultural traditions. More than anything, the novel is the story of the individual’s relationship to community.

The novel privileges the idea that in African American experience the individual has a responsibility to the group, whether the group is family or the larger black community. In working with this idea, Walker charts the toll on individual lives when kinship or the communal self is absent or seriously undervalued.

The history of the Copeland family is a record of the difficulties African Americans face in keeping the notion of kinship alive in a racist world. Walker’s narration of the effects of the sharecropping system, a metaphor for America’s overarching racism and discrimination, on Grange and Margaret reveals that kinship has a precarious future. If black people do not struggle to maintain it, awful events can happen to them, events more terrible than racism itself.

Grange responds to his lack of power to combat racism by taking his frustration and anger out on his wife and child. Margaret responds to the same environment and to Grange’s treatment of her by neglecting...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alice Walker offers at the same time an intimate portrait and a panoramic survey of racism in America from the black point of view. The success of the novel derives from her ability to convince her readers that the terrible conditions of blacks are absolutely inescapable—the despair of this vision recalls Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and makes the reading almost unbearable—and then to suggest that escape is, after all, possible. The theme of the novel is the answer, or rather the complex of answers, to the question: How does one escape? Grange Copeland’s three lives provide the clues. The first answer is to step outside conditions that appear to be universal but in fact are only indigenous to one’s own local setting. This can be accomplished through education, which frees the mind of environmental determinism. For Grange, education comes first from experience in a different setting, then from reading. It provides a second environment that demonstrates the first to be local and limited. The resulting double consciousness reveals the apparently inescapable condition to be a syndrome that has a cure.

Walker emphasizes the importance of both consciousness and aggressiveness in the transformation. Past experiences must not remain repressed in the unconscious. They must be faced; the crimes one has committed in the name of despair must be acknowledged, and one’s public behavior must witness to the new faith. Grange takes all the crucial steps. He names white society as the enemy, aggressively takes charge of his own life to combat that society, but also accepts responsibility for his own worst acts—he should never have permitted the enemy to take away all his manhood. He redefines himself as a man by never again violating his essential responsibilities, never again acting according to the will of the enemy.

Before the escape is complete, one must establish contact, through love, with another human being. For Walker, the place to begin is within the family, for Grange, the person is his granddaughter, Ruth. The obsessive concern of the male slave mentality was to keep one’s fellows even lower than oneself; the enlightened concern of the new black is to open up the world, to give others the freedom to feel, think, and act. This is Grange’s philosophy of life when he dies.