Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Role of African-American Traditions in Walker’s “Everyday Use”
In the first novel by Alice Walker, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland”, for example, the author crafts a carefully constructed conceptualization of the meaning of one’s man life, the implications of which reverberate far beyond the character’s life and even beyond the novel itself. In his “third life,” Grange Copeland finally begins to understand the forces that have constrained him and have influenced his behavior towards others, in turn limiting their own possibilities. Through her deft development of the plot of “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” by Alice Walker, and character development, as well as the novel’s narrative structure and the treatment of themes such as choice, free will, violence, and redemption, Alice Walker is able to achieve the goal of making meaning out of one character’s life, and, moreover, to bring these ideas together to offer readers a summary of the entire community.
One thing to keep in mind while reading “The Third Life of Grange Copeland”, by Alice Walker is that the act of writing is, by its very nature, a process that engages both the author and the reader in a consideration of profound existential ideas. Central to the notion of existentialism is a concern with determining the meaning and purpose of life, and in literary texts, whether fictional or biographical, the writer’s intention always involves, whether consciously or unconsciously, to make meaning out of a character’s life through the crucible of challenges that he or she confronts and resolves. The reader, in turn, can adopt and apply the lessons learned by the character in such a way that the significance of his or her own life becomes clearer. Although existentialism has traditionally been considered the exclusive province of European intellectuals and writers, existential themes are easily identifiable in many African-American novels from the 20th century.
One of the themes that was established in Alice Walker’s first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland”, and a subject which the author has continued to explore in each one of her subsequent works, involves the complex dynamics of oppression. In Walker’s texts, oppression is a force, even a character, that both acts and is acted upon. What makes the dynamics of oppression even more complicated in Walker’s work and, for that matter, other works by Alice Walker and is the fact that people who are oppressed cope with the frustrations of their condition by appropriating the same tools of oppression that are used against them by turning them upon other people who are even more vulnerable than they are. As a result, it becomes exponentially more difficult for any of the oppressed characters to forge an authentic, untainted identity and to determine the direction and purpose of their own lives; oppressed people are, without exception, the instruments of other people and lack autonomous agency. The conditions of inauthenticity precipitated by oppression actually cause the oppressed person to turn away from his or her “insupportable situation[s]” (Sartre 92), and to engage in the psychologically damaging practices of denial (Sartre 92). In such a context, there is an absence of true meaning, a void that is filled with false and damaging notions about the self and others.
The reader can best understand these existential dynamics of oppression by studying the character of Grange Copeland closely. Grange Copeland, an African American sharecropper, has become worn down by the conditions of oppression which constrict his ability to determine the meaning and purpose of his own life. Grange, like all oppressed people, is subject to the desires and demands of others in positions of power. “[A]fter his work for others,” Grange has nothing left to give to himself or to his family. The narrator observes that Grange was “never able to do more than exist on air; he was never able to build on it, and was never able to have any land of his own; and was never able to set his woman up in style, which more than anything else was what he wanted to do (Walker 54-55).