Pulitzer prize novelist Alice Walker is best know for her stories about the life of African American women, their struggle with society for survival, racial, sexual and economical equality and spiritual wholeness. She writes through her personal experiences. Most critics consider her works as feminist, but Walker describes herself as a „womanist“, showing appreciatiation of women and their abilities no matter what the colour of their skin is. She was born in Eatonton, Georgia, a small town where most blacks worked as tenant farmers.
In 1961 she moved to Atlanta where she started to participate in the civil rights movement while her studies there. This had a great influence on her later works as she experienced love, individualism and revolution in this period. She married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer, and soon had a child, Rebecca. They lived in Mississippi where she became a teacher and an activist. In 1976 Walker and Leventhal divorced and since then Walker had turned all her attention to writing and teaching.
In her novels she discusses questions of gender, races, violence, troubled relationships as well as isolation, environment, love, hate and suffering. She talkes about problems of African American women, who does not know the value of their selves because they have never been given a chance to improve what they are good at. Walker criticises men for being ignorant of women’s feelings and for taking away the power women once possessed back in the time when people were created by God. She tries to provide a comprehensive picture of society and its development from prehistoric times until today.
Walker describes mainly the differences of women’s way of life in the past in comparasion to what their conditions are nowadays. Walker is a very influential author among the black community but has also a lot of fans in the white society. Her narration is easy to folow and thanks to her ability to express her thoughts such well, one feels as he was right in the middle of events. Walker’s fourth and longest novel is called The Tmeple of My Familiar. It is not really a pure novel as it is based on dialogues – each chapter represents one discussion. As J. M. Coetzee states in his review, the book „.. is a novel only in a loose sense. Rather, it is a mixture of mythic fantasy, revisionary history, exemplary biography and sermon. It is short on narrative tension, long on inspirational message. “ There is no real protagonist in the book; in the centre of the novel are two couples having trouble with their relationships. It is a collection of at least one hundred strories which are more or less connected and happening in America, Africa and Europe. We can witness the mental development of main characters from their early age to adulthood.
The narration might seem to be slightly educational; Walker uses her characters to express her own thoughts and thus to influence readers’s attitudes. We can as well understand this book as a family saga. Walker’s interest in writing a family saga was already apperent in eg. The Colour Purple as it tells the story of a dysfunctional family across generations, this family is, however, reunified by enlightened individuals, just as it is in The Temple. Spirituality plays an important role within the novel.
This is reflected namely in the story of Lissie who experienced multiple reincarnations remembering all her previous lives. Due to this fact, Walker mannaged to cover a period of 500,000 years in her book. She makes spiritual connections between past and present and thus comments on the importance of African heritage which is nowadays highly underrated. The book provoked a strong wave of criticism and is generally disliked by the critics as they find it excessively conversational. However, The Temple of My Famliar has a lot of defenders too, mostly among women from various ethnic backgrounds.
The novel is devided into six parts; each one uses a different animal as its symbol: peacock in the first two parts, serpent in the following one, the fourth part has an owl imagery and the last one that of lion. Walker blames society for not being caring enough of nature, especially animals. She declares that in prehistoric times, animals had no reason to fear people and to eat them. They lived together with people, even they could in some way understand each other. There was harmony in their relationship. However, the situation changed very soon.
While reading we can notice several major themes and ideas that Walker used in this novel: criticising of whites and male oppression, the importance of women in society and female friendship, racism and sexism, the subjugation of women by all men, and suppessing of ancient African deities and spirituality (as was mentioned above). The writer’s attitude to religion is worth to mention; Walker is convinced that a spiritual mother of all people is in fact Isis, black ancient goddess – „… The Great Mother, Creator of All, Protector of All, The Keeper of the Earth. “ (p. 269).
She says that religion of any kind, as we know it today, teaches people to hate women and to act violently toward the others. The main difference between African religion and traditional ones is that the Africans feel that ‚God’ loves them whereas in the modern religions people take this for granted. Many centuries ago the women were those who were speaking to the world, they were more mature than men. As soon as they realized their real power they started „using“ men, namely sexually. Obviously, after a while, men started to be uncomfortable with this so they started usurping their power gradually and soon became predominant.
They burnt hundreds of women as witches, those who were believing in God were killed, sold into slavery or converted to Islam. Basically, Walker states that men are far not as intelligent as women, they do what other men tells them to but the important fact is that all these orders primarily come from a woman – the Goddess of Africa. What the writer thinks of the mentality of men is obvious from the following extract in which one man is giving an advice to another one about treating his mother: „Don’t pay any attention to anything she might suggest. In return, we will help you pretend that you created yourself. (p. 271). Another theme which is crucial to the book is racism. Walker wants to convince a reader that Africans are not such uncivilized people as most of whites think. History of Africa is very rich and interesting, one cannot exclude it when getting to know the historical events around the world. Walker blames whites for caring more about space than earth, for enslaving blakcs, for treating them badly and killing them. First, when Americans came to Africa, the natives thought that it would be for their good, but for many years whites just kept them terrorized and poor in order to feel powerful.
Whites dont know why they are on earth. All they can think of is gaining as much possession as possible. For instance, when somebody dies whites care about „who will get the silver, who will inherit the car, who is mentioned in or ommited from the will (p. 310). Africans are different; they know that it is not important what things you leave to your children after you die, because what is essential most is pasing your knowledge and ispiration on to them. From the dialogue Fanny has with Robin, one can get a clear idea what Walker really thinks of whites: The whites had done terrible things to us; many of them would claim later that they’d done nothing of the kind, simply because they knew nothing about it. But beyond what they were doing to us, as adults, they were destroying our children, who were starving to death – their bodies, their minds, their dreams – right before our eyes. “ (p. 305)
In fact, it is not perfectly true when we say that the writer criticises all the whites for being bad, because as a matter of fact it is racism which causes all the hatred not the people with white skin. It’s racism and greed that have to go. Not white people. But can they be separated from their racism? “ (p. 303). Being black and living in the United States is not easy and never has been. In past when slavery was still legal and during the Civil War the blacks were considered inferior to whites. How much this statement is true we can see from the next lines. As Walker says „It was practically illegal to hug a coloured person. “ (p. 15). Actually, there was no contact between whites and blacks because black people were literally scared of whites: uncle Rafe perfected the art of doing the most intimate things to and for white people without once appearing to look at them. “ (p. 34).
Another example is when Lissie was on her way home by bus and white people „made her get off and walk“ (p. 34). After the World War II. the situation in the US got worse. When black soldiers were coming back from war, they wanted to be treated equally, they refused to be segregated at restaurants and buses. However, there was practically immediate reaction against this behaviour. „… The white men were steadily accusing them of raping white women, looking at white women [… and many a black man found himself in jail on this charge! [… ] Needless to say there were rarely any white women at all involved. “ (p. 168). But Walker does not criticise exclusively Americans for treating blacks badly, but also people coming from Europe. While there was a colonisation of Africa by Europeans, native people of Africa were starving to death, suffering from several illnesses, malnutrition and overwork.
This was caused by wealthy Englishmen who owned rubber plantations there and made the natives work for them excessively long for very little money. Many of them went so far as to view the Africans themselves as having no right to be in Africa, since it was the plan of the white people to take over the continent. “ (p. 151). As the novel is written from the woman’s point of view there is much space dedicated to reflexing on the question of men and women and connections there are between them. Basically, Walker criticises men for being too selfish, not being and often even not willing to try to understand women’s feelings. This problem is well described in the story of Fanny and Suwelo as they go through a crisis in their relationship.
The important fact is that Suwelo is a white man (more accurately, his family originally comes from Africa, but as it has settled in the US a long time ago, Suwelo is almost white-skinned today). He married Fanny, an African girl, who, however, grew up in the US as well but who has experienced racism since her early age. Suwelo’s challenge is to learn more about history of Africa and „to reach a higher understanding of the needs of his wife and, therefore, all women“ (Gerri Bates, 2005). Fanny is dissatisfied with their marriage since she thinks that the connection between them had been much better before they got married. People marry when they are in love and within five years, they still think they are in love but actually what binds them together is house payments, a car, children [… ] there is no longer a spiritual or even authentic physical connection. “ (p. 282). She makes him divorce her but they stay friends. She tries to make him grasp her feelings.
Suwelo first fails this task but at the end of the book we see that he finally succeeds which happens thanks to his dialogues with Lissie and Hal. Suwelo’s talks with these two people were not just ordinary conversations. They were more correctly perceived as deliveries. Suwelo was grateful to receive“ (p. 96). The relationship of Carlotta and Arveyda is uneasy too. First, they were both trully in love with each other, but then Arveyda fell in love with her mother Zede, too. Carlotta leaves him as soon as she learns about this affair. In the end, these two become good friends again but the relationship is never going to be the same as it used to be. Rafe, Lissie and Hal were having something that could be called a love triangle.
Interesting is that they all got along very well with each other and loved and appreciated each other almost equally. A family plays inherently an important role within any society. On this matter Walker is critical not only of white men but also of African ones. She says the African men „… can always run on and on about the white man’s destructiveness and yet they cannot look into their own families and their own children’s lives… (p. 253). It takes two parents to raise a child, but this is one of the beliefs that the Africans have lost. Men just give a baby to the women but do not care about raising it at all.
The women are often forgotten by men and they just exsist for men’s pleasure. There are a lot of other interesing aspects to be found in the book. As for instance sexuality which Walker sees as ever present. It is what bounds people together, what makes them feel good and satisfied thus what is neccessary part in our lives. The writer’s understanding of death is remarkable too. Lissie criticizes today’s world for nobody being truly free and that there is always somebody telling you what to do, therefore Lissie understands the death as some kind of relief. There are some days when the best thought you can have is that one day you’ll die and leave it all behind“ (p. 190).
Also, Walker provides readers quite an accurate picture what the slave trading looked like in earlier years and how the blacks were treated. Lissie tells Suwelo about the jorney on a ship from Africa to America after she was sold to slavery by her uncle: „We were packed if we were sardines for this two-month-long journey [… ] our heads in each other’s laps, a long chain connecting us by the feel along one row [… we were taken up on deck for longer than our usual half-hour-a-day run, while they swabbed out the hold, during which several women and men fairly danced over the side of the ship and into the sea. “ (p. 69). The Temple of My Familiar is an extremely complex novel that requires a very concentrated reader. Being open minded while reading this book is important because Walker expresses a lot of ideas which are almost impossible to belive and her comments on various topics are rather subjective. Making sense of all this is definitely a challenge, but a kind of challenge which is completely worth a try.