Alice Walker knows how to craft a tale that shows so many feminist elements. What is impressive is that she did this with her first novel at the age of 21.
For our online feminist book club discussion, I was the first one to pick our novel to read. I’ve been wanting to finish reading Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland for years. I kept picking up the novel…starting it and not reading it the entire way. However, I am glad that I stuck with it this time because it is a phenomenal read!!
Today, I finished it, and it took my breath away. Not only it has many truths ring brilliantly that are brought center stage, but Walker does something that a writer has never did to me before. She evoked a multitude of emotions from which provoked me to examine certain aspects of what feminism is concerning the main character and his family. Here’s what the novel is about first and foremost.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland is an African American saga about a black family, the Copelands. The novel reveals to us the main protagonist, Grange Copeland, is quite unhappy with his life. Grange’s depression results from being a sharecropper. His existence or his identity is owned by the owner of the land who he share crops from. For Grange, his life is non-existent. Being oppressed by the white owner gives him no hope. Grange’s depression turns into rage and he neglects neglect his family. Eventually, he abandons them. Once abandoned, his wife, Margaret, commits suicide with her bastard baby, and his son, Brownfield, leaves and heads up North to look for his father.
The results are devastatingly astounding. Brownfield is unable to get passed his father’s uncaring behavior and abandonment. Brownfield’s years of resentment at Grange proves fatal. Brownfield has a family of his own that he treats horrifically. Brownfield also falls into the same kind of oppressive work his father did—sharecropping. Along with his existing resentment towards his father and sharecropping oppressing him, Brownfield physically, emotionally, verbally, and mentally abuses his family. As the novel progresses, his abuse becomes so bad that he shoots his wife in the face and kills her—leaving his three daughters motherless and fatherless (Brownfield ends up going to jail for several years, but due to the abuse of his wife and his daughters and his daughters being split up, his family is completely destroyed).
Grange takes Ruth, the youngest child, and cares for her. In a remarkable transformation, Grange is a positive parental figure to Ruth that he could not be with Brownfield. This is because Grange’s experiences from his journey to the North impacts his life. He is able to care for Ruth. Through that caring, he is able to give Ruth the necessary guidance and love to sustain herself and break the Copeland cycle of neglect and abuse.
I consider Grange Copeland a feminist. Why is Grange Copeland a feminist?
For starters, Grange Copeland is a feminist because:
1) He teaches Ruth in how to be independent.
Grange does not hold back in teaching Ruth how to become independent: “Nothing move him to repent of his independent method of raising her” (207). In the novel, Grange continues to encourage Ruth to read, “Free to play in the cabin they built far back in the words, free to read comics and books Grange cunningly stole from the white library. . .” (195). Due to Ruth reading and becoming educate, Grange does not prohibit her for learning or gaining knowledge. He encourages it because “His one duty in the world was to prepare Ruth for some great and herculean task, some magnificent and deadly struggle, some harsh and foreboding reality” (207). Even when Grange gives Ruth the money he has saved for her to sustain herself, he tells her: “You go to the bank first thing in the morning” (219) even though he drives her there. Yet, I suspect she has to deposit the money because she will be the one, after he passes away, to withdraw the money when she needs or wants it. Grange has also taught her to do other activities for herself like driving, grocery shopping, etc: “He had already taught her to drive, and now, it became her duty to drive into town to do the shopping, confronting for the first time, alone, the whites who owned and ran the town. Grange’s plan was to teach her everything he knew. Already, he liked to boast, ‘Your aim’s a heap better than mine!’” (220).
For an older male grandparent to teach his granddaughter how to become independent during times where patriarchy is violently enforced is mind blowing. When examining how Grange treated women in his past to how he treats Ruth is in itself astounding. The message I get from the novel is that “an old dog can learn new tricks”—especially tricks that will help break the cycle within his or her family. In contrast to Brownfield, yes, Grange did not teach his son to be independent and encourage educations to promote independent thinking. Yet, to Grange’s credit, he teaches his granddaughter to be armed with knowledge, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance. For a black man who has received oppression from whites and had low self-esteem, Grange, on his own journey, does not continue to influence his blood relatives to their own destruction. With Ruth, he teachers her the same as he would if she was his grandson.
2) He takes responsibility for how he hurt others in the past.
I believe a part of feminism is knowing that you are self-aware about who you are. That means taking responsibility for the misdeeds or disservices that you’ve done to others and how you have treated them. In order for someone to promote equality, he or she must realize how he or she has oppressed others or himself/herself of the same equalities (rights/privileges).
In the scene where Grange, Ruth, Brownfield, and Josie encounter each other, Grange speaks about his wrongdoings and how one must be accountable for his actions. He particularly speaks to Ruth, but I also believe he is speaking to Brownfield indirectly as well:
“By George, I know the danger of putting all the blame on somebody else for the mess you make out of your life. I feel into the trap myself! And I’m bound to believe that that’s the way the white folks can corrupt you even when you done held up before. ‘Cause when they got you thinking that they’re to blame for everything they have you thinking they’ve some kind of gods! You can’t do nothing wrong without them behind it. You gits just as weak as water, no feeling of doing nothing yourself. Then you begins to think up evil and begins to destroy everybody around you, and you blames it on the crackers. Shit! Nobody’s as powerful as we make them out to be. We got our own souls, don’t we? (212-213).
There are many passages like this one where Grange admits responsibility for causing his family hurt. A part of being a feminist is identifying how you’ve oppressed others and caused them pain. Grange does that. He admits to how he caused his wife and his son pained. But he also points out that Brownfield can no longer blame anyone for making choices to hurt other people as well. Even Brownfield can no longer blame Grange for the choices he has made in how he hurt Brownfield. Grange tells Ruth this:
“ ‘Your daddy’s done taught me something I didn’t know about blame and guilt,’ he said. ‘You see, I figure he could blame a good part of his life on me; I didn’t offer him no directions and, he thought, no love. But when he became a man himself, with his own opportunity to righten the wrong I done him by being good to his own children, he had a chance to become a real man, a daddy in his own right. That was the time should of just forgot about what I done to him—and to his ma. But he messed up with his children, his wife and his home, and never yet blamed hisself. And never blaming hisself done made him weak. He no longer have to think beyond me and the white folks to get to the root of all his problems. Damn, if thinking like that ain’t made noodles out of his brains’” (212).
Grange does what Brownfield cannot do; he is able to admit his own fault and hand in how treated Brownfield. But as I said previously, Brownfield will not admit that he is responsible for murdering Mem, is responsible for abusing his children, and is responsible for allowing his internal rage to consume him in where he hurts his own family…where he has no family.
3) Grange is a feminist because of sacrifice and dedication.
In the ultimate act of redemption and love, Grange sacrifices himself so Ruth can have the chance to break the destructive cycle of the Copeland family. We find out that Brownfield makes good on his promise to take Ruth by stooping to the same level as the “so called white folks he blames” for making him into the monster he is. He convinces Judge Harry to rule in favor of him having custody of Ruth since she is still a minor (sixteen). When Judge Harry rules that Ruth return to Brownfield, Grange shoots Brownfield, and he and Ruth flee back to their farm.
While running to the car, Ruth tells Grange, “We don’t have a chance.” (247). But Grange corrects her, “I ain’t. […], but you do” (247).
Grange and Ruth arrive on the farm where the police catch up with him and shoot him. While he is dying, the narrator reveals: “He had been shot and felt the blood spreading under his shirt. He did not want Ruth to see. Other than that he was not afraid. He did not even hear the rustle of footsteps creeping nearer.
‘Oh, you poor thing, you poor thing,’ he murmured finally, desolate, but also for the sound of a human voice, bending over to the ground and then rearing back, rocking himself in his own arms to a final sleep” (248).
In raising Ruth and making sure that she is financially secure and able to have the life she chooses, Grange sacrifices his freedom and his life when he kills Brownfield. He knows that Brownfield will hurt Ruth badly…or even kill her. He will either murder her spirit or her physically…or do both. Just like Brownfield broke Meme and murdered her. Grange cannot allow that for Ruth is the family member who will break the cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression—not just within the Copeland family but as someone who wants to change the racial barriers between whites and blacks in American society.
When I started reading The Third Life of Grange Copeland, I looked at Grange with such distasteful judgment. How can you like a character who abandons his family and who treats his son and his wife like shit?
Yet, Walker’s storytelling abilities do not fail readers at all. What she does is miraculous. She shows us that someone who has been oppressed, who has abandoned his family, and who has murdered someone can be redeemed. Does it make what Grange did to his family and to others right? No, it does not. Yet, all what he has done for Ruth should not go unnoticed, either.
Due to his interactions with Ruth, due to his inner honesty, due to feeling like he had to kill Brownfield to protect the Copeland legacy in breaking their family’s unhealthy cycle, and due to surrendering himself so his grandbaby could have a chance to have a more equal and fulfilling life, I still say that Grange is a feminist. His actions are a feminist and for that, may his granddaughter never know what it is like to have hate almost destroy you. Grange’s transformation aids in Ruth becoming a feminist. She also has the will to fight for black people to have equal opportunities and rights as well.