The Southern Literary Journal 34.1 (2001) 79-100
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"When the Lessons Hurt":
The Third Life of Grange Copeland as Joban Allegory
Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, recounts three different experiences of racial and economic oppression in the South. In detailing the stories of Brownfield, Grange, and Ruth, Walker not only illustrates her own theories of the importance of maintaining the individual soul in the context of community, as documented in her non-fiction work, but also elucidates methods of surviving suffering. Walker presents three variations on the Job quest in the journeys of Brownfield, Grange, and Ruth; these characters begin their stories as uniquely oppressed in the sharecropping system and in the corresponding environment of domestic violence and consequent self-hatred of mid-twentieth-century Georgia. Each is faced with making meaning of his suffering and thereby transcending that suffering and its vicious cycle of brutality. Just as Job meets his anguish with a tripartite reaction of fear and misery, rage and rebellion, and serenity and compassion, so too do these characters evolve. However, none is a complete Job figure. Brownfield stagnates in the rage juncture of the cycle; Grange stops short of developing a cosmic sense of compassion; and, though the reader senses she will learn true compassion working for the civil rights movement, the novel ends before Ruth's story is complete.
It is perhaps the ways in which these characters fall short of Job's suffering servant archetype that shed the most light on Walker's thematic focus, however. For all three characters are, in different aspects, more instruments of Walker's narrative than multi-dimensional characters. That is to say, Grange's heroic and benevolent characterization mid-book in [End Page 79] his third life bears little relation to his earlier presentation as a silent, brutal farmer. Brownfield progresses from a child of poverty and degradation to almost a tyrant-monster figure, and Ruth becomes the great hope of a generation. Each character is therefore in some ways larger than life, too legendary for true realism. But this underscores Walker's thematic thrust: just as the oppression of a people, in this case southern African Americans, stretches the limits of the imagination, so too do her characters. They are figures of that oppression, manifestations of suffering, and symbols of the survival methods adopted by the subjugated. In this way, then, each of Walker's characters is uniquely qualified for a comparison with a mythic figure like Job.
Through all the different sections of the Book of Job, Job is intent on proving two points, both to his comforters and to God: his punishment is capricious, callous, and unjust; and his innocence is righteous and undeserving of punishment. What Job and his comforters fail to realize is that Job's punishment may not in fact jibe with traditional doctrine; that is, Job may not have done anything to warrant such suffering. However, it is changing his own perception of righteousness that makes his suffering beneficial. In traditional doctrine, as espoused by the comforters Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, God punishes the wicked and rewards the good. But Job's downfall and God's voice from the whirlwind belie that doctrine: "Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like this?" (40:8-9). 1 Although God will not explain Himself to Job, He makes Job see the fault in questioning God's motives. Therefore, the traditional doctrine Job's comforters have been citing is proved insufficient. For God does not say that Job did deserve such suffering, only that He is omnipotent. Job learns that righteousness does not make for reward, but that punishment may allow for wisdom. Therefore, Job learns that suffering can be constructive rather than destructive. If one allows the suffering to alter point of view, broaden perspective, or offer alternate ways of making meaning, then suffering acts not to destroy the self but to build...