Copeland has a lot of issues, that's for sure. But at the center of his story – which comprises a portrait of the Jim Crow South and the injustices that dominated it – are race relations. In fact, in the climax of Copeland's story, he's the victim of a racist attack.
"You can't stand up straight. You been drinking liquor, haven't you? I smell it on your breath."
"That is a lie," said Doctor Copeland slowly. "I have not – "
The sheriff struck him in the face. He fell against the wall. Two white men grasped him by the arm and dragged him down the steps to the main floor. He did not resist.
"That's the trouble with this country," the sheriff said. "These damn biggity niggers like him." (2.10.86-89)
This is some shocking stuff. And it's only made more upsetting by what we know about Copeland: he's a great doctor, a community leader, and an intelligent man with loads of dignity.
P.S. Copeland may have been forced into a violent civil rights drama by circumstance, but he doesn't consider himself a rebellious leader. Instead, he defines himself by his education and his philosophical beliefs, which are a mish-mash of European Enlightened thinking and Communism.
But he could not rest. For there was another thing bigger than the tiredness – and this was the strong true purpose.
He would think of this purpose until sometimes, after a long day and night of work, he would become blank so that he would forget just for a minute what the purpose was. And then it would come to him again and he would be restless and eager to take on a new task. (2.3.38-39)
Forgetting your purpose sounds familiar (it happens to everyone, after all). What stands out to us isn't what he's fighting for, but how he's going about it. This guy has a lot of personal pride, which acts as a double-edged sword. His pride helps him carry on in his day to day life, where he deals with loads of prejudice and injustice. But it also gets him into trouble.
Copeland is so strongly and stubbornly committed to his beliefs that he can't seem to have a functional relationship with anyone around him. He doesn't talk to people as preach at them, and when he listens to others, he only hears contradictions to his philosophy, never a fellow individual expressing ideas.
And this is where the prejudice comes in. Even Copeland has some racist sentiments in him:
The feeling that would come on him was a black, terrible, Negro feeling. He would try to sit in his office and read and meditate until he could be calm again. (1.5.91)
And although he characterizes his own anger in negative racial stereotypes, he is appalled at others for their tendency to prize whiteness. Remember when Grandpapa expresses his desire for Jesus to turn him white? Copeland is nearly choked with rage at this.
You think your dad is stubborn? Get a load of Copeland. Because of his stalwart beliefs, he is frequently in conflict with his family. It ends up being a vicious cycle: Copeland's stubborn opinion, resentment from his family, his desire to control them, Copeland's stubborn opinion… you get it. Portia sums it up pretty nicely, actually:
"A person can't pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be. Whether it hurt them or not. Whether it right or wrong. You done tried that hard as any man could try. And now I the only one of us that would come in this here house and sit with you like this." (1.5.72)
Copeland's strained relations with his family are a source of great pain for him (naturally). There's such a huge gulf between him and his children, it's as if they are on separate planets.
they speak a different language, they believe different things, they see and experience the world in wholly different ways.
Copeland may be the most isolated character in the entire novel. Okay, so he's often surrounded by people often and he has a family (in contrast to characters like Singer and Jake). But Copeland is completely alone in his own mind: his beliefs and his personality separate him from his family; his race separates him from the white people in town; his position as doctor separates him from the less educated African Americans in the story. To top it off, he clings so fiercely to the world that he wants to see, and tries so hard to control everything, that he cuts himself off from real experiences.
Even Copeland's relationship with Singer can't fully yank him out of his isolation: Copeland, like the others, talks at Singer rather than to him. Singer is his designated listener because he fits a certain preconceived idea that Copeland has regarding "typical" white people and Singer's own "uniqueness." Copeland latches on to Singer's surface differences – like his deafness and his patience – that set him apart from others. He assumes that Singer is internally different, and therefore like Copeland, as well. He even assumes that Singer is Jewish, which helps him to further solidify his notion of Singer as an oppressed outsider who totally gets him.
After a pretty dramatic existence, Copeland's story ends with his illness and his retreat back to the countryside, which he considers to be personal failures. In the end, he's left with a lot of regrets:
"There were thousands of such times of satisfaction. But what had been their meaning? Out of all the years he could think of no work of lasting value." (3.1.11)
Remember before, when he was talking about his "strong true purpose"? Well, turns out it's meaningless. As readers, we can see this sentiment, and Copeland's retreat to the countryside, as a comment on the state of race relations in the U.S.: the progress toward equality suffered major setbacks due to World War II, which pretty much distracted the country from domestic issues.
And one last thing: as he nears the end of his life, Copeland acts as a scary sort of foreshadowing for the novel's younger characters, who also start to suspect that their life's work may be hollow and meaningless. It's a bit easier to read hope into the end of Mick's and Biff's stories, but what about Copeland's? Is there anything we can cling to, or is it just a big downer?Timeline