Study Guide

Meridian

by Alice Walker

Meridian Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Walker’s second novel, Meridian, explores one black woman’s experience in the Civil Rights movement, the psychological makeup of which fascinates Walker more than the political and historical impact it had. Meridian exemplifies Walker’s ability to combine the personal and the political in fiction. Whereas Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, moves chronologically, Meridian is constructed of smaller “chapters” that make up the novel, as Walker has said, much as pieces of cloth compose a quilt.

Meridian Hill grows up in the South, marries a high school boyfriend, becomes pregnant, and has a son. She experiences mixed feelings about motherhood, often fantasizing about killing the baby. After her husband leaves her, Meridian lives in emotional limbo, daydreaming and watching television—on which, one morning, she sees that the nearby house where the voter registration drives are organized has been bombed. She decides to volunteer to work with the movement, more out of curiosity about what the people are like than from any political ideology. One of the workers is Truman Held, a man with whom Meridian will have an ongoing, although stormy, relationship.

Because of her unusually high intelligence, Meridian is offered a scholarship to Saxon College, and when she discovers that Truman attends college in Atlanta, his potential proximity becomes a motivating factor in her decision to accept it. Against the protests of her mother, Meridian gives...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Meridian Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Meridian traces the moral and psychological development of Walker’s title character, Meridian Hill. Born into a middle-class Southern black family, Meridian is taught to accept the racist and sexist status quo of the 1950’s. She is not encouraged to question segregationist policies, sexist traditions, or her own sexual ignorance—all of which deny her autonomy. Recalling the climate before and during the Civil Rights movement, Meridian brings readers to an awareness of the many relationships between racism and sexism and their consequences for the individual and the community.

The novel begins in the present of the 1970’s, as Truman Held, artist and former civil rights worker, finds himself searching for Meridian in Chicokema, Georgia. She is not difficult to trace, because she is leading a group of children denied entry to a freak show featuring Marilene O’Shay, “One of the Twelve Human Wonders of the World: Dead for Twenty-Five Years, Preserved in Life-Like Condition.” Marilene is further characterized as an “Obedient Daughter, Devoted Wife, and Adoring Mother” predictably “Gone Wrong.” As Truman watches Meridian defy tradition and authority literally to stare down a tank, he marvels at her strength, strength that he has finally come to admire. Walker follows this scene with a flashback when, ten years earlier, Meridian is invited to join a revolutionary group and fails to meet its requirements by being unable to swear that she will kill for the revolution. The novel, weaving backward and forward in time, traces Meridian’s awakening and guides its readers to an understanding of her complex integrity.

Although there is much in her life to encourage conformity, Meridian shows early flashes of individuality and integrity—most notably when, at...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Meridian Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Truman Held returns to Chickokema, Georgia, to find his former lover Meridian Hill. He stops to ask directions and witnesses Meridian confronting an old military tank, originally purchased by the town during the 1960’s and now functioning as an amusement for poor kids. Truman then goes to Meridian’s stark house, where he and Meridian eventually have a discussion that hints at their past history, both as lovers and as participants in the Civil Rights movement.

Meridian remembers her time as a student at Saxon College, and her story is as follows: Meridian is involved with the Wild Child, an orphaned pregnant girl to whom she shows compassion. Meridian brings the child to her room at college, bathes her, and feeds her. The next morning, the Wild Child runs out of the house and is hit by a car as she crosses the street. College officials refuse to allow a funeral for the Wild Child, so Meridian and her friends riot, in the process chopping down The Sojourner, a symbolic, historical tree central to the campus.

Meridian’s mother and father are religiously legalistic. Her father owns a piece of land with a unique mound called Serpent’s Tail. He deeds the land back to a Cherokee Indian because the Cherokee once owned the land. Eventually, the land is made into a historical site, but is closed to African Americans.

Meridian lacks preparation for love; she is socially ignorant and has no knowledge of sex or sexuality. She eventually...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Meridian Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Meridian explores a number of cultural legacies important to African Americans. The primary legacy is the meaning of the Civil Rights movement, both to those who were its major players and to future generations. In exploring these ideas, Walker uses characters filled with the spirit of the movement rather than its actual leaders. A novel ostensibly about the Civil Rights movement becomes one that uses the entire African American cultural and historical experience as both background and foreground. This idea becomes clear upon examination of the structural pattern of the novel. The novel begins after many of the major events of the 1960’s have occurred. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy are dead. Many of the major leaders and players of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements have opted for other agendas, some having little to do with improving black people’s lives.

Meridian Hill is still around, trying to do her part to help her people. The novel’s opening scene chronicles Meridian’s attempts to keep the spirit of the movement alive as she challenges a Jim Crow practice of allowing black people to see a carnival sideshow only on one particular day. Thrust into this scene is Truman Held’s return to the South to seek Meridian.

After establishing in a brief scene what is left of the Civil Rights movement, which is no longer in vogue, Walker begins a process of weaving bits and pieces of information together to account for why Meridian is the way she is and why Truman and other characters are the way they are. This is not an easy story to tell, requiring the piecing together of many parts of recent and distant African American cultural history to create the “crazy quilt” that is the novel’s major structure.

The story moves around in time, allowing readers to see what Meridian was like as a girl, how her family helped to make her the kind of person she is, how as a child she saw herself as an outsider in her own family, and how she observed a number of actions of black people in her community that were not always helpful to black children. Meridian’s childhood was problematic for a number of reasons. She always believed that her mother did not love or want her. She remarks that it seemed as if her mother showed affection only in ironing her children’s clothes. Meridian also thought that her mother and other adults in the community did not give children, especially girls, information that might ensure passage through the teen years without getting pregnant. Because real...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)