(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Alice Walker’s latest novel, Meridian, is a fine, spiritual, insightful book. It is a book about social and individual change, and can rightfully be considered a book about revolution. For Walker presents the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, a social and political revolution which sought to elevate the status of blacks in American society, and uses it as an effective metaphor for spiritual renewal. The voter rights drive is a symbolic act. It symbolizes the conscious, deliberate movement of blacks away from passivity, acquiescence, and indifference. It further represents a vital step beyond the boundaries of all that blacks had ever known in the past to a sense of worth and power and hope and ultimate freedom. While the emphasis in the novel is placed on blacks and the necessity for them to take decisive action, the universal significance of its message is clear enough.

Also presented in the novel is the theme of individual revolution. The characters are forced through their personal experiences to face honestly their own guilt, anger, frustration, and hatred. In so doing, they come to understand one another and to assess their own worth. Finally, there is a kind of revolution against the past in the sense that the author is urging that certain negative traditional myths and beliefs be examined, understood for what they are worth, and discarded.

It is obvious that Walker believes these kinds of transformations are called for if there is to be any real freedom for American people, black or white. She wants us to be aware, to live fully conscious of our lives. The alternative is to continue to walk as if dazed or half asleep in the same old tracks of the past. It is to continue to impose useless, negative, and even destructive beliefs on one another until all genuine feeling is gone, and life in its fullest sense has no hope of being.

Against a rich tapestry woven of threads of the past and social unrest, the personal struggles of the main characters are highlighted. Meridian is basically the story of Meridian Hill, a sensitive, spiritual black girl who quietly fights to free herself from the smothering weight of her own ignorance, intolerable guilt, and self-hatred. Her guilt grows out of her lack of understanding and a series of incidents primarily associated with her mother, a rigid, angry woman who feels she has been betrayed in some way by marriage and her children. Because of her mother’s attitude toward her, Meridian in her innocence believes she has stolen something of value from her mother simply by being born. When, in spite of her mother’s urgings, she cannot bring herself to join the Church, her sense of guilt about failing her mother again is intensified. Later, out of a desperate sense of inadequacy, Meridian gives her own infant son away. This act further adds to her almost intolerable burden of guilt, and, in addition, causes her to despise herself. She believes she is a traitor, not only to her mother, whom she sees as the epitome of black motherhood, but to her ancestral slave mothers who had endured unbelievable agonies in order to keep their children with them.

Her relationships with men, such as they are, bring her no pleasure or feeling that she is loved. The men Meridian has known, including her husband whom she does not love and Truman whom she does, want her body but give little or no thought to her as a person. Eventually, they all leave her. Feeling rejected by her mother, used by men, and, because she is black, unacceptable in white society, she sets out to free herself from the life that so cruelly imprisons her.

The dawn of Meridian’s awareness and subsequent freedom comes with her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to this time, Meridian had been a passive observer, much of the time caught up in fantasy in order to escape her pitiful existence. With the emergence of the Civil Rights effort and her ensuing wholehearted involvement in it, she begins to face reality for the first time. As a result, she begins to make choices for herself based on reality. She begins to change.

Meridian falls in love with Truman Held, a handsome, pretentious,...

(The entire section is 1712 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Meridian is the center of this short novel, which opens in 1968 in Chicokema, a small town in Georgia, where she is working to encourage black people to register to vote in her attempt to continue the Civil Rights movement into the 1970’s. She has spent the 1960’s working in various small towns in the deep South. She has gone to New York City but did not join the group there because, even though she was willing to give her own life, she could not honestly bring herself to say that she could kill for the cause. At the beginning of the novel, which is near the end of the story, she is in bad health, is losing her hair, and has no possessions except a sleeping bag, the clothes on her back, and a few letters that she tacks on the wall in the vacant houses she appropriates. She always wears a visored cap of the sort worn by motormen on trains. The narrative does not progress in chronological order, but although it is told out of sequence in short chapters relating to different past events, it is not difficult to establish the pattern of Meridian’s life.

When she was growing up, Meridian was never told anything about what to expect from men or from sex. It is not surprising that she becomes pregnant and has to drop out of high school. She resents having to stay at home while her husband Eddie continues to play basketball and to work in a restaurant after school. She has no love for Eddie or Eddie, Jr., and it is not until after Eddie has left her in April of 1960 that she becomes aware of the past and present of the larger world when she watches the television coverage of the bombing of a nearby house.

Meridian then takes the initiative for the first time in her life, going to a house where she has seen some freedom fighters at work and volunteering her services. There she meets the arrogant Truman Held, who uses French phrases for effect and becomes a part of her life for the next decade. After Meridian works with this enthusiastic group for a year, her new friends encourage her to take advantage of the opportunity to attend Saxon College in Atlanta. She starts a new life, keeping secret her past as wife and mother. At Saxon, she does well academically but has a difficult time with the strict rules and the devotion of the administration to making her and the other students into ladies. She joins the Atlanta Movement and then finds it almost impossible to study while others are being beaten and jailed.

She adopts the Wild Child, a pregnant thirteen-year-old who lives out of garbage cans, but is unable to care for her in her dormitory or even to conduct her funeral in the campus chapel when she is hit by a car. Meridian moves to the nearby ghetto, supports herself by working for a lecherous old professor, and fights for freedom with Truman, with whom she is in love. Truman enjoys Meridian’s company and her intellectual conversation but dates white exchange...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Meridian’s struggle to re-create herself and to find her own identity and her own mission is like the struggles of her own mother, of Lynne, of most women, of black people in America, and of all oppressed people who attempt to break free. Meridian must deal with the circumstances of her own life and the agonies of her own soul in her own unique way. Her mother had worked and sacrificed in order to become a teacher, and then her frail independence had given way to the pressures of motherhood until she felt that she was being buried alive and became abstracted and devoted her life to making paper flowers and prayer pillows. As a child, Meridian could not understand her mother’s sorrow, and she took on herself the guilt of having stolen her serenity and shattered her emerging self. The novel outlines Meridian’s successful struggles to lay aside the burden of her guilt and to preserve her own emerging self in spite of many hindrances and limitations imposed from within and without. She is an inspiration to all women in her striving for selfhood, independence of spirit, and inner peace.

The problems of Lynne’s marriage, the loss of her daughter, and the loss of her own self-respect are those of any woman who leaves the niche in society into which she is born, defies the wishes of her parents and her heritage to fight for a cause, and ignores the discouragement of opposing opinions and individuals. In a broader sense, the struggles between her and...

(The entire section is 428 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Appiah, K. A. and Henry Louis Gates, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. This volume features critical essays and reviews of Walker’s fiction, as well as interviews. Several articles on Meridian are included.

Banks, Erma, and Keith Byerman. Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Press, 1989. Collects the major and minor material written on Alice Walker from 1968 to 1986.

Barker, Deborah E. “Visual Markers: Art and Mass Media in Alice Walker’s Meridian.” African American Review 31 (Fall, 1997): 463-479....

(The entire section is 923 words.)