Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Walker’s treatment of the self-discovery theme is perhaps one of the most complete in contemporary literature. While many authors focus on liberating the self from recognizably tangible obstacles, Walker has her protagonist confront two little-understood and painfully acknowledged social conditions—racism and sexism—and she deals with the themes in a sophisticated manner, linking them in such a way as to reveal important crosscurrents. Walker also explores the problem of guilt created and sustained by mothers as a means of controlling and protecting daughters, and she exposes early motherhood as a barrier to self-discovery. That she deals with these issues without seeming didactic in any way is a mark of her artistry. Meridian is remarkable in another significant way: Walker’s vision transcends both racial and sexual barriers as she forces her characters to go beyond the boundaries of the black community to see themselves in relation to the white community as well. In this manner, she has her female protagonists travel in the fullest sense—by exploring their personal and racial past in order to create a future without racial barriers.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“For it is the song of the people, transformed by the experiences of each generation, that holds them together, and if any part of it is lost the people suffer and are without soul. If I can only do that, my role will not have been a useless one after all.” Meridian’s final understanding of her role in life is one of the most important themes of the novel.

In Meridian, Alice Walker documents one woman’s struggle to gain a sense of self and to define her relationship to African Americans. In her struggle, Meridian rejects the popular political rhetoric of would-be black revolutionaries, such as Anne-Marion, who spout epithets tinged with hate, in favor of a philosophy predicated on love and on actions that directly help black people in their everyday lives.

Meridian, moreover, rejects the many constraints that have, in the United States, attached themselves to black motherhood, the principal route by which women express kinship to the tribe. Meridian’s story shows that there are many ways to be a mother. By returning to the past—understanding her maternal history—and by doing so much of real value for the rural people of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, Meridian becomes a mother who quite simply loves her black people.

The scene in the novel that showcases Meridian’s growth as a new kind of mother is contained in “Camara.” In this scene, which occurs in a Baptist church, the focus is on a child, a young man who gave his life for the civil rights struggle, and his father, who lost his mind when his son died. The church service to commemorate the son’s death provides answers to questions Meridian has been toiling over for a decade. She realizes that human life is more precious than anything and dedicates her life to preserving black people’s life and culture. Meridian thus comes to understand that if black people value each other, they will change the social order that oppresses them.