Alice Walker slips inside the heads of her characters, allowing them to do most of the talking.
So when we're in Meridian's head, we look at the world through her eyes. Same for Truman and Lynne. Given the controversial subject matter, it would be easy for Walker to let her own voice overwhelm her characters' voices, but she strikes the perfect balance here.
While it might seem simple, Walker uses this technique to great ironic effect. There are countless instances when we can tell that the characters perceive the world a lot differently than Walker. For example, Truman's assertion that "bitches are dispensable" opens our eyes to his misogyny rather than making us empathize with him, as he might expect (2.17.29). We feel similarly when Lynne fears that "the sight of her naked would turn [her black friends] into savages" (2.22.36). By exposing these contradictory ideas (and allowing them to exist on their own), Walker is able to get at the harsh truths that lie beneath the surface of everyday life.
Meridian traces the American Civil Rights Movement over the course of a decade. We watch the Movement grow and change through the eyes of characters like Truman and Meridian, from the early days of idealism to the jaded militancy of later years. The story is even peppered with real-life events, like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Similarly, we can look at the book as Meridian's coming-of-age tale. This is a bit obscured by the novel's weird, non-chronological structure, but look closely and you'll see it. Meridian does a lot of growing and changing over the course of the novel (almost as much as the Movement itself!), transforming herself from a mistreated teen mom into a fearless and noble warrior for justice. In many ways, this coming-of-age is reflected within the civil rights struggle itself.
Besides referencing its titular heroine, the title of Meridian helps us gain a better understanding of our main character's actions.
After all, the first chapter is preceded by a dictionary-style definition of the word "meridian." According to the book, a meridian is a "the highest apparent point reached by a heavenly body in its course." For example, the sun is at its meridian at noon. Meridian is also defined as "the highest point of power, prosperity" or "the middle period of one's life, regarded as the highest point of health, vigor."
Now, that's all well and good, but what exactly does it mean?
Well, Meridian is a meridian. Meridian represents the "highest point" achieved by the activists of the Civil Rights Movement—while her peers quit long ago to pursue their own desires, Meridian alone has dedicated her life to doing good. Similarly, the definition of meridian is connected to the idea of being in the middle, just as Meridian is in terms of ideology. In fact, Meridian is only able to do so much good because she's able sit comfortably between the different ideologies within the Movement.
Basically, we're just trying to say that Meridian is prime. Oh man—we crack ourselves up.
By the end of the novel, Meridian has become like the X-Men's Professor Xavier. Having done good her whole life, she's now setting out to create a crack team of super-heroic civil rights activists like herself. Truman has finally decided to join the squad and Anne-Marion might not be far behind.
The Meridian we see here is one that we haven't seen in a long time. Her sickness seems to be receding. After years of going bald, her head is now covered with "the soft wool of her newly grown hair" (3.34.1). This is a revitalized Meridian, perhaps by the realization that she needs to let go of the guilt of her past.
Truman (our team's anti-hero equivalent to Wolverine) is becoming more like Meridian. He faints, as Meridian has done many times before. In this daze, he visualizes "Anne-Marion herself arriving, lost someday," just as he did with Meridian (3.34.9). We can only imagine that he will teach Anne-Marion just as Meridian taught him.
See, Meridian's desire to change herself actually worked. Beyond the countless poor people she has helped in small ways, she has transformed Truman—someone whose relationship with the Civil Rights Movement was frayed at best—into someone willing to suffer and fight for justice. Like good ol' Professor X, Meridian inspires her like-minded peers to better themselves and gives hope to those who need it the most.
While Meridian is a quintessentially American story, the novel focuses primarily on the South. Yes, that's right—the stronghold of Honey Boo Boo, NASCAR, and deep-fried everything. But sweep aside these hackneyed stereotypes (thought up by some dastardly Yankee, we reckon), and you'll see the region as Meridian does—a beautiful land that has seen some serious hardship, and has only grown more beautiful because of it.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the political turmoil going on at the time of the novel. Although slavery had long since been eradicated, black people were still persecuted on a daily basis through Jim Crow laws, racist regulations that enforce segregation. Beginning in the '50s (but really coming to a head in the '60s), the Civil Rights Movement sought to overcome this overwhelming evil. For better or worse, this is the world that Meridian finds herself in.
Meridian comes from a small, working-class town in the rural South. This upbringing is unique at her college, as many of the students come from big cities like Atlanta. These city kids have a completely different approach to, well, everything. For example, Meridian's Atlantan friend Delores rudely "expressed belligerence and confusion" in response to Mrs. Hill's traditional belief system (1.12.45). While Meridian disagrees with her mom's lifestyle too, she can still respect it for what it is. This fact will be important later.
Saxon College exposes Meridian to a whole new world—kinda. On one hand, it does introduce her to new friends like Anne-Marion and their big-city values. But not everything is so different there.
When she first arrives, Meridian tries to give a speech about not believing in God, thinking that these intellectuals should at least respect her sentiment. Instead, they looked "about as if they expected lightning to strike, and her teachers let her know she was a willful, sinful girl" (1.13.4). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Overall, Meridian's experiences at Saxon are a mixed bag. She loves the Sojourner more than anything, but during the student riots, "the only thing they managed to destroy was The Sojourner" (1.3.55). What's up with that? In an instant, any love that Meridian still had for Saxon is now is as dead as that once-mighty tree. This reflects how Meridian has become increasingly at odds with her peers over their approach to activism.
Finally, Meridian decides to return to her roots. After getting fed up with the big talk (and no action) of her revolutionary peers, Meridian decides to "go back to the people, live among them, like Civil Rights workers used to do" (1.1.162). Meridian is different from the others because she places herself on the same level as the people she helps—she volunteers to suffer alongside them. As with all things, Meridian achieves a balance that others fail to attain.
Although Meridian doesn't do anything crazy, there are a few points when things get a little tricky. Notably, the book jumps through time on a constant basis—although this is usually easy to decipher, there are a few point where the chronology gets a little hazy. Furthermore, there are several scenes that might be upsetting to some readers—but they're well worth reading if you can.
Meridian does more time-bending than Back to the Future. Seriously.
After all, the novel starts with the beginning of its final scene. Weird, huh? Then we jump back in time to Meridian's college days for a bit, before going back even further into her childhood. Although the novel proceeds relatively straightforwardly from that point, there are still plenty of little jumps and dips that might throw you off.
By using this technique, Walker has created a novel much more concerned with themes than plot. We have to see Meridian's "sallow, unhealthy" skin in the opening chapter to appreciate her sudden transformation at the end (1.1.62). We have to see how Anne-Marion berates her former friend with "a litany of accusations" to understand her final letter to Meridian (1.1.55). By emphasizing these concepts immediately, Walker is telling us what we need to focus on.
The novel would've been way different had it been structured chronologically. Instead of focusing on the themes, we'd spend our time worrying about how Meridian ends up. Though that might be a good book in and of itself, it likely wouldn't hit its major themes as hard as Meridian does now.
The Sojourner has one heck of a story.
Everything begins with Louvinie. Louvinie comes from a prominent family of West African soothsayers, specializing in "the weaving of intricate tales with which to entrap people who hoped to get away with murder" (1.3.29). Creepy.
In America, Louvinie puts her skills to good use by entertaining the slave master's kids with her spooky stories. That is, until one of her stories scares one boy so badly that he has a heart attack and dies. When you think about it, Louvinie is still fulfilling her family's tradition...
After this, Louvinie's tongue is cut out as punishment. That'd be rough for anybody, but we'd imagine it's especially brutal for a storyteller like Louvinie. Instead of sinking into despair, however, she prepares her tongue in a strange, mystical way and plants it beneath "a scrawny magnolia tree on the Saxon plantation" (1.3.37). As the tree grows, so do all sorts of stories and folklore about the tree's magical properties. In a way, Louvinie's amazing ability for storytelling lives on through the Sojourner.
Then, the unthinkable happens. During the riots following Wild Child's funeral, "the only thing" that the students "managed to destroy was The Sojourner" (1.3.55). This reflects how many of the college activists in the Movement lack the proper perspective to do good. Instead of taking out their rage on the people who deserve it, they cripple themselves by destroying something near and dear to their hearts.
As Black Elk (a famous Native American leader) states in the book's foreword, "there is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." The Sojourner—and the stories and traditions associated with it—is gone. But there's still hope. Meridian becomes that new center, transforming the lives of individuals just as the Sojourner did for her. Over the course of the novel, she has grown into something special and new, like the "tiny branch [...] growing out of one side" of the Sojourner's stump (3.33.9).
Throughout Meridian, hair is used to represent the way that white standards of beauty are thrust upon minorities in America.
Basically, pop culture inherently favors white hairstyles over black hairstyles. As touched on by documentaries like Good Hair, many African-Americans feel pressured to conform to white hairstyles because society places a higher value on long, straight hair.
This comes up a lot with Lynne. As Lynne's relationship with the black community grows more tense, Lynne begins consciously "taking down and combing her hair" whenever "she found herself around black women," passive-aggressively flaunting the "treasure they could never have" (2.22.76). Lynne is bummed about her life, and the only way she can make herself feel better is by making others bummed about theirs.
Being intellectuals, Meridian and Truman can see right through this. Earlier in the book, Truman refuses to take a picture of Lynne with some neighborhood kids because the sight of them "taking turns combing her hair" hits a little too close to home (2.16.1). Similarly, Meridian highlights the hypocrisy of a Saxon College administrator by pointing out her "long, processed, and lavender" hair (1.3.5). While Truman and Meridian are by no means exempt from societal pressure like this, they at least have the wisdom and education to see through it.
So the Wild Child's funeral doesn't exactly go as planned. Awkward. When you look a little closer, however, you'll realize that the scene serves as a metaphor for the progression of the Movement over the course of novel.
Things start off okay, as far as funerals go. No one knows much about the Wild Child, except that she's a homeless kid who recently got pregnant and was hit by a car after Meridian tried helping her. It's a sad story.
In response to this tragedy, however, something beautiful happens. A group of students and community members, "resplendent [...] in their Sunday-best outfits of red and yellow and peacock blue," try to bring her body to the student chapel and bury her on campus (1.3.50). This echoes the early days of the Movement, when students and working-class protesters were united in their mission.
Enter the Saxon College administrators. The funeral procession is stopped before it can reach the Saxon chapel, likely because the bosses are "scared of [...] a commotion that could get in the cracker papers" (1.3.17). The students are growing more agitated by the minute, but the community members "appeared to melt away, slinking farther and farther back until they had vanished" (1.3.50). These folk have lived a life full of injustices like this, and they know how painful it is. The students, on the other hand, are operating on ideological grounds—not necessarily from personal experience.
And how do the students respond? They riot. The irony is that they completely fail to achieve their mission: Wild Child is buried in a segregated graveyard off-campus. Plus, the students don't even destroy anything worth destroying—by the end of the night, "the only thing they managed to destroy was The Sojourner" (1.3.55).
In their anger, the students have destroyed a thing that was truly important to them instead of redirecting that anger into positive action. Besides Meridian, this seems to be the fate of most of the novel's civil rights activists.
Although the narrator stays inside Meridian's head for most of the novel, there are a handful of chapters told from Lynne's and Truman's perspectives. That being said, the narrator doesn't have a voice of her own. Instead, it's shaped by the person whose head she's residing in at the moment. This allows us to examine the novel's complicated themes from multiple perspectives, giving us a well-balanced understanding of the issues involved.
Meridian Hill is a smart but naive girl born into a working-class family. As a teen, Meridian gets pregnant and marries a boy named Eddie—their son is named Eddie Jr. Things go bad fast: Meridian resents them both for destroying her freedom and getting her kicked out of school. Eventually, Eddie leaves Meridian for one of his mistresses, leaving her hopeless and alone.
On the same day that Eddie leaves, Meridian learns about a voter registration drive in a nearby neighborhood. She joins the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and starts to feel fulfilled. It certainly doesn't hurt that she's met hunky Truman, too. Things get even better when she gets awarded a scholarship to Saxon College. There, she meets her new best friend Anne-Marion, gets closer to Truman, and gets even more involved in politics. Things are certainly looking up.
It seems like everything falls apart at once. Although Meridian and Truman sleep together (forcing her to get an abortion, no less), he abandons her for white exchange student named Lynne. Meanwhile, Meridian has started to become ill with seizure-like symptoms that send her to the hospital. After she recovers, Anne-Marion drops a bombshell on her—she doesn't want to be her friend anymore. This is reflected by an increasing difference of opinion between Meridian and her peers in the Movement.
Determined to continue her work for the Movement, Meridian heads South to live within the poor, rural communities she helps. Meridian becomes more and more frail and lives in worse and worse environments—her seizures have only increased in frequency, especially given her stressful work. Meanwhile, although Truman married Lynne, he continually visits Meridian, desperately trying to rekindle their relationship. Lynne and Truman's daughter dies, sending them into an even worse emotional state.
After the death of MLK, Meridian starts going to church and actually appreciates it for its sense of community. Later, she and Truman go around town trying to register poor folks to vote by helping them with their problems. But it's not until they meet a young girl who killed her child—reflecting Meridian's abandonment of Eddie Jr.—that Meridian is finally able to make peace with her life. Miraculously, her seizures disappear. Truman decides to remain in Meridian's place while she moves on to the next town. The story ends with Truman collapsing as Meridian once did, implying that he will pick up where she left off.
Meridian has a rough childhood. Although she's an exceptional student, she's forced out of school after getting pregnant as a teenager. Her husband, Eddie, is not too great either. Eventually, Eddie leaves her and she turns the Civil Rights Movement. Soon after, she's offered a scholarship to Saxon College and jumps at the opportunity.
Things are better at Saxon. Meridian gets more involved in the Movement. She makes a new best friend named Anne-Marion. She even gets up-close-and-personal with her crush, Truman. Despite this, things within the Movement are getting tense. The police are responding with more and more brutality and their struggle is tougher than ever. Sound familiar? Funny how history has a way of repeating itself.
After sleeping with Meridian (and getting her pregnant), Truman breaks things off and starts dating (and eventually marrying) a white Northerner named Lynne. Meanwhile, the Movement is falling apart. This finally culminates when Anne-Marion tells Meridian that they can't be friends anymore after Meridian falls deathly ill for several days, which is some pretty bad timing on Anne-Marion's part, if you ask us.
After floating around the Movement for a few years, Meridian decides to head South and start actually living with the people she's supposed to be helping. Meanwhile, Lynne and Truman have moved to Mississippi, their marriage deteriorating in the process. Truman keeps visiting Meridian, desperate to get her back, but she refuses. It isn't until the death of Camara—Truman and Lynne's daughter—that we start to notice a change inside him.
Meridian's health has been declining for a while, but that doesn't stop her. Eventually, she manages to open Truman's eyes to the realities of the world and his role in helping make it a better place. Then, one day, we find Meridian seemingly cured and Truman ready to take her place. We also get the implication that Anne-Marion might end up doing the same someday.
Meridian is born into a working-class family in the rural South. As a teenager, she becomes pregnant by a boy named Eddie and marries him; they have a son named Eddie Jr. This bums Meridian out for a lot of reasons, but mainly because she doesn't like Eddie much. Eventually, Eddie breaks things off and Meridian joins the Civil Rights Movement on a whim. When she gets an opportunity to attend Saxon College in Atlanta on a full scholarship, she gives Eddie Jr. away for adoption and leaves home.
A lot happens at Saxon. Meridian makes a new BFF named Anne-Marion. She also gets closer to Truman, a hunky activist whom she met back home. Then things go sour. First, Truman ignores Meridian and starts dating a white exchange student named Lynne. Then, after Meridian falls victim to a terrifying, seizure-like attack, Anne-Marion tells her that they can't be friends anymore. After hanging around in the Movement for a few years, Meridian decides to head back South and live among the people.
Meridian starts traveling between small towns and helping people. Meanwhile, her health worsens and she gets poorer and poorer. Truman still visits her occasionally; his marriage with Lynne is on the rocks. After Truman's daughter dies, he comes to visit Meridian and is finally able to understand her. At the end of the novel, we find Meridian restored to health and Truman picking up where she left off—aka, sick as a dog.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1.14.66, 77)
W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1.14.77)
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1.15.16)
Jane Stembridge, I Play Flute (2.21.4)
Margaret Walker (2.24.8)
Camara Laye, The Radiance of the King (2.24.15)
Che Guevara (1.1.59, 70)
Maro Zedong (1.1.59)
Medgar Evers (1.1.176, referenced throughout)
John F. Kennedy (1.1.176)
Malcolm X (1.1.176, referenced throughout)
Martin Luther King Jr. (1.1.176, referenced throughout)
Robert Kennedy (1.1.176)
Patrice Lamumba (1.1.176)
George Jackson (1.1.176, referenced throughout)
Cynthia Wesley (1.1.176)
Addie Mae Collins (1.1.176)
Denise Mcnair (1.1.176)
Carole Robertson (1.1.176)
Viola Liuzzo (1.1.176)
Jackie Kennedy (1.1.181)
Andy Young (1.3.4)
Sitting Bull (1.6.1)
Crazy Horse (1.6.1)
Little Bear (1.6.1)
Yellow Flower (1.6.1)
Minnehaha and Hiawatha (1.6.1)
Harriet Tubman (1.14.89, 91)
Henry Ford (1.15.8)
James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (2.16.5)
Angela Davis (3.27.14)
Crispus Attucks (3.27.14)
Richard Nixon (3.28.9)
"The Day is Past and Gone" (1.1.120)
"We Shall Overcome" (1.3.54)
Johnny Cash (1.6.8)
Joan Crawford (1.7.23)
True Confessions (1.8.10)
Real Romances (1.8.10)
Rory Calhoun (1.9.3)
Ava Gardner (1.9.3)
Bette Davis (1.9.3, 2.19.63)
Slim Pickens (1.9.3)
Romare Bearden (2.20.2)
Charles White (2.20.2)
Jacob Lawrence (2.20.2)
Sammy Davis Jr. (2.20.2)
Loretta Young (2.23.8)
Mia Farrow (2.23.8)
Sandy Dennis (2.23.8)
Bessie Smith (2.23.8)