The fraught relationship that Meridian has with her mother casts a shadow over much of her life, and she struggles to overcome this and other obstacles as she searches for self-awareness and self-acceptance. Her mother’s emotional distance, disapproving nature, and moral superiority fill Meridian with guilt and sadness, which persist well into adulthood. Meridian longs for guidance and a sense of belonging. Unsure of the existence of God and her own relationship to the spiritual world, Meridian finds that traditional paths and explanations do not comfort her. Instead, she turns to the civil rights movement, which gains force and momentum during her young adult years. Ultimately, she struggles with her own sense of sacrifice and dedication to the cause. She questions her own revolutionary impulses after admitting her inability to kill on behalf of the movement. Feeling a gulf in her life between the ideals of the other civil rights activists and the ways by which they actually go about implementing change, Meridian returns to her roots, working and living in often-impoverished and rural communities.
Meridian selflessly helps others in order to compensate for the guidance she never received from her mother. The work, coupled with her bravery and determination, result in the emergence of a calm, sustaining, and growing self-awareness. At the beginning of the novel, she is a broken and damaged individual, mourning a love and loss she cannot verbalize. At the end, she emerges whole and healthy, thanks to her struggles and the hard-won wisdom she has acquired along the way. Meridian ultimately realizes that no one person, movement, or institution can offer her the assistance she seeks, and she finally turns to herself. Meridian’s journey to self-discovery is marked by physical and sexual abuse, a broken marriage, and a child she decides to give away. Her strange illness is in some ways a manifestation of her instability and insecurity. Her bouts of lost consciousness and episodes of paralysis signal that she is a woman without an identity or a sustaining inner life. Ultimately, she realizes that her power lies in her unique and unwavering courage.
Truman faces numerous influences and desires in his life, which ultimately conflict and scatter him, making his personality ambiguous and unresolved. His inner conflict is expressed mainly in his fixation on the women in his life and the grip that they have on him. Meridian and Lynne represent two extremes, and Truman is drawn to each but is unable to commit to either. Meridian ultimately frees herself of his mercurial affections and his confusing presence, which are obstacles to her physical and emotional recovery. Initially, in their student days, she believes that Truman is guilty of the same overly reductive and short-sighted racial patronage as Lynne, and that he fetishizes Lynne’s whiteness just as Lynne lives vicariously through his blackness. Later, as an artist in Harlem, Truman can only objectify black women, casting them in mute marble or obsessively painting representations of Meridian that are far from the woman she actually is. Just as Lynne views blacks and black life aesthetically, Truman turns to artistic representation to confront and work out his conflicted sense of his role and identity as a black man and his understanding of race and race relations.
Truman subscribes to traditional notions of gender roles, in which the man is the dominant force in a relationship, and his assumptions of male dominance are the source of his arrogance and short-sightedness. He expects women to uphold a standard of purity that he does not apply to himself, and in this way, he is a victim of the sexual attitudes of his world and times. He is drawn to powerful, intelligent, and charismatic women who only reveal the conflicted and confused man who exists beneath the swagger and stereotypical male behavior. Truman also struggles with his relationship to black culture. His pretension and desire for worldliness have led him to study abroad in France, and his dialogue is peppered with rudimentary French phrases. His interest in the movement, to which he initially dedicates much time and interest, sours. Only when he is freed of the various confusing presences and influences that mark his life is he able to confront himself as an individual and fill his life with purpose and meaning.
When Lynne first appears in Meridian, she is an idealistic student who has arrived at Saxon College to take part in the allure of the burgeoning civil rights movement. She and the other northern transplants adopt a patronizing attitude toward the black women of Saxon, exoticizing and romanticizing their “otherness.” Lynne eventually confesses that she equates the often-gritty reality of black life in the South with “art,” trivializing the institutionalized racism that controls and regulates most aspects of black life. Lynne uses the movement to transcend her sanitized upbringing, though her guilt at coming from a white, privileged background becomes all-consuming. Her idealism and personal agenda initially hinder her effectiveness as a civil rights worker. On a voter-registration drive, accompanied by Meridian, Lynne comes into contact with a variety of impoverished, rural communities. During one visit, Lynne is more interested in arguing with than helping a highly religious woman who trusts her faith, and not the state and federal government, to instigate change in her life.
The gulf between ideology and reality and between theory and practice eventually shrinks for Lynne as she learns to sympathize with the reality of racism as it affects individual lives. Lynne feels she must go to greater lengths to establish herself within the black community as well as in the movement. However, her whiteness will always set her apart, and she remains an outsider, ultimately pushed to the fringes of the movement. Lynne’s racial guilt is unanswerable, and she sinks into a slovenly, stagnant state. Eventually, she feels she must be the sacrifice that atones for years of racial injustice, and she does not resist or fight Tommy Odds when his aggressive sexual advances turn to rape. Perversely, she feels that by allowing him to have his way, she’ll be atoning for her guilt. After the death of the daughter she has with Truman, she is stricken and dispossessed, with no identifiable future.