1. They have a saying for people who fall down as I do: If a person is hit hard enough, even if she stands, she falls.
Meridian speaks these words in the novel’s opening chapter, “The Last Return.” She is referring to her illness, which causes her to collapse and lapse into unconsciousness. Her words are prophetic, as they also reference the various physical beatings and torments she experiences while protesting on behalf of the civil rights movement. Both her condition and the violence meted out by policemen and others unsympathetic to the cause serve as powerful threats that unsettle Meridian, qualifying her identity and stability. Meridian’s words probe the nature of strength and resistance and the challenges, both internal and social, with which she is saddled. No matter how strong she is in the face of adversity, hatred and violence leach away her dignity, resolve, and her belief in herself. Meridian learns that, like racism, her “peculiar madness” is a legacy, an affliction that affected her great-grandmother and her father as well. Meridian’s life is overburdened with this overwhelming genetic inheritance, just as her daily life is affected by segregation, which dehumanize those who are subjected to it. No matter how strong her resolve, Meridian’s body and psyche bear the scars of the physical and emotional assaults that she must constantly repel.
2. Her father sighed. “I never said either side was innocent or guilty, just ignorant. They’ve been a part of it, we’ve been a part of it, everybody’s been a part of it for a long time.”
Meridian’s father makes this comment in the chapter entitled “Indians and Ecstasy.” It comes as part of a quasi-argument he is having with his wife, Gertrude, occasioned by his decision to return the parcel of land containing the serpent mound to the Cherokee Walter Longknife. Gertrude believes that she and her family bear no responsibility to those who owned and tended the land before them, while her husband views returning the acreage as an attempt to set right a history of abuse and exploitation. Meridian’s father gains perspective on the civil rights movement and the treatment of blacks by looking at them in the context of past wrongs and injustices. By referring to the hardship experienced by a different group of people, Native Americans forced to give up their land and relocate to reservations to the west, he attempts to look further than white/black issues and consider broader humanitarian abuses. He argues that it is dangerous to ignore or minimize the plight of others who have been the victims of racial hatred. At the same time, he acknowledges the role black settlers had in wresting control of Native American-held lands in the Southeast.
3. It was just that they knew, as she knew about them. That they were transplanted, as they had always been, to a place where they fit like extra toes on a foot. Where they were trusted by no one, exploited, when possible, by anyone with political ambitions.
This comment appears in the third “Lynne” chapter and refers to Lynne’s evolving perceptions of race, religion, ethnic identity, and what it means to be a minority in the South. Lynne is musing on a Jewish-owned deli in the town where she lived with Truman and worked for the civil rights movement. Lynne feels she was given a cold reception each time she shopped there because she was in an interracial marriage. However, she realizes that the experience of many southern Jews, subjected to anti-Semitism, was similar to the racism faced by blacks. Lynne is an outsider in both the community and the movement because of her color and religious upbringing, and she feels this separation more pointedly as the novel progresses. In drawing these conclusions about the Jews she met in her town, Lynne acknowledges a common history of dislocation, loss of identity, struggle, and mourning, whether via slavery, segregation, racism, genocide, or anti-Semitism. One history of abuse is no more tragic than another, yet the ultimate irony is that Lynne has chosen to align herself with an oppressed people who fail to acknowledge their essential commonality. She is a figure forced to the fringes, a wanderer uprooted time and again, with no sense of belonging.
4. “Your ambivalence will always be deplored by people who consider themselves revolutionists, and your unorthodox behavior will cause traditionalists to gnash their teeth,” said Truman, who was not, himself, concerned about either group.
This statement appears in the last chapter, “Release,” and clarifies Meridian’s elusive qualities and her mysterious, difficult-to-summarize nature. Meridian searches for meaning and acceptance in the civil rights movement, but she finds that even though her ardor comes naturally and she is able to make significant contributions, the group’s sensibilities do little to resolve her struggle for self-acceptance. At a gathering in New York City, Meridian refuses to avow her willingness to kill for the cause, despite being taunted, and Truman affirms that the thought of Meridian killing someone is ludicrous. Meridian finds she must extricate herself from such radical factions and pursue her own brand of social activism, returning to her roots in rural communities in Alabama and Georgia. Her methods of resistance are still unconventional, and she garners a sort of cult following as people feed and care for her. Her social actions are eventually labeled as “performances,” akin to a spiritual revival, in which Meridian concludes the event by collapsing from emotional and physical exhaustion, her illness once again sapping her strength. In the end, though, it is this unconventional and fiercely independent spirit that leads Meridian to self-salvation, health, and wholeness.
5. He . . . wondered if Meridian knew that the sentence of bearing the conflict in her own soul which she had imposed on herself—and lived through—must now be borne in terror by all the rest of them.
This is the final sentence in the novel. Meridian, like a phoenix, has emerged whole and restored after facing various trials, and her transformation is quiet yet triumphant. Now Meridian packs her meager belongings and moves on to the next town and the next challenge, armed with her newfound strength and resolve. In her stead, Truman is struck with her mysterious illness, falling to the ground after reading the words of Meridian’s poem in which she finally forgives him. The poem goes on to say that she loves him and that their innocence and purity have given way to wisdom and healing. Regaining consciousness after his spell, Truman wakes to find his cheek resting on Meridian’s cap, the covering she no longer needs since her hair has grown back in. She can now expose herself to the world, no longer oppressed by her shame and guilt. In her absence, Truman becomes Meridian’s surrogate. She has gone before the others and paved the way to self-acceptance and self-knowledge. At the conclusion of the novel, it is Truman’s turn to embark on a similar, albeit difficult, journey toward the same goal.