Meridian is energized by a younger generation coming into its full power and raising its voice in dissent against the institutional racism that prevailed through the 1960s. Through occasionally violent protests and demonstrations, Meridian and other activists attempt to institute change and alter perceptions. Idealistic as they are, they ultimately find various degrees of satisfaction with the goals and ideals of the civil rights movement. Meridian feels that she will always stand on the fringes of the movement since she is unprepared to take her dissent to a radical, if not murderous, level. Lynne struggles with adapting and applying her own idealism to meaningful change in the lives of southern blacks. Truman eventually sours to the movement, having lost sight of its intentions in his self-absorption. In the end, Meridian realizes the fatuousness of dying or killing for the movement, concluding that the battle is won in small ways, such as getting blacks registered to vote and improving the lives of people victimized by the unchecked expression of racism.
In Meridian, young activists attempt to break with tradition by bringing an end to the racism and segregation that had overshadowed black Americans for centuries. Walker shifts her focus from the present to the past to explore the lives of people who helped pave the way to the present moment. The experiences of Louvinie and Feather Mae, for example, frame the issues that Meridian and her father face. The serpent mound also evokes this powerful historical precedent, serving as a vital connection between Meridian, her father, and the ancestors who came before her. Throughout Meridian, Walker stresses the universality of the human experience and suggests that no one has cornered the market on suffering. Rather, many individuals from a variety of groups and backgrounds share a common history of exploitation, guilt, suffering, violence, and, ultimately, freedom, triumph, and acceptance.
Meridian is plagued by a mysterious inherited illness, much like epilepsy, which parallels and triggers her spiritual and physical transformation. The sickness renders her unconscious, episodes she refers to as “falling down,” and it subjects her to paralysis, blindness, and hair loss. On one hand, the condition connects her directly with her father and great-grandmother, who suffered the same burden. The illness is also the physical rendering of Meridian’s deep emotional and spiritual angst, the grief and sadness that have marked and gripped her throughout her life. The illness becomes a means for Meridian to suffer, to perform penance for this ambiguous wrong she felt she has done. It also offers her atonement and, ultimately, self-acceptance. When she is well again, rising out of her sick bed and heading full force into the future, she can finally forgive herself and love and accept herself for who she is.
Walker prefaces her novel with a lengthy list of definitions and traditional usages of the word meridian. A total of twelve different meanings are included for both the word’s noun and adjectival form. This alone signifies the fact that Meridian resists easy definition or simple categorization. She is a complex and capacious character whose presence and identity cannot be reduced to a simple phrase or formulation. The term also sets up a comparison between Meridian and the growing civil rights movement. One of the most common definitions of the term is “zenith, the highest point of power, prosperity, splendor.” Not only does the novel trace the rise and growing power of social activism, united in the face of racist and segregationist policies, but it also tracks the ascent of Meridian from her spiritual and physical pain to a newly whole being in full charge of her capacities and inner wealth. An alternate meaning, “distinctive character,” applies just as well to the novel’s protagonist and namesake.
The Wild Child, who makes only a brief appearance in Meridian, represents the possibility of pursuing life independently, on one’s own terms. The Wild Child is an iconic figure—Walker does not even give her a name. The residents of the slums surrounding Saxon College know little of this mysterious, almost-feral girl who rummages for food in garbage cans and has not fully acquired language. Meridian ultimately fails to help her and, in fact, plays a role in her death—the Wild Child cannot be tamed, and she died trying to escape that fate. Like the Wild Child, Meridian strips her life of external influences, material goods, and physical comforts as she moves from community to community, registering voters and fighting racism. Both women live on the fringes of society, away from the scrutiny and judgment of mainstream life. Meridian’s great-grandmother, Feather Mae, suggests a similar presence, a free, radical, and unconventional spirit who, after her profound experience in the pit in the serpent mound, renounces all religion not based on physical ecstasy. Later in her life, she took to walking around naked and worshipping the sun. These unique women pursue their lives on their own terms, extolling their fiercely individualistic spirits.
The tank sits in the town square in Chicokema, where Meridian is living when the novel opens. Painted white and decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons, it was bought in the 1960s to ward off “outside agitators,” those who advocated the extension of civil rights to all of the town’s residents, including blacks. Positioned near the tank is a statue of a Confederate soldier, whose leg was permanently crushed when the tank was being put into place. This gestures to the fact that the civil rights movement is like a new civil war, one that has come with great force to replace and supersede that earlier conflict. When Truman meets up with Meridian again after a considerable absence, he witnesses her leading the town’s children, forbidden on that day from touring the traveling exhibit, across the square. Men positioned inside the tank move the muzzle and point it directly at her, but she is neither cowed nor deterred. The tank serves as an ironic presence, suggesting that freedom must be defended from those who do not match the tank’s white coloring. It also symbolizes the violence and oppression that marked not only the history of slavery but the civil rights movement as well.
The Sojourner is the name given to the largest magnolia tree in the country, which grows in the quadrangle of Saxon College. It is associated with Louvinie, a slave on the plantation whose property would eventually be turned into Saxon College. Louvinie buries her tongue, cut out in punishment for unintentionally causing the death of one of the Saxon children, beneath a scrawny magnolia tree, which eventually grows into the renowned, towering giant. Thus, the magnolia serves as a living reminder of the past, of growth in the face of oppression and the millions of slaves who were silenced, their tongues metaphorically removed, by the institution of slavery. The tree also serves as a source of comfort for the lonely Meridian, who initially has trouble adjusting to college life. At one point, Meridian even chains herself to it to prevent its removal, a task at which she ultimately fails. When the students, in revolt, chop down the tree, the Sojourner’s symbolic import changes. Now its destruction represents an abrupt breaking with the past and the racist traditions that marked it.
Like the Sojourner, the serpent mound—and the deep mysterious pit contained in the coil of its tail—is a powerful connection to the past. The ancient mound, built by the region’s original Native American inhabitants, is located on a patch of land behind the Hill home. It is a reminder of the need to study, honor, and learn from the past. Meridian’s father has a spiritual connection to the lives of people buried there, and he honors the native presence that preceded his own as tenants of the land. The mound, to him, symbolizes the interconnectedness and the universality of human experience. It helps him to contextualize and better understand the black experience by signifying the lives of another marginalized people who were forever altered by a racist white power base. However, just as the land was taken from the Cherokee, Meridian’s father is similarly forced to give up ownership of the parcel. Thus, also like the Sojourner, the mound’s symbolic meaning and significance change when the area is taken over by the government and turned into a historical park that initially bars blacks from entering. What had once been a powerful connection to the past becomes a radical disconnection from it, as the site is exploited and its deep spiritual, cultural, and historical significance is trivialized and commercialized.
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