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.