A young civil rights worker and the protagonist of the novel. Thin and slight, with deep brown skin, Meridian is a deeply sad and serious presence. Bold, defiant, and courageous, Meridian seems older than she is. Cynical and often pessimistic, she does not fill her life and perceptions with hope. Rather, a stubborn ambivalence often prevails. Later, a serene, detached calm settles on her life. Almost repulsed by sex and the physical aggressions of men, she ultimately prefers her own company. As her illness progresses and her hair falls out, she takes to wearing a knitted cap at all times.
Meridian’s former lover and an active participant in the civil rights movement. Truman is a handsome man whose intelligence borders on arrogance. His air of pretension and his desire to impress set him apart. He often lapses into French when he knows that the person he is addressing has little or no grasp of the language. Passionate and emotionally volatile, he is unable to resist the powerful pull of the women in his life. At the same time, he can be aloof and distant, an emotional coward who would rather run away from a problem than confront it directly.
A white Jew from the North, and Truman’s eventual wife. Lynne is an argumentative, slightly aggressive woman who is seduced by ideology and her own heightened sense of self-importance, but she is also a selfless and dedicated worker in the movement. Her involvement is rooted partially in guilt and an exaggerated sense of her own complicity in racial injustice and the racism meted out by legions of American whites. Later, her idealism turns to regret, defeat, and a steely resignation as she is plagued with jealousy—of Meridian, in particular—and dissatisfaction of the course her life has taken.
Meridian’s friend at Saxon College and a radical member of the civil rights movement. Anne-Marion is judgmental, opinionated, and easily angered, and she has a strong desire to succeed. She is also radical and rebellious, and she brings an intensity to her contributions to the civil rights movement. She cuts off her hair and openly disavows any belief in the Christian faith. At her worst, she is self-centered and incapable of true friendship or emotional vulnerability in any form.
Meridian’s mother. A former teacher, Gertrude is deeply religious and has a rigid and unyielding sense of morality and propriety. Despite her deep reserves of faith, she is a fragile spirit who is not up to the tasks and demands of being a wife and mother. At times bitter and spiteful, she feels trapped and short-changed by how her life has turned out and is resigned to self-sacrifice. There is a sense of martyrdom in her acceptance of her status as a second-class citizen. Her stalwart sense of self-denial and her single-minded pursuit of virtue and rightness intimidate Meridian and those around her, making them feel insufficient and weak.
A former history teacher and farmer. Dreamy, quiet, and unambitious, Meridian’s father prefers mostly his own company. He has an abiding interest in historical studies, and he feels a profound connection to the Native Americans who lived on and worked the land before him. Although he is a practicing Baptist, he acknowledges the credence and viability of Native American spirituality as an alternative to the deep Christian faith his wife subscribes to.
A friend of Truman’s who works on voter-registration drives in Mississippi. Tommy is dedicated and charismatic, and he is successful at getting more southern blacks to register and vote. Later, his less appealing qualities emerge, as his anger and resentment over losing part of his arm boil over into rape and other violence. His desire for revenge and his wish to blame Lynne for his troubles blind him to reason and mute his otherwise kind and generous nature.
Meridian’s husband and the father of her son. Eddie is Meridian’s high school boyfriend, a stereotypical high school sports hero who never outgrows the popularity and glory he achieved via his athletic prowess and charm. Eddie is smart and hardworking but lacks the ambition and the ability to pull himself and his family out of their current station. His immaturity is evident through his infidelity and lack of serious commitment to his new family.
A pregnant orphan who lives in the slums surrounding Saxon College. Believed to be about thirteen, the Wild Child is a tough survivor who lives in an abandoned building and survives through scavenging. Uncouth and untouched by any civilizing influences, she has smoked and cursed since an early age. She is also elusive and wary of other people until Meridian seizes her.
A West-African slave girl on the Saxon plantation. Louvinie has a jutting chin and is commonly thought to be so unattractive that she is relegated to working in the kitchen garden. Louvinie always wears black headrags, and many people believe she is incapable of smiling. Children are drawn to her and her ability to tell frightening tales of the supernatural.
A music professor at Saxon College. Sallow, with bulging black eyes and a blue wig, Miss Winters is worldly and learned and one of only three black instructors at the college. She teaches whatever she pleases and always manages to skirt the disapproval or control of the administration. A kindly maternal presence, she offers Meridian the warmth and forgiveness that Meridian’s own mother cannot give her.
A professor at Saxon College and Meridian’s employer. Mr. Reynolds is tall and bony, with short white hair, a drooping left eyelid, mostly false teeth, and sour breath. He is a predator who offers Meridian money and food in exchange for sexual favors.