Literature Study GuidesMeridianPart 1 Section 1 Summary

Meridian | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Meridian | Part 1, Section 1 : Meridian (The Last Return) | Summary

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The book is divided into three parts, each containing named segments. The section numbers shown here are an editorial addition.

Summary

Truman Held arrives by car to the small town of Chicokema, Georgia, having driven straight through from New York City. Stopping at a gas station, he asks where he can get his car washed. Before the workers can answer, however, a small boy arrives breathlessly to report on something happening in town. He says, "It's that woman in the cap. She's staring down a tank!"

Truman follows everyone to see the activity and asks an elderly sweeper to explain what is happening. The man explains that the traveling circus show, featuring a mummified woman, is closed to African Americans except on Thursday. The woman in the cap is leading a protest about it.

Truman reads a brochure about "The True Story of Marilene O'Shay," supposedly the mummified woman on display. He finds the story ridiculous. What he is interested in, however, is the woman leading the protest. He identifies her as a woman named Meridian, someone he has known well. He watches, along with the growing crowd, as she approaches the tank, which has its engine on and its muzzle pointed directly at her chest. She walks up and raps on the tank, moves past it, then kicks the door of the circus wagon open. She motions for the crowd of children following her to go in. Truman expresses his admiration of her actions, whereas the sweeper dismisses her as making "no sense."

Truman makes his way to Meridian's house once the activity has died down in town. Meridian is not there, and there is no furniture to speak of. Truman is tired and wants a nap, so he goes out on the porch to rest rather than getting in her dirty sleeping bag. He watches as four men carry Meridian's body into the house and put her in the sleeping bag. After the men leave, Truman goes to her and washes her face with his moist handkerchief, to rouse her. She does not seem surprised to see him. He lets her know he is worried about her health and her hair loss, but she dismisses him. He also tells her that boxes and boxes of food have arrived from the townspeople. She tells him they are always grateful for what she does to try to make their lives better.

Then the narrative is interrupted by Meridian's memory of a time 10 years ago when she was in New York. The people there were civil rights workers shaming her for her unwillingness to say that she would kill for the movement. This memory spurs earlier memories from her childhood. She remembers when she heard her mother and father arguing over the rights of Native Americans and the abuse they suffered. Her father believes all people should be treated fairly and equally, as members of the human race.

Because Meridian would not swear to kill, the movement rejected her, including a woman named Anne-Marion with whom she had apparently been close. That is when Meridian moved back to the South to be "close to the people."

The narrative then returns to Chicokema and Truman and Meridian. Truman comments about her barren surroundings, and she says, "We really must let each other go." Truman says that only he needs to let go. He realizes she "cut [him] loose a long time ago." Meridian inquires about someone named Lynne, and the two of them speak about Camara, Truman's dead daughter. As Truman keeps pressing her about her evident ill health, Meridian cuts him off, saying "I am strong, actually."

The narrative is then interrupted again, this time by a list of names in all capital letters, separated only by slashes. They are the names of people killed violently during the past decade, during the civil rights movement. As Meridian mulls over the names and the violence, more information about Anne-Marion is revealed. The two women had met in college while watching the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. Their friendship began that day and did not end until Anne-Marion rejected Meridian for not joining the violent efforts of the civil rights movement.

Analysis

Walker does not expend very many words describing the setting of the first chapter, except as it relates to the bigger ideas of the novel. This novel, which has been called her "meditation on the civil rights movement," should be read from the beginning with that in mind.

The tank in the fictional town of Chicokema, located in Georgia (with its legacy of slavery and racist segregation), has been there since the 1960s. The white townspeople acquired it because they "felt under attack" from the African Americans in their community who were seeking civil rights. Not surprisingly the tank sits beside a memorial to the Confederacy. African Americans are obviously still discriminated against in this place, but so are the poor whites who work in the guano plant and carry the stench of their work with them. The sweeper to whom Truman speaks presents this snapshot of the town to him with just a short exchange.

Many more words are spent describing the traveling freak show that is visiting the town and has stirred Meridian's rage. The owner has placed rules around which day the poor and black citizens can go to see it. When she stands up to the tank, she is pushing against the oppression it represents. It doesn't matter that the mummified body is a ludicrous fake. What matters is that any citizen of the United States should still be excluded from any opportunity.

One reason Walker describes Marilene O'Shay's mummified body in such detail is because of the ridiculousness of it. Her body has darkened because of its exposure to salt in the Great Salt Lake. Henry O'Shay does not want people to think for one minute that his wife was African American, so he makes sure her long hair remains red, and he spends time brushing it every night. Hair is an important symbol throughout the novel, as will be seen. It represents the "purity" of a woman's ethnicity and the level of comfort she and those around her have with it. In Meridian's case, the loss of her hair, which Truman notices and comments on in this first chapter, is symbolic of her selflessness: she has given herself over completely to the civil rights movement. She is not defined by her hair; instead, she is defined by her actions. She is not defined by belongings, but by ideas.

Other literary elements that are interwoven throughout the novel abound in this opening chapter. Truman studies Meridian's "wallpaper"—the poems and letters that she puts up on her walls wherever she goes. The "wallpaper" introduces readers to the importance of the written word. The names in all capitals in the middle of the chapter call attention again to this motif. Just by how the words are typeset, the importance of the names is evident. Truman questions Meridian about keeping Anne-Marion's hateful letters to her on display, and Meridian explains that she "keep[s] the letters because they contain the bitch's handwriting." The point is that the written word keeps people's ideas and viewpoints alive. This is different from television as "the repository of memory," which people see and interpret alone rather than as a true exchange.

Marilene O'Shay's dead body and Meridian's paralyzed body are just two examples of corpses and physical and mental wounding that will appear throughout the novel. Society is sick and wounded—and sometimes it seems as if death is better than life—in the world Walker portrays. When people try to plant the seeds of change, others often come along and pull up the seeds or chop down what grows. The important things planted are gradually forgotten—they become buried, like dead bodies.

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