Literature Study GuidesMeridianPart 1 Section 3 Summary

Meridian | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Meridian | Part 1, Section 3 : Meridian (Sojourner) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3 gives readers more information about Meridian's college years—and reveals more about her background and personality. At the time of this chapter Anne-Marion and Meridian have become friends. Walker opens the chapter by describing the huge differences between the two. Meridian is thin, self-reflective, and mostly silent. Anne-Marion is rounded and argumentative, with a hot temper and an air of complete irreverence toward everything. Nevertheless, they are bonded in their commitment to the civil rights movement and in their denial to conform to "true ladyhood."

The main action in the chapter is Wile Chile's funeral. Meridian and Anne-Marion help to carry her coffin to the Saxon College chapel. However, it looks as though there is trouble coming for the procession.

The narrative is interrupted by the telling of the history of "the largest magnolia tree in the country." It grows in the center of the campus and is named The Sojourner. This tree was planted by a slave named Louvinie on the Saxon plantation, which became Saxon College. Louvinie had been raised in West Africa by parents who revered the stories and traditions of their culture, which she brought to America with her. The Saxon children loved to hear the terrifying traditional tales she would tell them. However, her storytelling caused trouble. The youngest of the children, a boy, had a heart condition that resulted in his sudden death. However, his death was blamed on Louvinie and her horror stories because the boy's family thought the stories caused a heart attack.

The Saxons had Louvinie's tongue cut out as punishment. She mutely pleaded to have it given to her so she could bury it in a spot of her choosing. The spot she chose was beneath a "scrawny magnolia tree." The tree then proceeded to outgrow everything around it and become the source of many tales and legends.

One of the stories is about Fast Mary of the Tower. She secretly had a baby on the campus in the 1920s and then killed the infant. As a result, Mary was severely beaten and then sent home, where she was locked in a windowless room. She hung herself three months later. To honor Fast Mary, each May Day the students dance around The Sojourner, which is said to be the only source of comfort for Mary. The students pray that they will not become pregnant as Mary had.

The narrative returns as the funeral procession comes within view of The Sojourner. The news that the president of the college is denying access to the chapel is passed down the line. Wile Chile's neighbors disappear with this news, leaving just the enraged students to react. They wail and stamp their feet and do everything else they can think of to protest. Then the pallbearers move the casket to rest beneath The Sojourner, singing "We shall overcome." However, the casket is taken away in the night, and the students' response is to riot. They chop down The Sojourner, "level[ing] to the ground, that mighty, ancient, sheltering music tree."

Analysis

The symbol of hair appears again in this chapter. Tellingly, one of Anne-Marion's acts of rebellion is to cut off all her hair, which earns her a strong reprimand from the Dean of Women who takes pride in wearing her hair "long, processed and lavender." Anne-Marion is not interested in denying her ethnicity or trying to look like white women.

The students protest the denial of Wile Chile's funeral in this chapter. One of the things they do is to shake "loose their straightened hair," protesting the white world in general. The students gently place Wile Chile's casket beneath The Sojourner: "heavy, flower-lit leaves hovered over it like the inverted peaks of a mother's half-straightened kinky hair." They are bringing Wile Chile's body to a place where it might be protected and respected, a place made magic by the African American enslaved woman and her tragic story.

However, it is also this place and this tree that the students destroy later that night. Meridian tries to stop this ruination of what should be the women's pride, representing their heritage and a safe haven. She begs them to instead destroy the house of the establishment president who banned the funeral from happening, but the violence cannot be stopped. This is the first indication of what will be Meridian's lifelong unease with the use of violence as part of protests, the same unease that was described in Chapter 1 as causing the demise of her relationship with Anne-Marion.

Dead bodies also appear in this story: Wile Chile's body and Fast Mary's dead infant, whose chopped body she tries to flush down the toilet. The Sojourner, a hugely important living thing, is similarly killed and chopped up. All of these represent the death of decency in a society filled with hatred.

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