This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLUSTER 60 course, which earned a grade of A.
As Floyd-Thomas mentions in her book, Deeper Shades of Purple, Alice Walker is both a Civil Rights and a “womanist” activist who advocates for a government that ethically provides equal rights to all individuals regardless of their race and gender. However, Walker understands that for any equal governmental protection to even start taking effect, it is crucial for the people to first be free from the social shackles that bound their personal independence. In Meridian, she emphasizes this by showing how before the protagonist, Meridian, can join the national fight to defeat the deeply rooted racist institution above her and discovering her position as an activist, she must first confront the domesticated sexism that has shaped the narrative of her life. Meridian also explicitly exposes the truth about the social and political values of the 1960s that led to a fixed mindset which expects womanhood to be submissive and obedient to men. These values, when coupled with preconceived roles of women in society, effectively disregards women’s individuality and suppresses their ability to establish any form of independence. Meridian’s journey to self-discovery, through Walker’s usage of characterization along with the combination of point of view, narrative structure and symbolism, exposes the adversities Meridian faces in embracing her individuality in a White male-dominated society and explains how women’s forced-fed gender roles blind their pursuit for an independent identity.
Using the characterization of Meridian, Walker creates scenes that inform readers of the static idealistic expectations of women in the 1960s. Specifically, Walker highlights how women in the 1960s did not value their education because of their subservient roles in society at the time. Reflecting on the secondary role of women in society, Walker describes that female students were conditioned by society to value the search for eligible and wealthy bachelors more than the opportunity of self-improvement through education. They were taught that engaging with their individual interests would be a futile pursuit at fulfilment, which itself was thought of as a byproduct of their relationship with men. Noting how Anne-Marion and Meridian’s intelligence were “only tolerated because it was clear [that] true Ladyhood would never be conferred [to them],” Walker continues to explain that women in the 1960s were not allowed to be both intelligent and feminine, mainly because it would upset the existing integrated power dynamic between men and women in the 1960s (Walker 20). Through this characterization, readers learn that Meridian and Anne-Marion were eager to explore their individual intellectual interests and did not rely on marriage and motherhood to secure a fulfilling life — and as a result, they were frowned upon and not considered true women.
In order to portray how deeply the disregard of women’s individuality pervaded the 1960s, Walker introduces the character Truman, an African American man who is a respected leader in the Black community and is "the first of the Civil Rights workers" (Walker 55). Despite being the embodiment of a modern progressive male, Truman was incapable of pushing his liberalism past society's conventional views on women. Truman is ultimately forced to end his relationship with Meridian because he "did not want a general beside him. He did not want a woman who tried...to claim her own life" (Walker 75). To Truman and the men of the 1960s, women’s opinions were not to be acknowledged, much less respected or cherished. In fact, Truman felt that being with a woman that held her own opinions, such as Meridian, would be emasculating. In his perspective, the perfect woman did not aim to voice her opinions, but rather obediently complied with the maternal and sexual roles that were demanded of her. Walker’s intentional description of Truman as a respected activist contrasts with the other laymen, such as Daxter and Mr Raymonds, who objectified Meridian throughout her life. Yet, as an activist that hails a more socially progressive era, Truman questions the treatment of African Americans, but never that of women. This portrayal further drives home Walker’s point on just how deeply ingrained misogyny was, that even the most progressive minds were unable to escape objectifying women and succumbed to these views.
Walker later uses Mrs. Hill’s point of view to further build upon Meridian’s characterization and emphasizes that because society equates womanhood to motherhood, the ability for a woman to embrace her individuality is severely restricted. It is important to note that Mrs. Hill, in Meridian, primarily represents the consequences of motherhood and how it came at the expense of her livelihood and independence. The burden of taking care of children affected not only her control of the present but also her control of the future. After her pregnancy, Mrs. Hill wanted to return to her career as a teacher, but she "could not pass the new exams" (Walker 29). Despite her personal experience of falling victim to the illusion of motherhood and its acclaimed fulfillment, Mrs. Hill goes as far as to label Meridian a “monster” for even considering pursuing an education instead of obediently conforming to her role as a mother, stating, “You should want Eddie Jr...unless you’re some kind of monster…” (Walker 60). Mrs. Hill’s remark, when coupled with the fact that Eddie could leave the family without judgement, depicts the severity of the 1960s gender stereotype, in which women are expected to relinquish all of their individual pursuits and act in accordance to societal expectations. Once Meridian becomes pregnant, it is simply a given that she was to drop out of school and be a housewife for the rest of her life, while the child’s father will be the breadwinner and is therefore free from any paternal duties for the child. By caging women in domestic roles and conveniently using that as a justification for restricting women from gaining access to personal education, men effectively silence women’s voices from the political sphere, further stabilizing their dominant positions in society. It is through Meridian’s sheer stubbornness that she rebels against these gendered societal confinements. Eventually, she emerges as an activist and embarks on a lengthy fight against those that continue to bind women to these personal and political limitations.
In Meridian, Walker also draws the readers’ attention towards the patriarchal objectification of women, which led to a crushing societal pressure for them to be submissive to men in their sexuality — a means of reaffirming the male ownership of the female body — without regard for their individual pleasure. To do so, Walker uses a narrative structure to record Meridian’s varying tone throughout the novel, bringing readers along Meridian’s process of questioning her sexuality and eventually overcoming the notions of what encompasses a “devoted wife” (Walker 4). In the beginning, readers learn that Meridian was first introduced to her sexuality through years of constant harassment from Daxter and his assistant who capitalized on Meridian's innocence as a twelve-year-old. Walker specifically notes that Meridian only allowed this harassment to continue out of curiosity as she "had nothing better to do on a hot Wednesday afternoon" (Walker 43). Since her first experience with sex, Walker specifically narrates that Meridian did not derive any form of pleasure or desire from her sexual experiences at a young age. As she grew older and became involved with Eddie, Meridian realized that the only way for her to make male friends was “when she was sexually involved with a lover who was always near" (Walker 39). Walker uses narrative structure to record how Meridian, even at that age, understood that her identity as a woman was completely disregarded, only to be considered “So-an-so’s Girl” — a supplement to her lover’s identity (Walker 39). Quite ironically, this means that in order to escape being viewed as an object used only for sex by men, she had to first become the possession of one man. However, during Meridian’s pregnancy, Eddie’s request for her to be more engaging in sex kickstarted her contemplation and questioning what she was getting out of participating in sexual practices. To her, sex wasn’t indulgence so much as a means to pleasure her husband. Meridian discovers that in each of her past sexual experiences, she "never had any intention of giving in," which leads to her realization that she cannot be liberated through sex until she understands that sex is only liberating through her consent (Walker 44). This prompts her rebellion against the traditional ideals of a woman as “a mindless body, a sex creature,” — characteristics that were deemed as becoming of a wife in the 1960s (Walker 46). Her decision at the end of the novel to remain single was not only rare of her time, but also empowered her to gain self-respect as a budding activist instead of leading a life in consequence of the male gaze.
Walker's usage of metaphors and their accompanying symbolism draws comparisons between Meridian's sickness and the experiences faced by women who deviate from societal gender norms. From the beginning of the novel, readers learn that Marilene abandoned her own identity and obediently complied with society's expectations of her being an "obedient daughter", "devoted wife" and "adoring mother" (Walker 4). However, when she acted against her defined role and had an affair, her husband strangled her to death and threw her body in "Salt Lake" — a murder that everyone, including Marilene's mother, forgave, by justifying that Marilene was "doing wrong" by her husband (Walker 6). When Meridian encounters Marilene's mummified corpse, she collapses and has "four men brought her home, hoisted across their shoulders exactly as they would carry a coffin, her eyes closed...legs straight." (Walker 8). By closely relating the description of Meridian's unconscious body to Marilene's mummified corpse, Walker effectively creates a symbolism of the paralysis each woman experiences when they are forced to abide by the identity presented by society. Meridian's paralysis offers a comparison between both women as existing in coffins, created by a male-dominated society that defines their purpose as it serves them. Ultimately, Walker's metaphor of Meridian's illness and the reality of womanhood provide an understanding of how society controls women and punishes those who act independently.
Through Meridian's journey of self-fulfillment and independence, Walker uncovers how a male-dominated society inhibits women from developing independence. She explains how women were expected to cast aside their individuality and relinquish authority over their lives, essentially leading their life as a warm body with a pulse, existing simply to serve the roles that were expected of them. Walker also exposes that a woman's worth is tied to her meeting these gendered expectations, which conveniently serves as a tool to repress their identity and force them into contentment. Walker argues that if an individual wants to gain independence from the external confinements of social traditions, one must first confront their internal struggles and discover their purpose, as done by Meridian. However, Walker makes it a point to highlight the consequences of going against the values of society and the alienating reality the action produces. Through Meridian, readers learn that only through the internal change of the self are we able to set an example for society; only through our external actions of change are we able to be free.
Floyd-Thomas. Deeper Shades of Purple : Womanism in Religion and Society. New York, New York University Press, 2006.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.