Corpses Living and Dead: Motherhood and Martyrdom in Meridian
The first woman to appear in Meridian is not the eponymous protagonist herself, but rather, a corpse. The body of Marilene O’Shay, the slain wife of a jealous husband resurrected as a carnival attraction, introduces womanhood in the novel’s absurd and vaguely grotesque opening scene. While the strange gothic imagery of this first chapter reads like a fever dream largely isolated from the rest of the text, Marilene O’Shay is the first of many female corpses, both living and dead, to appear throughout the novel. These corpses, both literal and metaphorical, cement an association between womanhood and death in the novel, underscoring a dominant patriarchal narrative in which female martyrdom is privileged at best, and demanded at worst.
Out of this cast of corpses, Meridian emerges to break the cycle of martyrdom by refusing motherhood—the most privileged form of female sacrifice. In refusing to accept suffering or to privilege the sacrificial rite of motherhood, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order, one that parallels a similar rejection of the martyrdom associated with collectivist activism. In Meridian, dominant narratives surrounding both womanhood and political collectivism encourage and privilege suffering and sacrifice for an allegedly noble cause. Both as a woman and an activist, Meridian maintains her individuality at all costs, refusing to conform to any collectivist demands that insist she sacrifice her identity or independence. In refusing to conform to these patriarchal standards and rejecting martyrdom, Meridian escapes the narrative of sacrifice that plagues her fellow activists, emerging as an individual whose political efforts work to end suffering, rather than relish it.
The novel’s first corpse, the grotesque Marilene O’Shay, functions as a literal embodiment of the dominant female narrative against which Meridian pushes. Pointing to the the three epithets painted on O’Shay’s carnival trailer: “Obedient Daughter, Devoted Wife, and Adoring Mother (Gone Wrong),” Lynn Pifer illustrates the ways in which the corpse “sums up the narrow possibilities for women in a patriarchal society,” (80). Significantly for Meridian, whose reluctance to submerge or obscure her identity drives much of the conflict in the story, these “possibilities” all necessarily compromise a woman’s individuality, redefining her identity in terms of her relationships within the patriarchal order.
While Marilene’s violent death at the hands of her husband speaks to a recurring motif of sexual violence against women throughout the novel, perhaps of even greater significance is her ability to fall back into her husband’s favor in death. Despite the allegedly universal acknowledgement among authorities and family members alike that O’Shay’s actions against his wife are justified, “Cause this bitch was doing him wrong,” the wronged husband softens considerably towards his wife in death (Walker 7). When her body resurfaces years later, according to the local legend, “He’d done forgiven her by then, and felt like he wouldn’t mind having her with him again,” (8). In death, Marilene O’Shay is the embodiment of ideal womanhood: sacrificed, silent, and, as Pifer notes, “utterly possessed” (81). In her petrified and powerless state, Marilene ascends to such a high rank of patriarchal womanhood that her value is literally quantifiable. Deciding his wife’s body could be “a way to make a little spare change in his ol’ age,” Henry O’Shay effectively commodifies his wife (Walker 8).
Marilene’s successors, the novel’s other female corpses, all follow in her footsteps as “mothers gone wrong,” in some capacity or other. Meridian highlights a narrative in which womanhood is almost synonymous with motherhood, depicting a series of women who simultaneously meet their demise and maximize their societal value as martyrs through motherhood. The Wild Child is the next victim of womanhood to surface in the novel. “Running heavily across a street, her stomach the largest part of her,” The Wild Child dies largely as a victim of her pregnancy. While in life, The Wild Child is rejected by all but Meridian, in death her value increases, not unlike Marilene O’Shay. When The Wild Child dies, the same Saxon classmates who previously begged their house mother to have Meridian’s young ward removed from the honor’s house find new appeal in the slain girl, showing up to her funeral in large numbers and prompting to Meridian to drily remark, “I would never have guessed Wile Chile had so many friends” (28). In life, The Wild Child is at best an inconvenience, at worst an abomination. In death, she suddenly becomes an attractive symbol of martyrdom, one the students repurpose for their own misguided and ultimately self-destructive demonstration.
Fast Mary is another figure of Saxon folklore whose tragic death, romanticized by the students, renders her a sacred martyr of The Movement. In a particularly gory instance of “motherhood gone wrong,” Fast Mary is forced to hide a pregnancy from the Saxon administration before dismembering the child and attempting to dispose of it. After getting caught, Mary hangs herself in solitary confinement. Like The Wild Child, Fast Mary owes her popularity to her tragic death, in which she is immortalized as another symbol of martyrdom for the would-be Saxon revolutionaries. As Pifer notes, the students “relish the story of a girl forced to go to terrible lengths to maintain the college’s demands,” (82). In fetishizing Fast Mary as a tragic and heroic icon, Saxon’s aspiring activists unwittingly fall into the patriarchal narrative themselves by equating Fast Mary’s worth with her suffering.
While the deaths of Marilene O’Shay, The Wild Child, and Fast Mary are literal, other living women in the novel suffer symbolic or metaphorical death. As Pifer summarizes, “Perfect women in this community, as Meridian well knows, are perfectly mindless, nicely dressed, walking corpses” (84). Most notable among these walking corpses is Meridian’s own mother, who compares motherhood to “being buried alive” (Walker 42). Not unlike the young Saxon women canonizing Fast Mary’s tragedy within their community folklore, Meridian’s mother finds herself trapped in a patriarchal narrative that praises motherly suffering and sacrifice. Although she disdains the shabby outward appearance of other mothers, Mrs. Hill cannot help but imagine in these women “a mysterious inner life, secret from her, that made them willing, even happy, to endure” (41). Meridian’s mother is so seduced by the glorified image of maternal suffering that she decides to join their ranks herself, only to realize that “the mysterious inner life she had imagined was simply a full knowledge of the fact that they were dead, living just enough for their children” (42).
Despite her disappointment, Meridian’s mother completes the patriarchal narrative by ultimately coming to take pride in her suffering and sacrifice, proudly proclaiming that she has six children, “Though I never wanted to have any,” (Walker 88). Meridian, however, breaks this cycle of martyrdom by refusing motherhood—through adoption, abortion, and finally, castration. In this refusal to privilege maternal suffering or to compromise her identity by allowing her child’s needs to obscure her own, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order, one she will repeat against the collectivist demands of The Movement.
Women are not the only corpses to surface in the Meridian. Revolutionaries, too, find themselves most revered in death. The novel’s second chapter opens notably with a list of slain political leaders and revolutionaries: “MEDGAR EVERS/JOHN F. KENNEDY/MALCOM X/MARTIN LUTHER KING/ROBERT KENNEDY/CHE GUEVARA/PATRICE LAMUMBA/GEORGE JACKSON/CYNTHIA WELLEY/ADDIE MAY COLLINS/DENISE MCNAIR/CAROLE ROBERTSON/VIOLA LIUZZO” (Walker 33). Noting the disorienting format of this list, Pifer points out that the names flow into one another, “blurring the identities of this group of martyrs who have become names mentioned on the nightly news” (87). Like the three epithets scrawled on the outside of Marilene O’Shay’s trailer, these names paradoxically rob rather than reinforce the identities of the subjects they refer to, reducing them to empty icons of martyrdom.
The patriarchal narrative of privileged sacrifice, which Meridian witnesses dominating societal expectations of womanhood as well as activism, does not merely run parallel between these two communities, but in fact often sees them intimately intertwined. Both slain victims of maternity, the pregnant Wild Child and infanticidal Fast Mary, become icons of Saxon rebellion. Saxon students quickly manage to repurpose these victims of maternal suffering as emblems—or, in the case of The Wild Child, pawns—of political martyrdom. When Saxon administration denies The Wild Child a funeral, the students riot on her behalf, launching a misguided political demonstration that highlights, with some heavy-handedness, the destructive nature of collectivist activism. Despite Meridian’s warnings, the would-be revolutionaries fail to channel their incensed energies in any productive manner, instead whirling into a “fury of confusion and frustration” that ultimately only succeeds in destroying the student body’s own most prized image of subversion, the Sojourner (Walker 39). In her classmates’ destructive actions, Meridian witnesses the dangerous tendency among revolutionaries to inadvertently recreate the very power systems against which they claim to fight.
Meridian flees the erasure of the individual dominant in narratives of motherhood and activism. Aware of the self-destructive powers of collectivism, Meridian repeatedly rejects the authorized discourse of a series of communities, beginning with her childhood church congregation. Meridian’s inability to “say it now and be saved,” to pronounce empty allegiance to the Christian savior and martyr, resurfaces in her inability to complete the oath promising to kill for The Movement (Walker 16). Rejecting systems that obscure individuality and privilege martyrdom, Meridian pursues a path of independent activism in much the same way as she chooses a single life not submerged in wife or motherhood. She refuses to seek glory as a martyr for any cause, understanding that “the respect she owed her life was to continue, against whatever obstacles, to live it, and not to give up any particle of it without a fight to the death, preferably not her own” (220). When this understanding leads to the realization that Meridian could in fact kill, it is not for the sake of any blind collectivist doctrine or “movement,” but rather for her own sake or that of another individual.
Meridian rejects the lofty and often misguided goals of her fellow revolutionaries and their privileged martyrdom. In rooting her activist efforts in the individual rather than the collective, Meridian exercises her power to effect real, if marginal, change, rather than be reduced to a powerless—however glorified—corpse in the name of some collectivist ideal. As both a woman and activist, Meridian successfully rises from the grave that dominant patriarchal systems have dug for her.
Pifer, Lynn. “Coming to Voice in Alice Walker’s Meridian: Speaking Out for the Revolution.” African American Review, vol. 26, no.1, 1992, pp. 77-88. JSOR. Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. Harcourt, 2003.
Meridian: Activism in Literature
Activism is crucial in advocating or impeding social constructs, ultimately resulting in transforming and redefining the nation. It has been present throughout history, playing a major role in ending slavery, opposing racism, defending worker rights, and many other global concerns (Martin). Literature can be recognized as a highly influential form of activism, as it is fundamental in terms of imagining diverging realities and also serves as a platform for critical thinking. In her novel, Meridian, Alice Walker depicts a dichotomous world in which she harmoniously combines personal and political issues through her portrayal of the civil rights movement. By emphasising the concepts of idealism, the interdependence between past and present, as well as individual transformation, Walker is successful in justifying literature as a form of social advocacy. Literary activism is central in the text, as it attempts to rectify the ruptures within racial stigmatization and reconstruct an alternative black perspective, thus establishing a significant defense in African American freedom.
Activist and author Alice Walker is known for expressing her opinions regarding racial inequality, and often enacts these concerns through her writing. As explicitly outlined in her text, Meridian, Walker focuses on specific themes, each deterring from the segregation that, for years, overshadowed the lives of African Americans. The novel can also, in some aspects, substitute as an autobiography, as Walker uses Meridian to mirror some of her own life occurrences (raised in Georgia, young pregnancy, etc.) and furthermore, Meridian’s family to voice her desire to stop racial oppression (Stein). Within the text, she establishes a correlation between the past and present, strategically exposing the unethicality and illegitimacies behind discrimination. Effectively depicted through the beliefs of Meridian’s father, it is evident that Walker admires and respects African American people and furthermore, recognizes the prejudices with which they were faced. She therefore constructs and frames activism throughout her text, implementing an influential defense against oppression.
In her text, Fiction as Restriction: Self-binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel, literary ethicist, Dorothy Hale, argued that reading evokes a consideration of different perspectives within the reader, thus leading to more objective decision-making in reality (Cosgrove). Not only is reading fundamental in terms of imagining diverging realities, but it can also serve as a platform for critical thinking – a vital element in the foundations of activism.
By exposing the reader to the living conditions forced upon African Americans in the 1960s, Walker is not only educating her readers historically, but she is also sharing the experiences known to those suppressed by cultural differences. Through emphasizing themes such as violence, oppression and stigmatization, she reveals past concerns that plagued our nation. The reader, often aware of such facts, leaves with an understanding and sense of empathy towards African Americans (Cook-Lynn). By successfully evoking an emotional response within the reader, Walker continues to effectively exhibit activism throughout her writing.
Meridian conveys the lives of a younger generation striving to end racial oppression by challenging institutional stigmatization that dominated the 1960s. Through protests, sit-ins and other revolt techniques, Meridian and other activists looked to elicit an attitude adjustment among segregationist conventions that governed the lives of African Americans. As many of their goals and values were shared with those of the civil rights movement, they ultimately found gratification in supporting it. Many of these young activists shared the common goal in shaping a more positive outlook on cultural diversity and are therefore recognized as the protagonists of the novel. Walker emphasizes their desire for equality; further persuading her readers to want the same.
Within the text, activists aimed to challenge idealism and shatter stigmatization, ultimately putting an end to racial discrimination. Walker establishes interdependence between past and present, often transferring the reader’s focus between the two. This is used as an approach to investigate the lives and perspectives of those from the past, as they constructed the present. For example, the serpent mound is a historical symbol within the novel that doubles as an integral affiliation between Meridian, her father and their ancestors. It exemplifies African American experience and serves as a reminder to appreciate and furthermore, learn from the past:
“They’ve been a part of it, we’ve been a part of it, everybody’s been a part of it for a long time” (Walker).
Walker emphasizes the concept of human experience and hinders at the idea of racial diversity, suggesting that society shares a common history, whether that may be of freedom or of suffering. The interconnection between past and present is crucial in the success of promoting activism within her writing, as she is attempting to elicit critical thinking within her readers. Walker emphasizes a need for change, suggesting that our beliefs and values within the present time can ultimately affect the lives of future generations:
“And so it was that one day in the middle of April in 1960 Meridian Hill became aware of the past and present of the larger world” (Walker).
The mound’s symbolic significance drastically shifts when it is taken over by the government and made into a park that bans African Americans from entering. This vital tie to the past is quickly severed, as the symbol’s historical importance becomes seemingly irrelevant. Such irony is used to evoke a sense of compassion within the reader, forcing them to re-evaluate traditional stigmatization and understand the importance of cultural ancestry. Meridian can therefore be read as an effort to mend the breaks within racial oppression by re-contextualizing the past, in hopes of shaping a new outlook on cultural diversity.
Meridian Hill longed for a sense of direction and therefore set out on a quest for personal transformation by turning to the civil rights movement. Walker utilizes this journey for self-discovery as a method of symbolizing the political activity of the 1960s, especially those emulating existing power structures:
“The novel points out that the Civil Rights Movement often reflected the oppressiveness of patriarchal capitalism. Activists merely turned political rhetoric to their own ends while continuing to repress spontaneous individuality. To overcome this destructiveness, Walker reaches for a new definition of revolution. Her hope for a just society inheres not merely in political change, but in personal transformation” (Stein).
Upon joining the revolution, Meridian must take an oath, swearing to both die and kill for the cause. Hesitant towards such extensive dedication, the group became inimical towards Meridian and ultimately, rejected her. It is arguable that, here, Walker is mirroring the exact power systems that these rebels are trying to eliminate and is therefore contradicting her goal of putting an end to discrimination (Martin). However, she is instead enforcing a non-violent approach to do so:
“He…wondered if Meridian knew that the sentence of bearing the conflict in her own soul which she had imposed on herself—and lived through—must now be borne in terror by all the rest of them” (Walker).
Working and living among indigent communities, Meridian emerges as a capable and determined young woman. This can be greatly accredited to the struggles she was forced to overcome along her journey to self-awareness. She finds strength within her courage and realizes that big changes can start within the self. Throughout Meridian, Walker reconstructs her views towards activism and replaces the notion of innovation with the more positive theme of transformation. Readers can appreciate the non-violent form of advocacy that Walker promotes throughout her text and furthermore, admire her for it.
Despite the premise of eliciting an emotional response within the reader, the text must also be seen as an ethical fabrication created and strategically used to promote Walker’s anti-oppressive beliefs. Writers make conscious decisions regarding the contents of their work, and are therefore responsible for what sorts of realities they portray throughout their writing. In his review, Teaching James and the Ethics of Fiction: A Conversation on The Spoils of Poynton, literary ethicist, James Phelan, argues, “the ethics of reading involves some dialogic relation between the reader’s values and those of the text” (Phelan). Most literature subjects the reader to some degree of moral engagement, however, one has the choice to either support or oppose the actions and attitudes within the novel. Discrepancies are not uncommon between a reader’s values as well as those depicted within a novel. For example, readers might not necessarily agree with the lack of commitment Meridian demonstrated when she was incapable of killing for the revolution. However, this can, on the other hand, be acknowledged as a commendable quality.
By altering between the past and present, Walker extends multiple perspectives regarding the concerns of racial segregation. It is ultimately the reader who determines whether or not they will allow themselves to emotionally engage with the text:
“…to open a novel is to open oneself to a type of decision-making that is itself inherently ethical. For the new ethicists, the novel demands of each reader a decision about her own relation to the imaginative experience offered by novels: Will I submit to the alterity that the novel allows? An affirmative answer launches the novel reader into a transactional relation with another agent, an agent defined by its Otherness from the reader” (Hale).
If the reader comes away understanding and agreeing with Walker’s activist opinions, they are submitting themselves to a viewpoint other than that of their own, thus confirming her success in advocating and effectively promoting her beliefs. By using literature as a form of activism to voice the inconsistencies within our society, Walker is forming an alternate black perspective.
Meridian, one of many pieces in activist literature, ratifies a critical defense in African American freedom. The text acts as a catalyst for public recognition, introducing them to a widespread of global issues. Walker installs a strong sense of ambivalence concerning traditional stigmatization, crushing the sort of hierarchy system that governed the 1960s.
Literary activism is fundamental in Walker’s novel, as it derives on the recognition that, internal thinking is connected to external change. Literature can be recognized as an instrument used to promote activism. Walker skilfully combines personal and political concerns in her text, chronicling a young woman’s journey to self-discovery. Through stressing the concepts of idealism, the correlation between past and present, as well as personal transformation, Walker is successful in justifying literature as a form of social advocacy. The text solidifies the ongoing moral that, true change relies on individual growth. As Anne Frank once said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Although the novel is targeted on the 1960s, the messages enforced throughout the text are of ethics, love and loss, making Walker’s text a timeless one.
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Revising Strategies: The Intersection of Literature and Activism in Contemporary Native Women’s Writing.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19 (2007): 62-82. Project Muse. Web.
Cosgrove, Shady. ‘Reading For Peace? Literature As Activism – An Investigation Into New Literary Ethics And The Novel’. Ro.uow.edu.au. N.p., 2008. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Hale, Dorothy. Fiction as Restriction: Self-binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel. 2007. 187-206. Print.
Martin, Brian. ‘Activism, Social And Political’. Bmartin.cc. N.p., 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Phelan, James. “Teaching James and the Ethics of Fiction: A Conversation on The Spoils of Poynton.” The Henry James Review (1996): 256-63. Print.
Stein, Karen. “Meridian: Alice Walker’s Critique of Revolution.” Black American Literature Forum (1986): 129-41. Project Muse. Indiana State University. Web.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Open Road Media, 2011. Print.