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.
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