In Search of Our Mothers’ Corpses: Motherhood and the Lacanian Order in Meridian
In the essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker presents a moving portrait of matrilineal art and creativity extending throughout black history. Following this line, Walker illustrates generations upon generations of lost artists, mothers and grandmothers “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (232). Among her imagined foremothers, Walker conjures the nameless ghosts of unrecognized genius and talent: stifled painters, thinkers, and sculptors emerge as black incarnations in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare. Walker traces this lineage, suggesting that even when systemically repressed and silenced, this creative spirit has survived, if only to be passed down in the hope of finding expression in the next generation of black women.
In her exploration of Walker’s fascination with matrilineal inheritance, Dianne Sadoff notes a certain disparity between Walker’s veneration of her foremothers in certain texts and her anxieties about motherhood in others. Proposing a revision of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s theory of the “anxiety of influence” unique to female authors—itself a revision of Harold Bloom’s model of literary influence—Sadoff suggests that although Walker’s conception of matrilineage appears “not at all melancholy or anxiety laden,” her fixation on the subject “masks an underlying anxiety that emerges, although disguised, in Walker’s fiction” (7).
Indeed, for all Walker’s veneration of mothers—both biological and otherwise—the sacred state of motherhood receives a notably different treatment in Meridian. Walker’s second novel sees motherhood both implicitly and explicitly aligned with necessary and inevitable death. Complete with a cast of corpses both literal and metaphorical, mothers dying both real and symbolic deaths, Meridian presents an unmistakable association between womanhood and death, underscoring a dominant patriarchal narrative in which female martyrdom is privileged at best, and demanded at worst. Silenced by a patriarchal order reflected in a Lancanian conception of paternal structures of meaning, these mothers see their voices stifled and suffocated in their offspring, rather than renewed in the promise of a new generation as illustrated in “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.”
Out of this cast of corpses, Meridian’s titular character emerges to break the cycle of silence and 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 the novel’s conception of 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. As Lynn Pifer outlines, Meridian’s eventual reconciliation of political activism with her need for individualism parallels her gradual reclamation of voice. At the end of the text, Meridian—who spends much of the novel refusing to participate in authorized discourse—at last “finds her voice and moves beyond her method of strategic silences” (Pifer 88). Meridian’s rejection of motherhood issues a challenge to the patriarchal narrative of suffering, while simultaneously breaking the Lacanian cycle of silence. In rejecting motherhood and martyrdom, Meridian gains the freedom to accept and use language outside the parameters of authorized patriarchal discourse.
As noted, motherhood in Meridian is enacted primarily by a cast of dead women. Among the ensemble are literal corpses, along with departed women whose deaths have lived on in folklore, and even still-living women who have suffered metaphorical deaths. To this body count, I offer for comparison the addition of another famous literary corpse mother: Addie Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. At various points throughout Meridian, the decidedly postmodern novel invites comparison to its modernist predecessors, specifically in its occasional evocation of a distinctly southern gothic grotesque. This Faulknerian imagery is perhaps most evident in the novel’s bizarre opening scene, featuring none other than the novel’s first maternal corpse: the body of the slain Marilene O’Shay repurposed as a carnival attraction. This influence resurfaces later in the novel, with the description of Meridian’s mother bearing prominent similarities to Faulkner’s Addie Bundren. Presenting Faulkner’s Addie as parallel to Walker’s Mrs. Hill, an analysis of the Lacanian significance of Addie’s rejection of language illuminates a similar treatment of language and motherhood at work in Meridian. First, however, it may be helpful to examine the corpse mothers of Meridian exclusively.
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),” 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 toward 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 a victim of her pregnancy (Walker 25). While in life, The Wild Child is rejected by all but Meridian, in death her value increases, not unlike that of 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). Sadoff presents a similar analysis of Mrs. Hill, further contextualizing her inevitable demise from independent woman to walking corpse within the tradition of matrilineal decay:
Now anti-intellectual, prejudiced, and blindly religious, Meridian’s mother nonetheless once fought her father’s sexism, her own poverty, and the racist system to become a schoolteacher. The cost: her mother’s life and willing self-sacrifice. As a daughter who becomes a mother and so participates in matrilineage, Meridian’s mother represents the history of black motherhood: a legacy of suffering, endurance, and self-sacrifice. (23).
Against this portrait of Mrs. Hill, I present for comparison Faulkner’s Addie Bundren, whose own embodiment of maternal suffering reflects Lacanian structures of meaning that illuminate Meridian’s challenge to the patriarchal order and reclamation of voice.
Both Meridian’s mother and the matriarch of the Bundren family belong to the quasi-deceased. While Mrs. Hill finds metaphorical death in motherhood, Addie narrates her sole chapter in Faulkner’s famously polyvocal narrative from beyond the grave. Both women are former school teachers who ultimately feel deceived once persuaded to abandon their teaching posts for marriage. Equal parts unimpressed and violated by their husbands, both women bemoan the false promises of domestic bliss. “I realized that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love,” Addie laments, referring to the ancient tradition of the patriarchal order to which she has fallen victim (Faulkner 100). Mrs. Hill, too, blames systems beyond herself in the assertion that “she could never forgive her community, her family, his family, the whole world, for not warning her against children” (Walker 41). Both women struggle to define and identify with love, and both ultimately end up at lukewarm conclusions; Mrs. Hill settles with a “toleration for [her husband’s] personal habits that she identified as Love,” while Addie remains skeptical of the concept altogether, mustering only the indifferent claim, “It was Anse or love, love or Anse, it didn’t matter” (Walker 41, Faulkner 99). Perhaps most significantly, both women feel an intense violation and abstraction with childbirth. Addie remarks that her “aloneness had been violated” with the birth of her first child, while Mrs. Hill’s first pregnancy finds her “as divided in her mind as her body was divided, between what part was herself and what part was not” (Faulkner 99, Walker 42).
In her analysis of As I Lay Dying, Doreen Fowler identifies another key aspect of Addie’s character, one that surfaces in Mrs. Hill’s character as well: a rejection of language. Addie’s famous, fragmented pronouncement that “words are no good; that words dont [sic] ever fit even what they are to say at” prefigures her denouncement of each in a series of social constructs— including love, sin, fear, and salvation—as merely “a word like the others; just a shape to fill a lack” (Faulkner 99). Interpreting this in Lacanian terms, Fowler argues that “Addie hates language because it is based on separation and difference” (320). In basic Lacanian ideology, as a Fowler outlines, a child enters the realm of the symbolic and acquires language by becoming aware of difference and separating from the mother, reflecting Saussurean structures of language that insist a sign has meaning only in its difference from other signs. If separation from the mother is the key to the symbolic realm, then “the murder of the mother is constructed as positive step toward establishing identity,” thus providing an explanation of the mother-as-corpse motif prominent in both As I Lay Dying and Meridian (317).
However, it is not enough to simply kill the mother. Once the child has achieved this separation from the mother, the child must then “generate substitutes for her that are permissible within the Law of the Father” (Fowler 320). This production of substitutions is where the previously shared experience of the Lacanian order diverges for sons and daughters. Fowler calls on Nancy Chodorow’s theory of maternity to explain the daughter’s inevitable repetition of her mother’s fate. According to Chodorow, when the child attempts to recreate the initial unity with the mother through replacements, the daughter does so by becoming a mother herself, thus renewing the Lacanian cycle and perpetuating a patriarchal order that in turn demands the new mother’s own death (Fowler 318). Addie hates language because it is made possible by the same patriarchal system that necessitates her death. Parallel to Addie’s rejection of language is Mrs. Hill’s rejection of creative expression of any kind.
Much like the generations of lost artists Walker memorializes in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Mrs. Hill is aware that “creativity was in her, but it was refused expression” (Meridian 42). Unlike the silenced foremothers of “Gardens,” however, Meridian’s mother does not appear to carry any hope of passing her stifled creativity along to the next generation. Rather, her silence is deliberate and in some sense vengeful, “a war against those to whom she could not express her anger or shout, ‘It’s not fair!’” Finding herself trapped in the living death demanded by the patriarchal order, Meridian’s mother wants to see the same fate inflicted on the next generation. Mrs. Hill vows never to forgive her foremothers for not warning her, and in turn enacts her revenge through silence, refusing to warn the next generation of women. Meridian’s friend, the oft-pregnant Nelda, suspects as much: “Nelda knew that the information she had needed to get through her adolescence was information Mrs. Hill could have given her” (Walker 86). A victim of the Lacanian cycle, Mrs. Hill keeps quiet, in her silence willfully allowing the next generation of women to fall victim to the same metaphorical death. In spite of her mother’s influence, however, Meridian successfully refuses motherhood, finally breaking the Lacanian cycle of matricide.
In As I Lay Dying, Addie’s revenge by silence comes to fruition, with her pregnant daughter—the teenaged Dewey Dell—failing to procure an abortion and succumbing to her role as the displaced, deceased mother. Meridian, however, suggests a more hopeful future for womanhood. Meridian successfully breaks the Lacanian 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.
Not unlike her mother, Meridian displays her own complicated relationship with language throughout the novel, preferring silence over blind participation in authorized patriarchal discourse. In her analysis, Pifer parallels Meridian’s successful reconciliation of her political and personal beliefs at the end of the novel with her simultaneous reclamation of voice. Throughout the novel, 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. Pifer’s reading sees Meridian’s transcendence of the “murderous philosophy of the would-be revolutionary cadre” consummated as she joins her voice in song with the congregation and “her personal identity becomes part of their collective identity” (88).
Meridian’s reclamation of her voice signals an acceptance of language—a reply to her mother’s tight-lipped rejection of creative expression—that breaks with the Lacanian order. In her refusal to have children, Meridian refuses to continue the Lacanian cycle of achieving difference and separation only to submerge it once again in an attempted return to unity through childbirth. In breaking this cycle, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order. Freed from the obligation to discard her independence and submerge difference—the Lacanian heart of language—in motherhood, Meridian gains full control of her voice. Meridian no longer has to pass the creative spark silently on to the next generation. She does not have to bury her stifled voice in her mother’s garden. Free of the patriarchal order, Meridian finally gives life to the voices of her foremothers.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Edited by Michael Gorra. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Fowler, Doreen. “Matricide and the Mother’s Revenge: As I Lay Dying.” The Faulkner Journal 4. 1&2 (1991). Rpt. in As I Lay Dying. Edited by Michael Gorra. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
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. JSTOR.
Sadoff, Dianne F. “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.” Signs, vol. 11, no. 1, 1985, pp. 4–26. JSTOR.
Walker, Alice. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. New York: Harcourt. Brace Jovanovich, 1983: pp. 231-244.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
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