An Exploration Of Matrilineal Art In In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens

In her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, Alice Walker paints a powerful portrait of the matrilineal creativity and art that has spanned black history. Walker depicts lost artists and mothers, grandmothers and daughters, “driven into a numbing and bleeding madness” by the springs in their creativity for which they had no outlet (232). Walker’s imagined foremothers are incarnations of black painters, sculptors and thinkers in the vein of Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare. Walker traces the lineage of this creative spirit, suggesting that it has survived despite being systemically suppressed and silenced.

Dianne Sadoff highlights the disparity in Walker’s reverence for her foremothers, and her anxieties over motherhood. Sadoff argues that while Walker’s view of matrilineage is “not melancholy nor anxiety laden,” the fixation she has on the topic “masks her underlying anxieties that emerge, even if disguised, in Walker’s fiction.”

Meridian treats motherhood differently, even though Walker venerates mothers both biologically and in other ways. Walker’s novel, Meridian, equates motherhood with death both implicitly as well as explicitly. Meridian features a corpse cast, including mothers who are dying in both real and symbolical deaths. The novel presents a strong association between motherhood and death. Silenced in a patriarchal system reflected by Lancanian notions of paternal meaning structures, these mothers’ voices are muted and suffocated within their children.

Meridian’s protagonist emerges amongst the corpses and refuses motherhood – the highest form of sacrifice for women. Meridian challenges patriarchy by refusing to accept the sacrifice of motherhood or the suffering that comes with it. It is similar to a rejection of martyrdom in the novel, where the protagonist rejects martyrdom as a form of activism. Meridian explores how dominant narratives of womanhood as well political collectivism privilege and encourage suffering and sacrifice to achieve an alleged noble goal. Meridian, both as a feminist and activist, maintains her uniqueness at all costs. She refuses to submit to collectivist demands which demand she give up her independence or identity. Meridian avoids the martyr narrative that plagues her peers by refusing patriarchal expectations and rejecting martyrdom. Lynn Pifer points out that Meridian’s eventual reconciliation between her political activism, her need to be individualistic and her desire for social justice parallels the gradual reclamation by Meridian of her voice. Meridian, who spent most of her novel refusing dialogue with authority, “finds herself at the end” and is able to move beyond her method (Pifer 88) of strategic silences. Meridian’s rejection for motherhood challenges patriarchal narratives about suffering and breaks the Lacanian cycle. Meridian is free to reject motherhood, martyrdom and patriarchal discourse by refusing them.

In Meridian, the motherhood is performed primarily by dead women. There are also dead women whose deaths live on in folklore as well as still-living women that have died metaphorically. I add Addie Boudren of William Faulkner’s classic As I Laid Dying to this count as a literary corpse. Meridian invites comparisons with its predecessors in modernism at several points. The Faulknerian imagery can be seen most clearly in the bizarre opening of the novel, which features the first mother’s corpse. Marilene’s slain body is repurposed for a circus attraction. The novel’s description of Meridian, and her mother, is similar to Addie’s Bundren in Faulkner. The comparison of Addie to Walker’s mother, Mrs. Hill is a way of illuminating the similarity of language and motherhood in Meridian. It might be useful to first focus solely on the corpse moms of Meridian.

The grotesque Marilene, O’Shay’s corpse in the novel, is a physical embodiment of the dominant feminine narrative, which Meridian is attempting to challenge. Pifer shows how the corpse embodies “the narrow possibilities available to women in patriarchal societies” by pointing out the three epithets on O’Shay’s Carnival trailer: “Obedient daughter, Devoted wife, and Adoring mother (gone wrong)”. For Meridian, who is reluctant to submerge or conceal her identity, this “possibility” compromises her individuality.

Marilene is violently murdered by her husband. This violence is part of a larger theme in the novel of sexual assault against women. What’s perhaps more interesting, however, is that Marilene can still fall back into the husband’s good graces after her death. O’Shay’s wife was doing him harm, and he felt justified in his actions. However, the husband who has been wronged softens towards her after death. Local legend states that when her body was discovered years later, he had forgiven his wife and didn’t want to be without her again. Marilene O’Shay, in death, is the ideal woman: silent, sacrificed and, according to Pifer, “utterly possess” (81). Marilene, in her powerless and petrified state, ascends to a position of patriarchal womenhood that is quantifiable. Henry O’Shay decides that his wife’s naked body is “a good way to make some extra cash in his old age” (Walker 8,).

Marilene is followed by the other female characters in the book, who are all “mothers gone awry” in one form or another. Meridian presents a narrative where womanhood and motherhood are almost synonymous. It shows a series women who both meet their end as well as maximize their social value through motherhood. The Wild Child is next to be victimized by womanhood. The Wild Child was a major victim of pregnancy when she died. The Wild Child’s value is increased in death. This is similar to Marilene. The Saxon classmates who had asked their housemother to remove Meridian’s ward’s daughter from honor’s home find new appeal when The Wild Child dies. They flock to her funeral, and Meridian quips: “I didn’t know Wile Chile could have so many friends”. The Wild Child’s life is at the very least an inconvenience. At worst, it is an abomination. In death, her image is transformed into a martyrdom symbol that students can use in their own self destructive and misguided protest.

Fast Mary appears in Saxon folklore. Her tragic death is romanticized and made sacred by The Movement. Fast Mary must hide a child’s pregnancy from the Saxon government before she dismembers it and tries to dispose of the body. Mary hangs up in solitary after she is caught. Fast Mary’s popularity is owed to her tragic, martyred death. Pifer writes that students “enjoy a story about a girl who was forced to go to great lengths for her college’s requirements” (82). By fetishizing Fast Mary and her tragic story, Saxon’s aspiring feminists unwittingly contribute to the patriarchal narrative by equating Fast Mary with her suffering.

The death of Marilene O’Shay is literal. The Wild Child’s and Fast Mary’s deaths are metaphorical. Pifer summarizes that “Perfect, mindless women are walking dead in this town, and Meridian is well aware of this” (84). Meridian’s mother stands out as the most notable example of this walking corpse, who likens motherhood “to being buried alive”(Walker 42). Meridian’s own mother, like the Saxon girls who canonized Fast Mary in their local folklores, is trapped by a patriarchal narrative which praises mothers’ suffering and sacrifice. Mrs. Hill may not like the way other mothers look, but she is unable to ignore their “mysterious, hidden inner lives” that make them willing, and sometimes even happy, endure. Meridian’s mum is seduced by this image of motherly suffering and decides to join it herself. She soon discovers that her “mysterious, secret inner life, which made them willing, even happy to endure” (41) was not what she thought.

Meridian’s mum, despite being disappointed, eventually comes to accept her sufferings and sacrifices, proudly announcing that she now has six children – “Though I had never desired to have any” (Walker 1988). Sadoff’s analysis of Mrs. Hill contextualizes the inevitable decay of this independent woman from a living corpse to an independent woman within the tradition that is matrilineal degeneration:

Meridian’s mother, now anti-intellectual and religiously blind, once battled her father’s racism, sexism and poverty to become a teacher. Her mother’s death and her own self-sacrifice were the price. Meridian’s Mother, as a black daughter who also becomes a mom, is the matrilineal history of black mothers: a legacy based on suffering, endurance, self-sacrifice. (23).

Addie bundren’s embodiment of maternal suffering is comparable to Mrs. Hill’s portrait in Faulkner. Her Lacanian-inspired meaning structures illuminate Meridian’s rebellion against the patriarchal system and reclamation voice.

Meridian’s mother, as well as the matriarch Bundren belongs to the semi-deceased. Addie tells her story from the other side of death, while Mrs. Hill is metaphorically dead in motherhood. Both women were former teachers who felt deceived after being persuaded by their husbands to leave teaching for marriage. Both women feel that their husbands have violated them and are unimpressed. Addie laments that she was tricked with words that were older than Anse and love. She is referring to ancient patriarchal traditions to which Addie has been subjected (Faulkner, 100). Mrs. Hill also blames the systems that are beyond her, as she claims, “she would never forgive the community, her family and his family for not having warned her against children.” Both women are unable to identify and define love. They come to a lukewarm conclusion. Addie refuses to accept the concept, and settles for a “toleration” of her husband’s “personal habits,” which she calls “Love.” Mrs. Hill, on the other hand, is more sceptical, and makes the indifferent assertion, “It did not matter whether it was Anse, or love. Both women experience a sense of abstraction and violation when they give birth. Addie says that she felt “alone” after the birth of her child. Mrs. Hill, on the other hand, feels “as if her body and mind are divided between what is herself and what is not her” (Faulkner 98, Walker 42).

Doreen fowler’s As I Lay Dying analysis reveals another aspect of Addie that also appears in Mrs. Hill. It is her rejection of the language. Addie’s famous and fragmented claim that “words do not fit, even when they are said at all,” prefigures how she will denounce each social construct, such as love, sin or fear, in the same way. Fowler interprets it in Lacanian terminology, saying that “Addie despises language because of its separation and differences” (320). Fowler describes how, in basic Lacanian philosophy, a child learns to speak by separating himself from his mother and becoming aware that there is a difference. This reflects Saussurean language structures which insist on a sign’s meaning being determined only by its differences from other symbols. If separation from a mother is what opens the door to the symbol realm, then “the death of the Mother is constructed positively towards establishing Identity,” explaining the mother as a corpse motif in As I laid dying and Meridian 317.

The mother must be killed, but that is not all. After the child has separated from the mom, it is necessary for the child to “generate replacements” that are acceptable under the Law of the Father (Fowler 321). It is at this point that the Lacanian experience for both sons and girls diverges. Fowler relies on Nancy Chodorow’s maternity theory to explain that the daughter must repeat her mother’s destiny. Chodorow says that when a child attempts to recreate a relationship with their mother by replacements, they daughter will do so by becoming her own mother. In this way, she renews the Lacanian Cycle and perpetuates the patriarchal Order, which then demands death for the new mother. Addie despises language because of the patriarchal order that makes it possible. Addie is not the only one who rejects language. Mrs. Hill also does.

Like the generations of lost artist Walker memorializes, Mrs. Hill knows that “creativity is in her but was denied expression” (Meridian p. 42). Meridian’s mothers does not share the same hope as the women in “Gardens” who were silenced and unable to express their creativity. Meridian’s Mother’s Silence is deliberate and vengeful. She wants to inflict the same fate on the next generations. Mrs. Hill swears she will never forgive her grandmothers for failing to warn her. In turn, she takes revenge with silence and refuses to warn future generations of women. Nelda’s, Meridian’s pregnant friend, is suspicious: “Nelda was aware that Mrs. Hill had the information needed to help her through her teenage years” (Walker, 86). Mrs. Hill, a victim of the Lacanian Cycle, keeps silent, allowing future generations of women to suffer the same death metaphorically. Meridian is able to refuse motherhood despite her mom’s influence. This breaks the Lacanian Cycle of Matricide.

As I Lay Dying is the story of Addie, whose revenge through silence was realized when her teenage daughter, Dewey Dell, who is pregnant, failed to obtain an abortion, and became the dead mother. Meridian, on the contrary, offers a hopeful outlook for women. Meridian ends the Lacanian cycle through castration, abortion, or adoption. Meridian challenges patriarchy by refusing the privilege of maternal suffering and compromising her identity, letting her child’s demands obscure hers.

Meridian’s complex relationship with words is reflected throughout the book. Much like her mother before her, she chooses silence rather than to participate blindly in patriarchal discourse. Pifer’s analysis parallels Meridian reconciling her political and individual beliefs at the novel’s end, with her simultaneous voice reclamation. Meridian’s novel is a constant struggle to escape the marginalization of the person in stories of motherhood or activism. Meridian rejects, in spite of being aware of its destructive powers, the official discourse of various communities. This begins with the congregation of her childhood. Meridian’s failure to utter a lukewarm allegiance to a Christian martyr or savior is evident in her refusal to swear to die for The Movement. Meridian rejects systems that obscure and prioritize martyrdom. She pursues an independent activist path, much like she chose a life without wifehood or motherhood. She does not seek to be a martyr, but rather to honor her life by continuing to live it despite any obstacles. This understanding makes Meridian realize that she can kill for herself or another person, not to serve a blind collectiveist doctrine or “movement”. Pifer’s Reading sees Meridian’s transgression of “murderous Philosophy of the Would-Be Revolutionary Cadre” culminated when she sings along with the congregation.

Meridian’s return to voice represents a rejection of lacanian orders. It is her response to her mother who refused creative expression. Meridian, in refusing to become a mother, refuses the Lacanian pattern of achieving separation and difference to then try to bring it back to unity. By breaking the cycle, Meridian challenges patriarchal authority. Meridian is now free to express her own voice, as she no longer has to be a mother and give up her independence. Meridian is no longer required to silently transmit her creative spark to future generations. She no longer has to bury the stifled voices of her foremothers in their garden. Meridian is freed from the patriarchal system and can now give life to her foremothers’ voices.

Works Cited

No changes need to be made to the phrase Works Cited when paraphrasing.

Faulkner, William. As I lay dying. Michael Gorra edited the book. W.W. Norton & Company published a book in New York in 2010.

Fowler, Doreen. The Faulkner Journal, 4. 1&2 (1991). Rpt. As I Lay Dying. Michael Gorra edited the book. W.W. Norton & Company released a new edition of a publication in New York in 2010.

Pifer, Lynn. African American Review. Vol. 26. No. 1. 1992. 26, no.1, 1992, pp. 77-88. JSTOR.

Dianne Sadoff. Black Matrilineage. Alice Walker and Zora Hurston. Signs. Vol. 11, no. 1, 1985, pp. 4-26. JSTOR.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. New York: Harcourt Publishing. Brace Jovanovich, 1983: pp. 231-244.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. Harcourt published New York in 2003.


  • jessicawilson

    Jessica Wilson is a 33-year-old essay writer and blogger from the UK. She has been writing since she was a teenager and has always been interested in writing about personal experiences and thoughts. Jessica has written for a number of online magazines and websites and has also published a number of essays and short stories. Jessica currently works as a freelance writer.