Doris Betts Essay - Betts, Doris

Doris June Waugh

Betts, Doris


Doris Betts 1932–-

(Born Doris Waugh Betts) American short story writer, novelist, and journalist.

Betts's writing inspires some critics to define her as a regional or Southern writer because of her realistic descriptions of small-town life in the American South, and also for her emphasis on familial relationships. However, her themes of love and responsibility and her thoughtful characterizations have a more universal appeal. Although Betts receives substantial critical attention, her work has yet to gain the public acknowledgment some contend she deserves.

Biographical Information

Betts was born on June 4, 1932 in Statesville, North Carolina. Her parents were devoted members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and her strict religious background is a significant theme in her work. While in high school, Betts began her writing career working as a journalist for the Statesville Daily Record. After graduating from high school, Betts worked for various newspapers and UPI. In 1950 Betts attended the Women's College (now the University of North Carolina, Greensboro), where she began writing short stories. She published her first collection of short fiction, The Gentle Insurrection, in 1954 to critical acclaim. Betts continued to write fiction, also working as a journalist, typing teacher, and office manager. In 1958 Betts won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to work on The Scarlet Thread, a novel published in 1964. In 1966 Betts accepted a lecturer position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; in 1978 she became the first female full professor in the English Department; and in 1980 she was appointed Alumni Distinguished Professor of English.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Betts's short fiction is characterized by her humanistic studies of love, pain, loneliness, and death, as well as her use of realistic dialogue. The title story of her second collection, The Astronomer and Other Stories (1965), narrates the tale of a recently retired widower whose sole interest is studying astronomy. His solitary existence is interrupted when he boards a young couple who involve him in their troubled relationship. Betts's use of the cosmos as a guide to the actions of the characters in this story is an significant motif in her fiction. Another defining characteristic of Betts's work is her interest in spirituality and the role of religion in people's lives. In “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott,” the main character, Father Scott, has fallen into a sense of complacency; as a result, he fails to inspire and help his parishioners. When confronted by an enigmatic drifter, Mr. Shawn, Father Scott examines his life and begins to question his religious beliefs and personal relationships.

Critical Reception

Many critics consider Betts's short story collections to be her most powerful prose work. These stories are highly praised for their sensitive narrative style and realistic dialogue. Regarded by some commentators as a regionalist writer, Betts is noted for her complex portrayals of race relations and class stratification in the American South. These unflinching depictions often garner comparisons between her work and that of other Southern authors, especially Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. Other critics maintain that Betts's work transcends geographical labeling, as her stories touch on universal themes such as alienation, the role of religion, and the power of love. Reviewers also note the importance of humor in Betts's writing, particularly as it reflects her keen sensitivity for the human condition.

Principal Works

The Gentle Insurrection and Other Stories 1954

The Astronomer and Other Stories 1965

Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories 1973

Tall Houses in Winter (novel) 1957

The Scarlet Thread (novel) 1964

The River to Pickle Beach (novel) 1972

Heading West (novel) 1981

Souls Raised from the Dead (novel) 1994

The Sharp Teeth of Love (novel) 1997


Evelyn Eaton (review date 1954)

SOURCE: “A Fine Debut,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 37, No. 28, July 10, 1954, pp. 14–15.

[In the following assessment of The Gentle Insurrection, Eaton describes the collection as “twelve fine stories, free from banality of thought and commonplace theme, exploring deep dimensions of experience with a mature authority.”]

It is often interesting, sometimes moving, and once in too great a while unexpectedly and satisfactorily exciting, to read the first published work of a new “serious” young writer, using the French word sérieux, which does not preclude comedy, but is simply the word of tribute that nation of individual critics and craftsmen chooses to give to the man or woman presenting a well-finished, properly polished piece of work to an equally “serious” public. Doris Betts's The Gentle Insurrection is such an occasion for excitement.

Here we have twelve fine stories, free from banality of thought and commonplace theme, exploring deep dimensions of experience with a mature authority. Mrs. Betts excels in the creation of charged atmospheres, subtle tensions, and unexpressed anxieties between well-meaning people who would like to understand one another, but are hopelessly divided by our human isolation.

Her work passes one of the tests of the greatest writing, which is that more shall assail the reader than is written on the page....

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date 1966)

SOURCE: A review of The Astronomer and Other Stories, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1966, p. xlviii.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Astronomer and Other Stories.]

In this collection of seven stories and a novella, Mrs. Betts once again reveals those qualifications which place her among the finest writers of contemporary fiction. For, as in her previous short stories and novels, she continues to demonstrate not only her great powers of observation and imagination, her feeling for time, place, and character, but also a wonderful sense of form and structure without which writers seldom achieve lasting distinction in their creative work. In the novella, The Astronomer (the title piece and three times longer than any other selection) Mrs. Betts introduces an originality, a depth and richness of content, not possible in shorter pieces. In this beautifully structured narrative in which the relationship between an elderly man retired from the world and a young couple who bring him back into it develops into a story of absorbing interest, Mrs. Betts explores or touches on many themes: the loneliness of old age, the nature of love, the problem of forgiveness, even the relative importance of Biblical and classical reference as a guide to conduct in our own time. If Mrs. Betts's shorter pieces are less original and provocative, they are just as carefully wrought. With one exception the background of stories and novella is the small-town South which Mrs. Betts knows so well both as geography and as state of mind and treats with such understanding and affection. For those who enjoy the best in short fiction this collection is highly recommended.

James E. Poindexter (review date 1974)

SOURCE: A review of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 319–20.

[In the following review, Poindexter finds a thematic pattern to the stories compiled in Beasts of the Southern Wild.]

Six of the nine stories in this collection [Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories] were published earlier in little magazines, mostly Southern. All of them are alike in that they deal with small town or rural life in the South, although the setting does not carry any special regional significance.

What does run through these pieces is a similarity of theme that portrays the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Elizabeth Evans (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Negro Characters in the Fiction of Doris Betts,” in Critique, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1975, pp. 59–76.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the portrayal of African-American characters in Betts's work.]

The sensitive portrayal of Negro characters by Doris Betts creates realistic situations in which mild and explosive confrontations occur. Whether the Negro characters are stereotyped as servants or emerge as the moving force of social change, they are a necessary and convincing part of Betts' stories and novels. Writing of the small town in piedmont North Carolina, Betts has indeed established her place, that element where, Eudora Welty says, the writer “has...

(The entire section is 3242 words.)

David Marion Holman (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Faith and the Unanswerable Questions: The Fiction of Doris Betts,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 15–22.

[In the following essay, Holman explores the spiritual crises of several of Betts's fictional characters.]

If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery,...

(The entire section is 3438 words.)

Michael McFee (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “‘Reading a Small History in a Universal Light’: Doris Betts, Clyde Edgerton, and the Triumph of True Regionalism,” in Pembroke Magazine, No. 23, 1991, pp. 59–67.

[In the following essay, McFee considers Betts a regional author whose stories have a universal appeal.]

“The best American fiction,” said Flannery O'Connor in “The Regional Writer” almost 30 years ago, “has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light. In these...

(The entire section is 2585 words.)

Doris Betts with Elizabeth Evans (interview date 1994)

SOURCE: “Conversations with Doris Betts,” in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 28, Spring, 1996, pp. 4–8.

[In the following interview, which took place in 1994, Betts reflects on her relationship with Diarmuid Russell and describes her creative process.]

[Elizabeth Evans]: I was so happy to hear and read what you said about Anne's [Tyler] St. Maybe.

[Doris Betts]: It's become one of my real favorites. And it's so bizarre that she should have gotten the Pulitzer for a book [Breathing Lessons] that is not the best. I mean several before that were wonderful. And then St. Maybe would have been, I think, perfect.


(The entire section is 2469 words.)

Doris Betts with W. Dale Brown (interview date 1996)

SOURCE: “Interview with Doris Betts,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 91–104.

[In the following interview, Betts discusses her philosophical and religious beliefs as well as the treatment of race relations in her work.]

“I have never found life, faith, nor art really so neat. I continue to outlive many days surveying this world with the suspicion that Deus has really absconded. With the funds.”

Doris Betts is an elder, a Sunday school teacher and part-time organist in the Presbyterian Church. A former chairperson of the faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill,...

(The entire section is 8179 words.)

Elizabeth Evans (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “One Woman's Intriguing Mind: A Life of Writing and the Story Collections,” in Doris Betts, Twayne, 1997, pp. 37–59.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the defining characteristic of Betts's fiction.]


If you're going to write, Betts told a reporter in 1975, you'd better be hard on yourself. “Nobody licenses you. NOBODY pays you a salary.”1 And Betts might well have added: Nobody makes the time available—especially for women. When her own three children were young, Betts juggled their needs with whatever writing was at hand. Asked to describe her “ideal writing day,” she replies that she...

(The entire section is 11828 words.)

John Lang (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Mapping the Heart's Home: Doris Betts's ‘The Astronomer,’” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall, 1998, pp. 70–9.

[In the following essay, Lang maintains that a “dialectic between faith and doubt has been crucial” to Betts's fiction.]

During a publishing career that began in 1954 with The Gentle Insurrection and Other Stories and that has now produced two additional collections of stories and six novels, Doris Betts has steadily become one of the most accomplished southern writers of the last half century. Her fiction is distinguished by its subtle analysis of character, its clarity and grace of style, its moral seriousness,...

(The entire section is 3970 words.)

Elizabeth Evans (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Doris Betts's ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’: Miscegenation as Theme; Donne and Yeats as Allusive Sources,” in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 163–70.

[In the following essay, Evans considers the theme of miscegenation in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and discusses the significance of references to the work of W. B. Yeats and John Donne in the story.]


“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the title story of Doris Betts's third collection, first appeared in the Spring 1973 issue of the Carolina Quarterly; the story, however, was completed much earlier as a letter, dated 25 October 1969,...

(The entire section is 4491 words.)

Further Reading


Brown, Dale W. “The Big Questions: An Interview with Doris Betts.” The Christian Century 114, No. 27 (8 October 1997): 870–76.

Betts discusses the role of Christianity in her work.

Evans, Elizabeth. Doris Betts. New York: Twayne, 1997, 137 p.

Critical and biographical study.

Peden, William. “The Recent American Short Story.” Sewanee Review 82, No. 4 (Fall 1974): 712–29.

Positive review of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Stallings, Sylvia. “12 Prize-Winning Stories.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (30 May 1954):...

(The entire section is 117 words.)