In The Eye of the Story, there is an essay called “Reality in Chekhov’s Stories,” which explains as much about Eudora Welty as it does about Anton Chekhov. Welty comments that one of Chekhov’s most important contributions to fiction was his redefining of reality. Before Chekhov, there was one viewpoint in fiction, directly or obliquely the author’s; after Chekhov, the writer felt free and even compelled to present various viewpoints as versions of reality. This approach necessitates a determined detachment on the part of the fiction writer. As Welty frequently explained, she does not consciously manipulate her characters; instead, she creates them and lets them speak for themselves. As a result, her short stories and novels often have the quality of a stage play.
In “A Visit of Charity,” for example, Welty begins with a brief mention of the time of day; she proceeds to describe the appearance of a young girl and to give the directions for her coming onstage—in this case, into the Old Ladies’ Home. Although the point of view of this story is that of fourteen-year-old Marian, who notices everything, even the smell of the room that she has chosen to enter, the minute the two old women begin to talk, there are two additional versions of reality. The old women do not agree about anything. One says that another girl has visited them, and the other says she did not; one says that her roommate is sick, and the roommate denies it; one begins to speak of her school days, and the other interrupts with a tirade to the effect that the first speaker had no life whatsoever before she came to the home to torture her roommate.
With all the controversy going on, it is no wonder that the girl herself feels as if she is in a dream; in other words, her own view of reality becomes shaky. In the final scene, after escaping from the Old Ladies’ Home, Marian bites into an apple. The implication is clear: She is returning to the single and simple reality of her own appetite.
Welty’s dramatic structure, then, is her way of stressing a major theme: that each character is living in a unique world. Furthermore, although Marian shuts out the past and the future by focusing on her apple, most characters live in memory and in anticipation as well as in observation of the present. In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty explains her idea of the basic pattern of life. Everyone is involved, she says, in a continual process, moving from memories of the past to discoveries about the present and then again back to memories. There are, however, occasions when the memories and discoveries converge in a single moment, annihilating the conventional divisions between past and present, the living and the dead. Welty calls these times “confluences.”
In Welty’s fiction, the confluences are usually both healing and strengthening, at least for the characters who pay attention to them, such as the naturalist James Audubon in “A Still Moment” and Phoebe in “Asphodel,” who finds in the retelling of an old love story, an appearance of a naked hermit, and an attack by hungry goats the occasion for joy. The theme of confluence is reflected in the final sentence of the story, as Phoebe’s reaction is described:She seemed to be still in a tender dream and an unconscious celebration—as though the picnic were not already set rudely in the past, but were the enduring and intoxicating present. still the phenomenon. the golden day.
Even though Welty emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual’s perception, she does not therefore assume that there can be no connections between people. Indeed, most of her stories and all of her novels stress the need for acceptance, for tolerance, for a sustaining community. Welty often chooses a ceremonial gathering as the setting for a story or a novel. The title of Delta Wedding suggests that occasion; Losing Battles takes place at a birthday celebration; The Optimist’s Daughter involves a deathbed vigil and a funeral. Even the student recital in the short story titled “June Recital” and the weekly meeting in the beauty shop described in “Petrified Man” are times when human beings come together to deal with their uncertainties and to resolve their conflicts.
As a writer, Welty was conscious of the joys of solitude; however, as a human being, she believed that there was also strength in community. The revelation that comes too late to the protagonist of “Death of a Traveling Salesman” is that his life was a waste because he never chose to become involved with other people. Although Welty never minimizes the difficulties that arise from being subject to the rules and customs of any group, she chooses to have her characters work out their own independence without rejecting their ancestors, their extended families, their neighbors, and their communities.
First published: 1946
Type of work: Novel
A young girl, visiting relatives who are preparing for a wedding on their Mississippi plantation, finds her own identity as part of the family.
Delta Wedding is a study of the relationships among the individual members of the Fairchild family and between that family and the rest of the world. The setting for the story is Shellmound, the Mississippi plantation that is the home of Battle Fairchild; his wife, Ellen Fairchild; and their eight children, as well as of various female relatives and black servants. Shellmound is not merely a backdrop; it is the center of family life. The sound of Shellmound is the sound of conversation; this is a place where people gather to talk. The conversations at Shellmound may appear to be superficial, examples of the southerners’ need to fill every silence, yet they serve important purposes. They enable family members to explore their own feelings and to understand those of others, to connect living people with those who are dead, and to comprehend the events taking place in the present by recalling similar occasions in the past.
It is therefore not mere provinciality or possessiveness that causes the Fairchilds to consider it a tragedy when one of them moves away from that sustaining influence. They mention the young woman who married a northerner and moved far away from them; obviously, she understood what she had left behind, because she returns to her parents’ home to have her babies.
To its credit, the Fairchild family is willing to change, to open its ranks to those who would once have been considered outsiders. The wedding for which they are gathering is an example of the family’s flexibility, for they will be celebrating the marriage of Battle’s daughter, seventeen-year-old Dabney Fairchild, to the plantation overseer, Troy Flavin, an outsider from the hill country. If the Virginian Ellen Fairchild is still somewhat ill at ease in the family, Troy, who is socially and culturally inferior to the Fairchilds, should feel totally rejected. However, he does not. The Fairchilds have come to appreciate his virtues, his diligence, his love of the land, and his understanding of Dabney’s need to remain near her roots.
In contrast, Robbie Reid Fairchild is jealous of the family into which she has married. Early in the novel, Robbie’s husband, George Fairchild, who is Battle’s brother, arrives from Memphis with a fine little filly for Dabney’s wedding present but without his wife. Robbie has left George. The cause of the breach was an action that the family sees as heroism but that Robbie sees as George’s desertion of her.
Two weeks before, the family had gone fishing. As they crossed a railroad trestle on the way back, George’s mentally handicapped niece, Maureen, got her foot caught. Even though a train was coming, George stayed with her, working to free her. The train stopped in time; however, Robbie interpreted the incident as George’s choosing his family instead of his wife, and therefore she has left him. If one movement of the novel is toward the family’s complete acceptance of Troy, another is toward Robbie’s acceptance of her husband and of his needs for his family. Halfway through the book, Robbie arrives, still furious, but by the end of the novel, she has realized that George’s love for her is not diminished by his sense of duty toward the Fairchilds, and she agrees to move back home with George.
Most of the events in Delta Wedding are reflected through the eyes of another outsider, nine-year-old Laura McRaven, who has come from Jackson to visit the relatives of her dead mother. Laura is fascinated by Shellmound—the constant motion, the talk, the exclamations, the laughter, the embraces. She desperately needs the security that Shellmound offers her, desperately needs to replace the love of her dead mother with the love of her mother’s family. On the other hand, she notices that Shellmound can be restrictive; it is a difficult place to read, she observes, and is in some ways a difficult place to find oneself. Laura manages to achieve a balance between her conflicting needs. When the assigned flower girl gets chicken pox, Laura takes her place, thus becoming part of the wedding and, she believes, of the family. George, whom she adores, assures her that she is truly a Fairchild. When Laura returns to Jackson, she can take with her all that is best at Shellmound. She will always be a part of it, yet she will always have her own secrets and her own identity.
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
A clan gathers to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of a matriarch and to avenge the imprisonment of one of its finest young men.
Losing Battles is a book-length illustration of Welty’s theory of confluence. When the Beechams, the Renfros, and the Vaughns gather to celebrate Granny Vaughn’s ninetieth birthday, they all talk. In the southern social tradition, this talk involves a great deal of storytelling and reminiscence. In this way, people long dead appear among the living, and past events are revived to determine present actions.
As the title implies, there are many conflicts in the novel. Many involve an outsider’s attempt to deal with a highly structured society—in this case, the large, extended family present at the reunion. Aunt Cleo Webster is one of the characters who has a problem with the family into which she has recently married. Early in the novel, it is clear that her questions show her ignorance of the family heritage and, worse, her slightly different perspective. Because she is from southern Mississippi and the reunion takes place in the hill country of northern Mississippi, there is a geographical explanation; however, when the family discovers that she was previously married to a member of the Stovall clan, the hereditary enemies of the Beechams and the Renfros, Aunt Cleo becomes, to a degree, the object of suspicion. Fortunately, by the end of the novel, Aunt Cleo has been taught much about family history and, by learning the correct responses in the never-ending conversations, has become a part of the family.
Another outsider is Gloria Renfro, who is waiting for the return of her husband, Jack Renfro, from the penitentiary, where he had been sent because of an altercation involving a Stovall snatching a family ring from Jack’s young sister. Because Jack is the family hero and Granny’s favorite, after his return Gloria has difficulty getting him alone. The family demands that he avenge himself on the judge who sent him to the penitentiary. Desperately, Gloria plays every card she holds in order to keep Jack from getting in trouble and being sent away again. She tries to focus his attention on their baby, on her own physical charms, and on their future life together.
However, the family does not want to let go of the past. They would rather have another mythic character to tell stories about than have a real Jack Renfro, happy at home. It is chance, Gloria, and the Renfro sense of honor that unite to keep Jack at home. When Judge Moody, who had sentenced Jack, sacrifices his wife’s beloved car in order to keep from hitting the baby and Gloria, Jack cannot harm him; instead, he invites him and his wife to the reunion.
During the celebration, Gloria undergoes a kind of initiation into Jack’s family. At one point, several of the women hold her down and force watermelon into her mouth; at another, they criticize her wedding dress, which she has worn to welcome back her husband, and finally cut it up because they say it has far too much material in it. For a time, Gloria feels that Jack must choose between his family and her; eventually, however, she realizes that the love between them is so strong that she can afford to share him with his family.
These main plot lines indicate the importance of the theme of reconciliation in Losing Battles. In all these cases, individuals become accepted by a society that had initially viewed them as outsiders. Yet there is another character in the novel who has chosen to remain an outsider—Miss Julia Mortimer, the influential schoolteacher, who has just died. Although she appears at the reunion entirely through anecdote, nonetheless she is a very real presence. Early in the novel, Gloria has to choose whether to go to the funeral of Miss Julia, her friend and mentor, or to stay and wait for Jack. She chooses Jack, as she had chosen him when she left teaching to marry him. In her battle for Gloria, Miss Julia loses, as she had lost most of the battles that she had waged against ignorance. At the end of her life,...
(The entire section is 5589 words.)