Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The narrator remembers herself as a young teenager, lying beside a lake after her usual morning swim. In early adolescence, she judged everyone and everything and reacted so timidly to the physical world around her that she could bear to observe things only through a frame she made with her hands.
Through this frame she sees herself projected onto the world. Every leaf that falls, every bird that flies overhead, she imagines is trying to signal her, to leave her some message. Each moment is fraught with the heightened significance adolescents impose on their environment. Like most adolescents, this girl is obsessed with a secret love, a love hopelessly unexpressed that appears “grotesquely altered in the outward world.”
Her love sent her a signal one day on the stairs; she allowed herself accidentally to touch his wrist as they passed, and he pretended not to notice. Since that day she has cherished the memory of their touch, a memory that she can bring to mind at any moment and burnish with longing until it “would swell with a sudden and overwhelming beauty, like a rose forced into premature bloom for a great occasion.”
Since that day she has worried over him, watched for him, wondered about him, but has never spoken to him or made any direct contact. Her love, she confesses, made her both an observer and a dreamer. She obsesses over the dangers she imagines he may face, and when one day in Latin class he gets a bloody nose, she falls over in a dead faint. “I saw red—vermilion—blood flow over the handkerchief,” she remembers, and adds, “I recognized it.”
Lying on the beach, she polishes the memory of the day on the stairs and ponders the sense of mystery and danger that surrounds this memory in her mind. The reality of children running on the beach vies with the reality of the memory: Which is the real moment? She cannot distinguish.
While she is in this state of half-dream and...
(The entire section is 801 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “A Memory,” her second story to be published, Welty shows how difficult life with others can be. As in her earlier story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” she emphasizes the appeal of human contact. In both stories, the family that the solitary protagonist encounters is a very ordinary one. In “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” the salesman perceived a natural mannerliness in the young couple who offered him their hospitality. In “A Memory,” however, the girl who is telling the story perceives only ugliness in the people who come to disturb her daydreams.
One reason for her reaction, she admits, is the fact that she is suffering from first love, cherishing the memory of an accidental touch by a boy whom she does not even know. The result of this condition, she says, is that she lives a life of heightened observation at the same time that she is creating a world of dreams. This is essentially the pattern Welty later described in One Writer’s Beginnings; certainly the symptoms are those of the creative artist. What this protagonist wishes to do, however, is to select only the most beautiful memories and observations for her private world. When the boy she loves gets a nosebleed at school, she faints. Fearing another shock, she takes care not to find out where he lives or who his parents are. The world that she has created will not admit the world that, in the course of human life, she is take bound to encounter.
It is this rejection of the whole of life that makes the protagonist’s encounter with the vulgar family such a shock to her. The strangers on the beach do not even speak to her, but she is offended by their ugliness, their noisiness, even their energy. When they leave, she is overcome by pity, not for them but for the little pavilion that had to endure them. At the end of the story, she recognizes how difficult it is to fit anything distasteful into an ideal world that one has invented and in which one wishes to dwell.