The title “Petrified Man” refers to one of the oddities in a traveling freak show that has stopped off in a small southern town. However, the title character never appears in person, nor is he even the main topic in the conversation between Leota, a beautician, and her customer, Mrs. Fletcher. The story takes place in a beauty shop, where Leota is giving Mrs. Fletcher a shampoo and set. During the hour that it takes to complete the process, the two women engage in what appears to be polite conversation. The external action in “Petrified Man” is minimal; the real drama takes place in the dialogue.
Mrs. Fletcher strikes the first blow by suggesting that the permanent Leota gave her on a previous visit may have made her hair fall out. Leota replies that the cause is more likely to be Mrs. Fletcher’s being pregnant. Upon finding out that people are gossiping about her, Mrs. Fletcher becomes furious. From that time on, she is defensive about her own life and nasty about everyone whom Leota likes. Though she has never seen any of them, she finds fault with Leota’s new friend Mrs. Pike, with Mr. Pike, with a fortune-teller whom Leota has found, and even with the petrified man. Mrs. Fletcher is especially irritated by Billy Boy, Mrs. Pike’s rambunctious three-year-old son, who is running loose in the beauty shop.
However, after Leota completes her story, Mrs. Fletcher feels better. It seems that Mrs. Pike recognized the rapist pictured in one of Leota’s magazines as the petrified man and got a $500 reward for turning him in. Mrs. Pike’s good fortune is more than Leota can stand, and this time when little Billy misbehaves, she paddles him with a hairbrush.
“Petrified Man” differs from many of Welty’s other works in that it does not end with a reconciliation. Although Mrs. Fletcher is no longer angry with Leota, now Leota loathes the Pikes. Little Billy’s final wisecrack reinforces what Leota now knows: that her life has been one long disappointment.