Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story opens abruptly in a beauty parlor with the animated conversation between Leota and her shampoo-and-set customer, Mrs. Fletcher. Amid a number of unrelated subjects, Leota mentions a Mrs. Pike in passing, piquing Mrs. Fletcher’s curiosity. The Pikes, Leota explains, are a couple renting a room from her and her husband, Fred. The conversation wanders from topic to topic, until Leota blurts out that someone has seen Mrs. Fletcher on the street and discerned that she is pregnant. This galls Mrs. Fletcher, and she demands to know who reported this so she can plot her social revenge. Their conversation is then interrupted by a child’s voice, who asks, “Why? What’re you gonna do to her?”
The voice belongs to Billy Boy, Mrs. Pike’s precocious son, who stays with Leota in the beauty parlor because he has been asked to leave the millinery store where his mother works. Leota finally reveals that it was the mysterious Mrs. Pike who identified Mrs. Fletcher’s condition and launches into a series of non sequiturs about Mrs. Pike’s good qualities. In the midst of her monologue, Leota mentions that she and Mrs. Pike attended the traveling freak show that came to town.
Among the freaks they encountered were a set of Siamese twins in a bottle, a tribe of Pygmies, and the petrified man, who digests his food and “before you can say ’Jack Robinson,’ it’s stone—pure stone.” As the conversation reaches its end, Leota reports...
(The entire section is 526 words.)