If the origin of comedy is in the disruption of routine and logical or rational expectation without the result of genuine pain, then The Ponder Heart is a comic masterpiece. The world Eudora Welty creates in the small town of Clay, Mississippi, in the early 1950’s is peopled by characters for whom reason and logical predictability appear to be the exception rather than the rule. The punch line, after all, is that one of the characters dies not by being smothered by her estranged husband or from a fright-induced heart attack but from laughing.
At the center of the novella, which is narrated in a dramatic monologue to the reader—“you,” a stranded guest at the Beulah Hotel three days after the famous trial—is Uncle Daniel Ponder, who has the mind of a child and is unable to deal with the world rationally. Lovable in his imbecility, Uncle Daniel spends most of his time giving things away. When, however, Grandpa Ponder attempts to commit Uncle Daniel to an asylum, the tables are turned and Grandpa ends up being detained while Uncle Daniel, then in his fifties, promptly marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, a girl of seventeen who works at the dime store.
Incongruities of all sorts show up throughout the novella, not only in how the characters behave but also in what they say. Edna Earle Ponder, who narrates the events in a torrent of clichés and colloquialisms, is master of the non sequitur. The comic centerpiece of the novella is the trial. The occasion is founded on the assumption that justice derives rationally from motivation and evidence, but in a case in which the coroner is blind and the only motive for the supposed murder appears to be love, it can be expected that justice will have little to do with reason.
As the title implies, the main theme of the novella concerns the heart, or love. The doctor has described Bonnie Dee’s death as heart failure, “death by misadventure,” but, as Edna Earle describes it, the prosecuting attorney, Dorris Gladney, scratching his head and pretending to think, thereupon asks the double-edged question, “What makes the heart fail?” The real mystery is not whether Uncle Daniel did or did not murder his childish, materialistic wife but why love fails.
Ironically, the character who seems most capable of universal and selfless love is Uncle Daniel, but society first commits him to an asylum and then accuses him of murder. The question arises whether Uncle Daniel’s...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)