The Stories of Welty Essay - Critical Essays

Eudora Welty

Critical Evaluation

Eudora Welty is one of the best contemporary writers of short stories. A writer of novels as well, her reputation has been built upon her short fiction, especially that of her early collections, A CURTAIN OF GREEN AND OTHER STORIES, and THE WIDE NET AND OTHER STORIES. Although somewhat restricted in setting, her short stories have demonstrated a wide variety in subject matter, ranging from the treatment of sideshow freaks in “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden” to that of the improvisations of a jazz musician in “Powerhouse.” There is also a wide variety in moods, from the broad humor of “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Petrified Man” to the ironic and grim horror of “Flowers for Marjorie,” from the fantasy of “Asphodel” to the devastatingly prosaic quality of “No Place for You, My Love.” There is also a wide variety in time, for although most of the stories are set in the present, some like “First Love,” “A Still Moment,” and “The Burning” go back to the times of Aaron Burr, Audubon, and the Civil War.

However wide the variety of theme, mood, and time, the first thing that strikes the reader is Welty’s absolute control over all her material. She is a master craftsman, and when her stories fail, as they sometimes do, it is often because her virtuosity as craftsman and experimenter overshadows the material on which she is operating. She has an uncanny ability to create a mood and setting for a story in a few sentences. “The Whistle” and “The Key” reveal in their opening paragraphs all there is to know about the story. Nothing is wasted, and all is used to make clearer the inevitable epiphany that occurs in her stories. Perhaps it is her interest in photography and painting that has sharpened this gift of observation. Her ear seems as sharp as her eye; the beauty parlor gossip in “Petrified Man” echoes diction, cadence, and tone brilliantly. The story called “A Memory” is a good illustration of this control, as the girl on the beach seems to be enacting Welty’s own creative process. The girl makes frames out of her fingers and observes the world through them. Whereas the girl cannot include the disordered and grotesque in her framing vision, Welty is able to confine and fix all of life in her frame. An order is given to every “still moment” that her artistry captures, and the purely formal delight the reader experiences is one of the great pleasures her short stories afford.

There is, however, more than a caught moment in her stories. What gives them their solidity is that there is a caught place as well. Although her stories are mostly set in the present, they cannot really be called contemporary. For example, none of her stories in her first two collections has anything to do with World War II, although they were published at its height. The only sense in which the present is contemporary is that she has chosen to write of the contemporary South, more specifically the region of Mississippi. In THE BRIDE OF THE INNISFALLEN, in particular, she has moved outside the South for her settings, and this move has not produced better work. In this volume, stories such as “Kin” and “No Place for You, My Love,” which are set in the South, tend to be the best ones. This strong sense of place is closely tied to Welty’s artistic control. It is the concrete reality to which her lyrical flights and moves toward fantasy must always return. Welty herself seems aware of the importance of place, and she has written an article called “Place in Fiction” that throws much light upon her own fictional achievements.

Moving inside this frame of artistic control and place, her short fiction reveals certain views and themes that seem to be characteristic of the stories as a whole. They are often an exploration of what it means to be isolated and set apart. In story after story, the leading character seems set apart or cut off from his world. His isolation is often marked by a peculiar grotesque quality, as if the spiritual and emotional separateness were symbolized by physical abnormality. Her stories are thus peopled with deaf mutes, Ellie and Albert in “The Key” or Joel Mayes in “First Love”; by deformed blacks, Keela in “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden”; by the feebleminded, Lily Daw in “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies”; by the very old and very small, Phoenix Jackson in “A Worn Path” or Solomon in “Livvie”; by the very young and very fat, Gabriella in “Going to Naples”; and by the frustrated and insane, Clytie in “Clytie” and Miss Theo in “The Burning.”

Yet those who are isolated are most often people who seem more valuable than the world...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)