Literally, the petrified man in Welty's short story is a man in a freak show that has come to the small Southern town the story is set in and is camped out near Leota's beauty parlor. However, Welty's short story also covers some interesting themes, particularly the pathetic state of the working class in small-town America. Such pathetic state is portrayed through Leota's gossip, Mrs. Fletcher's embarrassment at her pregnancy being spoken of around the town, and even the laziness of the male characters. In fact, it can be said that each male character mentioned, especially Leota's husband and Mr. Pike, are even petrified men themselves. To be petrified means to be hardened or turned into stone. It's described that everything the petrified man digests hardens like stone around his joints. The male characters themselves show petrification in that they are described as not working and laying about the house all day. Hence, the petrified man, while he may actually exist, symbolizes the lack of principles, values, morals, and work ethic among all of the male characters.
Leota first begins talking about the freak show and the petrified man in order to distract Mrs. Fletcher from being embarrassed about her pregnancy being gossiped about. Bringing up the petrified man certainly helps Mrs. Fletcher take her mind off her own problems as she compares him to her own husband, "frostily" commenting that the petrified man must look awful and boasting that she makes "Mr. Fletcher [take] bending exercises every night of the world." It further gives Mrs. Fletcher an excuse to speak critically of Mrs. Pike, whom she resents for noticing her pregnancy.