The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty contains forty-one stories—the distinguished Southern writer’s complete short fiction—in which, by focusing brilliantly on the Mississippi milieu she knew from her life experiences, Welty creates symbolic situations that transform the ordinary into the mythical. Although Welty’s stories do not often focus on realistic social situations that emphasize the external life of women in Southern society, they are filled with strong and independent women who memorably assert their unique identity.
Typical is Ruby Fisher in “A Piece of News,” who is trapped in a marriage that allows her no sense of herself as an independent person. When she sees a story in a newspaper describing how a woman named Ruby Fisher was shot in the leg by her husband, her elaborate fantasy of her own death and burial is an ironic effort to find a sense of identity. When her husband tells her that the newspaper is from another state, she feels a puzzling sense of loss.
In “Clytie,” the main character is a stereotyped old maid, exploited by her family and laughed at by the townspeople for her eccentricity. Just as Ruby Fisher sees herself in the newspaper story, Clytie achieves a similar recognition when she looks into the mirrored surface of a rain barrel and can think of nothing else to do but thrust her head into the “kind, featureless depth” of the water and hold it there. It is not simply social isolation that plagues Welty’s women, but also a primal sense of separateness. It is not mere social validation that they hunger for but a genuine healing love that will give them a sense of order and meaning.
Other memorable women in Welty’s stories caught in a quest for their own identity include Leota and Mrs. Fletcher who, Medusa-like in a beauty parlor in “Petrified Man,” metaphorically turn men into stone; Phoenix Jackson, the indefatigable grandmother who in “A Worn Path” goes on a heroic journey to seek relief for her suffering grandson; and Livie, in the story that bears her name, who dares to leave the control and order of the paternalistic Solomon for the vitality of Cash McCord.
Welty’s stories focus on women defined less by their stereotypical social roles than they are by their archetypal being. As a result, they do not so much confront their social self as they reveal what Welty sees as their nature as isolated human beings.