Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614
The fact that feminist criticism has had much more to say about Welty’s novels than about her short stories is the result of a particular bias of much feminist criticism no less than it is a result of a generic difference between the two forms. Because of historical tradition and the aesthetic conventions that adhere to short narrative, short stories are less likely to focus on characters defined by stereotypical social roles than they are to use archetypal metaphysical roles. The short story deals with situations that compel characters to confront their essential isolation as individuals, not as social masks within a particular cultural context. As a result, the women in Welty’s short stories do not so much confront their social roles as women as they reveal what Welty sees as their essential roles as isolated human beings. Such an approach, which eschews the social and the polemical and instead explores the symbolic and the metaphysical, does not lend itself to that brand of feminist criticism concerned with the wide range of social traps in which women find themselves.
For example, in “A Piece of News,” although Ruby Fisher is caught in a marriage in which she is most likely abused and which allows her no sense of herself as an independent social entity, this is not Welty’s concern. When Ruby sees a story in a newspaper describing how a woman named Ruby Fisher was shot in the leg by her husband, her recognition, “That’s me,” followed by her elaborate, self-pitying fantasy of her death and burial, is an effort to find a sense of identity in a basic and primal way. When her husband comes home, points out that the newspaper is from another state, and swats her fondly across the backside with it, both Ruby and the reader feel a puzzling sense of loss. In “Clytie,” although it is true that Clytie is a stereotyped “old maid,” exploited by her family and laughed at by the townspeople for her eccentricity and addled demeanor, social criticism is not Welty’s focus. Just as Ruby recognizes herself in the newspaper story, Clytie looks down into the mirrored surface of water in the rain barrel and sees her own face recoil from her look of waiting and suffering; she 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 social isolation that Welty’s women suffer from, but rather a more basic sense of separateness; moreover, it is not social validation that they hunger for, but, as Robert Penn Warren noted in a famous essay, love that will heal the separateness and magically give them a sense of order and meaning.
Welty’s short stories have been criticized because they do not focus on social issues as such, and they have sometimes been characterized as women’s writing in a pejorative, stereotyped sense for the same reason. Welty’s stories seem to spring more from the world of myth and story than from the real world. Because the language in which they are written is often highly symbolic and allusive, her work has been susceptible to being called, especially in the mid-twentieth century when such so-called masculine writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner dominated literary life, somewhat “precious” and overly self-conscious. Yet as heavily loaded with metaphor and allusion as Welty’s language is, and as resonant as her characters are of the world of myth, still her stories seem rooted in a strong sense of place, even if they seem eternally out of time in what she has called a “season of dreams.”
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