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The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty showcases Welty's ability to enter other people’s hearts and depict their inner world. She artfully brings to life such diverse characters as an elderly black woman ("A Worn Path"), a fanatical murderer ("Where is the Voice Coming From?"), a boy who has fallen in love for the first time ("First Love"), and a frustrated beautician ("Petrified Man").

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Welty was often inspired by the American South, but sometimes she transports her characters to far away lands ("The Bride of the Inisfallen," "Going to Naples") or to mythological realms ("Circe").

Welty uses focus, terseness, and sketchiness within the narrative form of her short stories. At the same time, she is a true lyricist who plays with subtexts, allusions, and symbols as she crafts her stories. For instance, in "A Worn Path," the story about the elderly black woman, Phoenix Jackson, who treads the worn path to the outlying city to buy the medicine for her critically ill grandson, there is a prevalent image of the mythical phoenix who regenerates from the ashes. The story of Miss Snowdie MacLain’s love of her wayward husband, "Shower of Gold," might evoke the myth about Zeus and Danaë. In "The Burning," the white horse entering Miss Theo and Miss Myra’s parlor evokes imagery from the biblical book of Revelation.

Welty narrates the way southern folks live. She tells the reader about the delusions of youth and whims of old age, family arguments, love, loneliness, generosity and foolishness—everything that fills the everyday life of an ordinary person.

In her short stories, Welty creates subtle effects through skillful interplay between the objective and the subjective, the revealed and the concealed, the gesture and the emotion.

Welty considers her story "A Still Moment" the most accomplished of her works. It might be classed as a parable, though the concreteness and verisimilitude of its detail would conflict with this definition.

In this story, three destinies intersect. Preacher Lorenzo Dow, bandit Murrell, and naturalist Audubon (all historical figures) are each possessed by one dominant passion. The first one follows God, the second serves the devil, the third devotes himself to science. The three passions clash and are halted for a moment. The still moment is like a mirror, helping the men see an unexpected and startling revelation. The revelation takes the form of the snowy heron who comes to the marsh:

before them the white heron rested in the grasses with the evening all around it, lighter and more serene than the evening, flight closed in its body, the circuit of its beauty closed, a bird seen and a bird still, its motion calm as if it were offered: Take my flight…What each of them had wanted was simply all. To save all souls, to destroy all men, to see and to record all life that filled this world—all, all—but now a single frail yearning seemed to go out of the three of them for a moment and to stretch toward this one snowy, shy bird in the marshes. It was as if three whirlwinds had drawn together at some center, to find there feeding in peace a snowy heron. Its own slow spiral of flight could take it away in its own time, but for a little it held them still, it laid quiet over them, and they stood for a moment unburdened.

As the three come back to their normal lives, they each retain this exciting and enlightening sense of existence as mystery. This vision, this reverence for life in all of its diversity, is what animates the whole collection of Eudora Welty’s stories.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

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The forty-one stories in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty cover a publication period of three decades, and together they represent one of the most impressive achievements in short-story writing of the present century. Many of the stories first appeared in magazines, among them Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Magazine, New Directions, The New Yorker, Southern Review, and Yale Review. All except two were collected in four earlier volumes: A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955). “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators,” first published in The New Yorker, were previously uncollected.

Throughout her long career as a short-story writer, Eudora Welty has shown little interest in plot, and her stories are as devoid of conventional plotting as those of Anton Chekhov. Her emphasis is on varying combinations of theme, character, and style. She uses dialogue skillfully in portraying her characters and in developing her themes. Her ear for Southern speech, which is used in so many of her stories, is remarkably accurate. One hears in the voices not only the words and pronunciations but also the characteristic rhythms of the South. This is true of the speech of both whites and blacks. Humor is present in some of her earlier stories but it is either infrequent or totally missing in the later ones.

Welty has experimented with changes in point of view or in focus from one story to another or at times within a single story. She, as author, tells some stories. In others, she turns the narration over to a story character, as in the early “Why I Live at the P.O.” or the late “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” The narrator may occasionally be neither the author nor a character in the story, as in “Old Mr. Marblehall,” where the story appears to be told by a chatty Southern lady who knows Mr. Marblehall well and finds him amusing, who has somehow learned the secret of his double life, and who also is aware of how he is looked on by the people of his home town.

Character is revealed both externally and internally, since it is made evident through action, description, and dialogue but also through entrance into the character’s mind, as when Ruby Fisher, in “A Piece of News,” sits sleepily before the fire and imagines herself dying, or when the smell of Miss Baby Marie’s lipstick reminds Livvie (in “Livvie”) of the chinaberry tree at her home.

Symbolism and imagery appear frequently in Welty’s stories. The symbols are not obtrusive and they may even remain unnoticed by the casual reader. They are often drawn from nature: birds, trees, sun, stars, thunder. Many names are symbolic or drawn from myth and legend: Phoenix Jackson, the old black woman in “A Worn Path”; the orphan Easter in “Moon Lake,” who seemingly dies and then awakens; King MacLain and the albino Snowdie in “Shower of Gold,” modern characters based on the Zeus-Danaë myth.

Welty’s stories have been frequently anthologized, and among them are several from her first volume, A Curtain of Green. In “A Piece of News,” a slow-witted young wife of a Mississippi moonshiner sees by chance in a scrap of newspaper that a woman named Ruby Fisher has been shot by her husband. Since her own name is Ruby Fisher, she dreamily envisions herself dying from a gunshot wound and her husband grieving over what he has done. The husband returns, learns she has sneaked away in his absence, briefly quarrels with her, and finally explains that the Ruby Fisher in the paper is a Tennessee woman. Symbolically, the story begins during a storm, with flashes of lightning and thunder crashes. At the end, with Ruby’s imagined violence put to rest and actual violence avoided, “The storm had rolled away to faintness like a wagon crossing a bridge.”

“Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” although told by the author, ingeniously introduces three points of view regarding events now in the past. The author scrupulously resists any temptation to offer her own views about what happened. Little Lee Roy, a crippled black, is visited by two white men. Steve, the younger man, who suffers from a guilty conscience, tells Max, the older man, how he naïvely was used by the operators of a traveling show to advertise Lee Roy as Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, who bit off live chickens’ heads and drank their blood. Angered by Max’s indifference to Steve’s account of what he considers the cruel exploitation of a little black cripple, Steve suddenly knocks him down. He apologizes and the two men leave. Lee Roy, meanwhile, has enjoyed listening to the men talking about “de ole times when I use to be wid de circus,” just as a child might enjoy hearing a fairy tale of long ago.

“The Hitch-Hikers” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman” develop the theme of human loneliness which is seen in a number of Welty’s stories. Although Harris in the first story wishes the girls he is with would refer to him as “you” rather than “he,” he himself cares so little about other people that he confuses one girl with another he had met in a different town, and he gives to a black boy the guitar that belonged to the murdered hitchhiker. He had picked up the boy only to hear his music. Harris’ loneliness comes from his self-centered, vagabond life. R. J. Bowman, in “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” wishes to say to the country woman from whom he has sought help, “I have been sick and I found out then, only then, how lonely I am. Is it too late?” It is, and at the end of the story there is no one except himself to hear the final beats of Bowman’s heart: “bang bang bang.”

One of the most unusual and most successful stories in Welty’s first volume is “Powerhouse,” in which the leading character is based on “Fats” Waller, a popular musician and band leader. Powerhouse is a man of tremendous energy whose comedy and music entertain his white audience. He pretends he has received a telegram the night before that his wife has died and, with his band members joining in with words and music, he develops a brief, comic improvisation that he suddenly ends by announcing an intermission. Later, in a café, he and the band continue the improvisation, but without the music, before an appreciative all-negro audience. “Powerhouse” is perhaps the best of Welty’s stories in which the comic tone predominates in characterization, dialogue, description, and narrative style.

A very different black appears in the prize-winning “A Worn Path.” Phoenix Jackson, a wrinkled old woman born in slavery days, journeys to town to get medicine for her little grandson, who once swallowed lye. There is comedy, pathos, and beauty in the narration of Phoenix’s journey. The story is partly unified by a bird motif repeated with variations throughout much of the story and leading up to Phoenix’s description of her grandson to the nurse at the clinic. Early in the journey: “Down in the hollow was the mourning dove—it was not too late for him.” She sees a buzzard and asks, “Who you watching?” Farther on she comes upon quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen,” and she tells them, “Walk pretty.” Phoenix falls into a ditch, a white hunter pulls her out, and she sees hanging from his bag “a little closed claw. It was one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead.” After Phoenix has by a trick distracted the hunter and picked up a nickel that has fallen from his pocket, a bird flies by and she sees it as an omen: “God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.” Finally, as the nurse is preparing to give her the medicine for her grandson’s scarred throat, Phoenix says: “He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. . . . He going to last. He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird.” The dove may be related in the story to the old woman’s mourning love for the suffering boy. Phoenix’s question to the buzzard, a death symbol, may be easily interpreted as meaning, “You don’t get me yet.” The quail are contrasted in life and death, and the hunter comes out from town to kill the birds while Phoenix goes into town to keep her little bird alive. Much of “A Worn Path” reads like a prose poem, and the portrayal of Phoenix is unforgettable.

Some early critics of Welty’s first volume labeled her a writer of “Southern Gothic,” mainly because of several of her characters: child-minded women in the first two stories, a rapist in the third, a young murderer in “The Hitch-Hikers,” an apparently insane family of three in “Clytie,” an elderly bigamist with a son by each of his wives in “Old Mr. Marblehall,” and a group of senile occupants of a nursing home in “A Visit of Charity.” Fortunately, later critics have dismissed the Gothic label as unjust and have through close readings and analysis shown Welty as the fine artist she is.

In her second volume, The Wide Net and Other Stories, Welty further experimented with the possibilities in short fiction. In “First Love,” Joel Mayes, a twelve-year-old deaf boy employed at a Natchez inn in 1807, is present during the treasonous plotting of Aaron Burr and his coconspirator Blennerhassett. The boy becomes a silent worshiper of Burr and when his hero shakes hands with him, “With the gravity of his very soul he received the furious pressure of this man’s dream.” Welty’s entrance into Joel’s mind and emotions and her picturing of a world seen but not heard are beautifully controlled throughout the story.

“A Still Moment” also turns back to the nineteenth century. A meeting occurs on the Natchez Trace between three men: Lorenzo Dow, a traveling evangelist; James Murrell, a murderous outlaw; and John James Audubon, a young naturalist and painter. Each man is possessed by a driving passion. The men stand silently together, each with his own thoughts, and, “In that quiet moment a solitary snowy heron flew down not far away and began to feed beside the marsh water.” As the men watch the bird, Welty contrasts their lifelong obsessions: “What each . . . had wanted was simply all. To save all souls, to destroy all men, to see and record all life that filled this world. . . .” Though Audubon shoots the bird, he does so to preserve the beauty of its whiteness through his art. The bird lives on today, rescued from time, which long ago took all three men who spent that still moment together.

Perhaps the best known story from The Wide Net is “Livvie,” in which Solomon, an old black man, marries sixteen-year-old Livvie and takes her to his home. The symbolism of the story is suggested early when Solomon “asked her, if she was choosing winter, would she pine for spring. . . .” Nine years later Livvie says to herself, “He’s fixin’ to die.” Leaving the house, she sees a young man dressed in the colors of spring: bright socks, leaf-green coat, tawny pants, pink satin shirt, and plum-colored hat with an emerald-green feather. Afterward, when Solomon sees them together, he says, “Young ones can’t wait.” Solomon dies, the young ones leave, and outside they greet the young peach tree “shining in the middle of them with the bursting light of spring.” As in “A Worn Path,” much of the story reads like prose poetry.

Welty’s third volume of stories, The Golden Apples, contains seven stories, the action of which, except for one, occurs in or near the town of Morgana, Mississippi. Preceding the first story, Welty lists the large cast of characters, and forty years elapse between the action of the first and last stories. Thus, as several critics have remarked, the book may be also read as a novel in which events are foreshadowed in some stories and remembered or reflected on in others. The stories are divided into numbered sections like chapters of a novel.

The Golden Apples may be better understood by a reader with some knowledge of Greek mythology and of such poems by W. B. Yeats as “Song of Wandering Aengus” (from a line of which the book derives its title) and “Leda and the Swan.” The first story, “Shower of Gold,” in which King MacLain impregnates Snowdie Hudson, may be seen as a kind of modern retelling of the Greek myth in which Zeus in a “shower of gold” visits Danaë. Sun imagery in the various stories is associated with King and his descendants. The interrelationship of characters and the contrasting of some with others—such as King MacLain with Fate Rainey or Virgie Rainey with Cassie Morrison—produce a book of much greater complexity than one finds in Welty’s two earlier volumes of stories.

The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories also contains seven stories: three with the contemporary Southern setting her readers had come to expect, one Civil War story, two whose action occurs outside the United States, and one in which the sorceress Circe recounts her failed attempt to enchant and transform Odysseus as she earlier had his sailors.

In “No Place for You, My Love,” which has been considered technically one of Welty’s finest stories, two strangers—a married man from Syracuse and a young woman from Toledo—meet on a hot Sunday in New Orleans and ride south on an excursion to the Gulf. The man hopes for a romantic involvement but gets no further than one kiss. They ride back to the city in the heat of the night, amid clouds of mosquitoes and emanations from the swamps. They part at the woman’s hotel and the man is left to think of his wife at home with friends and to recall his youth in New York when “the shriek and horror and unholy smother of the subway had its original meaning for him as the lilt and expectation of love.”

“The Bride of the Innisfallen” and “Going to Naples”—both “journey” stories—seem flawed by their many shifts of focus among numerous characters seen externally and by their elusive “meanings.”

In “The Burning,” two sisters are evicted from their plantation home by Union soldiers, who burn it along with one sister’s deranged bastard son who has been left inside. Miss Theo, the dominant sister, directs the hanging of Miss Myra with the aid of the slave Delilah. Then Miss Theo hangs herself. Later, Delilah, searching the house ruins, comes upon a smudged mirror whose elaborate frame decorations symbolize the kind of social order the war has destroyed.

“Ladies in Spring” is a story of a boy’s initiation into knowledge of an adult world. “Kin,” narrated by Dicey, a Southern girl visiting relatives after a long absence in the North, is another spring story. Dicey and her cousin Kate visit the plantation they remember from their girlhood, and Dicey recalls Mingo as it was in earlier days and the many kin who once lived or visited there. Now, aged, senile Uncle Felix and “common” Sister Anne, a distant relative who takes care of him, offer a sad contrast to the kin in the Mingo of old.

Although Welty has in her short fiction occasionally departed from the region in which she was born and which she has loved for so many years, she is remembered now and presumably will be in the future mainly for her Southern stories. Her native Mississippi is the scene she knows best and the home of nearly all of the people she has most memorably portrayed. In an essay, “How I Write,” she has said, “The regional writer’s vision is as surely made of the local clay as any mud pie of his childhood was, and it’s still the act of the imagination that makes the feast.” Her imagination and her artistry, as revealed in The Collected Stories, have led to the creation of a feast of short fiction of enduring flavor and beauty.

Form and Content

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The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty contains forty-one stories—the distinguished Southern writer’s complete short-fiction corpus. It includes four earlier volumes—A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955)—and two stories for The New Yorker previously uncollected, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963) and “The Demonstrators” (1966). In her preface, Eudora Welty, always the model of graciousness, briefly expresses her gratitude for the fact that her early stories, beginning with “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” were welcomed by influential Southern critics and writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Stories from Welty’s first two collections are generally better known than those from the last two, having frequently been anthologized in numerous college literature anthologies since the 1940’s. In them, Welty focuses brilliantly on the Mississippi milieu she knows so well, creating enigmatic characters and symbolic situations that combine the ordinary and the mythically meaningful in a way that has become characteristic of her best work.

In these first two collections, the reader meets a gallery of unforgettable women: Ruby Fisher, who mistakes herself for an abused woman of the same name about whom she reads in the newspaper (“A Piece of News”); Leota and Mrs. Fletcher, who, Medusa-like in a beauty parlor, metaphorically turn men into stone (“Petrified Man”); Sister, the postmistress of China Grove, who laments the return of the prodigal daughter and tries to justify her own exile (“Why I Live at the P.O.”); Clytie, who ends up upside down in a rain barrel, her black-stockinged legs hung apart “like a pair of tongs” (“Clytie”); Phoenix Jackson, a never-say-die grandmother on a sacred journey to seek relief for her scarred grandson (“A Worn Path”); and Livie, who finally dares to leave the control and order of Solomon for the raw life of Cash McCord (“Livie”).

Stories in Welty’s last two collections, while no less magical than the first two, are less well known because they are more heavily linked to mythical sources and therefore less accessible to the average reader. For example, it helps to know, when reading “Shower of Gold,” that Welty draws from the myth of Zeus’s impregnation of Danae by visiting her in a shower of gold, and her story “Circe” will make no real sense to the reader unfamiliar with the story of Ulysses’ brief stop at the island of that sorceress on his famous journey home. Furthermore, in the The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories, Welty uncharacteristically moves out of her home in the South; for example, the title story deals with a group of travelers on the way from London to Cork in Ireland, and “Going to Naples” focuses on a band of Italian-Americans on a journey to Naples. Because these stories seem less linked to the power of place, an important element in all of Welty’s best fiction, they are less magical and memorable.

The two previously uncollected stories came out of Welty’s response to the upheaval of the 1960’s. “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is written from the point of view of Welty’s understanding of the mind-set of the Southern male who shot civil rights leader Medgar Evers; “The Demonstrators,” although not directly set in a civil rights demonstration of the 1960’s, is grounded in the racial conflicts of that era. With the exception of these two stories, the latter part of Welty’s career has been primarily devoted to the novel, from the comic epic exploration of family ties in Losing Battles (1970) to the more subtle exploration of morals and manners in The Optimist’s Daughter (1972). Although this movement from short story to novel is a common and predictable shift for successful writers, many of Welty’s most ardent admirers regret it, insisting that it is the short-story form that best demonstrates her genius.

Context

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Although Welty is not a feminist writer in any strict sense, she is a writer who has often chosen a woman’s perspective. Of all of her stories that center on women, three best represent what might be called the three ages of women: “A Memory,” which focuses on a young girl being initiated into a reality that she insists on changing to fit her own vision, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” in which a woman speaks her mind in a comic-heroic justification of her self-chosen isolation, and “A Worn Path,” in which an old matriarch makes a mythic journey of salvation for someone she loves.

“A Memory” presents a portrait of the artist as a young woman who tries to look at reality through the frame of art because she feels terrified by the wildness and disorder that exist without that controlling frame. In “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Welty presents a character who, although Katherine Anne Porter described her as a classic case of dementia praecox, might more clearly be seen as one who insists on being accorded her deserved place and who rebels against a family that would deny it to her. Old Phoenix Jackson, the central figure in “A Worn Path,” on her Christmas journey to town to buy soothing medicine for a small grandson, demonstrates the courage and fortitude of one devoted to another; on arrival at her destination, she shows her superiority to a society that dares to condescend to her.

Eudora Welty is one of the most highly respected, even revered, twentieth century American writers, having been honored numerous times by her admirers and peers. In the many conferences and symposia devoted to her work, her treatment of the South has often been compared with that of William Faulkner. The comparison is usually qualified, however, by the recognition that whereas Faulkner frequently focused on the male world, Welty more often focuses on the role of women—whether it be as center of family unity or as curator of the communal myth.

Bibliography

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Appel, Alfred. A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965. A comprehensive and detailed early study of Welty’s stories.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eudora Welty. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This compilation contains several “must-read” classic essays on Welty: Katherine Anne Porter’s influential introduction to A Curtain of Green, Robert Penn Warren’s well-known essay “Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty,” and a key chapter from Ruth Vande Kieft’s important early book on Welty.

Desmond, John F., ed. A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978. This small and relatively slight collection includes essays on Welty’s poetics of prose, her use of time, the relationship between history and myth in The Golden Apples, and her basic vision.

Devlin, Albert J., ed. Welty: A Life in Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Welty’s first published story, this collection features an interview with Welty, a revisiting of Welty’s fiction by Ruth Vande Kieft, essays on Welty’s style and her modernity, and checklists of both primary and secondary Welty material from 1936 to 1986. It also contains a feminist reading of The Golden Apples by Patricia S. Yeager.

Dollarhide, Louis, and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979. These presentations from the 1977 University of Mississippi symposium honoring Welty include an important discussion of Welty’s use of Southern speech by Cleanth Brooks, an essay by Peggy Prenshaw on the relative position of men and women in Welty’s works, and Noel Polk’s essay on love in The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories.

Manz-Kunz, Marie-Antoinette. Eudora Welty: Aspects of Reality in Her Short Fiction. Bern, Switzerland: Franck, 1971. The book argues that reality in Welty’s fiction is ephemeral and delicate, apprehended as a rhythm; in her tales she tries to capture a moment in the secret core of the self, a theme that the short story is best able to deal with.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitmen, ed. Eudora Welty: Critical Essays. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979. The largest and most varied of the several collections of essays devoted to Welty. In addition to articles on myth, language, and narration in Welty’s short stories, of particular interest are “The World of Eudora Welty’s Women,” by Elizabeth M. Kerr, and Margaret Jones Bolsterli’s essay on “women’s vision.”

Trouard, Dawn, ed. Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989. This collection includes presentations made at the “Eye of the Storyteller” conference at the University of Akron in 1987. Of particular interest are four articles on women in Welty’s fiction.

Vande Kieft, Ruth M. Eudora Welty. 1962. Rev. ed. Boson: Twayne, 1987. One of the earliest, and still one of the best, full-length discussions of Welty’s fiction. Argues that Welty’s stories focus on the mysteries of the inner life.

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