Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Many of the women in Welty's stories are stuck in unhappy marriages and find their days filled with boring activities. They dream about ways to escape their circumstances or wish that some event might happen to them and provide them with a sense of identity and meaning. While some of Welty's characters show independence and the ability to push against their social contexts to carve out meaningful lives, many do not. Instead, Welty often focuses on women who are stuck: women who are just dreaming and not acting. This kind of realism—in both her portrayal of women's dissatisfaction and the meager ways in which they are able to carve out identities for themselves—gives her collection of stories a deep sadness.
It is a clear that Welty sees these women's positions as the result of the patriarchal dynamics of families and the way in which womens' value is often defined by their familial relationships. Clytie is mistreated by her family and marginalized socially by her lack of a husband; Livvie is controlled by her husband, Solomon. Welty develops a clear feminist undercurrent by portraying women's lives as they often are—defined and curtailed by patriarchal norms and mores.
Welty refuses to portray a simplistic heroine, which may be the source of much of the criticism she receives. Instead, she portrays women who are still defined by their social context even as they rebel against it. Livvie rebels against Solomon only to rush into another relationship. Phoenix Jackson undertakes a remarkable journey, but it's for her grandson. Ruby and other women's search for meaning leads them to dreaming about injury or contemplating self-harm and suicide. These are all forms of rebellion against their social context, even if they are often ineffective to change the women's lives.