Eudora Welty Short Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3772
Although some dominant themes and characteristics appear regularly in Eudora Welty’s fiction, her work resists categorization. The majority of her stories are set in her beloved Mississippi Delta country, of which she paints a vivid and detailed picture, but she is equally comfortable evoking such diverse scenes as a Northern city or a transatlantic ocean liner. Thematically, she concerns herself both with the importance of family and community relations and, paradoxically, with the strange solitariness of human experience. Elements of myth and symbol often appear in her work, but she uses them in shadowy, inexplicit ways. Perhaps the only constant in Welty’s fiction is her unerring keenness of observation, both of physical landscape and in characterization, and her ability to create convincing psychological portraits of an immensely varied cast of characters.
“Death of a Traveling Salesman”
One of her earliest stories, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” tells of a commercial traveler who loses his way in the hill country of Mississippi and accidentally drives his car into a ravine. At the nearest farm dwelling, the salesman finds a simple, taciturn couple who assist him with his car and give him a meal and a place to stay for the night. The unspoken warmth in the relationship of the couple is contrasted with the salesman’s loneliness, and he repeatedly worries that they can hear the loud pounding of his heart, physically weakened from a recent illness and metaphorically empty of love. When he leaves their house in the morning, his heart pounds loudest of all as he carries his bags to his car; frantically he tries to stifle the sound and dies, his heart unheard by anyone but himself.
“A Worn Path”
Another relatively early story, “A Worn Path,” recounts an ancient black woman’s long and perilous journey on foot from her remote rural home to the nearest town. The frail old woman, called Phoenix, travels slowly and painfully through a sometimes hostile landscape, described in rich and abundant detail. She overcomes numerous obstacles with determination and good humor. Into the vivid, realistic description of the landscape and journey, Welty interweaves characteristically lyrical passages describing Phoenix’s fatigue-induced hallucinations and confused imaginings. When Phoenix reaches the town, she goes to the doctor’s office, and it is revealed that the purpose of her journey is to obtain medicine for her chronically ill grandson. A poignant scene at the story’s close confirms the reader’s suspicion of Phoenix’s extreme poverty and suggests the likelihood that her beloved grandson will not live long; old Phoenix’s dignity and courage in the face of such hardship, however, raise the story from pathos to a tribute to her resilience and strength of will. Like her mythical namesake, Phoenix triumphs over the forces that seek to destroy her.
“Why I Live at the P.O.”
“Why I Live at the P.O.” is a richly comic tale of family discord and personal alienation, told in the first person in idiomatic, naturalistic language that captures the sounds and patterns of a distinctive southern speech. It is one of the earliest examples of Welty’s often-used narrative technique, what she calls the “monologue that takes possession of the speaker.” The story recounts how Sister, the intelligent and ironic narrator, comes to fall out with her family over incidents arising from her younger sister Stella-Rondo’s sudden reappearance in their small southern town, minus her husband and with a two-year-old “adopted” child in tow.
Welty’s flair for comedy of situation is revealed as a series of bizarrely farcical episodes unfolds. Through the irritable Stella-Rondo’s manipulative misrepresentations of fact and Sister’s own indifference to causing offense, Sister earns the ire of her opinionated and influential grandfather Papa-Daddy, her gullible, partisan mother, and her short-tempered Uncle Rondo. Sister responds by removing all of her possessions from communal use in the home and taking up residence in the local post office, where she is postmistress. Inability to communicate is a recurrent theme in Welty’s short fiction; in this case, it is treated with a controlled hilarity that is chiefly comic but that nevertheless reveals the pain of a family’s disunity. This story is one of the best examples of Welty’s gift for comic characterization, her gentle mockery of human foibles, and her ear for southern idiom and expression.
“Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden”
Although Welty disliked having the term “gothic” applied to her fiction, “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden” has a grotesque quality that characterizes much of southern gothic writing. Steve, a former circus sideshow barker, has enlisted the help of Max in finding a small, clubfooted black man who used to be exhibited in the sideshow as “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.” As a sideshow freak, he was forced to behave savagely and eat live chickens. Max has brought Steve to the home of Little Lee Roy, who is indeed the man Steve seeks.
As Little Lee Roy looks on, Steve tells Max the disgusting details of the sideshow act and explains how Little Lee Roy was ill-treated by the circus until a kind spectator rescued the victim from his degrading existence. Although he persistently refers to Little Lee Roy as “it” and, unlike Max, refuses to address Little Lee Roy directly, Steve expresses guilt and regret over his role in Little Lee Roy’s exploitation. There are subtle resonances of the South’s troubled legacy in the way the obviously culpable Steve tries to diminish his role in this ugly episode of oppression by pleading ignorance. He claims that he never knew that the sideshow freak was a normal man and not the savage beast that he was displayed as being in the circus.
The simpleminded Little Lee Roy, however, reacts to these reminders of his bizarre past with uncomprehending glee; he seems to have forgotten the pain and unpleasantness of his life with the circus and remembers it only as a colorful adventure. Steve cannot expiate his guilt; he has nothing to offer Little Lee Roy to compensate him for his brutal treatment. He says awakwardly to Max, “Well, I was goin’ to give him some money or somethin’, I guess, if I ever found him, only now I ain’t got any.” After the white men’s departure, Little Lee Roy’s children return, but they hush him when he tries to tell them about the visitors who came to talk to him about “de old times when I use to be wid de circus.” The ugly incidents have left no scar on their simple victim; rather, it is the victimizer who suffers an inescapable burden of guilt and shame.
“The Wide Net”
“The Wide Net” is a fabular tale of the mysteries of human relationships and the potency of the natural world. Young William Wallace returns home from a night on the town to find a note from his pregnant wife saying that she has gone to drown herself in the river. William Wallace assembles a motley collection of men and boys to help him drag the river. The river’s power as a symbol is apparent in the meaning that it holds for the many characters: To youngsters Grady and Brucie it is the grave of their drowned father; to the rough, carefree Malones, it is a fertile source of life, teeming with catfish to eat, eels to “rassle,” and alligators to hunt; to the philosophical and somewhat bombastic Doc, it signifies that “the outside world is full of endurance.” It is also, the river-draggers discover, the home of the primeval “king of the snakes.”
Throughout the story, Welty deliberately obscures the nature of William Wallace’s relationship with his wife, the history behind her threat, and even whether William Wallace truly believes his wife has jumped in the river. Characteristically, Welty relies on subtle hints and expert manipulation of tone rather than on open exposition to suggest to her readers the underpinnings of the events that she describes. This deliberate vagueness surrounding the facts of the young couple’s quarrel lends the story the quality of a fable or folktale. The young lover must undergo the test of dragging the great river, confronting the king of snakes, and experiencing a kind of baptism, both in the river and in the cleansing thunderstorm that drenches the searchers, before he is worthy of regaining his wife’s love.
Like a fable, the story has an almost impossibly simple and happy ending. William Wallace returns from the river to find his welcoming wife waiting calmly at home. They have a brief, affectionate mock quarrel that does not specifically address the incident at all, and they retire hand in hand, leaving the reader to ponder the mystery of their bond.
“Livvie” has a lyrical, fabular quality similar to that of “The Wide Net.” Livvie is a young black woman who lives with her elderly husband, Solomon, on a remote farm far up the old Natchez Trace. The strict old husband is fiercely protective of his young bride and does not allow her to venture from the yard or to talk with—or even see—other people. The inexperienced Livvie, however, is content in Solomon’s comfortable house, and she takes loving care of him when his great age finally renders him bedridden. One day, a white woman comes to her door, selling cosmetics. Livvie is enchanted with the colors and scents of the cosmetics but is firm in her insistence that she has no money to buy them. When the saleswoman leaves, Livvie goes into the bedroom to gaze on her ancient, sleeping husband. Desire for wider experience and a more fulfilling life has been awakened in her, and as her husband sleeps, she disobeys his strictest command and wanders off down the Natchez Trace.
There, she comes upon a handsome, opulently dressed young man named Cash, whom she leads back to Solomon’s house. When Solomon awakes and sees them, he is reproachful but resigned to her need for a younger man, asking God to forgive him for taking such a young girl away from other young people. Cash steals from the room, and as Livvie gazes on the frail, wasted body of Solomon, he dies. In a trancelike shock, Livvie drops Solomon’s sterile, ticking watch; after momentary hesitation, she goes outside to join Cash in the bright light of springtime.
“Livvie” is almost like a fairy tale in its use of simple, universal devices. The beautiful young bride, the miserly old man who imprisons her, the strange caller who brings temptation, and the handsome youth who rescues the heroine are all familiar, timeless characters. Welty broadens the references of her story to include elements of myth and religion. Young Cash, emerging from the deep forest dressed in a bright green coat and green-plumed hat, could be the Green Man of folklore, a symbol of springtime regeneration and fertility. In contrasting youth with age and old with new, Welty subtly employs biblical references. Old Solomon thinks rather than feels but falls short of his Old Testament namesake in wisdom. Youthful Cash, redolent of spring, tells Livvie that he is “ready for Easter,” the reference ostensibly being to his new finery but suggesting new life rising to vanquish death. The vague, dreamy impressionism of “Livvie,” which relies on image and action rather than dialogue to tell the story (except in the scenes featuring the saleswoman), adds to this folktalelike quality.
“A Still Moment”
In “A Still Moment,” Welty uses historical characters to tell a mystically imaginative tale. Lorenzo Dow, the New England preacher, James Murrell, the outlaw, and John James Audubon, the naturalist and painter, were real people whom Welty places in a fictional situation. Dow rides with an inspired determination to his evening’s destination, a camp meeting where he looks forward to a wholesale saving of souls. With single-minded passion, he visualizes souls and demons crowding before him in the dusky landscape. Dow’s spiritual intensity is both compared and contrasted to the outlook of the outlaw Murrell, who shadows Dow along the Natchez Trace. Murrell considers his outlawry in a profoundly philosophical light, seeing each murder as a kind of ceremonial drawing out and solving of the unique “mystery” of each victim’s being. Audubon, like Dow and Murrell, has a strange and driving intensity that sets him apart from other men. His passion is the natural world; by meticulously observing and recording it, he believes that he can move from his knowledge to an understanding of all things, including his own being.
The three men are brought together by chance in a clearing, each unaware of the others’ identities. As they pause, a solitary white heron alights near them in the marsh. As the three men stare in wonder at the snowy creature, Welty identifies for the reader the strange similarity of these outwardly diverse men: “What each of them had wanted was simply all. To save all souls, to destroy all men, to see and record all life that filled this world.” The simple and beautiful sight of the heron, however, causes these desires to ebb in each of them; they are transfixed and cleansed of desire. Welty uses the heron as a symbol of the purity and beauty of the natural world, which acts as a catalyst for her characters’ self-discovery. Oddly, it is Audubon, the lover of nature, who breaks the spell. He reaches for his gun and shoots the bird, to add to his scientific collection. The magic of the moment is gone, and the lifeless body of the bird becomes a mere sum of its parts, a dull, insensate mass of feathers and flesh.
Audubon, his prize collected, continues on his way, and the horrified Dow hurries away toward his camp meeting, comforted by the vivid memory of the bird’s strange beauty. The dangerous Murrell experiences an epiphanic moment of self-realization; the incident has reminded him poignantly of all men’s separateness and innocence, a thought that reconfirms in him his desire to waylay and destroy. It is only through a brief but intense moment of shared feeling and experience that the men can recognize their essential loneliness. As in “The Wide Net” and “Livvie,” the most important communication must be done without words.
“Moon Lake” is from the collection The Golden Apples, the stories of which are nearly all set in or around the mythical community of Morgana, Mississippi, and feature a single, though extensive, cast of characters. Thematically, it shares with “A Still Moment” the sense of the paradoxical oneness and interconnectedness of the human condition. The story describes a sequence of events at a camp for girls at the lake of the story’s title. The characteristically lushly detailed landscape is both beautiful and dangerous, a place where poisonous snakes may lurk in the blackberry brambles and where the lake is a site for adventure but also a brown-watered, bug-infested morass with thick mud and cypress roots that grasp at one’s feet.
The story highlights the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of human connection. Antipathies abound among the group assembled at the lake: The lake’s Boy Scout lifeguard, Loch, feels contempt for the crowd of young girls; the Morgana girls look down on the orphan girls as ragged thieves; rivalry and distrust crops up among individual girls. The sensitive Nina yearns for connection and freedom from connection at the same time; she envies the lonely independence of the orphans and wishes to be able to change from one persona to another at will, but at the same time she is drawn to Easter, the “leader” of the orphans, for her very qualities of separateness and disdain for friendship.
Nina and her friend Jinny Love follow Easter to a remote part of the lake in an unsuccessful attempt to cultivate her friendship, and when they return to where the others are swimming, Easter falls from the diving platform and nearly drowns. The near-drowning becomes a physical acting out of the story’s theme, the fascinating and inescapable but frightening necessity of human connection. Without another’s help, Easter would have died alone under the murky water, but Loch’s lengthy efforts to resuscitate the apparently lifeless form of Easter disgust the other girls. The quasi-sexual rhythm of the resuscitation is made even more disturbing to the girls by its violence: Loch pummels Easter with his fists, and blood streams from her mud-smeared mouth as he flails away astride her. The distressing physical contact contrasts with the lack of any emotional connection during this scene. One orphan, a companion of Easter, speculates that if Easter dies she gets her winter coat, and gradually the other girls grow bored of the spectacle and resent the interruption of their afternoon swim. Jinny Love’s mother, appearing unexpectedly at the camp, is more concerned with the lewdness that she imputes to Loch’s rhythmic motions than with Easter’s condition and she barks at him, “Loch Morrison, get off that table and shame on you.” Nina is the most keenly aware of the symbolic significance of the incident and of the peril of connection; she reflects that “Easter had come among them and had held herself untouchable and intact. For one little touch could smirch her, make her fall so far, so deep.”
“The Whole World Knows”
Another story from The Golden Apples is “The Whole World Knows,” which features the adult Jinny Love Stark, whom readers have met as a child in “Moon Lake,” and Ran McLain, who appears briefly in “Moon Lake” and other stories in this collection. The story addresses the inescapable net of personal and community relations and the potentially stifling and limiting nature of small-town life. Welty uses a monologue form similar to the one in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” but in this story, told by Ran, the tone is lamenting and confessional rather than comically outraged.
Ran and Jinny are married but have separated, ostensibly over Jinny’s infidelity. They both remain in the claustrophobically small town of Morgana, living in the same street and meeting occasionally in the town’s bank, where Ran works alongside Jinny’s lover, Woody Spights. On the surface, the story centers on Ran’s developing relationship with a Maideen Sumrall, a foolish, chattering young country girl with whom he has taken up as a way of revenging himself on his wayward wife. The true focus, however, is on the causes of the deterioration of Ran’s marriage to the lively, enthusiastic Jinny, revealed obliquely through other events in the story. The reasons for Jinny’s initial infidelity are only hinted at; her irrepressibly joyous and wondering outlook is contrasted with Ran’s heavy and brooding nature, indicating a fundamental incompatibility. Ran’s careless and selfish use of Maideen, to whom he is attracted because she seems a young and “uncontaminated” version of Jinny, suggests a dark side to his nature that may be at the root of their estrangement. There is a vague suggestion, never clearly stated, that Ran may have been unfaithful to Jinny first. The merry, carefree Jinny baffles and infuriates Ran, and he fantasizes about violently murdering both Jinny and her lover, Woody. His true victim, however, is Maideen, the vulnerable opposite of the unflappable, independent Jinny. After Ran roughly consummates his shabby affair with the semi-willing Maideen, he wakes to find her sobbing like a child beside him. Readers learn in another story that Maideen eventually commits suicide. The story ends inconclusively, with neither Ran nor Jinny able or even entirely willing to escape from their shared past, the constricted community of Morgana being their all-knowing “whole world” of the story’s title. As in “Moon Lake,” true connection is a paradox, at once impossible, inescapable, desirable, and destructive.
“Where Is the Voice Coming From?”
“Where Is the Voice Coming From?” was originally published in The New Yorker, and it remained uncollected until the appearance of the complete The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980. In it, Welty uses a fictional voice to express her views on the civil rights struggle in the South. The story, written in 1863 in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Welty’s hometown of Jackson, is told as a monologue by a southern white man whose ignorance and hate for African Americans is depicted as chillingly mundane. He tells how, enraged by black activism in the South, he determines to shoot a local civil rights leader. He drives to the man’s home late on an unbearably hot summer night, waits calmly in hiding until the man appears, and then shoots him in cold blood. The callous self-righteousness of the killer and his unreasoning hate are frighteningly depicted when he mocks the body of his victim, saying “Roland? There was only one way left for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. We ain’t never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead. What about that, Roland?” His justification for the murder is simple: “I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction.” His only regret is that he cannot claim the credit for the killing.
Welty scatters subtle symbols throughout the story. The extremely hot weather, which torments the killer, reflects the social climate as the civil rights conflict reaches a kind of boiling point. To the killer, the street feels as hot under his feet as the barrel of his gun. Light and dark contrast in more than just the black and white skins of the characters: The stealthy killer arrives in a darkness that will cloak his crime and he finds light shining forth from the home of his prey, whose mission is to enlighten. When the killer shoots his victim, he sees that “something darker than him, like the wings of a bird, spread on his back and pulled him down.”
Unlike most of Welty’s fiction, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” clearly espouses a particular viewpoint, and the reader is left with no doubt about the writer’s intention in telling the story. The story, however, embodies the qualities that typify Welty’s fiction: the focus on the interconnections of human society; the full, sharp characterization achieved in a minimum of space; the detailed description of the physical landscape that powerfully evokes a sense of place; the ear for speech and idiom; and the subtle, floating symbolism that insinuates rather than announces its meaning.