Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4539
Paramount in Eudora Welty’s work is the sense of what “community,” or group membership, means in the South and how it is expressed through manners, attitudes, and dialogue. Clearly, it provides a special way of seeing and responding. In Welty’s published essays and interviews, certain concerns keep surfacing—the relationship between time and place and the artistic endeavor, the importance of human relationships in a work of fiction, the necessity for the artist to be grounded in real life and yet be aware of life’s “mystery,” the value of the imagination, and the function of memory. These concerns find expression in her work principally in the tension between what is actual, what is seen and heard in a specific time and place, and what is felt or known intuitively. Welty uses the sometimes conflicting demands of the community and the self, the surface life and the interior life, to describe this tension in her novels. On one hand is the need for community and order; on the other is the need for the separate individual life, which often works against community and order.
Typically, a Welty novel swings between overt action, including dialogue, and individual contemplation. This is especially evident in Delta Wedding, where Welty almost rhythmically alternates dialogue and action with the inner musings of her principal female characters. In The Optimist’s Daughter, only Laurel Hand’s thoughts are set against the exterior action, but it becomes apparent that her father, as he lies unmoving in his hospital bed, is silently contemplating the mystery of life and human relationships for perhaps the first time in his life. Her mother, too, near the end of her life, had begun speaking out the painful things she must have harbored for many years in her dark soul. Even Edna Earle Ponder in The Ponder Heart seems to talk incessantly to keep the inner life from raising itself into consciousness. In Losing Battles, where Welty says she consciously tried to tell everything through speech and action—she had been accused of obscurantism in previous works—the pattern still emerges. Instead of swinging between action and cerebration, however, this novel swings between action and description. Still, the effect is surprisingly similar, though the pages of action and dialogue far outnumber the pages of description and the transitions between the two modes of narration are very abrupt. Even so, the young schoolteacher who chooses love and marriage against her mentor’s advice slips occasionally into Welty’s meditative mode. The alternation of thought and action is also the basic structural pattern of the stories in The Golden Apples.
Thus, in Welty’s novels, external order is established through speech and action that sustain community, either the social or family group. In fact, the novels are often structured around community rituals that reinforce the group entity against outside intrusions and shore up its defenses against its most insidious foe, the impulse to separateness in its individual members. Delta Wedding is set entirely in the framework of one of these community-perpetuating rituals. For the moment, the wedding is everything, and members of the group pay it homage by gathering, giving gifts, feasting, and burying their individual lives in its demands. Losing Battles is also framed by a community ritual, the family reunion. The threat from individual outsiders is felt constantly, and the family takes sometimes extreme measures to ward off influences that might undermine its solidarity.
There are at least two rituals that provide structure for The Ponder Heart, the funeral and the courtroom trial. The first of these is conducted in enemy territory, outside the acceptable group domain; the second is conducted in home territory, and acquittal for the accused member of the group is a foregone conclusion. A funeral is also the major external event of The Optimist’s Daughter and becomes the battleground in a contest for supremacy between two opposing groups or communities. Several of the stories or chapters in The Golden Apples are also structured around community rituals, including the June piano recital, the girls’ summer camp, and the funeral.
In addition to these large, highly structured observances, there are the multitude of unwritten laws that govern the group. Welty’s community members attach great importance to certain objects and practices: a treasured lamp given to the bride, a handcrafted breadboard made for a mother-in-law, the establishment of family pedigrees, the selection of one male member of the community for special reverence and heroic expectation, the protection of the past from intrusion or reassessment, and, perhaps most important of all, the telling of stories as an attestation of the vitality and endurance of the group.
Underlying all of this attention to ritual and group expectation, however, is the unspoken acknowledgment that much of it is a game the participants have agreed to play, for their own sake and for the sake of the community. Some of the participants may be fooled, but many are not. Aware but fearful, they go through the motions of fulfilling community requirements in an effort to hold back the dark, to avoid facing the mystery, to keep their individual selves from emerging and crying for existence. They sense themselves to be at what Welty called “the jumping off place” and are afraid to make the leap in the dark. They agree to pretend to be fooled. They tell stories instead of rehearsing their fears and uncertainties. The bolder ones defy the group and either leave it or live on its periphery. In every book, there are moments when a character confronts or consciously evades the dark underside of human personality and experience, and memory becomes a device for dealing with the effects of that confrontation or for evading it.
Paradoxically, storytelling, an important ritual for securing the past and bolstering community against passion, disorder, the intimations of mystery, and the erosive effects of individual impulses and yearnings, assists in the breakdown of the very group it was intended to support. The risk of indulging in rituals is that they sometimes set people to thinking and reevaluating their own individual lives and the lives of others close to them. The ritual is performed by the group, but it may stir the solitary inner being to life and to the kind of probing contemplation that jeopardizes the group’s authority. Such a countereffect may be triggered by the storytelling ritual even though that ritual is meant to seal up the past for ready reference whenever the group needs reinforcement. Because storytelling relies on memory, it can become an exercise of the individual imagination. It tends to lapse, as one commentator observes, “into the memory of a memory” and thus shifts sides from the group’s activities into the realm of mystery. The community’s habit of setting up straw men for heroes can similarly erode community solidarity because it too relies on imagination and memory. It glorifies the individual rather than the group spirit.
As Welty presents this conflict, then, between the self and the group, and between the intuitive and the actual, she writes into her work a sense of foreboding. The community, especially the traditional southern community, is doomed. It cannot forever maintain itself on the old terms, for it is dependent on the acquiescence of separate individuals who seem increasingly impervious to the efforts of the group to contain them. Welty’s work also suggests that some of the things the community prizes and perpetuates are merely gestures and artifacts with little intrinsic value or meaning. When the meanings behind what a community treasures have been lost or forgotten, that community cannot long endure. In actively laboring to exclude others, the group works against its own best nature, its capacity for loving and caring. Threats to order and community may indeed come from the outside, but Welty insists that the more serious threats come from the inside, from that part of the human heart and mind that seeks to go its own way.
The Robber Bridegroom
Welty’s first novel, The Robber Bridegroom, is quite unlike her others. Its most noticeable differences are its setting in a much older South, on the old Natchez Trace in the days of bandits and Native Americans, and its fairy-tale style and manner. Even with these differences, Welty establishes what becomes her basic fictional stance. She achieves tension between the actual and the imaginary by freighting this very real setting with fabulous characters and events. The legendary characters are transformed by Welty’s imagination and deftly made to share the territory with figures from the Brothers Grimm. Welty indicated the double nature of her novel, or novella, when in an address to the Mississippi Historical Society she called it a “Fairy Tale of the Natchez Trace.”
A favorite of William Faulkner, the book is a masterpiece, a delightful blend of legend, myth, folklore, and fairy tale that swings from rollicking surface comedy and lyrical style to painful, soul-searching explorations of the ambiguities of human experience. Although it deals with love and separateness—Warren’s terms for the conflicting needs of communities and individuals in Welty’s work—it does not deal with them in the same way that the later novels do. Clement Musgrove, a planter whose innocence leads him into marriage with the greedy Salome and an excursion into humanity’s heart of darkness, learns what it is like to face the cold, dark nights of despair comfortless and alone. His daughter, Rosamond, is beautiful and loving, but she is also an inveterate liar who betrays her husband’s trust in order to learn his “real” identity. Jamie Lockhart, who leads a double life as both bandit and gentleman, keeps his true identity hidden even from her whom he loves. Thus, like so many Welty characters, the principal actors in The Robber Bridegroom have interior lives that threaten the equilibrium of their exterior worlds.
In another sense, too, The Robber Bridegroom is closely linked with Welty’s other novels. In writing the book, Welty testifies to the value of stories and the storytelling ritual that buttresses community, a theme that reappears in all of her novels. She finds common ground with her readers in this novel by spinning a yarn full of their favorite childhood fairy tales. Then, too, fairy-tale worlds, imaginative though they are, sustain surface order, for they are worlds of sure answers, of clear good and evil, of one-dimensional characters, and of predictable rewards and punishments. As such, they confirm what the community collectively believes and perpetuates. Just as imagination, intuition, and the pondering of the individual human soul jeopardize the codes a community lives by in other Welty novels, so do they undercut the basic assumptions of the fairy tale in this novel. Here, answers are sometimes permanently withheld, people are complex and unpredictable, the richest prize is found in human relationships rather than in kingdoms and gold, appearances are deceiving, and evil may lie in unexpected places. It is worthy of note that Welty began her novel-writing career with a book that delights in the fairy tale at the same time that it questions community assumptions about fairy-tale morality.
The tension between community expectations and individual yearnings and apprehensions is central to Delta Wedding. Thenarrative takes place in the Mississippi delta country, during the week of Dabney Fairchild’s wedding. The Fairchild family, after whom the nearby town is named, is of the social elite and has moderate wealth, mostly in property. The wedding provides an occasion for the family to gather and exercise the rituals and traditions that bind them together and strengthen their sense of community. The wedding itself is the principal ritual, of course, with its attendant food preparation, dress making, rehearsal, and home and yard decorating. Welty’s eye for manners and ear for speech are flawless as the Fairchilds deliberate over the consequences of George Fairchild’s having married beneath him and Dabney’s seemingly unfortunate repetition of her father’s mistake. The Fairchilds still claim George, however, even though they have little use for his wife, Robbie Reid, and they will continue to embrace Dabney in spite of her choosing to marry an outsider, Troy Flavin. It is the habit of community to maintain order by defining and placing people and things in relation to itself. A person either does or does not have legitimate ties to the group.
The Fairchilds also repeat family stories in order to keep the past secure and give stability to the present. Their current favorite story is also one that makes a hero out of the male heir apparent. George’s dead brother was apparently more remarkable than he, but George is the one survivor, and the family’s hopes rest with him. At least a dozen times in the book, some version is told of George’s staying on the railroad track with his mentally retarded niece whose foot was caught in the rails. Instead of leaping to safety with the others, he stayed to face the oncoming train. Luckily, the engineer of the Yellow Dog was able to stop the train in time. By choosing to stay with Maureen instead of answering his wife’s plea to save himself, George made a reflexive choice for honor and blood over marital obligation. Later, he again chooses family over wife when he comes for the prewedding activities instead of looking for his absent, heartbroken wife.
Running counter to the speech and actions that affirm order and community, however, is an undercurrent of threat to that order. Welty intersperses the overt actions and attitudes of the family, especially of the aunts, whose sole desire is to perpetuate the clan structure, with individual ruminations of other female characters who are part of that structure and yet somewhat peripheral to it. Ellen, who married into the Fairchilds and has never dared resist them, has moments of personal doubt that would be regarded as treasonous were they known by her aunts. Dabney also wonders, in a brief honest moment, about the homage paid to the wedding ritual for its own sake. Further, she accidentally breaks a treasured lamp, a family heirloom given her by the aunts as a wedding present. Little Laura, having lost her mother, has also lost her basic tie to the family. From her position on the edge of the Fairchild clan, she questions the community tenets that exclude her. Even George seems ready to violate community expectations by his apparent willingness to deprive two of the aunts of their home.
The novel’s essential statement, then, is that the community is losing its hold. In an interview published in 1972 by the Southern Review, Welty is asked the question, “Is Shellmound [the home of the Fairchilds] with its way of life and its values doomed?” She replies, “Oh, yes. I think that was implicit in the novel: that this was all such a fragile, temporary thing. At least I hope it was.” She adds, “Well, you’re living in a very precarious world without knowing it, always.” The community’s position is inexorably altered in the face of individual yearning and independent action.
The Ponder Heart
There are two large community rituals in The Ponder Heart: the funeral of Bonnie Dee Peacock and the trial of Uncle Daniel Ponder for her murder. Such narrative matter sounds ominous enough to one unfamiliar with Welty’s capacity for comedy, but to the initiated, it promises a hilarious display of southern talk and manners. Still, The Ponder Heart is troubled, as Welty’s other novels are, by an ominous current running beneath its surface action. Like the Fairchilds of Delta Wedding, the Ponders have social position and wealth—perhaps greater than that of the Fairchilds. They are on the decline, however, in spite of the efforts of Edna Earle Ponder, Welty’s first-person narrator, to maintain the family and its image. Symbolic of the failing family or community image that Edna Earle seeks to perpetuate and protect are two buildings that the family owns, the Beulah Hotel, run by Edna Earle, and the Ponder home a few miles out of town. In the end, both buildings are virtually empty. The family has shrunk to two members, and the future holds no promise.
The story line tells of middle-aged Uncle Daniel’s marrying the young Bonnie Dee Peacock, losing her, regaining her, losing her again, reclaiming her, and then finally losing her by tickling her to death in the aftermath of an electric storm. Uncle Daniel’s mental age is considerably lower than his chronological age, but he is blessed with a generous nature. He gives away everything he can get his hands on, and has to be watched continually. Not that Edna Earle cares to restrain him very much, for he is the revered scion, like George in Delta Wedding, without whose approbation and presence the community would totter. Her duty is to protect and sustain Daniel, and she will not even permit herself private doubts over what that duty requires. The entire novel is the report of her conversation about Uncle Daniel with a visitor who is stranded at the Beulah. Clearly, Edna Earle’s talk and actions are designed to maintain order and community as she has known them all her life. She believes that if she relaxes her vigil, the structure will collapse.
The ritual of the Peacock funeral is important because it is grossly inferior to the Ponder notion of what constitutes a funeral. The Peacocks are what the Ponders (except Daniel, who in his innocence would not know the difference) would call “country”; in other words, they are regarded as comically inferior beings who have no business marrying into the Ponder family. The trial is more to Edna Earle’s liking, though it is threatened by the presence of the low-bred Peacocks and a prosecuting shyster lawyer who is an outsider. Edna Earle gets caught in a lie designed to protect Daniel, but the day is saved when Daniel begins passing out greenbacks in the courtroom. The jury votes for acquittal in record time, and Daniel cheerily dispenses the whole family fortune. He discovers to his sorrow afterward, however, that people who have taken his money can no longer face him. Thus, in the end, Daniel, who wanted nothing more than company and an audience for his stories, is left lonely and friendless. Though Edna Earle tries to inject new hope through the promise of a new audience—her captive guest at the Beulah—doom is on the horizon for the Ponders even more surely than it was for the Fairchilds.
The collapse of community structure in this novel, as in Delta Wedding, can be laid partly to the failure of the community’s rather artificial system of supports—rituals, traditions, family stories, pedigrees, and a family “hero.” It must also be laid, however, to the fact that Uncle Daniel, in his innocence, breaks away and acts as an individual. He is not capable of the contemplation that undermines community in Delta Wedding, but neither can he be restrained to act as a member of the group instead of as himself.
In Losing Battles, Welty partially turns the tables on what she had done with the conflict between community and self in her previous two novels and in The Golden Apples. Here, she shows that community, though mildly ruffled by individual needs and doubts, can prevail when it is sustained by strong individuals who are also loyal group members. Welty indicates in a Southern Review interview that she deliberately chose as her setting the poorest section of Mississippi during the time of the Depression, so that her characters would be shown on a bare stage with themselves as their only resource, without “props to their lives.” Thus, the artificial structures built of money and status that support community in Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart are not available to the Vaughn-Beecham-Renfro clan in Losing Battles. Perhaps that is one reason for their greater durability.
The story is told almost entirely through dialogue and action, interlaced with occasional lyrical descriptions of setting and even less frequent ruminations of the story’s principal outsider, Gloria Renfro, the hero’s wife. The action takes place entirely in one day and the following morning, with details of the past filled in through family storytelling. Jack Renfro, the young grandson who has been exalted by family hope and expectations, bears some resemblance to George Fairchild and Daniel Ponder. On him lies the chief burden of sustaining the family, of guaranteeing its survival as a unit. He returns home from the state penitentiary to the waiting family reunion that is celebrating old Granny Vaughn’s birthday. He finds there not only his bride but also a baby daughter he has never seen. The family has believed, has had to believe, that things will be better once Jack has returned home. Jack himself believes it, and, as Welty indicates, the others take their faith from his. Through a series of wild, funny episodes—and more than a few tender moments—the family prevails. Welty said that in this comic novel she intended to portray the indomitability, the unquenchable spirit of human beings. Folks such as these may be losing the battles, but they are still fighting them, and that is what counts.
Welty described “the solidity of the family” as “the strongest thing in the book.” She also recognized that, in a clan such as this, a character sometimes has to be him- or herself before he or she can reinforce the unity of the group. Welty said that such a “sticking together,” as is seen in Losing Battles, “involves both a submerging and a triumph of the individual, because you can’t really conceive of the whole unless you are an identity.” The extended family of Losing Battles engages in rituals to maintain itself just as the Fairchild family does in Delta Wedding. It acknowledges milestones reached by its members, milestones such as weddings and ninetieth birthdays; it tells stories, creates a hero, and works painstakingly to establish and affirm blood relationships with any who might seek entrance into the group. All is done with the honor of the clan—or the individual as member of the clan—in mind, whether it is going to jail or rescuing a car from a cliff on Banner Top.
In spite of the prevailing unity and the optimistic conclusion to the novel’s events, there are small rumblings of individual assertion against community. Gloria loves Jack, but she does not want to be a member of his family. She envisions a smaller community, made up of just her, Jack, and their baby, Lady May. The group, however, will not allow her to build a community of her own. Against her will, it tries to reconstruct a parentage for her that would make her a blood relation. The relatives perform a rather cruel ritual of pouncing on her and forcing her to eat watermelon, but she remains adamant. She also remains steadfast in her admiration for Miss Julia Mortimer, the schoolteacher who picked Gloria as her successor and who fought a losing battle all her life against the joyful ignorance of the likes of Jack’s family.
Thus, there are several influences in the book that threaten, though not seriously, the sense of community. Gloria and her child, and Miss Julia, are the most obvious ones. It becomes apparent, though, in the very style of the narration, which repeatedly turns from family action and talk to brief imaginative description, that the ordering of the actual and the real according to community necessity does not entirely carry the day. There is another side to experience, the imaginative, the intuitive—a part of the individual soul that resists allegiance.
The Optimist’s Daughter
In The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty returns to a more balanced combination of action and contemplation. The book’s perceiving eye is Laurel Hand, daughter of Becky and Judge McKelva. The abiding question for Laurel is why, after the death of the intelligent, sensitive Becky, the Judge married a crass, tasteless woman half his age. Laurel helplessly watches her father’s still form as he silently reviews his life in a hospital room, ironically set against the backdrop of the Mardi Gras festival. She repeats her helpless watch as he lies in his coffin at Mount Salus while his wife, Wanda Fay Chisom, performs her gnashing, wailing ritual of bereavement and his old friends perform their ritual of eulogy. The Chisom family, who nod appreciatively as Fay grossly mourns, are the same breed as the Peacocks in The Ponder Heart, entirely out of context in the McKelva home. Laurel, however, is equally uncomfortable with her own group’s rites of community preservation—telling stories about the Judge that make a hero of him, despising the intrusive outsider, urging Laurel to stay and bolster the old relationship. Laurel’s husband Phil was killed in military service many years ago, and Laurel herself is working in Chicago, but the women who were bridesmaids at her wedding have kept that group intact and still refer to themselves as “the bridesmaids.”
Laurel’s last night at home is spent in anguish. Trapped by an invading chimney swift in rooms full of memories, she is caught hopelessly in the past. In the course of the night, she is forced to examine the protective structure she had built around her parents’ marriage and her own. In doing so, she must allow memory and imagination to reinterpret the past that she had wanted to keep sealed away in the perfection of her own making, and she must relinquish her old idea of what constitutes group unity and loyalty. The Wanda Fays of the world will always claim their space, will always intrude. The secret for surviving their intrusion, Laurel discovers, is to withdraw one’s protective walls so that the Fays have nothing to knock down. Laurel at last allows truth to dismantle the edifice of community as she had conceived it, and she finds, through the imagination and the heart, a new source of strength in watching the artificial construct tumble. Thus, the foreboding and pessimism arising from the impending doom of community in Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart, diverted for a time in the paradoxical optimism of Losing Battles, are to some extent reversed in Laurel’s final acceptance in The Optimist’s Daughter. The Golden Apples had foretold such an outcome, for a number of its characters must also deal with the relationship between their individual lives and the group life.
The miracle of Welty’s work is the skill with which her imagination bears on the actual and makes a reconciliation out of the conflicting demands of the community and the private life, out of that which can be perceived by the senses and that which can be known only intuitively. For Welty, the actual was mainly the realities of Mississippi life. In her work, however, the reality of Mississippi became a springboard rich with possibilities for an imagination that knew how to use time and place as doorways to the human heart.
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