Eudora Welty by Various

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Eudora Welty Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 4,539 words.)