Eudora Welty

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Ruth M. Vande Kieft (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12611

SOURCE: Vande Kieft, Ruth M. “The Mysteries of Eudora Welty.” In Eudora Welty, pp. 25–54. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.

[In the following essay, Vande Kieft analyzes Welty's representation of human inner life in fiction.]


One cannot undertake to write about the stories of Eudora Welty without feelings of trepidation and of hope because she has provided her readers and critics both with ominous warnings and with delightful allurements. It is as if the welcome mat were clearly out before her door while the sign on the gate post read “Keep Out,” or as if she had given us a map to reach her but had not promised it wouldn't turn out to be the sketch of a labyrinth in which we would get hopelessly lost. The allurements are chiefly in the stories themselves. The warnings have been posted (quite unofficially) in a small volume on Short Stories (1950)1 and in the essay called “How I Write” (1955). Following are some of the warnings:

I have been baffled by analysis and criticism of some of my stories. When I see these analyses—most usually, “reduced to elements”—sometimes I think, “This is none of me”. … Not that I am too proud to like being reduced, especially—but that I could not remember starting with those elements—with anything that I could so label.

Beauty may be missed or forgotten sometimes by the analyzers because it is not a means, not a way of getting the story along, or furthering a thing in the world.

It's hard for me to think that a writer's stories are a unified whole in any respect except perhaps their lyrical quality.

The analyst, should the story come under his eye, may miss this gentle shock and this pleasure too, for he's picked up the story at once by its heels (as if it had swallowed a button) and is examining the writing as his own process in reverse, as though a story (or any system of feeling) could be more accessible to understanding for being upside down. “Sweet Analytics, 'tis thou hast ravish'd me!”

It's a mistake to think you can stalk back a story by analysis's footprints and even dream that's the original coming through the woods. Besides the difference in the direction of the two, there's the difference in speeds, when one has fury; but the main difference is in world-surround. One surround is a vision and the other is a pattern for good visions (which—who knows!—fashion may have tweaked a little) or the nicest, carefullest black-and-white tracing that a breath of life would do for.2

We have to admit some pertinence to these complaints and warnings when we read some of the criticism of Miss Welty's fiction. But from another point of view, we can see in her warnings the traditional complaints of the artist against the critic: the artist's denial of coherent or logical “patterns” in his work, the wariness of attempts at “placing” him (which inevitably look like pigeon-holing), and the fear that analysis will not often produce understanding and may destroy delight. While the critic admits, however, that he may be doing some injustice to the uniqueness of any single story in the process of showing the relationships among several, he recognizes that the relationships are unmistakably there, that one story does often illuminate another, that patterns emerge in the work of any good writer. The critic can also protest finally, and joyfully, that no amount of analysis can destroy the irreducible meaning and beauty of any real work of art, and (because of his faith that...

(This entire section contains 12611 words.)

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knowledge and understanding increase delight) that his analysis won't have “killed” the story for any reader.

Miss Welty, doubtless like any other artist, writes “in the ultimate hope of communication.” This is the promise, the hope, the allurement. “Always in the back of our heads and in our hearts,” she says in Short Stories, “are such hopes, and attendant fears that we may fail—we do everything out of the energy of some form of love or desire to please.” But the peculiar, apparently perverse habit of the best artists, she says, is to be obstructionists, and in this they give the illusion of “hold[ing] back their own best interests.” This is because “beauty is not a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality—indeed at her finest she is somehow associated with obstruction—with reticence of a number of kinds.”

Miss Welty knows she is mysterious and “obstructionist,” but she is so because there is no other way for her to communicate what she must. She asks for a reader of “willing imagination” who will not insist on “a perfect Christmas tree of symmetry, branch, and ornament, with a star at the top for neatness,” but will find “the branchings not what he's expecting, … not at all to the letter of the promise—rather to a degree (and to a degree of pleasure) mysterious.” In explaining one of her own stories in “How I Write,” she says, “Above all I had no wish to sound mystical, but I did expect to sound mysterious now and then, if I could: this was a circumstantial, realistic story in which the reality was mystery.”

Miss Welty's stories are largely concerned with the mysteries of the inner life. She explains that to her the interior world is “endlessly new, mysterious, and alluring”; and “relationship is a pervading and changing mystery; it is not words that make it so in life, but words have to make it so in a story. Brutal or lovely, the mystery waits for people wherever they go, whatever extreme they run to.” The term “mystery” has here to do with the enigma of man's being—his relation to the universe; what is secret, concealed, inviolable in any human being, resulting in distance or separation between human beings; the puzzles and difficulties we have about our own feelings, our meaning and our identity. Miss Welty's audacity is to probe these mysteries in the imaginative forms of her fiction. The critic's task is to try to follow her bold pursuit analytically and discursively, to state what the mysteries are, and to show how she tries to communicate them.


We begin with the story called “A Memory,” which might be recognized as more or less autobiographical even if Katherine Anne Porter (in her sympathetic introduction to A Curtain of Green) had not suggested it first, because here in seminal form are some of the central mysteries which have occupied Eudora Welty as a mature writer. It is the nature of the child lying on the beach which suggests what is to come, her preoccupation and her discoveries. An incipient artist, the child has a passion for form, order, control, and a burning need to identify, categorize, and make judgments on whatever comes within her vision. She does this by making small frames with her fingers, which is her way of imposing or projecting order on a reality which she has already guessed but not admitted to be a terrifying chaos. She is convinced that reality is hidden and that to discover it requires perpetual vigilance, a patient and tireless scrutiny of the elusive gesture which will communicate a secret that may never be completely revealed.

Paralleled with this “intensity” is another equal intensity: that of her love for a small blond boy, a schoolmate about whom she knows nothing, to whom she has expressed nothing, but whom she holds fiercely within the protective focus of her love—a protection of him and of herself and her expectations which is enforced by the dreary regularity of school routine. But one day the boy suddenly has a nosebleed, a shock “unforeseen, but at the same time dreaded,” and “recognized.” It is the moment when she receives her first clear revelation of mortality, when she perceives the chaos that threatens all her carefully ordered universe, and the vulnerability of her loved one; she recognizes the sudden violence, the horror of reality, against which she is helpless. This event makes her even more fiercely anxious about the boy, for she “felt a mystery deeper than danger which hung about him.”

This event is also a foreboding of the experience the girl has on the beach when a family-group of vulgar bathers comes crashing into the world of her dream. Here is wildness, chaos, abandonment of every description, a total loss of dignity, privateness, and identity. There is destruction of form in the way the bathers protrude from their costumes, in the “leglike confusion” of their sprawled postures, in their pudgy, flabby figures; there is terrifying violence in their abuse of each other, their pinches and kicks and “idiotic sounds,” their hurdling leaps, the “thud and the fat impact of all their ugly bodies upon one another.” There is a hint of a final threat to human existence itself when the man begins to pile sand on the woman's legs, which “lay prone one on the other like shadowed bulwarks, uneven and deserted,” until there is a “teasing threat of oblivion.” The girl finally feels “a peak of horror” when the woman turns out her bathing suit “so that the lumps of mashed and folded sand came emptying out … as though her breasts themselves had turned to sand, as though they were of no importance at all and she did not care.” The girl has a premonition that without form—the kind she has been imposing on reality by her device of framing things like a picture—there is for human beings no dignity nor identity, that beyond the chaos of matter lies oblivion, total meaninglessness. This is the vision of reality which must be squared to the dream; and so the girl must now watch the boy, still vulnerable, “solitary and unprotected,” with the hour on the beach accompanying her recovered dream and added to her love.

This is one of the sorrowful or “brutal” mysteries which Miss Welty presents in her stories. The “joyful” mystery is, of course, the careful, tender, ravishing love, the exquisite joy, and the dream. Chaotic reality does not displace the dream; though reality proves to be as terrifying as the child might have guessed, the dream cannot be totally destroyed.

The same mystery is explored in “A Curtain of Green,” for the brooding, fearful, scarcely conscious anticipation of the girl in “A Memory” is the anguished knowledge of the bereaved young widow, Mrs. Larkin. In this story we have a similar careful, protective, absolute love, to which comes the violent affront of the most freakish and arbitrary kind of accident: a chinaberry tree simply falls on and kills Mrs. Larkin's husband. When she sees the accident, she assumes instinctively that the power of her love can save him: she orders softly, “You can't be hurt,” as though, like God, she can bring order out of chaos. “She had waited there on the porch for a time afterward, not moving at all—in a sort of recollection-as if to reach under and bring out from obliteration her protective words and to try them once again … so as to change the whole happening. It was accident that was incredible, when her love for her husband was keeping him safe.” Human love is finally powerless against chaos.

Now the young widow must penetrate deeply the meaning of this reality, which is simply to ask the question raised by any devastating accident: why did it happen? She plunges herself into the wild greenness out of which death fell: nature unpruned, uncultivated, formless in its fecundity. In the process of plunging, she hopes to discover the essential meaning of nature; the knowledge itself will give her a kind of power over it, even though paradoxically she must abandon herself to it, become a part of it, lose her identity in it, as she does with her hair streaming and tangled, her uncertain wanderings, her submersion in the “thick, irregular, sloping beds of plants.” She must look to see what is concealed behind that curtain of green.

Into the focus of her attention comes Jamey, the Negro gardener, and once again she tries to seize control of destiny and effect her will, to give some meaning to the confusion and disorder of reality. If her love cannot preserve life, at least her fury and vengeance can bring death. Jamey's mindless serenity, his elusive self-possession, his quiet, inaccessible apartness (which signifies his calm acceptance of life) goad her into wonder and fury. For a moment she experiences a terrible lust for destruction. “Such a head she could strike off, intentionally, so deeply did she know, from the effect of a man's danger and death, its cause in oblivion; and so helpless was she, too helpless to defy the working of accident, of life and death, of unaccountability. … Life and death, she thought, gripping the heavy hoe, life and death, which now meant nothing to her but which she was compelled continually to wield with both her hands, ceaselessly asking, Was it not possible to compensate? to punish? to protest?” Out of oblivion—without malice or motive—she can cause a death, as her husband's death has come, motiveless, out of oblivion; yet her destructive action would also be meaningless because it is not compensation for her husband's death: it is even too pointless to be a protest; what would the protest be against? Life and death are arbitrarily given and taken, pointlessly interchangeable—how then can her action, or any human action, have meaning? And yet, how can a human being not protest?

No rational answer comes to Mrs. Larkin. There is only release, touched off by the sudden fall of a retarded rain: thus it is a chance of nature which saves her from committing a meaningless murder, just as it is a chance of nature which kills her husband. The rain seems to bring out the quiet and lovely essences, the inner shapes of things in all the profusion of that green place, for “everything appeared to gleam unreflecting from within itself in its quiet arcade of identity.” Mrs. Larkin feels the rush of love (“tenderness tore and spun through her sagging body”); she thinks senselessly, “it has come” (the rain and the release). She drops the hoe, and sinks down among the plants in a half-sleep, half-faint, which is resignation; a blissful surrender to the mystery of nature, to the inevitable, because “against that which is inexhaustible, there was no defense.” But her sleep has the look of death: there is the suggestion that only by sinking herself into final oblivion will she ever be released from her burning compulsion to wrest meanings from nature, to impose order on chaos, to recover her loved one.

These dark mysteries are further explored in a story called “Flowers for Marjorie.” The story takes place during the Depression, and Howard and Marjorie, a poor young Mississippi couple, have gone to New York City to find work. Marjorie is pregnant, and Howard has been engaged in a humiliating and fruitless search for a job. He has now reached a point of despair in which he imagines that nothing can ever happen to break the inevitability of the pattern of being without work, without food, without hope. In his view there is no slight possibility of change or chance, a stroke of good luck; time, like their cheap alarm clock, ticks on with a bland, maddening pointlessness, because for Howard time has stopped.

But Marjorie, a warm feminine girl with soft cut hair, quietly and literally embodies an assumption of the significance of time, change, and progression. She has the matter-of-fact, yet deeply mystical knowledge that her rounding body holds a new life. She looks forward to a birth, and to Howard she seems in a “world of sureness and fruitfulness and comfort, grown forever apart, safe and hopeful in pregnancy”—the one flagrant exception to the fixed pattern of hopeless and pointless repetition. As if to tease Howard with the knowledge of her enviable exemption from despair, she has by chance found a bright yellow pansy which she places in the buttonhole of her old sky-blue coat and looks at proudly—“as though she had displayed some power of the spirit.” In her human hope and submission, her gentle and loving reproaches against Howard's anxiety, she seems to him almost “faithless and strange, allied to the other forces.” He finally shouts at her, out of his deep love turned into terrible despair, “just because you can't go around forever with a baby inside your belly, and it will really happen that the baby is born—that doesn't mean everything else is going to happen and change! … You may not know it, but you're the only thing left in the world that hasn't stopped!”

Then in a moment of wild objection to the affront of time and change in her whole being, of her content, security, and easiness, he seizes a butcher knife and stabs her quickly and without violence—so quickly that the girl stays poised in a perfect balance in her seat at the window, one arm propped on the sill and hair blowing forward in the wind; the relative stillness and composure of her life now become the absolute, ironic stillness of death. Howard watches her lap like a bowl slowly filling with blood. Then he hears the clock ticking loudly, and throws it out the window. By his action he has taken a destructive hold of time and change, correcting the only apparent flaw in his desperate logic of futility.

The events which follow can only be described as monstrous. Howard, half-numb and hysterical, flings himself on the town, only to be confronted with a series of crazily ironic pieces of good luck. It is as though chance had seized him by the throat and said, “You suppose nothing can happen to change the pattern, and you try to seize control. Oh, the universe is full of surprises—only see what can happen!”—and then throttled him and taken a gleeful revenge by playing a series of ingenious tricks on him. What a surprise when the small bright world of the glass-ball paperweight is deluged in a fury of snow, and when a man unaccountably drops a dime in his hand! What a surprise when the slot machine at the bar responds to his last nickel by disgorging itself so profusely that one of the men says, “Fella, you ought not to let all hell loose that way” (for the crazy logic of hell has been let loose since Howard has committed the murder)! And what a finally horrifying surprise when he walks through a turnstile to an arcade and becomes “the ten millionth person to enter Radio City,” covered with all of the honor and glory of arbitrarily conferred distinction and publicity (“What is your occupation?” “Are you married?”—as photo-lights flash) and given a huge key to the city and an armful of bright red roses!

He flees in terror back to the flat. There in the little fourthstory room, full of the deep waves of fragrance from the roses, he “knew for a fact that everything had stopped. It was just as he had feared, just as he had dreamed. He had had a dream to come true.” Here he is with his gift of flowers for his lovely flower-loving wife (whose round and fruitful lap should be filled with roses instead of a pool of blood)—his good luck, his “break,” his “dream come true.” And here he is also with his nightmare come true. He now faces the impossibility of any personally significant kind of chance or change or hope, the absolute and unalterable fact of death.

If love and happiness seem to be permanently insured (as in Mrs. Larkin's case), chance may annihilate them at a stroke; if misery and destruction seem unalterable, so that from despair people act in accordance with what they suppose to be their tragic inevitability (as in Howard's case), chance may surprise them, belatedly and irrelevantly, with a shower of gifts. Human beings cannot predict, they cannot control, they cannot protest against, they cannot even begin to understand the inscrutable workings of the universe.


These are the darkest mysteries that Miss Welty ever explores, for in no other stories does she confront her characters with all the terrors of chance and oblivion. However inarticulate, plaintive, lonely, or frustrating she shows love becoming in the experience of a human being, she never again reveals it in its final and stark impotence against the implacable inhumanity of the universe. The stories tell us something about her philosophical vision, which might be identified (at the risk of giving her work the “tweak of fashion” she deplores) as pessimistic and existential.

Through the experience of her characters she seems to be saying that there is no final meaning to life beyond the human meanings; there is no divine “surround,” no final shape to total reality, no love within or beyond the universe (for all its ravishing beauties), however much of it there may be burning in individual, isolated human hearts. Through an inevitable act of mind and heart (which is like a blessed reflex, because love comes willy-nilly, or a compulsion, because the mind must impose its order), the individual makes whatever meaning is to come out of chaotic reality, and this is the existential act. There are only fragments of shape and meaning, here, there, and everywhere: those created by all the world's lovers and artists (the terms often become interchangeable in her vocabulary). And in Miss Welty's catholic and charitable vision, the lovers and artists would probably include most people at least some of the time. Thus her deepest faith is couched securely in her deepest scepticism.

One other story in which she plunges into metaphysical questions is “A Still Moment.” In this story three men try to wrest final meanings out of human life from three different points of view. Each of these men—Lorenzo Dow, the evangelist; Murrell, the outlaw; and Audubon, the naturalist—is consumed with a desire to know, or do, or communicate something of burning urgency; and each is essentially frustrated in his mission. Lorenzo, consumed by divine love, has the passion to save souls, but his efforts are mocked not only by lack of response—his inability to light up all the souls on earth—but by far more threatening internal struggles. These come from his awareness that nature mocks him in its simplicity, peace, and unconscious effectiveness; that he is more susceptible to nature than to divine beauty; and that in his frequent encounters with death he manages to survive less because of his sense of divine guidance and protection than because some strange savage strength and cunning overtake him in the moment of danger. He is saved by an instinct which he identifies as the word of the devil, not an angel, because “God would have protected him in His own way, less hurried, more divine.” Because of his precarious and costly faith and the doubts and frustrations and waste places of his own heart, he flies across the wilderness floor from one camp meeting to the next, filled with the terrible urgency of his message: “Inhabitants of time! The wilderness is your souls on earth. … These wild places and these trails of awesome loneliness lie nowhere, nowhere but in your heart.”

Murrell, the outlaw killer, who believes himself to be possessed of the devil, falls in beside Lorenzo and settles on him for his next victim. His method is strangely ceremonial, for he rides beside the victim telling long tales, in which a “silent man would have done a piece of evil … in a place of long ago, and it was all made for the revelation in the end that the silent man was Murrell himself, and the long story had happened yesterday, and the place here.” Lorenzo's passion is to save the inhabitants of time before Eternity; Murrell's is to “Destroy the present! … the living moment and the man that lives in it must die before you can go on.” In the moment of hideous confrontation with the victim just before the murder, Murrell tries to lay hold on the mystery of being. He murders for the same reason that Mrs. Larkin almost murders Jamey: “It was as if other men, all but himself, would lighten their hold on the secret, upon assault, and let it fly free at death. In his violence he was only treating of enigma.” Approaching the point of climax which is to be the still moment, he and Lorenzo are like brothers seeking light; for Lorenzo's divine passion is darkened by his sense of the tempter within him, and Murrell is less guilty than his crimes would make him appear because he has no other motive for killing than pure quest for the elusive mystery of being. Evangelist and murderer, soul-saver and destroyer, seem to become as one.

Audubon's light step on the wilderness floor, his serene and loving gaze at the earth, and the birds and animals around him, suggest at first a sharp contrast with the desperate urgency of the two men. He is a man who seems in harmony with nature, “very sure and tender, as if the touch of all the earth rubbed upon him”; a man who needs no speech because it is useless in communicating with birds and animals. But Audubon is presently seen to have his own urgency. The sweet excess of love gives him a compulsive and insatiable need to remember, to record in his journal, and to convey all the varieties of nature about him. His vigilant probing of nature is a quest for origins and ends; he does not know whether the radiance he sees is only “closed into an interval between two darks,” or whether it can illuminate the two darks which a human being cannot penetrate, and “discover at last, though it cannot be spoken, what was thought hidden and lost.” His endless examination of the outside world may disclose to him the mystery of his own identity. “When a man at last brought himself to face some mirror surface he still saw the world looking back at him, and if he continued to look, to look closer and closer, what then? The gaze that looks outward must be trained without rest, to be indomitable.”

Here gathered in the wilderness, then, are three fiery souls, each absolute in its consuming desire, for “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. …”

Into the still moment comes the beautiful, slow, spiral flight of the snowy heron; with its unconscious freedom, it lays quiet over them, unburdens them, says to them, “Take my flight.” To each comes a revelation, and these revelations are inevitably disparate and subjective. With swift joy Lorenzo sees the bird as a visible manifestation of God's love. Murrell has a sudden mounting desire for confession, and a response of pity; he wishes for a keen look from the bird which could fill and gratify his heart: as though the bird had some divine power, and its sign of recognition could accuse and forgive simultaneously. Audubon gazes at the bird intensely as if to memorize it; and then, because he knows he cannot paint accurately enough from memory, he raises his gun to shoot it. As he does so, he sees in Lorenzo's eyes horror so pure and final as to make him think he has never seen horror before.

Audubon shoots the bird and puts it in his bag. The three men disperse; and for each of them it is as though his destiny has been sealed, the basic issue of his life clarified. Murrell lies in wait for the next victim: “his faith was in innocence and his knowledge was of ruin; and had these things been shaken? Now, what could possibly be outside his grasp?” He is filled with his glorious satanic dreams of conquest and darkness.

Audubon knows that he will paint a likeness of the bird which will sometimes seem to him beautifully faithful to its original; but this knowledge comes with the tragic awareness that even though he alone as artist has really seen the bird, he cannot possess or even reproduce the vision because his painting will be a dead thing, “never the essence, only a sum of parts.” The moment of beauty can never be communicated, “never be one with the beauty in any other man's head in the world. As he had seen the bird most purely at its moment of death, in some fatal way, in his care for looking outward, he saw his long labor most revealingly at the point where it met its limit.” The final frustration of the artist is that he can never capture the final mystery of life, nor convey it to others; no matter how faithfully and sensitively reproduced, nature remains inviolable and unknown.

Riding slowly away, Lorenzo has a terrifying vision, for it suddenly seems to him that “God Himself, just now, thought of the Idea of Separateness.” He sees no apparent order or scheme in the divine management of things, because God is outside Time, and He does not appear to know or care how much human beings who live inside Time need order and coherence which alone can bring the lover to a final union with the loved object. God created the yearnings, but He did not provide a way of meeting the need. He seems to Lorenzo finally indifferent:

He could understand God's giving Separateness first and then giving Love to follow and heal in its wonder; but God had reversed this, and given Love first and then Separateness, as though it did not matter to Him which came first. Perhaps it was that God never counted the moments of Time; Lorenzo did that, among his tasks of love. Time did not occur to God. Therefore—did He even know of it? How to explain Time and Separateness back to God, Who had never thought of them, Who could let the whole world come to grief in a scattering moment?

In terms of the incident Lorenzo is saying: “Why did you let me see the bird, which was inevitably to love it, and see in it your love become visible, and share that love with the other watchers, only to let it be suddenly and pointlessly destroyed, so that I am now separated both from the beloved object, and from all who saw it or who might have seen and loved it?” Which is like saying, “Why do you allow death to happen?”—the question which also tortures the young wife in “A Curtain of Green.”

Yet the “beautiful little vision” of the feeding bird stays with Lorenzo, a beauty “greater than he could account for,” which makes him shout “Tempter!” as he whirls forward with the sweat of rapture pouring down his face. This is because he has again felt in his heart how overwhelmingly sensitive he is to the beauty of nature, and also how pointless and baffling is any attempt to relate it to divine love or meaning or plan or purpose; how pointless, then, is his mission to save souls. But he rushes on through the gathering darkness to deliver his message on the text “in that day when all hearts shall be disclosed.” His final desperate gesture of faith is that when Time is over, meanings will be revealed; then the breach between Love and Separateness, the source of human tragedy, will be eternally closed. It is a faith that Miss Welty herself nowhere affirms: she only shows us, in the richly varied characters and situations of her stories, the intensity of the Love, and the tragic fact of the Separateness in the only life we know, which is our present life in Time. Miss Welty is asking metaphysical questions, but she is attempting no answers. The only solution to a mystery is yet another mystery; cosmic reality is a nest of Chinese boxes.


With a sensitivity as detached as it is tender, so that we may not even notice the sympathy because of the sure, cool objectivity of her art (like Audubon, she is a careful and relentless observer), Miss Welty brings to life a number of characters each engaged in the private quest for the identity of the self, and the self in relation to the other. She is concerned about what she calls “the mystery of relationship” in all stages of awareness. The questions asked are “Who am I and who are you?” These are related to the questions “How can I get my love out into the world, into reality”—that is, communicated and understood—and “How can I see and know what is going on in your heart,” which is sometimes to say, “How can I see my love returned and shared?”

In “The Hitch-Hikers” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” two salesmen have a flash of insight into their own identity, which is pathetically and paradoxically that they have no identity because they have no place and no focus of love to define them. Tom Harris, the thirty-year-old salesman of “The Hitch-Hikers,” appears to have been born with a premonition of his coming isolation, for as a child he had often had the sense of “standing still, with nothing to touch him, feeling tall and having the world come all at once into its round shape underfoot and rush and turn through space and make his stand very precarious and lonely.” He lives in a world of hitch-hikers, and the title suggests that Harris himself is one of the transients despite the relative economic security provided by his job.

Tom Harris is a wise, tolerant, generous sort; people naturally confide in him and women are attracted to him, but he will not be held back by anyone. He is beyond surprise or shock because of his wide experience. With a peculiarly detached kind of suspense he views the events surrounding a murder committed in his car by one of the hitch-hikers, and this is because any strong emotion or violence in his life has always been something encountered, personally removed. There had been “other fights, not quite so pointless, but fights in his car; fights, unheralded confessions, sudden love-making—none of any of this his, not his to keep, but belonging to the people of these towns as he passed through, coming out of their rooted pasts and their mock rambles, coming out of their time. He himself had no time. He was free; helpless.” Without an ounce of exhilaration in the knowledge of his freedom, and embracing with apparent resignation his knowledge of helplessness, he is found in the last scene poised for yet another flight, a puzzling, touching American phenomenon, exceptional only in the degree of his self-awareness.

The salesman of “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” R. J. Bowman, comes to this awareness belatedly, by perceiving with the acute eye of a stranger the essence of the simple, rooted life of the couple whose crude hospitality he briefly enjoys. The painful contrast with his own loveless, rootless ways kills him as much as does the protest of his troublesome heart. By the end of the story he is beautifully ready for love, but he cannot live to enjoy it. The best comment on the two salesman stories is Miss Welty's own in quite another context—her essay on the importance of place in fiction: “Being on the move is no substitute for feeling. Nothing is. And no love or insight can be at work in a shifting and never-defined position, where eye, mind, and heart have never willingly focused on a steadying point.” Just seeing this truth is enough to kill a man, although his salvation may lie in having seen it.

The salesmen barely got started in their quest for love and identity; but Clytie, in the story by that name, though less self-aware, has made some small progress. She is ready to emerge, to reach out toward others: she is full of the wonder and mystery of humanity, and there is a kind of breathless, religious awe in the way she scans the faces of the townspeople, seeing the absolute and inscrutable uniqueness of each one. “The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face. Was it possible to comprehend the eyes and the mouths of other people, which concealed she knew not what, and secretly asked for still another unknown thing? … It was purely for a resemblance to a vision that she examined the secret, mysterious, unrepeated faces she met in the street of Farr's Gin.” To the people of Farr's Gin, Clytie is ready to give that most generous of all gifts—contemplation: the desire to know without using, the respect for “otherness,” the awe of what is inviolable. But she is suffocated and nauseated, living in a house of disease and death with her vampire-like sister, her alcoholic brother, her apoplectic father, and the dead brother with a bullet hole in his head. These faces come pushing between her and the face she is looking for, which is a face that had long ago looked back at her once when she was young, in a sort of arbor: “hadn't she laughed, leaned forward … and that vision of a face—which was a little like all the other faces … and yet different … this face had been very close to hers, almost familiar, almost accessible.”

After a horrible experience in which, with “breath-taking gentleness,” she touches the face of a barber who comes to shave her father, only to find it hideously scratchy, with “dense, popping green eyes,” she dashes out to the old rain barrel, which seems to her now like a friend, and full of a wonderful dark fragrance. As she looks in, she sees a face—the face she has been looking for—but horribly changed, ugly, contracted, full of the signs of waiting and suffering. There is a moment of sick recognition, “as though the poor, half-remembered vision had finally betrayed her.” That knowledge compels her to do the only thing she can think of to do: she bends her head down over and into the barrel, under the water, “through its glittering surface into the kind, featureless depth, and held it there.”

What does her action mean? First of all, that she sees the ghastly disparity between what she once was and ought to have been (the loving, laughing creature of her youth) and what she has become (ugly, warped, inverted). Also, perhaps, she realizes that the only love in that house, if not in that town, was the love she made: there was no one then to embrace, no nature to plunge into but her own, no love possible but narcissistic love, no reality but her own reality, no knowledge possible but the knowledge of death, which is the immersion into oblivion. It is another pointless joke in a pointless universe. The final image of her as fallen forward into the barrel, “with her poor ladylike black-stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs,” is one of the most grim jokes Miss Welty has ever perpetrated: it is only our memory of the wild misfiring of Clytie's love which makes us hear the narrator say, “See her coldly as grotesque, but see her also tenderly as pathetic.”

The situations in all these stories seem fundamentally tragic or pathetic. It is when the loving heart is awakened in finding an object that joy speaks out in the stories, almost inaudibly in “First Love,” somewhat more clearly in “At the Landing,” and loudly and triumphantly in “A Worn Path.” Joel Mayes, the solitary little deaf-mute of “First Love,” is dazzled into love by a single gesture of Aaron Burr's, a gesture which brings a revelation:

One of the two men lifted his right arm—a tense, yet gentle and easy motion—and made the dark wet cloak fall back. To Joel it was like the first movement he had ever seen, as if the world had been up to that night inanimate. It was like a signal to open some heavy gate or paddock, and it did open to his complete astonishment upon a panorama in his own head, about which he knew first of all that he would never be able to speak—it was nothing but brightness. …

A single beautiful movement of human strength and careless grace has crystallized a love which is fated to be as inarticulate as it is sweetly wondering and intense. Quietly, night after night, the little boy sits watching his beloved, adoring his nobility, his mystery, his urgency. The boy's presence is accepted by the conspirators, but ignored. Joel has no way of expressing his love, except by trotting like a little dog around his master, sniffing out the dangers that lie in his path, for Joel constantly senses the imminence of disaster, and the dread of coming separation. “Why would the heart break so at absence? Joel knew it was because nothing had been told.” And yet even if the moment of revelation did come, when love might speak out, he knows there are no words for what it might say. Gazing deeply into the face of the sleeping Burr, he has a terrible wish to speak out loud; “but he would have to find names for the places of the heart and the times for its shadowy and tragic events, and they seemed of great magnitude, heroic and terrible and splendid, like the legends of the mind. But for lack of a way to tell how much was known, the boundaries would lie between him and the others, all the others, until he died.” The most he can do for Burr is to quiet his nightfears by gently taking his hand, stopping his nightmare ravings from the ears of potential eavesdroppers. When Burr leaves town Joel feels he will “never know now the true course, or the outcome of any dream.” His love never gets in the world, but it is less pathetic than Clytie's because at least it has found an object, it has flowered.

“In the world” is a key phrase in the story of Jenny Lockhart called “At the Landing.” It is the hearts of her family that are locked: she is caught in the house of pride, tradition, “culture,” and death, folded in the womb of that house by her grandfather. Through the painful birth process of discovery and experience she comes to the landing, the taking-off place, and so out into the world. The world, the forces of life, are symbolized by the river and the flood, which inundate Jenny's house and the graveyard where her relatives are buried. Billy Floyd, a wild creature of mysterious origins who fishes on the river, rides along on the flood and is master of it, is the one who brings her into the world: not only by his sexual violation of her, but more quietly and surely through her adoring response to his wild beauty, through the revelations which come to her about herself and him, and about love, which are the chief concern of the story.

Jenny learns almost as much about love, about its mysteries and changes, and the mystery of human identity, as it is possible to learn. These revelations come to her by seeing, feeling, and guessing—by intuitive perception. For example, simply in watching Billy's innocence as he drinks deeply and then throws himself on the grass to sleep, she knows her innocence has left her: this is because a knowledge of innocence presupposes some knowledge of experience, of what might not be innocent, out of which contrast springs the recognition of innocence. Or she learns how love “would have a different story in the world if it could lose the moral knowledge of a mystery that is in the other heart”: that is, if people who love were less aware of how both vulnerable and inviolable their lovers were, they could speak their minds more fully, ride over each other more freely with their aggressions, or attack each other more analytically; but they could not, of course, learn much more about each other, or achieve more satisfaction by doing so (even though, human nature being what it is, they inevitably will do so). Watching Billy ride the red horse becomes for her a kind of anticipation of the sexual act, through which she learns that “the vaunting [male] and prostration [female] of love told her nothing”: that is, sexual experience in itself cannot disclose the mystery of human identity nor bring people together.

When she sees Billy Floyd in the village store, he seems changed: there is “something close, gathering-close, and used and worldly about him, … something handled, … strong as an odor, the odor of the old playing cards that the old men of The Landing shuffled every day over their table in the street.” If she presses him now, corners him in that small place, she will discover his identity, and that will be something small, mean, and faintly dirty—for he is thought by the literal-minded to be “really the bastard of one of the old checker-players, that had been let grow up away in the woods till he got big enough to come back and make trouble.” But he conquers her with his defiant look, and she wisely lets him escape, knowing that this is not his true and final definition: his origins are more wild and wonderful (is the Natchez Indian in his blood?—is he one of the people of the lost Atlantis?); his nature cannot be defined by the context of the village store and the odors of old playing cards.

She learns too the value of her love (“what my heart holds this minute is better than what you offer the least bit less”), and how enormously precious is her whole nature, which must be learned slowly, patiently, tenderly (“She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all”). She knows also that “what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler”: that is, she has no final revelations to give to any lover; she is only herself, like every other human being, on a perplexing journey through life, engaged in the perpetual and difficult process of finding herself, her meaning, her destination. The most two people can do is to travel together for a while. Billy Floyd has his own search, and she has hers. These are only a few of the amazing discoveries Jenny makes in her birth process, the process of coming into the world; and each discovery is, of course, only the revelation of yet another human mystery. At the end of the story she is only starting her wait for Billy Floyd. She has “arrived,” she has been born (and with what violence in that series of rapes at the hands of the river men); but she hasn't yet really begun the journey; she is “at the landing.”

Jenny's love barely manages to get articulated; its actions in the world are fumbling and largely ineffectual; and at the end of the story she is left, like Joel, separated from her loved one. But the love of Old Phoenix in “A Worn Path” is most triumphantly realized “in the world.” It has a clear object—her grandson; it is actualized, put out into reality, not only by her care of him, but in the periodic ceremonial act of her trip along the worn path into town to fetch the “soothing medicine.” There are no significant barriers to the expressive love of old Phoenix, and this is reflected also in her sense of familiarity with nature—the ease with which she talks to the birds and animals—and in her ability to live as readily, interchangeably, and effectively in the realm of the fanciful and supernatural as she does in the realm of practicalities. She is, like Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, a completely and beautifully harmonious person—something one does not often find in the fiction of either Miss Welty or Faulkner.


What happens when love finds fulfillment in the most natural and happy way possible, physically and emotionally, when it is both communicated and returned and is solidly “in the world” socially and legally through marriage? Is there then an end to the mysteries of the self and the other? In several of her stories Miss Welty shows there is not; she indicates, in fact, that the one thing any married person cannot do is to assume knowledge of the other, or try to force it in any way, or make a predictable pattern of a relationship, or block the independence, or impede the search of the other. A relationship of love can be kept joyful, active, free, only if each partner steps back now and then to see the other with a fresh sense of his inviolable otherness, his mystery, his absolutely sacred and always changing identity. Out of some deep need to establish the new perspective, to insist on freedom and apartness, one partner may simply run away from the other, withdraw, or go into temporary “retreat.” This is a basic situation in “A Piece of News,” “The Key,” “The Wide Net,” The Robber Bridegroom,Delta Wedding, “Music from Spain,” “The Whole World Knows,” and “The Bride of the Innisfallen.” The quarrels and separations presented in these stories are not the ordinary distressing marital quarrels which spring from hate, aggression, and conventional domestic discord, for none of these lovers has ceased to love or want the other. Each of them is simply demanding in his own way: “See me new. Understand the changes in me, and see how I am apart from you, unknowable and not to be possessed: only when you see me new can you possess me fully again.”

The theme is given a semi-comic treatment in “A Piece of News.” Ruby Fischer, a primitive, isolated and apparently unfaithful young backwoods wife, chances on a newspaper story in which a girl with the same name is shot in the leg by her husband. Though Ruby knows such an action on her husband Clyde's part to be quite improbable—even though he knows of her infidelities—she is immediately struck with the imaginative possibilities of such a situation, and is marvelously impressed and flattered. Images of herself dying beautifully in a brand-new nightgown, with a remorseful Clyde hovering over her, play delightfully in her mind. The romantic view of herself extends to her whole body; and while preparing dinner after Clyde returns, she moves in a “mysteriously sweet … delicate and vulnerable manner, as though her breasts gave her pain.” When she discloses to Clyde the secret of the newspaper story, there is a moment, before common sense triumphs, when the two of them face each other “as though with a double shame and a double pleasure.” The deed might have been done: “Rare and wavering, some possibility stood timidly like a stranger between them and made them hang their heads.” For an instant they have had a vision of each other in alien fantasy roles—an experience which is pleasing, exciting, and rather frightening.

The theme is again treated with tender humor in “The Key.” Ellie and Albert Morgan are dramatically shut off from the outside world by being deaf-mutes. When the story opens, we find them sitting tautly in a railroad station, waiting for the departure of their train to Niagara Falls. Ellie, a large woman with a face “as pink and crowded as an old-fashioned rose,” is by far the stronger of the two. Little Albert, “too shy for this world,” seems to be Ellie's own “homemade” product, as though she had “self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night.” But he is neither defeated nor submissive: there is an occasional sly look in his eye which tells of a secret hope and anticipation, a waiting for some nameless surprise indefinitely withheld.

It comes at last in the form of a key accidentally dropped by a young man, a curious red-haired stranger who bears some kinship to Harris of “The Hitch-Hikers” and to George Fairchild of Delta Wedding. He is marvelously fiery, young and strong, compassionate, sensitive, with a lovingly humorous detachment. But the observer-narrator senses that he will “never express whatever might be the desire of his life … in making an intuitive present or sacrifice, or in any way of action at all—not because there was too much in the world demanding his strength, but because he was too deeply aware.” His life is both full of giving and empty of permanent commitment; he has Harris' freely floating love and weariness.

The key, which drops apparently out of the sky at Albert's feet, immediately becomes the thing he has been waiting for, richly portentous—he sits there glowing with “almost incandescent delight.” The young man senses this and doesn't reclaim the key; he stands apart watching the fingers go as Albert and Ellie talk in their own private language. What does it mean? Maybe now they'll really fall in love at Niagara Falls; maybe they didn't have to marry just because they were afflicted and lonely; maybe they can love, be happy, like other people. They wait importantly and expectantly.

But they miss their train—they can't, of course, hear it coming and going so quickly. Shock! At once Ellie resumes her old mode of domination and organizes her “counter-plot” against the outside world, which is obviously hostile to their hopes and plans. But Albert refuses to be crushed now—he has the key; he is delightedly, securely inward. Ellie is baffled: she can't get through to him. Because the strange, funny, and pitiful little irony of their relationship is that Ellie “talks” too much. When they are on the farm together and she feels some unhappiness between them, she has to break off from her churning to assure Albert of her love and protection, “talking with the spotted sour milk dripping from her fingers.” All her talk just makes the fluid, simple, natural farm life “turn sour.” Security runs away in the face of Ellie's panic.

Ellie sits there, heavy with disappointment as she thinks about Niagara Falls, and her conviction that they would even hear it in their bodies through the vibrations. She is going to brood over the whole incident and the terrible disappointment, as she does over all their discussions, misunderstandings, agreements—“even about the secret and proper separation that lies between a man and a woman, the thing that makes them what they are in themselves, their secret life, their memory of the past, their childhood, their dreams. This to Ellie was unhappiness.” She is afraid of Albert's private life, of all his secrets that cannot be hers. Loneliness and isolation compel her to claim all—to work herself into every corner of his pitifully limited experience. But Albert really isn't tamed despite his obedience—he stubbornly preserves his quiet, intensely personal identity, and he has the key to it in his pocket. Maybe the key wasn't, as he first thought, the symbol of a coming happiness through the Niagara Falls expedition; maybe it was “something which he could have alone, for only himself, in peace, something strange and unlooked for which would come to him.” Poor Ellie.

But the red-haired stranger with his god-like compassion and omniscience (how much of all this does he guess?—the narrator seems to have infinite faith in his awareness), has a key for Ellie too. She is not to be left, literally or figuratively, out in the cold. The key he places in her hand bears the legend, “Star Hotel, Room 2.” What could be neater or lovelier? The designated use to its owner of Albert's key is never disclosed. The imagination can soar on that one; it is appropriate as the symbol of Albert's secret hope, his own unique humanity, a thing shared with, endowed by the mysterious, god-like young man. Ellie's key to the young man's hotel room is appropriately practical—she is the one who “manages”; and yet it has its exciting edge. Why do honeymooners travel to Niagara Falls, after all, except to repair to hotel rooms? This room is in the Star, and that's what Ellie has been wishing on. Perhaps she will yet see her wish fulfilled for a “changing and mixing of their lives together.”

But the story ends with the young man's faintly dismal, realistic vision, not of the possibilities, but of the probabilities. As he departs, lighting a cigarette, we can see his eyes by the light of the match, and in them, “all at once wild and searching, there was certainly, besides the simple compassion in his regard, a look both restless and weary, very much used to the comic. You could see that he despised and saw the uselessness of the thing he had done.” He may have god-like prescience and compassion, but he hasn't the omnipotence—he can't change things.

Ellie and Albert are extraordinary, but their problem is not. People do not have to be deaf-mutes to be driven together by the felt hostility of the outside world, and the inevitable pattern then is one of a too insistent closeness. Ellie has to learn that Albert has a right to his secret—he'll keep that key in his pocket as long as he lives.

A version of this theme which bears some resemblance to the Cupid and Psyche myth appears in Miss Welty's romping fantasy, The Robber Bridegroom. Rosamond, the lovely heroine, has been kidnapped by a bold bandit of the forest; but she finds the arrangement much to her liking. The one prohibition—the forbidden fruit in her Eden—is any attempt to discover her bridegroom's identity, which is disguised by wild berry stain. Rosamond's idyllic state continues until the satanic stepmother tempts her to break the prohibition and provides her with a recipe for a brew to remove the berry stain. In the night when her bandit lover is sleeping, Rosamond wipes the stains off his face. He awakens, and she is distressed to find that he is only Jamie Lockhart, the well-scrubbed, dull, respectable young man who had come at the request of her father, Clement, to search for and capture the robber bridegroom. Jamie, in turn, now recognizes Rosamond as “Clement Musgrove's silly daughter,” and both of them are thoroughly disenchanted with each other. The truth, as old Clement has seen even with his upside-down version of his daughter's predicament, is that “all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.” Once human mystery and complexity are ignored or dissipated by a pressing for simple definitions, the residue is bound to be disappointing.

A “lovers' quarrel” is the cause of the falling out between William Wallace and his newly pregnant, young wife Hazel in “The Wide Net.” Hazel is filled with her great experience of coming motherhood: she is elated, solemn, fearful, mysterious, “touchy.” William Wallace hasn't taken sufficient account of this: in fact, to make matters worse, he has been out on a drinking spree with one of the boys. Hazel retaliates by writing a letter in which she threatens to drown herself. And so her husband must now go in quest of her, and find, swimming in the depths of the Pearl River, what is the “old trouble”:

So far down and all alone, had he found Hazel? Had he suspected down there, like some secret, the real, the true trouble that Hazel had fallen into, about which words in a letter could not speak … how (who knew?) she had been filled to the brim with that elation that they all remembered, like their own secret, the elation that comes of great hopes and changes, sometimes simply of the harvest time, that comes with a little course of its own like a tune to run in the head, and there was nothing she could do about it—they knew—and so it had turned into this? It could be nothing but the old trouble that William Wallace was finding out, reaching and turning in the gloom of such depths.

Though “The Bride of the Innisfallen” has been widely misunderstood, the real subject of that story is related to that of “The Wide Net.” The point of view of most of “The Bride of the Innisfallen” is that of an observing narrator who obviously enjoys the human comedy in the train compartment full of richly varied “types” heading for Ireland, but it is a perspective subtly shared with that of one character singled out for special attention: a young American wife who is running away from her husband. Only at the end of the story does the narrator concentrate explicitly on the mind and experience of the young wife, but then we realize how what she has seen on the trip, and on her perambulations through glorious, fresh, wildly funny, dazzlingly lovely Cork (so it registers for her), explain both to us and to her what her “trouble” has been with her husband.

The “trouble” is her excess of hope, joy, and wonder at the mystery and glory of human life, all of which is symbolized to her in the lovely young bride who appears mysteriously on board the “Innisfallen” just as it prepares to land at Cork. This joy the American girl's husband apparently cannot see or share (as William Wallace cannot at first perceive Hazel's strange elation). “You hope for too much,” her husband has said to her: that was “always her trouble.” How can she preserve this quality which is so much and simply her definition that without it she loses her identity? The question answers itself, because joy and hope constantly bound up in her. “Love with the joy being drawn out of it like anything else that aches—that was loneliness; not this. I was nearly destroyed, she thought, and again was threatened with a light head, a rush of laughter. …” Her real problem is not how to preserve her joy, but how to communicate it to her husband, or to anybody:

If she could never tell her husband her secret, perhaps she would never tell it at all. You must never betray pure joy—the kind you were born and began with—either by hiding it or by parading it in front of people's eyes; they didn't want to be shown it. And still you must tell it. Is there no way? she thought—for here I am, this far. I see Cork's streets take off from the waterside and rise lifting their houses and towers like note above note on a page of music, with arpeggios running over it of green and galleries and belvederes, and the bright sun raining at the top. Out of the joy I hide for fear it is promiscuous, I may walk forever at the fall of evening by the river, and find this river street by the red rock, this first, last house, that's perhaps a boarding house now, standing full-face to the tide, and look up to that window—that upper window, from which the mystery will never go. The curtains dyed so many times over are still pulled back and the window looks out open to the evening, the river, the hills, and the sea.

There is no “reconciliation scene” in this story as there is in “The Wide Net.” The girl leaves the story wandering off happily into a bar. From it she hears a cry flung out “fresh … like the signal for a song,” and she walks into “the lovely room full of strangers”—people in whom she can delight without fear of exposure (“So strangeness gently steels us,” Miss Welty has quoted a poem of Richard Wilbur). We do not know whether her husband will see her “new” when she returns to him, though we rather hope he may; for how can she possibly be resisted, this heavy-hearted little saint spinning so giddily toward heaven?

In a story called “Circe” (also from the volume titled The Bride of the Innisfallen), Miss Welty celebrates the human mystery by adopting the perspective of a superhuman being. The effort is a tour de force, because in her attempts to fathom the nature of Odysseus after she seduces him, Circe begins to look very much like one of Miss Welty's human lovers, more than one of whom gaze at the beloved when he is asleep, hoping at that unguarded moment to catch the elusive mystery of his identity. But as a sorceress and magician, though preserved from human frailty and tragedy, and all the uncertainties of time and circumstance (because she can predict the future), Circe envies the human condition. She first contrasts the way of her father with that of the earthly hero. Nature, here personified and deified, is seen to be enviably constant and serene, sure and effective, exempt from human pain, “suffering … no heroic fear of corruption through his constant shedding of light, needing no story, no retinue to vouch for where he has been.” But in Circe's vision human beings have an equal, though different, glory. She thinks enviously,

I know they keep something from me, asleep and awake. There exists a mortal mystery, that, if I knew where it was, I could crush like an island grape. Only frailty, it seems, can divine it—and I was not endowed with that property. They live by frailty! By the moment! I tell myself that it is only a mystery, and mystery is only uncertainty. (There is no mystery in magic! Men are swine: let it be said, and no sooner said than done.) Yet mortals alone can divine where it lies in each other, can find it and prick it in all its peril, with an instrument made of air. I swear that only to possess that one, trifling secret, I would willingly turn myself into a harmless dove for the rest of eternity!

For what is the “instrument of air”—a metaphor? Possibly imagination, intuition, sensitivity, contemplation, wonder, love (whatever, one might guess, is the opposite of cold, rational, loveless, destructive analysis—the metaphor for which would be a blunt mechanical instrument). These delicate “instruments” are the means by which human beings can probe the human mystery, the means by which any lover may meet or be united with any object in the world.


It is also with these “instruments of air” that Miss Welty approaches the persons and places and themes of her fiction; it is what makes for the distinctively lyrical quality of her style. “Relationship is a pervading and changing mystery,” she says in “How I Write”; “it is not words that make it so in life, but words have to make it so in a story.” Her problem as an artist has been to find the words to convey the mysteries, the elusive and subtle inner states of mind and feeling for which most people (and certainly the people of her fiction) have no words at all: she must be articulate about what cannot be articulated. She is out on a fringe, lonely place—as lonely as the wilderness in “A Still Moment”; there, like Lorenzo, Murrell, and Audubon, she must press for definitions: the meanings, the names of some of the most complex, elusive, and important of all human experiences. And it is inevitable that she should have her failures as well as her successes. Her language is not always adequate to the difficulty of what must be conveyed, which is perhaps the reason why she has often been accused of being coy, arch, perversely subtle, too nuanceful or precious.

The wonder is, after all, the large measure of her success. The reason for this we may trace as far back as to the habit of the child in “A Memory,” the habit of close observation, of recording, identifying, “placing” things; or we may see it as recently expounded as in the small volume mentioned earlier, Place in Fiction. “Place in fiction,” Miss Welty says, “is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering-spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress.” As she defines it, place is not only the region or setting of a story; it stands for everything in a story that fixes it to the known, recognizable, present, and “real” world of everyday human experience. It is like the solid flesh that both encloses (pins down) and discloses (reveals) the more elusive human thoughts and feelings. “In real life,” she says, “we have to express the things plainest and closest to our minds by the clumsy word and the half-finished gesture. … It is our describable outside that defines us, willy-nilly, to others, that may save us, or destroy us, in the world; it may be our shield against chaos, or mask against exposure; but whatever it is, the move we make in the place we live has to signify our intent and feelings.” In fiction this illusion of reality is created if the author has seen to “believability”: “The world of experience must be at every step, through every moment, within reach as the world of appearance.” The inner world and the outer surface of life must be interrelated and fused; the imaginative vision must glow through the carefully, objectively painted exterior world.

In her best stories Miss Welty has seen to “believability” by her use of the familiar local Mississippi settings; her close descriptions of the appearance, manner, gestures of her characters; her infallible ear for their speech rhythms and idioms; her use of plausible and logical plot structures; her concern with physical texture and psychological validity; her use of proper names which are always solidly realistic, local, devastatingly accurate, and at the same time, often richly allusive in their symbolism. The destination of the salesman in “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” for example, is a town called Beulah. Surprisingly enough, there is such a place: population 342, Boliver County, N.W. Mississippi, according to the Columbia Gazetteer; but the higher validity of its use as a place name is that the salesman is on his way to the “Beulah Land” of the Southern Baptist gospel hymns.

Or her concern with “believability” may be shown again in the way “A Still Moment”—as formally patterned a story and as close to allegory as any she has written—is most solidly wedded to history in place and time. For the wilderness is not only the isolated, mythical desert setting appropriate to mystical revelations, but it is the old familiar Natchez Trace many years back in history; the characters are not simply abstract or apocryphal types of missionary prophet (the good man), criminal (the evil man), and naturalist (the artistic, detached, contemplative man), but they are three historical persons about whom Miss Welty has undoubtedly done her piece of “research.”

Most of all, the style itself is the best illustration of her concern with “believability.” The fusion of the elusive, insubstantial, mysterious, with what is solidly “real,” can be seen in almost any passage selected at random from Miss Welty's fiction. The one chosen is a short and relatively simple description from “The Death of a Traveling Salesman.” In this episode Sonny, the husband, has returned from a neighbor's with a burning stick in tongs; Bowman, the salesman, watches the wife lighting the fire and beginning preparations for supper:

“We'll make a fire now,” the woman said, taking the brand.

When that was done she lit the lamp. It showed its dark and light. The whole room turned golden-yellow like some sort of flower, and the walls smelled of it and seemed to tremble with the quiet rush of the fire and the waving of the burning lamp-wick in its funnel of light.

The woman moved among the iron pots. With the tongs she dropped hot coals on top of the iron lids. They made a set of soft vibrations, like the sound of a bell far away.

She looked up and over at Bowman, but he could not answer. He was trembling. …

In this passage the simple actions, sights and sounds, are conveyed to us sharply and precisely and yet mysteriously and evocatively, through the mind of a man who experiences an unconscious heightening of awareness, a clarity of vision, because in these closing hours of his life he is approaching his moment of revelation. He is feeling more deeply than ever before, and hence everything he sees he also feels intensely. We know that throughout the story he is in a semi-delirious state, and thus in realistic terms, we are prepared for all the adumbrations and overtones, the exaggerations, blurs, and distortions of his perception. But strange and elusive meanings are coming to him through all he sees: each act and gesture becomes almost ceremonial; each sight and sound richly allusive, portentous, beautiful, and deeply disturbing. The lamp-light registers to him as both dark and light, suggesting the states of dream and reality, his feeling of the warmth, welcome and shelter of this home and his fear of being left out, as well as the chills and fever of his illness. His sense impressions are blended as the golden light seems to him like a flower with an odor that pervades the walls; the trembling, rushing, and waving of the light are also extended to include the walls, suggesting the instability and delirium of his impressions. The woman does not simply “walk” or “step”: she “moves among” the iron pots, like some priestess engaged in a mysterious ritual, moving among the sacred objects; the sound of the hot coals dropped on the iron lids is muted, softly vibrating; the comparison to the sound of a bell again suggests the ceremonial resonance these simple actions have for the salesman. It is no wonder that at the end of the passage we find him trembling and speechless. Through the evocation of the language we have felt into his complex emotional state of wonder, fear, longing, sickness, pain, love: we have seen it all through his eyes and experience. This is characteristically the way Miss Welty blends the inner world and outer surfaces of life—the way she sees to “believability.”

In observing and recording the mysteries, Miss Welty creates a response of wonder, terror, pity, or delight. Her stories teach us nothing directly except, through her vision, how to observe, and wonder, and love, and see the mysteries; for brutal or lovely, they wait for us wherever we go.


  1. Short Stories was originally an address on “The Reading and Writing of Short Stories” delivered by Miss Welty at the University of Washington in 1947. A shorter version was published in the Atlantic Monthly, CLXXXIII (February and March, 1949), 54-58, 46-49, and the full text by Harcourt, Brace in 1950.

  2. The first two quotations cited are from Short Stories, the last three from “How I Write.”


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188

Eudora Welty 1909–-2001

American novelist, short story writer, photographer, and essayist. See also, "A Worn Path" Criticism.

Welty is recognized as an important contemporary American author of short fiction. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, Welty's treatment of universal themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly transcend regional boundaries. Welty is frequently linked with modernist authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and some of her works, including the stories in The Golden Apples (1949), are similar in their creation of complex fictional worlds that are only made comprehensible through a network of symbols and allusions, drawn primarily from classical mythology. Some features of Welty's best-known stories are an authentic replication of southern dialect, as in the story “Why I Live at the P.O.” from Welty's A Curtain of Green (1941), a skillful manipulation of realistic detail, and the application of elements of fantasy to create vivid character portraits.

Biographical Information

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when the city had not yet lost its rural atmosphere, Welty grew up in the bucolic South she so often evoked in her stories. She attended the Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English literature; Welty also studied advertising at Columbia University. However, graduating at the height of the Depression, she was unable to find work and returned to Jackson in 1931. There Welty worked as a part-time journalist and copywriter, and as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) publicity agent. Welty's WPA job took her on assignments reporting and interviewing throughout Mississippi, during which she took hundreds of photographs of ordinary citizens. It was the profundity of these experiences that first inspired Welty to seriously write short stories. In June 1936 her story “Death of a Traveling Salesman” was accepted for publication in the Detroit journal Manuscript and within two years her work appeared in such prestigious publications as the Atlantic and the Southern Review. Critical response to Welty's first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, was mostly favorable, with many commentators predicting that a first performance so impressive would no doubt lead to even greater achievements. Yet when The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943) was published two years later, several critics, most notably Diana Trilling, deplored Welty's marked shift away from the colorful realism of her earlier stories toward a more impressionistic style, objecting in particular to her increased use of symbol and metaphor to convey theme. Other critics responded positively, including Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that in Welty's work, “the items of fiction (scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as a report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea.” As Welty continued to refine her vision, her fictional techniques gained wider acceptance. Indeed, her most complex and highly symbolic collection of stories, The Golden Apples, won much acclaim and Welty received a number of prizes and awards throughout the following decade, including the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart (1954). Occupied primarily with teaching, traveling, and lecturing between 1955 and 1970, Welty produced little fiction. Then, in the early 1970s, she published two novels, Losing Battles (1970), which received mixed reviews, and the more critically successful novelette The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize. While Welty did not publish any new volumes of short stories after The Bride of the Innisfallen in 1955, the release of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought critical praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical chronicle of her artistic development, further illuminated her oeuvre and inspired commentators to reinterpret many of her past stories. Welty died in her birthplace, Jackson, Mississippi, on July 23, 2001. Author Richard Ford, a fellow southerner and past neighbor of Welty's, has been named literary executor of her estate and will decide whether to issue any new work by Welty who ceased publishing in 1973, but continued to write until her death.

Major Works

In his seminal 1944 essay on The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Robert Penn Warren located the essence of Welty's fictive technique in a phrase from her story “First Love”: “Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams.” It is, states Warren, “as though the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event.” This tentative approach to narrative exegesis suggests Welty's primary goal in creating fiction, which was not to simply relate a series of events, but to convey a strong sense of her character's experience in a specific moment in time, always acknowledging the ambiguous nature of reality. In order to do so, Welty selected those details that can best vivify the tale, frequently using metaphors and similes to communicate sensory impressions, while revealing only those incidents that enter her characters' inwardness. The resulting stories are highly impressionistic. Welty typically used traditional symbols and mythical allusions in her work, and in the opinion of many it is through linking the particular with the general and the mundane with the metaphysical that she attained her transcendent vision of being. Welty's stories display a marked diversity in content, form, and mood. Many of her stories are facile and humorous, while others employ the tragic and the grotesque. Her jocular stories frequently rely on the comic possibilities of language, as in both “Why I Live at the P.O.” and The Ponder Heart, which both exploit the levity in the speech pattern and colorful idiom of their southern narrators. In addition, Welty also used irony to comic effect and many critics consider this aspect of her work to be one of its chief strengths. Opinions are divided, however, on the effectiveness of Welty's use of the fantastic. While Trilling and others find inclusion of such elements as the carnival exhibits in “Petrified Man,” from A Curtain of Green, exploitative and superfluous, Eunice Glenn maintains that in the story Welty created “scenes of horror” in order to “make everyday life appear as it often does, without the use a magnifying glass, to the person with extraordinary acuteness of feeling.”

Critical Reception

Critics of Welty's work agree that the same literary techniques that produced her finest stories have also been the cause of her most outstanding failures, noting that she is at her best when objective observation and subjective revelation are kept in balance, and that where the former is neglected, she is ineffective. Commentators remark further, however, that such instances are comparatively rare in Welty's work. Many contemporary critics consider Welty's skillful use of language her single greatest achievement, citing in particular the poetic richness of her narratives and her acute sensitivity to the subtleties and peculiarities of human speech. The majority of reviewers concur with Glenn's assertion that “it is her profound search of human consciousness and her illumination of the underlying causes of the compulsions and fears of modern man that would seem to comprise the principal value of Welty's work.”

Ruth M. Vande Kieft (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16462

SOURCE: Vande Kieft, Ruth M. “The Search for the Golden Apples.” In Eudora Welty, pp. 111–49. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.

[In the following essay, Vande Kieft discusses the unifying elements of the stories in The Golden Apples.]


The most complex and encompassing of Miss Welty's works is The Golden Apples, a book which can be read not merely as a collection of short stories but as a novel which gathers up several of the motifs of her earlier fiction. The unity of the book derives not only from its focus on the characters who within a forty-year span live and die in one small Mississippi town, Morgana, but from its richly thematic, symbolic, mythical patterns of organization. The best approach to that unity is through the Yeats poem from which Miss Welty draws her title:


I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossoms in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

The poem concerns the quest of one of Yeats's favorite Celtic hero-gods, Aengus, who is associated with youth, beauty, and poetry, and who becomes, in the present poem, an alter-ego of the poet. The speaker is “possessed,” passionate and restless, and he goes out in the starlit night on a ritual fishing expedition. He catches a silver trout, which changes into a “glimmering girl,” a beautiful visionary invitation and lure, who calls out his name, then disappears. Now he is forever in quest to find and possess her, to enjoy eternal happiness, to pluck the apples of which the blossoms in her hair gave promise—the apples which are silver by moonlight, golden by sunlight.

Snatches of this poem appear in the story called “June Recital,” welling up in the thoughts of Cassie Morrison when memories of the past, set off by the “Für Elise” theme, break over her. She knows that both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey are “human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth,” and she knows that there are others like them, “human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.” In the middle of her sleep that night she sits up, says a snatch of the poem (“Because a fire was in my head”), then falls back to sleep. The chapter concludes: “She did not see except in dreams that a face looked in; that it was the grave, unappeased, and radiant face, once more and always, the face that was in the poem.” The face that looks in on Cassie looks out at us in many guises on every page of the book, for the search of the passionate, tireless, wandering Aengus is the search of all the wanderers in The Golden Apples: a search for the glimmering vision which is love, adventure, art, through the achievement of which the golden apples may be plucked, or individual fulfillment realized. And yet, to any Morgana son or daughter, a dream of fulfillment may be only a Fata Morgana—a bewitcher like Morgan the Fay—a mirage, an illusion.

We might think, from the title and content of the opening story, that this fulfillment had already come in the “Shower of Gold” which pours from King MacLain; and we would not be entirely wrong. In this book, as in life, the golden apples are everywhere plucked, and everywhere eternally withheld and pursued: this is the paradox of the glory and comedy of man's achievement and joy, and the tragedy of his frustration and failure.

King MacLain is the first of the wanderers to whom we are introduced, comically, through the monologue of the wise and garrulous Katie Rainey, busy at her churning. Her gossipy idiom plunges us at once into the middle of the life and ethos of this small southern town, and it conveys exactly the mixed admiration and sense of outrage felt by Morgana folk as they contemplate King's amorous career. King stands boldly opposed to what is moral and orderly in their society, mocking both wives and husbands in their respectively submissive roles, tempting and triumphantly seducing the wives, flouting and cuckolding the husbands, appearing and disappearing freely and mysteriously at whim. In his pagan abandon and sensuality, his open defiance of sobriety and decorum, he is allied with such characters as Don McInnis of “Asphodel” and Cash McCord of “Livvie” (curiously, all three surnames are Irish or Scottish Gaelic). Though outrageous like Don McInnis and still another “outrage,” Uncle Daniel of The Ponder Heart (to whom he is related in warmth, generosity, and an apparent lack of rational and moral intelligence), like both of these men he is courteous and courtly in manner, and like them he also appears in a dazzling and impeccably crisp white suit.

King's mythical counterpart is the Zeus of the roving eye, who involved himself in a series of amours with mortal women. His wife, Snowdie Hudson, is obviously related to Danäe, who, according to the Greek myth, was confined by her father in a subterranean chamber or brazen tower and was visited and impregnated by Zeus in a “shower of gold,” a glorious stream of sunlight. Snowdie has been established in a house built especially for her by her father. She is an albino, with eyes susceptible to light; a sweet, gentle girl who appears “whiter than your dreams” in her wedding dress. And when, shortly after one of King's visits, she comes to inform Mrs. Rainey that she is expecting a child, Mrs. Rainey says, “It was like a shower of something had struck her, like she'd been caught out in something bright. … There with her eyes all crinkled up with always fighting the light, yet she was looking out bold as a lion that day under her brim, and gazing into my bucket and into my stall like a visiting somebody.”

King is widely adored for his mystery, his legend, his exoticism (like some ancient merchant he travels, selling tea and spices), his coming by surprise (“Fate Rainey,” Mrs. Rainey complains of her husband, “ain't got a surprise in him, and proud of it”), his bringing of gifts, his sexual prowess; and above all, perhaps, for his ability to make of every woman a goddess, a queen, a legend to herself. It is this achievement that King boasts of at the end of the novel when he is old and appears at the funeral of Mrs. Rainey: he tells how he had once given her a swivel chair to use at her selling post on the roadside. “Oh, then, she could see where Fate Rainey had fallen down, and a lovely man too; never got her the thing she wanted. I set her on a throne!” But he is also considered both a show-off and a scoundrel not only for deserting his faithful and courageous wife but also for irresponsibly populating the countryside: “children of his growing up in the County Orphan's, so say several, and children known and unknown, scattered-like.” The clearly “known” children are Snowdie's twins, Randall and Eugene; the identity of some of the “unknown” children will be a matter for further speculation.

On the whole, Miss Welty treats the career of King MacLain in a comic manner, with little attempt at complexity of characterization. King is more absurdly human than supernaturally heroic. On one of his surprise visits home he arrives on Hallowe'en, and is himself surprised by the twins, who are frighteningly masked for the nonce and chase round him on their roller skates like little possessed demons, scaring him off in a panic. On another visit, described in the story titled “Sir Rabbit,” he cleverly outwits the stupid husband of his willing and gleeful victim, Mattie Will Sojourner (Mattie “will,” and she will wander) in a hunting encounter in some woods near Morgana. The scene of King's assault of Mattie Will evokes the experience of Leda in Yeats's famous “Leda and the Swan” sonnet. Miss Welty seems to be working simultaneously with what is common and uncommon in the action—the quality that makes it at once actual and mythic. The use of Mattie Will's consciousness makes possible both wonder (“when she laid eyes on Mr. MacLain close, she staggered, he had such grandeur”) and a reduction to the commonplace (“she was caught by the hair and brought down as suddenly to earth as if whacked by an unseen shillelagh”). When she has “put on her, with the affront of his body, the affront of his sense too,” and finds “no pleasure in that,” it is possible that she feels King's need and compulsion as painful to him: there is something of the victim as well as the conqueror in King, with “his whole blithe, smiling, superior, frantic existence.” When he has finished with her, she feels she has become “Mr. MacLain's Doom, or Mr. MacLain's Weakness, like the rest, and neither Mrs. Junior Holifield nor Mattie Will Sojourner”; she is part of the legend, “something she had always heard of.”

But the tone of the story is largely comic; the prepotent male can't be allowed to be Olympian, except for a moment or two to the dazzled girl. Later, after Mattie Will has come upon him snoring against a tree, his once fiery limbs looking to her “no more driven than any man's, now,” she thinks of a depreciatingly funny little rhyme:

In the night time
At the right time
So I've understood,
'Tis the habit of Sir Rabbit
To dance in the wood—

In the last story we find, to our surprise, that King has returned home from his wandering voluntarily and permanently at the age of “sixty-odd.” Snowdie, having spent all her parents' money unsuccessfully tracing him through the Jupiter Detective Agency of Jackson, is curiously discontent—ashamed of herself for having tried to find him, confessing in private to Virgie Rainey, “I don't know what to do with him.” But despite the visible signs of old age and senility in King (a coffee cup trembles in his hand, his mind is a wandering storehouse of anecdotes from the past), he is permanently defiant; his stiffly starched white suit looks “fierce—the lapels alert as ears,” recalling the impudent rabbit in this old gentleman. He retains the irresponsibility of amorality; he can never be coerced or wheedled. And when at Mrs. Rainey's funeral he makes a hideous face at her daughter Virgie Rainey, it is to her like “a silent yell at everything”—propriety and decorum, law and order, human misery, the implications of time's passing, fate, tragedy—a yell at death itself, “not leaving it out.” It is a simple joyous assertion by an old man with an untamed spirit of “the pure wish to live.”

Among the wanderers, King seems to have plucked more than his share of the golden apples; but then he is a “flat” character, undeveloping, mythical, existing outside the complex moral world which we and the other main characters in the book know to be real and pressing; nor is he offered seriously as a type of the ideally fulfilled man.


In the second story, “June Recital,” we are introduced to several other Morgana wanderers, chief among whom are the piano teacher, Miss Eckhart; Virgie Rainey, in her rebellious sixteenth year; and Loch Morrison. The point of view in this section is divided between that of Loch Morrison and his sister Cassie. Loch is a restless youngster supposedly confined to his bed with malaria, but through a telescope and later from the branches of the tree into which he scrambles from his window, he curiously views the events which transpire in the large abandoned MacLain house next door. Cassie, who in her own room is busy dyeing a colorful scarf in preparation for a hayride, has a more limited view of the activities in the MacLain house from her window, but through her consciousness and memory we learn the implications of the mysterious goings-on next door. Throughout, the reader enjoys a richly multiple, almost cinematic perspective, from which he sees both the Morrison and MacLain homes; the variety of persons, rooms, and activities in and around both; and the comings and goings on the street. Loch's eyes and boy's imagination record, sometimes inaccurately; Cassie remembers and ponders; the reader is left with the delightful task of sorting, constructing, relating the parts, interpreting.

From his window and tree posts Loch observes with proprietary interest what at first appear to be two unrelated little dramas taking place on two levels of the MacLain house (a possible third is sheer comic by-play: Old Man Holifield, a night-watchman from the gin mill, sleeps through everything). In one of the bedrooms upstairs Virgie Rainey is gaily romping with a young sailor—making love on a bare mattress, eating pickles from a bag, chasing and being chased. Downstairs an old woman, whom Loch mistakenly takes to be the mother of the sailor, comes in; with quantities of shredded paper, she elaborately and ritualistically “decorates” the room in preparation for burning. On the piano she places a large magnolia and later a ticking metronome. Before lighting the fire she plays, three times over, the opening bars of a piece called “Für Elise.” Cassie hears the theme, and from a kind of conditioned response she murmurs, “Virgie Rainey, danke schoen.” Then, through Cassie's thoughts, we learn how the two little dramas are related: the old lady is really Miss Eckhart; the mysterious and grotesque ceremonial below is her desperate, vindictive act of thwarted love, hope, ambition, which is directed against the breezy, abandoned young lady upstairs.

Miss Eckhart has traveled the farthest of all the wanderers, and she has achieved the least obvious fulfillment in her lifetime. “Home” to her must once have been Germany, and how the large, dark-haired, iron-willed and passionate woman with her alien tongue happened to come with her old mother to this small southern town, no one ever learns. But she takes a room with Snowdie MacLain and sets up a “studio” in which she gives piano lessons, the annual climax of which is the gala “June Recital.” Miss Eckhart's life, one gathers, is largely boring and frustrating since her pupils are without talent, and she has no other interest or occupation save the care of her old mother. She is a stern and exacting teacher: one after another, each little girl sits quivering under her bosom “like a traveler under a cliff,” waiting for the sharp smack of the fly swatter on the back of her hand (Miss Eckhart hates flies), yielding to the discipline of the metronome. But Virgie Rainey is in every way exceptional. Unlike the others, she is musically gifted and sensitive, obviously Miss Eckhart's one bright hope among her pupils (hence her refrain after Virgie finishes playing, “Virgie Rainey, danke schoen”). Unlike the others, Virgie is also spirited, independent, and fearless; she rejects the use of the obnoxious metronome, displays temper and “bad manners” at her lessons, asserts her will about the playing of certain pieces. She reveals that “Miss Eckhart, for all her being so strict and inexorable, in spite of her walk, with no give whatsoever, had a timid spot in her soul. There was a weak place in her, vulnerable, and Virgie Rainey found it and showed it to people.”

The “vulnerable” place had also become apparent in Miss Eckhart's passion for Mr. Hal Sissum, a shoe department clerk who played the cello each evening in the Bijou (the local movie house). Mr. Sissum had discovered Miss Eckhart's surprisingly pretty ankles, and when he had played one sweet soft summer evening at a “speaking-night,” plucking the strings above her while Virgie had ceremonially looped her with a clover chain, Miss Eckhart had sat “perfectly still and submissive.” But Mr. Sissum had drowned in the Big Black River, and at his grave during the funeral Miss Eckhart had expressed her grief by a strange, hysterical rocking back and forth—as though she had become a living metronome. Once only, during a thunder storm, had Cassie and Virgie witnessed and heard the release of that passionate nature in Miss Eckhart's playing of a Beethoven sonata, a self-exposure which was alarming because “something had burst out, unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person's life. This was some brilliant thing too splendid for Miss Eckhart. …”

Virgie becomes Miss Eckhart's last hope for vicarious fulfillment—the child must go out into the world. Miss Eckhart repeats over and over; she has “a gift.” “In the world, she must study and practice music for the rest of her life. In repeating all of this, Miss Eckhart suffered.” Because she knows the independent nature she is dealing with, she senses, even before it happens, that Virgie will flout her and determine her own way. From studying serious music, Virgie goes straight to playing the piano at the Bijou, and her hand immediately “loses its touch.” She matures overnight: “with her customary swiftness and lightness she had managed to skip an interval, some world-in-between where Cassie and Missie and Parnell were, all dyeing scarves. Virgie had gone direct into the world of power and emotion. …” No awkward, tentative adolescence for Virgie: she plunges herself directly into an affair with a sailor. Poor Miss Eckhart, her ideals, her discipline, her music, are abandoned.

In being so confounded in her career as in love, Miss Eckhart is proving herself once more a natural-born victim, plaything of a hostile fate. This tendency to disaster had revealed itself early in her Morgana career when she had been attacked and beaten one night by a Negro. After she recovered, people had expected and hoped she would move out: “perhaps more than anything it was the nigger in the hedge, the terrible fate that came on her, that people could not forgive Miss Eckhart.” But she stayed on, “as though she considered one thing not so much more terrifying than another”—being beaten or murdered physically was no worse than being emotionally tortured. Not only fate but the town itself seems opposed to her fulfillment, just as the townspeople are indifferent to Virgie's flowering as a pianist; they are hostile, as small towns always are, to artistic impulse, idiosyncracy and “foreignness,” ambition, restlessness—to hunger for the golden apples. “Perhaps nobody wanted Virgie Rainey to be anything in Morgana any more than they had wanted Miss Eckhart to be, and they were the two of them still linked together by people's saying that. How much might depend on people's being linked together?” Fate clips wings, sometimes through disaster, but more often slowly and subtly through provincial blindness and narrowness.

When Snowdie sells her home and returns to MacLain, Miss Eckhart is put out of the house. She has no more pupils; and after her mother dies, she is a pathetically lonely creature, eventually winding up a charity case on the County Farm. Somehow, we gather, she has learned that Virgie is using the abandoned MacLain house for her rendezvous with the sailor, and Miss Eckhart's intent now in her attempt to burn the studio, the old piano, the metronome, the magnolia blossom (Virgie had often come to lessons bearing one of these exotic blossoms) is suicidal as well as murderous; she is destroying all that was once precious to herself but is now meaningless and lost because of Virgie's infidelity. She is lighting, in effect, her own funeral pyre.

To complete the pattern of the ineffectuality of her life, her attempt at a glorious, retributive finish is thwarted by fate and the town in the form of a timely (or untimely) appearance of King MacLain and a pair of town comics, Old Man Moody, the marshal, and Mr. Fatty Bowles. They put out the fire, and Miss Eckhart, having suffered the indignity of having her hair burned off in a second desperate attempt to revive the fire, is taken away in full view of the town, her head wrapped in “some nameless kitchen rag,” her gray housedress “prophetic of an institution.” Virgie and the sailor run out of the house; the sailor, still only half dressed, darts toward the river. Virgie clips up the street in a defiantly bright apricot, voile dress, swinging a mesh bag on a chain, clicking her heels “as if nothing had happened in the past or behind her, as if she were free, whatever else she might be.”

The ladies coming from their “Rook” party look on unsurprised: “people saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mother's people”—that is, to make something known and fixed out of this event, a story or a legend; to take the sting, the surprise, the comedy or tragedy, out of the glorious, pathetic, baffling humanity around them. “Then Morgana could hold them, and at least they were this and they were that. And when ruin was predicted all along … even if they mightn't have missed it if it hadn't appeared, still they were never surprised when it came.” The town is giving “the treatment” to Virgie and Miss Eckhart: the treatment of “placing” that is tantamount to indifference, dismissal, or “not caring.” It is the fate, in an earlier story, of old Mr. Marblehall.

Only Cassie and Loch, who have excitedly run out in front in petticoat and nightie, are surprised and shocked, which is the same, in this context, as “caring.” When Cassie sees Virgie clicking along toward Old Man Moody's party, she knows there will be a confrontation of the two principals of the drama:

“She'll stop for Miss Eckhart,” breathed Cassie.

Virgie went by. There was a meeting of glances between the teacher and her old pupil that Cassie knew. She could not be sure that Miss Eckhart's eyes closed once in recall—they had looked so wide-open at everything alike. The meeting amounted only to Virgie Rainey's passing by, in plain fact. She clicked by Miss Eckhart and she clicked straight through the middle of the Rook party, without a word or the pause of a moment.

The reader recoils at what seems a heart-shattering snub to the lonely, brave, ruined woman who had counted on and hoped so much for the girl. But later in her moonlit bed Cassie, who thinks about the strange meeting, realizes that it is much too late for any sign or communication between the two. They are too far apart: neither can, any more, blame, or thank, or help the other:

What she was certain of was the distance those two had gone, as if all along they had been making a trip (which the sailor was only starting). It had changed them. They were deliberately terrible. They looked at each other and neither wished to speak. They did not even horrify each other. No one could touch them now, either.

Danke schoen. … That much was out in the open. Gratitude—like rescue—was simply no more. It was not only past; it was outworn and cast away. Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth.

Virgie's roaming has only begun, but Miss Eckhart's is nearly over. Two more journeys for her: one to a mental hospital in Jackson, and then her last, through the kindness of Miss Snowdie, to her long rest in the MacLain graveyard. It is a painful career to contemplate.


In contrast is the career of the third wanderer to whom we are introduced in “June Recital,” Loch Morrison. His adventurous and rebellious spirit does not show itself in explicitly sexual activity, as does King MacLain's, but he is a boy-wonder with a heroic name, a youthful Perseus. He may be a son of King, though the evidence for this possibility—tenuous and inconclusive—depends largely upon our interpretation of the character of his mother. A dainty, light-hearted, faintly lawless creature, she makes a favorite of her son, calls him “my child,” and often stops in at dusk to speak to him in a softly abstracted way. Perhaps dissatisfied with her efficient and preoccupied editor husband, she ends her life by suicide.

Loch is staunchly independent and scornful of girls, of the “civilities,” of danger; lonely and apart in his activities and imagination, “all eyes like Argus, on guard everywhere,” he is restlessly waiting for the glorious, heroic opportunity. His possessive love of the abandoned MacLain house springs from its appealing, romantic wildness and its invitation to adventure. Opportunity blossoms excitingly with Miss Eckhart's attempt at arson, and provides Loch with his first occasion for a heroic rescue mission: he dives head first out of the tree branches to capture the “time-bomb” metronome.

This action is a comic foreshadowing of the serious and effectual rescue which he carries out in “Moon Lake” when he dives into the murky lake bottom to bring back the half-dead orphan, Easter, and resuscitates her through the drawn-out ordeal of artificial respiration. The adults who witness this process—the indignant Miss Lizzie Stark who shouts, “What's he doing to her? Stop that,” and Ran MacLain, who sets the “seasoned gaze” of the twenty-three-year-old on Loch's rhythmical movements over Easter on the table—note the oddness of the act. The incident is a superb example of Miss Welty's mastery of delicately ambiguous tone and of gently intimated symbolism, since the reader is both amused at the varied human responses to sexual suggestion, and yet moved and sobered by the deeper implications of this strange physical correspondence. The stakes are really life and death, and the young boy-scout is as fully and passionately, even though as mindlessly and mechanically, engaged in giving life as he would be if involved in the act of love.

Like the Perseus of the picture hanging in Miss Eckhart's studio, Loch must be allowed his pride and his vaunting. This vaunting is partly witnessed, partly imagined, by two of the young camp girls, Nina and Jinny Love, when they wander toward the boy scout's tent on the evening after all the excitement, and see him in silhouette, undressing by candlelight. After he examines his case of sunburn in the Kress mirror, he comes naked to the tent opening where he stands leaning on one raised arm, his weight on one foot, looking out quietly into the night:

Hadn't he, surely, just before they caught him, been pounding his chest with his fists? Bragging on himself? It seemed to them they could still hear in the beating air of night the wild tattoo of pride he must have struck off. His silly, brief, overriding little show they could well imagine there in his tent of separation in the middle of the woods, in the night. Minnowy thing that matched his candle flame, naked as he was with that, he thought he shone forth too. Didn't he?

He is as plausibly human as his possible sire, and a youth of undoubtedly heroic parts; but he is beyond no one's gentle laughter, and looks, in the end, self-consciously gawky, “rather at loose ends.” Yet his restless heart drives him away from restricting Morgana to New York City, where, as his sister Cassie notes wistfully, he has “a life of his own.”


Throughout The Golden Apples we find juxtaposed two sets of characters. There are the wanderers who are expressive in action, wild, rebellious, free, over-flowing, self-determining; but they are driven by fierce hungers and yearnings. The characters who serve as their foils appear to be re-actors more than actors. They tend to be passive, helpless, outreaching; their characteristic activity is quietly unobtrusive and inward, for they observe and learn, feel and wonder. But they have their own kind of power since they achieve insight about life, about themselves and others, through their exercise of the moral imagination and through the patient work of their soft, giving hearts. They admire the strong characters; they both sigh for and are frightened by freedom and by the large, bold gestures of their independent loved ones who come and go at will or impulse—the gods among them with their noble, godlike gestures. These characters exist to know and adore; they are the “still points” in humanity, resting places, stable and secure, for all their inward growing and sympathetic roving after the wanderers. Their instincts are cautious and protective: they want to ward off the disaster which inevitably threatens the freely experimental life. By definition they are almost necessarily feminine, or very young. Examples of the type are Jennie Lockhart of “At the Landing,” Joel Mayes of “First Love,” and Laura and Ellen of Delta Wedding. In The Golden Apples we find Snowdie MacLain, Cassie Morrison, and Nina Carmichael, though some of the softness and sensitivity of the type may also be seen in Eugene MacLain.

In her relation to Miss Eckhart, Virgie, and her brother Loch, Cassie—admiring, timorous, sensitive, virginal—is the reflecting “still point.” Even as a child Cassie finds in Virgie “her secret love, as well as her secret hate”—she envies the glorious freedom and the careless assurance of Virgie's musical talent. Out of this love springs her power of perception. She knows, for instance, what Miss Eckhart is feeling. “She found it so easy—ever since Virgie showed her—to feel terror and pain in an outsider; in someone you did not know at all well, pain made you wonderfully sorry.” At one point she even wonders whether this secret knowledge might not have provided her with an opportunity to help the woman. “Somewhere, even up to the last, there could have been for Miss Eckhart a little opening wedge—a crack in the door. … But if I had been the one to see it open, she thought slowly, I might have slammed it tight for ever. I might.” She is wise enough to perceive that knowledge of another's heart may be a formidable weapon and that no outward or inward law determines that it shall necessarily be used kindly rather than ruthlessly.

In her relationship with her brother Loch, Cassie is the adoring, passive spectator. The time when he was a child and she had wanted “to shield his innocence” is past, even though she bursts into tears because of worry about his malaria when she sees him out in front in his nightie with a row of big pepper-and-salt colored mosquitoes perched all along his forehead. But Loch is already out on a limb figuratively as well as literally when she watches him cavorting in the tree overhanging the MacLain house. Unlike her brother, she is not a wanderer: “She could never go for herself, never creep out on the shimmering bridge of the tree, or reach the dark magnet there that drew you inside, kept drawing you in. She could not see herself do an unknown thing. She was not Loch, she was not Virgie Rainey; she was not her mother. She was Cassie in her room, seeing the knowledge and torment beyond her reach, standing at her window singing. …” As we might expect, she remains unmarried and at home in Morgana; she cares for her psychotic father, tenderly regards the careers of the wanderers from a distance, and patiently constructs memorials for the dead. She is one of those characters who, like Snowdie MacLain, might make the word “home” connote security and love, rather than stifling confinement, to any wanderer.

In “Moon Lake” we are introduced to another wanderer, Easter. She is dominant among the orphans and “advanced” for her age both physically (“she had started her breasts”) and experientially; she is a wild tomboy who plays mumblety-peg and runs around with an enviable ring of “pure dirt” on her neck. Easter is quite possibly another offspring of King MacLain; but the evidence in her case is somewhat more conclusive than in Loch's case. First of all, there is Katie Rainey's remark that several of King's children are growing up in the County Orphan's. Then there is the “withstanding gold” of Easter's hair, which forms a crest on top of her head and seems to “fly up at the temples, being cropped and wiry” (the golden crest may be associated with King's golden panama hat, and the pompadour cap so fiercely loved by Loch Morrison). Finally, there are Easter's own remarks about her parentage: “I haven't got no father. I never had, he ran away. I've got a mother. When I could walk, then my mother took me by the hand and turned me in, and I remember it.”

Like a true daughter of King, Easter is independent and adventurous, wandering away from camp into the woods, smoking a piece of cross-vine, seeking out new forms of excitement with Jinny Love and Nina, running about with her dress stained green behind, dreamily floating out on the lake in an abandoned boat. Her eyes, which are “neither brown nor green nor cat,” have “something of metal, flat ancient metal” in them, so that their color could have been found “somewhere … away, under lost leaves—strange as the painted color of the ants. Instead of round black holes in the center of her eyes, there might have been women's heads, ancient.” This strange, half-mythical child with her ancient eyes also has her secret ambition: she is going to be a singer.

Nina Carmichael stands in relation to Easter as Cassie does to Virgie in “June Recital.” Nina is tremendously impressed, admiring, envious of Easter's “beatific state” of being “not answerable to a soul on earth”; yet she is protective and pitying—or rather wanting to pity—for she is waiting for her heart to be twisted by the knowledge that her delightful new companion is an orphan. Easter serves for Nina as Virgie does for Cassie in being a means to growing moral insight by way of imaginative projection. Lying on her cot in the tent at night, Nina thinks and dreams of the exciting possibilities of “slipping into” the experience of persons quite different from herself; she wants “to try for the fiercest secrets. To slip into them all—to change. … To have been an orphan.”

Nina then has a sense of the night personified and of holding a special relation to Easter. The passage which follows is significant both as a foreshadowing of coming events and as a symbolic account of the nature and destiny of the two types of characters juxtaposed in the novel: the wanderers, and their static, reflective counterparts:

Nina sat up on the cot and stared passionately before her at the night—the pale dark roaring night with its secret step, the Indian night. She felt the forehead, the beaded stars, look in thoughtfully at her.

The pondering night stood rude at the tent door, the opening fold would let it stoop in—it, him—he had risen up inside. Long-armed, or long-winged, he stood in the center where the pole went up. Nina lay back, drawn quietly from him. But the night knew about Easter. All about her. Geneva had pushed her to the edge of the cot. Easter's hand hung down, opened outward. Come here, night, Easter might say, tender to a giant, to such a dark thing. And the night, obedient and graceful, would kneel to her. Easter's callused hand hung open there to the night that had got wholly into the tent.

Nina let her own arm stretch forward opposite Easter's. Her hand too opened, of itself. She lay there a long time motionless, under the night's gaze, its black cheek, looking immovably at her hand, the only part of her now which was not asleep. Its gesture was like Easter's, but Easter's hand slept and her own hand knew—shrank and knew, yet offered still.

“Instead … me instead. …”

In the cup of her hand, in her filling skin, in the fingers' weight and stillness, Nina felt it: compassion and a kind of competing that were all one, a single ecstasy, a single longing. For the night was not impartial. No, the night loved some more than others, served some more than others. Nina's hand lay open there for a long time, as if its fingers would be its eyes. Then it too slept. She dreamed her hand was helpless to the tearing teeth of wild beasts. At reveille she woke up lying on it. She could not move it. She hit it and bit it until like a cluster of bees it stung back and came to life.

The night in this passage may be related to the “dark magnet that kept drawing you in” which Cassie sees as her brother's lure, but not her own. It is the dark or unknown side of life, attractive and beautiful, yet dangerous, leading to possible death, either death of the heart or a literal death: the fate which threatens persons who live with the hand and the heart thrown carelessly open, freely, experimentally, courageously. The fact that the night “loves” and “serves” these persons indicates their paradoxical relation to experience and fate: they are partly victimized by it, partly inviting, even controlling and subduing it. The figure of night as a giant Indian, summoned by Easter and kneeling at her side, indicates that susceptibility to both love and death is a significant element in the fearless nature. The night comes as a great wild lover to woo the maiden, but he is also reminiscent of “Der Tod” in Schubert's famous song, who sings to the maiden, “Gib deine Hand.” The child is clearly marked either for some special tragedy or some special escape and fulfillment—perhaps for both.

Nina's hand imitates the careless gesture, but it is distinguished from the orphan's hand in being aware, in “knowing,” yet “offering still.” Nina is filled with “a single ecstasy and longing”; she wants herself to be open to love and experience, to accept the fate of the wanderer. Out of “compassion” she yearns to suffer tragedy with and for the other; out of a desire to live fully and freely she “competes” with the other. “Instead …” she prays to the dark unknown presence; “me instead. …”

When Nina finally goes to sleep, the hand also “sleeps.” During the night the open hand lives its entire life symbolically, independent of the girl, yet attached to her, making her suffer sympathetically the pain and terror of experience. When she awakens in the morning, the hand is dead; the life in it seems over. But she brings it back to life by the ruthless action of hitting and biting it. Thus its brief night's history has anticipated Easter's coming ordeal of death and resurrection (by a similarly cruel method); and in addition, it has shown forth the entire life process of such wanderers as Virgie Rainey and Ran and Eugene MacLain, who will experience their own deaths by despair and rebirths by a resurgence of joy and hope.

The nature of Easter's near-tragedy again shows the large part played by chance or accident in Miss Welty's vision of the universe. The orphan is standing high up on the diving board, watching the swimming lesson, when Exum, a little Negro boy bent on nothing but sheer mischievous fun, gives Easter's heel “the tenderest, obscurest little brush” with a green willow switch. She drops as though hit in the head by a stone, and apparently the heavy fall of her body causes it to be imbedded deep in the muddy lake bottom. Only after Loch has made several attempts to find her and has come up with “long ribbons of green and terrible stuff, shapeless black matter” in his hands is he finally successful. When Easter is brought up she is not only more dead than alive, but hideously disfigured—tongue rolled backwards, teeth smeared with mud, wet hair lying over her face in “long fern shapes,” a dark stream of water rolling from her mouth down her cheek. All the little girls have a long solemn look at the “berated” and “betrayed” figure, “the mask formed and set on the face, one hand displayed, one jealously clawed under the waist”—they have seen, most of them for the first time, the ugliness of death. When Easter is finally revived after hours of work, Nina thinks: “At least what had happened to Easter was out in the world, like the table itself. There it remained—mystery, if only for being hard and cruel and, by something Nina felt inside her body, murderous.” Catastrophe has been seen and faced as a fact. The change is not in the horror or mystery itself, but in the girl's attitude toward it. Catastrophe or death which is actually visible or recognized is less terrifying than catastrophe which is imagined: the threatening, the “unknown” has been objectified, fully met “in the world”; it can be survived both by victims and spectators.


The careers of Randall and Eugene MacLain, the twin sons of King and Snowdie, are presented in “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain.” In the earlier sections of The Golden Apples the twins are almost indistinguishable: they are seen from a distance as rather mischievous, feebly disciplined little monkeys who always leave their doors “wide open to the universe” when they go out to play, and let in the flies so annoying to Miss Eckhart. They are next seen in “Sir Rabbit” as a pair of fair-banged fifteen-year-olds who come trotting up like a pair of matched circus ponies to engage Mattie Will Sojourner in a spring-inspired sexual romp—an incident which serves as a prelude to Mattie's greater adventure with King, and shows the twins, in actions as well as appearance, to be “the very spit of their father.” But in the stories devoted to each, the two brothers are clearly differentiated; they are alike only in a common woe: marital discord, failure in love.

“The Whole World Knows” is an almost unrelieved lamentation, a singularly distressing account of a sordid scandal into which Randall is unwillingly swept. It takes the form of a soliloquy which is half confession, half supplication, as though spoken to a priest or even to God. To his wandering, unhearing father, King, Ran pours out the tale of his estrangement from his wife and his tragic affair with Maideen Sumrell. His words are drenched with confusion, grief, loneliness, a sense of guilt, a desire for self-justification, a need for the paternal understanding and guidance which we know will never be forthcoming.

Before all the trouble begins, Ran has apparently been on his way to becoming an established citizen of Morgana. He has married young Jinny Love Stark (some ten years his junior) and is working as a teller in the Morgana bank. Then one summer Ran leaves his wife and returns to a hot, dismal room in his old home, the MacLain house, now run for boarders by a Miss Francine Murphy. Why has he left Jinny? The “up-and-down of it, … the brunt of it,” according to Miss Perdita Mayo—one of the town's leading old maids, gossips, and general opinion-makers and takers—is that “Jinny was unfaithful to Ran” with young Woodrow Spights, who works beside Ran in the Morgana bank. But Miss Perdita, for all her common sense and humanity (“I'm a women that's been clear around the world in my rocking chair”) cannot see what lies behind the fact of Jinny's infidelity, nor, apparently, can anybody. Jinny's mother, who has had her own trouble with an alcoholic husband, provides a clue when she says to Randall, “You men. You got us beat in the end. … We'd know you through and through except we never know what ails you. … Of course I see what Jinny's doing, the fool, but you ailed first. You just got her answer to it, Ran.” To this Ran responds in bafflement, “And what ails me I don't know, Father, unless maybe you know.”

The reader is able to divine what is ailing Ran only by watching his reactions to Jinny's character. Jinny is one of Miss Welty's favorite types—what I should like to call a “joy-girl.” Another example of such a type, rendered more somber by circumstance, is Marjorie of “Flowers for Marjorie”; a thoughtful, sensitive variation is Dabney of Delta Wedding; a pure example of the type is seen in the American wife of “The Bride of the Innisfallen.” These girls have somehow been born, and remain, content, if not effervescently happy. Free spirits who cannot be touched by misery, frustration, tragedy, they won't—they can't—take life really seriously; their hearts are constant springs of joy and pleasure. They radiate delight into the hearts of their lovers, but at the same time they baffle and enrage, simply because they are so completely untouchable, unmalleable, closed to all those terrible dark worlds of deep inward suffering. Their gayety and carelessness are a stinging, unconscious reproach and mockery. Living with such a person, we conclude from Ran's experience, must involve equal parts of irritation and delight: it must have been when the irritation became too annoyingly evident that Jinny retaliated by having an affair with Woody Spights.

The element of joy in Jinny's nature was already established in “Moon Lake.” In contrast to the sober, reflective temperament of Nina Carmichael, Jinny's temperament was carefree and resilient; she was a child who skipped gaily because even the swamp sounds came to her as “a song of hilarity.” It is not surprising to come upon her next, some ten years later—a young woman who ought to be somewhere in a corner weeping because her husband has left her—standing in front of a mirror, smiling frivolously, and carelessly hacking off chunks of her pretty brown hair as she says lightly, “Obey that impulse———.” Ran's reaction to her on this first visit back to the Stark house after the separation is inevitable: “That lightness came right back. Just to step on the matting, that billows a little anyway, and with Jinny's hair scattered like feathers on it, I could have floated, risen and floated.”

The rage which counterpoints Ran's delight is seen most clearly in an incident which takes place on another of his visits. A button is missing from his sleeve, and he asks Jinny to sew it on for him. While she performs this intimate domestic task, the girl is agonizingly close to him; yet she is so exasperatingly untroubled that his thoughts become murderous. With inward violence he imaginatively shoots her full of bullet holes:

I fired pointblank at Jinny—more than once. … But Jinny didn't feel it. She made her little face of success. Her thread always went straight to the eye. … She far from acknowledged pain—anything but sorrow and pain. When I couldn't give her something she wanted she would hum a little tune. In our room, her voice would go low and soft to complete disparagement. Then I loved her a lot. The little cheat. I waited on, while she darted the needle and pulled at my sleeve, the sleeve to my helpless hand. It was like counting my breaths. I let out my fury and breathed the pure disappointment in: that she was not dead on earth. She bit the thread—magnificently. When she took her mouth away I nearly fell. The cheat.

To Ran, Jinny is a cheat because she refuses to be affected or frustrated; she refuses to feel deeply or to suffer with or for him or anyone else—least of all herself; and that is, perhaps, “cheating” on an important area of human experience.

Ran takes up with an eighteen-year-old country girl named Maideen Sumrall, partly for the sake of company, but mostly because Maideen looks like a fresh and “uncontaminated” version of Jinny herself: Jinny without the mockery in her face and with lovely brown hair shoulder-length rather than butchered by scissors and “ruined.” Maideen is simple and good-natured, but Ran makes a literally fatal mistake in supposing that “there was nothing but time between them.” Not only does Maideen turn out to be malleable to his will but far worse, she reveals herself to be as disastrously vulnerable as Jinny is invulnerable. After the Vicksburg adventure which the two have shared, they collapse in a roadside cabin, where Ran's suffering reaches its climax. During the night he attempts suicide unsuccessfully with an old pistol of his father and then takes Maideen in a quick, loveless conjunction. Later he awakens to hear her weeping beside him, “the kind of soft, patient, meditative sobs a child will venture long after punishment.” Now in soliloquy to his missing father he wails, “How was I to know she would go and hurt herself? She cheated, she cheated too.”

Maideen has “cheated” in taking her experience altogether too seriously, too tragically, in ironic opposition to Jinny's kind of cheating. It is Maideen's breast, rather than Jinny's, which ends filled with “the bright holes where Ran's bullets had gone through.” Only in the last chapter do we learn how irrevocably the girl has “hurt herself”: soon afterwards she dies by suicide, found on the floor of the place where she works by Old Man Moody. But the fact of her suicide gives point to Ran's desperately futile plea, “Father! Dear God, wipe it clean. Wipe it clean, wipe it out. Don't let it be.”

The final cry of Randall's soliloquy—“And where's Jinny?”—is apparently answered, for the two are seen back together a decade later at Mrs. Rainey's funeral. At one point during the afternoon Virgie is subjected to Jinny's insistence that she marry—everybody ought to marry, Jinny seems to feel, because “only then could she resume as Jinny Love Stark, her true self,” careless and independent, not bound by marriage. Virgie smiles faintly as she suddenly senses, “without warning, that two passionate people stood in this roomful, with their indifferent backs to each other.” The union at this stage almost resembles that between Robbie and George Fairchild in Delta Wedding; and as if to prove that at least an armed truce has been achieved, we find at the funeral their curious and delightful children.

Randall's “wanderings” have been largely confined to Morgana—he knows he belongs there, even though his mother has called him to come back under her roof in the town of MacLain, and even though he sets off restlessly for Vicksburg because he has “looked at Morgana too long.” Morgana has been the scene of his triumphs as well as his scandals, defeats, and disasters. The son of King has become reigning prince (mayor) of Morgana, a man whose career, like that of his father, is a legend to the community:

Didn't it show on Ran, that once he had taken advantage of a country girl who had died a suicide? It showed at election time as it showed now, and he won the election for mayor over Mr. Carmichael, for all was remembered in his middle-age when he stood on the platform. … They had voted for him for that—for his glamour and his story, for being a MacLain and the bad twin, for marrying a Stark and then for ruining a girl and the thing she did. … They voted for the revelation; it had made their hearts faint, and they would assert it again. Ran knew that every minute, there in the door he stood it.

“The whole world knows” (because Morgana is the whole world to Morgana) about Randall MacLain.

“Father, Eugene! What you went and found, was it better than this?” asks Randall in his soliloquy. If his brother, the twin who grew up gentle like his mother, could have heard that question, he would have had to shake his head and answer sadly, “No, no better.” The reasons for his answer are provided in “Music from Spain,” the one story of The Golden Apples which is not set in Morgana. This story is told in the third person, mostly from Eugene's point of view. It has a natural simplicity and economy of structure, since Eugene's odyssey takes place on a single day in San Francisco, and the carefully related internal and external events lead with a gradual and controlled crescendo to the climax and resolution. The central action is initiated by a sudden, instinctive move on the part of Eugene, which expresses and unleashes in him a long accumulated sense of protest and rebellion. One morning at breakfast when Eugene is opening his paper and his wife makes some “innocent” remark to him—“Crumb on your chin” or the like—he leans across the table and, with no idea of why he does it, slaps her face. Then without giving her either the paper or the usual goodbye kiss, he leaves the apartment and steps out on the street to walk and reflect about the meaning of his strange, aggressive action.

Eugene has traveled so far from Morgana only to find himself more effectively trapped in a marriage gone bad than he might ever have been at home. His wife Emma is in every way a curious contrast to Randall's wife Jinny. Older and heavier than Eugene, she is a plump, fussily feminine, busy-tongued, self-indulgent little woman whose traits are in contrast to Jinny's youth, slim boyishness, and mocking abandon. Furthermore, Emma has the disease of oversensitivity and self-crucifixion, which naturally means that she crucifies everyone around her. In sharp contrast to Jinny, she is an indefatigable, noxious, almost professional sufferer. (Proverbs 15:15 types the two exactly: “All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.”)

Not that Emma hasn't some reason for suffering: a year earlier, little Nan, their sunny, lovable child, had died. But that loss has been Eugene's as well as Emma's, and there has been no relief from her prolonged, narcissistically bloated grief. Because Emma is so “touchy,” Eugene cannot attack her response to the loss: “A quarrel couldn't even grow between him and Emma. And she would be unfair, beg the question, if a quarrel did spring up; she would cry. That was a thing a stranger might feel on being introduced to Emma, even though Emma never proved it to anybody: she had a waterfall of tears back there.” As a result, there is no more love between them. Out of his layman's reading of his unconscious, Eugene produces the awareness of his frustration. “He struck her because he wanted another love. The forties. Psychology.” His life, his need and his ability to love and to enjoy are not over and done with, though his wife is acting as if hers died with the child. The slap he feels has been “like kissing the cheek of the dead. … How cold to the living hour grief could make you.”

The initial gesture of protest made, Eugene follows with another and decides not to work at Bertsingers' Jewelers that day. Beginning his wanderings, he passes through Market Street and notes with disgust and shame the tawdry, pathetic appeals of this Vanity Fair, for “Market had with the years become a street of trusses, pads, braces, false bosoms, false teeth, and glass eyes. And of course jewelry stores.” Just beyond Bertsingers' the doorway of a market is crowded with flowers. Eugene wishes he could have worked there—cracked crabs with a mallet or grown flowers instead of bending all day like a little drudge over “meticulous watches.” Watching the “daily revelation” of the fog lifting from the city, he is filled with a fresh longing, such as he had felt years ago in Mississippi, to wander and see distant places, or once again to return to “that careless, patched land of Mississippi winter, trees in their rusty wrappers, slow-grown trees taking their time, the lost shambles of old cane, the winter swamp where his twin brother, he supposed, still hunted.” His eyes are freshly opened to every detail of the glorious natural and human variety about him as he walks the streets, and he experiences a strange sympathy with the lawless, chaotic life of the big city: “he would know anything that happened, anything that threatened the moral way, or transformed it, even, in the city of San Francisco that day: as if he and the city were watching each other—without accustomed faith. But with interest … boldness … recklessness, almost.”

Just then Eugene spies walking ahead of him in traffic the Spanish guitarist he and Emma had heard in solo recital the previous evening at Aeolian Hall. Suddenly the Spaniard is almost hit by an automobile: Eugene springs forward, seizes the man's coat, and saves him from a possibly fatal accident. The two men shake hands in relief and delight, but Eugene suffers a shock of disappointment when he sees that the Spaniard cannot speak English. Since no words of thanks or deprecation can be spoken, the two stroll on together. Eugene notes that the big fellow has remained imperturbable, and he reflects that the Spaniard “had walked out in front of the automobile almost tempting it to try and get him, with all the aplomb of—certainly a bull fighter.” Thus the Spaniard is immediately established as one of life's fearless ones; like that other fabulous musician, Powerhouse, this man is self-possessed, bold, generous of spirit. And again, as with Powerhouse, Miss Welty joyously turns the lavish power of her descriptive gift on this admirable, inscrutable creature of paradoxes: wild and primitive with his thick black hair, crude table manners, and fierce bull-like nostrils, but dignified and tender with his music, large and noble in his gestures and bearing.

Although Eugene doesn't know it, the Spaniard is a perfect companion for him on this day of pilgrimage to freedom and rebirth. Articulate, the old fellow would probably have been of little use to Eugene: it is difficult to conceive of his having any sort of vocabulary and experience to deal with the nuances of Eugene's complex marital problem. Rendered mute by the language barrier, Eugene is eventually pressed to a more basic and primal form of communication, an almost physical blood-knowledge, the special mysterious mode of knowledge that we usually associate with the vision of D. H. Lawrence.

With Eugene serving as host, the two advance from the streets to a restaurant for lunch, where Eugene's mind grows fantastical thinking up possible clues to the stranger's secret life, the exotic, perhaps sinful and dangerous acts perpetrated, “and always the one, dark face, though momently fire from his nostrils brimmed over, with that veritable waste of life!” Out of these aroused thoughts spring images from his own past—a favorite piece of music played when he was Miss Eckhart's student; an engraving of “the kneeling Man in the Wilderness … in his father's remnant geography book, who hacked once at the Traveler's Tree, opened his mouth, and the water came pouring in”—the Traveler he had once believed to represent his unknown father, and with whom he now identifies himself.

When the two return to the street they witness an accident. A dumpy little woman trips on high heels in the street, sinks “in an outrageous-looking pink color” in the streetcar's path, is pitched and thrown ahead on the track, and is instantly killed. People close round in morbid curiosity: “they were going to have been there.” The Spaniard shakes his head, but there is no sign that he has made a connection between his own near-accident and this one. Miss Welty has only shown, as in Delta Wedding when George is saved and the young girl killed, that real accidents occur as well as near-accidents; she has shown again how little security there is for the individual in a universe which seems largely governed by chance.

Eugene takes his guest on a streetcar out toward the edge of the city, and the two walk up and down hill after hill in a steady progress toward the sea. Once they come to a high point where the Spaniard suddenly swings around to survey the world behind them through which they have just come. “He tenderly swept an arm. The whole arena was alight with a fairness and blueness at this hour of afternoon; all the gray was blue and the white was blue—the laid-out city looked soft, brushed over with some sky-feather. Then he dropped his hand, as though the city might retire; and lifted it again, as though to bring it back for a second time. He was really wonderful, with his arm raised.” The gesture is heroic, suggesting divine powers of creation and benediction, as if the Spaniard were bringing the city into its beautiful being. The raised arm is related to Perseus' vaunting in Miss Eckhart's picture and to that youthful heroic reflection in Loch; in The Golden Apples it is the symbolic gesture of men who have gloriously achieved and conquered.

The two men advance until they come to the beach and cliffs of “Land's End” and begin scrambling over brown rocks with the sea exploding wildly beneath and a strong wind blowing against them, turning back the gulls in their flight. While the sun slowly sets, the Spaniard leads a tortuous progress through rough paths and caves. Eugene has begun throwing out remarks like “You assaulted your wife” from the safe position of not being understood, thus objectifying and trying to work out his dilemma. At last they arrive at a perilous point on the edge of a cliff, where a touch from Eugene could topple the Spaniard over the edge. Then in some strange ecstasy Eugene seizes and clings to him, “almost as if he had waited for him a long time with longing, almost as if he loved him, and had found a lasting refuge.” The Spaniard lets out a “bullish roar,” followed by a “terrible recital” of incomprehensible words which strike Eugene as fearless and shameless. Eugene nearly falls and has to pull himself back by seizing the big man. He then runs to chase the Spaniard's big black hat (caught in the wind), puts it on his own head, runs back to the Spaniard, and this time is himself held with “hard, callused fingers like prongs.” He has an odd sensation of being disembodied, weightless; he feels himself lifted up in the strong arms of the Spaniard and swung around “pillowed in great strength.” The whirling and exciting dizziness affect his body like the coming of passion, and he thinks of Emma turning around and advancing to meet him on the stairs, her arms lifted in the “wide, aroused sleeves,” closing around him, “returning him awesome favors in full vigor, with not the ghost of the salt of tears.” If only he could explain to Emma—this is the way it should be:

If he could have spoken! It was out of this relentlessness, not out of the gush of tears, that there would be a child again. Could it be possible that everything now could wait? If he could have stopped everything, until that pulse, far back, far inside, far within now, could shake like the little hard red fist of the first spring leaf!

He was brought over and held by the knees in the posture of a bird, his body almost upright and his forearms gently spread. In his nostrils and relaxing eyes and around his naked head he could feel the reach of fine spray or the breath of fog. He was up-borne, open-armed. He was only thinking, My dear love comes.

What has taken place in this remarkable scene of climax? From the look of it, the Spaniard has been threatening Eugene's life by swinging him around at the edge of the cliff: a feminine voice (from one of a pair of passing lovers) cries out, “Oh, is he going to throw him over? … Aren't you ashamed of yourself, teasing a little fellow like that, scaring him?” Some fateful encounter has indeed taken place between the two men: half in play, half in dead earnest, each has momentarily seized the fate of the other, grappled with and closely confronted the other. But the Spaniard is the stronger. First when Eugene puts on the great warm black hat and later when he flies like a bird over the sea out from those strong hands, it is as though the stranger's life-force has flown out from the hat and hands into Eugene's blood, so that he briefly participates in the Spaniard's powerful, fearless mode of being, from which springs passion; and out of that could spring a new life, a new child. The episode forms a curious parallel to the climax of “Moon Lake.” The hero of each book, through an action suggestive of the sexual act, brings to life one apparently dead: both Eugene and Easter are put literally into the posture of love by the unconscious “lovers” of their lives—those who have life to give from the glorious excess or “waste” of their own lives.

Eugene's story does not end happily. His change, his rebirth, have, after all, not been shared by his wife, nor has Eugene's experience miraculously provided him with the tongue of men and of angels to speak of the wonders of his vision. He returns home to find Emma exactly the same. Though not in tears (she has had a long day to recover and has found a fresh cause for self-solicitude since that morning episode: a slight burn where the hot grease had spattered on her hand), she is gossiping with a neighbor and feeding her face: petty, unimaginative, smugly opinionated, dominating as usual—far indeed from the passionate woman who had met Eugene in his ecstatic vision on the cliff. He hears the two women reduce his marvelous friend to a scurrilous Latin type who exhibits “bad taste” by laughing out loud with a woman in church. No comment is made to indicate Eugene's response, but one senses the deep misery and hopelessness inundating him again. His wife's nature has settled firmly into a mold basically hostile to spontaneity, happiness, or fulfillment; Eugene hasn't the chance to rebuild his marriage as has Randall, whose wife's gay and spontaneous nature is largely congenial to happiness.

The later history of Eugene is brief and poignant. Returning to Morgana, he dies of tuberculosis apparently soon afterwards. Passing the cemetery where Eugene is buried in the MacLain plot, Virgie Rainey remembers the story of this sadly strange son of King:

Eugene, for a long interval, had lived in another part of the world, learning while he was away that people don't have to be answered just because they want to know. His very wife was never known here, and he did not make it plain whether he had children somewhere now or had been childless. His wife did not even come to the funeral, although a telegram had been sent. A foreigner? “Why, she could even be a Dago and we wouldn't know it.” His light, tubercular body seemed to hesitate on the street of Morgana, hold averted, anticipating questions. Sometimes he looked up in the town where he was young and said something strangely spiteful or ambiguous (he was never reconciled to his father, they said, was sarcastic to the old man—all he loved was Miss Snowdie and flowers) but he bothered no one. “He never did bother a soul,” they said at his graveside that day, forgetting his childhood.

Eugene is one of those wanderers who, like Miss Eckhart, pluck the golden apples only in a rare, isolated moment or two during an entire lifetime. They remain essentially thwarted, crushed, victimized by the cruel and devious workings of fate.


The final section of The Golden Apples, “The Wanderers,” has many functions in the structure of the book as a whole. As an epilogue, it provides the denouement of several careers followed, lends perspective to the meaning and interrelations of these life histories, and gives a sense of mutability. It also provides a fully detailed portrait of the Morgana community by showing it engaged in a major tribal ritual, that of the funeral; furthermore, it recapitulates and makes concluding statements of the major themes of the book. But it is also, and perhaps chiefly, the story of Virgie Rainey, who, as a woman now past forty, is the most perceptive and emotionally mature of the wanderers and is getting a belated start (after an early abortive attempt) on her long search for the golden apples. The ending of the book is really, therefore, another beginning, and the sense of an epic cycle is achieved.

The initiating action of “The Wanderers” is the death, by heart attack, of old Mrs. Fate Rainey, narrator of the first section. For decades, from her selling post at the turn of the MacLain Road, Katie Rainey has watched the passing and trafficking and has been a central and familiar community figure who records and represents the change as well as the constancy of Morgana life. To Virgie the old woman has been a bondage both dear and confining. After running away briefly at seventeen with her sailor, Bucky Moffitt, Virgie returns home, living out through the long years of her endless youth (her dark hair never loses its spring) a battle between affectionate loyalty and a sense of oppression. Katie Rainey has caused Virgie to impose on her own life a pattern inimical to her talents and desires: an office job in which her skillful pianist's fingers are rigidly set to typing, or turned to farm and domestic chores—milking the cows, dressing the quail, cooking and sewing.

The only rebellion of Virgie's mature years has been an affair or two discreetly conducted with some inferior man (the only kind available); the town knows this, and Mrs. Rainey is exposed to their twittering gossip, but dignity requires that she ignore their lack of “chivalry.”

Her love for Virgie and a subliminal memory of her own youthful independence provoke the pity and understanding which prevent her from a terrible confrontation with her daughter; yet stubbornness keeps her always fretting after the girl, demanding that she appear when expected in order to perform the necessary chores according to schedule. Pride, affection, and a costly control have kept this difficult relationship going until it is finally broken by death. When Mrs. Rainey is struck by her final heart attack, Virgie is busy cutting out a dress from some plaid material. “There's nothing Virgie Rainey loves better than struggling against a real hard plaid,” the old lady thinks with the first thrust of pain; and her last clear feeling before she staggers to the bed is a desire to be “down and covered up, in, of all things, Virgie's hard-to-match-up plaid.” Discipline achieved against odds—this has been the source of Katie Rainey's pride in her daughter (“It's a blessed wonder to see the child mind”); and the obedience and affection which motivate it have been the warming mantle spread over the old woman in her declining years.

Soon after her death the whole community, white and Negro, descend on the Rainey house, and the funeral rites begin with the “laying out” of the corpse (beautifully performed, all agree, by old Snowdie), with housecleaning and the preparation of great quantities of food and drink, the cutting and arranging of flowers, and the gathering of the clan. Virgie displays none of the anticipated signs of hysteria or grief to the expectant visitors; when she finally weeps briefly, it is out of a generalized sense of loss at the old order's passing, which no one seems to understand. She is busy but detached, watching and waiting until, at the close of the first night, when all but Snowdie (who stays to sit with the corpse) depart, they seem “to drag some mythical gates and barriers away from her view.” Then she goes down to the river, takes off her clothes, and slips in. A strong physical sense of union with nature suffuses her, for “all was one warmth, air, water, and her own body … one weight, one matter.” Swimming, her body is soothed and sensitized, and the sand, pieces of shell, grass, and mud which touch at her skin seem “like suggestions and withdrawals of some bondage that might have been dear, now dismembering and losing itself.” She experiences an emotional ablution, an emptying, a sensation purely sensuous but strangely disembodied, a feeling of being on the edge of metamorphosis, “suspended in the Big Black River as she would know how to hang suspended in felicity.” Not in the tribal rites and clichés, but only in this intensely personal ritual with its subtle, insinuating mode of address to her mind and senses, does Virgie find clues to the unspeakable meaning of the great change in her life.

And so through the funeral services the following afternoon, though she is bereaved, the only experiences meaningful to Virgie are the private or spontaneously shared ones. When an orgy of weeping has been induced by the minister's remarks and a child's singing of a sentimental hymn, Virgie watches King MacLain steal back and forth from a table in the hall to pick at the ham, and it is then that she sees him push out his lip and make his hideous face at her, “like a silent yell.” The sound of his cracking a little bone in his teeth refreshes her. Looking out the window and hearing the happy sounds of the MacLain children playing, she experiences another moment of alliance—she doesn't know whether with Ran or with King—but it is a spontaneous, timeless moment of kinship and loyalty. With or without benefit of friendship or intimacy, Virgie knows that these are her people, her kind. They are all rebels—King, his son, his impious, curious grandchildren, and Virgie herself—all have the “pure wish to live,” to be individual; they refuse to be crushed or defeated by life or by death, or by the stultifying effects of sentimental conformity or piety.

Later in the day, returning home from the cemetery, Virgie has a sense of the “double coming-back.” She remembers the time of her return at seventeen when on the way from the train to her home she had looked about her “in a kind of glory.” Then, as now, having gone through an experience of despair, she had felt the beauty of the golden earth meet some ineffable impulse of life and hope in herself, and the product was a resurgence of joy. “Virgie never saw it differently, never doubted that all the opposites on earth were close together, love close to hate, living to dying; but of them all, hope and despair were the closest blood—unrecognizable one from the other sometimes, making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again, amending but never taking back.”

The impulse of hope now drives Virgie away from her home and on to some unknown place and condition of the future. She gives away or packs up for storage all her mother's belongings, and sets out in her old car. Seven miles out from Morgana, the town of MacLain is the natural stopping-off place for Virgie to make her final reflections—the last dearly familiar place, drenched with the legends and memories of the wandering MacLain clan, several of whom are already buried in the cemetery (and King himself, surely, the next to go). Here, too, Miss Eckhart is buried. On the stile in front of the courthouse Virgie sits quietly as Mr. Mabry, her last lover, passes by unnoticing; she is “bereaved, hatless, unhidden now, in the rain” and finally, all alone. Then she remembers a picture Miss Eckhart had hanging on her wall, showing Perseus with the head of the Medusa. Only now does she begin to comprehend its meaning:

The vaunting was what she remembered, that lifted arm.

Cutting off the Medusa's head was the heroic act, perhaps, that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love, Virgie thought—the separateness. She might have seen heroism prophetically when she was young and afraid of Miss Eckhart. She might be able to see it now prophetically, but she was never a prophet. Because Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them—and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one. In the three was the damnation—no, only the secret, unhurting because not caring in itself—beyond the beauty and the sword's stroke and the terror lay their existence in time—far out and endless, a constellation which the heart could read over many a night.

What Virgie sees—or half-sees, since hers is a limited human and not a prophetic vision—is that every hero, as well as every heroic act, implies a victim, a slaying, and hence a source of horror and terror to the onlooker. The reiteration of the theme of love and separateness in this passage recalls the crucial scene from “A Still Moment.” Audubon has performed a heroic act in slaying the white heron: heroic because his will and intelligence as artist and naturalist have asserted themselves over his natural feeling for the bird's beautiful life. Since he cannot paint from memory he must kill the bird to save its beauty for the eternal world of art. The bird becomes victim, and to Lorenzo, the witness, the effect is one of horror.

What clouds the symbolism in this analogy, to be sure, is that the bird is innocent, unaware, and lovely, whereas the Medusa appears to be evil and ugly. But even in the legend the Medusa was victim from the start: originally a beautiful Gorgon, she was transformed into a monster by an enraged and jealous Athene. Certainly in this use of the myth, and in Miss Welty's vision generally, evil is never pure and unambiguous, nor is heroism a simple matter of the triumph of good over evil. The underlying similarity is that both the white heron and the Medusa are victims—they are necessary to the heroic act. Whoever conquers does so to the cost of someone or something else, producing in the moment of destruction physical and metaphysical horror. To the merely human eye, from which the larger, eternal perspective is withheld, such acts of violence are horrible because they bring the death which is the final cause or essence of all separateness in life or in love. And so the protest is raised in any tender heart—that of a Lorenzo or Virgie—when an act of destruction, however heroic, is witnessed. The human way is to see actions and relationships “in their time,” as music is heard, in a succession of moments; the human way is to feel out, or through, the whole painful process of tragedy and heroism. Just now, for Virgie, there is no “hurt,” only the revelation of a “secret” or mystery, since the incident pictured is without immediacy; the implications of the heroic action have been transmuted and distanced to the world of art, where like a constellation loftily removed it may be eternally read, studied, contemplated.

If the human burden is tragedy (separateness), the human glory is the ability to absorb that tragedy, to project it in the forms of art, and then to give to others this knowledge turned to beauty. All this Beethoven had done for Miss Eckhart, and Miss Eckhart had done for Virgie:

Miss Eckhart, whom Virgie had not, after all, hated—had come near to loving, for she had taken Miss Eckhart's hate, and then her love, extracted them, the thorn and then the overflow—had hung the picture on the wall for herself. She had absorbed the hero and the victim and then, stoutly, could sit down to the piano with all Beethoven ahead of her. With her hate, with her love, and with the small gnawing feelings that ate them, she offered Virgie her Beethoven. She offered, offered, offered—and when Virgie was young, in the strange wisdom of youth that is accepting of more than is given, she had accepted the Beethoven, as with the dragon's blood. That was the gift she had touched with her fingers that had drifted and left her.

In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless.

In time, our present human life, the tragic pain and the triumph, the horror and the beauty, the despair and the joy, the frustration and the fulfillment, the separateness and the love, exist in an endless counterpoint: this is the experience of Virgie Rainey, and of every wanderer in The Golden Apples.


Miss Welty's use of myth in The Golden Apples has already been suggested: explicitly, in her relating the amorous career of King to that of Zeus; less explicitly, in her presentation of the adventures of the boy-hero Loch, the odyssey of Eugene; the search for a father of Randall; most generally, in the quest of all the wanderers. Woven through the book we also find patterns of developing images and symbols which serve important structural functions: they relate and unify the individual careers presented in the book, they support and embody its themes, they are the means by which the texture of an event or feeling is conveyed, they invest the prose with the quality of poetry.

One cluster of these images grows out of the title and its use in the Yeats poem. Plucking the golden apples is the prelude to tasting and enjoying the fruit: fruit and things golden are generally associated with pleasure and fruition; frequently, though not always, they are associated with sexual and emotional fulfillment through love. The golden rays of the sun make earth fertile: King visits and impregnates Snowdie in a shower of gold; he leaves Mattie Will Sojourner in light “like golden smoke”; his familiar sign is the golden panama hat. Finally, his offspring are crowned with golden hair: the twins, Easter with her crest of “withstanding gold,” and little Fan, King's grandchild, whose hair when she flies out in play is “a band of sunlight soft and level,” or when at bedtime it ripples all around her face, is like “a little golden rain hat.”

To young ones, for whom experience and fulfillment lie dimly and alluringly in the future, a golden harbinger may intimate the coming mystery in a moment of quiet reflection. Loch hears the distant songs of Cassie and her friends returning from their hayride. He looks out into the dark leaves of the tree, then sees beyond a low cloud lighted, looking like “a single low wing. The mystery he had felt like a golden and aimless bird had waited until now to fly over.” In the camp at Moon Lake, the sound of Loch's golden horn playing taps is a “fairy sound, … a holding apart of the air,” evoking the dreams and longings of the young girls in the tents; seeing the boy in the distance, Nina puts him into “his visionary place.” To Virgie, however, who at seventeen is already initiated into both love and despair, golden light is a sign of returning joy and hope. When the fields glow in the “ripe afternoon” of her return home after running away, she feels like dancing, “knowing herself not really, in her essence, yet hurt; and thus happy.”

References to ripening, or ripe, juicy, sweet fruit (“the golden apples of the sun”) are usually associated with sexual anticipation or fulfillment. From his bedroom window Loch views not only the progress of the affair between Virgie Rainey and her sailor but the ripening of figs on the old rusty fig trees nearby. Loch is waiting for the day when the sailor will take the ripe figs. “When they cracked open their pink and golden flesh would show, their inside flowers, and golden bubbles of juice would hang, to touch your tongue to first.” To Loch the fig tree is “a magic tree with golden fruit that shone in and among its branches like a cloud of lightning bugs,” and he dreams of “the sweet golden juice to come.” When Virgie Rainey comes in to Miss Eckhart's for her piano lessons she is often “peeling a ripe fig with her teeth.” To the teeth of Mattie Will Sojourner, set in the small pointed ear of a MacLain twin, the ear has “the fuzz of a peach.”

Because the time of fruition is usually brief and precious, ripe fruit may also be associated with the idea of time's fleeting. Once Nina thinks of ripe pears, “beautiful, symmetrical, clean pears with thin skins, with snow-white flesh so juicy and tender that to eat one baptized the whole face, and so delicate that while you urgently ate the first half, the second half was already beginning to turn brown. To all fruits, and especially to those fine pears, something happened—the process was so swift, you were never in time for them. It's not the flowers that are fleeting, Nina thought, it's the fruits—it's the time when things are ready that they don't stay.”

Butterflies and humming birds appear with a cluster of associations related to those of the golden apples. Butterflies are again associated with delight, sexual pleasure, or exoticism; they are the sign of the lover, as Psyche, beloved of Cupid, appears with butterfly wings. Miss Eckhart gives to Virgie the gift of a butterfly pin to wear on her shoulder. In “Moon Lake” Nina sees the silhouette of two lovers, each on one end of a canoe floating on the bright water, and looking like “a dark butterfly with wings spread open and still.” On the streets of San Francisco Eugene spies a butterfly tatooed on the inner side of the wrist of a romantic-looking young man with a black pompadour and taps on his shoes; later he sees a strangely beautiful butterfly woman, a Negro or Polynesian “marked as a butterfly is, over all her visible skin. Curves, scrolls, dark brown areas on light brown, were beautifully placed on her body, as if by design, with pools about the eyes, at the nape of her neck, at the wrist, and about her legs too, like fawn spots, visible through her stockings. She had the look of waiting in leafy shade, … of hiding and flaunting together.”

The humming bird symbolism is more complicated. When “The Wanderers” was first published separately in Harper's Bazaar, it appeared under the title of “The Humming Birds.” The basic analogy is this: as the small aerial wanderers suck sweetness from flowers, so their human counterparts try to suck sweetness from life. But in their swift darting, humming birds also suggest the mystery and elusiveness of joy; in their peculiar mode of hanging suspended while they suck, they suggest both physical suspension in space (swimming, floating, or flying) and the suspension in time (the sense of being outside time) which comes with the moment of ecstasy (the word means, literally, the state of being outside oneself).

The humming bird image is first introduced in Cassie's reflections as she sees one of them go down in a streak across her window:

He was a little emerald bobbin, suspended as always before the opening four-o'clocks. Metallic and misty together, tangible and intangible, splendid and fairy-like, the haze of his invisible wings mysterious, like the ring around the moon—had anyone ever tried to catch him? Not she. Let him be suspended there for a moment each year for a hundred years—incredibly thirsty, greedy for every drop in every four-o'clock trumpet in the yard, as though he had them numbered—then dart.

The humming bird image again appears in the memory of Eugene while he is sitting in the restaurant with the Spaniard. Through a process of association and synesthesia, Eugene is reminded by the sweet, exotic odor of the Spaniard's tobacco of the mimosa flowers which used to bloom outside the window when as a boy he played a favorite piece on a hot summer's day and the notes of music were transformed into drops of light “plopping one, two, three, four, through sky and trees to earth, to lie there in the pattern opposite to the shade of the tree. He could feel his forehead bead with drops and the pleasure run like dripping juice through each plodding finger, at such an hour, on such a day, in such a place. Mississippi. A humming bird, like a little fish, a little green fish in the hot air, had hung for a moment before his gaze, then jerked, vanishing, away.”

Once again the humming bird appears, to Virgie. She is standing at the bedside of her mother, a moment after her death, when suddenly her vision turns to pure image and sensation. “Behind the bed the window was full of cloudy, pressing flowers and leaves in a heavy light, like a jar of figs in syrup held up. A humming bird darted, fed, darted. Every day he came. He had a ruby throat. The clock jangled faintly as cymbals struck under water, but did not strike; it couldn't. Yet a torrent of riches seemed to flow over the room, submerging it with what was over-sweet.”

The suspension of the humming bird is related to those incidents in which a character is literally and symbolically suspended in a moment of felicity. Eugene spread out, flying over the sea like a bird from the Spaniard's hands, and Virgie spread out, floating like a fish in the Big Black River, experience moments of pure ecstasy. These moments carry with them a suggestion of change in a life pattern which registers as the pause before some actual physical metamorphosis; the state is dream- or trance-like, the sensations are at once disembodied and actuely sensuous; the postures, and in Eugene's case the thoughts, are those of the act of love. Floating is also related to felicity in other contexts: floating in a boat on Moon Lake is dream-like enchantment; mist floating on a river or lake in moonlight suspends the viewer in felicity.

Other patterns of symbolism in The Golden Apples have to do with freedom, confinement, and the need for discipline. If fulfillment is to be achieved, a person must be free. To the characters with family bonds and internal inhibitions, the state of being, or appearing to be, completely free, is glorious and enviable: thus Cassie envies Virgie; Nina envies Easter (in the “beatific state” of being “not answerable to a soul on earth”), Eugene envies the Spaniard (“There was no one he loved, to tell him anything, to lay down the law”). But even to the free ones, walls and barriers are unavoidable. Beating against a wall may signify the rebel's revolt against rules, as when Virgie as a child in school is angered because recess is to be held in the basement on account of rainy weather, and she announces that she is going “to butt her brains out against the wall.” (The teacher says, “Beat them out, then,” and she goes ahead and tries while the children watch admiringly.) To Eugene, the open, free look of San Francisco is deceptive; he could tell the Spaniard how the hills and clouds could bank up, one upon the other: “they were any man's walls still,” and a man could feel closed in there as anywhere.

Walls are also symbolic of separateness, of the barriers between human beings. People may “wall up” against each other, feel so acutely their isolation, the privacy and uniqueness of their experience, the impossibility of being penetrated, that they might as well be dead to others. This kind of inwardly constructed wall is a type of the final cause and result of separateness, death itself. Returning from the cemetery, Virgie thinks about King MacLain's conquest of these and all other walls and barriers to fulfillment:

Virgie had often felt herself at some moment callous over, go opaque; she had known it to happen to others; not only when her mother changed on the bed while she was fanning her. Virgie had felt a moment in her life after which nobody could see through her, into her—felt it young. But Mr. King MacLain, an old man, had butted like a goat against the wall he wouldn't agree to himself or recognize. What fortress indeed would ever come down, except before hard little horns, a rush and a stampede of the pure wish to live?

If the freedom necessary to fulfillment cannot be attained without a struggle against the confinements and barriers of life, neither can it come to meaningful expression without the exercise of discipline. Music speaks of, and embodies, a type of fulfillment, but it can be achieved only out of a costly control; it is passion made orderly, form imposed on the chaos of feelings. Most of the wanderers are musicians of one sort or another: even Loch has his golden horn, Eugene his favorite piece of music, Easter her plan to be a singer. Miss Eckhart's fierce attachment to her metronome indicates her recognition of the need for control in the life and music of her students as well as in her own life; when she becomes a living metronome at her lover's grave, it is her instinctive way of avoiding an expression of uncontrolled grief or hysteria. The Spaniard guitarist has his moments of looking as wild and fierce as a bull, but playing his music, even the most tender and passionate love songs, he only looms remotely. When he ends his recital with a formal bow, it seems to Eugene “as though it had been taken for granted by then that passion was the thing he had in hand, love was his servant, and even despair was a little tamed animal trotting about in plain view.” Virgie too must learn discipline if she is to achieve expression through love or music. In one remarkable passage, images of confinement, work, and the expression of will and sexual desire are combined to show the kind of process she is undergoing during the years of her “apprenticeship” at home:

Her fingers set, after coming back, set half-closed; the strength in her hands she used up to type in the office but most consciously to pull the udders of the succeeding cows, as if she would hunt, hunt, hunt daily for the blindness that lay inside the beast, inside where she could have a real and living wall for beating on, a solid prison to get out of, the most real stupidity of flesh, a mindless and careless and calling body, to respond flesh for flesh, anguish for anguish. And if, as she dreamed one winter night, a new piano she touched had turned, after the one pristine moment, into a calling cow, it was by her own desire.

Paradoxically, it is the art form most dependent on time, existing in a present sequence of moments, which has the greatest power to put the listener outside his ordinary sense of present time. Music enables him to summon the past and imaginatively to perceive its meanings. Its effect in The Golden Apples reminds one of the effect of the little phrase from the sonata of Vinteuil in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past; in Miss Welty's book, music provides insight into the meaning of beauty, love, suffering, and loss, and it has the power to suspend, compress, or protract time and experience. Music often functions in this manner for the characters in The Golden Apples. The “Für Elise” theme is a “greeting” to Loch, and takes him back “to when his sister was so sweet, to a long time ago.” To Cassie the theme brings tumbling the lines from the Yeats poem, and with them the gathering past which breaks like a wave over her head. Listening to the Spaniard play the subtle love songs of his native land, Eugene experiences “a deep lull in his spirit that was as enfolding as love. … He felt a lapse of all knowledge of Emma as his wife, and of comprehending the future, in some visit to a vast present-time. The lapse must have endured for a solid minute or two, … as positively there and as defined at the edges as a spot or stain, and it affected him like a secret.”

If music suddenly evokes the timeless moment, time's own passing creates the wisdom of attrition in those who have survived many deaths (their own and others') and have witnessed decay and change. The small party assembled at Mrs. Rainey's grave show this wisdom when a cornucopia of flowers spills over and no one bothers to set it straight: “already, tomorrow's rain pelted the grave with loudness … ; this was the past now.” And in the narrator's own withdrawal from the world of her fiction in the final paragraph of her book, time is telescoped by the swift evocation of prehistoric or mythical animal life, even then mysterious, heroic, and beautiful, as it is now. An ancient Negro woman sits down by Virgie for shelter from the rain. At first a couple of stray familiar figures pass. “Then she and the old beggar woman, the old black thief, were there alone and together in the shelter of the big public tree, listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears. They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan.”

Principal Works

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A Curtain of Green 1941

The Robber Bridegroom 1942

The Wide Net, and Other Stories 1943

The Golden Apples 1949

Short Stories [address delivered at University of Washington] 1949

Selected Stories 1953

The Ponder Heart 1954

The Bride of the Innisfallen 1955

Thirteen Stories [edited and introduced by Ruth M. Vande Kieft] 1965

The Optimist's Daughter 1972

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty 1980

Morgana: Two Stories from The Golden Apples 1988

Stories, Essays, and Memoir 1998

The First Story [contains Welty's first published story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman” and her essay about the story] 1999

Delta Wedding (novel) 1946

Losing Battles (novel) 1970

One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, A Snapshot Album [illustrated with photographs by Welty] (nonfiction) 1971

The Eye of the Story (nonfiction) 1978

One Writer's Beginnings (autobiography) 1984

Photographs (nonfiction) 1989

A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews (criticism) 1994

Country Churchyards [contributor and photographer; contains excerpts from Welty's previous writings and new essays by other writers] (collected works) 2000

Frederick J. Hoffman (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: Hoffman, Frederick J. “Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.” In The Art of Southern Fiction: A Study of Some Novelists, pp. 51–9, 63–5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explains Welty's use of location in her writing.]

In terms of career, Eudora Welty belongs to the middle generation of modern Southern writers. Her first publication was a short story of amazing effectiveness, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” which appeared in a Detroit little magazine, Manuscript, for June, 1936.1 From 1936 through 1955 there was a burst of activity, with seven books, four novels, and three collections of stories published. Since 1955, with the exception of fiction and nonfiction pieces in magazines, she has slowed down considerably.

Since Miss Welty has spent much of her creative talent on places in Mississippi, the subject of place has been very important to her. Not that she is a regionalist, or a local-colorist, but that the qualities of setting are pre-eminently influential on her work. In an essay of 1956 she testifies to its role.2 The novel from the start, she says

has been bound up in the local, the “real,” the present, the ordinary day-to-day of human experience. Where the imagination comes in is in directing the use of all this … Fiction is properly at work on the here and now, or the past made here and now; for in novels we have to be there. Fiction provides the ideal texture through which the feeling and meaning that permeate our own personal, present lives will best show through.”

(p. 58)

A few pages later she offers an arresting image, to facilitate our sense of place.3 Some of her family grew up with a china night light, “the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment.”

The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are all seen as one. … The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.

(p. 60)

The number of insights afforded here and elsewhere in her critical writing gives one a real sense of Miss Welty's sensitivity to her craft and of her conviction regarding its role as a means of “rescuing” and ordering life. The relation of appearance to actuality is indispensable: “Yet somehow, the world of appearance has got to seem actuality.” Place (scenes, people in scenes, habits, décor, atmosphere) “being brought to life in the round before the reader's eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it.” (p. 61) Elsewhere, she comes up with a definition of place in fiction as “the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering-spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress.” (p. 62)4 When it comes down to it, it is the explicit things that come through on the pages of a novel, that is, the physical texture. (p. 67)

These observations, brilliant as they are, set off a train of queries: does Miss Welty communicate “physical texture?” Doesn't she prefer the grotesquely fanciful to the actual? Diana Trilling, reviewing The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943) compared the writing to the surrealistic art of Salvador Dali, with no intention of flattering either.5 It is true that Miss Welty often chooses the fantastic elements of her scene, but they are no less real for having been thus chosen. Speaking about an old Southern community, she once said:

Indians, Mike Fink, the flatboatmen, Burr, and Blennerhassett, John James Audubon, the bandits of the Trace, planters and preachers—the horse fairs, the great fires—the battles of war, the arrivals of foreign ships, and the coming of floods: could not all these things still more with their stature enter into the mind here, and their beauty still work upon the heart? Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things—regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagaries.”6

Her belief in the viability and continuity of place, of both objects and persons, gives her a philosophical sense of place. Certain places are known for being inhabited by “celebrities,” who have left their marks upon them; the imagination, stirred by their extraordinary qualities, brings them back out of the past and reinstates them, thus repeating their lines, freshening them, and even in a sense bestowing immortality upon them. These observations apply to one of her novels, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), and to a few of her stories. But generally the places and people are quite commonplace. Griffith has described the geographical scope of them:

For the most part, Miss Welty is content to confine herself to that special part of the South she has known so intimately in her own life: a section that includes not only the Jackson area, where her house has always been, but also the rich Yazoo Delta cotton country to the northwest and north (Delta Wedding), the red clay farms and hill country in the northeast and east (“A Piece of News” and “The Hitch-Hikers”), the pinelands and truck farms in the southeast (“The Whistle”), the New Orleans area to the south (“The Purple Hat,” and “No Place for You, My Love”), and the Mississippi River bottoms to the west (“At the Landing”).7

In short, the range of place is fairly limited. The principal cities are Jackson, Natchez, and Vicksburg, Mississippi; there are others: in the volume called The Bride of Innisfallen (1955), Miss Welty moves out into the “wide world” (Ireland, Naples, even into classical mythology, in “Circe”), not especially to her advantage. The stories are not necessarily improved for the fact of their expansion of setting. Similarly, one part of The Golden Apples (1949) is set in San Francisco, but the fact of San Francisco is the least of its virtues. She is best, I suspect I am saying, when she works with a setting and an atmosphere with which she is most intimately acquainted. Robert Daniel has pinpointed that area for us:

by far the greater and the more distinguished part of [her fiction] has found its settings in the state of Mississippi. Sometimes it treats of the middle-class world of beauty-parlors and card-parties that presumably is Jackson; sometimes of villages in the Delta, with their storekeepers and salesmen and ill-to-do farmers, white and black; sometimes of decayed mansions in Natchez, and Vicksburg. And beyond all these, in her stories, lies the encompassing countryside of fields and woods and rivers, or even the primeval wilderness, when she writes of the region as it was a century and more ago.8

The actualities are there; Miss Welty has a clear idea of what she wants to do with them, of what she wants them to do for us. “Like a good many writers,” she says in still another essay, “I am myself touched off by place. The place where I am and the place I know, and other places that familiarity with and love for my own make strange and lovely and enlightening to look into, are what set me to writing my stories.”9 Much more can be made of what amounts to both a critical theory and a theory of place and imagination, but perhaps the best way of testing what she says about her work is in the results of it. That work is only incidentally “grotesque”; it is grotesque only in the sense in which her subject is. She has an accommodating and a marvelously open imagination, so that both persons and things come through it endowed and charmed and identified as almost no other persons have ever been. To call these people weird, or unreal, or vague, is to testify to several misreadings of them.

It is true, as Robert Penn Warren says, that “almost all of the stories deal with people who, in one way or another, are cut off, alienated, isolated from the world.”10 It is also true that to concentrate upon this fact leads to a great distortion; and to say, with Diana Trilling, that her style has exceeded the legitimate uses to which it might be put,11 is to go beyond the point of giving Miss Welty a chance. There are many eccentricities in her people, many oddities and vulgarities, which are given the fullest benefit of her style and talent. The peculiarities of character grow as a means of her style, which acts upon them in a manner that both clarifies the atmosphere about them and highlights those characteristics that need to be emphasized for full value. She is committed to her characters, and has promised them loving care, and sometimes sympathy, but no sentimentality. There is also much humor and much irony here, but they are not superimposed upon her people. Her people possess these qualities, or deserve to have them.

Perhaps the most obvious example is “Why I Live at the P.O.,” a famous comic story from A Curtain of Green.12 Here the narrator is neurotic as characters frequently are in Miss Welty's stories, but she sees to it that the character is taken at face value, and not for some museum specimen. The narrator explains why she has left home. Her sister, Stella-Rondo, was set against her; she'd run off with “This photographer with the popeyes she said she trusted.” (Curtain [A Curtain of Green], p. 90) A fierce competition results between the two sisters for the affection and approval of the family; we are, of course, permitted only the narrator's view of things, but that will serve. Stella-Rondo succeeds in setting the rest of the family against her; so, “at 6:30 a. m. the next morning,” Uncle Rondo “threw a whole five-cent package of some unsold one-inch firecrackers from the store as hard as he could into my bedroom and they every one went off. Not one bad one in the string. Anybody else, there'd be one that wouldn't go off.” (Curtain, p. 98) Right then, she decided “I'd go straight down to the P. O.” (p. 99) So, here she is, at the P. O. in China Grove. Of course there's not much mail, because “My family are naturally the main people in China Grove, and if they prefer to vanish from the face of the earth, for all the mail they get or the mail they write, why I'm not going to open my mouth.” (Curtain, p. 104)

“Petrified Man” is another classic of folk humor and vulgarity. It is a collection of conversational gems gleaned from a group of women in a beauty parlor. The talk skirts around banalities and near-insults, and it finally settles upon the figure of the petrified man from the carnival, the “freak show.” The three women chiefly involved in the discussion have long since gone past the point of loving their husbands, so the petrified man is an object of more than ordinary interest to the reader:

“they got this man, this petrified man, that ever'thing ever since he was nine years old, when it goes through his digestion, see, somehow Mrs. Pike says it goes to his joints and has been turning to stone.”

(Curtain [A Curtain of Green], pp. 40-41)

Subsequently, Mrs. Pike identifies the man as a man from the town, wanted for a number of rapes in California. She could have collected a $500 reward and finally is successful in getting it; but the “beautician,” Leota, is furious to discover that she's used one of her magazines (she, Leota, should have had the reward, etc.) The humor and the horror are neatly blended; we are never really horrified by these people, yet they are ghastly and unpleasant and beyond hope.

By contrast, Clytie Farr of “Clytie” is almost entirely pathetic.13 Clytie is from “The old big house,” in the town of Farr's Gin, and she appears to be quickly losing her wits. The house is itself a ruin, in a state of semi-repose. As Clytie enters the hall, she finds that “it was very dark and bare.”

The only light was falling on the white sheet which covered the solitary piece of furniture, an organ. The red curtains over the parlor door, held back by ivory hands, were still as tree trunks in the airless house.

In ironic contrast is the diamond cornucopia which with her “wrinkled, unresting fingers” she holds; she always wears it “in the bosom of the long black dress.” (Curtain, p. 157)

Clytie is obviously slowly dying (or going mad) from a lack of human love. She reacts sensitively to human faces, and looks at them searchingly, and with longing, hoping some day to find the face which will reconcile her to the world. But as for her family, it was not necessary to see their faces: their faces come between her face and another; “they prevented her search from being successful.” It is the family that is killing her, driving her mad.

It was their faces which had come pushing in between, long ago, to hide some face that had looked back at her. And now it was hard to remember the way it looked, or the time she had seen it first.

(Curtain, p. 163)

She makes hesitant, tender, halting gestures toward human love. When Mr. Bobo, the barber who has come to shave her father, arrives, she reaches out to touch his face:

… she put out her hand and with breath-taking gentleness touched the side of his face.

For an instant afterward, she stood looking at him inquiringly, and he stood like a statue, like the statue of Hermes.

Then both of them uttered a despairing cry. Mr. Bobo turned and fled, waving his razor around in a circle, down the stairs and out the front door; and Clytie, pale as a ghost, stumbled against the railing.

(Curtain, pp. 169-70)

She is ultimately going to go the whole way toward madness. Her narcissism is of a special variety, the result not of love of self, but of fear of others. She sees her own face in the water of the rain barrel, “a wavering, inscrutable face.”

Clytie did the only thing she could think of to do. She bent her angular body further, and thrust her head into the barrel, under the water, through its glittering surface into the kind, featureless depth, and held it there.

When the old Negro servant finds her, “she had fallen forward into the barrel, with her poor ladylike black-stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs.” (Curtain, p. 171)

These three stories are a fair demonstration of what Miss Welty was able to do in this amazing first volume. Perhaps one final look should give us—in a limited way, yet impressively—the very first story she published. The atmosphere of “Death of a Traveling Salesman”14 comes close to being that of a fantasy, a dream-vision at the moment of death. As Mark Schorer has said, it is doubtful that the described action—except for the death itself—has actually taken place.15 The salesman, R. J. Bowman, just recovered (or perhaps not?) from influenza, loses his way and wanders off into a “cowpath” and into the unknown. He has known hundreds of hotel rooms, but is now suddenly translated into an entirely different world. The car itself sinks into “a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as he watched, concerned somehow that he was not still inside it, released it gently to the ground.” (Curtain, p. 234)

Where am I? he asks himself. Everything has suddenly become passing strange, and his personality seems also to have changed; he wants, somehow to accept, to rest, just to be. At the door of the only house in sight, he finds a woman who is obviously with child. Inside the house, the darkness “touched him like a professional hand, the doctor's.” (Curtain, p. 237) Images of expectant life and expectant death combine here. Bowman is not sure which one is promised here, or if both are. “He felt he was in a mysterious, quiet, cool danger.” (pp. 237-38) But he chooses to be elated, overjoyed by a sense of life, a condition so different from the one he'd suffered most of his own life. The puzzle seems finally to be solved: he is in the presence of a fruitful marriage. Then, after much elation over his discovery, he takes his bags and leaves the cabin. He must get back to where he was before. But his heart attacks him once again; it begins “to give off tremendous explosions like a rifle, bang bang bang.” (Curtain, p. 249) The final moment of life is just embarrassing; he “covered his heart with both hands to keep anyone from hearing the noise it made. But nobody heard it.” (Curtain, p. 250)

Setting aside certain effects (the gift of fire, the Confederate coat worn by Bowman's host, the name Sonny) as just a little obviously cute and too suggestive of an “Agrarian” design, “Death” is an amazing achievement. Ruth Vande Kieft, author of the best book so far published on Miss Welty, describes the story a bit too simply, though the materials for a simple interpretation do certainly exist.16 The words “rooted” and “rootless” are almost of the essence, as we reflect upon Bowman's past life on the road, and in cheap hotels and restaurants. Certainly the story's fourth paragraph testifies to the need for simple contrasts: “He had gradually put up at better hotels, in the bigger towns, but weren't they all, eternally, stuffy in summer and drafty in winter? Women? He could only remember little rooms within little rooms, like a nest of Chinese paper boxes, and if he thought of one woman he saw the worn loneliness that the furniture of that room seemed built of.” (Curtain, p. 232) …

The Golden Apples is a different kind of book.17 Its setting is scarcely larger, but it is more varied; and there are more, and more widely varied, people. The scene is the town of Morgana, Mississippi. In fact, most critics refuse to call The Golden Apples a novel, and it is a collection of stories in a sense; but the stories are vitally interrelated. If anything, Miss Welty's skill and compassion unite here more successfully than anywhere else in her work. To say that this is her best work is not a popular judgment, but I should want to place The Golden Apples very high indeed.18 There has been much to do about Miss Welty's use of mythological figures, and it is true that she has always been interested in classical overtures; but the life in Morgana can stand by itself, without the assistance of parallels.19

Miss Vande Kieft has cited Yeats's poem, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” as the primary source; its last line contains Miss Welty's title:

And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.(20)

To take these parallels too seriously (and Miss Vande Kieft does not) is to put aside Miss Welty's genuine concern for place and persons. King MacLain, who comes close to being one of two or three leading characters, is nevertheless treated shrewdly and with appropriate ironies. Generally, the disposition toward Morgana persons is about what they deserve; they do not transcend themselves, though occasionally they are victimized by ironic misfortunes. Of the group, perhaps Miss Eckhart, spinster music teacher, is the most accursed. Forced to care for an ailing mother and deprived of romance by the drowning of her one gentleman friend, she cannot answer to any ambitions or romantic impulses; so she relies upon the one pupil she has who shows a real talent, Virgie Rainey. She's the pride and joy, and the sustaining life. Miss Welty's description of the “June Recital” is most affecting as well as devastating: “The night of the recital was always clear and hot: everyone came. The prospective audience turned out in full oppression.” (Apples [The Golden Apples], p. 62)

Eventually, Virgie goes into a movie palace to play the piano and loses all her talent and all her interest in serious music. A series of disasters finds Miss Eckhart in the county poor farm, from which point she essays revenge upon the house, upon the metronome (symbol and sign of her students' mediocrity), and upon her life generally. She sets fire to the old house, in the hope that it will be destroyed, but it is rescued by King MacLain and two other townspeople.

Old man Moody and Mr. Bowles brought the old woman between them out on the porch of the vacant house. She was quiet now, with the scorched black cloth covering her head; she herself held it on with both hands

(Apples [The Golden Apples], p. 76)

The Golden Apples turns to another young hero, Loch Morrison, who in “Moon Lake” (pp. 99-138) performs a rescue at a summer camp. The episode is masterfully told; Loch is obliged to plunge into a muddy and sticky lake bottom. All of his instincts turn him away from girls, whom he scorns, but here he must seriously attend to at least one of them. Two subsequent episodes concern the twin sons of King and Snowdie MacLain, Randall and Eugene. “Music from Spain” has its setting in San Francisco.21 It is a strange story, of Eugene's admiration for a Spanish guitarist and of his encounter with him the day after his recital. He rescues the Spaniard from a near encounter with an automobile, and the two spend the day together, though neither speaks the other's language. Apparently Eugene returns to Morgana, and dies shortly thereafter. The last episode, “The Wanderers” (pp. 203-44), serves as a form of epilogue, summing up the lives of several Morgana people, commenting upon life in general. The key event is, appropriately, a funeral, in which Virgie Rainey's mother is buried. In death, she is decked out in the black satin dress, “the dress in which diminished, pea-sized moth-balls had shone and rolled like crystals all Virgie's life, in waiting, taken out twice, and now spread out in full triangle. Her head was in the center of the bolster, the widow's place in which she herself laid it. Miss Snowdie had rouged her cheeks.” (Apples, p. 213)

Mrs. Katie Rainey, suitably the person who looks on, and listens, as distinguished from the active King MacLain and Loch Morrison,22 dies and thus provides Morgana with the only interesting social affair she has been able to give it. The funeral is a lively affair, and is enjoyed by all. It is, in effect, a reunion of the clan, from King MacLain (old now, and a tribal leader) to the smallest. Persons came, as they will come, from distant places as from near. Virgie “walked and ran looking about her in a kind of glory, by the back way.”

Virgie never saw it differently, never doubted that all the opposites on earth were close together, love close to hate, living to dying; but of them all, hope and despair were the closest blood—unrecognizable one from the other sometimes, making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again, amending but never taking back.

(Apples, p. 234)


  1. Manuscript, 3 (June, 1936), 21-29. It was collected in A Curtain of Green (New York: Doubleday Doran, 1941), pp. 231-50.

  2. “Place in Fiction,” Southern Atlantic Quarterly, 55 (January, 1956), 57-72. It was subsequently published as a pamphlet by Harcourt Brace, 1957, in 300 copies.

  3. The image is also used in Delta Wedding (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946), p. 46.

  4. See above, chap. 1, my discussion of place and the modern Southern novel.

  5. “Fiction in Review,” Nation, 157 (October 2, 1943), 386-87. Cited by Albert J. Griffith, in Eudora Welty's Fiction, an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1959, pp. 109-10.

  6. “Some Notes on River Country,” Harper's Bazaar, 2786 (February, 1944), 156. Quoted by Griffith in op. cit., p. 33.

  7. Ibid., p. 18. The Natchez Trace, featured in The Robber Bridegroom, appears also in several of the stories.

  8. Robert Daniel, “The World of Eudora Welty,” in Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Robert J. Jacobs (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953), p. 306. Originally published in the Hopkins Review, 6 (Winter, 1953) 49-58.

  9. “How I Write,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 31 (Spring, 1955), 242. See also Short Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949).

  10. “The Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty,” in Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 160. This essay originally appeared in the Kenyon Review 6 (Spring, 1944), 246-69. It concerns the two early collections of short stories, A Curtain of Green and The Wide Net, and Other Stories.

  11. See Warren, loc. cit.

  12. First published in the Atlantic Monthly, 167 (April, 1941), 443-50.

  13. “Clytie,” in A Curtain of Green, pp. 155-71. Originally in Southern Review, 7 (Summer, 1941), 52-64.

  14. In A Curtain of Green, pp. 231-69; originally published in Manuscript, 3 (June, 1936), 21-29.

  15. See The Story: A Critical Anthology (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950), p. 355.

  16. Ruth Vande Kieft, Eudora Welty (New York: Twayne, 1962), pp. 38-39.

  17. The Golden Apples (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949).

  18. Miss Vande Kieft calls it “the most complex and encompassing of Miss Welty's works …” op. cit., p. 111. Her study of Apples (pp. 111-48) is the best so far published.

  19. For the most elaborate discussions of Miss Welty's use of parallels, see H. C. Morris, “Zeus and the Golden Apples: Eudora Welty,” Perspective, 5 (Autumn, 1952), 190-99; and “Eudora Welty's Use of Mythology,” Shenandoah, 6 (Spring, 1955), 34-40.

  20. See Ruth Vande Kieft, op. cit., pp. 111-12.

  21. It was separately printed by Miss Welty: Greenville, Mississippi, The Levee Press, 1948.

  22. See Ruth Vande Kieft, op. cit. pp. 122 ff., concerning the “two sets of characters” in Apples, the “wanderers” and those who “serve as their foils.”

Further Reading

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Pollack, Harriet. “Words Between Strangers: On Welty, Her Style, and Her Audience.” In Welty: A Life in Literature, edited by Albert J. Devlin, pp. 54–81. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

Analyzes the apparent paradox in Welty's themes of human connection coupled with her narrative techniques of obstruction.

Additional coverage of Welty's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors Bibliography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 32, 65; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 14, 22, 33, 105; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 12; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 87; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists;DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 10; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; and World Literature Criticism.

Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Critics.” In Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Carol Ann Johnston, pp. 169–72. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1969, Oates comments on Welty's subtle use of horror.]

What shocks us about this art is its delicate blending of the casual and the tragic, the essential femininity of the narration and the subject, the reality, which is narrated. How can the conversational and slightly arch tone of her fiction give way to such amazing revelations? That horror may evolve out of gentility—and, even in stories dealing with the very poor or the very unenlightened, Miss Welty is always “genteel”—is something we are not prepared to accept. Our natural instinct is to insist that horror be emphasized, underlined, somehow exaggerated so that we may absorb it in a way satisfying to our sensibilities. Fiction about crime and criminals suggests always the supreme importance of crime and criminals; it is a statement of moral value. The kind of black comic-naturalism that has descended from Celine also insists, heavily, upon a moral point, about the crazy depravity of the world and the endless combinations and permutations in which it may be located … and this too, though it is constructed as a kind of joke or a series of jokes, may be related to a sense of proportion, a feeling that outrages certainly deserve more attention than normal events.

Eudora Welty baffles our expectations. Like Kafka, with whom she shares a number of traits, she presents the distortions of life in the context of ordinary, even chatty life; she frightens us. I have no doubt that her intentions are not to frighten anyone, or to make particular judgments on life, but the effect of her fiction is indeed frightening. It is the bizarre combination of a seemingly boundless admiration for feminine nonsense—family life, food, relatives, conversations, eccentric old people—and a sharp, penetrating eye for the seams of this world, through which a muderous light shines. Flannery O'Connor, who was certainly indebted to Miss Welty's stories, abandons entirely the apparatus of “realism”; she has no patience for, no interest in, real people. Amazing as some of Flannery O'Connor's stories are, they are ultimately powerless to move us seriously—like the beautiful plays of Yeats, they are populated with beings not quite human. Eudora Welty's people are always human.

The most impatient and unsympathetic of readers will find himself drawn in gradually, even charmed, by the Fairchild clan of Delta Wedding. They are indeed a “capricious and charming Southern family” (quote from paperback edition cover). That the foundation of their charm, the leisure in which to develop their charm, is something wholly ugly and unacceptable—the obvious exploitation of Negroes, inside an accidental economic structure in which the Fairchilds are, certainly, American nobility in spite of their lack of real wealth—is something one comes to accept, just the same as one comes to accept the utter worthlessness of certain characters of James and Proust, in social and human terms, but maintains an interest in their affairs. And then it is stunning to realize, as one nears the conclusion of Delta Wedding, that in spite of the lovingly detailed story, in spite of her seemingly insatiable generosity toward these unexceptional people, Miss Welty understands clearly their relationship with the rest of the world. So much cute nonsense about a wedding!—and then the photographer announces, making conversation, that he has also taken a picture of a girl recently hit by a train. “Ladies, she was flung off in the blackberry bushes,” he says; and Aunt Tempe says what every aunt will say, “Change the subject.” The dead girl may have been as pretty and flighty and exasperating as the young bride, but her human value is considerably less. She is on the outside; she is excluded from society. Her existence is of no particular concern to anyone. So, a member of this claustrophobic and settled world may well venture into hers, make love to her, leave her, and her death is a kind of natural consequence of her being excluded from the “delta wedding” and all its bustling excitement. It is more disturbing for the mother of all those children to be told, by her Negro servant, that he quite seriously wishes all the roses were out of the world—“If I had my way, wouldn't be a rose in de world. Catch your shirt and stick you and prick you and grab you. Got thorns.” Ellen trembles at this remark “as at some imprudence.” Protected by her social position, her family, her condition of being loved, protected by the very existence of the Negro servant who must brave the thorns for her, it is only imprudence of one kind or another that she must tremble at.

In “The Demonstrators”—the O. Henry First Prize story of 1968—the lonely consciousness of an ordinary, good man is seen in a context of greater, more violent loneliness, the terrible general failure of mankind. The demonstrators themselves, the civil rights agitators, do not appear in the story and need not appear; their intrusion into the supposedly placid racist society of this small Southern town is only symbolic. They too are not to be trusted, idealistic as they sound. Another set of demonstrators—demonstrating our human powerlessness as we disintegrate into violence—are the Negroes of the town, a choral and anonymous group with a victim at their theatrical center, one of themselves and yet a curious distance from them, in her death agony.

The story begins with the semi-colloquial “Near eleven o'clock” and concerns itself at first with the forceful, colorful personality of an aged woman, Miss Marcia Pope. Subject to seizures as she is, crotchety and wise in the stereotyped manner of such old dying ladies, she is nevertheless the only person in town “quite able to take care of herself,” as the doctor thinks at the conclusion of the story; a great deal has happened between the first and last paragraphs. The doctor's mission is to save a young Negro woman, who has been stabbed by her lover with an ice pick; his attempt is hopeless, the woman is bleeding internally, too much time has been wasted. And so she dies. The doctor goes home and we learn that he himself is living a kind of death, since his wife has left him; his wife left him because their thirteen-year-old daughter, an idiot, had died … everything is linked to everything else, one person to another, one failure to another, earlier, equally irremediable failure. The doctor is “so increasingly tired, so sick and even bored with the bitterness, intractability that divided everybody and everything.” The tragedy of life is our permanence of self, of Ego: but this is also our hope, in Miss Welty's phrase our “assault of hope,” throwing us back into life.

The next morning he reads of the deaths of the Negro lovers, who managed to kill each other. The homespun newspaper article concludes, “No cause was cited for the fracas.” The doctor had not failed to save the Negro woman and man because there was never the possibility of their being saved. There was never the possibility of his daughter growing up. Of the strange failure of his marriage nothing much is said, yet it too seems irreparable. But, as he looks into the garden, he distinguishes between those flowers which are “done for” and those which are still “bright as toys.” And two birds pick in the devastation of leaves, apparently permanent residents of the garden, “probing and feeding.”

“The Demonstrators” resists analysis. It is a small masterpiece of subtlety, of gentleness—a real gentleness of tone, a reluctance to exaggerate or even to highlight drama, as if sensing such gestures alien to life. We are left with an unforgettable sense of the permanence and the impermanence of life, and especially of the confused web of human relationships that constitute most of our lives. The mother of the dying Negro girl warns her, “I ain't going to raise him,” speaking of the girl's baby. Of course she is going to raise him. There is no question about it. But the warning itself, spoken in that room of unfocussed horror, is horrible; the grotesque has been assimilated deftly into the ordinary, the natural.

It is an outstanding characteristic of Miss Welty's genius that she can write a story that seems to me, in a way, about “nothing”—Flaubert's ideal, a masterpiece of style—and make it mean very nearly everything.

Patricia S. Yaeger (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9906

SOURCE: Yaeger, Patricia S. “‘Because a Fire Was in My Head’: Eudora Welty and the Dialogic Imagination.” In Welty: A Life in Literature, edited by Albert J. Devlin, pp. 139–67. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Yaeger discusses the stories of The Golden Apples in the context of feminist and postmodernist criticism.]

Woman's language has recently become the subject of a set of elaborate and contradictory mystifications. While a number of American feminist critics have begun to join French theorists in asserting that language is a patriarchal institution, French feminists like Hélène Cixous, Marguerite Duras, and Luce Irigaray additionally insist that this institution can be transcended, that woman's writing is an ecstatic possibility, a labor of mystery that can take place in some fruitful void beyond man's experience. “We the precocious, we the repressed of culture,” says Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” “Our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies—.”1 If past repressions have become the source of woman's strength, the discovery of her secret and self-perpetuating language will give woman “access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories,” delivering paradise and more (p. 250). In a 1975 interview in Signs Marguerite Duras echoes and extends parts of Cixous' theory, arguing not only that woman can discover her own private and libidinal realm of connotation through writing but that men and women live in different linguistic cultures; they write from radically different perspectives. “Men … begin from a theoretical platform that is already in place, already elaborated,” she says. “The writing of women is really translated from the unknown, like a new way of communicating rather than an already formed language. But to achieve that, we have to turn away from plagiarism.”2 Plagiarism, as Duras defines it, is any complicity with masculine ideology, theatricality, or rhetorical style. “Feminine literature is a violent, direct literature,” she insists. “To judge it, we must not—and this is the main point I want to make—start all over again, take off from a theoretical platform” (p. 425). “Translated” from subterranean depths, women's writing must resist cooperation with the tradition, must avoid the temptation to be patrilineal. In this essay I wish to argue, however, that women's writing employs a useful form of “plagiarism.” Women who write are not only capable of appropriating myths, genres, ideas, and images that are “populated” with patriarchal meaning; they are continually endowing a male mythos with their own intentions and meanings. According to this argument women write about their own lives by appropriating masculine traditions and transforming them, adapting what has been called “phallocentric” diction to fit the needs of “feminocentric” expression. While this view is necessarily controversial it will lead, I hope, to an interesting thesis: although the plots that women construct for their heroines continue to focus on, and therefore in a sense to privilege, the dominant sex/gender system, the language that women writers have begun to develop to subvert or deconstruct this system is at once traditional and feminocentric. Language is not a reductively patriarchal system but a somewhat flexible institution that not only reflects but may also address existing power structures, including those conditioned by gender.

“Language,” as Mikhail Bakhtin argues in his essay “Discourse in the Novel,” “is never unitary. It is unitary only as an abstract grammatical system of normative forms, taken in isolation from … the uninterrupted process of historical becoming that is characteristic of all living language.”3 Disruptive, emotional, nonhegemonic, language, according to Bakhtin, is open to intention and change. Moreover, both spoken and written language are dynamic and plural, and, as such, language resists all attempts to foster a unitary or absolute system of expression within its boundaries. This does not mean, however, that language itself is either nonpossessive or free from obsession. As Bakhtin explains, “language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others” (p. 294). The process of its transformation is dialogic; that is, this process involves a dialectical interaction between words, between styles, between points of view. According to Bakhtin, this interaction is highly visible in the novel:

The prose art presumes a deliberate feeling for the historical and social concreteness of living discourse, as well as its relativity, a feeling for its participation in historical becoming and in social struggle; it deals with discourse that is still warm from that struggle and hostility, as yet unresolved and still fraught with hostile intentions and accents; prose art finds discourse in this state and subjects it to the dynamic-unity of its own style.

(p. 331)

Bakhtin argues that we are accustomed to think of the novel in terms of thematic unities or structural polarities but that the novel is neither univocal nor dialectical in structure. “The style of a novel is to be found in the combination of its styles; the language of a novel is the system of its ‘languages’” (p. 262). The novel, then, is polyphonic; it is composed of various styles, speech patterns, and ideologies that interact dynamically as a “heteroglossia,” or many-languaged discourse. In the novel various stratifying forces come together and diverge, styles speak or argue with one another, barely constrained by the shifting framework of the author's intentionality. The novel, Bakhtin explains, is not a closed system in which style is controlled by authorial monologue. Instead, it represents, or results from, a dynamic conversation, a dialogue between those heterogeneous styles that, even as they are woven into a new plot and reinterpreted by an author, still speak with the intentions of their previous contexts.

Bakhtin's theories of linguistic evolution, of dialogism, and of heteroglossia will give us a useful vocabulary and a new perspective from which to examine the central tensions between men's and women's writing. Using his framework of ideas I will discuss Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, a beautifully crafted and gender-preoccupied novel whose emphasis on sexuality and intertextuality has not been fully comprehended.4 By focusing on Welty's dialogue with the “already formed” language of the masculine canon, specifically on her appropriation of themes and images from the poetry of William Butler Yeats, we will see that Welty's appropriation of Yeats's poetic imagery is neither a destructive form of “plagiarism” nor a source of disempowerment but a potent rhetorical and ideological strategy.

In the final moments of “June Recital,” the second story in The Golden Apples, Cassie Morrison is possessed—erotically—by a poem:

Into her head flowed the whole of the poem she had found in that book. It ran perfectly through her head, vanishing as it went, one line yielding to the next, like a torch race. All of it passed through her head, through her body.

(p. 330)5

The poem is William Butler Yeats's “Song of the Wandering Aengus,” which tells the story of a man driven by the “fire” in his mind to seek an object equal to his desire. He finds this object in “a glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair / Who called me by my name and ran / And faded through the brightening air.” After calling his name she disappears, but in her echoing image the wanderer discovers his vocation:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon
The golden apples of the sun.(6)

Yeats's poem focuses on the simultaneous impotence and persistence of the male poet's will to define himself through a feminine muse. And yet the final tone of the poem is one of self-assurance: “I will find out where she has gone,” the speaker says, equating his discovery of the “glimmering girl” with a capacity to conjure presence out of absence, closure out of uncertainty, eroticism out of ennui. The feminine persona who enables the poet to create this sense of presence has the quality of a projection: she is the shadow or penumbra of the speaker's mind, the figment of his imagination. Although she enters the poem as an Ovidian enigma, returning briefly to human form after an immersion in nature, by the end of Yeats's poem she has been reabsorbed not only by nature but by the poem itself, her body becoming metaphor for the sexual plenitude of the landscape where the poet gathers his images. In Yeats's poem, in other words, the “glimmering girl” is assimilated into a masculine story. Even though she has been the first to call him by his name, she is also echoing the sound he wants to hear—“the name of the father”—enabling him to speak as she gives birth to his poem.

Although it has become a commonplace of feminist analysis to argue that patriarchal culture and writing undermine women's creativity, throughout The Golden Apples Eudora Welty makes extensive use of the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” as well as of “Leda and the Swan.” Paradoxically, she finds these texts useful because of their masculine bias; they provide tropes of the imagination that must be redefined to include women as well as men. On the most primary level Welty borrows images from the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” to describe those women characters who find themselves in a situation like that of the glimmering girl. At the end of “June Recital” Cassie Morrison is dispossessed by Yeats's poem; she utters only a few words from the Aengus' song before falling back “unresisting” into her dreams. Maideen Sumrall, whose very name, with its sense of warmth and seasonality, its alliterative syllables, resembles that of Yeats's muse, is another avatar of the glimmering girl and commits suicide soon after sleeping with Ran MacLain and preventing his suicide. Maideen's lover and the narrator of her story, Ran is the son of Miss Snowdie and King MacLain, a couple who are avatars not only of the glimmering girl and the Wandering Aengus but of the folk heroine Snow White and her wandering prince. As true to her name as Maideen is to hers, Snowdie is an albino who must stay out of the light; her house becomes both coffin and palace where she is always at home, always on view for her prince's pleasure. Snowdie is not simply kept out of the light; she is deprived of the vision and will to wander. “We shut the West out of Snowdie's eyes of course,” her neighbor and friend Katie Rainey explains, referring to more than Snowdie's feeble vision (p. 270). Snowdie's husband, King, by contrast, is a roustabout who wanders through the forest, wild-eyed and white-suited, in search of maidens to distress. King is not only the legendary maker of community babies but the designated wanderer, the procreator of the more erotic and exuberant aspects of the communal plot.

Strangely, it is this most stereotypical of male roles that Welty reverses first in The Golden Apples. King becomes both “muse” and narrative subject in the fables that the women of Morgana tell themselves as they go about their work. “With men like King, your thoughts are bottomless” (p. 274), says Katie Rainey at the end of “Shower of Gold.” King, like the glimmering girl, has the capacity to disappear and reappear, not just in fact, but in women's fancies.

Why is this role reversal important in our estimation of Welty's stories? In order to understand Welty's expropriation of Yeats's poetry, we need to examine Bakhtin's theory of the novel at closer range. For Bakhtin, novels are “multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” (p. 261); they are created by mingling many styles and genres. This “mingling” is progressive and dialectical. The novel, Bakhtin argues, both enacts and represents “a radical revolution in the destinies of human discourse” (p. 367). The novelist joins disparate languages and inserts disruptive points of view into dominant discourses and ideologies. As a result, the novel records a situation and becomes the site of struggle. At the same time, although the novel's openness to historical change can provide an increasingly flexible medium for deconstructing dominant mythologies, in numerous situations counter-mythologies remain difficult to voice. Since language is “overpopulated with the intentions of others,” the novelist has at his or her disposal only those words that are already qualified or inscribed by others; writing occurs within a hostile linguistic environment. “Not all words for just anyone submit equally easily to this … seizure and transformation into private property: many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them” (p. 294). This struggle against constraining ideologies is complicated by the fact that words may not submit easily to the writer's will. The limiting “intentions and accents” of a language system can be inscribed to such a depth that words become difficult to reappropriate even in new dialogic contexts. As linguistic and social patterns reinforce one another over time, language may change only to remain the same.

What feminist critics have come to call “patriarchal” discourse is clearly a variant of this general linguistic tendency. But women writers have begun to find voices: they continue to free language from the constraints of a mother or “father” tongue; and they have discovered within the multi-vocal structure of the novel fertile ground for their own reappraisals of history. Welty, for example, incorporates Yeats's poetry into The Golden Apples in order to reveal the limitations of his mythology of gender while extending the imaginative power that this mythology brings to male speakers to women as well. Welty uses the energy generated by Yeats's traditional images to question the source of these images and to challenge the masculine nature of his themes.

In order to reveal the hidden zone of women's desires, Welty employs several rhetorical strategies. First, to describe those women characters who wish to become wanderers or storytellers and to protest their positions in a hierarchical and gynophobic society, Welty needs a discourse that is adequate to her characters' complexities—a discourse that is articulate, resonant, and capable of expressing women's aspirations. Instead of abandoning the tradition and creating the new dispensary of images that feminists like Duras have envisioned, Welty expropriates and redefines images from the masculine tradition; she places her own prose or prose intentions in dialogue with what has already been said. “The prose writer,” Bakhtin explains, “makes use of words that are already populated with the social intentions of others and compels them to serve … new intentions, to serve a second master” (pp. 299-300). But in order to create this dialogic tension Welty must simultaneously call on and interrupt the singularity of Yeats's fictions; she must rupture his language with an intensity of her own. Welty's strategy, then, is to preserve, to intensify, and yet to anatomize Yeats's poems. She inserts fragments from Yeats's “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Leda and the Swan” into her own prose contexts, simultaneously challenging and calling upon a well-known male plot.

For example, in “Sir Rabbit,” the third story in The Golden Apples, Mattie Will, a young woman bored with her sedentary marriage, imagines making love to King in the forest. As she sits on her front porch, churning and dreaming, she stages his gargantuan approach: “When she laid eyes on Mr. MacLain close, she staggered, he had such grandeur, and then she was caught by the hair and brought down as suddenly to earth as if whacked by an unseen shillelagh.” While Mattie Will's fantasy begins as a clever parody of “Leda and the Swan,” it develops into a serious commentary on the poem itself: “But he put on her, with the affront of his body, the affront of his sense too. No pleasure in that!” Quarreling with Yeats's mythology of gender, Welty recontextualizes his diction; she bestows several of his most memorable phrases on her own female speaker.

She had to put on what he knew with what he did—maybe because he was so grand it was a thorn to him. Like submitting to another way to talk, she could answer to his burden now, his whole blithe, smiling, superior, frantic existence.

(p. 338)

While Mattie Will's precursor Leda had no power to control her own fate, Mattie Will has a measure of control over her own story. Welty's references to “Leda” enable us to measure the relative autonomy of Mattie Will's fantasy even as they remind us that women's desire for pleasure is still inscribed by a male economy: “And no matter what happened to her, she had to remember, disappointments are not to be borne by Mr. MacLain, or he'll go away again” (p. 338). King's “burden,” or song, replicates the masculine impositions of the Wandering Aengus, and yet Welty herself could be said to answer to Yeats's “burden” in this story; she submits his language to her own system of accents, her own “way to talk.”

Some readers have taken Mattie's fantasy of lovemaking for a real encounter with King in the forest.7 Why does “Sir Rabbit” have this effect on its readers? Certainly, there is no first-person narrator, as in “A Shower of Gold,” to cast doubt upon the narrator's reliability. In addition, Welty invites us to identify—here, and in other stories—with the structures of idealization and fable that add a patina of glamor to the everyday tedium of women's lives. But Mattie Will is day-dreaming; her dreams are inspired by the very taboos that deny them: “Junior Holifield would have given her a licking … just for making such a story up, supposing, after she married Junior, she had put anything in words. … Poor Junior!” (p. 333).

Readers may mistake Mattie Will's imaginary adventure for reality because they confuse the shared ideology of Welty's Morgana with the painful and contradictory reality this ideology works to hide. An ideology is a set of beliefs that allows individuals to experience themselves as unified or coherent in a society that is neither. In “A Shower of Gold,” King MacLain and Snowdie are asked, within the communal mythos, to represent the ideological extremes of male and female identity. By representing these extremes, they play delicious roles in the fantasy lives of Morgana women, but insofar as these women talk about the extremes of King's and Snowdie's identities as if they were inevitable, the “naturalness” of these extremes is bolstered or reinforced. If it is natural for men to be boisterous, libidinal, and free-spirited like King, and for women to be pale, patient homebodies like Snowdie; if it follows that men are afraid of home and family since children are both silly and burdensome, then the women of Morgana must be content with yarning and churning; they must put up with their lot. What Welty emphasizes, however, as she moves from “A Shower of Gold” to “Sir Rabbit” is something far more liberating: the restrictive myths that the neighborhood women need to fantasize about King lead them paradoxically to identify with his power. “He was going like the wind, Plez swore to Miss Lizzie Stark. … But I bet my little Jersey calf King tarried long enough to get him a child somewhere. What makes me say a thing like that? I wouldn't say it to my husband, you mind you forget it” (p. 274).

In “Sir Rabbit” Mattie Will also imagines that her husband is conveniently missing from the story. Junior Holifield has been knocked cold, made oblivious not just to King's desire but to Mattie's as well. The dialectical structure of The Golden Apples prepares us for this subterfuge. After discovering the controlling gender myths of the Morgana community in the first story, we learn their results in “June Recital.” Since the community only idealizes wandering men and sedentary women, there is no space in Morgana for women wanderers. Women who want to be visionaries like the Wandering Aengus, or roustabouts like King MacLain, must either become self-destructive or deviant (that is, commit suicide like Mrs. Morrison, go crazy like Miss Eckhart, or become unhappily promiscuous like Virgie Rainey), or—they may let this impulse go underground by imagining wild, compensatory stories about themselves and King, the designated wanderer.8

Thus mythos and ethos work together. But while this imaginative wandering is limited in scope, it also provides a motive for liberation. Throughout the novel, Welty uses Yeats's poems “to write what cannot be written,” to extend the scope of Mattie Will's story. Though Mattie Will can only draw on the limited myths of her community, she tries, in a rush of sexual energy conveyed through the images Welty has borrowed from “Leda and the Swan,” to reinscribe these limits, to become the author of her own sexuality. And while the images that Welty selects to describe Mattie Will's revisionary reading of her world are comic, they hint at something beyond community:

Then when he let her fall and walked off, when he was out of hearing in the woods, and the birds and woods-sounds and the wood-chopping throbbed clearly, she lay there on one elbow, wide awake. A dove feather came turning down through the light that was like golden smoke. She caught it with a dart of the hand, and brushed her chin; she was never displeased to catch anything. Nothing more fell.

(pp. 338-339)

In imagining what happens to Mattie Will after the rape, Welty revises both of Yeats's poems; she is in dialogue not only with his sense of an ending but with his reading of women's creativity as well. In “Sir Rabbit” it is not King but Mattie Will who ventures imaginatively through the forest, alone with whatever her imagination can conjure. “In the woods she heard sounds, the dry creek beginning to run or a strange man calling, one or the other, she thought, but she walked right up on Mr. MacLain again, asleep—snoring” (p. 339). Like the Wandering Aengus, Mattie Will hears the call of a stranger whom Welty has deliberately associated with the glimmering girl. “‘You boys been sighting any birds this way?’ the white glimmer asked courteously, and then it passed behind another tree. ‘Seen my dog, then?’” (p. 334).

His coat hung loosely out from him, and a letter suddenly dropped a little way out from a pocket—whiter than white.

Mattie Will subsided forward onto her arms. Her rear stayed up in the sky, which seemed to brush it with little feathers. She lay there and listened to the world go round.

(p. 340)

Like a cherubic version of Zeus, Mattie Will could almost be said to resemble a baby swan as King's letters (his quills, his white and authorial feathers) fall from him and begin to describe Mattie Will's fledgling, if less than philosophic imagination. But these feathers are also signs of Zeus/King's sexual triumph, and Mattie Will's sense of vocation is short-lived:

… presently Mr. MacLain leaped to his feet, bolt awake, with a flourish of legs. He looked horrified. …

“What you doing here, girl?” Mr. MacLain beat his snowy arms up and down. “Go on! Go on off! Go to Guinea!”

She got up and skedaddled.

(p. 340)

Yeats's mythology is both temporalized and satirized in Welty's prose, and a modicum of creative power is translated to woman from man. But while King becomes the “other” that Mattie Will's fantasy transforms, he also blocks her deeper hearing; she misses the “dry creek beginning to run or a strange man calling” and stumbles instead upon an old man who is swearing and snoring. Seeking a romance within herself, Mattie Will rediscovers the limits of domesticity: “Junior Holifield would have given her a licking … just for making such a story up, supposing, after she married Junior, she had put anything in words” (p. 333). Although Mattie Will's fantasy becomes a lyric of sexual subordination in which only King's sons can inherit his freedom and power, her exuberant metaphors in this fantasy within a fantasy give evidence of a playful—if not yet powerful—imagination, unfairly constrained.

But as she ran down through the woods and vines, this side and that, on the way to get Junior home, it stole back into her mind about those two gawky boys, the MacLain twins. They were soft and jumpy! That day, with their brown, bright eyes popping and blinking, and their little aching Adam's apples—they were like young deer, or even remoter creatures … kangaroos. … For the first time Mattie Will thought they were mysterious and sweet—gamboling now she knew not where.

(pp. 340-341)

The bitter memory of Mattie Will's earliest sexual experience has been transformed by this forbidden seizure of linguistic and imaginative power, and it is in this capacity of imagination that Mattie Will Holifield née Sojourner most resembles Eudora Welty herself. We must distinguish, however, between Mattie Will's persona and Welty's own authorial voice. “The activity of a character in a novel is always ideologically demarcated,” Bakhtin suggests. “He lives and acts in an ideological world of his own[;] … he has his own perception of the world that is incarnated in his action and in his discourse” (p. 335). Mattie Will makes her own mistakes, and yet her “ideological world” is useful to Welty as an arena in which Yeats's authoritative language and Welty's own intended themes begin to clash. If Mattie Will is a figure of the artist as a young woman, she is also a symbolic site where the dialogic interactions of text and intertext become visible. Since she is unable to imagine terms for herself beyond those provided by the erotic plot, Mattie Will's fantasy represents the limited scope of creativity that Morgana society confers—even on women of strong imagination.

In The Golden Apples Welty has invented a complement of characters who replicate even as they relativize the patterns of Yeats's poetry. She achieves this primarily by giving the figure of Yeats's glimmering girl a literary if not a social status equal to that of Yeats's wanderer. Women like Mattie Will, Snowdie MacLain, Maideen Sumrall, and Cassie Morrison do not remain peripheral to Welty's plot; they become instead the central “actors” on the stage of her story. Welty not only redefines female desire in her revisions of “Leda”; she also breaks the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” into a series of quotations spoken by Cassie and a set of fragmentary images defining both male and female characters. She alters the poem's context and its meaning by insisting that Yeats's poem has two protagonists and that each protagonist incarnates a different aspect of woman's story. If at times Welty's female characters resemble the passive, mysterious figure of the glimmering girl whom Yeats portrays as the object of man's desire, in other moments they resemble the ostensible subject of Yeats's poem, the Aengus, in their imagination and their desires.

In “The Wanderers,” for example, the last story of Welty's novel, King MacLain reminisces that he once nicknamed Katie Rainey “Katie Blazes” because of her tendency as a child to set her cotton stockings on fire at a dare. “‘Whsst! Up went the blazes, up to her knee! Sometimes both legs. Cotton stockings the girls used to wear—fuzzy, God knows they were. Nobody else among the girls would set fire to their legs. She had the neighborhood scared she'd go up in flames at an early age’” (p. 438). Throughout The Golden Apples this imaginative fire is associated with woman rather than with man. And yet, in describing Katie's charred stockings Welty has overliteralized the opening images of Yeats's poem to emphasize that Katie's desires and the social limits of those desires are in conflict. The stockings become an image of impotence, of Katie's inability to go “out to the hazel wood” because a fire was in her legs. But it is in the character of Miss Eckhart, one of Snowdie MacLain's boarders, that Welty has invented the most direct and disturbing counterpart to Yeats's male wanderer. Miss Eckhart, a piano teacher fiercely devoted to her pupils and her art, sets a literal “fire in her head” the day she escapes from the county asylum and returns to Morgana. Having given the daughters of Morgana's community a forbidden vision of the passion, the genderless ecstasy available to the woman artist, Miss Eckhart is ostracized and incarcerated—punished more severely for her iconoclasm than are the men of Morgana. But Miss Eckhart tries, in her own peculiar way, to remain close to both the male economy of power and the female economy of nurturance. She passes the gift of her insight and her disobedience to Virgie Rainey, her protégée and Katie Rainey's daughter: “Miss Eckhart had had among the pictures from Europe on her walls a certain threatening one. It hung over the dictionary, dark as that book. It showed Perseus with the head of the Medusa” (p. 459). The threat of the picture comes from its frightening invitation to female passion and creativity:

Miss Eckhart, whom Virgie had not, after all, hated … had hung the picture on the wall for herself. She had absorbed the hero and the victim and then, stoutly, could sit down to the piano with all Beethoven ahead of her. With her hate, with her love, and with the small gnawing feelings that ate them, she offered Virgie her Beethoven. She offered, offered, offered—and when Virgie was young, in the strange wisdom of youth that is accepting of more than is given, she had accepted the Beethoven, as with the dragon's blood. That was the gift she had touched with her fingers that had drifted and left her.

(p. 460)

After Katie Rainey's funeral Virgie Rainey not only contemplates the community that has constrained both her and her mother; she also accepts Miss Eckhart's “gift,” her absorption of “the hero and the victim” embodied in the frightening picture of the Medusa and Perseus. In “Women's Time” Julia Kristeva outlines a similar pattern of feminist inquiry: “the habitual and increasingly explicit attempt to fabricate a scapegoat victim as foundress of a society or a countersociety may be replaced by the analysis of the potentialities of victim/executioner which characterize each identity, each subject, each sex.”9 Virgie begins to propound for herself a pattern of meditation and self-engagement in which she achieves a freedom she has always sought—not by enacting the violent stories that have been thrust on heroic men like Perseus but by achieving a dialectical vision of the rhythms of victim and victimizer that are the pulse of every heroic and gender-specific plot. “In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless” (p. 460).

This dissociation of the story of Perseus from its mythic origins is characteristic of Welty's writing. Her prose is an absorbing exercise in freeing language from previous meanings. As Bakhtin explains in “Discourse in the Novel,” the seizure and redefinition of any story whose traditional meaning has seemed synonymous with “truth” has farreaching consequences:

By “dissociation” we have in mind here a destruction of any absolute bonding of ideological meaning to language, which is the defining factor of mythological and magical thought. An absolute fusion of word with concrete ideological meaning is, without a doubt, one of the most fundamental constitutive features of myth, on the one hand determining the development of mythological images, and on the other determining a special feeling for the forms, meanings and stylistic combinations of language.

(p. 369)

If it is mythological thinking that makes language seem absolute in its affirmation and expression of a “patriarchal” authority, then by subverting the seemingly inviolable fusion of word and ideology, by converting “authoritative discourse” into a new form of metaphor, Welty also challenges the view of reality this language represents. Perseus, as Virgie understands, is finally as culpable and as benign as the Medusa herself. Their terrible and seemingly archetypal hatred and love are only elements in an endlessly painful linguistic melody through which our gender differences are maintained. But finally it is more than the gender-specific structures of Yeats's poems or the gynophobic nature of Greek myth that Welty protests in The Golden Apples. She protests, as well, that “dark” dictionary which sits beneath Miss Eckhart's picture, a dictionary as blinding as the picture's frame. “Around the picture—which sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness—was a frame enameled with flowers, which was always self-evident—Miss Eckhart's pride. In that moment Virgie had shorn it of its frame” (pp. 459-460). Welty begins to “free” language systems that have encouraged us to associate gynophobia and heroism. Like Virgie she has altered their reflections, released them from their frames, allowing language to express something more powerful: the “fire” in women's minds that it has sought to contain.

While it could be argued that Welty's transformations of the canon's “alien” mythologies should come under the auspices of Harold Bloom's theory of “the anxiety of influence” or Gilbert and Gubar's theory of “the anxiety of authorship,” clearly Welty's intertextual dynamics are of a different order. Welty, for example, does not deny, repress, or disguise her obligation to Yeats; she emphasizes her own comic resourcefulness by expropriating Yeats's poems in unexpected ways. Welty has, moreover, taken the title of The Golden Apples from the “Song of the Wandering Aengus,” as if to signal Yeats's complicity in her story. But her title is also ambiguous; it evokes Atlanta's golden apples and the fruit of the Hesperides. Yeats's poem resonates from the beginning, then, in a number of different contexts. Neither a strong misreading nor a simple repetition, Welty's use of the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” is dialogic.

We can define dialogic discourse, or what Bakhtin calls “dialogic heteroglossia,” as the reciprocal action or play that occurs among a novel's collective and heterogeneous systems of language. “In it the investigator is confronted with several heterogeneous stylistic unities, often located on different linguistic levels and subject to different stylistic controls” (p. 261). The novel's incorporation of poetry, however, presents a different set of opportunities and problems. Unlike the novel, the poem tries, Bakhtin argues, to be monovocal:

Poetry also comes upon language as stratified, language in the process of uninterrupted ideological evolution, already fragmented into “languages.” … But poetry, striving for maximal purity, works in its own language as if that language were unitary, the only language, as if there were no heteroglossia outside it. Poetry behaves as if it lived in the heartland of its own language territory. …

(p. 399)

When the poem is incorporated into a prose text, however, the poetic voice ceases to possess the illusion that it is “alone with its own discourse”: it can be altered—even violated—by a new prose context.

As soon as another's voice, another's accent, the possibility of another's point of view breaks through the play of the [poetic] symbol, the poetic plane is destroyed and the symbol is translated onto the plane of prose. … In this process the poetic symbol—while remaining, of course, a symbol—is at one and the same time translated onto the plane of prose and becomes a double-voiced word: in the space between the word and its object another's word, another's accent intrudes, a mantle of materiality is cast over the symbol.

(pp. 328-329)

The prose writer who quotes another's poem in her or his text changes that poem's meaning and orientation by representing the poem's symbols in a different light. This operation occurs in Welty's prose when Yeats's figural fire becomes the fire literally blazing up Katie Rainey's legs or the “fire in the head” of Miss Eckhart. And yet, even within these simple examples, Welty's transformation of Yeats's images acquires new complexity. Welty may impose a new accent or point of view onto Yeats's poem (women, like men, have imaginations or fires in their minds), but she also allows Yeats's poem to work on her own images and characters (women who have “fires” in their minds are still unable to escape the role of victim, of literally “glimmering girl”). Although Welty reaccents Yeats's poem with her own powerful intentions, at the same time this process is limited by the recalcitrance of Yeats's language and plot.

The woman in The Golden Apples who is compared most frequently to Yeats's glimmering girl is Cassie's mother, Catherine Morrison. Like many of the women Welty portrays in The Golden Apples, Mrs. Morrison sees herself as a failed artist: “‘Could you have played the piano, Mama?’ ‘Child, I could have sung,’” she tells her daughter with bitter pride (p. 293). To inscribe Mrs. Morrison's now-frivolous life, Welty transposes the imagery associated with Yeats's muse into a modern key. While the wanderer sees “a glimmering girl, with apple-blossom in her hair,” who fades into “the brightening air,” Cassie Morrison experiences her mother as a vanishing or evanescent fragrance. “Her bedroom door had been closed all afternoon. But first her mother had opened it and come in, only to exclaim and not let herself be touched, and to go out leaving the smell of rose geranium behind for the fan to keep bringing at her” (p. 287). Cassie's younger brother, Loch, Mrs. Morrison's favorite Child, is also disturbed by his mother's disappearances.

By leaning far out he could see a lackadaisical, fluttery kind of parade, the ladies of Morgana under their parasols, all trying to keep cool while they walked down to Miss Nell's. His mother was absorbed into their floating, transparent colors. Miss Perdita Mayo was talking, and they were clicking their summary heels and drowning out—drowning out something. …

(p. 280)

If Welty's prose suggests a transposition of the call the Wandering Aengus hears as he begins his quest, these women hear nothing as they chatter mindlessly on the way to a summer party, “drowning out—downing out something. …” At this moment Mrs. Morrison, like the glimmering girl, disappears from view, “absorbed” by the other women's transparency. Later in the novel she fades altogether, for we learn in “The Wanderers” that she, like Maideen Sumrall, has committed suicide. Just as Yeats's glimmering girl becomes an object, a mirror for the Aengus' desires, so Mrs. Morrison has become an “object” to herself, a mirror to the desires of her community, and only through suicide can she speak her despair. Ironically, it is not until after her death that someone calls Mrs. Morrison by her name. To commemorate her mother's death, Cassie first marks the grave with a stone angel and then plants her own front yard with a bed of narcissi that spell out “Catherine.” By writing her mother's name in floral letters, Cassie is attempting to bring her mother back into the communal garden: she does not allow Catherine Morrison to have a plot of her own even in death. Moreover, Catherine Morrison's death is reincorporated into the myth of Narcissus, making her once again the “echo” of a masculine story.

But beneath the lackadaisical surface of Mrs. Morrison's life as it is described in “June Recital,” Welty invites us to see something unvoiced and ominous—the glimmer of an untold story. From the beginning of “June Recital” Cassie's mother is more absent than present, reluctant to fulfill the chores of mothering, guilty about the fates of other women. Even Loch notices her vacant presence. “It was not really to him that his mother would be talking,” Loch observes, “but it was he who tenderly let her, as they watched and listened to the swallows just at dark. It was always at this hour that she spoke in this voice—not to him or to Cassie or Louella or to his father, or to the evening, but to the wall, more nearly” (p. 328). In this moment we are allowed to see beyond the plot that has been scripted for her by her community and to look into the margins of Catherine Morrison's own story. As her voice moves back and forth in the fading light, she tells Loch her story about the garden party. Heard in this darkening context the garden “plot” becomes liminal, and we begin to read between the lines, to realize that Mrs. Morrison's speech is more nearly a parable about the permissible range of feminine creativity in this small Southern town than it is an anecdote about a ladies' social:

“Listen and I'll tell you what Miss Nell served at the party,” Loch's mother said softly, with little waits in her voice. She was just a glimmer at the foot of his bed.


“An orange scooped out and filled with orange juice, with the top put back on and decorated with icing leaves, a straw stuck in. A slice of pineapple with a heap of candied sweet potatoes on it, and a little handle of pastry. A cup made out of toast, filled with creamed chicken, fairly warm. A sweet peach pickle with flower petals around it of different-colored cream cheese. A swan made of a cream puff. He had whipped cream feathers, a pastry neck, green icing eyes. A pastry biscuit the size of a marble with a little date filling.” She sighed abruptly.

“Were you hungry, Mama?” he said.

(p. 328)

If a number of characters in The Golden Apples are “just a glimmer at the foot” of someone's bed, if they replicate, even as they comment on, the limited powers of Yeats's muse, others, like Cassie's piano teacher, Miss Eckhart, initially appear as figures of capable imagination. Although by the end of “June Recital” Miss Eckhart has been ostracized and packed off to the County Farm, she maintains throughout the story a strange nobility and a will to wander. Even after she has taken leave of her senses, she is still able to resurrect a private teleology; she returns to the house where she taught piano lessons, as determined as the Aengus to finish her story.

Miss Eckhart's attempted recreation and destruction of past events become the central dramatic action in “June Recital.” As Cassie Morrison looks forward to an evening's hayride and creates a “tie-dye scarf” according to communal formula, her brother, Loch, watches the world outside his window and composes stories about the vacant house next door. Already the separation between genders has begun. Cassie's attention is focused on an object of feminine adornment that is safely unpredictable. Loch allows his mind to wander freely; his stories are fantastic, his metaphors inventive. As he watches Virgie Rainey and a “friendly” sailor making love on the second floor of the vacant house, Loch is established as a naive and unbiased observer who is already attempting to construct a metaphoric language to account for a world he does not understand. At first he is the only one to see an old woman enter the house and begin to putter about downstairs. Her behavior is strangely festive:

The old woman was decorating the piano until it rayed out like a Christmas tree or a Maypole. Maypole ribbons of newspaper and tissue paper streamed and crossed each other from the piano to the chandelier and festooned again to the four corners of the room, looped to the backs of chairs here and there. When would things begin?

(p. 283)

This is the room where Miss Eckhart used to give her June recitals, the room where every year she would come to life for one handsome, perfectible evening:

Then she would look down ceremoniously at the sleepiest and smallest child, who had only played “Playful Kittens” that night. All her pupils on that evening partook of the grace of Virgie Rainey. Miss Eckhart would catch them running out the door, speaking German to them and holding them to her. In the still night air her dress felt damp and spotted, as though she had run a long way.

(p. 315)

In her sweaty garment she resembles a benign goddess, in love with the world she has made, for like Yeats's wanderer she is a creator who has struggled, who seems to have “run a long way.” Thwarted in love and in art she sustains herself by giving June recitals and imagining an artistic life for Virgie Rainey, who, at thirteen, is still passionately absorbed in her music:

She played the Fantasia on Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, and when she finished and got up and made her bow, the red of the sash was all over the front of her waist, she was wet and stained as if she had been stabbed in the heart, and a delirious and enviable sweat ran down from her forehead and cheeks and she licked it in with her tongue.

(p. 313)

Images of sweating, of licking, of violence, of delirium bind child and woman together and reveal the price both must pay for their art. Too eccentric, too foreign and impassioned for Morgana, Miss Eckhart loses her pupils and Virgie her inspiration. “Perhaps nobody wanted Virgie Rainey to be anything in Morgana any more than they had wanted Miss Eckhart to be,” Cassie reminisces, “and they were the two of them still linked together by people's saying that” (p. 306). Miss Eckhart's return from her banishment to the County Farm is poignantly ceremonial: she comes back to the place where she organized recitals and cultivated a talent in Virgie Rainey as beautiful and as violent as her own.

In decorating the room for the final recital Miss Eckhart refurbishes it with numerous mementos. The piano is crowned with magnolia blossom—Virgie's perpetual and too fragrant gift to her teacher. Earlier in the story the magnolia has been an emblem of exuberant and rebellious female energy, but at this final recital it becomes—like the nest Miss Eckhart weaves in the piano—a symbol of woman's defeat. Miss Eckhart is preparing her beloved objects—piano, magnolia, metronome, empty house—for a small and funereal conflagration:

She wanted things to suit herself, nobody else would have been able to please her; and she was taking her own sweet time. She was building a bonfire of her own in the piano and would set off the dynamite when she was ready and not before.

Loch knew from her actions that the contrivance down in the wires—the piano front had been taken away—was a kind of nest. She was building it like a thieving bird, weaving in every little scrap that she could find around her. He saw in two places the mustached face of Mr. Drewsie Carmichael, his father's candidate for mayor—she found the circulars in the door.

(p. 316)

Just as this collage contains patriarchs who will be burned in effigy, so the house contains Virgie Rainey, whose participation in the erotic play overhead (an eroticism that, we are led to believe, has helped disconnect Virgie from her art) may be permanently ended. But in spite of the fire Miss Eckhart envisions in her head, her plot is poorly conceived from the start. As Loch explains to himself, watching her clumsy activities through his bedroom window, “only a woman” would try to start a conflagration in a breezeless room where the windows are down, their cracks stuffed with paper. Unlike Yeats's wanderer Miss Eckhart lacks the freedom or knowledge to take her fire to that traditional source of inspiration—the hazel wood with its attendant rhetoricity.

She bent over, painfully, he felt, and laid the candle in the paper nest she had built in the piano. He too drew his breath in, protecting the flame, and as she pulled her aching hand back he pulled his. The newspaper caught, it was ablaze, and the old woman threw in the candle. Hands to thighs, she raised up, her work done.

(p. 317)

This Promethean and painful act is thwarted at once. Two husky wanderers who have spent the day fishing have been watching Miss Eckhart through the window as she painstakingly decorates her recital hall and builds her empty nest. As she holds her candle to the paper they jump into the house with a yell.

Old Man Moody and Mr. Bowles together beat out the fire in the piano, fighting over it hard, banging and twanging the strings. Old Man Moody, no matter how his fun had been spoiled, enjoyed jumping up and down on the fierce-burning magnolia leaves. So they put the fire out. … When a little tongue of flame started up for the last time, they quenched it together. …

(p. 320)

Woman's “fierce-burning magnolia leaves,” her “little tongue of flame,” and her fiery piano are amusing objects to these men. But even in the moment when they play, child-like, with woman's fire, their pleasure edges toward sadism.

She rose up, agitated now, and went running about the room, holding the candle above her, evading the men each time they tried to head her off.

This time, the fire caught her own hair. The little short white frill turned to flame.

Old Man Moody was so quick that he caught her. He came up with a big old rag. … He brought the cloth down over her head from behind, grimacing, as if all people on earth had to do acts of shame, some time. He hit her covered-up head about with the flat of his hand.

(p. 322)

Her hair aflame, Miss Eckhart becomes an archetype of woman's fury and desire. Like Yeats's wanderer she has a “fire in her head,” and yet the image turns in on itself and becomes parodic as she strikes back, not at society, but at herself. Her fire becomes a masochistic flame: it scorches before it illuminates. Miss Eckhart's resemblance to Yeats's wanderer, then, at once expands and collapses. Her aspirations are mediated by her culturally inscribed role as victim, as literally “glimmering girl.”

“Old Man Moody was so quick that he caught her. …” Her hair in flames, her victimizer still in pursuit, woman is caught in a periphrasis, but her desire to change roles is not so much thwarted by Yeats's poem as it is expressed through the poem:

When heteroglossia enters the novel it becomes subject to an artistic reworking. The social and historical voices populating language, all its words and all its forms, which provide language with its particular concrete conceptualizations, are organized in the novel into a structured stylistic system that expresses the differentiated socio-ideological position of the author amid the heteroglossia of his epoch. … in the novel heteroglossia is by and large always personified, incarnated in individual human figures, with disagreements and oppositions individualized. But such oppositions of individual wills and mind are submerged in social heteroglossia[,] … surface manifestations of those elements that play on such individual oppositions, make them contradictory, saturate their consciousness and discourses with a more fundamental speech diversity.

(Bakhtin, pp. 300, 326)

Within the context of Welty's novel Yeats's poem becomes one of the voices that both describe and explain women's predicament within a society that represses their desires. His poem provides a set of differential images describing gender roles that Welty refracts with an even more frightening “speech diversity.” Old Man Moody prevents Miss Eckhart from acting out her chosen role, and although he saves her life, his act is mediated by violent images of suffocation (“he brought the cloth down over her head from behind”) and of sadism (“he hit her covered-up head about with the flat of his hand”).

Shadows of an older mythology, the men portrayed in “June Recital” have been demystified in Welty's prose, brought down to earth. But if they move through Welty's world clumsily, ineptly, their cruelty is not abated; Welty asks them to enact, as if by rote, their older roles of victor and victimizer. Miss Eckhart and her pupils are harassed, for example, by the second roomer at Miss Snowdie's boarding house, the encyclopedia saleman Mr. Voight, who “would walk over their heads and come down to the turn of the stairs, open his bathrobe, and flap the skirts like an old turkey gobbler. … he wore no clothes at all underneath” (p. 294). Welty's humor is a mediating device to keep these stories about human derangement dialogic. But neither the humor nor the dialogism obscures the fact that sexual, economic, and linguistic restraints are imposed on women at an early age. Cassie “herself had told all about Mr. Voight at breakfast, stood up at the table and waved her arms, only to have her father say he didn't believe it; that Mr. Voight represented a large concern and covered seven states. He added his own threat to Miss Eckhart's: no picture show money” (p. 295). Those women in Morgana who step outside traditional roles, who attempt to speak in the culture's excluded heteroglossia, either are denied scripts altogether or have scripts foisted on them. “‘Listen. You should marry now, Virgie,’” Jinny Love Stark shrieks at Katie Rainey's funeral. “‘Don't put it off any longer.’ … She was grimacing out of the iron mask of the married lady. It appeared urgent with her to drive everybody, even Virgie for whom she cared nothing, into the state of marriage along with her” (pp. 444-445). But while the community tries to prevent another outbreak of pyromania, the reader who is attuned to Welty's revision of Yeats's poem sees another story altogether. The Morgana community acts together, man and woman alike, to prevent feminine acts of Prometheanism: woman is not allowed to steal man's holy fire.

In her essay “The Difference of View” Mary Jacobus asks for a feminist criticism that does more than reaffirm the concept of gender difference as opposition. Instead, Jacobus envisions an alliance of feminism and the avant-garde in which the traditional terms of linguistics, of psychoanalysis, and of literary criticism “are called in question—subverted from within.” “Such a move has the advantage of freeing off the ‘feminine’ from the religion-bound, ultimately conservative and doom-ridden concept of difference-as-opposition which underlies Virginia Woolf's reading of the ‘case’ of George Eliot,” Jacobus argues. “Difference is redefined, not as male versus female—not as biologically constituted—but as a multiplicity, joyousness and heterogeneity which is that of textuality itself.”10 In forging an alliance between avant-garde literary practice and feminist criticism, textuality “becomes the site both of challenge and Otherness; rather than (as in more traditional approaches) simply yielding the themes and representation of female oppression” (p. 12). This redefinition of difference should, according to Jacobus, encourage the transgression or “transversal” of gender boundaries and expose these boundaries “for what they are—the product of phallocentric discourse and of women's relation to patriarchal culture” (p. 12). A new feminist poetics should begin, then, to address the heterogeneous languages, the dialogism, the “pleasure edge” in women's writing, since this writing will be in conflict, in conversation, and, to some degree, in correspondence with the ideologies it is trying to dislodge.

In this essay I have begun to show how such an alliance of feminist criticism and “those pleasurable and rupturing aspects of language” that Jacobus identifies with the avantgarde may work together in the analysis of a literary text. One of Welty's strengths as a writer is her recognition that she need not be coerced by those stories that coerce her female characters; she feels small compunction at her own Promethean acts.

In the last sentence of The Golden Apples words and images that have been appropriated from the poetic contexts of the “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Leda and the Swan” begin to reappear as part of the irresolution and diversity of Virgie's final vision:

She smiled once, seeing before her, screenlike, the hideous and delectable face Mr. King MacLain had made at the funeral, and when they all knew he was next—even he. Then she and the old beggar woman, the old black thief, were there alone and together in the shelter of the big public tree, listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears. They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan.

(p. 461)

Is Welty hinting at her text's demythologization not only of Yeats's poetry but of that “sixty-year-old smiling public man” who dreams so poignantly “of a Ledaean body” in “Among School Children” and celebrates organic beauty in the “chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer”? Welty has transformed Yeats's wished-for organicism into a series of dissolving images; she links the death of the mythological “King” with Virgie's own multiple vision. And finally, in subjecting Yeats's poetic discourse to the heteroglossia of her own story, Welty has displaced the ending of his story with a beginning of her own: the unresolved yet resolute image of “the big public tree” sheltering two marginal and intemperate women who are, nonetheless, afoot with their visions.


  1. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), p. 248. Further references to this work will be cited in the text.

  2. Marguerite Duras, “An Interview with Marguerite Duras,” by Susan Husserl-Kapit, SIGNS, 1 (1975), 425. Further references to this work will be cited in the text.

  3. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 288. Further references to this work will be cited in the text.

  4. Only a few of Welty's critics have begun to discuss her prose in terms of feminist analysis or theory. For fine examples of such analysis see Mary Anne Ferguson's “Losing Battles as a Comic Epic in Prose,” in Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979), Carol Manning's With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), and Louise Westling's Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).

  5. References to The Golden Apples (1949) follow the text of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980). Page numbers are cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 57.

  7. See, for example, Carol Manning's reading of “Sir Rabbit” in With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling, pp. 100-103. Manning's analysis is representative of recent readings of “Sir Rabbit” in which the critic assumes the actuality of the episode; otherwise her analysis is very perceptive, especially her descriptions of King's mock heroism and Welty's comic flair.

  8. Although a complete analysis of Welty's reading of gender in The Golden Apples is beyond the scope of this essay, the rest of the novel focuses on gender issues with a thorough dialectical force. After exploring the constrictions that an asymmetrical sex/gender system imposes on women, Welty begins in “Moon Lake,” and then in “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain,” to address the pain this asymmetry creates for men as well. For a reading of this dialectic in “Moon Lake,” see my “The Case of the Dangling Signifier: Phallic Imagery in Welty's ‘Moon Lake,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, 28 (Winter 1982).

  9. Julia Kristeva, “Women's Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, SIGNS, 7 (1981), 34.

  10. Mary Jacobus, “The Difference of View,” in Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Jacobus (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 12. Further references to this work will be cited in the text.

Carey Wall (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8101

SOURCE: Wall, Carey. “‘June Recital’: Virgie Rainey Saved.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 14–31. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wall argues against a normative interpretation of “June Recital,” positing instead that critics should follow Welty's example of eschewing moral and behavioral judgment of the characters and focus instead on the reasons for their actions.]

“They were the two of them
still linked together.”

“June Recital”'s action constructs the relations between the townspeople of Morgana, Mississippi; the music teacher, Miss Eckhart, who arrives without explanation to live and work there; and Virgie Rainey, the talented and free-spirited daughter of the town's “poor” family. Morgana holds itself apart from these “different” people—the German woman whose manners are alien and the Morgana girl who refuses to acknowledge the social supremacy the leading families assign themselves. Basically, the townspeople ostracize Miss Eckhart, and they express their jealousy of Virgie Rainey's talent by linking her with Miss Eckhart. Cassie Morrison, another of Miss Eckhart's pupils, is the insider through whose memory and reflections we learn the history of these social relationships. She informs us that the old relationship the town has constructed to deal with the woman and the girl who do not follow their rules is still—even two or three years after Virgie has quit taking piano lessons and Miss Eckhart has lost her studio and home—both unfinished and influential:

Perhaps nobody wanted Virgie Rainey to be anything in Morgana any more than they had wanted Miss Eckhart to be, and they were the two of them still linked together by people's saying that. How much might depend on people's being linked together? Even Miss Snowdie [Miss Eckhart's landlady] had a little harder time than she had had already with Ran and Scooter, her bad boys, by being linked with roomers and music lessons and Germans.

(CS [The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty] 306)

This linkage the Morgana people have constructed is the central pressure point in the story's present action.

Welty's narrative technique in this story is to wrap the past in the present. Loch Morrison, Cassie's young brother, watches activity in and around the empty MacLain house next door, where Miss Eckhart used to teach her piano pupils, while Cassie, after hearing the initial phrase of Virgie's signature piece, falls into a revery of memory evoking the years of the piano lessons. What Cassie remembers explains what Loch sees.

Without recognizing her, Loch watches poor old Miss Eckhart come back to the house where she taught Virgie and Cassie and the other, untalented daughters of the town. There she has tried to persuade Virgie to pursue a musical career such as the one she seems to have trained for in her youth. But Virgie has turned to using her musical knowledge to accompany the silent movies at the Bijou. To achieve some exorcism of her disappointed efforts and affections—for Miss Eckhart has given all her love to her most talented pupil—the old woman tries to burn the house down. Not only Loch, but the adults as well, abet her, letting her set the fire. After putting out the fire, however, Morgana, in the representative figures of the town marshal and a helper, leads Miss Eckhart off to be incarcerated in a mental institution. This present action ends the old relationship between Miss Eckhart and the town.

This ending seems to be characterized by further Morgana meanness and Virgie's ingratitude. Toward the end of the story, with Morgana adults watching and not intervening, Miss Eckhart and Virgie cross paths on the sidewalk in front of the house without speaking to one another. Virgie is on the scene because she is in the house when the old woman tries to burn it. Virgie has taken to coming to the empty house to sport with her sailor boy; and while Miss Eckhart, now mad, is making her incendiary efforts downstairs, Virgie is, unknown to Miss Eckhart, over her head in an upstairs bedroom, making love and romping with her juicy young lover. When Miss Eckhart has been brought out of the house by the town marshal, Virgie has been driven out by the smoke and her need to get to work. Cassie Morrison watches them pass one another without speaking and is appalled, frightened that a relationship once, and only recently, so intense, can be gone. She sees the world dissolving before her. She understands that the actions are not Miss Eckhart's and Virgie's alone, but the town's. She accuses her mother: “You knew it would be this way, you were with them!” (CS 326). Loch, on the other hand, has been fascinated by the metronome he images as dynamite. He is attracted to its energy and retrieves the intriguing thing that somehow condenses the day's action for him.

Those critics who have formulated the social cruelty in “June Recital”—Danièle Pitavy-Souques, Marilyn Arnold, and Neil Corcoran—have primarily adopted Cassie's view despite a difficulty the story poses for doing that. Cassie has sensitivity and insight but little daring. Daring in meeting and embracing life is Virgie's forte. That quality makes Cassie both hate and love Virgie; Cassie's secret hate and love authenticate Virgie and her joie de vivre. That quality indicates a closeness to living unobtainable by mere adherence to the best of society's rules: those that prescribe, for instance, gratitude. Cassie's reluctance to be touched, noted by many critics, is an indication of her limitations not only for living but for understanding what is happening among the people she is watching.

Critics presumably adopt Cassie's view despite the difficulty Welty plants in the way because Cassie's view is a familiar one—the normative view, the way human beings ought to behave. American literary criticism as a whole (and French, in the case of Pitavy-Souques), except where this orientation is disrupted by currently authoritative deconstructionist theories, emerges from a construction that allies literary value to normative prescriptions. Mid-twentieth-century literary criticism derives this orientation from Victorian authors' and critics' belief that literature should educate. Welty's fiction, however, does not lend itself thoroughly to normative readings. It makes them fine so far as they go, but limited to one side of double realities.

Welty herself clearly takes a non-Victorian perspective. She ends the preface to her Collected Stories by eschewing judgments and absolutes:

I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer's imagination that I set most high.


By her orientation, quite like that of anthropologists Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz, then, Welty seeks to explicate behavior rather than judge it. She is looking not for what her characters have done wrong but rather for what they think they are doing and why they are doing it.

Welty allows the assumption, the axiom, upon which her fiction rests to become explicit in two places, especially. These are Clement Musgrove's speech to his daughter about the doubleness of everything in The Robber Bridegroom (126) and Virgie Rainey's contemplation of the closeness of opposites in “The Wanderers” (CS 452-53). In “June Recital” we get hints of doubleness, of another action going on besides the ostensible, familiar, social jostling, in two of Cassie Morrison's observations. One is about the now-empty MacLain house: “Yet in the shade of the vacant house, though all looked still, there was agitation. Some life stirred through. It may have been old life” (CS 286). The other passage is about activity obscured by namelessness and willful disbelief. Cassie learns this from her father's refusal to believe that Mr. Voight, a socially respectable salesman who rooms at the MacLain house, exhibits himself to Miss Eckhart's pupils during the piano lessons: “Some performances of people stayed partly untold for lack of a name, Cassie believed, as well as for lack of believers” (CS 296).

“… all the opposites on earth were
close together, love close to hate,
living to dying. …”

Doubleness in social action is explicated in the theories of anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner argues that people interrelate with one another in two modalities: social structure, which he shortens to “structure,” and “liminality.” Structure is all that divides people hierarchically in a society. It is the operative mode in which the ordinary work of the mundane world gets done. It is sustainable and authentic insofar as it reflects the axiomatic first principles that sustain life, usually hidden from the mind by everyday, superficial social consciousness. Communitas is the state of recognizing shared humanity; it is a society's people come together. When it does occur, it occurs in liminality, a state and time that occur when people set social structure temporarily aside. People set aside social structure to get back to the underlying axioms and to reexamine their social structure and its practices in light of those life-maintaining axioms.

Liminality, serving the need to respond to change, to realign social practice with authorizing definitions of reality and current facts which have outmoded old constructions, is characterized by imaginative, speculative and irreverent behavior. Turner says “it is the analysis of culture into factors and their free recombination in any and every possible pattern, however weird, that is most characteristic of liminality” (Dramas 255). Such liminal activity is frequently partly spontaneous, but there are also ritual types, observed cross-culturally, that both ancient and contemporary people use on liminal occasions. The ritual types carry their own organizing and symbolizing procedures and thus serve as formats for the materials of the new occasion.

These ritual types seem to be our inheritance from the distant human past. They belong to a nonrational, symbolic vein of modern people's thought that Richard Shweder argues is in fact stronger than rationality in most twentieth-century people. Welty may well have found them central in all the mythology she read as a child. They are well known to Welty's Morgana townspeople.

One of the ritual types works by means of reversal to turn the “world upside down.” This ritual is explicated with many examples, factual as well as artistic, in Barbara Babcock's Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, a volume influenced by Turner's theories. This collection of essays identifies characteristics that place the Morganans' activity with Miss Eckhart and Virgie, in the old MacLain house on the present day of “June Recital,” as a world-upside-down ritual. That activity Cassie identifies without being able to name it, the “old life,” is liminal activity. It is a world-upside-down fumigation of Morgana social laws that have put the town into partly wrong relations with Miss Eckhart and largely wrong relations with Virgie Rainey.

It makes a great deal of difference whether one sees the Morganans conducting the action Loch Morrison obliquely reports to us as belonging to structure or to liminality. If it is structure, then the Morganans are provincial, narrow, ignorant, death-dealing. If, however, these are the events of liminality, then the Morganans are using their “deep knowledge” (Dramas 239, 258) to keep the two modalities of their interrelationships in balance.

Danièle Pitavy-Souques, most thoroughly, and Marilyn Arnold and Neil Corcoran along with her, have constructed the story's action with the underlying assumption that it all belongs to social structure. From this perspective, the Morganans reveal themselves as both very limited in their humanity and destructive. I paraphrase Pitavy-Souques's primary argument from her 1983 Southern Review essay: Prejudiced people who unjustly ostracize Miss Eckhart, the Morganans are tragic people. They give in to their prejudice, and in doing so they fail to encourage life. Rather, they discourage it. In shriveling Miss Eckhart's life (Pitavy-Souques implies or assumes what Turner states [just below] about people's need to experience communitas, shared humanity), they shrivel their own as well. Not very persuasively (because there is no solid evidence that Virgie is destroyed), Pitavy-Souques sees Virgie as merely one more of the mean Morgana people, denying Miss Eckhart's love for her and thereby destroying herself.

Marilyn Arnold makes roughly the same case. From the normative perspective, the law demanding that people meet one another's needs for recognition and fellow feeling is a social structural law, and an absolute, as Arnold clearly articulates it:

When the [individual's] quest counts for all, human relationship counts for nought; gratitude is obliterated and human beings are destroyed. The tragedy is that one human being who loved another is broken by the ingratitude of the beloved. And even one instance of destruction by ingratitude cracks the facade of the whole system of social order, undermines the premises we think we live by.


Arnold's statement is useful in that it demonstrates social structure taking too much to itself, usurping territory that is not its own. It is incredible that one crack destroys the whole fabric of the social system.

As for the events in and around the MacLain house that Loch observes, Pitavy-Souques and Neil Corcoran alike see nothing but waste and shamefulness in them. To both, they are a soulless farce.

Turner's explanations of liminality and communitas, however, put the present events of “June Recital” in a quite different light, a positive one. Communitas is alive in the unconscious of societies. Both social legitimacy and personal comfort in relations with others depend on periodically renewed recognition of and participation in communitas. Wrong social relations bring pressure on the people who perpetrate them. In a sense, all relations among people in social structure are wrong relations in that they divide people; communitas, as the mode of sharing both humanity and the construction of reality, is the source of both legitimacy and solace. Part of Turner's argument about communitas is that it is both frequently repressed and crucially necessary:

The basic and perennial human social problem is to discover what is the right relation between these modalities at a specific time and place. Since communitas has a strong affectual component, it appeals more directly to men; but since structure is the arena in which they pursue their material interests, communitas perhaps even more importantly than sex tends to get repressed into the unconscious. … People can go crazy because of communitas repression.

(Dramas 266)

Note that Turner speaks of repression here rather than deprivation. Communitas deprivation may certainly contribute to Miss Eckhart's going mad; communitas repression, however, pressures the Morganans.

The need for communitas puts pressure on those who have ostracized others to reverse that behavior and join with the people whom they have shut out. Social division has to be balanced with communitas. The Morganans are responding to this pressure with the action in and near the MacLain house. The apparently farcical action is ritual reversal. The Morganans are carrying out a collective action that they cannot know with the kind of superficial awareness we commonly call consciousness. The ritual knowledge is available to them through the collective of communitas. They are operating on intelligent knowledge of this type of ritual for constructing change.

Turner's account of liminality and communitas, then, puts a different construction on the Morganans' ending their relationship with Miss Eckhart. From a Turnerian perspective, the Morganans are beneficently unlinking Virgie Rainey from Miss Eckhart.

Structure and liminality can operate simultaneously in the same situation or scene, Turner reports. Furthermore, in liminality people are close to the matrix life-stuff, to the place where destruction and creation meet, close to Welty's closeness of opposites. The way the Morganans end their relationship with Miss Eckhart has the duality Welty attributes to all phases of living. The Morganans unlink Virgie by denying Miss Eckhart's identity, but as they do that, they give her a new identity. Seen structurally, this is cruel—for they make her a madwoman; seen liminally, their changing her identity allows them, after a fashion, at last, to take her into the community. And although they are further removing her with that identity by sending her to Jackson, before they send her off, they enter communitas with her once again. These aspects of doubleness in the action reveal intelligence and life in the Morganans. They reveal the Morganans coping well with life's doubleness, its kindness and cruelty.

Turner's anthropology serves Welty criticism by retrieving parts of human experience that twentieth-century modernist thought, with its heavily dominant rationalism, and the literary criticism that is part of it, have tended to lose sight of. Turner's analysis of social behavior in its double modalities retrieves society's unconscious much as Freud and Jung retrieved the personal, psychological unconscious. As in those psychologists' theories, the unconscious holds evil but also creative good.

“Let the story arise of itself.
Let it speak for itself. Let it
reveal itself as it goes along.”


“June Recital,” working out its full logic, turns up the Morganans' knowledge of and capacity for enacting communitas; it turns up as well the double of people's right to communitas. This is the right to get rid, kindly rid, of the spoiled. The Morgana people get rid of Miss Eckhart by keeping her at a distance during the years she is teaching. In the present action of the story they get permanently rid of her by denying her old identity and assigning her a new one. Their action is not merely cruel because the Morganans are faced with a real problem that normative prescription ignores as they live with and beside and at a careful remove from Miss Eckhart.

Miss Eckhart comes to Morgana with a clear background of trouble elsewhere. This small town is quite unlikely either to support concert performances by her or to produce numbers of music pupils worthy of her professional training. She must have come here primarily to detach herself from whatever places she has been in that once seemed promising but in which she has had no success: Pitavy-Souques makes this point. When Miss Eckhart arrives in Morgana, with her old mother, the Morganans send their daughters to her for piano lessons so that she can make a living and, in doing so, contribute to townswoman Snowdie MacLain's fiscal solvency by renting the downstairs of her house. Apart from this accommodation to Miss Eckhart's needs and Miss Snowdie's, the Morgana adults keep away from the German woman.

They cite these differences as reasons for staying away from Miss Eckhart: she is unmarried, she belongs to a religion no one has heard of—the Lutheran, she does not allow herself to be called by her first name, she is German and cooks food in strange ways—cabbage with wine. But these stated reasons are not to be taken at face value; they are, rather, the usual sorts of acceptable, speakable covers for other, unspeakable reasons. The stated reasons are to be taken as the type of relatively polite excuses for people's declining. In fact, “June Recital” pretty much validates the Morganans' only apparent ignorance. Below it, and unspoken, at least publicly, is a quite legitimate recognition of disorder in Miss Eckhart and an associated desire for self-preservation through distance.

Miss Eckhart is certainly to be pitied, as Cassie pities her, for being a suffering outcast whose one love, Virgie, does not return the passion. But that truth does not present the whole story. Another truth is that something is deeply wrong with Miss Eckhart. Welty's suggestive comment on Miss Eckhart, in one of her interviews, is this:

But Miss Eckhart was a very mysterious character. Julia Mortimer was much more straightforward and dedicated and thinking of the people as somebody she wanted to help. Miss Eckhart was a very strange person. … She herself was trapped, you know, with her terrible old mother. And then no telling what kind of strange Germanic background, which I didn't know anything about and could only indicate. I mean we don't know—they had tantrums in that house, and flaming quarrels.

(Conversations 339-40)

The Morganans have some present evidence of disorder in Miss Eckhart. The rumors they circulate about her late in her career as a piano teacher may be cruel, but they may also have some basis in fact. Cassie and Virgie witness Miss Eckhart slapping her mother, and Cassie also reports that one day the old mother deliberately broke the Biliken doll that Mr. Sissum, whom Miss Eckhart was sweet on, had given her. We do not know what derailed the concert career Miss Eckhart seems to have trained for. The causes must be multiple; among them, her relationship with her mother may have been a major one.

We do know that the result of Miss Eckhart's history is her living in Morgana unable to establish clear relations with other people. She does not know “how to do” about Mr. Sissum when he is alive (CS 296). She cries (they have to decide that that is what she was doing) very oddly at his funeral, moving herself like her metronome. She wars with her mother. She gives all her love to Virgie Rainey, which is not a good thing for a troubled adult to do to a child. (Perhaps this is at least part of what Cassie is looking at when she says Miss Eckhart's love never did anybody any good.) Kind Cassie Morrison realizes in the course of her meditation about Miss Eckhart that if there had been some small opening in Morgana for the piano teacher, she herself might have closed it. That she is sympathetic to the teacher and yet realizes she too would have excluded the woman if she had been close to getting into Morgana society tells us she is sensing something deeply amiss in the woman.

There is such a thing as too much relationship with one's community; we do not want Virgie, for instance, to accept the town's prescriptions. Yet there is also too little relationship, which can result in further emotional twisting, imbalance, distortion—what Welty gives us in Miss Eckhart. This, I think, is what the community shies away from.

The Morganans compensate themselves and Miss Eckhart for keeping at a distance, in the years when she is teaching in Snowdie MacLain's house, by participating in the annual June recitals she produces. In the recital preparations, performance, and party, the Morganans have had an annual exercise in shifting from social structure into communitas. They have thereby annually made right, balanced, their relations with Miss Eckhart. Pitavy-Souques argues that the mothers of Miss Eckhart's pupils comply with her recital orders only to celebrate themselves. No doubt social structure holds sway in the recitals as elsewhere, and the Morgana ladies do celebrate themselves. Nevertheless, they simultaneously acknowledge their communitas with Miss Eckhart.

Having kept away from the social person for eleven months, for the preparatory month of May and the day of the recital, the Morgana adults recognize that Miss Eckhart's greatest need, like their own, is for communitas. They also need to know themselves as gracious people. They accede to her recital directives to fulfill the joint need for communitas. Cassie knows that her mother made her keep taking piano lessons after Virgie had quit and the other mothers had withdrawn their daughters because Mrs. Morrison despised herself for despising Miss Eckhart. All the parents have that other dimension of feeling, as indicated by their participation in the recital. The mothers prepare the dresses, or get them prepared, and attend the performance and party. Only one father, Virgie's, attends the recital, but the other fathers are participants in the role of suppliers—of a second piano, programs, and flowers. With the parents' participation, Miss Eckhart is transformed again each year from outcast to member of the community—so much an insider that it is she who produces the hospitality, glowingly.

While social structure (excluding) and communitas (including) have thus both been served in those years, the situation at present is different. Having lost her pupils and home, Miss Eckhart has dropped out of sight and is presumed to be living at the country home. But, as Miss Eckhart's return to the MacLain house on the present day amply demonstrates, her losing her job does not put an end to her activity in or awareness of Morgana. Passionate dramas such as Miss Eckhart's attempt to compensate herself for her own lost career in music by setting aflame the passion that was once her own do not just drift away, whatever the superficial circumstances. They have to be ended. Both parties to the relationship between the Morganans and Miss Eckhart know that: she comes to construct one ending; and they, when they discover her doing that, construct another ending by denying any knowledge of her.

King MacLain appears, on one of his forays back into Morgana to take a peek at the family he has abandoned. Marshal Moody asks King if he can identify the old woman he has taken into custody. Cassie has remembered Miss Eckhart's and King's passing one another in the house in the old days, and Miss Eckhart speaks MacLain's name. But MacLain denies all knowledge of this old woman. The women coming back from the Rook party, crossing paths with the marshal and the old woman now, follow the same procedure. Mrs. Morrison simply comes on to her own home, while the marshal and his helper go in the other direction with the unidentified old woman.

Unidentified, Miss Eckhart becomes no longer that person but rather just a little old mad lady who belongs in Jackson. She is no longer a stranger, different, but now a type with whom the community is familiar. As a person of this type, she can be taken in peaceably, without outrage and hostility. The men who take her into custody rather enjoy her and treat her fairly nicely.

It is licentious creation, this act by which the Morganans alter Miss Eckhart's identity. The act takes account of combined losses and gains, inseparable from one another in Miss Eckhart's removal from social recognition in Morgana. First, in altering Miss Eckhart's identity, the Morganans subvert and prevent potential disaster. That disaster lies waiting, ticking with time, in Miss Eckhart, whose trouble has more depths than I have yet mentioned.

Perhaps she really did drug her mother, as town rumor says she did, first to keep her quiet and then to kill her. She may have done that out of animosity or out of desperation or with euthanasia as motive. The pupils, the money, and the food have been dwindling. Then there is Miss Eckhart's response to being attacked by the black man. That she does not evade the event by leaving, as her pupils' mothers wish she would, is all very well. To the extent that the Morganans consider her an accomplice with her attacker, as Pitavy-Souques charges, they are acting cruelly. But that is not the end of the matter. Miss Eckhart's treating the event as relatively negligible may reveal a tolerance, however come by, for violence, somewhere along a continuum with swatting flies when they alight on her students' playing hands. To borrow Cassie's phraseology, what may be implied, after all, in one's not perceiving one thing to be so much more terrifying than another? Miss Eckhart has come to do violence on this day.

Further, when Miss Eckhart once plays for her pupils during a storm, “Coming from Miss Eckhart, the music made all the pupils uneasy, almost alarmed; something had burst out, unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person's life” (CS 301). Patricia Yaeger finds this passage proof of Miss Eckhart's capacity for passion; she argues that “having given the daughters of Morgana's community a forbidden vision of passion, the genderless ecstasy available to the woman artist, Miss Eckhart is ostracized and incarcerated—punished more severely for her iconoclasm than are the men of Morgana” (574). (But isn't Miss Eckhart incarcerated on the same grounds Darl Bundren is, in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, for setting fire to other people's property?) From my perspective, Welty's passage suggests that more than great music, power, and the capacity for fine passion break out of Miss Eckhart. In her passionate but rough playing, there is denial as well as embrace of the music; there is trouble as well as transcendence. The little girls, finely attuned to the unspoken as children frequently are, react in a way that shows they are perceiving incongruity between Miss Eckhart and the music she plays. This is incongruity not of the sort that bridges the distance between human beings and gods, as we say, but the incongruity of which monsters are made—monsters indicating chaos. Neil Corcoran, getting into the doubling in the story, says, “The suggestions of sadism in her relationship with her mother confirm our sense of an inner hollowness that uses music, but will not be led into sympathy or generosity by it” (31).

A victim indeed, Miss Eckhart is also an aggressor. She, Virgie, all and each of the story's characters, are people inalienably in charge of their own lives, willingly or unwillingly, like George Fairchild in Delta Wedding standing in the path of the train, taking living's risks.

Second, the Morganans' altering of Miss Eckhart's identity is licentious creation because this act allows them to set right their relationship to Virgie Rainey, which has long been out of balance. By removing Miss Eckhart's old identity, they make her a stranger. They make her, therefore, a person Virgie Rainey can pass without speaking on the sidewalk. They thus unlink Virgie from the woman they have for years used the girl to control for them. For this is yet another aspect of the relationship the town has created—and is thus responsible for ending—between the teacher and the pupil.

Clever, intelligent Virgie has attracted the social job she has been assigned by her more timid elders: controlling dangerous Miss Eckhart. She has attracted the job by meeting the town's instructions in social humility with gay mockery. Virgie has even pushed the town's reigning lady's daughter—Jinny Love Stark, a brat—into her own lily pond. With such cool bravery and defense of her own position, Virgie can be trusted to put up a defense against Miss Eckhart. Virgie reliably does just that. In the studio she turns Miss Eckhart into something other than an absolute authority, a teacher; at the public speakings, where Miss Eckhart has sat in fragile companionship with the adults who largely ignore her, Virgie has mocked the unpopular, unwooed woman (who has a crush on a townsman, Mr. Sissum), with the clover-flower chains of popularity.

Morgana has never acknowledged Virgie's services. At the recitals, even while giving Miss Eckhart her due, they have given greatest applause not to Virgie's fine talent but to the daughters of socially prominent mothers, to Cassie Morrison and Jinny Love Stark. Just recently, one of the churches has given its music scholarship to Miss Eckhart's former second-best pupil, Cassie. Furthermore, as Cassie notes, the town maintains the old link between Virgie and Miss Eckhart. When she arrives in the Bijou to play to the silent films, Virgie is still mockingly saluted by her piano-pupil name, “Virgie Rainey Danke-schoen.” Despite her services, that is, or perhaps because they have somewhat shamefully assigned this talented and excluded child the role of social guardian, adult Morgana has never forgiven her for mocking their social proprieties. Perhaps they have felt that in mocking them, she was creating her own payment. But Virgie has never done the other Morganans any real harm. There remains, then, the pressure of their communitas with her to be acknowledged, in action. On the present summer day, with much the same indulgence Loch awards the invaders of “his” house next door, the Morganans indulge Virgie at last. They express their communitas with her by unlinking her from Miss Eckhart.

“June Recital” is about community and communitas. Readers who are thinking that Virgie simply frees herself from Miss Eckhart are ignoring the story's portrayal of the complexity of relationships in Morgana (or anywhere). There is no such thing as a simple, one-to-one relationship between Virgie and Miss Eckhart here. There is, rather, a web of relationships to which the community is a full party. Virgie cannot and does not free herself alone.

“… the opposites … unrecognizable
one from the other sometimes, making moments
double upon themselves and in the doubling,
double again, amending but never taking back.”

The unlinking achieved by denying Miss Eckhart's old piano-teacher identity is partly cruel to Miss Eckhart. Yet it is more dominantly creative and beneficent since the Morganans come to this result by means of deeper communitas with Miss Eckhart—and with Virgie—than they have ever given themselves over to before. Before they deal Miss Eckhart out, into the mental asylum, that is, they conduct one last recital with her. For the activity in the MacLain house on the present day is also a recital, the culminating, odd and transformative, June recital.

Seeing this activity as not a humanity-denying farce but rather a life-maintaining ritual calls for a difficult reversal of vision. Welty knows well that reversal is hard to accept, hard even to believe when proven. In this story Cassie sees Miss Eckhart slap her mother and then immediately distrusts the evidence of her own eyes. She thinks it must have been the mother who slapped the daughter. Even having made that point, Welty herself falls into Cassie's mistrust of reversal. In an interview, she “remembers” the mother slapping the daughter (Conversations 340).

Nonetheless, it is possible to fix on the idea of reversal; Turner and The Reversible World assist greatly in that endeavor. Furthermore, Welty demands the effort. She gives Cassie the capacity to hold on to her sense of reversal as well as the inability, at times, to countenance it. She discovers while reliving past years so intensely on this afternoon, that while she cannot remember Mr. Voight very clearly, she could be Mr. Voight (CS 296). She does that “without thinking,” but by making the desperate face he used to make while the piano lessons were going on. It is communitas that Cassie is experiencing here: sharing, experiencing one's alikeness with other people who otherwise seem very different. It abrogates distances among people.

On this June day when the Morganans are used to participating in recitals, they could be Miss Eckhart or they could be Virgie. Accordingly, they are attracted to bridge the distance that is only one of the double relationships between themselves and Miss Eckhart and Virgie. After all, the deviance from social rules they associate with these two is something they share with them. In performing the odd recital with them, they also take cognizance of the usually hidden side of their own humanity.

Turning the world upside down is old human activity, the old life Cassie perceives in the empty house. We know this hidden ritual with our “deep knowledge.” World-upside-down activity is apparent mayhem with the most serious of goals, keeping life going. Turner points out that societies require skepticism from their members as well as adherence to the rules that seem to work to maintain life-giving relations among people (Dramas 256). Expressing skepticism is exactly what the Morganans are doing in and away from that “vacant” house. The family home, with the symbol's capacity for condensation, stands for family life as the center of social life, for all of society's order, security, morality, sanctity, and the rest. At the same time, standing for all the normative rules, it stands for a network of constraints against all the lawlessness normative social life refuses to recognize.

The family home begets skepticism as well as loyalty because it has double effects: it protects, nurturing a young woman like Cassie, and at the same time, it excludes and lies. It speaks for the social structure that refuses to give Virgie Rainey the pianist her due, and as well for the patent willful blindness demonstrated by Cassie Morrison's father. Cassie's father is the town's newspaper publisher (the man who determines what can be made public): “If there was anything that unsettled him it was for people not be on the inside what their outward semblances led you to suppose” (CS 327). Therefore, in the Morrison house, aberrant things, from tales of Mr. Voight's exhibitionism to Mrs. Morrison's apparent alcoholism (indicated in the vague manner in which she addresses her son every afternoon) and/or the amours some critics suspect her of conducting, to the hayrides on which Cassie is going despite her father's prohibition, are simply repressed, denied.

The story's doubling of the family home announces that normatively aberrant behavior holds a fair amount of sway in ordinary life and cannot always be controlled to the extent that Mr. Morrison controls it in his domain. The empty MacLain house is the Morrison house's double. Here more of the antinormative has long leaked into view. Here the ordinary social dictates have not been able to keep a regular cover on life's erratic or rebellious impulses. The husband has been long gone, off on his wanderings; there have been—right along with the normative piano lessons and the teacher's making a decent living thereby for herself and her mother—Germans with tantrums and strange cooking smells (strange and enticing but forbidden); there has been Virgie Rainey bringing her teacher magnolia blossoms but also turning the teacher into something inscrutably or ambiguously more complex than a mere teacher with authority over pupils; and there has been the exhibitionist, regularly flapping his bathrobe skirts while wearing nothing underneath, frantically opposing the piano lessons that are apparently as horrible to him as the ostracizing Morganans are to Pitavy-Souques and Arnold.

Morgana and the world cannot live by norms, kindness, and the social graces alone. If social ostracism can destroy, so can the normative rules. Thus breaking the rules is sometimes a necessity. The old MacLain house—its deviant history and its emptiness suggesting that the antinormative impulses have in that place vanquished the family home's constrictions and lies—becomes on the present June day, when the Morganans are accustomed to conducting the summer communal celebrations, not just an available stage but a magnet. Here the liminal impulse—the call to ostensible mayhem and to collective rites—takes over. Once someone begins the action, the others all fall readily into their corresponding roles.

Through the “turning” (CS 360) of life Welty explicitly notes in “Moon Lake,” Miss Eckhart becomes an insider very much a part of the town's action. She tries to burn down the family home; for it is the place that excludes the demands of Beethoven for yet finer, subtler order and for wilder, deeper passion. While Loch Morrison literalizes the symbolic action by hanging upside down out of the tree, the other Morganans do the following. Instead of keeping the home safe from the incendiary likes of the disappointed piano teacher, Mr. Holifield sleeps as if he were Rip Van Winkle in the Kaatskills, giving us family-abandoning King MacLain via a stand-in. Insofar as this family home stands in direct opposition to free love of the sort King MacLain is famous for, with its utter disregard of the primacy of family, Virgie and her sailor mock this citadel with their playful lovemaking. They do not even take their free love seriously; they eat pickles out of a bag for rest periods.

When adults come to the house—males, thus authorities, and one of them even the marshal—they let the old mad lady set her fire, twice. They run and romp with their lady downstairs much as Virgie is romping with her sailor upstairs, having a wonderful game. They demonstrate male solidarity with MacLain and Holifield in doing so; skepticism, along with the influence of the silent movies comics (manifesting the same skepticism) surely contributes to their delight at Miss Eckhart's torching the family home. When King MacLain shows up in person, he does not even know where his family is currently located, that they do not live here any more.

And what about the women: the sacred flames of the family home, the stable heart of society, trained to give their all for morality, order, family, children, the light of goodness, the prestige of husband? They have gone off duty. Cassie's mother and the other ladies have flightily abandoned their stations, gone off to play Rook and eat food fit for the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gone off, and so left what will happen if they go away to happen: the ladies have allowed all this, permitted these depredations.

In thus reversing their procedures, from sanctifying the home to mocking it, the Morganans are both joining with those who regularly hold out against its constrictions and giving themselves the deep satisfaction of acknowledging what they normally, in the modality of social structure, hide. Even a socially prominent and humorous woman, Mrs. Morrison, has something to share with the piano teacher she thinks of as a witch; Mrs. Morrison would like the MacLain house to burn down. Is Loch mistaken, perhaps, in thinking that the old woman is lucky in not having been seen by the ladies going off to their party? Have they seen her and in tacit agreement pretended not to? In any case, at whatever moment in the afternoon's events they come into the action, the Morganans once again follow Miss Eckhart's lead in creating a recital. That this is the last one in its series does not authorize our finding more sorrow in it than recovery and release. When things are ready, they do not, cannot, stay (Welty makes that point explicit in “Moon Lake” [CS 356]); and in sending Virgie and Miss Eckhart off in different directions, this odd recital creates what Turner calls “the openness to the future” (Dramas 14).

When Cassie envisions the two “roaming, like lost beasts” (CS 330) she is phrasing a double reality: cut off from mere social structure, they are at the same time more intense and more mysterious, living deeper and farther, than the mere social personages she has known before this afternoon's revery and activity. Cassie does not merely remember on this afternoon; her awareness, like Josie's in Welty's “The Winds,” grows suddenly, within hours. She sees a vortex in which Morgana is swept up together with Miss Eckhart and Virgie. They stretch her knowledge of humanity beyond the familiar and allowed, even as they frighten her. Her sudden growth in vision comes from her communitas with them.

If the afternoon's action is beneficent as much as it is cruel, why, then, does Cassie Morrison work in apparent opposition to everyone else's denial of Miss Eckhart's identity and lament the woman's injuries? Once again, because things double, because here the right to remove and alter someone's identity comes accompanied by the obligation to preserve that identity, to recognize it fully by meditating on it, as Cassie does, going over Miss Eckhart's whole history in the town. Furthermore, moments of knowing just what to do, just how to preserve oneself and one's group, intersect with contrasting doubt about one's rights, one's kindness and cruelty, with moral anxiety emerging at once out of both the social separation of people and human communitas with other people. While her townspeople and family members get to cavort to produce this day's transformation, Cassie (though collaboratively dotted with unpatterned spots suitable to participation in the day's carnival) gets assigned the role of memory and contemplation that will knit sensitive appreciation of Miss Eckhart into the complex strands of the day's action on relationships.

In other words, Miss Eckhart is both a woman with a past in this town and a little old mad lady. While it is important to the town to remove her, it is also important that the woman she was be remembered. Perhaps acknowledging the woman is possible because the potential disaster is averted. The story keeps pointing to disaster unfulfilled, averted: Loch is sick but his life is not threatened; the ticking is not that of a bomb, it is only a metronome; Mrs. Morrison's disappointment is only in the food she has been served, not in something so great as whatever it is later that instigates her suicide. In this context, Miss Eckhart goes mad sanely, her explosive impulses no different in kind from all the overturning impulses of all the people around her in the group action. Further, because the Morganans take this preventive action, there is no Eckhart-holocaust to supplant the story of her earlier days here. For Cassie it is still possible to imagine the mother and daughter in a happier vein: “sometimes you could imagine them back far away from Morgana, before they had troubles and before they had come to you—plump, bright, and sweet somewhere” (CS 304). Thinking so, Cassie constructs continuity in time, and in the time of the present odd recital there is redirection and ease for the passage of power from one generation to the next.

For the action is caught up in that regular temporal movement as well. Cassie must be the one to do the remembering, to acknowledge the life of the woman called Lotte Elisabeth Eckhart, because Cassie is her inheritor. Cassie's feeling for Miss Eckhart may itself be double, too—one part genuine generosity, as Pitavy-Souques declares, and another part self-concerned, in Cassie's anticipation of her own life. She has been granted the music scholarship and already knows she will have a life as a piano teacher here in Morgana; she already sees her life as a long row of yellow Schirmer music books. Unlike Miss Eckhart, she will have success here and pupils as long as she wants them. She is an insider, with familiar and cautious ways. Without Virgie's higher talent or great need to mock, Cassie will know how to make classical music genteel and acceptable within the social structural life of Morgana. Cassie is specially concerned about Miss Eckhart because she knows what she owes Miss Eckhart, what she has taken from Miss Eckhart personally—life. Cassie, in inheriting, has stolen Miss Eckhart's job and livelihood; she has found that growing up means in some fashion displacing the people who came before you—the inevitable way of denying people's old identities, we might recognize.

In the events of “June Recital,” past and present, ordinary events of social prejudice and hijinks, accepting and rejecting relationships, the many interwoven strands of destruction and creation bound together validate that term, “mystery,” that Welty often offers her readers. Relations among the Morganans, Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey are not reducible to any single reality we can anathematize or approve. Welty entered her profession just after the “great moderns,” whose work is weighted towards a vision of destruction. She wrote in response to them, I think, implicitly arguing that life is quite as powerful as death. She shows vibrant life greater than any individual's life or any group's life, in which all individual and group lives participate. That triumphant life is everywhere implied in “June Recital”—in the beginning-of-summer day with all the generosity of life summer implies, in Loch's figs, in the hummingbird Cassie would not try to catch, in Miss Eckhart's Beethoven and that other, outside world that is the double of this world here in Morgana—the world King MacLain goes to and comes from, which somehow overlaps with the place in which a respectable Mr. Voight covers seven states promoting a respectable product in business, the backbone of America, and the place where World War I is fought and Victor Rainey killed, and also the place where Miss Eckhart had crippling troubles before she ever came to Morgana.

Welty works against reduction, towards the multivocality Turner sees as the primary property and function of symbols. Miss Eckhart's aloneness (which Loch observes) is matched by communitas. Ignorance comes paired with knowledge, and cruelty with kindness. Morgana, however cut off from the larger world outside, is also in that world, continuous with it. Virgie has had to hate Miss Eckhart as well as love the teacher because the Morganans have linked the two; she has had to hold off the woman's neuroses. But there was also good in the link during the piano lesson days: it led Virgie deep into great music; and until Virgie gave up her lessons, it must have kept Miss Eckhart sane. All of this life is what compensates in Welty for the damages that come with the risks, what allows us to love life rather than lament over it.

Peter Schmidt (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8950

SOURCE: Schmidt, Peter. “Sibyls in Eudora Welty's Stories.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 78–93. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Schmidt examines Welty's references to the sibyls of classical mythology—particularly the figure of Medusa—and Welty's place in the canon of women writers who have used sibyls as metaphors for their writing.]

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of ancient wisdom,
the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;
all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;
but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl …
she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

—H. D.

References to sibyls figure crucially in at least three of Welty's most important stories, “Powerhouse,” “Music from Spain,” and “The Wanderers,” though they may also be found in other stories, including “Petrified Man,” “Clytie,” “Moon Lake,” “The Burning,” and “Circe.” They are also often twinned with references to Medusa. Here are the three most important passages:

Then all quietly he [Powerhouse] lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.

… He gets to his feet, turning vaguely, wearing the towel on his head.

“Ha, ha!”

“Sheik, sheik!”

… He still looks like an East Indian queen, implacable, divine, and full of snakes. …

“Come on!” roars Powerhouse. He is already at the back door, he has pulled it wide open, and with a wild, gathered-up face is smelling the terrible night.

(CS [The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty] 131, 135)

Eugene felt untoward visions churning, the Spaniard with his great knees bent and his black slippers turning as if on a wheel's rim, dancing in a red smoky place with a lead-heavy alligator. The Spaniard turning his back, with his voluminous coat-tails sailing, and his feet off the ground, floating bird-like up into the pin-point distance. The Spaniard with his finger on the page of a book, looking over his shoulder, as did the framed Sibyl on the wall in his father's study—no! then, it was old Miss Eckhart's “studio” …

(CS 408)

Miss Eckhart had had among the pictures from Europe on her walls a certain threatening one. It hung over the dictionary, dark as that book. It showed Perseus with the head of the Medusa. “The same thing as Siegfried and the Dragon,” Miss Eckhart had occasionally said, as if explaining second-best. Around the picture—which sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness—was a frame enameled with flowers, which was always self-evident—Miss Eckhart's pride. In that moment Virgie had shorn it of its frame.

The vaunting was what she remembered, that lifted arm.

Cutting off the Medusa's head was the heroic act, perhaps, that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love, Virgie thought—the separateness.

Miss Eckhart, whom Virgie had not, after all, hated—had come near to loving, for she had taken Miss Eckhart's hate, and then her love, extracted them, the thorn and then the overflow—had hung the picture on the wall for herself. She had absorbed the hero and the victim and then, stoutly, could sit down to the piano with all Beethoven ahead of her.

(CS 459-60)

The three quotations are points of descriptive excess or rupture in Welty's tales, points where the violence and strangeness of the tropes contrast strikingly with the language used before and after these passages. A black male musician is suddenly turned into a woman, his piano called a book, a towel a headdress. The pictures on the walls of Miss Eckhart's study are obviously invaluable evidence for how she sees herself, yet they are described not in the story we would expect, “June Recital,” in which the music teacher Miss Eckhart is a central character, but in two other stories in Welty's 1949 volume The Golden Apples, “Music from Spain” and “The Wanderers,” in which she is a peripheral presence haunting the action. Moreover, the pictures are described in a thoroughly contradictory way, as if Welty changed her conception of the pictures' meanings as she wrote The Golden Apples. We have no way of being sure how many pictures are being described, nor can we be sure we understand the link Welty is drawing between a picture of a sibyl that Eugene MacLain remembers in “Music from Spain” and a picture of Perseus slaying Medusa that Virgie Rainey recalls in “The Wanderers,” the climactic story in The Golden Apples. Something is obviously going on here, but the symbolic meanings that sibyls have seem so volatile, so explosive, that Welty's narratives seem to approach them indirectly, with great caution, and then reveal them only briefly before covering them up again.

The sibyl references in these texts are thus truly sibylline: they are hidden rather than highlighted, cryptic rather than lucid. They do not merely ask for interpretation, or highlight moments in these stories when we see how characters' interpretations of the events are influenced by racial, gender, and class perspectives—though they do both these things and do them superbly. They also seem to ask us as readers to question the very grounds upon which any interpretation of Welty's text—including ours—will be offered. When thought through, the sibylline references in Welty's stories provide new keys to interpreting these narratives and allow us to link her with earlier women writers, European and American, who used sibylline prophecy as a complex metaphor for their own art and its relation to their culture.

What follows is a four-part meditation on the role references to sibyls play in Welty's stories. It begins with a reading of “Powerhouse,” then considers the function of allusions to Medusa, the sibyl's dark alter ego, in “Petrified Man.” Welty's references to sibyls in The Golden Apples are then briefly placed within the context of earlier art and literature, from Italian Renaissance painting to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing by women.

“Powerhouse” demonstrates that sibyls are important to Welty in at least three ways. The first contrasts the authority of oral language with that of written texts and suggests that a sibyl's prophetic power is subversive precisely to the degree that it undermines the authority traditionally given to writing over speech. Second, the sibyl is repeatedly linked with the Medusa figure, demonstrating that for Welty prophecy also carries a frightening price: women such as Miss Eckhart are inevitably seen as Gorgons—as monsters—by their society and even by themselves. Third, all references to sibyls give us a glimpse of a potential transfer of power from the sibyl to another person. Feminist criticism has given us a name for such a moment, calling it a scene of instruction (Gilbert and Gubar 93-104; Homans).

For the black musicians in “Powerhouse,” the written word and the written musical sign are associated with the power of white culture: white music is written down, black music improvised without a score.1 In “Powerhouse,” each time a text is mentioned, it is a threatening text. Powerhouse's white audience always hands him written requests for songs, for example, making it clear that this act is symbolic of the power that his white audience feels it can exercise over him as its entertainer:

Powerhouse has as much as possible done by signals. Everybody, laughing as if to hide a weakness, will sooner or later hand him up a written request. Powerhouse reads each one, studying with a secret face: that is the face which looks like a mask—anybody's; there is a moment when he makes a decision. Then a light slides under his eyelids, and he says, “92!” or some combination of figures—never a name.

(CS 132)

Note here how Powerhouse counters written requests with his own oral language, a system of signals and code words. Significantly, this system has the crucial function of disguising whether or not he has actually followed all of his audience's requests. Such a “mask” is important for maintaining a degree of freedom and dignity as an artist: he may very well have played what he wanted to play, not solely what the audience wanted.

The other piece of writing in the story, the telegram, of course threatens Powerhouse much more directly. But it too is transformed and partially evaded, as Powerhouse improvises different versions of what happened and, in the end, hints that the telegram may not exist: “‘No babe, it ain't the truth.’ His eyebrows fly up … ‘Truth is something worse, I ain't said what, yet. It's something hasn't come to me, but I ain't saying it won't’” (CS 139). The fact that the telegram may have been written by a black man (either Uranus or Powerhouse) does not diminish its link to white culture, for although all musicians have to confront fear, guilt, and loneliness on the road, racial segregation in the North and South in Powerhouse's time made the black musicians' plight more frustrating. The telegram symbolizes that truth. Powerhouse's improvising his blues choruses around the telegram's brutal four words, “your wife is dead,” consequently stands as his protest against it. It is surely not a coincidence, moreover, that Powerhouse chooses the waltz number to begin that protest. He takes a form associated with his white audience (“Pagan Love Song,” the only waltz he will ever “consent to play” [CS 133]) and then turns it into a blues number, overlaying 4:4 on 3:4 time and translating the original lyrics into a series of blues choruses. In the process, he forces his unexpecting white audience by the end of the story to see the pain as well as the power of his art. They are no longer able to see him as an exotic performing “monkey” (CS 131), the way they viewed him at the start.

If black men such as Powerhouse may revise the roles that white society writes for them, so may women. But with the exception of Ruby Fisher and Phoenix Jackson, the women in Welty's first volume of stories, A Curtain of Green (1941), do not really find a way to alter the cultural scripts that were given to them. The price that they pay is to become secret Medusa figures, full of rage that cannot express itself. The Medusa head that rears upward briefly in the midst of “Powerhouse” near the end of A Curtain of Green is the last in a series of portraits of grief-distorted, wild, and threatening women's faces in that volume. Significantly, these portraits are also associated with frustrated oral energy, the repressed voice of their inner feelings clamoring to get out. Mrs. Larkin's obsessive interior monologue in “A Curtain of Green” is complemented by Addie's shouting down her roommate's polite conversation in “A Visit of Charity,” Mrs. Bird's screaming and Mrs. Marblehall's possessing “a voice that dizzies other ladies” in “Old Mr. Marblehall” (CS 95, 92), and Clytie's cursing in “Clytie.” The end result of such a frustrated release of energy is silence: the face that greets Clytie in the water just before she drowns herself has a mouth “old and closed from any speech” (CS 90). With Powerhouse, however, Welty images a Medusa figure whose speech not only controls its audience but also carefully evades or rewrites the cultural texts she is “requested” to perform. In “Powerhouse” an image of emptiness and imprisonment that has tormented many of Welty's characters—the abandoned house that Lily Daw lives in, the “madhouses” of Addie, Sister, and Clytie—becomes a powerhouse. Powerhouse not only shows his audience his Medusa-like grimace, emblem of the price his psyche pays for their treating him as a monster, but he presents himself as a sibyl, an interpreter and controller of texts. (In the passage quoted above Welty says “the” book, not “a” book, making the sibyl's power more inclusive.) Such a vision lasts only briefly. But Welty's image of Powerhouse as a sibyl altering his or her culture's texts is the single most powerful instance in A Curtain of Green of what she expects a heroine (and an artist) to be.

This vision of a sibyl's power is explored more fully in Welty's next three volumes of stories, The Golden Apples in particular. Before considering Welty's later references to sibyls and their proper context, though, it is worth making a brief detour to consider the sibyl's dark, twin image, the Medusa, and the story “Petrified Man,” in which it is given its most provocative treatment. If a sibyl is associated for Welty with the power of rewriting cultural texts, the Medusa is the dark, reverse image of that power—its negative, so to speak, representing entrapment, anger, despair, and self-destruction.

Welty's critics have greatly praised “Petrified Man,” but the readings they have given it seem somewhat odd, for they are unanimous in blaming the women in the story for the perversions of sexuality that it depicts. It is rather as if the story's Medusan gaze is so disturbing that its commentators—both male and female—have rushed to cast themselves in Perseus's role and wield righteous swords against the story's villains, arguing that the women have perverted “natural” sexuality, stripping men of their masculinity and, like modern Medusas, causing all they gaze at to turn to stone. Astonishingly, however, no commentator has fully confronted what it means to have a rapist be the central male character in the story or explored the connections that the story draws between representations of women in advertising and violence toward women in society.2 The women may be Gorgons to their men, but the true Gorgon in the story is the world of mass culture, a Medusan world whose uncanny power consists in its ability to make women see themselves only through an essentially male point of view, both idealizing them and treating them as objects of rage and violence. Welty plays a better Perseus than her critics, for she knows how to spot the real villain and decode its dangerous gaze—and all this in 1941, years before the recent developments in feminist criticism that it anticipates. No doubt Welty's brief experience working in advertising in New York City in 1930-31 after graduation from the University of Wisconsin provided her with an inside view of how the mechanism of mass culture may work.3

“Petrified Man” is told entirely through two conversations that take place between Mrs. Fletcher and Leota while Mrs. Fletcher is getting her hair done on March 9 and again on March 16, 1941, in Leota's beauty parlor. The subplot of “Petrified Man” is concerned with lurid crimes and traveling freak-show exhibitions, whereas the main plot depicts the commonplace violence against women that occurs in a beauty parlor. In the subplot, a rapist joins a freak show and disguises himself as Mr. Petrie, the Petrified Man, realizing that a man whose body supposedly turns everything he eats into stone will be the perfect cover for his brutal appetites as a rapist. In the main plot, Mrs. Fletcher seeks to disguise the fact of her pregnancy—the fact that her body will change its shape and use its food to nourish another life—with a petrified disguise of her own, a “permanent” hair-do and “fixed” smile that conform to her conception of Beauty's eternal forms. A newcomer to town named Mrs. Pike is the only character in the story who figures in both plots. She first notices that Mrs. Fletcher is pregnant and that Mr. Petrie is the same man as the one pictured, with a $500 reward on his head for rape, in an old copy of Startling G-Man Tales.

Welty's story is less concerned with Mr. Petrie's private motives for rape than it is with unmasking the cultural connections between the marketing of ideal images of female beauty and the hidden rage and violence against women that underlie those supposedly pure images. For Leota and Mrs. Fletcher have been conditioned to see what is done to their bodies in the beauty parlor not as acts of violence but as acts of love—techniques that affirm their beauty, independence, and importance as women. Such thorough conditioning may be their culture's most disturbing act of violence against women, for unlike the crime of rape, the beauty parlor's ideal is universal and disguised as its opposite, as something indispensable to a woman's self-esteem, and it affects more women than all the rapists in the country.

Leota's beauty parlor is an elegantly appointed torture chamber with the female body as its victim. In order to achieve the physical standards that society sets for beauty, an array of tools and machines in Leota's shop remake nature. References to the technology of the beauty industry are frequent, from the “aluminum wave pinchers” used to make curls to the hair-drying machines that “cook” their occupants (CS 18). The natural shape of one's hair is given a new “body,” and called a “permanent”; one's smile is no longer natural but “fixed” (CS 28) by face powder and lipstick. If the parlor's creations are not truly permanent—Welty notes ironically that Mrs. Fletcher speaks of her “last permanent”—nevertheless the body's new shapes aspire to the permanent and ideal standards that the beauty parlor's machinery represents. Even more important, Welty shows that the beauty parlor's standards of beauty are themselves created by a larger machine, the mass marketing apparatus of popular culture. Several times she mentions popular reading materials in the story, which vary from the purportedly high-class “rental library” (where Mrs. Fletcher primly says that she first met her husband) to the “drugstore rental” library supplying the cheap novels and some of the periodicals with names like Life Is Like That and Screen Secrets that entertain the parlor's customers while their hair is being dried. As the title Screen Secrets suggests, the standards of beauty that the parlor sells are created by the motion picture and advertising industries. Those mass cultural images of perfection themselves become molds that may create endless reproductions of their products in the women who are influenced by them. And although pop cultural icons purport to portray healthy images of women as wives and mothers, they in fact teach the women to treat their sexuality as threatening and scandalous—an affront to the image of proper beauty that the beauty parlor mass produces.

Welty first alerts us to this fact when she describes the women at the parlor as “customers” who are being “gratified in [their] booths” (CS 17)—a striking verb that suggests sexual pleasure perversely displaced, not merely onto consumer objects but on further, to the narcissistic contemplation of a constructed image that is sold with those products. When sexual relations do occur in the story, they threaten ideal standards of beauty by causing everything from dandruff to pregnancy. “I couldn't of caught a thing like that [dandruff] from Mr. Fletcher, could I,” Mrs. Fletcher whines early in the story (CS 18), and Leota on the same page gingerly abbreviates and spells the word “pregnant” (as if it were something that must never be named aloud) and then asks, “how far gone are you?”, implying that Mrs. Fletcher's pregnancy is a kind of dying. The women's belief that both sexuality and pregnancy are grotesque rather than beautiful is shown most clearly in their discussion of the traveling freak show that comes to town. Significantly, it occupies “the vacant store next door to the beauty parlor” (CS 20): businesses selling beauty and ugliness are adjacent, mirror images of each other. Indeed, as the women's conversations show, they need to have a sense of the grotesque in order to enforce a sense of their own normality; but the more they try to separate what is normal from what is monstrous, the more the two threaten to merge. Welty adroitly shows this largely unconscious connection in their minds by having Mrs. Fletcher's and Leota's conversation about the freak show continually stray from discussing the freaks to discussing their own lives. The show is first mentioned almost in the same breath as Mrs. Fletcher's newly revealed pregnancy; it's as if Mrs. Pike has as keen an eye for the spectacle that Mrs. Fletcher makes as she does for the freaks. As Leota says, “Well, honey, talkin' about bein' pregnant an' all, you ought to see those [Siamese] twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself” (CS 20). Part of the women's horror and fascination with this display is that it seems not only to be an example of the frightening disorder of nature (creating two babies instead of one) but also of what they take to be the sickening and unnatural union of mother and child:

“… they had these two heads an' two faces an' four arms an' four legs, all kind of joined here. See, this face looked this-a-way, and the other face looked that-a-way, over their shoulder, see. Kinda pathetic.”

“Glah!” said Mrs. Fletcher disapprovingly.

(CS 21)

If the beauty parlor and the freak show next-door are the arbiters of the beautiful and the ugly, then, the lines that they draw are not nearly so sharp as the architectural lines dividing the two buildings imply. The mirrors on the wall of the beauty parlor (perhaps on the very wall that separates the parlor from the freak show) play a crucial role in “Petrified Man”: they give us lucid glimpses of the many ways in which society defines beauty and ugliness as mirror opposites. More powerfully than any other piece of equipment in the parlor, the mirror presents a standard of beauty and measures the women against it. When they view themselves in the mirror, they view not only their own image but the ideal image of what they wish to be. The mirror (like a movie screen) holds the spectacle of infinite examples of Beauty itself, yet also cruelly presents an (also infinite) spectacle of monstrous failure: “[Mrs. Fletcher] stared in a discouraged way into the mirror. ‘You can tell it when I'm sitting down, all right,’ she said” (CS 23).4 Beauty and the Medusa are twinned images, each the “negative” of the other.

The parlor's mirror does not hold an image, of course, so much as reflect one that is projected upon it. In Mrs. Fletcher's case, Welty shows, she projects that ideal image from her own imagination, which is in turn projected (much like a movie) by the powerful and subtle machinery of popular culture that has invented those beautiful images and then imprinted them in the women's minds. Here lies the subtlety of Welty's diagnosis of how commercial culture may corrupt. The women are dependent upon market images for their sense of beauty and normality, yet they do not realize this; rather, they take those very images as signs of their own independence and power, the irrefutable proof of respectability that they themselves have earned. The most powerful allure of mass culture in Welty's view is not that it sells the comforts of conformity, but that it promotes them as their opposite—as examples of an individual's independence and power. The function of the beauty parlor mirror is to show how this hidden process works. Looking into the mirror as she receives her shampoo and set, Mrs. Fletcher proudly boasts: “Women have to stand up for themselves, or there's just no telling. But now you take me—I ask Mr. Fletcher's advice now and then, and he appreciates it, especially on something important, like is it time for a permanent—not that I've told him about the baby. He says, ‘Why, dear, go ahead!’ Just ask their advice” (CS 25).

The beauty parlor is an all-female domain where women can mock men and assert their own power over them; this surely “gratifies” them (CS 17) as much as the beauty treatments. But like the beauty treatments, the sense of power that the parlor gives them—power over their husbands, over each other, and over their own bodies—is a dangerous illusion; it is not at all the kind of power it seems. The parlor's images of perfection dictate the terms by which Mrs. Fletcher must define her “independence,” and all of those make her dependent upon mass cultural images of perfection that are marketed by men.5 Welty subtly enforces this irony by having Mrs. Fletcher sitting down in one of the parlor's chairs staring at the mirror even as she speaks about women “standing up for themselves.”

If there is a Medusa in “Petrified Man” who turns all who gaze on her to stone, it is the world of commercial culture, not the women who are its victims. And it has done its work not by merely petrifying its victims with a vision of ugliness, but also by hypnotizing them with a vision of false beauty. The presence of a rapist on the other side of the beauty parlor's mirror, moreover, exposes the connection between commercial culture's images of women as beautiful objects and its treatment of them as perverted monsters. The same advertising world that reproduces endless images of idealized women for women to copy also treats women as sex objects for men like Mr. Petrie to possess and desecrate: sexual relations are perverted into either utter passivity (as with Leota's and Mrs. Fletcher's husbands) or violent aggression (as with Mr. Petrie).

Who is Perseus in this retelling of the myth of Medusa? Welty, of course. Like Perseus, she uses her art to allow us to see how the Gorgon's gaze is directed at us without letting us succumb to its power. The story's meticulous commercial details of the parlor's decor and the women's slang may be thought of in traditionally mimetic terms, as a mirror. In Welty's hands, however, this mirror functions differently from the mirror in the beauty parlor or the screen in the movie house: it does not present these images under the guise of the natural but reveals them to be representations, a set of artifices and disguises. In doing so, Welty's story exposes the hidden, demonic source of the images that are projected onto its mimetic reflective surface and uncovers how those representations acquire authority until their naive consumers believe that “life is like that.” Such an understanding of culture is the true “screen secret” of “Petrified Man,” allowing us to decode the sexual politics involved in making some forms of representation become accepted as natural in mass culture, while others are excluded. These revelations are the reward Welty reserves for us if we read even more carefully than Mrs. Pike. But Welty's darkly comic analysis of mimesis as a paralyzing mirror is thoroughly disturbing. Ruth Vande Kieft is most eloquent on this point: “We can say of this story what a critic has said of the comic spirit of Jonathan Swift: it ‘frightens us out of laughter into dismay’” (Eudora Welty [1962] 75; see also Sypher 235). The irony is that early in Welty's career, at the time of “Petrified Man” (and occasionally later), she was excoriated for her use of grotesquerie and cryptic metaphors, for not being “realistic” enough.6 Another way to put this is to say that she was accused of being too sibylline. But the power of a story like “Petrified Man” comes precisely from its analysis of popular culture's production and consumption of dangerously naive notions of mimesis.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have eloquently argued that the role played by the sibyl in women's fiction is essentially to initiate a feminist scene of instruction. Discussing Mary Shelley's account of a woman's exploration of the caves associated with the Cumaean sibyl in Italy, Gilbert and Gubar note that the narrative may be read as a parable about a

woman artist who enters the cavern of her own mind and finds there the scattered [Cumaean] leaves not only of her own power but of the tradition which might have generated that power. The body of her precursor's art, and thus the body of her own art, lies in pieces around her, dismembered, dis-remembered, disintegrated. How can she remember it and become a member of it, join it and rejoin it, integrate it and in doing so achieve her own integrity, her own selfhood? Surrounded by the ruins of her own tradition, the leavings and unleavings of her spiritual mother's art, she feels … like someone suffering from amnesia. Not only did she fail to recognize—that is, to remember—the cavern itself, she no longer knows its languages, its messages, its form. … Bewildered by the incoherence of the fragments she confronts, she cannot help deciding that “I have forgotten everything / I used to know so long ago.”


These hidden sibylline powers are traditionally associated not only with the recovery of memory but with oral rather than written authority—song rather than text, inspiration and improvisation rather than imitation. In Domenichino's most famous painting of a sibyl, for example, a new, hand-written scroll is juxtaposed against an ancient printed text.7 Translated, the scroll in the picture reads, “The Only and Almighty God His Great Unbornness [or, “Unborn Greatness”].” The sibyl appears to have just been inspired by these words before writing them down on a scroll. Although they have been received later than the printed scripture on which they rest, as a kind of supplement, the sibyl's words in fact overthrow, or at least challenge, the authority of the earlier text. Written in intentionally ambiguous syntax to reproduce the moment of furor divinus or divine inspiration, such a sibylline text overturns the traditional Western investing of greatest authority in written texts. It celebrates the potentially subversive and revisionary prowess of oral discourse, seeing it as a return to the original, oral authority of God's Word.

Three details are of particular interest in this juxtaposition of pointing hand, handwritten scroll, and printed book. First, the sibyl's scroll may be written, but its form is more provisional than the written text and thus is closer to their shared source of revelation. Paradoxically, the supplement supplants the earlier text, accruing priority and authority for itself. The content of the prophecy confirms this, for it stresses that the divine word has not yet revealed itself in its entirety: it is not fixed; it may be added to. Second, the sibyl is not shown holding a pen, even though she has presumably just finished writing down the text she points to. The absence of a writing tool suggests not only the author's gender but the link all her writing has to the original oral discourse that inspired it, and will inspire it again. The third detail may be most important of all. The sibyl points not to the printed text or to her recently written text but to the blank space following her writing. She indicates this space because her prophecies represent the power to open all texts, to make a space in them for revisions and supplementary revelations (the unborn referred to in Domenichino's painting). In H. D.'s eloquent words, the blank on the page represents “the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new” (103). Such a portrait of a sibyl's power is thus even more radically revisionary than that of Mary Shelley's parable as interpreted by Gilbert and Gubar; it argues that the true sibylline role is to write new texts, not only to recover and rearrange the fragments of old ones.8

When sibylline women appear in women's literature, they stage scenes of instruction that teach their initiates to identify, question, and alter the cultural texts—the stereotypes—that define what a woman's identity may be. Just as importantly, such authority is often associated with recovering the lost power of oral discourse—the ability to revise spontaneously what society has tried to make permanently fixed. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century women's fiction that appropriates Western images of sibyls thus gives them an even more subversive power than that bequeathed by Michelangelo and Domenichino. Now the sibyl's authority is applied to social roles, not necessarily God's Word; and it decrees that patriarchal society has not had the final word on what a woman's identity may be.

Acts of displacement, revision, and remembering thus characterize the comic heroines in Welty's stories, most notably Virgie Rainey in “The Wanderers,” the climactic story in The Golden Apples. She appropriates the role of Perseus and slays Medusa, as Welty's tragic heroines (Miss Eckhart, Jenny, Old Addie, Clytie and others) cannot. With one stroke of the imagination, Virgie Rainey assaults Morgana's deadly, stereotypical image of a strong independent woman as a monster. To do this, like Perseus she reflects that dangerous image back to itself, identifying it as an image, a cultural fiction, thus taking the first step toward conquering its power to dominate her. And like the Cumaean sibyl in Mary Shelley's parable, Virgie meditates on how a new tradition may replace the old one, in which a woman may be Perseus, not merely Medusa. Her struggle, however, will be never-ending, always a part of the ongoing struggle of women's history. In Welty's words,

She might be able to see it now prophetically, but she was never a prophet. Because Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them—and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one. In the three was the damnation—no, only the secret, unhurting because not caring in itself—beyond the beauty and the sword's stroke and the terror lay their existence in time—far out and endless, a constellation which the heart could read over many a night. … In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless.

(CS 460)

Domenichino's famous portraits of a sibyl may in fact be behind many of Welty's portraits of sibylline powers, especially those that inspire Miss Eckhart and, through her, Virgie Rainey. In “Music from Spain” we learn that Miss Eckhart has a picture of a sibyl on her wall who strikes the same pose as Domenichino's—she too has her finger on the page of a book, looking over her shoulder (CS 408). Why should a music teacher in Mississippi own a reproduction of a sibyl by Domenichino? One answer suggests itself: by Domenichino's time, this pose associated with sibyls was often transferred to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, as well. Apparently, the Cumaean sibyl's indelible association with “prophetic song” in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue caused her to become associated with other kinds of music, and eventually with St. Cecilia (Ferguson 197-98; Kaftal 250-58). But Miss Eckhart's sibyl, fittingly, represents not merely the teaching and performance of music so much as a sibylline scene of instruction—the creation and transmission of a new text for women's heroism, a dark and mysterious text that Virgie learns to read only later in life, as she realizes during the soaring epiphany that ends “The Wanderers” that she has loved and learned from her music teacher, not hated her.9

Like Virgie Rainey in The Golden Apples, sibyls, Medusas, and women musicians have played important roles in earlier literature by women, of whom Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Elizabeth Stoddard, Augusta Evans, and Madame de Staël are especially important for readers of Welty. It is necessary to discriminate, however, between the cautionary scenes of instruction prominent in nineteenth-century sentimental romances that sometimes feature women artists, such as Augusta Evans's Vashti; or, “Until Death Us Do Part” (1869), and the truly empowering scenes of instruction that are centerpieces of women's local color literature, a somewhat separate, realist tradition that partakes of romance conventions but tends to parody and revise them.10

The classic example of a scene of instruction in the American local color tradition is in Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, set in a rural town in Maine not completely unlike Welty's Morgana, Mississippi. Coming from a large eastern city, the narrator immediately is struck by the way in which one of the women, Mrs. Todd, has made a professional as well as a social identity for herself: she is the town's herbalist and its social arbiter. But she quickly becomes a figure of mythic power as well, a vision of a woman in the midst of a community of men and women entirely in control of her own identity: “She stood at the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.” At the end of the story cycle the narrator's last glimpse of Mrs. Todd shows that she has internalized her solitary strength: “her distant figure looked mateless and appealing, with something about it that was strangely self-possessed and mysterious. … [A]t last I lost sight of her as she slowly crossed an open space on one of the higher points of land …” (Solomon 51, 150). The narrator may be leaving, but her tutelage in self-reliance has been completed.

Descendants of Jewett's Mrs. Todd can be seen in the stories of Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter, particularly Old Mrs. Harris in Cather's story by that name in Obscure Destinies and Grandmother in Porter's Miranda stories, among others. Porter characteristically treats her version of this character ironically: her stubbornness and sentimentality are inextricably a part of her heroism. The unwavering strength of Cather's matriarchs seems almost superhuman in comparison. The young heroines of “Old Mrs. Harris” and “Old Mortality”—Vickie Templeton and Miranda—learn from these women, but there are no straightforward scenes of instruction or farewell as there are in Jewett. The girls learn from these older women largely without knowing that they are doing so, and their last scenes with them, ironically, find them asserting their own independence against what they take to be their antiquated and oppressive influence. But their very rebelliousness shows that they have absorbed their mentors' strength of character; and it is only later in their lives, usually after their mentors' deaths, that they look back and see how much they owe. In Cather's eloquent words, “when they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed …” (158).

With many American women writers, the heroic matriarch tends to be not an artist or a musician but a spinster or a divorced or widowed woman who through her own efforts has gained special status working in her community. Welty's richest examples of the scene of instruction, however, tend to involve the teaching of music.11 The reason that women musicians play such an important role in Welty's stories may be because of the influence of two works by Willa Cather that are about women artists, The Song of the Lark and the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa. These works offer a complex combination of the cautionary scenes of instruction featured in romances such as Vashti and the empowering scenes of instruction that characterize some women's local color writing.

Cather's novel The Song of the Lark portrays the life of an opera singer based on Olive Fremstad, and it is considerably more sanguine than her stories about women artists in Youth and the Bright Medusa. In Welty's essay on Cather in The Eye of the Story, she praises The Song of the Lark, among other novels, in the midst of a discussion of how Jewett taught Cather to “find your own quiet center of life and write from that” (48); Welty sees it as a novel of an artist's rebellion and self-discovery—how she trains herself to be reborn. The most important role models for its heroine, Thea Kronborg, are her music teachers. The first is Professor Wunsch, whose name in German means desire. A homeless musician trained in Europe, he supports himself in Colorado with only a few students, of whom only Thea has any real talent. He boards with a family at the edge of town and has bouts of depression, violence, and alcoholism. Like Miss Eckhart, he is a “wanderer” (Lark 23) whose career ends in madness, with his trying to chop down an orchard and dove-house while (as in “June Recital”) children watch the events from their second-story bedroom windows. Thea's second teacher is Andor Harsanyi, a successful musician in Chicago. Welty singles out his credo in her essay: “every artist makes himself born. It is much harder than the other time, and longer” (175).

Thea Kronborg's story is not a cautionary tale to her women readers but a (potentially) revolutionary one: Thea's success teaches them to question how identity is defined, not merely to choose from among the patterns that society offers. The epigraph for Cather's novel (“It was a wond'rous storm that drove me,” from Lenau's Don Juan) could be the epigraph for “June Recital,” especially the scene in which Miss Eckhart plays Beethoven during a thunderstorm. And when Thea sings Frika's part from Wagner's Das Reingold, Cather describes her “distant kind of loveliness for this part, a shining beauty like the light of sunset on distant sails. She seemed to take on the look of immortal loveliness, the youth of the golden apples, the shining body and the shining mind” (447). Such a passage is a precursor to all the images of radiant and powerful heroines in The Golden Apples, from Snowdie MacLain at the beginning to Virgie Rainey at the end, as well as a source (along with Yeats's “Song of Wandering Aengus”) for its title. Furthermore, when Welty alludes to this passage by Cather, she joins it with Cather's other vision of the woman artist forced by her society to be a “bright Medusa”: Miss Eckhart may be a heroic quester like Aengus and Perseus, but she is also characterized at the end of “June Recital” by her flaming hair—the “grave, unappeased, and radiant” Medusa's-head of her madness that forever remains the frightening alter-ego of the woman artist (CS 330). No image of the sibyl's shining mind is entirely separable from the threat of Medusa's shadow, in Cather or in Welty.

Cather's inspiration for Thea Kronborg came partly from her acquaintance with Olive Fremstad, partly from Henry James's stories about art and artists, and partly from Augusta Evans's Vashti. As Ellen Moers has pointed out (287-92), another important influence was not an American work at all: it was Madame de Staël's Corinne; ou, L'Italie (1807), the most famous nineteenth-century novel about a woman artist. De Staël's heroine was an improvisatrice in Rome, a national poet-sibyl who spontaneously composed and recited verses during great public exhibitions. She is thus a kind of modern Cumaean sibyl whose prophetic and revolutionary arts include literature as well as music. De Staël's Corinne, moreover, did not fit into any of the social roles played by other women in the novel; rather, her arts inspired a revolutionary transgression of social roles. Several passages about Corinne's public performances portray her as a sibyl exactly in the mode of Domenichino, with black hair, beautiful blue drapery flowing from her shoulders, and a rich Indian fabric wrapped turbanlike around her head.

Most of the sentimental romances popular in the nineteenth century offer a hypnotically powerful forgery of a Corinne-like heroine to their women readers, however. Edna Earl in St. Elmo—the heroine of the best-selling nineteenth-century romance that Welty satirized in The Ponder Heart and shows her mother gently mocking in One Writer's Beginnings (7)—appears to combine the intelligence of Corinne with the morality of an upright American girl; but actually she is much closer to Corinne's half-sister and rival in the de Staël novel, the thoroughly proper embodiment of what would become the conservative Victorian ideals of true womanhood. Here is Evans's revealing description of Edna Earl: “The young face, lifted toward the cloudless east, might have served as a model for a pictured Syriac priestess. … The large black eyes held a singular fascination in their mild sparkling depths, now full of tender loving light and childish gladness; and the flexible red lips curled in lines of orthodox Greek perfection” (8). Disguised behind this stylized profile is a heroine completely lacking Corinne's revolutionary power even as she masquerades with her beauty and at least some of her authority. Other women who more blatantly aspire to Corinne's power, such as Salome Owen in Vashti, are punished for their ambition. Such features of the sentimental romance give special force to Gilbert and Gubar's point that the feminist scene of instruction must involve a traumatic but liberating displacement of one kind of cultural text for another that has been dismembered and forgotten. The sibylline references in Welty's stories show precisely that process. They identify and then transgress the sentimental romance's portraits of dutiful daughters as angels and powerful women as monsters that all twentieth-century women writers (particularly southern ones) have inherited. But Welty's references to sibyls also identify moments in women's writings—especially in American local color literature—that have subverted that inheritance and firmly place Welty's work within that tradition. In effect, her stories teach her readers to change the ways in which they may resist confining cultural texts—showing them how to evolve from identifying with Medusa to identifying with a sibyl, from self-destructive rage and guilt to empowering acts of disguise and revision. It seems particularly just that as contemporary readers are recovering and remembering a lost tradition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women's literature, Eudora Welty should be so instrumental in teaching us how to understand their prophetic power.


  1. For essential background information on “Powerhouse,” see Vande Kieft, Eudora Welty: “she wrote [the] story rapidly just after going to a dance where the Negro jazz musician, Fats Waller, played with his band” (23). The best discussions of “Powerhouse” are in Vande Kieft's book, esp. 81-84; Appel's Season of Dreams 148-64; and Stone. The jazz critic Whitney Balliett's essay on Fats Waller, which refers to Welty's story, is also recommended. Vande Kieft is especially prescient discussing why Welty does not reveal whether Powerhouse's wife is really dead, while Appel's is the fullest and most balanced reading the story has received; he stresses the various shifts in the story's point of view and demonstrates the tension between Powerhouse and his various audiences.

  2. Such readings are offered in Appel, Season of Dreams, 93-99; Zelma Turner Howard, Rhetoric, 73-74; and St. George Tucker Arnold, Jr. Arnold speaks of a “savage matriarchal deity to whom human sacrifices, often male infants, were dedicated in the dawn phases of human society,” and calls Welty's women “avatars of the Terrible Mother” (22). Appel even goes so far as to call the rapist, Mr. Petrie, the “only free man”: “with the arrest of the petrified man the women seem to have succeeded in subjugating the only free man in the story—but not quite, for Billy Boy remains to be vanquished” (97). One partial exception in Welty criticism is Vande Kieft, Eudora Welty, 62-65. For two articles cataloguing the presence of Medusa allusions in the story, see Helterman; and Walker. For more on Medusas, mirrors, and other relevant matters, see Gilbert and Gubar; Auerbach; McGann; Irigaray; and Cixous.

  3. My understanding of advertising and the “male gaze” has been particularly influenced by Barthes, especially Mythologies; Berger; Mulvey; and Ewen's Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, a history of advertising in America focusing on the radical transformations that occurred between the 1920s and the 1950s. Boorstin's The Americans: The Democratic Experience and Marchand's Advertising the American Dream provide a general history of the development of advertising in America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ewen notes the influence on advertisers of social psychologists and their theories of female narcissim (180) but does not connect his discussion of advertising's treatment of women as sexual objects to male narcissism or rape fantasies.

  4. Compare Ewen on the role played by mirrors in advertising in creating anxiety (177-83 and, in particular, 239, n121): “In an informal survey of Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post ads through the 1920s, I have found that between eight and ten ads per issue depict a woman at or looking into a mirror. Many of these ads are not for cosmetic products.”

  5. On the subject of advertising as a male-dominated field see esp. Marchand 1-51, 66-69.

  6. For a concise history of Eudora Welty's critical reception, see Devlin, Eudora Welty's Chronicle.

  7. Domenichino, “The Cumaean Sibyl,” Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome (c. 1620-23). See Spear plate 255 vol. 2 and 232-33 in vol. 1.

  8. I thank my colleague William Turpin of Swarthmore's Department of Classics for translating and analyzing Domenichino's Greek text for me. Spear translates the phrase as follows, somewhat simplifying its ambiguous syntax: “There is only one God, infinite [and] unborn.” He notes that the Cumaean sibyl is traditionally associated with this prophecy (1: 232). For two cogent discussions of the difference between the authority of oral speech versus the authority of written texts in the Western tradition, see Thoreau's distinction between the mother and the father tongue in his chapter on “Reading” in Walden, and Michel Foucault's The Order of Things: “[In the Renaissance, the spoken word] is stripped of all its powers; it is merely the female part of language, Vigenere and Duret tell us, just as its intellect is passive; Writing, on the other hand, is the active intellect, the ‘male principle’ of language. It alone harbours the truth” (38-39). Foucault, however, ignores the authority given in the Renaissance to God's spoken word. Derrida has written on the subordination problems created by adding a “supplement” to a prior text, as well as on the vexed relations between oral and written discourse (6-26, 141-64).

    Domenichino's portrait of such sibylline powers is of course indebted to Michelangelo, whose five sibyls on the Sistine Chapel ceiling dramatize the contrast between the oral and the textual, the authority of inspiration versus the authority of tradition. The Cumaean sibyl is given special authority in Michelangelo's sequence because the contents of her prophetic song as recorded in Virgil's Fourth (Messianic) Eclogue were thought to foretell the coming of Christ and the founding of His church in Rome. The Cumaean sibyl thus anticipated the essentially oral moment of Christian revelation: her song was her strength, allowing her to contravene false prophets and centuries of written pagan law. Four works are especially relevant for a survey of the role sibyls have played in Western art: Charles de Tolnay 2: 57-62, 155-58; Wind; Schiller, esp. plates 33 and 51 and commentary 1: 19, 102-03; and Dotson. These critics—particularly de Tolnay and Dotson—disagree considerably about the meaning of Michelangelo's placement and posing of the Sistine sibyls, but all the commentators stress that from Augustine to Aquinas to the Neoplatonic philosophers of the Renaissance the sibyls were thought to be among the most privileged of the pagan prophets. Especially relevant for the reader of Welty's stories is this sentence by de Tolnay: “The motif of the turned-away head, covered by a head-cloth, is an old one in Italian art, used to express the mysterious Cassandra-like female character …” (157). Michelangelo's interpretation of the sibyls is revolutionary for the clarity with which it depicts the fact that the sibyls' authority comes from oral rather than written language: the first sibyl in the Sistine sequence, the Delphic oracle, hears the word of God directly; the last, from Libya, puts down a book and prepares to rise, as if in preparation for the Day of Judgment. Domenichino's more secularized sibyls are strongly influenced by Michelangelo's Sistine sibyls. The standard work on Domenichino is Spear; see 1: 191-92, 232-33 in particular, which discuss Domenichino's two most important sibyl paintings. Relevant early literary texts mentioning sibyls include Plato, Phaedrus 224B; Virgil, Eclogues IV, Aeneid III.443ff and VI.9ff; Ovid, Metamorphoses XIV.143ff; Dante, Paradiso XXXIII.66; and Milton, “Il Penseroso.”

  9. For this second Domenichino sibyl, in the Villa Borghese, Rome, dated 1616-17, see Spear, 2: plates 171-72 and 1: 191-92. Excellent discussions of “June Recital,” “Music from Spain,” and “The Wanderers” in the context of The Golden Apples include those by Vande Kieft, Appel, McHaney, Pitavy-Souques, Pugh, MacKethan, Rubin, and Yaeger.

  10. My understanding of American sentimental romance and local color writing is especially indebted to Baym, Tompkins, Smith-Rosenberg, Donovan, Huf, Petry, Falk, McNall, Douglas, and Papashvily. More general studies by Gilbert and Gubar (cited in the text); Auerbach, DuPlessis, Moers, Homans, Showalter, Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray were also indispensable. Jennifer Lynn Randisi has recently published a study chronicling Welty's skepticism toward the sentimental romance as shown in her novels, and Devlin's Eudora Welty's Chronicle makes a similar point about Welty's novels. As useful as these two books are, neither one discusses Welty's stories within the context of the sentimental romance as interpreted by recent developments in feminist literary theory and historiography.

  11. Women musicians are prominent in some nineteenth-century American women's fiction; perhaps the four most instructive examples are Margaret Huell in Elizabeth Stoddard's “Lemorne versus Huell” (1863); Salome Owen, the foil for the heroine in Augusta Evans's Vashti (1869); Candace Whitcomb in Mary Wilkins Freeman's “A Village Singer” (1891); and the music teacher, Mademoiselle Reisz, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Evans's handling of this character demonstrates how in sentimental romances such heroines provide cautionary, not potentially revolutionary, scenes of instruction. As Fletcher and Baym have shown, Salome devotes all her energy to a singing career but loses her voice on the night of her debut and spends the rest of her days doing penance for her sin of pride. Stoddard's and Wilkins Freeman's stories, on the other hand, are considerably more sardonic; Stoddard's recounts an independent woman's betrayal by an evil fairy godmother figure, while Wilkins Freeman's depicts the losing battle a church choir's premier soprano wages with her church's power structure.

Cheryll Burgess (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Burgess, Cheryll. “From Metaphor to Manifestation: The Artist in Eudora Welty's A Curtain of Green.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 133–41. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Burgess attempts to find instances of Welty's artistic self-consciousness in the stories of A Curtain of Green.]

“This could never have been a popular view,” admits Eudora Welty, referring to Willa Cather's lifelong opinion that “[a]rtists … are perhaps greater, and more deserving to be made way for, than other human beings” (Eye 59). While she attempts to understand and to explain why Cather sets apart the artist in value, Welty herself strikes a humbler pose. Whereas Cather's novels introduce numerous semiautobiographical artists, characters of commanding stature, Welty's corpus contains very few portraits of the artist. She does not vaunt her role, even from behind the veil of fiction.

Despite such personal modesty, Welty generously praises the accomplishments and extols the special gifts of other authors—Jane Austen, Henry Green, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather, to name but a few. Moreover, Welty's essays on writing prove her to be an artist highly conscious of her craft, respectful of its demands. These critical statements on art and artists lead to fresh readings of Welty's own stories, helping us recognize artistic impulses in characters not explicitly identified as artists. Such insights deepen our understanding of the characters while at the same time suggesting how Welty, as artist, perceives herself. If she is too self-effacing to paint overtly autobiographical portraits of herself as artist, Welty is nevertheless too fascinated by the process of artistic creation to resist treating the subject altogether.

Reading Welty's earliest collection, A Curtain of Green, with eyes alert for references to storytellers reveals numerous characters who do literally tell stories. Leota, the hairdresser in “Petrified Man,” Steve, in “Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden,” and Sister in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” tell stories at some length. But these unsophisticated characters are not artists in disguise. To find Welty exploring the nature of her role, we must turn to the tantalizing passages that invite consideration as metaphors for the art of storytelling. For example, the girl in “A Memory,” looking at the world through the small frames made by her fingers, suggests the compositional techniques of focus and framing. Mrs. Larkin, in the title story, “cutting, separating, thinning and tying back … the clumps of flowers and bushes and vines” (CS [The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty] 108), parallels in her gardening the task of a writer: editing, organizing, deleting, and controlling her words and sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps most impressively, the jazz improvisations that Powerhouse composes on the piano both accompany and suggest themselves as musical equivalents to the performance of creating a story.

These metaphors for storytelling might fruitfully be used to elucidate the creation of stories. One might discuss such considerations as framing one's story, pruning away irrelevances, improvising a plot line, reiterating an idea, creating variations on a theme, and controlling rhythm and cadence of language. I propose, however, a slight change of focus, shifting emphasis from the craft of writing to the character of the writer. If Welty plants metaphors of story writing in her fiction, doesn't that in some sense cast the corresponding characters in the role of author or artist?1 The girl in “A Memory” and Mrs. Larkin in “A Curtain of Green” are not artists as Welty is an artist. Yet something suggests that we consider them as such.

I would like to show that excerpts from Welty's essays support the intuition that framing and gardening may be read as metaphors for story writing or artistic creation; that studying characters who do these things as authors or artists offers valuable insights into the stories; and that in seeing where these characters fall short as artists—where the metaphors break down—we can better understand Welty's conception of the artist. Finally, I shall discuss Powerhouse, both as he is in contrast to the girl in “A Memory” and Mrs. Larkin of “A Curtain of Green” and as the single fully realized artist in this collection of stories.2

Welty's essays represent a mature crystalization of the ideas about art that she explored through metaphor in her early fiction and are a good place to seek explication of those metaphors. In “Place in Fiction,” Welty elaborates on her notion of frame: “Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. … [The writer] is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world's, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two” (Eye 124-25). The concept of two pictures, the author's and the world's, reappears in subsequent essays; Welty believes in the notion of a duality of perception and of the artist's power to fuse the two impressions into a story which is both reality and illusion: a picture of the author's reality under the “pleasing illusion that it is the world's” (Eye 125).

The girl on the beach, squaring her vision with her hands, looking out at everything through the small frames made by her fingers, shares the artist's impulse to see double, to act as both “observer and dreamer” (CS 76). While she dreams of the moment when her hand brushed against the wrist of her secret love, she watches the outward world: “children running on the sand, the upthrust oak trees growing over the clean pointed roof of the white pavilion, and the slowly changing attitudes of the grown-up people” (CS 151). As long as the outside world does conform to her private reveries, the girl can bask in this mood of artistic absorption, where people cluster in “attitudes” (CS 77), and the picture is tinged with the rosy wash of her ineffable passion. A dirty stain blotches the girl's composition, however, when an ugly family of bathers plant themselves disarmingly near her, and the man “includes” (CS 78) her in his smile. She wishes they were all dead.

We've seen artistic traits in the girl, but when the grotesque bathers lumber into her framed field of vision, the girl's power of fusion fails utterly. She cannot integrate the family into her framed composition. An observation by Welty on failed fiction may tell us why:

The bad novel of today is unhappily like the tale told to the analyst. It is not communication, it is confession. … It is self-absorbed, self-indulgent, too often self-pitying. And it's dull.

Surely what is indicated is for us not to confess ourselves, but to commit ourselves. Only when the best writer on earth is ready and willing … to commit himself to his subject can he truly know it—that is, absorb it, embrace it in his mind, take it to his heart, speak it in plain words.3

Nina Carmichael, in “Moon Lake,” shows precisely this kind of willing commitment when she thinks, “It's only interesting, only worthy, to try for the fiercest secrets. To slip into them all—to change. To change for a moment into Gertrude, into Mrs. Gruenwald, into Twosie—into a boy. To have been an orphan” (CS 361). The girl on the beach, however, is too self-absorbed and self-indulgent to take the bathers to heart; consequently, she perceives only externals and relates only vulgarities like “Fat hung upon [the woman's] upper arms like an arrested earthslide on a hill” (CS 78). Until she commits herself to others, learns to accept the imaginative challenge of scenes incompatible with her dream of the touch, the girl will be able to paint only a single picture, write that one dull novel, see the world through the unsympathetic eyes of a child.

In both “A Memory” and “Moon Lake,” Welty may be tracing her own development as an artist to a childhood passion for observing life. The girls of both stories possess the artistic gift of perception—“a capacity for receiving [life's] impressions” (Eye 128); they share the desire to find secret meanings in ordinary gestures, to wait breathlessly for the moment when people reveal themselves; and they both by nature transform sight into insight, view into vision. Nina, however, is further along in terms of artistic growth than the unnamed girl: she no longer “form[s] a judgment upon every person and every event which came under [her] eye” (CS 75) but yearns instead for her “heart to twist” (CS 346), striving to imagine herself into other's lives. Likewise, the adult narrator of “A Memory” has apparently outgrown the childhood need for absolute conformity to her ideas, as it requires an effort of memory to imagine herself back to those days of terrified withdrawal. In these stories, Welty suggests that artistic sight is not merely given but learned and that it involves an “open mind and … receptive heart” (CS 130), a willingness to include the ugly, the threatening, the painful, the foreign into one's field of vision and into one's heart.

In “A Memory” and “Moon Lake,” Welty's young protagonists experiment with modes of perception; they are not yet impelled to create art, to communicate their visions in concrete form. “A Curtain of Green” concerns composition, not perception. In one sense, Mrs. Larkin can be said to author her own garden. She controls its shape; she determines whether it will sprawl in profuse growth or, as her neighbors would prefer, adhere to the bounds of properiety for an effect of restfulness. In her garden, Mrs. Larkin cuts, separates and ties back her plants, and yet, the narrator tells us,

To a certain extent, she seemed not to seek for order, but to allow an overflowering, as if she consciously ventured forever a little farther, a little deeper, into her life in the garden.

She planted every kind of flower that she could find or order from a catalogue—planted thickly and hastily, without stopping to think.

(CS 108)

The overflowering ground of Mrs. Larkin's garden metaphorically echoes Welty's statement about a story: “The story is a vision; while it's being written, all choices must be its choices, and as these multiply upon one another, their field is growing too. The choices remain inevitable, in fact, through moving in a growing maze of possibilities that the writer, far from being dismayed at his presence on unknown ground … has learned to be grateful for, and excited by” (“How I Write” 245).

The words field, growing, and ground in this essay about story writing underscore Welty's tendency to think of stories as analogous to gardens. In contrast to the writer stirred by possibilities, Mrs. Larkin is neither grateful nor excited. Although she submerges herself daily in a labyrinth of potential choices, she seems to make none. Perhaps she has not decided where she will direct her story. Welty writes that the “multitude and clamor and threat and lure of possibility …” guide the author's story “most delicately” (“How I Write” 245). Mrs. Larkin seems deliberately to allow possibility, in the form of lush vegetation, to multiply and compound; but she does not stop to think or pause to plot. Her garden, then, rather than representing a completed story or even a story in progress, seems to be a metaphor for a story's unconscious origin. Indeed, Welty's account of the workings of a mind on the verge of producing a story closely resembles Mrs. Larkin's garden:

The dark changes of the mind and heart, where all in the world is constantly becoming something … are not mapped and plotted yet … and their being so would make no change in their processes, … or schedule or pigeonhole or allot or substitute or predict the mysteries rushing unsubmissively through them by the minute. … The artist at work functions … without … the least power of prevention or prophecy or even cure.

(“How I Write” 242)

The view of Mrs. Larkin as a writer groping for a story is a helpful one for understanding her plight. An author is one who has the power to manipulate fate: if the author wants a sunny day, she can create one; if she wants a happily-ever-after ending, she can write one. Mrs. Larkin once tried to exercise this power of authorship in real life when she watched the chinaberry tree crash down and kill her husband. She spoke softly, “You can't be hurt” (CS 214). But her husband was killed. Again, she conjured the protective words “You can't be hurt” in an attempt to change the event, rewrite the ending, but without effect. When we see Mrs. Larkin in the garden, tearing away at the foliage with her hoe, it is in furious rage at her powerlessness: it seems that there is no story she can write. The crisis, when she holds the hoe poised high, ready to strike Jamey, seems to be a moment in which she can grab the pen and gain a measure of control over what has been inexorable fate. If she could not author her husband's life, at least she can author Jamey's death.

But, according to Welty, something is drastically wrong with Mrs. Larkin's conception of authorship. Where Mrs. Larkin would create a story to “compensate,” to “punish,” to “protest” (CS 111), the novelist, Welty maintains, “does not argue; he hopes to show, to disclose. … [He] works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what's told alive” (Eye 149, 152). An author's mission, Welty seems to say, is not to control but to record, not to exercise power in the interest of changing the world, but for the sole purpose of making “feeling felt” (Eye 105). “Life is strange,” she writes. “Stories hardly make it more so” (Eye 128). And this is so: chinaberry trees do kill husbands. Mrs. Larkin fails as an artist when she wants to reenact “the workings of accident, of life and death” (CS 110). The chinaberry tree's fall would be reenacted; with her hoe, she would fell Jamey: she would act rather than observe. Welty, in contrast, succeeds as an artist because she makes us feel Mrs. Larkin in action, makes us feel “her life in the garden” (CS 108).

Both the girl in “A Memory” and Mrs. Larkin in “A Curtain of Green” can be discussed as artists by virtue of the fact that their gestures—the girl's framing and Mrs. Larkin's gardening—may be interpreted as metaphors for aspects of the creation of art. A twofold advantage accrues from such a reading: recognizing an artistic impulse in the characters provides a context in which to understand their actions, while seeing why they nevertheless fail to be artists—where their actions deviate from the terms set in Welty's essays—deepens our understanding and provides an index by which we can measure and appreciate the real artist. Treading this indirect pathway, that is, via metaphor, to gain access to the nature of the artist seems justified in the case of Welty; for as noted, her characters are mostly ordinary, unsophisticated, inarticulate people, who, although they may tell stories, have little or no interest in art. Powerhouse, a jazz improvisationalist in the story bearing his name, is conspicuously different and therefore attracts and merits our attention. No metaphor need be adduced to identify him as an artist; the whole story joyously proclaims his power.

What inspired Welty to overcome her usual reticence in this singular celebration of an artist? She recalls that she launched this daring experiment in fiction—completely outside her usual orbit—in a single burst of energy after having heard Fats Waller play at a dance in Jackson (Conversations 297). Welty told interviewer Linda Kuehl that in “Powerhouse,” “I tried to write my idea of the life of the traveling artist and performer—not Fats Waller himself, but any artist—in the alien world” (Conversations 94). In this portrait of Powerhouse, a black, male, jazz musician on one level, “any artist” on another, Welty presents in highly animated, nonanalytical measures some ideas about storytelling and storytellers that her later essays state formally.

I have spoken earlier of Welty's vision of an artist as one who fuses two perceptions, his own and that of the rest of the world. She reasserts this belief in another delightful passage, which may help to describe the uncanny force of Powerhouse's narrative:

Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. … The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel.

(Eye 119-20)

And so is the good jazz improvisation, one might add, where soul resonates with rhythm to cast a musical spell. Powerhouse's story projects its blazing internal light—what Welty elsewhere describes as “that initial, spontaneous, overwhelming, driving charge of personal inner feeling” (Eye 125)—through its external narrative shape.

His impromptu story seems to emanate out of the mood created by the sad strains of the “Pagan Love Song.” “You know what happened to me?” Powerhouse asks. When the bass fiddler Valentine hums a response, Powerhouse produces the theme that he and his band members will collaboratively develop as the night lingers on: “I got a telegram my wife is dead” (CS 133). Powerhouse varies the music in order to accentuate the words of his story, playing 4:4 time to the four words of the telegram, “You wife is dead,” and triplets to reinforce his triple, “Tell me, tell me, tell me” (CS 133-34). Soon Scoot, the drummer, and Little Brother, the clarinetist, join Valentine and Powerhouse in propelling the story into existence. Scoot demands to know the name of the person who sent the telegram and thus inspires Powerhouse to invent Uranus Knockwood, assigning a name and eventually a definite shape to the vague sense of fear that eats away inside him when he is away from home. Little Brother insists that Gypsy wouldn't do a thing like jump out the window and kill herself. Paradoxically, Little Brother's skepticism makes at least part of the story more real: by questioning Gypsy's actions, he attests to her identity.

Although they stop playing the waltz to break for intermission, the band continues to play with the story, resurrecting it in the Negrotown World Café. Powerhouse answers Little Brother's solicitous doubts by heaping up more and more external details, as if the more completely a scene can be visualized, the more convincing it will be. A story, of course, need not be literally true; but in order for it to be true emotionally, its imagined world must become the reader's illusion. The circle of black onlookers willingly suspend disbelief, moan with pleasure as Powerhouse's story takes shape. He imagines Gypsy's feelings of loneliness and fear, the footsteps outside her room in the night, her jump—“… Ssssst! Plooey!”—and Uranus Knockwood watching her fall, stepping in the mess, and carrying her away.

Uranus Knockwood, that “no-good pussyfooted crooning creeper” (CS 138-39), may have begun as a projection of Powerhouse's private fears; but finally, as Welty notes of great works in general, he “transcends the personal” (Eye 132). A collective chorus of black voices give him his final shape: “He take our wives when we gone!” / “He come in when we goes out!” … / “You know him.” / “Middle-size man.” / “Wears a hat.” / “That's him” (CS 138). When all are in a wonderful humor, Powerhouse ends the story by exorcising this haunting character, sending an imaginary telegram back to him: “What in the hell you talking about? Don't make any difference: I gotcha” (CS 140).

The crowded dance hall and crammed café of “Powerhouse” contrast with the sparsely peopled beach of “A Memory” and the secluded garden of “A Curtain of Green.” Neither the girl on the beach nor Mrs. Larkin share their predicaments with another soul. The artistic issues that Welty explored in those stories did not include a writer's relationship to readers. In “Powerhouse,” however, she remains acutely aware of the rapport between performer and audience, or, by extension, between writer and reader. Unlike the animated black onlookers in the World Café, the white audience in the dance hall receives Powerhouse's story with mute impassivity, no murmur, no titter, just as earlier in the evening “nobody dances” (CS 258) to his music; only his band members participate in the story's germination. In the face of such unresponsiveness, the story soon fizzles and the band disbands for intermission.

But Powerhouse is unable just to relinquish his story—the teller must tell his tale. The blacks in the café, pressing in “gently and bright-eyed” around him, attend to Powerhouse's story with stirs of delight, “Ya! Ha![s],” sighs, halloos of laughter, moans of pleasure, and other contributions of their own. In that charged atmosphere, Powerhouse's story burgeons into truly gory proportions. Although a writer cannot interact with his readers in the same way that a performer can play off of his audience, the writer, according to Welty, still “assumes at the start an enlightenment in his reader equal to his own, for they are hopefully on the point of taking off together from that base into the rather different world of the imagination” (Eye 152). Writing, like jazz, is a collaborative performance.

As his story demonstrates, Powerhouse has been able to overcome some of the artistic problems that blocked both the girl in “A Memory” and Mrs. Larkin in “A Curtain of Green.” The girl could not find a way to cope with the threatening presence of the beach family. In an artistically fatal reaction she tightly closes her eyes. While the girl strives not to see that which threatens her, Powerhouse makes his fears visible for all to see, even gives them a name. Whereas Mrs. Larkin loses herself in her overflowering garden and seems unable to face its bewildering maze of possibility, Powerhouse manifests the artistic excitement that Welty describes, eager to advance his story by trying first one choice then doubling back to discard, alter, embellish, only to plunge onward in new directions. Furthermore, Mrs. Larkin would use art to strike out against a strange life, while Powerhouse glories in and exploits the very strangeness of it. As Welty affirms, the novelist “believes the insoluble is part of his material too” (Eye 152).

Finally, the real artist can be identified from the metaphoric one by motive. Welty explains that the story writer does “everything out of the energy of some form of love or desire to please” (“Reading and Writing” 54). Even though Powerhouse performs in an “alien world,” he “gives everything,” even for an audience of one (CS 133). In contrast, Mrs. Larkin never gives away a single one of her flowers, nor does she share her thoughts with Jamey; the girl on the beach also hoards her vision of the touch in the most private recesses of her mind. Ultimately, what distinguishes Powerhouse from the girl and Mrs. Larkin is his overbrimming love and his benevolent desire to send everybody—whites as well as blacks—into rapturous “oblivion” (CS 132). Not every writer or artist is necessarily motivated by love for others and a desire to please, but apparently these motives are basic for Welty. Her conviction is best expressed in her own words: “And so finally I think we need to write with love. Not in self-defense, not in hate, not in the mood of instruction, not in rebuttal, in any kind of militance, or in apology, but with love” (Eye 156).


  1. I shall use the terms author and artist interchangeably. Although Welty's medium is writing, I believe her insights apply to other art forms as well.

  2. Both Porter (xi-xxiii) and Carson recognize an autobiographical element in “A Memory” and discuss the girl as an artist. Carson makes passing mention of Mrs. Larkin as kin to “Hawthorne's and Poe's dark romancers” (421) and interprets Powerhouse as “the prototype for the artist-visionaries throughout Welty's fiction,” reconciling “the dialectic of the primitive and the civilized in man” (427). Carson bases his analysis on a Coleridgean concept of the artist, whereas I find correspondences between Welty's fiction and her own essays on writing.

  3. Welty deleted this passage, published in “Place in Fiction” in the January 1956 South Atlantic Quarterly, when she prepared the essay for republication in The Eye of the Story. She may have felt that it had become dated; perhaps she regretted its tone of censure.

Peter Schmidt (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27336

SOURCE: Schmidt, Peter. “Misogyny and the Medusa's Gaze: Welty's Tragic Stories.” In The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction, pp. 49–108. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

[In the following essay, Schmidt argues that Welty's most successful stories amalgamate the forms of tragedy and comedy.]

From the very beginning of her career as a story writer, Welty tried her hand at writing tragedy. The earliest tragic story of those included in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty is “Death of a Traveling Salesman” (1936), the first of a series of stories about troubled male wanderers; the most recent stories in the same collection, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963) and “The Demonstrators” (1966), depict an entire society that seems tragically to have lost its bearings. Reynolds Price has argued that at the beginning of Welty's career she kept her tragic stories strictly separate from her comic ones, whereas later she did not: “In [Welty's] early work—till 1955—she tended to separate [tragedy and comedy] as firmly as a Greek dramatist. There is some tentative mingling in the larger works, Delta Wedding and the linked stories of The Golden Apples; but by far the greater number of the early stories divide cleanly—into rural comedy or farce, pathos or tragic lament, romance or lyric celebration, lethal satire” (“The Onlooker Smiling” [1986], 76). Price's point is sound in many ways: in A Curtain of Green the techniques of “A Memory” are markedly different from “Why I Live at the P.O.,” and the genius of both Losing Battles and The Optimist's Daughter, two later works, is their constantly shifting mixture of tragedy and comedy. But I believe Price's comment is also somewhat overstated, false to The Golden Apples, in which Welty's mix of comedy and tragedy is hardly “tentative,” tending to draw our attention away from those early stories such as “Petrified Man” or “A Worn Path” that do attempt to intertwine tragedy and comedy or satire. Welty's experiments with mixing tragedy and comedy begin in earnest not in 1955, with The Bride of the Innisfallen, as Price implies, but over a decade earlier. It indeed appears that from the beginning it was Welty's instinct as an artist—like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Woolf, and other writers she admires—to mix her genres as thoroughly as possible. The more “tragic” a story is in outline the more carnivalesque Welty's narrative method tends to become, and, conversely, the more “comic” and farcical a story's surface the darker and more disturbing its inner heart. (“Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden” and “June Recital” are examples of the former case; “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Petrified Man” of the latter. See also Welty's comments on tragicomedy in Prenshaw, Conversations, 189.) Certainly this is true of Welty's best stories, whereas stories like “The Key” or “Clytie” or “Asphodel” seem to be more minor tales in comparison precisely because they lack such a controlled tension between their form and their content.

Other readers, including Robert Penn Warren, Ruth Vande Kieft, and Michael Kreyling, have stressed the continuities in Welty's work over four decades, noting that one of the most frequent motifs in Welty's stories throughout her career is the tragedy of isolation—what Robert Penn Warren aptly called stories of “love and separateness.” Following Warren, Kreyling argues that motifs of physical and spiritual pilgrimage as well as separateness interlace all of Welty's short-story collections, especially The Golden Apples and The Bride of the Innisfallen: “passages toward fulfillment of dream, lonely souls in need of response, calls sent out in hope of connecting with other lonely hearts (128-29). Vande Kieft notes further how often in The Bride of the Innisfallen this tragically unanswered call is a woman's:

Except in “Kin,” where the pleading call is that of an old man remembering, the call is a woman's, as in “Ladies in Spring”—secret, plaintive, unanswered. A small boy named Dewey, “playing hooky” and gone fishing with his father Blackie, hears him called and feels intuitively the desolation of that lonely girl's cry. Each of the heroines is abandoned by her potential or actual lover: even the powerful Circe, semideity that she is, must endure the departure of the mortal Ulysses. Yet each of the love-burdened heroines retains the virtues of openness to life, the capacity to love, to renew hope and joy, to achieve an inner poise, steadiness, or stillness.


In Welty's three earlier collections of stories there seem to be an equal number of male and female wanderer figures, unlike in The Bride of the Innisfallen, where they are predominately women. (The same holds true for her early longer fiction, as shown by Jamie Lockhart and Rosamond Musgrove in The Robber Bridegroom and George Fairchild and Laura McRaven in Delta Wedding.) There are portraits of men who feel oppressed by their relations with women, from “The Hitch-Hikers” and “Old Mr. Marblehall” and “Flowers for Marjorie” (in A Curtain of Green) to the stories featuring King, Ran, and Eugene MacLain in The Golden Apples. But disappointment haunts many of Welty's earlier heroines as well, some of whom are rescued (or rescue themselves) and some of whom are not: Livvie from “Livvie” and Jenny from “At the Landing” are just two examples from The Wide Net, and The Golden Apples has a host of major and minor women characters of this type, from Miss Eckhart, Virgie Rainey, and Cassie Morrison to Mrs. Rainey, Mrs. Morrison, and Miss Snowdie MacLain. Miss Eckhart's tragic story is the best known in Morgana, the fictional Mississippi town in which all but one of the stories in The Golden Apples is set, but the tragic story of a minor female character like Mrs. Morrison can become equally poignant. We meet Mrs. Morrison first at the edge of the action in “June Recital,” the story focusing on Miss Eckhart, but by the end of the collection we learn in an aside that she has committed suicide—her reasons unknown, the story of her hopes and her pain largely untold (449).

Most of these and other tragic stories, like those described by Kreyling and Vande Kieft in The Bride of the Innisfallen, turn on abandonment: a character's love for another is expressed and then ignored or misunderstood, or remains unexpressed and unknown. About the same number of the characters who figure in these stories are male as are female, suggesting, at first glance at least, that for Welty tragedy transcends time, place, gender, and race and occurs whenever a human being is unable to make life-sustaining contact with another. As she has stressed in her interviews, her tragic characters tend not just to lack love but to be “separate,” cut adrift from identity-grounding forces rooted in a particular place and time. Their great “affliction” is to live without memory: “They have nothing to draw on. They don't understand their own experience” (Prenshaw, Conversations 335-36).

A closer look at Welty's stories, however, reveals very interesting differences along gender lines among Welty's tragic protagonists. All of Welty's tragic characters, whether male or female, tend to be displaced wanderers restlessly looking for connection with others that will satisfy their craving for respect and love. Her male characters either tend to be looking for a lost maternal bond they cannot recover (as in her first published story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman”) or, more frequently, they flee from one maternal bond to another, seeking to satisfy both their craving for unquestioned affection and their desire for “masculine” independence (as in “Flowers for Marjorie” and “The Whole World Knows”). Some of Welty's best stories of tragically isolated male characters feature wanderers whose responses to women range from distrust to outright misogyny, whereas the tragic heroines in her short fiction tend to be confined within a domestic sphere of some sort and are unable to wander, blocked not only by social restrictions but also by what this chapter will call the “Medusa's gaze,” their view of themselves as monstrous. The forms of violence at the heart of these tragic stories also differ. The most frequent motif in Welty's tragic stories with a male protagonist is that of a husband stabbing or shooting a wife near the breasts (or imagining doing so): this is the act of violence buried at the center of “Flowers for Marjorie,” “The Purple Hat,” “The Whole World Knows,” and “The Demonstrators.” Other stories that focus on martial discord, from the early “Acrobats in the Park” to the later “Music from Spain” and “No Place for You, My Love,” feature less violent mistreatment of women, but they are not really less disturbing for that. (The female protagonist in “No Place for You,” for example, has a bruise on her face—possibly from her lover—and is mistreated by the story's other main character, a businessman, in a way that psychically bruises her a second time.) If the men in Welty's tragic stories often direct their violence towards others, however, Welty's female tragic figures tend to direct their violence against themselves: “Clytie” is the paradigmatic case in A Curtain of Green, and in The Golden Apples Maideen Sumrall and Mrs. Morrison are suicides, and Miss Eckhart attempts suicide. No male character in any of Welty's stories commits suicide, though one, Ran MacLain, attempts to shoot himself, and another, Ran's father, leaves clues to make it seem that he has drowned. If this pattern of gender difference within tragedies of love and separateness is indeed in Welty's stories, several questions immediately arise. Why is this difference present, and what does it mean? What can these stories tell us about the causes of these differences? Is it simply fate or nature or chance, or is it social history?

Welty criticism has just begun to face such questions, much less answer them, but a discussion of them will be central as Welty's work is read and discussed in the next decades. (Indeed, in the 1980s such topics have emerged as central to the fields of literary history and theory in general.) In the interest of contributing to such a debate, the rest of this chapter and the next chapter on comedy will focus on those Welty stories that raise most provocatively the issues of gender difference in tragedy and comedy. Hence this chapter will not be an overview of all tragic motifs in Welty's stories—Welty's treatment of the tragic theme of love and separateness has already been well discussed by Warren, Vande Kieft, Kreyling, and others. Instead, the chapter will concentrate first on several of Welty's stories that specifically link tragedy to a man's fear of women, particularly “Flowers for Marjorie,” “The Whole World Knows,” and “Music from Spain,” and then will conclude with close readings of “Petrified Man” and “June Recital,” two stories in which Welty reinterprets the story of Perseus and the Medusa to investigate why women inflict violence on themselves. Concentrating on issues linking misogyny, the Medusa's gaze, and tragedy in Welty's fiction does not refute the insights of earlier definitions of Welty's tragic mode, but it adds what may be a significant and provocative new angle to discussion of this topic. Such a focus also demonstrates that much is to be gained by bringing together Welty's stories and contemporary developments in feminist criticism.

Of all the stories in A Curtain of Green, “Flowers for Marjorie” is the one in which we are made most conscious of the presence of male fears of women. The story is set in New York City during the depression, and Welty's original draft indicates that the opening scene occurs in “the park at Union Square.”1 From the very beginning of the story, Welty contrasts the husband Howard's character with his wife Marjorie's. His sense of time, for instance, is artificial, while hers is associated with her body's biorhythms. “‘Oh, Howard, can't you keep track of the time?’” she says when he asks her for the umpteenth time when their baby will be born. “‘Those things always happen when they're supposed to. Nothing can stop me from having the baby, that's sure … even if you don't want it’” (100). When Howard sits next to her he smells clover, reminding him that it is springtime, and he also associates her with the “large curves of a mountain on the horizon of a desert” (99)—as if for him she is Nature herself. Howard's sense of time, in contrast, is derived solely from man-made things, and he both yearns for and is threatened by his wife's difference from him. “The ticks of the cheap alarm clock grew louder and louder as he buried his face against her, feeling new desperation every moment in the time-marked softness and the pulse of her sheltering body” (100). Here Howard both seeks shelter and rebels against that shelter, listening to the clock's ticks even as he also feels her body's pulse. His obsession with the clock is symptomatic of how his entire sense of time and identity is dependent upon man-made things—upon clocks and work-week calendars. Time for him means living in history, in New York City during the depression. Each tick of the clock represents another second in which he remains unemployed, unable to fulfill his designated role of breadwinner for his family. He tries to show Marjorie that his sense of time is the correct and “responsible” one, not hers:

“Just because you're going to have a baby … doesn't mean everything else is going to happen and change! … That doesn't mean I will find work! It doesn't mean we aren't starving to death. …” In some gesture of his despair he had brought his little leather purse from his pocket, and was swinging it violently back and forth. “You might not know it, but you're the only thing left in the world that hasn't stopped!”

The purse, like a little pendulum, slowed down in his hand. He stared at her intently, and then his working mouth drooped, and he stood there holding the purse as still as possible in his palms.


The pendulum that governs Howard's world is an empty purse, as if money and a job are necessary to give time meaning. His purse's flaccid emptiness contrasts provocatively with Marjorie's swelling womb: the more he stares at her, the more threatened he is. A few paragraphs later, he suddenly stabs her just above the womb, killing her instantly.

Afterwards, he coldly views her body as a pendulum that he has stopped: “it was a perfect balance, Howard thought, starting at her arm. That was why Marjorie's arm did not fall” (102). He then flees to the crowds in the street seeking to lose himself, and we discover that this sense of time is not merely clock time but commercial time—a world of instant gratification and miraculous rather than natural growth. Welty's catalogue of the things that catch Howard's eye in the store window displays is not merely a wry parody of advertising but an analysis of how advertising shapes our thinking. Welty is particularly qualified to give such an analysis of commercial culture because she studied advertising in New York City at the Columbia School of Business in the late 1920s and early 1930s and wrote and sold advertisements on the side (Vande Kieft 5). In a 1942 interview she stressed that “I quit advertising because it was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things that they didn't need or really much want” (Van Gelder 5). Welty's analogy between voodoo and advertising's psychology of suggestion is demonstrated in “Flowers for Marjorie”: advertising stereotypes condition Howard without his knowledge.

Howard's self-indulgent despair at not being able to get a job is linked to a belief that money will miraculously give him whatever he needs, even the perfect marriage. “He reached a crowd of people who were watching a machine behind a window; it made doughnuts very slowly. He went to the next door, where he saw another window full of colored prints of the Virgin Mary and nearly all kinds of birds and animals, and down below these a shelf of little gray pasteboard boxes in which were miniature toilets and night jars to be used in playing jokes, and in the middle box a bulb attached to a long tube, with a penciled sign, ‘Palpitator—the Imitation Heart. Show her you Love her’” (102).

In these and other window displays and advertisements, commercial products are treated as sacred objects capable of creating endless riches or instantaneous, permanent love. Later, however, Welty's description of Howard's winning the jackpot at a slot machine becomes a scatalogical parody of a woman's giving birth, in tune with the toilet humor of the window display: “The many nickels that poured spurting and clanging out of the hole sickened him; they fell all over his legs, and he backed up against the dusty red curtain” (103). After killing Marjorie, therefore, Howard tries to replace her with an alternative source of happiness, one that will instantaneously and repeatedly gratify his desires and free him from poverty—as Marjorie would not. Marjorie means work, self-sacrifice; the city's commercial culture for Howard signifies play and unlimited self-indulgence. Only Howard's fright when the money comes cascading down betrays his hidden guilt for wanting to trade a woman for a money machine.

Later in the story Howard's wish for instant wealth is granted, when merely by coincidence he happens to be the ten millionth person to enter Radio City Music Hall. He is given roses and “the key to the city” by “a large woman with feathery furs and a small brown wire over one tooth” (104-5). This strange woman, half mother and half machine, represents the culmination of Howard's demands for instant gratification. Radio City Music Hall is a kind of gargantuan slot machine, and she its personification. Through her, Welty shows that Howard's demands are identical to an infant's demands that his mother instantly satisfy his every desire. After killing the woman who has asked that he act like an adult, Howard has regressed with the help of commercial culture to fantasizing about automatons that eternally gratify his every demand. Yet such a fantasy also makes him feel guilty, as he did in front of the slot machine, and when the Radio City woman comes close to him to give him his prize, he suddenly is terrified and flees; she seems a mechanized monster with a wire over her tooth advancing to consume him. His contradictory fantasies betray his contradictory feelings toward women: he asks that they shelter him, yet he also recoils from them as if their sheltering will destroy his manhood.

Welty's several references to flowers in the story highlight Howard's conflict between commercialized and more humane visions of maternity. When Howard first returns to the apartment after a day of sitting on benches when he was supposed to be looking for a job, he notices that a walk that Marjorie took that day was much more fruitful: “there lay Marjorie's coat with a flower stuck in the buttonhole. … She had only found it, Howard thought, but he winced inwardly, as though she had displayed some power of the spirit” (99). That “power” is the force of Marjorie's self-reliance, her faith in natural rather than commercial time. As he stares at the flower, he suddenly hallucinates not just the vision of desert mountains quoted earlier, but a profoundly threatening vision of the female body—especially its genitalia—as a devouring landscape. The pansy began in “Howard's anxious sight to lose its identity of flower-size and assume the gradual and large curves of a mountain on the horizon of a desert, the veins becoming creavasses, the delicate edges the giant worn lips of a sleeping crater. His heart jumped to his mouth” (99). All of Howard's fears of the rightful demands that Marjorie will make upon him as a husband and father are expressed in this vision, as is his guilt for being afraid. His assault upon her with a kitchen knife tries to put a stop to this bewildering power, this “excess of life.”

The other flowers that figure prominently in the story are the flowers of the title. They refer to the roses Howard receives from the Radio City lady and then unconsciously takes homeward when he flees. Unlike Marjorie's buttonhole flower, these flowers are figures for Howard's infantile demands and fantasies of power. Welty's title, moreover, ironically stresses the link between male desires to treat women as objects of male chivalry and as objects to be controlled. “Flowers for Marjorie” alludes to a conventional act of chivalry, the very sort of act that might appear in the ads that Howard sees using images of happy couples to sell their products, but the story's narrative displaces that chivalrous image with another, an emblem of Howard's secret fear of women and its result.

By juxtaposing Howard's impulsive act of murder with his flight into a commercial fantasy-land, Welty is able to demonstrate far more complex causes for Marjorie's murder than may first be apparent. The story gives us several superficial motives, from Howard's sense of shame from unemployment to the hallucinations that he experiences because of a lack of food. But Howard's hallucinations are hardly private; they merge with and are corroborated by the collective fantasies promoted by advertising. It is Howard's vision of success, not his fear of failure, that is at fault, and Marjorie is ultimately the victim not of her husband's knife but of his infantile ideal of male-gratifying women and of the mass culture that sustains that ideal.

“Flowers for Marjorie” contrasts strikingly with other portraits of married couples in A Curtain of Green, “The Key” and “The Whistle,” that portray an older husband whose love for his wife is undiminished by poverty. “Flowers for Marjorie” contrasts as well with Welty's first published story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” whose protagonist longs for a homelife rather than being threatened by it. The issues “Flowers for Marjorie” explores align it with two other stories in A Curtain of Green, “The Hitch-Hikers” and “Petrified Man.” “Flowers for Marjorie” does not explore the reasons that women are so threatening to men like Howard, beyond suggesting that their “excess of life” (which the story codifies as being associated with “nature”) refuses to be confined within the forced stereotypes of men. Tom Harris in “The Hitch-Hikers,” similarly, is threatened by women—he “remembered the girl dropping money into her heart-shaped pocket, and remembered a disturbing possessiveness, which meant nothing, Ruth leaning on her hands. He knew he would not be held by any of it” (72)—but the causes for his problems are not really explored by the story, except insofar as it links them to other more obvious forms of cruelty, such as the tramp's murder of his companion. “Petrified Man,” however, does explore the link between sexual fears and violence toward women. It is a complex and justly famous critique of the power of advertising and modern American commercial culture, and will be discussed later in this chapter. For now it makes sense to turn to two later stories that seem to be direct descendants of “Flowers for Marjorie”—“The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” in The Golden Apples.

The Golden Apples includes a total of seven stories, all but one set in the imaginary town of Morgana, Mississippi, near the Big Black River about nineteen miles from Vicksburg (387). They are arranged in chronological order and cover a time span of approximately forty-five years, from 1900 to the late 1940s. (In typescript, Welty dated the final story in the collection, which she wrote in 1949, as taking place in “present time.”)2 The stories share many of the same characters and turn on dramatic confrontations between heroic, iconoclastic wanderer figures and more conventional characters who represent Morgana's social mores. As Welty has said, “What had drawn the characters together there was one strong strand in them all: they lived in one way or another in a dream or in romantic aspiration, or under an illusion of what their lives were coming to” (One Writer's Beginnings 99).

The first tale, “Shower of Gold,” introduces King MacLain, a Zeus-like figure who impregnates his wife with twins and then leaves Mississippi to wander west, coming home to visit Morgana only for brief periods until the very end of his life, when he returns to stay. Each of the succeeding stories turns on a comic or tragic encounter between that story's wanderer figure(s) and Morgana's more proper characters. “June Recital” is the tragic story of how the town's unconventional music teacher, Miss Eckhart, is driven mad. “Sir Rabbit” tells of King's sexual intercourse with a local woman he finds on a hunting expedition with her new husband in the Morgana woods just outside of town. “Moon Lake” presents the comic adventures of two younger wanderer figures at summer camp: an orphan girl named Easter and Loch Morrison, the camp's Boy Scout and life-guard. It appears to be the only story in The Golden Apples in which King does not directly figure, but there is evidence to suggest that both Easter and Loch may be children of King's, among the numerous progeny of his that live in the County Orphans' Home and elsewhere throughout MacLain county, “known and unknown, scattered-like” (264). If they are not actually fathered by him, they are certainly spiritually kin to him in many ways. “The Whole World Knows” (set in Morgana) and “Music in Spain” (set in San Francisco) are filled with allusions to King MacLain's wandering and Miss Eckhart's madness; they chronicle the failed marriages of King MacLain's two sons, Ran and Eugene, now in their forties. “The Wanderers” concludes The Golden Apples with an account of the death and funeral of the narrator of “Shower of Gold,” Mrs. Katie Rainey, told from the point of view of her daughter, Virgie, the story's heroine and Miss Eckhart's star music student.

King MacLain's symbolic and possibly biological ties to the book's wanderer figures are stressed both through the imagery with which Welty describes them and through a series of coincidences in the stories' plots that allow their paths to cross with his. In “June Recital,” for example, King shows up during the climactic scene in which Miss Eckhart is led away from the house that she has tried to burn down. He is present in part of “Sir Rabbit,” addressed directly in his son Ran's interior monologue (“The Whole World Knows”), and attends the funeral in “The Wanderers,” where Virgie Rainey feels a special kinship with his disdain for the staid funeral ceremony and the hypocrisy of some of the mourners. All of the book's most attractive heroes and heroines have unruly hair and an ungovernable restlessness and wildness in their souls. Easter's hair is a “withstanding gold” (346), recalling the gold light associated with King in “Shower of Gold”; Virgie's hair is dark and often uncombed, and she once literally butted her head against a wall, something that, figuratively speaking, King did all his life (291, 452); Miss Eckhart's hair catches fire. Another detail of note is that Loch Morrison's mother inquires mournfully after King in “June Recital,” implying that Loch's father may be King, not Wilbur Morrison (326-27).3

The dominant school of criticism in Welty scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s has been archetypal or myth criticism. The majority of commentators who have discussed King's role in The Golden Apples have generally presented him as the heroic embodiment of “mythical” as opposed to narrowly “historical” thinking. King and the book's other wanderers are associated with natural cycles, sexuality, disguise and metamorphosis, wandering, and occasionally madness, whereas the representatives of proper Morgana society—usually women—are linked with social restrictions, possessiveness, a repression of sexuality, and a provincial belief that Morgana is the center of the universe. Occasionally a character such as Miss Eckhart will embody both mythical and historical points of view—she represents both rebellion and restriction, music's freedom and metronomic regularity. More frequently the stories in The Golden Apples are said to chronicle what appears to be a confrontation between independence and conventionality, a King and a Mrs. Rainey, an Easter and a Jinny Love Stark. Such conflicts are dramatized by Welty's many allusions to similar conflicts in mythology, so that the heroic wanderer figures are compared to Zeus (“Shower of Gold”), Hercules (“The Whole World Knows”), or Perseus (“Music From Spain”).

Whatever the undeniable virtues of the many archetypal readings of Welty's stories that have been published—and they have produced richly nuanced readings of the stories—many of them share certain troubling biases. The first is that any “mythic” vision described in The Golden Apples must necessarily be superior to the so-called “historical” and regional points of view represented by other citizens in Morgana—superior because it does not seek to stop time, own possessions, or maintain social status. Even when characters as seriously troubled as Ran and Eugene MacLain abuse their wives, critics tend to describe their neuroses in terms of their “mythic” vision and to assume that all such visions must necessarily be restorative, at least in the long run. Such an assumption means that not enough allowance can be made for irony in The Golden Apples: when mythic imagery appears, it is often made to be on the side of supposedly “natural” freedom versus social restrictiveness and emotional immaturity.

A second unstated bias of some myth criticism on The Golden Apples is, frankly, sexist. For such criticism invariably pits the “male” virtues of King and his followers (including “unfeminine” women such as Miss Eckhart, Easter, and Virgie) against the “female” representatives of Morgana conventionality—Mrs. Rainey and King's wife, Snowdie MacLain, in “Shower of Gold”; Ran's and Eugene's rather shallow wives in “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain”; and Mrs. Stark and the other Morgana matriarchs in “The Wanderers,” for example. This bias is particularly notable in the many readings of “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain,” which fall into the trap of blaming the victims—Ran and Eugene's wives—for their husbands' behavior, and then excusing the husbands' actions by making reference to all kinds of mythological or existentialist imperatives. Such criticism of course hardly denies that men may act conventionally or women rebelliously, and its depiction of the limitations of women such as Jinny Love Stark or Perdita Mayo or even Miss Snowdie MacLain has often been well argued, but like King MacLain himself it tends to assume that male energies are predominately creative and individualistic, female energies possessive and conventional. Miss Eckhart, Virgie Rainey, and Easter are marked as the exceptions among the women of Morgana.

In recent criticism on The Golden Apples—especially pieces written by women—these emphases are gradually being revised. There is a much stronger stress on King as a mock epic figure who is frequently satirized, and a discussion of the disparity between how men and women are treated in Morgana story-telling and the social divisions those disparities represent. Carol Manning's comments on this latter point are exemplary:

The society's values preclude … females from being the objects of its hero-worship. Though individual females are subjects of single, scattered tales, none of these inspires a general mythology, as do Don McInnis, Denis Fairchild, George Fairchild, King MacLain, Daniel Ponder, Sam Dale Beecham, and Jack Renfro. On the contrary, females who become frequent subjects of tales are likely to be presented by the narrators as villains or unpopular strangers: Miss Sabina (“Asphodel”), Miss Eckhart (GA [The Golden Apples]), Miss Julia Mortimer (LB [Losing Battles]). …

The basis for the absence of mythicized females is traceable to the double standard, which is an accepted fact of life in the South of Welty's fiction. As their heroes the people select individuals whom they interpret as sensuous nonconformists or as strong, capable protectors of the family, and these roles, in the conventional society, are generally reserved for men.


A particular strength of recent criticism is that it makes such new points without going to the other extreme and overly heroizing the women of Morgana or treating them as martyrs to patriarchy. Ruth Vande Kieft, to pick just one example, is as incisive in discussing the limitations of women such as Jinny Love Stark or Perdita Mayo as she is in discussing how King is satirized in “Sir Rabbit” (104-5, 91-92).

Building on this recent work, in the next two chapters [of The Heart of the Story] I will argue that conventionalism in Morgana and Welty's other imaginary towns is represented as thoroughly by male figures as by female ones, and that it is often disguised as mythological experience. Far from being exempt from historical prejudices, for example, the tales of King's Zeus-like “heroism” in “Shower of Gold” and elsewhere embody his society's most ingrained stereotypes about proper male and female behavior. Conversely, when truly heroic wanderer figures appear in the book, they tend to be female, not male, and they become heroic not because they simply appropriate male definitions of heroism but because they radically revise our ideas of what heroism may involve. To make such an argument is not to denigrate King MacLain as a heroic figure: he is as fascinating to me as he has been to Welty's other readers, and to citizens of Morgana like Katie Rainey. But such a reading does enjoin us to question what our standards for “heroism” are and asks whether other characters such as Miss Eckhart or Virgie Rainey do not in the long run have a better and different claim to heroism than King does.

As Thomas McHaney has shown, Perseus emerges as the most important quester figure in The Golden Apples; he was fathered when Zeus appeared to Danaë in a “shower of gold.” But the true Perseus figures in The Golden Apples are not the logical choices, the twins Ran and Eugene whom King fathered in “Shower of Gold”; rather, King's twin sons are tragic distortions of the Perseus figure, men whose narcissism and misogyny are disguised as a heroically “Persean” attack on what they take to be monstrous, Medusa-like women. Better candidates for Perseus in The Golden Apples are Miss Eckhart, Virgie Rainey, and Loch Morrison. Miss Eckhart may be thought of as a Perseus figure who fails to slay Medusa: Morgana's image of her as an eccentric monster takes over her imagination and drives her mad. Virgie, on the other hand, is a successful Perseus who during the course of “The Wanderers” learns the meaning of both Perseus' heroism and Medusa's rage. By making the majority of her Perseus figures women, Welty thus revises how we read the myths that she alludes to—revises them in ways that are more complicated, I think, than acknowledged by the mythological readings that The Golden Apples has so far received.4

The Golden Apples contains three stories about male violence towards women: “Sir Rabbit,” “The Whole World Knows,” and “Music from Spain.” In “Music from Spain,” the main character, Eugene MacLain, slaps his wife's face at the breakfast table on the day after she has stopped wearing mourning for a dead child of theirs. He then rushes from the house and begins a day's wandering through the streets of San Francisco, in imitation of his father. In “The Whole World Knows,” the parallel is not as easy to see, for the story begins in mid-wandering, so to speak, after the act that initiated the wandering has taken place. This act is Ran MacLain's leaving his wife, Jinny, whom he accuses of adultery, to move into a one-room apartment in what used to be his family's house, now owned by others and filled with renters. Like Howard in “Flowers for Marjorie,” Ran and Eugene substitute fantasies of an ideal woman for their memories of their actual wives, only to have their acts of wish-fulfillment collapse as the repressed fear and guilt for what they have done to their wives resurfaces during the stories' climactic scenes. That is, just as Howard's commercialized success fantasies turned into a vision of an avenging female automaton, the Radio City lady, so do Ran and Eugene try to substitute idealized women for real ones, only to have their fantasies become nightmarish.

A structural comparison of “Flowers for Marjorie,” “The Whole World Knows,” and “Music from Spain” indicates that as Welty evolved her understanding of the tragedy of male misogyny during the 1940s she moved away from concentrating on the larger social causes of her protagonists' difficulties (depression unemployment and the marketing of masculine and feminine stereotypes by advertising and mass media, as shown in “Flowers for Marjorie”), to explore in greater detail how children's concepts of gender roles are shaped by their parents. Both “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” contain much family history, something that was largely excluded from “Flowers,” and together these two stories represent Welty's fullest depiction of how the sex roles that parents play are influenced by sometimes dangerous cultural stereotypes for proper masculine and feminine behavior.

Another way to make this point is to say that Welty in these three stories moves from depicting gender stereotypes in mass culture to a careful analysis of the process by which children inculcate those stereotypes. The fact that Ran and Eugene are twins makes the evidence for their psychological problems even more intriguing. For although as adults they are now living apart from each other, one in a small town in Mississippi and the other in the most cosmopolitan city in California, they experience many of the same neuroses, implying that the deepest causes of their problems indeed lie in their childhood. Published in 1947, Welty's portraits of Ran's and Eugene's problems also confirm and in some cases anticipate the insights of some recent psychoanalysts and sociologists, especially Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, D. W. Winnicott, and Nancy Chodorow, in their revisions of Freud's ground-breaking speculations on the Oedipus complex, infantilism, narcissism, and male fears of women.5 Although these analysts have tended to focus on the so-called “nuclear” family where the father works away from home and the mother becomes the dominant nurturer, their results appear to be very relevant to cases like that of Welty's MacLains, where the father quit his regular job (as a traveling salesman) and was absent for even more extended periods of time, so that his children hardly ever met him, only heard stories about his sexual exploits and endless travels.

Ran's and Eugene's relations with women are dominated by infantilism. On the one hand, they have an uncontrollable nostalgia for what Welty portrays as a pre-Oedipal state in which their mother's breast and the absolute security and oral satisfaction it could give them seemed eternally present. Such a fantasy is ultimately a fantasy of returning to the womb, but without any recognition that it is another's interior space one desires to return to; rather, through the fantasy the mother becomes a projection of the child's own needs, entirely subservient to gratifying them—an extension of the child itself, not a separate entity. In this state, the baby experiences itself as the entire universe; no concept of the mother or any other persona as an “Other,” a separate human being, is imaginable. Ran and Eugene make such demands of all the women in their lives (especially their wives), treating them as potential substitutes for an eternally satisfying mother figure whom they have lost. Outside of the womb such an infantile world is unsustainable, of course, either when it is first lived by the infant, who finds that the breast is not always present, or later when it is reexperienced through regressive fantasy, as Ran and Eugene try to do. When the fantasy fails, two things happen. First, Ran and Eugene try to destroy the women. Welty portrays these fantasies using remarkable language that makes their destructive, hallucinatory violence quite vivid and frightening. Second, Ran and Eugene then guiltily imagine the women turning on them and treating them as something to feed upon and destroy. These nightmarish fantasies, as Welty depicts them, are marked by sexual imagery and sexual phobias, suggesting that the obverse of an infantile fantasy of women as an eternal breast is of women as a sexual vampire, smothering the male and draining him of vital fluids rather than providing him with them.

Complicating Ran's and Eugene's relation to their mother is their relation to their father. Masculinity, especially for Ran, becomes identified with physical aggression, fast and frequent travel, sexual competition with his father, and, above all, a fear of being allied with anything that he thinks is domestic and feminine. For Ran and Eugene, such an inheritance is traumatic, mixing fears that women will destroy their independence with uncontrollable nostalgia for a pre-Oedipal state in which their mother's breast is inseparable from them. Everything the boys have learned from their father about defining masculinity tells them that their need for their mother is an unmanly desire for a return to childhood. Yet even if they try to compete with their father on his own terms, his legendary stature makes him seem superior to them. The stories about him report his experiencing no nostalgia for the womb, as they guiltily do, and his sexual conquests and wandering far outdo whatever the boys try to accomplish. Both “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” reveal that underneath Ran's and Eugene's idealization of their father is a volatile mixture of repressed emotions toward him—guilt for not measuring up to his standards of masculinity and deep anger toward him for abandoning them and making their relations with women so troubled. Together, the stories give us a twinned portrait of a boy's Oedipus complex and its causes. By stressing the trauma that King MacLain's absence causes his sons, moreover, Welty is not implying that the mere presence of the father in the MacLain household would have prevented Ran's and Eugene's problems. Rather, her stories suggest that it is King's compulsion to enact stereotypes of “male” behavior that destroys any possibility for fluid and nonsexist role-playing for both the parents and their children. The mother becomes condemned simply to play the role of servile nurturer, while the father becomes a facile and illusory “heroic” example of male aggressiveness and freedom. The devastating effects of such sexual stereotyping on the MacLain boys are thus the true subject of “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain.”6

“The Whole World Knows” is narrated in the first person by Ran MacLain. He is a clerk in the Morgana bank and recently married one of the most eligible girls in town, Jinny Love Stark, who is more than ten years younger than he is. They have just separated because of Ran's mistreatment of her and the fact that, in retaliation, Jinny has had an affair with Woody Spights, an employee of the same bank in which Ran works. Ran can express his anger against Jinny Love only indirectly and ineffectually. He leaves her and moves into a room in his family's former home in Morgana, now owned by a woman who has divided it up into apartments for rent. (Ran's mother has moved back to her family's home in MacLain's Courthouse, seven miles outside of town, and implores Ran to move in with her.) He also fantasizes taking revenge against Jinny Love and Woody Spights. Inspired by the chance comment during a game of croquet that he is “dead on Woody” (i.e., on Woody's croquet ball), Ran suddenly hallucinates beating his wife's lover with his mallet (382). Even more disturbingly, in response to Jinny's mother's and a servant's criticism of him during a visit (“Of course I see what Jinny's doing, the fool, but you ailed first. You got her answer to it, Ran,” her mother says [385]), Ran imagines shooting his wife. This crucial episode in the story is worth quoting, for it gives us an exemplary instance of how Ran's solipsistic fantasizing both soothes and accentuates his pain, and it will demonstrate how the stories in The Golden Apples of husbands' violence toward their wives are more sophisticated in their portrayal of its causes than “Flowers for Marjorie.” Upon first reading, the following passage is difficult to decipher, for Ran's point of view has trouble distinguishing between his own hallucinations and what actually happens:

Jinny looked at me and didn't mind. I minded. I fired point-blank at Jinny—more than once. It was close range—there was barely room between us suddenly for the pistol to come up. And she only stood frowning at the needle I had forgotten the reason for. Her hand never deviated, never shook from the noise. The dim clock on the mantel was striking—the pistol hadn't drowned that out. I was watching Jinny and I saw her pouting childish breasts, excuses for breasts, sprung full of bright holes where my bullets had gone. But Jinny didn't feel it. She threaded her needle. She made her little face of success. Her thread always went straight in the eye.

“Will you hold still.”

She far from acknowledged pain—anything but sorrow and pain. When I couldn't give her something she wanted she would hum a little tune. In our room, her voice would go low and soft to complete disparagement. Then I loved her a lot. The little cheat. I waited on, while she darted the needle and pulled at my sleeve, the sleeve to my helpless hand. It was like counting breaths. I let out my fury and breathed the pure disappointment in: that she was not dead on earth. She bit the thread—magnificently. When she took her mouth away I nearly fell. The cheat.


Ran cannot admit that he has not fired the gun, and he cannot face the reasons for wanting to shoot his wife, so he transforms his own failure into the failure of others. In his eyes Jinny refuses to acknowledge that she has been mortally shot or that she is in the wrong; she merely keeps on sewing. Ran's fantasy then turns dark with resentment and self-pity and guilt. Not only is Jinny's “aim” better than his, but “[h]er thread always went straight in the eye.” The sorrow and pain that Ran claims she refuses to acknowledge is of course his sorrow and pain, not hers; he wants his acknowledged by her, even as he refuses to admit that he bears much of the responsibility for their marital problems.

Ran's fantasy also demonstrates how he unconsciously wants a woman who will unquestioningly be a mother to his every need, not an equal partner in marriage. Welty emphasizes how infantile Ran's demands are by having him stare at his wife's breasts—“excuses for breasts,” he calls them—as he imagines shooting her. He is like a child who is enraged at his mother for not feeding him and imagines destroying her. As his fantasy-tantrum proceeds, it becomes more and more infantile and oral: “I waited on. … It was like counting my breaths. I let out my fury and breathed the pure disappointment in: that she was not dead on earth. She bit the thread—magnificently. When she took her mouth away I nearly fell. The cheat” (385). This passage ought to be read as freely as if it were a dream, allowing multiple meanings for each action and treating seemingly external events as projections of the fantasies of the dreamer. Jinny's sewing, for Ran, is in part a “magnificent” and threatening assertion of her own independence from him, breaking the thread with her teeth seems to his diseased imagination to be the equivalent of severing a life-giving (perhaps umbilical) tie: thus his melodramatic phrase, “I almost fell.” (The irony here is increased by the fact that Jinny is sewing a button back on Ran's shirt; even as he has asserted his “right” to ask wifely favors of her he knows that such ploys will not work; her obliging him hardly is an agreement to live with him again.) Yet Jinny's biting the thread may perhaps also be read as a disguised version of what Ran in his infantile rage wants to do to her—to bite and tear her for “cheating” and taking her breast away. His imagined shooting of her in the chest performs the same function: “I saw her pouting, childish breasts, excuses for breasts, sprung full of bright holes where my bullets had gone” (385). The result of this infantilism, apparently, is that Ran is now impotent with Jinny: “When I couldn't give her something she wanted she would hum a little tune. In our room, her voice would go low and soft to complete disparagement” (385).7 Ran also treats the pistol he imagines having as if it were a penis (“there was barely room between us suddenly for the pistol to come up”), so his sexual potency is linked to violence.

The very first paragraph of “The Whole World Knows,” when re-read in light of its later action, can be shown to link Ran's rage at his wife with his disturbed feelings towards his mother and father. “Father, I wish I could talk to you, wherever you are right now. Mother said, Where have you been, son?—Nowhere, Mother.—I wish you wouldn't sound so unhappy, son. You could come back to MacLain and live with me now.—I can't do that, Mother. You know I have to stay in Morgana. … I can tell you're all peaked. And you keep things from me, I don't understand. You're as bad as Eugene Hudson. Now I have two sons keeping things from me” (375). His mother's voice keeps invading Ran's monologue to his father because despite himself Ran longs for the security his mother once gave him and then immediately feels ashamed for desiring her presence so strongly. She offers to let him move back in with her, yet to Ran she also seems to him to be intent on entirely dominating his identity: he specifically remembers that she calls his brother Eugene Hudson rather than Eugene MacLain, taking revenge against her irresponsible husband and his family name by calling her son by his middle name, her family's name.

Ran, however, elects to retreat to the house in Morgana that his mother and father once shared, not the Hudson home in MacLain's Courthouse. Still stored in the room that Ran rents are some of his mother's possessions that she angrily left behind when she moved back to MacLain—a trunk with some of her quilts and her wedding dress (381). The MacLain house in Morgana thus appears to be a kind of half-way house for Ran, allowing a strategic withdrawal that may give him all the security of retreating into his mother's presence while still allowing himself the illusion of manly independence and respect for his father's memory. But such a solution fails, as the scenes with Ran and Jinny prove. Ran tries to assert his masculine independence, but he senses that his demands on women remain thoroughly infantile. Some of the most moving moments in the story come when Ran punctuates his monologue with pleas to his father to let him be able to move back in with Jinny and live a normal life: “Father, I wished I could go back” (378); “Father! You didn't listen” (379).

Both Ran and Eugene also attempt to substitute acquaintances they meet for their threatening wives. In Ran's case, this is Maideen Sumrall, a grocery-store clerk who is flattered by Ran's attentions and apparently hopes to inspire him to divorce Jinny and marry her. For Eugene, this substitute proves to be the androgynous figure of a chance acquaintance, a Spanish guitar player named Bartolome Montalbano, who combines a feminine appearance (he has long hair and red fingernails) with what Eugene thinks of as an enviably masculine life free from all family ties.

Ran wants to turn Maideen into the wife that he has lost, forcing her to return to the Starks' house as if it were her house and to visit the Stark family as if she were their daughter and his wife. His motives for doing this are complex: he seeks to humiliate and mock both Maideen and Jinny yet also seeks to convince himself that nothing has happened, that Jinny still loves him, will be jealous of Maideen, and will take him back. Thus when a woman does not live up to his ideal of perfect subservience, he tries to replace her with another woman who will. After Ran's and Maideen's visit to the Starks' ends with his failed vision of shooting Jinny, he decides that what he really wants to do with Maideen is to drive up to Vicksburg's nightspots and motels with her. The trip ends in disaster. After Ran and Maideen return drunk to a motel room and pass out wearing their clothes, Maideen wakes and turns out a light they left on. Ran suddenly wakens to see her take off her dress and approach their bed wearing only her slip. His reaction is the most frightening instance of male fear of women in all of Welty's stories:

I saw Maideen taking her dress off. She bent over all tender toward it, smoothing its skirt and shaking it and laying it, at last, on the room's chair; and tenderly like it was any chair, not that one. I propped myself up against the rods of the bed with my back pressing them. I was sighing—deep sigh after deep sigh. I heard myself. When she turned back to the bed, I said, “Don't come close to me.”

And I showed I had the pistol. I said, “I want the whole bed.” I told her she hadn't needed to be here. I got down in the bed and pointed the pistol at her, without much hope, the way I used to lie cherishing a dream in the morning, and she the way Jinny would come pull me out of it.

Maideen came into the space before my eyes, plain in the lighted night. She held her bare arms. She was disarrayed. There was blood on her, blood and disgrace. Or perhaps there wasn't. For a minute I saw her double. But I pointed the gun at her the best I could.


Even though all of Maideen's actions in this scene seem quite innocent, Ran is threatened by them. Maideen's treating the room's furniture “tenderly,” as if it were her own rather than the motel's,8 is taken by Ran to signify her possessive domesticity, and her undressing is even more frightening for him. Ran is terrified by independent, adult female sexuality; it suggests “blood and disgrace,” menstruation, “disarray,” violence, adultery. He recoils from her presence as if from an attempt to capture and devour him.

After demanding that Maideen stay away from him, Ran then suddenly turns the gun on himself: “I drew back the pistol, and turned it. I put the pistol's mouth to my own. My instinct is always quick and ardent and hungry and doesn't lose any time. There was Maideen still, coming, coming in her petticoat” (392). Once again, an attempt to act “masculinely” collapses into infantilism, a nostalgic hunger for that moment in his life when women existed only to nurse him. Welty makes this explicit by carefully using language that suggests a baby's instinctive response to hunger: “quick and ardent and hungry,” but, horrifyingly, it is the barrel of his father's gun that Ran puts in his mouth. Such a contradictory image—the gun as a symbol of his father's independence and of Ran's need for sucking, for dependence—is Welty's version of the “condensation” of images Freud argued was a defining element of fantasy and dream-work (“The Dream-Work,” 170-83). Furthermore, the fact that Ran's oral fantasy in the motel room involves suicide shows that guilt is irrevocably intertwined with his fantasies of nursing. Earlier in the story, Ran remembers his mother's worrying about his having his father's gun, as if he were not man enough to handle it (375), and because Ran feels that he has failed to use it “heroically,” he now sentences himself to die, castrating himself in the name of his father.

When the gun misfires, Ran's anger returns as a defense against the sexual shame engendered by the misfiring. Instead of threatening to shoot Maideen, he turns on her and rapes her. “In a minute she put her hand out again, differently, and laid it cold on my shoulder. And I had her so quick” (392). The context of this passage and the adjective “cold” make it clear that Maideen's gesture is not a sexual overture but an act of pity. (She expected to have sex when she started the trip with him, but she is hardly making an overture now. We can only assume that she does not resist the rape because she is too frightened.) Ran is even more threatened by Maideen's pity than he was by her undressing. Shared, mature sexuality intimidates him, as does maternal consolation, but rape is restorative: it reaffirms his deflated manhood and reasserts his right to turn women simply into objects of his desire. In this scene Welty thus shows rape to be the ultimate form of misogyny and links it with pre-Oedipal rage and Oedipal self-hatred. Such an analysis of the causes of rape, done in the mid-1940s, to some extent anticipates the conclusions made by contemporary social scientists such as Susan Brownmiller and Nicholas Groth.

In “Music from Spain” Ran's brother Eugene has moved from Morgana to San Francisco. Although his brother thinks he is “safe in California” (375), he is as threatened by women as Ran, perhaps even more so, and his personality is just as volatile a mix of guilt, anger, fear, and narcissism as his brother's.

The story opens with Eugene slapping his wife's face at the breakfast table, “without the least idea of why he did it” (393). Eugene then spends the day wandering through San Francisco, much of the time accompanying a chance acquaintance, the guitarist Montalbano. During the day's wandering, Eugene's imagination turns his unsuspecting companion into an idealized version of both his parents, a model of both “male” romantic independence and “female” self-sacrificial nurturing. Such a vision is impossible to sustain for long, but while Eugene can do so, many infantile fantasies about both his parents are secretly acted out.

To Eugene, Montalbano is living proof that the feminine world may be escaped. “The formidable artist was free,” Eugene assures himself simplistically; “there was no one he loved, to tell him anything, to lay down the law” (406). Like Eugene's father, Montalbano seems a law unto himself. When Eugene offers to guide him around the city, though, Welty makes it evident that his attraction to him is not merely theoretical. After staring at the performer's red fingernails, Eugene “felt a lapse of all knowledge of Emma as his wife. … The lapse must have endured for a solid minute or two, and afterwards he could recollect it. It was as positively there as a spot or stain, and it affected him like a secret” (403). The full meaning of this sexually charged moment of secret sharing emerges only near the end of the story, after a day in which Eugene and the musician have wandered through the city as if they were illicit lovers. As they stand on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, Eugene suddenly gives Montalbano a bear hug: “Eugene clung to the Spaniard now, almost as if he had waited for him a long time with longing, almost as if he loved him, and had found a lasting refuge. He could have caressed the side of the massive face with the great pores in the loose, hanging cheek. The Spaniard closed his eyes” (421). In Eugene's imagination, the Spaniard's jowls are transformed into a woman's breast whose open pores promise “refuge” and sustenance. Eugene thus unconsciously seeks to substitute his wife's threatening heterosexuality with what seems like a homoerotic vision of a man as nurturing mother who will not deny or smother him. As the embrace continues, the Spaniard, frightened, grabs Eugene and whirls him around and around in the air. As he does this, Eugene suddenly imagines returning home and being devoured by his wife:

Pillowed on great strength, [Eugene] was turned in the air. It was greatest comfort. It was too bad the daylong foreboding had to return, that he had yet to open the door and climb the stairs to Emma. There she waited in the front room, shedding her tears standing up, like a bride, with the white curtains of the bay window hanging heavy all around her.

When his body was wheeled another turn, the foreboding like a spinning ball was caught again. This time the vision was Emma MacLain turning around and coming part way to meet him on the stairs. … She lifted both arms in the wide, aroused sleeves and brought them together around him. He had to sink upon the frail hall chair intended for the coats and hats. And she was sinking upon him and on his mouth putting kisses like blows, returning him awesome favors in full vigor.


Welty's commentators have tended to read this vision as a regenerative one, a vision of the renewal of love between Eugene and his wife Emma. The next two paragraphs of the passage (not quoted above) provide them with their strongest evidence, for Eugene decides that “it was out of such relentlessness, not out of the gush of tears, that there would be a child again” (423). (Eugene and Emma have recently lost their only child, for which Emma blames her husband while her husband blames her [413].) Nevertheless, the entire passage is prefaced by the word “foreboding,” and crucial phrases in the fantasy itself (as opposed to Eugene's reflections on the fantasy) are quite threatening to him: “wide aroused sleeves … around him,” “he had to sink,” and “kisses like blows.” If Eugene projects his fantasies of an unthreatening female onto the Spaniard, he also cannot help but project his fear of women onto him too. At first the physical contact with him is comforting, even exhilarating, but then it brings out all his sexual fears as “pillowed in great strength” modulates into images that he associates with women—heavy curtains and “wide, aroused sleeves” surrounding and smothering him. Eugene MacLain as well as the story's readers may consider this fantasy to be a healing one, but they do so only by repressing much of the dream's content.9

Earlier visions Eugene has of his wife are similarly troubling. When he slaps his wife, the baroque metaphors Welty uses to depict his reaction stress his association of her with domesticity, sweetness, and claustrophobia: “her stiffening and wifely glaze running sweet and fine-spun as sugar threads over her” (393). Later, like Howard in “Flowers for Marjorie,” Eugene visits a street fair and sees another threatening female icon. One of the side-show monstrosities is named Emma (like Eugene's wife)—a coincidence that Eugene thinks is highly significant. His vision of this side-show character is hard to interpret, it is so grotesque: “her small features bunched like a paper of violets in the center of her face. But in the crushed, pushed-together countenance there was a book; it was accusation, of course. … The photograph showed [the side-show] Emma as wearing lace panties, and opposite it a real pair of panties—faded red with no lace—was exhibited hung up by clothespins, vast and sagging” (405). Given the extravagance of this passage's metaphors, we ought to read extravagantly as well: like Howard in “Flowers for Marjorie,” Eugene MacLain here imagines women as a monstrosity, an enlarged vagina threatening to crush him.

Both Eugene and Ran indirectly blame their father for their fears of women. Eugene's vision of the Spaniard is not only a vision of an ideal or a threatening lover, but also of his shadow self, his madness. Earlier in the story Eugene often addresses the Spaniard as if he were addressing himself: he turns him into the living image of his father's influence on him. (Montalbano does not understand English and thus for Eugene's purposes makes a perfect companion.) “You know what you did,” Eugene shouts at him at one point, “You assaulted your wife” (419). Another moment of self-reflection in the story does not directly involve Montalbano, but it is even more revealing of why Eugene's idealization of wanderers like Montalbano and his father hides great resentment toward them: “Eugene saw himself for a moment as the kneeling Man in the Wilderness in the engraving in his father's remnant geography book, who hacked once at the Traveler's Tree, opened his mouth, and the water came pouring in. What did Eugene MacLain really care about the life of an artist, or a foreigner, or a wanderer, all the same thing—to have it all brought upon him now? That engraving itself, he had once believed, represented his father, King MacLain, in the flesh, the one who had never seen him or wanted to see him” (409).

It is not enough, I think, to read this passage merely as Eugene's rather envious tribute to Montalbano's artistic heroism or his father's wandering. For in Eugene's vision, the kneeling Man in the Wilderness seeks merely infantile love, a lover either male or female who like the Traveler's Tree will endlessly supply his needs yet also allow him the illusion of his freedom to travel further. As the shift in tone from wonder to anger in the passage suggests, moreover, Eugene secretly is upset by the fact that his father gave him no example of love other than infantile narcissism. Whatever sustenance his father gave him, Eugene finds that he is also responsible for making him thirsty: it is his absence that has made both his childhood and his adult life a wilderness.10

Eugene's brother Ran in “The Whole World Knows” also simultaneously idolizes his father and blames him for his madness, but his relationship with him is more easily seen because he often addresses him directly, as Eugene does not. Ran frequently calls out his father's name just when he feels most entrapped by women, as if to give himself his father's courage, but he also does so when he is feeling most resentful toward him. In the following example, occurring immediately after Ran imagines shooting Jinny as she sews for him, admiration and hatred are equally mixed: “Father! Dear God wipe it clean. Wipe it clean, wipe it out. Don't let it be” (386). The pronoun “it” may be read as referring to Ran's troubles with Jinny and Maideen, thus making the passage a plea for escape and independence from women, but it may also be taken to refer to Ran's own misogyny and infantilism. Even the conjunction of “Father!” and “Dear God” is turbulent. We may interpret it as reverential, a plea to his father, or as condemnatory, as a plea to God to cleanse what his father has wrought in him.

Another clue that Welty has buried in “The Whole World Knows” suggests yet one more approach to understanding Ran's anger toward his father. Alfred Appel has pointed out how violently Ran reacts when he learns from Maideen that her mother's maiden name is Sojourner: “And now I was told her mother's maiden name. God help me, the name Sojourner was laid on my head like the top teetering crown of a pile of things to remember. Not to forget, never to forget the name of Sojourner” (386; Appel 223-24). This comment is part of a diatribe against all the things that Maideen told him about herself, but Ran's anger is so vehement that Appel believes Welty may be hinting that Maideen is in fact the child engendered by King when he accosted Mattie Will Sojourner in “Sir Rabbit” earlier in The Golden Apples. If this is true, then when Ran rapes Maideen at the end of “The Whole World Knows” he knowingly commits incest with his half-sister. Appel does not speculate on how Ran learns that his father had sex with Maideen's mother, nor does he admit that for his suggestion to be true we must make three rather large assumptions: (1) that Maideen's mother is Mattie Will, rather than another female Sojourner (we never learn for certain); (2) that Maideen's last name is now Sumrall because her mother for an unknown reason remarried in the two decades that separate “Sir Rabbit” and “The Whole World Knows”; and (3) that Ran somehow found out about his father's encounter with Mattie Will, probably through gossip that “the whole world knows.”11 If the evidence in support of Appel's hypothesis is circumstantial and tenuous, however, it is certainly intriguing. Ran and Maideen are the correct ages, about twenty years apart. Adding incest with his half-sister to the other problems Ran has certainly makes “The Whole World Knows” an even darker story. Welty leaves such a possibility open but does not give us enough evidence to prove or disprove it. We should not focus on such speculation at the expense of the central issue, which is why Ran is so oppressed by learning that Maideen's mother's maiden name is Sojourner. The one thing that is certain is that when Ran protests against the name of Sojourner he is showing that he resents being forced to measure his exploits with the Sojourners against his father's. (“Sir Rabbit,” revealingly, contains another example of such competition between son and father: in the first half of the story Ran and Eugene sensuously wrestle with Mattie Will in the Morgana Woods when she is fifteen; in the second half, occurring later, King rapes her.) Ran's rape of Maideen Sumrall may or may not be incest, but Oedipal guilt and anger it certainly is, forever caught in a losing struggle with his father.

Ran's monologue in “The Whole World Knows” ends in utter despair and isolation: “Father, Eugene! What you went and found, was it better than this? And where's Jinny?” (392). His voice echoes within the empty rooms and endless corridors of his compulsions much more frighteningly than Sister's boast echoes at the end of “Why I Live at the P.O.”: unlike her, Ran has the power to harm others. In the concluding story in The Golden Apples, “The Wanderers,” we learn that Maideen commits suicide after the night she was humiliated by Ran (433). Ran's interior monologue is thus “spoken” after Maideen's suicide: “How was I to know she would go and hurt herself,” he pleads guiltily and then, in a paroxysm of selfish anger, adds: “She cheated, she cheated too” (392). Eugene's story, in contrast, ends with an act of silent disdain: he returns home and coldly watches his wife and her best female friend in the kitchen after dinner. Eugene's violence and wandering may seem to have temporarily been spent, but actually his misogyny has only taken a more disguised (i.e., latent) form; he remains obsessed with women as devourers: “Eugene tilted back on his chair and watched Emma pop the grapes in” (426).

Such a somber analysis of the tragedy of Ran's and Eugene's misogyny need not assume that the women in these stories are paragons of virtue. Indeed, both Jinny Love and Emma MacLain are two of the most callous women in all of The Golden Apples. Jinny quickly takes a new lover rather than trying to help Ran overcome his fear of women, and Eugene's charges that Emma is neglectful, conceited, and hypocritical appear to be at least partially correct. Welty's manuscripts, however, reveal that she revised the beginning and the ending of “Music from Spain”—the two scenes in which Eugene's wife Emma is present—in ways that make it easier for us to question Eugene's view of her as a monster. In the opening scene, Welty's revisions added the detail about the “wounded cry” Emma makes when, upset by her husband's cruel behavior toward her, she burns herself on a toast pan (393); and the concluding scene involving Mrs. Herring, Emma, and Eugene includes more details in the later version that stress the friendship between the two women (425-26). These revisions make Emma seem a more sympathetic character, and Eugene's views of her more irrational.

One final note on these two stories. As interesting as “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” are, they are not on a par with each other artistically. Only “The Whole World Knows” has the power and compression necessary for tragedy. “Music from Spain” often seems awkwardly written and too slowly paced in comparison with its companion tale; the following sentence, for example, is unintentionally comic: “Eugene, unaccustomed to visions of people as they were not, as unaccustomed as he was to the presence of the Spaniard as he was, choked abruptly on his crust” (408). Furthermore, the character of the guitar player is ultimately intelligible only as a projection of Eugene's fantasies, not as an identity in his own right—an awkward flaw in a story told using a third-person narrative. The characters who speak to Ran in his monologue, in contrast, are both powerfully rendered independent figures and projections of his own fantasies and fears. Consequently, “Music from Spain” has neither the economy nor the tragic tension between fantasy and fact that gives “The Whole World Knows” its impact. One is not surprised to learn that “Music from Spain” was the last story written in The Golden Apples sequence and that Welty herself has had doubts about its success (Prenshaw, Conversations 285-86, 332-33). Yet the twinned psychological terrain explored by “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” is as rich as it is frightening, and the two stories should be read together as Welty's most daring exploration of the tragic causes and consequences of male misogyny.

To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself … to “ideas” … that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means “to unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply reabsorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere. …

—Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One

Of all of Welty's early stories exploring the way in which women do violence to themselves, none is more incisive than “Petrified Man,” and it provides an especially revealing introduction to a discussion of what happens in Welty's tragic stories when a woman rather than a man is the central character. The story seems in part inspired by circuses that came to the Jackson fairgrounds in the late 1930s; Welty photographed them assiduously—including a side-show poster touting an “Ossified Man” (Marrs 103-04, 113-14). Not coincidentally, “Petrified Man” is also Welty's first intensive investigation of the meaning of the Greek myths associated with Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon, dragon-like creatures with wings, human heads, snakes for hair, and a gaze that would turn human beings to stone. From the first appearance of Medusa motifs in Welty's stories, Welty seems to have understood that she could use Medusa's story as a means of investigating the dilemmas facing modern American women. A brief reading of the role played by the Medusan gaze in “Petrified Man” may serve as an introduction to “June Recital.”

Welty's critics have greatly praised “Petrified Man,” but the readings they have given it are somewhat odd, for they are unanimous in blaming the women in the story for the perversions of sexuality that it satirizes. It is rather as if the story's Medusan gaze were so disturbing that its commentators—both male and female—have rushed to cast themselves in Perseus' role and wield righteous swords against the women whom they take to be the story's villains. Most commonly, this takes the form of arguing that the women have assumed the role of men, stripping men of their masculinity and perverting “natural” gender distinctions. In this view, the women are modern Medusas, women who turn to stone the men who come in contact with them. Astonishingly, however, no commentator has fully confronted what it means to have the central male figure in the story be a rapist or explored the connections that the story draws between representations of women in advertising and violence toward women in society. The women may be Gorgons to their men, but the true Gorgon in the story is the world of mass culture, a Medusan world whose uncanny power consists in its ability to make women see themselves only through an essentially male point of view, both idealizing them and treating them as objects of rage and violence. Welty plays a better Perseus than her critics, for she knows how to spot the real villain and decode its dangerous gaze—and all this in 1941, years before the recent developments in feminist criticism and theory that it anticipates.12

“Petrified Man” is told entirely through two conversations that take place between Mrs. Fletcher and Leota while Mrs. Fletcher is getting her hair done on 9 March and again on 16 March 1941, in Leota's beauty parlor. The subplot of “Petrified Man” is concerned with lurid crimes and traveling freak-show exhibitions, whereas the main plot depicts the commonplace violence against women that occurs in a beauty parlor. In the subplot, a rapist joins a freak show and disguises himself as “Mr. Petrie” the Petrified Man, realizing that a man whose body supposedly turns everything he eats into stone will be the perfect cover for his brutal appetites as a rapist. In the main plot, Mrs. Fletcher seeks to disguise the fact of her pregnancy—the fact that her body will change its shape and use its food to nourish another life—with a petrified disguise of her own, a “permanent” hair-do and “fixed” smile that conform to her conception of the eternal forms of feminine beauty. A newcomer to town named Mrs. Pike is the only character in the story who figures in both plots. She first notices that Mrs. Fletcher is pregnant and that Mr. Petrie is the same man as the one pictured in an old copy of Startling G-Man Tales with a $500 reward on his head for rape.

Welty's story is less concerned with Mr. Petrie's private motives for rape than it is with unmasking the cultural connections between the marketing of idealized images of female beauty and the hidden rage and violence against women that underlie those supposedly pure images. For Leota and Mrs. Fletcher have been conditioned to see what is done to their bodies in the beauty parlor not as acts of violence but as acts of love—techniques that affirm their beauty, independence, and importance as women. Such thorough conditioning may be their culture's most disturbing act of violence against women, for unlike the crime of rape the beauty parlor's ideal is universal and disguised as its opposite, as something indispensable to a woman's self-esteem, and it affects more women than all the rapists in the country.

Leota's beauty parlor is an elegantly appointed torture chamber with the female body as its victim. In order to achieve the physical standards that society sets for beauty, an array of tools and machines in Leota's shop remake nature. References to the high technology of the beauty industry are frequent, from the “aluminum wave pinchers” used to make curls to the hair-drying machines that “cook” their occupants (18). The inborn shape of one's hair is given a new “body,” and called a “permanent”; one's smile is no longer natural but “fixed” (28) by face powder and lipstick. If the parlor's creations are not truly “permanent”—Welty notes ironically that Mrs. Fletcher speaks of her “last permanent”—nevertheless the body's new shapes aspire to the permanent and “ideal” standards that the beauty parlor's machinery represents. Even more importantly, Welty shows that the beauty parlor's standards of beauty are themselves created by a larger machine, the mass marketing apparatus of popular culture. Several times she mentions popular reading materials in the story, which vary from the purportedly high-class “rental library” (where Mrs. Fletcher primly says that she first met her husband) to the “drugstore rental” library supplying the cheap novels and some of the periodicals with names like Life is Like That and Screen Secrets that entertain the parlor's customers while their hair is being dried. As the title Screen Secrets suggests, the standards of beauty that the parlor sells are created by the motion picture and advertising industries. Those mass cultural images of perfection become molds that may create endless reproductions of their products in the women and men who are influenced by them. And although pop cultural icons purport to portray healthy images of women as wives and mothers, they in fact teach the women to treat their sexuality as threatening and scandalous—an affront to the static image of proper beauty that the beauty parlor mass-produces.

Welty first alerts us to this fact when she describes the women at the parlor as “customers” who are being “gratified in [their] booths” (17)—a striking verb that suggests sexual pleasure perversely displaced not merely onto consumer objects but onto the narcissistic contemplation of a constructed image that is sold with those products. When sexual relations do occur in the story, they threaten ideal standards of beauty by causing everything from dandruff to pregnancy. “I couldn't of caught a thing like that [dandruff] from Mr. Fletcher, could I,” Mrs. Fletcher whines early in the story (18), and Leota on the same page gingerly spells the first four letters of the word “pregnant” (as if it were something that must never be named aloud) and then asks, “how far gone are you?” implying that Mrs. Fletcher's pregnancy is a kind of dying. The women's belief that both sexuality and pregnancy are grotesque rather than beautiful is shown most clearly in their discussion of the traveling freak show that comes to town. Significantly, it occupies “the vacant store next door” to the beauty parlor (20): businesses selling beauty and ugliness are adjacent, as if they were mirror images of each other. Indeed, as the women's conversations show, they need to have a sense of the grotesque in order to enforce a sense of their own normality, but the more they try to separate what is normal from what is monstrous, the more the two threaten to merge. Welty adroitly shows this largely unconscious connection in their minds by having Mrs. Fletcher's and Leota's conversation about the freak show continually stray from discussing the freaks to discussing their own lives. The show is first mentioned almost in the same breath as Mrs. Fletcher's newly revealed pregnancy; it is as if Mrs. Pike has as keen an eye for the spectacle that Mrs. Fletcher makes as she does for the freaks. As Leota says, “Well, honey, talkin' about bein' pregnant an' all, you ought to see those [Siamese] twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself” (20). Part of the women's horror and fascination with this display is that it seems not only to be an example of the frightening disorder of nature (creating two babies instead of one) but also of what they take to be the sickening and unnatural union of mother and child: “they had these two heads an' two faces an' four arms an' four legs, all kind of joined here. See, this face looked this-a-way, and the other face looked that-a-way, over their shoulder, see. Kinda pathetic. ‘Glah!’ said Mrs. Fletcher disapprovingly” (21).

If the beauty parlor and the freak show next door are the arbiters of the beautiful and the ugly, then, the lines that they draw are not nearly so sharp as implied by the architectural lines dividing the two buildings. The mirrors on the wall of the beauty parlor (perhaps on the very wall that separates the parlor from the freak show) play a crucial role in “Petrified Man”: they give us lucid glimpses of the many ways in which society defines beauty and ugliness as mirror opposites. More powerfully than any other piece of equipment in the parlor, the mirror presents a standard of beauty and measures the women against it. When they view themselves in the mirror, they view not only their own image but the ideal image of what they wish to be. The mirror (like a movie screen) holds the spectacle of infinite examples of Beauty itself yet also cruelly presents an (also infinite) spectacle of monstrous failure: “[Mrs. Fletcher] stared in a discouraged way into the mirror. ‘You can tell it when I'm sitting down, all right,’ she said” (23). Beauty and the Medusa are twinned images, each the “negative” of the other.

The parlor's mirror does not hold an image, of course, so much as reflect one that is projected upon it. In Mrs. Fletcher's case, Welty shows, she projects that ideal image from her own imagination, which is in turn projected (much like a movie) by the powerful and subtle machinery of popular culture that has invented those beautiful images and then imprinted them in the women's minds. Here lies the subtlety of Welty's diagnosis of how commercial culture may corrupt. The women are dependent upon market images for their sense of beauty and normality, yet they do not realize this; rather, they take those very images as sign of their own independence and power, the irrefutable proof of respectability that they themselves have earned. The most powerful allure of mass culture in Welty's view is not that it sells the comforts of conformity but that it promotes them as their opposite—as heroic examples of an individual's independence and power. The function of the beauty parlor mirror is to show how this hidden process works. Looking into the mirror as she receives her shampoo and set, Mrs. Fletcher proudly boasts: “Women have to stand up for themselves, or there's just no telling. But now you take me—I ask Mr. Fletcher's advice now and then, and he appreciates it, especially on something important, like is it time for a permanent—not that I've told him about the baby. He says, ‘Why, dear, go ahead! Just ask their advice’” (25).

The beauty parlor is an all-female domain where they can mock the men and assert their own power over them; this surely “gratifies” them (17) as much as the beauty treatments. But like the beauty treatments, the sense of power that the parlor gives them—power over their husbands, over each other, and over their own bodies—is a dangerous illusion; it is not at all the kind of power it seems. The parlor's images of perfection dictate the terms by which Mrs. Fletcher must define her “independence,” and all of those make her dependent upon mass cultural images of perfection that are marketed by men (Marchand 1-51, 66-69). Welty subtly enforces this irony by having Mrs. Fletcher sitting down in one of the parlor's chairs staring at the mirror even as she speaks about women “standing up for themselves.”13

If there is a Medusa in “Petrified Man” who turns all who gaze on her to stone, therefore, it is the world of commercial culture, not the women who are its victims, and it has done its work not by petrifying its victims with a vision of ugliness but by hypnotizing them with a vision of false beauty. The presence of a rapist on the other side of the beauty parlor's mirror, moreover, exposes the connection between commercial culture's images of women as beautiful objects and its treatment of them as perverted monsters. The same advertising world that reproduces endless images of idealized women for women to copy also treats women as sex objects for men like Mr. Petrie to possess and desecrate: sexual relations are perverted into either utter passivity (as with Leota's and Mrs. Fletcher's husbands) or violent aggression (as with Mr. Petrie).

Who is Perseus in this retelling of the myth of Medusa? Welty, of course. Like Perseus, she uses her art to allow us to see how the Gorgon's gaze is directed at us without letting us succumb to its power. The story's meticulous commercial details of the parlor's decor and the women's slang may be thought of in traditionally mimetic terms, as a mirror. In Welty's hands, however, this mirror functions differently from the mirror in the beauty parlor or the screen in the movie house: it does not present these images under the guise of the “natural,” but reveals them to be representations, a set of artifices and disguises. In doing so, Welty's story exposes the hidden, demonic source of the images that are projected onto its mimetic reflective surface and uncovers how those representations acquire authority until their naive consumers believe, as the title of one of their favorite pulp novels puts it, that “life is like that.” Such an understanding of culture is the true “screen secret” of “Petrified Man,” allowing us to decode the sexual politics involved in making some forms of representation become accepted as “natural” in mass culture while other ones are excluded. These revelations are the reward Welty reserves for us if we read even more carefully than Mrs. Pike.

“Petrified Man” is one of Welty's greatest comic stories, of course, because of its brilliant imitation of how commercial culture corrupts language and personal relations, but I have found when teaching the story that my students are as disturbed as they are amused by it; in fact, some of them find it very hard to laugh, so uneasy do they feel. Ruth Vande Kieft's comment on the story is most apt: “We can say of this story what a critic has said of the comic spirit of Jonathan Swift: it ‘frightens us out of laughter into dismay’” (Vande Kieft 65; see also Sypher 235). The story has generally been praised as an example of mimesis, the artist holding a mirror up to her culture and stunning us with the image of ourselves that we see. But the story should also be understood as a darkly comic analysis of mimesis as a Persean mirror/shield that may either paralyze or protect, depending on how it is used. Welty's gift to us, in effect, should be thought of like Athena's gift to Perseus: it allows us to “see” the paralyzing gaze of popular culture's gender stereotypes without being overcome by it. In Luce Irigaray's terms quoted in the epigraph to this section, Welty uses her skill at mimicry to unveil to us not just the beauty parlor but “the place of women's exploitation by discourse.” Like Perseus she remains “elsewhere,” her heroic critical energy distanced from such a petrifying language.

And in her lurid eyes there shone
The dying flame of life's desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy, and fierce revenge,
And strength that could not change nor tire.
Shade of a shadow in the glass,
O set the crystal surface free!
Pass—as the fairer visions pass—
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper:—“I am she!”

—Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, “The Other Side of a Mirror”

“June Recital” marks the highest achievement of Welty's tragic art in the short story form. Counterbalancing the stories of the MacLain twins in the Golden Apples sequence (it is second and they are penultimate), this story of the downfall of Miss Eckhart, Morgana's music teacher, brings into focus as none of Welty's other stories do the social pressures that ostracize a woman, forcing her to choose between marriage and monstrosity, being a lady in the parlor or a madwoman in the attic, and it allows us to define the ways in which the story of Welty's tragic heroines differs significantly from that of her male tragic protagonists.14

This feature alone would single out the story in importance, but the tale is also one in which Welty makes her most daring experiments in narrative form, especially in structure and point of view. In contrast to her approach with the MacLain twins, she chooses to tell Miss Eckhart's story from the point of view of two children, Loch and Cassie Morrison, who live next door to the MacLain house that Miss Eckhart called home for many of her years in Morgana. Cassie was one of her piano students (as was Ran MacLain, her only boy pupil), while Loch knows her from the stories Cassie has told and the town gossip he has heard. It is important to ask why Welty chose two distant points of view to present Miss Eckhart's story, rather than the more intimate method she used for the two male tragic protagonists in The Golden Apples, and I will confront this question later in this chapter.

The structure of “June Recital” is equally daring. Part I is told from Loch's point of view, first as he observes the action from a bedroom window, and then as he climbs out onto a nearby tree. Part II is told from Cassie's point of view, and focuses not on what she sees but on a strain of music she hears coming from Miss Eckhart's old piano and the flood of memories it releases for her. Part III returns to Loch in his tree; much of the action in this section is viewed upside down, as Loch hangs from a branch. Part IV begins from Cassie's point of view, as she sees Miss Eckhart and joins Loch outside of the house to identify her; then reverts briefly to Loch's point of view; then ends much later in the evening with Cassie in bed, following her thoughts just before and then after she has fallen asleep and begun dreaming. Structurally, the story moves simultaneously backward and forward in time. We first see Miss Eckhart in the “present” (the 1920s), as she returns after an absence of about half a dozen years to the site of her abandoned music studio in the MacLain house and, driven insane by what she has lost, tries to burn the house down. Her one-time star pupil, Virgie Rainey, has been in the abandoned house with her boyfriend and has played a tune on the downstairs piano that Miss Eckhart particularly associated with her. Miss Eckhart may or may not have heard Virgie play this tune (the narrative is ambiguous on this point [280-82], just as it is ambiguous as to whether Miss Eckhart knows Virgie is in the house upstairs [282]).15 But Miss Eckhart's memories of the tune are surely running powerfully through her head as she prepares her fire. Part II begins a chronicle of Miss Eckhart's history in Cassie's memory, progressing from a retelling of the town's opinions about her and the various “scandalous” events associated with her that helped drive her into exile; to a recounting of her music lessons and her rite of an annual recital in June for her pupils; to a detailed account of the single most important June recital she ever staged, in which she “graduated” and said goodbye to Virgie Rainey, who had just turned thirteen years old. Part III returns to the present and is the story's most comic section (thus Welty's use of Loch's topsy-turvy point of view.) It catalogues the slapstick attempts of two Morgana bumpkins, Old Man Moody and Fatty Bowles, to put out the fire Miss Eckhart has set. These events owe not a little to the comic interludes in Shakespearean tragedy (and to scenes such as Dogberry's in Much Ado About Nothing), and even more to the silent movie comedies Welty and her brothers loved as children, especially those with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops (One Writer's Beginnings 36). Part IV involves Miss Eckhart and Virgie, both once again targets of the town's censure as Virgie emerges from the house with her lover and Miss Eckhart is prepared to be taken away to an insane asylum in Jackson. Welty's narrative thus juxtaposes a recounting of Miss Eckhart's descent into madness with the story of her ascent to the one great moment in her life in Morgana, the June recital featuring Virgie Rainey's last concert, in which she came close to being integrated into the Morgana community. This contrapuntal interweaving of various narratives and points of view makes “June Recital” formally the most ambitious (as well as the longest) of all Welty's stories.

As Part II chronicles Miss Eckhart's history through Cassie's memories of her, it focuses primarily on the town's view of her and the scandals surrounding her, for Cassie has been much influenced by the town's (and her own parents') judgment of her former music teacher. Their list of grievances against Miss Eckhart is long. Not only is she of German descent, middle-aged and single, and living with her near-senile mother, but she is also from the North and comes to Mississippi determined not just to make her living by teaching piano but to show the status-conscious citizens of Morgana that they are really quite provincial, with little knowledge of sophisticated Old World culture, including music. Several sexual scandals associated with Miss Eckhart serve further to stigmatize her, even though she is responsible for only one of them. One evening she is assaulted by “a crazy Negro” (301), but instead of considering moving to another town or accepting the town's condolences she insists on acting as if nothing has happened. Miss Eckhart also has a romance with Mr. Sissum, the local shoe-store salesman who plays the cello, and after he is accidentally drowned she breaks free from the circle of mourners at his funeral and tries to throw herself into his grave. Finally, another roomer at Mrs. MacLain's, Mr. Voight, begins protesting the noise the music lessons make by appearing at the end of the hall during a lesson and exposing himself, bathrobe opened and face violently grimacing. Miss Eckhart threatens her pupils so they will not tell their parents, but eventually word leaks out. Miss Eckhart thus not only affronts the town's standards of proper behavior by proudly following her own private ideals of what a lady may be, but she also becomes associated with ungovernable passions, the very thing that a “lady” must avoid.

Throughout all of these scandals, the town tolerated Miss Eckhart because she had one skill that was deemed indispensable to them: she could teach their daughters the proper social skill of playing the piano. With the eruption of World War I, however, those lessons suddenly became a luxury. The war caused a crash in cotton prices throughout the South because 60 percent of its cotton was exported, primarily to Europe. With that crash came an economic crisis for at least some of Morgana's aristocratic families. Miss Eckhart loses all the pupils that she has not already lost because of earlier scandals and, to make matters worse, is suspected of sympathizing with the Germans. Simultaneously, Mrs. MacLain decides that she can no longer afford to live in the big MacLain house in town, even with the help of rent from her roomers; she moves back to her family's home in MacLain's Courthouse after selling the house to an owner who does not put up with Miss Eckhart's falling behind on her rent. Miss Eckhart thus loses her apartment and her piano studio as well as her students and is forced to move into a rundown, one-room apartment in the Holifield's on the outskirts of town. An early draft of the story has this apartment located “down near the edge of nigger-town,” stressing even more strongly Miss Eckhart's ostracism in the eyes of the town's whites. The same draft makes the circumstances of Miss Eckhart's move even more clearly sordid in the townspeople's eyes: “Miss Eckhart was put out of the house and her piano and many of her possessions kept behind to pay for a whole year's rent she owed.” The published version's account is slightly less harsh (307).16

Even at the height of her power in Morgana, the very name by which Miss Eckhart is known proclaims her foreignness. Married women from the best families in Morgana are still properly addressed using their first name and their maiden name, as with Miss Snowdie Hudson (Mrs. King MacLain) or Miss Billy Texas (Mrs. Felix Spights). Such a custom both acknowledges their status as married women yet preserves their earlier position as leading members of some of the town's most important families—a position that they are expected to preserve after their marriage. The practice pays homage to the belief that a woman from the town's aristocracy gives up none of the power and prerogatives that she had as an eligible daughter when she marries. Yet though this practice can properly be called “matriarchal” because it proclaims the importance of original family ties and the network of friendships that women have established among themselves in Morgana, it also concedes that their groups remain subordinate to the male institutions of marriage and the church: the courtesy title “Miss,” their first names, and their “maiden” names belong to the women, so to speak, and are used when they address each other, but their last names remain their husbands' and are used in those situations where their husbands' power must be acknowledged. (Women with decidedly lower social status, such as Maideen Sumrall of “The Whole World Knows,” are apparently never addressed as “Miss” and will lose their maiden names altogether upon marrying, as if their families' names were not important enough to preserve.)

Miss Eckhart, in contrast, is called “Miss” simply because she has not married, and this is always coupled, at her own request, with her last name, never her first name. Such a procedure immortalizes her foreignness and her spinsterhood, and it also signifies her permanent social exile: she must always be addressed formally, never intimately. Although one of the story's characters, Missie Spights, argues that this formality became the custom at Miss Eckhart's own insistence, her words show that Miss Eckhart's isolation was not solely of her own making: “if Miss Eckhart had allowed herself to be called by her first name, then she would have been like other ladies. Or if Miss Eckhart had belonged to a church that had ever been heard of [she is Lutheran, the rest either Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist], and the ladies would have had something to invite her to belong to. … Or if she had been married to anybody at all, just the awfullest man—like Miss Snowdie MacLain, that everybody could feel sorry for” (308). The town would be willing to accept a newcomer as a proper lady or as a martyr who will accept their pity, but it must be on their terms, not hers, and Miss Eckhart will not accommodate them. Her name, like her church, is “unheard of” in Morgana; it represents as much a violation of the town's rules of speech as her life does its rules of good behavior.

What makes Miss Eckhart's name intolerable for the women of Morgana is not that she does not allow her first name to be used but that her name forces the other aristocratic women of the town to feel very strongly the contradictions commemorated by their own custom of compromise linking matriarchal lineage and power (“Miss Snowdie”) with patriarchal power (“Miss Snowdie MacLain”). Most of the time (and always when they are together), the women act as if matriarchal power is dominant, speaking of themselves using the first name and “Miss,” the sign of aristocratic standing. It is only when they must concede that this separate women's sphere is bounded by a patriarchal one that they introduce the woman's “married” name to which their matriarchal names must be subordinate. (Thus Miss Snowdie is called Miss Snowdie MacLain in the above comment of Missie Spights, which alludes to the ways she has suffered because of her husband King MacLain.) Hence Miss Eckhart's name for herself does not merely reject Morgana's naming customs for women—it exposes the contradictions at their heart. Miss Eckhart refuses to use her first name, the heart of where matriarchal signifying power resides, and she taints the honorary title “Miss” with suggestions of spinsterhood, eccentricity, and poverty. Just as badly, she uses her last name to signify her special status in the town, her aristocratic “difference.” Morgana's ladies find such a transgression of their naming system unforgivable and threatening.

Also “unheard of” and threatening is the fact that Miss Eckhart picks up “associates” or her “people” (308) only through her work. The unwritten social rules of the town dictate that women's socializing should not occur except through events centered around gatherings such as parlor parties, church going, political speeches, concerts, family gatherings, marriages, and funerals. Miss Eckhart's social contacts are arranged by her alone, without the supervision of either the matriarchal or patriarchal power structures in the town, and she has the gall to appear to want no relationships other than those with her pupils, especially her star student, Virgie Rainey. When such independence is coupled with the fact that she is unmarried, her close contact with her female pupils becomes vaguely ominous—as much an affront to proper womanhood as the sexual scandals surrounding her. This comes to be true even though she is teaching her girls the eminently ladylike art of piano playing: her relations with her students are too intense and too unsupervised.

It is Miss Eckhart's relationship with Virgie that makes these “unheard of” fears heard and spoken repeatedly in the town's gossip. Everything that must be repressed in her public life in town is channeled into her friendship with Virgie. Virgie both courts and resists Miss Eckhart's attention. She is honored by it but also threatened by it, for Miss Eckhart's standards seem so different and so much more exacting than those she is used to, and they tempt her into thinking that what the other women of the town believe is important is not important at all. She willfully breaks rules that Miss Eckhart has laid down for her students, arriving late for lessons, banging her bicycle against the porch, rolling up her music instead of carrying it in a portfolio, and, one day, refusing to play another note with that “thing”—Miss Eckhart's prized metronome—in front of her face (293). As passionate and independent as her teacher, Virgie quickly finds that she can exploit Miss Eckhart's devotion to her. Showing her “weak place” (293) to the other girls gives Virgie something she cannot get any other way. She may be the daughter of one of the town's poorer families, but by exhibiting her ability to flout Miss Eckhart's rules she gains a measure of status that even her superior piano playing can never give her: she becomes a leader for all the girls, even those from the best families.

The town christens Virgie with a special name that is as “unheard of” as her teacher's—and, like hers, it reflects their uneasiness as well as their sense of superiority. Miss Eckhart always praises Virgie's skill in playing by saying “Virgie Rainey Danke schoen” [“thank you”]. This compliment perfectly captures the special nature of her tribute. By using her native tongue, Miss Eckhart hints that Virgie is the only student whom she will ever allow to share a part of her life and language, the skill and passion of her art. The poignant, old-fashioned formality of the phrase suggests that in none of her other relations with the townspeople of Morgana has she received something for which she is as grateful as Virgie's gift. All her other daily “thank you's” to merchants and acquaintances are mere commonplaces compared with the passion of her compliment to Virgie. It is as if Virgie has given her a reason for living—has made worthwhile all the drudgery and disillusionment of teaching classical music in a small provincial southern town.

Morgana's children and adults know of Miss Eckhart's compliments to Virgie and, in mock tribute, call Virgie by the new nickname whenever she acts unconventionally: “they just added that onto Virgie's name in the school yard. She was Virgie Rainey Danke schoen when she jumped hot pepper or fought the boys, when she had to sit down the very first one in the spelling match for saying, ‘E-a-r, ear, r-a-k-e, rake, ear-ache’ (291). The townspeople's adoption of Miss Eckhart's name for Virgie, ironic as it is, shows more than mere disdain for her standards. Miss Eckhart's compliment to Virgie (like the women's custom of calling married women “Miss”) commemorates the importance of friendships between women. Unlike the ladies' practice, Miss Eckhart's does not even provisionally make itself subordinate to anything; it is a potentially revolutionary form of naming, a passionate proclamation of the importance of bonds between women in spite of their obligations to be ladies, wives, and mothers. When Miss Eckhart compliments Virgie in her frighteningly “foreign” voice, she is implicitly naming other “unheard of” things—the existence of women's repressed voices, hidden identities, and potential power. She intends to teach Virgie to discover such a voice for herself, to make the unheard heard. “Virgie would be heard from in the world, playing that [piano piece], Miss Eckhart said, revealing to children with one ardent cry her lack of knowledge of the world. How could Virgie be heard from, in the world? And ‘the world’! Where did Miss Eckhart think she was now? Virgie Rainey, she repeated over and over, had a gift, and she must go away from Morgana” (303).

A passage on this matter cut from a draft of “June Recital” is even more explicit: “There had been without anyone's expecting it almost an equality between Virgie Rainey and Miss Eckhart that made looking-down-on and looking-up-to impossible. Maybe from the start, there had been nothing to disavow their equality, and leniency, and love, except the thanking. When Miss Eckhart had said, ‘Virgie Rainey, danke schoen,’ she held apart and kept at bay the fiercest spirits … the fiercest Sally [Cassie] knew.” When Virgie torments Miss Eckhart, she does so partly because, like the townspeople alluded to in these passages, she mocks Miss Eckhart's pretensions. But she also does so because she fears the consequences of discovering such a voice and “fierce spirit” within herself—fears that such hidden powers may bring estrangement and unhappiness to her as they did to her music teacher. Like the phrase “Miss Snowdie MacLain,” the phrase “Virgie Rainey Danke schoen” expresses strong tension among its parts and points to intolerable contradictions within girls' and women's identities as they are defined in Morgana.

Miss Eckhart has created one event in which the town must concede her some public form of power: the annual recital in June that her pupils give in her cramped studio in the MacLain house. It is the one time in which the rest of the town may enter her private world, the one time when her authority is recognized and even celebrated. In revising the story, Welty made many of her changes in the section describing the concerts, especially Virgie's climactic one; she added detail after detail, greatly increasing the scene's length and prominence (308-15). In the month leading up to the concert, Miss Eckhart seems to be the schoolmistress of the entire town, defining the rules and instructing all on their proper behavior. In fact, she has all the authority of a bride who is planning the arrangements before she is married. But Miss Eckhart's authority is temporary and special, something given to her in May and June as if to compensate for her powerlessness during the other months, and the importance of the event for the townspeople is predominantly social, not artistic. It has nothing to do with Miss Eckhart's desire to make a student like Virgie be “heard from” but merely with the townspeople's desire to display what new social skills and formal dresses their daughters have acquired during the past year. “Miss Eckhart decided early in the spring what color each child should wear, with what color sash and hair ribbon, and sent written word to the mother. … And it could seldom be worn again; certainly not to another recital—by then an ‘old’ dress. A recital dress was fuller and had more trimming than a Sunday dress. It was like a flower girl's dress in a wedding” (309). The women of the town feel comfortable giving Miss Eckhart “special dispensation” (309) because the form of the recital really commemorates their power, not hers. Not only is she dependent upon the other women to make the dresses, but she is now expressing herself in a “language” that is no longer unheard of: “this was the kind of thing that both Miss Perdita and most mothers understood immediately” (309). Thus even though the mothers speak of being scared by Miss Eckhart in May and June, they also trust that they are more in control of Miss Eckhart then than at any other time.

There is another reason that the authority Miss Eckhart has during her June recitals is unthreatening: she publicly concedes that her authority over her girls ceases once they enter adolescence. Virgie's last recital, Welty pointedly notes, comes when she is thirteen (313). After that, an unwritten rule says that all girls must break their ties with Miss Eckhart and enter fully into the adult world of womanhood defined by Morgana society—the matriarchal world of parlors and church socials that exists carefully subordinate to the more powerful patriarchal institutions of family and church and jobs and schools of higher learning.

Welty's chronicling of how Cassie Morrison wins a music scholarship illustrates how this process works. Miss Eckhart's star pupil continues to play piano after “graduating” from Miss Eckhart's school, but instead of making her special or giving her a voice (as Miss Eckhart hoped it would) her employment merely signifies that she has fallen in status in her classmates' eyes: “Virgie Rainey worked. Not at teaching. She played the piano for the picture show, both shows every night, and got six dollars a week, and was not popular any more” (286). She receives no scholarship to college; her church (Methodist) does not offer one. The less talented Cassie Morrison, on the other hand, belongs to the most prestigious church in Morgana, the Presbyterian, and their church deacons do give music scholarships. (Miss Eckhart, in revenge, gives Virgie an emblem of their private bond, a silver brooch shaped like a butterfly, to commemorate her leaving.) Miss Eckhart's “graduation ceremony” of the June recital therefore marks the moment when her pupils pass from the control of their private music teacher, a surrogate mother-figure, into the supervision of institutions that are public and patriarchal—the churches and schools that will “complete” their initiation into adulthood. Such a rite of passage thus anticipates the later, most crucial one that they will make when they leave the woman's sphere of their adolescence (represented by their bridesmaids' dresses at the music recitals) to take a husband's name and accept his authority.

Of course, each girl is not the “bride” in the June recital, Miss Eckhart is: she is the one who orders all the “bride's-maids'” dresses. There are several possible ways to interpret this. The townspeople surely see it as another example of Miss Eckhart's self-delusion: a pathetically comic attempt to give her “graduations” the importance of a marriage and thus an attempt to recoup some of the status and power that derives from marrying well. The town tolerates such displays of her ego because the very form they allow her defines the limits of her power. For Miss Eckhart, however, her June ceremony has as many hidden meanings as her phrase “Virgie Rainey, Danke schoen”—meanings that subvert those that the town allows her. She treats the event as if she really is “married” to the role of music teacher. Such seriousness is troubling because it does not seem entirely to recognize a higher, patriarchal authority. Even in the midst of the social spectacle of the June recital, Miss Eckhart's demeanor proclaims the self-sufficiency of her bond with her students and the fact that she feels bound to teach her best students not just social skills but the ability to discover a decidedly individual, independent, and “unheard of” voice—at whatever cost. As an informal institution, therefore, Miss Eckhart's June recital has precisely the same kind of tension that exists in the ladies' conventions for naming themselves. It should be understood to function both as a concession to superior patriarchal power and as a matriarchal bond that (potentially at least) may subvert the status quo rather than signify subordination to it.

Such possibly subversive readings of the marriage symbolism in Miss Eckhart's June recital are duplicated by a secret ritual that Miss Eckhart and Virgie invent for themselves. On the top of the piano during the public recital would always stand the sign of Miss Eckhart's authority, her metronome, closed and locked. After each pupil's playing, she would be given a florist's bouquet by her teacher, hold it “for a count of three,” and then return it to Miss Eckhart, who would place it on the floor to one side, gradually forming a crescent moon design (310). In Virgie's private lessons before she orders her teacher to hide the metronome, however, Virgie and Miss Eckhart spontaneously invent a ritual that can be interpreted as a kind of counter-marriage ceremony, a secret enactment expressing just the sort of passionate bonding that makes Morgana uneasy. Virgie often brings Miss Eckhart a bouquet of stolen magnolia flowers and leaves, not a florist's bouquet, and Miss Eckhart would arrange it around the base of the metronome on top of the piano (283, 290, 321). The metronome's obelisk signifies the absolute authority that Miss Eckhart wields over her girls during the privacy of their lessons; both its shape and its function make it rather phallic. The magnolia flower and leaves, in contrast, seem “feminine” and are arranged so that the obelisk penetrates their center. But pondering the possible sexual connotations of this arrangement may be less fruitful than considering its social meanings. As a private variation of the recital's public ritual, it celebrates all the “unheard of” things a bond between women may discover. It recognizes no boundaries to a woman's authority, no patriarchal supervision.

After Miss Eckhart loses her pupils and is forced to move to the edge of town, she “would be seen from time to time walking into Morgana, up one side of the street and down the other and home” (307). On each trip she passes the MacLain house, trying to relive the time when she taught there. On one of those visits, coincidentally, she apparently passes by just as Virgie is playing Beethoven's Für Elise again on the abandoned piano in the old studio. (It is a piece that Miss Eckhart and the other pupils particularly associate with Virgie.) Virgie has secretly sneaked back into the house with her boyfriend in order to show the place to him and make love on an old broken bed directly upstairs from Miss Eckhart's abandoned music studio. Miss Eckhart turns and enters the house (Virgie and her boyfriend have gone upstairs again by this time) and feverishly begins to gather old newspapers to decorate the studio as if for another triumphant recital. She tears up the newspapers and hangs a series of streamers from the central chandelier—just as she did during her June recitals. “As Loch leaned his chin in his palm at the window and watched, it seemed strangely as if he had seen this whole thing before. The old woman was decorating the piano until it rayed out like a Christmas tree or a Maypole. Maypole ribbons of newspaper and tissue paper streamed and crossed each other from the piano to the chandelier and festooned again to the four corners of the room, looped to the backs of chairs here and there” (283).

It is not certain that Miss Eckhart in her derangement actually realizes that Virgie is in the house, but it is hard to believe that she can be oblivious to Virgie's presence: Virgie and her boyfriend are described as dancing and laughing just one floor above the very room in which Miss Eckhart is working [282].) Miss Eckhart's arrangement of newspapers at first is described as if it were festive, like a “Christmas tree or a Maypole” (283). She even improvises a Maypole crown out of a magnolia branch and places it on the piano around the metronome. This special decoration of the metronome did not occur in the public June recitals (312), and thus for the first time Miss Eckhart is merging her public June recital rituals with her private magnolia ritual for Virgie: it is a desperate attempt to relive the most significant private and public moments of her life in Morgana.

The lines from Yeats's poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” that figure so prominently in the story commemorate Miss Eckhart's love for Virgie:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


Virgie's fellow pupil Cassie recalls these lines when she hears Virgie playing Für Elise on the old piano next door near the moment when Miss Eckhart is passing by the house. Cassie remembers them because their tender melancholy is shared by Beethoven's piece, but the lines describe Miss Eckhart's passion for Virgie as well. Like Aengus, she also near the end of her life tries to recapture a girl—one who has vanished into adulthood, not into Yeats's brightening air. And like Aengus she is trapped in time while desperately trying to transcend it. The syntax of Yeats's last sentence moves from a present tense in which the speaker concedes his age (“Though I am old”) to the future tense (“I will find out”) to a clause in which the speaker wills the illusion of living in an eternal present: “And pluck till time and times are done.” By returning to the house and recreating her private and public recital rituals as if on cue from Für Elise, Miss Eckhart seeks to do the same thing. But in the face of evidence that her pupil has grown up, left her, and renounced her art—the dilapidated house, abandoned piano, and the sounds of Virgie romping upstairs with her boyfriend—she can only give in to her anger and despair.

Another line in the poem that Cassie Morrison does not remember right away is relevant: “Because a fire was in my head.” In the Yeats poem it initiates and continues the action; it drives Aengus out into the night even before he meets the faery girl, and it inspires him afterwards on his lifelong quest to find her again. In Welty's story, in contrast, the line alludes to Miss Eckhart catching her hair on fire, her tragic decision to destroy what she cannot keep by burning down the house. In despair, she wants to turn the one golden apple in her life—her bond with Virgie—into ashes. An early draft of the story's end reveals that Welty originally had Cassie remembering and quoting the entire last stanza of Yeats's poem (quoted above). She then changed this to Cassie's quoting the earlier line in the poem about fire, to emphasize Miss Eckhart's passion and self-destructiveness.

By imbedding Yeats's poem within a story about the social and historical context that constrains Miss Eckhart's dream, Welty gives Aengus' quest meanings that it does not have in Yeats's poem. She makes it clear that we should not read Miss Eckhart's actions merely as a deranged and arrogant protest against nature—against Virgie's growing up. For her pyromania is also fired by anger against the society that has ostracized her. Her reenactment of her June recital seeks revenge against the social standards of Morgana that were threatened by her independence and her desire to give her girls an independent voice. In her delusion she tries to attack the town's entire social structure, to burn down the house of one of Morgana's best families and (symbolically) all of Morgana itself.

Miss Eckhart is not just attacking Morgana, admittedly; she is also attempting suicide. The final target of her anger is thus not Virgie or Morgana, but herself. Like the heroine in Welty's story “Clytie” from A Curtain of Green, but much more complexly, Miss Eckhart has so absorbed her society's judgments against her that she guiltily directs her anger inwards as well as outwards: she rages not only at others but at her own rage. For this reason, several crucial images in “June Recital” and The Golden Apples make it clear that the stories of Fata Morgana and the Medusa are as relevant to Miss Eckhart's life as the Gaelic or Greek myths about the golden apples. Like Clytie's suicidal despair, Miss Eckhart's is caused because despite all her efforts she has absorbed Morgana's image of herself as a monstrous enchantress of their children, a Fata Morgana. Welty has said that one of the reasons she picked the name “Morgana” for her imaginary town in The Golden Apples was because it reminded her of Fata Morgana or “mirage”—thus implying that Morgana's carefully ordered social world, powerful as it is, is illusory.17 The phrase is also associated with dangerous female supernatural beings such as Fata Morgana in Ariosto, Morgan le Fay in English legends, and (because Morgana was said to be in league with the infernal deity Demogorgon) the three Gorgons, including Medusa. Of all the women in Morgana, only Miss Eckhart has enough isolation and power to qualify her to be compared with such demonic figures. Cassie Morrison's mother describes her studio as being like the witch's house in Hansel and Gretel, “including the witch” (288), but because of the prominence of the Perseus myth in The Golden Apples (especially in “The Wanderers”), Medusa's story is the most germane of all. Miss Eckhart's unmarried and isolated life, her unfashionable and sometimes frightening appearance, her temper, and her dangerous powers all make Morgana's other women think of her as if she were their resident Gorgon.

One scene in “June Recital” illustrates with particular poignancy how Morgana links Miss Eckhart and Medusa. Ironically, this linkage is perpetrated by Virgie herself—an act of mockery and rebellion prompted by her own fears that when she grows up her rebelliousness may make her a Gorgon as well. The incident occurs when Virgie is still Miss Eckhart's pupil, during an outdoor summer evening concert in the Starks' yard in which Mr. Sissum plays the cello while Miss Eckhart watches in the audience. Virgie has discovered that Miss Eckhart is “sweet” on him (296), but her preternatural intelligence also guesses correctly that it will be a doomed love affair. She performs a mock Maypole ritual at Miss Eckhart's expense—and in the process parodies her own magnolia ritual as well.

Virgie put a loop of clover chain down over Miss Eckhart's head, her hat—her one hat—and all. She hung Miss Eckhart with flowers, while Mr. Sissum plucked the strings up above her. Miss Eckhart sat on, perfectly still and submissive. She gave no sign. She let the clover chain come down and lie on her breast.

Virgie laughed delightedly and with her long chain in her hand ran around and around her, binding her up with clovers. Miss Eckhart let her head roll back, and then Cassie felt that the teacher was filled with terror, perhaps with pain. She found it so easy—ever since Virgie showed her—to feel terror and pain in an outsider; in someone you did not know at all well, pain made you wonderfully sorry. It was not so easy to be sorry about it in the people close to you.


It is hard to know how to interpret this scene, since Virgie's actions seem such a mixture of tenderness and aggressive mockery, but Cassie's intimation that something in Virgie's gesture fills Miss Eckhart with terror and pain is crucial. Like Morgana's attempts to pity Miss Eckhart, this one succeeds in freezing her into the image of a grotesque “outsider,” a pathetic, fat old maid with only “one hat,” wilting flowers on her breast, and only a failed love affair and scandal to her name. Virgie's act is unconsciously rather than consciously cruel, but it nonetheless transforms her teacher into something pathetic, a scapegoat for Virgie's own fears that any woman who discovers an “unheard of” voice within herself will be ostracized. By doing so, Virgie's seemingly innocent ritual acts out what Morgana has been doing to Miss Eckhart over many years and would continue with even more intensity once Miss Eckhart loses her pupils and her livelihood: Virgie freezes her into an image of Medusa's terror, pain, and monstrosity.

Such a reading of the scene may seem too somber and too negative regarding Virgie's motives, but readers who are skeptical should consider the way in which Welty has framed this episode. Near its beginning is a reference to a statue of a “goddess” (possibly Venus) on the Starks' lawn near Miss Eckhart (297). This detail was added only during a late stage of revision (the statue was originally of a Confederate soldier) and serves to heighten the contrast between ideal images of women and Miss Eckhart. The scene is closed by recounting the story of Mr. Sissum's giving Miss Eckhart a funny, ugly “Billikin” doll that made her laugh in a “distorted” way until she began crying (298-99). Miss Eckhart clearly responds to the doll this way because she identifies it with her own “funny and ugly”—and monstrous—image in the eyes of Morgana. A later passage in the story that is also about Miss Eckhart's self-image supports such a reading: the narrator says that Miss Eckhart at her recitals “called up the pictures on those little square party invitations, the brown bear in a frill and the black poodle standing on a chair to shave at a mirror” (311). This sentence, like the phrase about the “goddess” statue, was added in revision to clarify how Morgana judges Miss Eckhart's appearance. Both this passage and the Billikin one treat Miss Eckhart as a circus act, a sideshow grotesque, half-human and half-animal. When Miss Eckhart tries to burn herself to death, therefore, she appears to be trying to find peace by destroying the monstrous half-animal self—the Fata Morgana or Medusa—that Morgana has made her believe she has become.

Unlike the other stories about madness in The Golden Apples, “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain,” “June Recital” is not written from the point of view of its principal character. Miss Eckhart's plight is instead presented through the eyes of two children, Loch and Cassie Morrison, who unwittingly represent society's view of her. The result is to distance us from her inner life; we must work our way through society's view of her as a rather comically demented creature before we can come to know her on her own terms.

Cassie and Loch Morrison are privileged observers because they both happen to be in their bedrooms in their house next door the night Miss Eckhart tries to burn the MacLain house down. Loch treats the events merely as an exciting adventure that he may spy on using his father's telescope from his bedroom window. He laughs at Miss Eckhart's incompetence when trying to start a fire and at the bumbling rescue attempts staged by two men who wander on the scene. In the end, as she is being taken away, her hair scorched by the fire and her mind incoherent, Loch is largely oblivious to all that has happened. Instead, he is deliriously happy because he has gotten Miss Eckhart's metronome, which he thinks is a mysterious new kind of bomb. Loch's point of view here is hardly censured by Welty; rather, it is presented as the natural kind of interest that a young boy would have in a house burning, but the comical way in which Loch regards Miss Eckhart as a freak is in fact not unrelated to the townspeople's view of her; it just represents this view in an exaggerated form. (In fact, when Loch climbs out onto a tree to hang upside down to view the happenings in the house next door, Welty seems to be wryly implying that the town's seemingly mature and reasonable opinions of Miss Eckhart's eccentricities may be as skewed a view of her as Loch's).18

Cassie Morrison's memories of Miss Eckhart are even more closely associated with the views of Morgana society. The point of view of “June Recital” shifts from Loch's to hers as soon as Virgie begins to play Für Elise (285), for Cassie was a student with Virgie and the melody brings back memories of Miss Eckhart that Loch cannot have. Through Cassie's recollections and a series of flashbacks, Miss Eckhart's history is presented even as (unknown to Cassie, who is not watching the events as her brother is) she is preparing to set the house on fire. The effect is a heart-wrenching juxtaposition between past and present—Cassie's remembering Miss Eckhart at the height of her power during her June recitals while Loch is seeing her inverted, in the depths of her madness. Cassie is rather frightened by the intensity of the memories that Für Elise recalls, for she principally remembers Miss Eckhart as an unfashionable and slightly demonic woman, someone for a proper girl to keep at a distance, not to use as a role model: “There could have been for Miss Eckhart a little opening wedge—a crack in the door. … But if I had been the one to see it open, [Cassie] thought slowly, I might have slammed it tight for ever. I might” (308).

When Cassie first hears Virgie playing Für Elise, she is trying on different kinds of make-up and tie-dyeing a scarf in preparation for a date, and also thinking of what clothes she will take to college with her music scholarship in the fall. She instinctively seeks to place as much distance as possible between her success and the unfashionable nonconformity of Miss Eckhart and Virgie: “Cassie edged back to the window, while her heart sank, praying that she would not catch sight of Virgie Rainey or, especially, that Virgie Rainey would not catch sight of her” (286). When Cassie finally goes to the window at the end of the story and sees Miss Eckhart being dragged away, she recognizes her only by her slim ankles, the one conventionally “feminine” and fashionable feature about her that had always been praised (324). At that moment she also sympathizes with her plight and blames herself, Virgie, and all Morgana for forcing her into being a Medusa. Cassie calls it cruelly “placing” her: “People saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mothers' people. Then Morgana could hold them, and at last they were this and they were that” (325).19

Even though “June Recital” is narrated using a third-person, “omniscient” voice, that voice, like Cassie herself, actually contains multiple intonations and inflections; it hardly represents a single perspective. We need only listen carefully to the story's narration to discern its hidden dissonances—the same kind of dissonances that are present in phrases like “Miss Snowdie MacLain” and “Virgie Rainey, Danke schoen.” On one level, we can pick out the self-satisfied voice of Morgana (and Cassie at her most conventional) through the narrator's purported omniscience: “Perhaps nobody wanted Virgie Rainey to be anything in Morgana any more than they wanted Miss Eckhart to be, and they were the two of them still linked together by people's saying that. How much might depend on people's being linked together? Even Miss Snowdie [MacLain] had a little harder time than she had had already with Ran and Scooter, her bad boys, by being linked with roomers and music lessons and Germans” (306).

On another level, this passage reveals that even Cassie herself is fascinated with what social ostracism may bring, largely against her will: in asking “how much might depend on people's being linked together?” she reluctantly takes the first steps towards questioning Morgana's self-righteous judgments. The tone of such a question (not to mention its dangerous implications) stands in dissonant contrast to the more self-righteous inflection of the next sentence, pursing its lips in disdain over “roomers and music lessons and Germans.” The narrator's voice throughout “June Recital” thus functions as a kind of tragic (or tragicomic) chorus, commenting upon the tragic protagonist's story from the periphery and acting as a spokesperson for society's most widely shared points of view. As in Greek tragedy it is the tragic protagonist's fate to expose the threatening divisions and dissonances—what Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia”—within the supposedly unified voice of the chorus.20

Is it merely a coincidence that the tragic stories of Ran and Eugene in The Golden Apples are presented “directly,” focusing on their points of view, whereas Miss Eckhart's is not? Welty of course had presented directly the story of a woman's inner torment before, using a guilty monologue in a story like “Why I Live at the P.O.” and a third person narrator who restricted herself to the point of view of the protagonist in “Clytie.” Welty surely could intend the elaborate distancing techniques of “June Recital” merely to contrast with the stream-of-consciousness in Ran's and Eugene's narratives—such variety works well for the balance of The Golden Apples as a whole, after all. Yet her decision to create an “outside” rather than “inside” narrative underlines the contrasting patterns of behavior in her male and female tragic characters: men wander, women are confined. Ran MacLain and Tom Harris (“The Hitch-Hikers”) try to flee a society that they see as being governed by oppressive maternal presences, whereas Welty's tragic heroines from Clytie to Old Addie to Miss Eckhart are imprisoned within the walls of their society's expectations, able to subvert them secretly, perhaps, but still forced to remain their prisoner. Such dramatically different fates conform to the different stereotypes that govern the society that Welty depicts. Men are expected to be independent, even though such “freedom” may be achieved merely by negating all forms of human sympathy, while women are expected to sacrifice themselves for others, even though such a form of responsibility may result in imprisoning the self entirely within conventional roles. The stereotypes of male self-indulgence and female self-sacrifice are ultimately just as constricting, admittedly; Tom Harris or Ran MacLain in their motel rooms are no less prisoners of their psyches than Miss Eckhart is when she shuts herself up in her “airless” (285) studio with her piano to burn the house down. Yet the dramatic ironies of these confinements are not equivalent and portray the distinct ways in which male and female stereotypes wound Welty's tragic characters. If both Welty's male and female tragic heroes are imprisoned, therefore, her men are trapped within the illusion of their freedom, their belief that they may erase their identities and start over, whereas her women are trapped within the illusion of their guilt, their belief that their inner as well as outer selves are monstrous. The different forms of third-person narrative and first-person monologue that Welty chose for “June Recital” and “The Whole World Knows” ably dramatize the gender difference she perceives in the genre of tragedy.

One element does unite Welty's male and female tragic heroes: they experience no recognition scene, at least in the classic sense. Unlike, say, the recognition by Oedipus that the entire identity that he has constructed as Oedipus the King is a delusion, no such moment of self-knowledge is experienced by Miss Eckhart, Ran MacLain, Clytie, Howard, or Tom Harris. They remain caught within their delusions and their hubris—just on the verge of uncovering the sources of their torment, but never doing so. Her tragic character are forced to endure forever the “wandering” of their souls that leads them into the darkest parts of their psyches. Their experience is analogous to Oedipus' first inkling that he may be guilty:

                                        O dear Jocasta,
as I hear this from you, there comes upon me
a wandering of the soul—I could run mad.

(ll. 725-27)

Unlike Oedipus, they are never able to “bear witness” (l. 1384) against themselves or against their society. The blinding insight of the recognition scene is experienced not by the hero and only partially by the “chorus.” The burden of its meanings lies predominantly on us, the audience. Only we are able to bear witness to the tragedy's causes.

“June Recital” brings to a culmination all of Welty's earlier stories about women who become mad. Like Mrs. Larkin, Mrs. Marblehall, Clytie, and the two women in “A Visit of Charity,” Miss Eckhart has had to imprison an inner self that society has refused to accommodate. The many earlier descriptions of obsessive activity within enclosed spaces, of anger, fire, hidden voices, and the terrifying face of madness, all resurface to stunning effect in “June Recital.” Of all the stories that analyze the social causes of these nightmares, “June Recital” is by far the most detailed and ambitious. We see her despair grow with heartbreaking clarity, are forced to trace its sources and consider how its example influences the next generation of women in Morgana—the Cassie Morrisons and Virgie Raineys. Above all, in “June Recital” we hear that woman's potentially subversive inner voice in all its power.

One summer morning, a sudden storm had rolled up. …

Miss Eckhart, without saying what she was going to do, poked her finger solidly along the pile of music on top of the piano, pulled out a piece [a sonata by Beethoven], and sat down on her own stool. …

The piece was so hard that she made mistakes and repeated to correct them, so long and stirring that it soon seemed longer than the day itself had been, and in playing it Miss Eckhart assumed an entirely different face.

… The face could have belonged to someone else—not even to a woman necessarily. It was the face a mountain could have, or what might be seen behind the veil of a waterfall. There in the rainy light it was a sightless face, one for music only. … And if the sonata had an origin in a place on earth, it was the place where Virgie, even, had never been and was not likely ever to go.


Miss Eckhart's—and Morgana's—tragedies are that such inner energy must remain “veiled”; its restless authority frightens her students, the townspeople, and even herself.

Miss Eckhart's former pupil Cassie Morrison may for the most part see her stereotypically in “June Recital,” but she does have moments in the story when she understands her inner life and feels the attraction of its power. When she returns from a date later that night after the fire has been put out and Miss Eckhart taken away to the insane asylum, she has a vision of Miss Eckhart's face rising before her in the window, watching her. The last sentences of the story move from Cassie's conscious thoughts of Miss Eckhart's to her unconscious ones: “She slept, but sat up in bed once and said aloud, ‘Because a fire was in my head.’ Then she fell back unresisting. She did not see except in dreams that a face looked in; that it was the grave, unappeased, and radiant face, once more and always, the face that was in the poem” (330). Like the face of the faery that captures Aengus' heart in the Yeats poem, this face forever haunts the viewer after it is seen, but it is monstrous as well as beautiful, “unappeased” and mad. Its radiance suggests inner power but also inner torment—the face of Miss Eckhart inside the burning house with her hair on fire (322). (Compare the Mary Elizabeth Coleridge poem on a similar subject, used as an epigraph to this section.) The disturbing memory of Miss Eckhart is thus buried within her female pupils and may surface even when they are acting most conventionally, as Cassie is through most of the story. It is also not merely a memory of their teacher but, even more disturbingly, of another “voice” that Miss Eckhart tried to teach them to have, a voice that they have all partially or wholly suppressed in order to blend their voices into the chorus of their society.

In the stories considered in the next chapter, the heroines at last are able to come to terms with the veiled image of the Medusa that has haunted so many of Welty's strong heroines. They become Perseus figures as well as Medusa figures: that is, they learn to control or limit society's ability to cast a rebellious woman as a Medusa. Comedies rather than tragedies, these stories do feature recognition scenes, but unlike the recognition scenes of tragedy, they reveal sources for a new identity rather than the causes that destroyed the old. Their rebellious protagonists are at least partially accepted as role models for their communities, not treated as monsters or scapegoats. Thus they begin to build with their own force of will and imagination “a place on earth” where power such as Miss Eckhart's can survive.


  1. I.A4 Jackson, Marrs 31-32. Three readings of “Flowers of Marjorie” are by Vande Kieft 17-19; Appel 20-23; and Manning 9-10. All three critics seem rather uneasy with the story, however, and Manning goes so far as to argue that its form and content should be separated: “Rather than being much disturbed by Howard's or other characters' predicaments … we applaud the author's clever imagination and enjoy the stories as stories.” McDonald's article on Welty's revisions of “Flowers for Marjorie” focuses on the first half of the story and carefully contrasts the Prairie Schooner and Curtain of Green versions.

    “Acrobats in a Park,” which Welty dates as “probably” from 1935, is another early story about a man's fear of a woman's pregnancy; Welty originally included it next to “Flowers for Marjorie” in the Curtain of Green typescript before removing it in favor of “A Worn Path,” the superior story that she chose to end the volume. In “Acrobats” a husband and wife are part of an acrobatic circus team that creates a human arch, but the husband does not want a child and thinking of her pregnancy in the midst of a performance causes him to shudder and make the arch collapse: “Last night, it was a difference in the weight, the moisture, and temperature of her body when she stepped into his hand that drove catastrophe into his very center.” (Note that the pattern of a man stabbing or shooting a woman in the Collected Stories is here reversed: the wife's pregnancy is felt by the husband to be “stabbing” him.) The story has been published in the French journal Delta 5 (1977): 1-11. See also Graham's essay on “Acrobats” in the same issue of Delta. My thoughts throughout this chapter and the next on men's vs. women's behavior in Welty's works have been influenced by Prenshaw's essay “Woman's World, Man's Place”; Kerr's “The World of Eudora Welty's Women”; Bolsterli's “Woman's Vision”; and Evans's “Eudora Welty and the Dutiful Daughter,” along with the particular sources cited below.

  2. Appendix B, I.D.h Texas, Marrs 229.

  3. Further circumstantial evidence in “June Recital” that Loch may be King's son includes the fact that the Morrison's black servant, Loella, calls him an orphan immediately after Loch and his mother have been discussing King's appearance, and (as Appel points out) that Loch's mother pointedly calls him “my” child in Cassie's presence, as if her relation to Cassie is not as close because Cassie's father is Wilbur Morrison. None of the evidence is conclusive, of course. For one discussion of the evidence for which of the characters may be King's unknown children, see Appel 205-37.

  4. Welty has noted frequently how unpredictable and intense an experience writing The Golden Apples was: for representative comments, see Prenshaw, Conversations 43, 326 and One Writer's Beginnings 98-102. The best general discussion of The Golden Apples in a book on Welty remains Vande Kieft's, 87-125. Of the many journal articles that have been published on The Golden Apples, those by the following authors were indispensable, and because of their complexity they generally elude my strictures about “much” Welty criticism made in the text: McHaney, “Eudora Welty and the Multitudinous Golden Apples”; Messerli; Pei; Pitavy-Souques, “Technique as Myth”; and Yaeger's two articles. Selected authors of recent books and articles on Welty continue a basically archetypal approach to Ran's and Eugene's stories, with perhaps an even stronger emphasis on Welty's admixture of irony to myth: Howard 42-50, 62-66; Kreyling 77-105; Devlin, Eudora Welty's Chronicle 134-35; Westling 98-103; Manning 56-59, 97-117, 191-95; and McHaney, “Falling into Cycles.”

  5. For work of women psychiatrists who revised Freud and were Welty's contemporaries, see in particular Horney, “The Dread of Women”; and Klein, Contributions to Psycho-Analysis, especially her articles focusing on the oedipus conflict, symbol-formation in infants, and the psychogenesis of psychotic states: 140-55, 202-14, 236-50, 282-320. Two fine introductions to Klein's and Winnicott's object-relations psychology have been published by Segal and by Davis and Wallbridge, respectively. For one account of how Horney and Klein have influenced recent feminist criticism, see Langbauer, especially 220-23; for one book-length treatment of how women have revised Freud, see Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. As far as I am aware, only one critic, Tarbox, has undertaken a sustained psychoanalytical reading of a Welty short story. All of these authors and others will be cited more specifically below, and in the bibliography. The works of Freud that have been most helpful in my own thinking on these matters in Welty have been the following: “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”; “The Dream-Work”; “On Narcissism”; and “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex.”

  6. Compare Chodorow: “Because women are responsible for early child care and for most later socialization as well, because fathers are more absent from the home, and because men's activities generally have been removed from the home while women's have remained within it, boys have difficulty attaining a stable masculine gender role identification. Boys fantasize about and idealize the masculine role and their fathers, and society defines it as desirable” (Reproduction of Mothering 185). On this topic, see also Klein 202-14; and Lasch 172-76. Particularly relevant for a general understanding of misogyny are the following points of Chodorow's: “Women's early mothering … creates specific conscious and unconscious attitudes or expectations in children. Girls and boys expect and assume women's unique capacities for sacrifice, caring, and mothering, and associate women with their own fears of regression and powerlessness. They fantasize more about men, and associate them with idealized virtues and growth.” In some cases, Chodorow believes, such feelings may result in men's “resentment and dread of women, and their search for nonthreatening, undemanding, dependent, even infantile women. … Through these same processes men come to reject, devalue, and even ridicule women and things feminine. … A boy represses those qualities he takes to be feminine inside himself, and rejects and devalues women and whatever he considers to be feminine in the social world” (Reproduction of Mothering 83, 185). Chodorow also cogently summarizes Horney's revision of Freud's views of misogyny: “Karen Horney, unlike Freud, does take masculine contempt for and devaluation of women as in need of interactive and developmental explanation. According to her, these phenomena are manifestations of a deeper ‘dread of women’—a masculine fear and terror of maternal omnipotence that arises as one major consequence of their early caretaking and socialization by women” (Reproduction of Mothering 183). See Tarbox for an account of characters in four of Welty's early stories (“A Memory,” “Clytie,” “The Purple Hat,” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman”) whose hallucinations merge visions of faces and breasts and reveal symptoms of both narcissism and misogyny. “The significance of these face-breast experiences for the study of Eudora Welty's fiction,” Tarbox comments, “is that their occurrence is an unfailing sign that the Welty hero is in dire need of being saved, i.e., in dire need of being absolutely free of intense separation anxiety or persecutory fear” (71). Tarbox does not consider stories in The Golden Apples.

  7. Compare Klein's chapters “The Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” and “Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” in which she discusses an infant's “splitting” of his images of his mother into feared and loved versions of her, one which he tries to destroy and one which he guiltily tries to restore. When what Klein calls symbolic acts of “reparation” for these imagined attacks are unsuccessfully made, the ego is unable to integrate its images of the mother or to be able to learn to treat her as a separate, autonomous human being with virtues and faults. When neurotic regression to such an infantile state occurs in adults (as it has, I would argue, in Ran's case), the fantasies are visualized and relived with little more control, “distance,” or understanding than an infant possesses. See Klein 282-320; Jardine; and Tarbox: “The underlying reasons for the Welty hero's detachment are his intense oral rage over disappointment and a love which is impulsive and devouring; so devouring, that it provokes archaic fear reactions in the lover himself. The main focus of this hero's rage and love, appropriately, is the maternal breast or its equivalents” (73).

  8. Note the parallels between this scene and the scene in which Tom Harris is alone in the motel room in “The Hitch-Hikers” (71-72). Now, however, the man is much more strongly threatened by women, and the imaginary space signifying his “independence” has been invaded.

  9. In other words, Eugene is experiencing the classic symptoms of what Klein calls the inability to keep separate his “good” and “bad” objects—his loved and feared images of his mother (282-320). See also Tarbox: “The face-breast phenomenon or equation is often first experienced as good (enticing), but then may be suddenly experienced as bad (angry or forbidding)” (71). Representative critics who read Eugene's vision as a glimpse of redemption that his wife later destroys are Vande Kieft 110-111; Appel 228-30; Kreyling 98-99; and McHaney, “Falling into Cycles” 184.

  10. This Traveler's Tree scene is absent in Welty's draft of the story in I.D3 Jackson, Marrs 34, as is much of the material from Collected Stories 406-9. Other references in Chapters Two through Four to Welty's revisions of “Music from Spain” apply to this draft.

  11. I compute the chronology as follows. Ran, Eugene, and Maideen's mother are fifteen at the start of “Sir Rabbit” (Collected Stories 331, 333), and she appears to be only a few years older when she marries Junior Holifield and meets King in the woods (333). “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain” are set when Ran and his brother are in their “forties” (393). Since we know that Maideen is eighteen in “The Whole World Knows” (376), the dates appear to work out. What happens in the interim to Junior Holifield, Mattie Will's first husband, is not clear. We must not assume that he is killed by King's buckshot in “Sir Rabbit”; the narrative implies that he is merely scared senseless by King so that King will be free to enjoy his wife (339). Perhaps if Mattie Will eventually married someone named Sumrall, she gave Maideen her new last name to disguise her parentage. The simplest hypothesis, however, is that Maideen's mother was another woman in the Sojourner clan and that Maideen's father is someone named Sumrall, not King MacLain. For another view, see Allen, where he claims that Maideen is Mattie Will Sojourner's granddaughter (32).

  12. Readings blaming the women in the story are offered by Appel 93-99; Howard 73-74; and St. George Tucker Arnold, Jr., 21-27. Arnold speaks of a “savage matriarchal deity to whom human sacrifices, often male infants, were dedicated in the dawn phases of human society” and calls Welty's women “avatars of the Terrible Mother” (22). Appel even goes so far as to call the rapist, Mr. Petrie, the story's “only free man”: “with the arrest of the petrified man the women seem to have succeeded in subjugating the only free man in the story—but not quite, for Billy Boy remains to be vanquished” (97). One partial exception is Vande Kieft 62-65. For two articles cataloguing the presence of Medusa allusions in the story, see Helterman and Robert C. Walker. For more on Medusas, mirrors, madness, and other relevant matters, see Auerbach; McGann; Irigaray; Cixous; and Dijkstra 137-38, 309-11, who focuses on Medusa images in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art. The art historian and anthropologist A. David Napier has recently published an especially interesting survey of the various incarnations of Perseus and the Gorgon Head in ancient mythology, in Greece and farther east, some of it pre-Homeric. He notes that the Gorgon was associated with rebirth and transformation as well as terror, and that it was often depicted androgynously. The Sanskrit root of the word Gorgon means “shriek” (83-134).

    My understanding of advertising has been particularly influenced by Barthes; Berger; Mulvey; and Ewen's Captains of Consciousness, a history of advertising in America focusing on the radical transformations that occurred between the 1920s and the 1950s. Boorstin's The Americans and Marchand's Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940, provide general histories of the development of advertising in American in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ewen notes the influence on advertisers of social psychologists and their theories of female narcissism (180), but does not connect his discussion of advertising's treatment of women as sexual objects to male narcissism or male rape fantasies.

    Readers should know of other unpublished early work in which Welty satirizes advertising. “The Waiting Room” (IV.B.1 Jackson, Marrs 73), dating from 1935, is a farce set in a train station's waiting room. One of the characters in the opening pages is passing the time by trying to win a contest by coming up with a snappy description of what “White Spright Soap does to your skin,” and another character later in the play, when provoked, blurts “Aw, if you're so smart, why ain't you rich.” “What Year Is This” (IV.B2.a Jackson, Marrs 73; no date) is a series of musical sketches, some by Welty and others by Hildegarde Dolson. (For background, see Prenshaw, Conversations 207.) The following excerpt is from a delightful skit called “What Year is This,” written by Welty in mock praise of The New York Times: “(She delivers like a school cheer): ‘Sak's! Stern's! Sloan's for the house! / With a hey nonny nonny and Abraham Straus! / Wanamaker, Wanamaker, / Peck and Peck! / Here's a great big hug and a mail-order check! / O the Times!’”

  13. Compare Ewen on the role played by mirrors in advertising in creating anxiety: “In an informal survey of Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post ads through the 1920s, I have found that between eight and ten ads per issue depict a woman at or looking into a mirror. Many of these ads are not for cosmetic products” (177-83 and, in particular, 239, n121). See also Dijkstra's fascinating discussion “The Mirror of Venus” (127-46), which analyzes late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century theories of women's narcissism and images of women looking into mirrors in the visual arts. Dijkstra's book provides many precedents for the conventions governing advertising's treatment of women and mirrors after World War I.

  14. “June Recital” was the first story Welty wrote in the sequence that eventually became The Golden Apples (Pitavy-Souques, “Technique as Myth,” 259n); an early version of it was published in Harper's Bazaar in 1947 (Polk, “A Checklist” 244). Portions of the heavily revised “June Recital” manuscript in Texas (I.D1c Marrs 228, Appendix B) that eventually became pages 311-13 in the Collected Stories are pasted onto newsprint from the New York Times Book Review of 20 February 1949, thus precisely dating one of Welty's most intense periods of work on the manuscript; interestingly, the Book Review pages she used contained a review of Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day. Unlike “The Whole World Knows” and “Music from Spain,” “June Recital” has received sustained and adventurous commentary. A reader should begin with Welty's own comments in One Writer's Beginnings, 100-102. With the exception of Vande Kieft 92-97 and Appel 210-18, the most thorough discussions are in journals or anthologies: McHaney's two articles; Messerli; Rubin, “Art and Artistry”; Pei; Pugh; Pitavy-Souques, “Watchers and Watching”; Yaeger, “‘Because a Fire’”; and Wall. Kreyling discusses the relevance of Welty's allusion to the children's story “The Lucky Stone” (Collected Stories 292, Kreyling 81-83). Anne Goodwyn Jones, Scott, Westling (8-35), and Wall provide invaluable background for an understanding of Miss Eckhart's social predicament in Morgana; and Tick's and Neuls-Bates's works are especially recommended for those seeking histories of female musicians and music teachers in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to be read with a general discussion such as Evans's “Eudora Welty: The Metaphor of Music.” For more on the subject of women and music as treated in American women's fiction, see Chapter Four.

  15. Vande Kieft argues that Miss Eckhart is not consciously aware of Virgie upstairs (1987 edition, page 93; in the 1962 edition of her book she read the scene differently, page 119). McHaney agrees that Miss Eckhart is unaware of Virgie's presence in the house (“Eudora Welty and the Multitudinous Golden Apples” 601-2).

  16. For information on the cotton crash of 1914, see Odum 13, 19-20; and Tindall 33-69. Another way in which Welty alludes to the cotton crisis as causing hard times for Mississippi is via Mr. Holifield, the nightwatchman at the town's gin mill. He has taken a second job in which he is supposed to “guard” the vacant MacLain house during the day for its new owner (307). (I place guard in quotation marks because, comically, this watchman sleeps through the entire events of “June Recital”!) The early draft of “June Recital” cited is I.D1 Jackson, Marrs 34; all other citations of an earlier draft of “June Recital” refer to this typescript carbon, except as noted. No Welty short-story typescripts in the Jackson and Texas collections show more revisions than those of “June Recital” and “The Burning.”

  17. “[Morgana is] a made-up Delta town. I was drawn to the name because I always loved the conception of Fata Morgana—the illusory shape, the mirage that comes over the sea. All Delta places have names after people, so it was suitable to call it Morgana after some Morgans. My population might not have known there was such a thing as Fata Morgana, but illusions weren't unknown to them, all the same—coming in over the cottonfields” (Kuehl, “The Art of Fiction” 88).

  18. For more on Loch's point of view, see Pitavy-Souques, “Watchers and Watching” 485-93; her reading, while sympathetic to him, is a needed corrective to critics such as Messerli (89-90), who have somewhat romanticized Loch's misreading of the events. She too stresses how Loch's point of view (in exaggerated form) parallels the town's.

  19. Pitavy-Souques (“Watchers and Watching” 493-503) and Wall also stress how Welty uses Cassie's point of view to catalogue the town's prejudices. For a contrary view of Cassie, see Rubin's essay “Art and Artistry.” Rubin's eloquent reading of Cassie's role in the story is ultimately overstated, in my view: it is one thing to argue that Cassie unconsciously appreciates Miss Eckhart's heroism, but quite another to claim that she is her true successor in Morgana.

  20. For more on the rich blending of voices and “discourses” in the story's narrative, see Yaeger, “‘Because a Fire’”; and Pitavy-Souques, “Watchers and Watching.”

  21. Interestingly, Rubin suggests that, because of the predominance of references to moonlight and the night sky in The Golden Apples, the unnamed Beethoven piano sonata played in this scene is the Moonlight Sonata (“Art and Artistry” 115-16). My vote, however, would be for the Appassionata: it would go better with a thunderstorm, and in One Writer's Beginnings Welty says that she associates Miss Eckhart with “passion” (101).


Eudora Welty Long Fiction Analysis


Welty, Eudora (Vol. 1)