Eudora Welty 1909–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Welty is a southern regionalist frequently compared to William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Caroline Gordon. Her stories of family life in small towns in the Deep South are built around what Paul Marx has called "the complex networks of judgments, misjudgments, and rejudgments," and sometimes take on the elusive qualities of dreams.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II.)
Eudora Welty admires Jane Austen and owes much to her and indeed stands in the same relation to fellow-Mississippian William Faulkner that Austen stood to [Walter] Scott. With little interest in history or social themes, she concentrates on the ordinary people of her country who go about the business of loving and hating and talking about their neighbors as if there were nothing more important in the world. But within this close range, she scrutinizes her subject and registers its vibrations with a tenderness of attention that places her closer to the heartbeat of her region than Faulkner himself.
If she shows greater variation than her eighteenth-century predecessor, it is not because her aim is different but because she lives in another age and her work inevitably shows it. Like Miss Austen, she remains aloof from social and political events of her time, but with one important difference. In spite of the French Revolution and Napoleon, England was confident and self-contained, and the Catherines, Elizabeths, and Emmas could go on flirting and finding husbands in a way of life that was apparently immutable. After two hundred years, even though Miss Welty's village remains intact, the world outside is not, and disturbing voices are beginning to be heard. Instead of writing about home and social ties, the old standbys of the English novel, young writers today are peering, in Miss Welty's words, through "knot-holes of isolation."
She does not take much to isolation—as no one could who believes in the family as she does—but feels very keenly the plight of the individual who pursues his own dream, never quite going the whole way perhaps but suffering from loneliness even while playing his part in the family life. Thus in the midst of what appears light comedy, she shifts abruptly to the subjective, and at times in fact appears uncertain where her main interest lies, with the individual or the social circle he belongs to. She veers from characters like Miss Eckhart and Miss Julia Mortimer and the other seekers of "the golden apples" to the village at large, loud with the clatter of ordinary life. Jane Austen's interest could not have been so divided because her audience would not have tolerated the private eye in fiction. She keeps passion offstage, concealed in a social mode, and so achieves a synthesis that Miss Welty's fiction lacks.
The gulf between "June Recital" and "Why I Live at the P. O.," for example, is very great indeed. One is in the major, the other a minor key. Miss Eckhart, Virgie Rainey, and Cassie Morrison are tragic figures, while in the other story Miss Welty is out for fun and the reader is not asked to consider what lies behind the old maid's spiteful antics. These disparities, however, are more apparent than real. In the long view, as one takes leave of a Welty story, the private voice is lost in the hubbub of family or community at large: the vision is essentially social. Whatever problems the individual may have—and they are sometimes very great indeed—can best be dealt with among...
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those he knows best in some sort of conformity to the general pattern.
This public rather than private view sets her work in perspective, frames it in time and space and, like Miss Austen's, adorns it with the particularities of her culture, which to the outside world at least seems almost as remote as eighteenth-century Hampshire…. Of all the Southern writers, Miss Welty is most sensitive to the grace of manner and to those dissonances that threaten from the outside. Such is the precarious balance of her world, where not much seems to happen except a lot of talk but where in fact she outlines in her own quiet way what being civilized is all about. (pp. 771-72)
Miss Welty is a very private person with a bent for writing about private experience, however much she participates in community life. Her most dramatic moments are in this vein, when like the poet she explores the inarticulate region of the mind and heart. She shows a predilection towards the character, usually female, who dramatizes her loneliness—like Cassie Morrison in "June Recital" and Shelley Fairchild in Delta Wedding—and wonders why nothing ever happens to her as other lives are being fulfilled. (p. 772)
This type of character is recurrent in Miss Welty's fiction—Nina Carmichael, Laura McRaven, Lexie Renfro, Laurel Hand are variations—but too passive to command much interest, even when, as in the case of Laurel, she is given a leading role…. But there are other lonely characters who excite more interest because they do not stand still, who lurch out at life, sudden, grotesque, and finally impotent, in a game they are obviously not fitted for. Miss Eckhart, the piano teacher of "June Recital," is anything but passive. She came to Morgana, Mississippi, and in spite of aversion to her foreign ways, set up a studio, took in pupils, and made a home for her old mother. For this she was respected, but later her private life became a matter of attention. (pp. 772-73)
Only the life that sparkles around these sad, wasted lives, usually on a lower level of mind and character, makes them bearable at all. But Miss Welty takes [these characters] very seriously. With them her manner becomes tense and concentrated, she has absolute control. Even so, she will not wholly join with them and subscribe to their partial view when there is so much going on in the world that they cannot or will not see. They look out from a promontory over the heads of their neighbors, who figure not so much as fellow human beings as mere possibilities in some scheme of rearrangement. More than is good for them, they are touched by pride. The June recital is the one great event in the music teacher's year but only another occasion to the ladies of Morgana—like Miss Nell's rook parties—where they can dress up and come together. (p. 774)
[The reader] is concerned with a fundamental question which lies at the heart of Miss Welty's work: Is simple animal happiness enough, or must one be involved with those intangibles of character that she obviously admires in Miss Julia and Miss Eckhart? And what about those who seem to be left out altogether, to whom nothing ever happens? The questions are not answered—perhaps there is no answer—and so Miss Welty returns to the cheerfulness of social life. "There's something I think's better to have than love," says Edna Earl in The Ponder Heart; "that's company." And for the long stretch, Miss Welty seems to agree. Since so often there is no rationale behind suffering, what is to be done except to recognize it with pity and turn back to life, where happiness is not evenly distributed but where there is a great deal for everyone if he will accept it. Beyond this charmed circle, disturbing cries are being heard in the novels of her contemporaries, but here at least it is still possible to live the good life. And the good life is the most important matter of consideration to Miss Welty. (p. 775)
[Miss Welty's] type of comedy can exist only on a foundation of social order where certain principles are quietly observed. Quietness is one of her virtues….
In "The Burning," her only story about the Civil War, she describes the destruction by the Federal Army of a home outside Jackson, where two sisters, living alone with their servants, hang themselves after the burning and the rape of the younger. Miss Welty is not trying to revive old partisan feelings: the fate of the sisters is symbolic. Not only a house is destroyed but the decency of life by an intrusive element incapable of understanding what it destroys. When a soldier rides a horse into the parlor where the ladies are sitting, the elder sister turns indifferently to her maid: "Delilah, what is it you came in your dirty apron to tell me?" (p. 776)
["The Burning" is] Miss Welty's way of pointing up social values: men should be able to live, if not with love, at least with civility and mutual respect. (pp. 776-77)
Miss Welty believes in place in fiction and spends a lot of time with it—as important, she says, as plot and character—which means first of all the feel of a particular landscape at a particular time of the year. The peculiar light on the cotton fields, goldenrod, and yellow butterflies mean fall, which gives the novel a reflective richness…. Miss Welty, at home with the changing moods of nature, is scrupulous with detail, though the casual reader might overlook how much of the gardener's heart is in her work. Flowers are a special province, the wild as well as garden variety, the enumeration of which becomes a kind of poetry…. (pp. 777-78)
But place involves more than the natural world or the people who happen to live there. It means rather the two together, after generations of interaction of one upon the other. Time is the important element. (p. 778)
Miss Welty knows that life fully lived involves time and place and complex relationships with other human beings. The past is in it, and the future, and the present moment is always a shared experience…. (pp. 779-80)
Delta Wedding has been called a comedy of love, because that is the impression one brings away from it, the almost unreal extent to which kindliness, if not love, radiates from one character to another. But there is no false sentiment and no misconception about the surface tranquility; Miss Welty understands human nature too well. (p. 780)
[The Fairchilds's] success and happiness may look smug and proprietary, but Miss Welty has no qualms about it. The Fairchilds have achieved something rare and precious, and that is the point of her story….
Delta Wedding is Miss Welty's representation—a dream perhaps, but a dream in close conformity to the life of her region—of what it is like to live in a civilized order.
Eudora Welty's achievement is wonderfully varied because of the susceptible nature of her mind, which takes life generously as it comes. Both joy and pain are in it, both intensely private, but at the same time part of a larger corporate experience. Life itself is a mystery to be gratefully received and lived with as much wisdom as one and his fellows can bring to bear on it.
Unlike most writers of our time, including William Faulkner, she has stayed clear of the timely topics, especially tempting to Southern authors, who for the last generation of social change have had an audience ready and waiting for them. The writer, she insists, must keep an eye upon the ages, not one disturbing season. She shows less interest in cataclysms that affect nations than in the private experience of living—the way a person greets a new day, or walks in a garden, or reacts to the face one meets on the street. In this large perspective, the social problems of her region are not important at all. (p. 781)
Eudora Welty, like Jane Austen, speaks with authority because she avoids theory and contention and sticks to the fact as she sees it in the world about her…. Her people know or care little about what goes on in the world beyond, but they know each other, are functionally connected with each other and the place they live in, and from these associations have learned a great deal about how to live. They would not be able to express what they have learned, but that is Miss Welty's business. Their lives may seem unimportant when set against the big issues of the moment, but not to the reader whose ear is attuned to the quiet wisdom beneath the social comedy. (p. 782)
Elmo Howell, "Eudora Welty and the City of Man," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 770-82.
In reading "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," there is a particular pleasure in following her performance over the years. Her range is remarkable—her way of telling us that stories are as different as human faces, that beyond the common features of plot and narrative, there are discoveries to be made each time…. Now, with all the stories gathered together, we can see with what vigilance she has continued to watch the world around her. She has transformed that early obsession into the vision of a magnificent American artist. (p. 1)
It is not the South we find in her stories, it is Eudora Welty's South, a region that feeds her imagination, and a place we come to trust. She is a Southerner as Chekhov was a Russian, because place provides them with reality—a reality as difficult, mysterious and impermanent as life.
From the first volume included here, "A Curtain of Green and Other Stories" …, we can see the demands that Miss Welty put upon herself as a writer. Each tale finds its own pace and its own design. The characters are so fully realized that the imprint of their life is upon the page…. These early stories are filled with dreamers, deaf-mutes, wanderers, the old—people who live outside of society. We are told what in their fantasies, or in fact, sets them apart, but we are made to wonder about the real world that cannot contain them.
There is so much virtuosity in "The Collected Stories," such a testing of the form, we cannot help but see that the writing was always fresh to her and of great interest. That is the mark of genius. Like Katherine Anne Porter, whom she admired, Eudora Welty has never had the time or patience for repeats. (pp. 1, 31)
There is one group of tales that interlock, those in "The Golden Apples." Seen in the midst of "The Collected Stories," they seem a central performance, theme and variation played out in one place. Morgana is a Southern town of Miss Welty's making. Like Joyce's "Dubliners," the stories glance off each other—stories of love, ambition, marriage, set side by side without the narrative line of a novel. But unlike Joyce's characters who never intersect, the inhabitants of Morgana turn up again and again. We come to know them—parents and children, teachers and servants—and to expect them in separate scenes held together by a lush colloquial speech and a richness of little plots. As a book, "The Golden Apples" is most like a one-woman show of photographs where a style is discernible in the use of light and detail….
"June Recital" is the most remarkable of the Morgana stories, suffused with tenderness yet never sentimental. A sick boy, home in bed, peeks out his window to the empty house next door to watch strange happenings….
There are other stories in the last volume which are raucous, sprawling. [Miss Welty] will try anything and get it right. "Kin" is a disorderly panorama that echoes the noise and movement of family life, jumpy, flickering, as unplotted as home movies….
[Miss Welty's] work is filled with characters who do not hear, literally or figuratively, with people who talk and do not listen. Their stories bear the sadness and the folly inherent in ignorance and self-absorption. Eudora Welty's writing is an act of generosity—for the partial and incomplete vision of her characters is pieced out and made whole for us: In such completeness there is care and intimacy, something like mature love. The richness of such talent resists a summing up. We can place her with her models, Chekhov and Katherine Anne Porter: She is always honest, always just. And she is vastly entertaining. The stories are magnificent. (p. 32)
Maureen Howard, "A Collection of Discoveries," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1980, pp. 1, 31-2.
[In her Collected Stories] Eudora Welty's real self percolates into a generous fiction that wastes very little time on disapproval. She wanders, marveling, over the landscape of soul and senses, never allowing the smallest fluctuation in either to escape her, but she is not a moralist. She has no vocation for rectitude, and one can search in vain among dozens of her springy, piquant, often irascible characters for those implications of psychological delinquency that give such dramatic tension to the stories of Henry James. Yet she is no less a psychologist; she simply is more interested in our efforts and longings than in our guilts and weaknesses. (p. 3)
Whenever she discerns a fault in someone, she leaves room for an advantage or a felicity. In "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," three biddies of an age to wear widow's black and get hot easily are about to plump a slightly retarded young lady into an institution for the feeble-minded, presumably for her own happiness. When they find her at home packing a hope chest (so far she has collected one bar of soap and a wash rag) and preparing to get married to a traveling xylophone player, the ladies are aghast—in good part because she has outwitted their pessimism and shattered their complacency. This ignoble sentiment would no doubt be the chief disclosure for some other writer, but it is their sheepishness and hesitation that Miss Welty wants to call to our attention….
Miss Welty unnerves us with the possibility of violence in a gentle woman mainly to stir us, as her characters are often painfully stirred, to a realization of cosmic forces. The only lesson for them or us to learn is that we must accede graciously. But while that is the course she would recommend, she takes it for granted that most of the human species is awkward indeed at coming to grips with fate.
The partly autobiographical "June Recital," a shimmering flashback to the poetry and wonder of life at the age of 12, creates a marvelous balance sheet of benign and thwarting experience, setting side by side family happiness and bitter isolation, the carefree next to the crabbed, the magnolia-scented sensuous warmth of the South against its small-town indifference to those who are not lucky. (p. 4)
By the time [Eudora Welty] gets to her last volume, The Golden Apples, she is weaving rich skeins of family and town connections, drawing more sustenance for her writing as clans proliferate and neighbors meet, and making us feel very much at home…. A story delightfully anachronistic in the midst of current fiction, "Shower of Gold," is narrated by Mrs. Rainey as she is churning butter. The albino Miss Snowdie marries, to the astonishment of all, the picturesque King MacLain, who promptly deserts her. Reappearing after a few years, he invites her to a midnight tryst in the woods which issues in twins, but he is gone by morning. The solicitous narrator marvels that Snowdie bears her wandering husband no rancor….
"Shower of Gold" is not in the least sentimental. But it is enchanting, partly because it parodies a Greek myth in which Zeus (King of the Gods and a philanderer, like King McLain) visits Danaë in her subterranean cell and impregnates her with Perseus in a stream of sunlight. Miss Welty's readers cannot be expected to know all the myths and folk tales she has been devouring since childhood, but the aura of her fascination is communicated to us.
A gathering of town people, a hero who confronts fairytale hazards and obstacles for the sake of love, high spirits in the face of dire events—all combine, in "The Wide Net," to produce a texture as recognizably Weltian as The Marriage of Figaro is Mozartian….
When we read Eudora Welty's intricate, gossipy stories, with their layers upon layers of brewing memories and opulent images, we are frequently unprepared for the fine point to which they are directed. "No Place for You, My Love," as complex a tale as can be found today, begins with two strangers who meet in a New Orleans restaurant, sense a possible ambiguous sympathy, and worry about giving in to it. The man speculates that the woman is in the middle of a hopeless love affair and invites her for a ride south of the city. Making small gestures toward one another and instantly backing away, they submerge their emotions in the speed of the ride, the intense heat that envelops them, the intoxication of the Southern landscape….
Although the love waiting in the wings of this haunting story has been evaded (for reasons of circumstance or psychology that the author wisely leaves unspecified), it is much less a narrative of nonfulfillment and paralysis à la James' "The Beast in the Jungle," than a recognition of the urge in all human beings toward passionate life: The physical universe, vibrantly described (it resounds through Miss Welty's writing as if she were some giant cello) is constantly heaping coals upon that fire. Like most of Eudora Welty's stories, "No Place for You, My Love" baffles us and, at the same time, refers to a deep and primary emotion we can all share. (p. 5)
Isa Kapp, "Welty's Shimmering South," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 23, December 15, 1980, pp. 3-5.
More than thirty years after writing the stories in A Curtain of Green, Welty gave the best introduction to their theme and technique in her foreword to One Time, One Place. She spoke of the experience of being invisible behind her Kodak…. (p. 5)
This photographic metaphor for the artist's vision—the snapping of the shutter, the slow process of development, the examination in objectivity and solitude—may also be the best way of reading these early stories. And insofar as the impulse to make an image, to border and thus to define amorphous experience, is the impulse to discover an order in experience, the same metaphor indicates the theme. (pp. 5-6)
[In several of the stories in A Curtain of Green] a main character with some defect, physical, psychological, or moral, is universalized, and a point about the nature of individual human existence is made. The grotesque occupies the foreground and lingers in the mind as the general impression from a first reading. But a large body of explication and criticism of these stories testifies to the existence of another aspect of them. "Clytie" resonates with the Greek tragedies of family; "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" with Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."… (p. 9)
A majority of the stories in A Curtain of Green, however, are not about certifiable cripples, mental or physical. The technique in most of the stories goes beyond … the "grotesque" category. The technique mingles dream and waking, banishes time and ordinary chronology. It uses for the most part a homemade or natural symbolism and net of suggestion that mark the fiction as evocative, rhythmic, symbolic, concerned with the revelation of life that "never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling."… (p. 10)
[These] more intricately fashioned stories, those based on the technique that searches for and waits upon the moment when separateness is abolished and wholeness is so intense it becomes a thing, are truer to Welty's overall achievement. "A Curtain of Green" is the most compact example of this style and meaning.
Mrs. Larkin has seen her husband killed in what the newspapers might have called a freak accident; a tree fell on his car and crushed him…. Death … threatens the very life of love. For if love is powerless to protect, then it is futile and is not part of the actual world. Not of the world, love then is not natural, not real. The emotions of love, therefore, bring pain because they aggravate the wound of separation that divides self from other, self from world. (p. 13)
Mrs. Larkin tries, in retaliation for her husband's death, to bury herself in the nonhuman. She plunges into her garden…. The curtain of green may conceal nothing, the heart of darkness; but Mrs. Larkin will look upon it, expose its truth, then find the rest she needs.
Not seeking beauty, she encounters its antithesis. She encounters the other, the uncontrollable, in her black helper, Jamey…. She approaches his back, a hoe upraised in her hands. Jamey's head is vivid to her in its reality…. Suddenly Jamey is the enigma. Poised to strike off Jamey's head Mrs. Larkin faces the world the accident had revealed…. Mrs. Larkin is fortunate, for in this moment all is revealed, the wholeness of which death and life are parts. She suddenly sees herself and the enigma together…. (pp. 13-14)
The reality of the fiction in A Curtain of Green includes the completely, but merely, real and also searches for the "cause in oblivion." In her first collection of stories Welty focuses sharply and unerringly on the grotesque, the natural habitat of real things and people. Always present and striving in the technique, however, is the will to probe the enigma with language, with fiction, for the wholeness that lies at the root of human life. In some of these stories symbolism and mythological allusion aid, with their literary connections, the entry into the undeveloped shadow around, behind, even within the perceived person and thing. Always there is the effort to coax the vividness and immediacy of the instant's shock into the ultimately timeless state of connection. (pp. 14-15)
[In The Wide Net] we have eight stories dwelling on a single theme; related by a common ground (the Natchez Trace); concerned with the difficulty of love and personal expression; and linked by echoing words (silence, haze, dream, still). In The Wide Net Welty's sensitivity to the language and to the possibilities within style for discovering and making connections emerges as a unique and forceful use of the short story form. These eight stories are not related simply by being contiguous or by sharing grotesques for characters and the South for setting…. The heroes and heroines of these stories find themselves in two worlds simultaneously—the historian's and the dreamer's. By patient attention they discover that the two worlds are indeed one world with extensive winding caves and passages. The discovery does not come through escape into fantasy. Each one of the central characters of these stories moves from the world of history into the region of dream (art, love) and back into the world again. (pp. 16-17)
[In "The Wide Net"] Hazel, who has recently learned that she is pregnant, has left a note informing [her husband, William Wallace,] of her intention to jump into the Pearl River. He is stunned. He fetches his friend, Virgil, and together they call on Doc, owner of the wide net. They will have to borrow the net and drag the river. (p. 19)
Hazel's body is not found…. William Wallace's cabin, to which he makes his mournful way, is the sublime, however, for he finds Hazel there. All she wanted all along was attention.
Hazel has come upon a knowledge that is very deep but not completely conscious to her. Smiling upon her man, content—now—to have a child grow in her womb, Hazel has discovered time as a steady, inexorable flow. The men experience time as a series of bursts of wonder interspersed with domestic boredom…. The world demands that all of them keep step with its time. The two sexes try, in the shadows of different epic patrons, to answer the demand.
This underlying meaning and the tone, irony, are gradually revealed. Although the epic allusion is subtle, it informs the whole story as the concern with change appears frequently…. Hazel is changing from a girl to a woman and to a mother. (p. 20)
A hero is needed, but it is not William Wallace. He merely asserts his youthful potency in a ritualistic dance. The women are more likely to be heroes; they preserve the hymns of the Harp Sing from the oblivion of time, and they bear the children that renew the race. Hazel's smile at the close of the story is strong proof: "And after a few minutes she took him by the hand and led him into the house, smiling as if she were smiling down on him."… [She] faces the oblivious phenomenal world and responds affirmatively with love. By moving with time, these heroes can achieve the metamorphosis that turns the random and ambiguous incidents of existence into personal lives and history. (p. 21)
[In "At the Landing" stricken] with the simultaneous nature of Billy, object to her and subject to himself, Jenny is on the verge of being paralyzed; her loving is in the balance, and so is her life. More clearly than at any other moment in The Wide Net, the mystery of love and the imperative to love are presented in the terms of the vital paradox that Robert Penn Warren called "the love and separateness in Miss Welty." To defeat this paradox Jenny must consent to become object; in other words, she must enter the world on the world's terms. She must escape the secrecy of life that is the terror of it. Having committed herself to this action, to love, Jenny discovers that love is real. (p. 29)
"At the Landing" uncovers the complexity in human consciousness and love, the simultaneity of object and subject, that grows out of the earlier stories in which such depths are felt but not fully known…. The complexity of the theme has its counterpart in the style. Allusion as a means of connection between the human plight of the individual and the larger concepts of time and the physical world progresses from the use of mythology in the earlier stories to a highly complex, intricate, and lyrical technique of nuance and suggestion in the later stories. Finally, the patterns of connection become as important as the things connected; for the artist's vital need to discover connection, to coax it out of the apparent world, becomes the issue that breathes life into the fiction. The fatal alternative is to stop, to allow the obliviousness of the physical world to paralyze the heart and force it back upon itself into inaction and the refusal to love. Love, Welty's stories repeat, is the vital, the essential movement of the private self into the world's time. (pp. 30-1)
The Robber Bridegroom is the story of white settlers in the wilderness, pursuing their dream of a new world….
The Robber Bridegroom balances the futility of pursuing the pastoral ideal against the necessity for dreaming it….
From such ironic detachment as this springs the wisdom of The Robber Bridegroom. Human beings must always dream of what they need but will never accomplish. The dream is always more important than "ponderous realities." Irony is the defense of the rational mind. Compassion is the response of the heart; for no matter how unfit man is for living in his dreams, his need for them is vital. (p. 33)
It is my conviction that in The Robber Bridegroom Welty, though employing her own style, is consciously engaged in a form familiar in American fiction. Pursuing the dream of a pastoral reality in the new world is, as Leo Marx has written, one of the most stubborn topics in American fiction. (p. 34)
[The] novella is not limited, in its technique, just to the jokes; it reaches for something beyond the momentary relief of laughter. One laughs at Clement Musgrove much differently from the way one laughs at his silly daughter, her slightly ridiculous hero, her lavishly evil stepmother, or any of the menagerie of eccentrics who appear in the brief story. Clement is foolish in the way that Don Quixote is foolish….
Besides Clement, the Indians spark something other than laughter. They are recreated with a depth and quality of sympathy…. [They] have nobility, mystery, beauty, and pride. They are the spirit of the country. Clement and the Indians furnish a certain gravity in this lighthearted tale. (p. 36)
Extinction and the fear of it are as much a part of The Robber Bridegroom as the cartoons, the borrowings from Grimm, and the frontier folklore. In this theme, violence as an indispensable part of the pioneering enterprise plays an essential part. The Robber Bridegroom is properly a "local legend," which "has a personal immediacy, a cruelty, and a directness glossed over in the fairy tale." Beautiful though it was, Rodney [Mississippi] was founded on violence. The Indians resisted invasion violently and were crushed. This is the contradiction that maims the pastoral ideal…. The means corrupt the end; he who acquiesces in the end, acquiesces in the means. (p. 39)
Another kind of literary event is presaged in Delta Wedding, for Welty's fiction begins to take a place beyond "regional writing," in the company of such novelists as Bowen, Woolf, Forster and others with whom she shares themes and techniques.
The technique of Delta Wedding becomes an essential part of its meaning. The novel is more lyrical than narrative in its attention to setting, event, plot, and language. Its thematic territory is not the world of politics or natural disasters (Welty deliberately chose 1923 for the time of her story because it was free of such great events); its world is the human heart and its tangled relationships with others. (pp. 54-5)
[George Fairchild] is the human focal point of the characters whose points of view define the novel. Each of [the characters] feels the necessity of striking a kinship with George, for he embodies, literally, the frank and tactile world beyond the envelope of self. (p. 64)
Ellen Fairchild is one of Welty's most characteristic heroines, neither adventurous like Dabney, tough like Robbie, nor intellectual and skeptical like Shelley. Ellen is more alive than all of them. Her life is a "widening susceptibility"; she knows Laura, Dabney, Shelley, and Robbie better than they know themselves. And she meets George with no selfish ulterior motivation. (p. 71)
If Ellen lacks the curtsying ways of the belle or the strong-arm brashness of Tempe, she is gifted with serenity and emotional tenderness. Unlike the Fairchilds, she listens with her heart…. Because of her gift the clan, and the novel, gain unity through her vision…. (pp. 71-2)
Ellen's vision finds unity in the swarm of the clan. Her imagination presents the novel with the image of its unity; it is the streak of lightning that holds time for the picture of its meaning….
Ellen turns to George, as does everyone in the novel, because he seems, to her, to touch things directly, to move in the realm of certainty. (p. 72)
George becomes for Ellen the mystery of the other, "infinitely simple and infinitely complex." Meeting him relieves Ellen of the burden of her self….
This moment is the climax of the novel. Through a patient interplay of viewpoints, the clan and the individual are thoroughly explored. The different aspects of human personality, both self and member of the group, have substantial meaning, enough to give a phrase that defies definition, "infinitely simple and infinitely complex," reality. Ellen's [story], if it could be separated from the totality of Delta Wedding, would be a coda, the resolution of contradictions and incompleteness in a moment of "widened susceptibility."…
The technique of Delta Wedding uses a multiplicity of perspectives that approach the mystery from several angles and tempers. In their simultaneous attempts they approximate the shape of truth. (p. 74)
The shock and immediate fright of bumping another human being, finding mystery where there had been familiarity, is a frequent experience for the characters. It is the equivalent of hearing the telephone ring to interrupt a daydream.
What happens in the next instant? Perhaps no human intercourse is possible; perhaps each encapsulated self is permanently separated from the others with no meaning in meeting and exchange. Except for the miraculous moment when Ellen knows George, there is no communication or knowing. The human family, for stability in a world of disorder and for defense, has assigned each member a role. The result is an imperfect community in which individuals remain safe but unknown to each other within their several shells. The abiding condition outside the circle is loneliness. There is always more emptiness than meeting or wedding. Ventures beyond the shell might sometimes end in danger, ugliness, fear. In private moments the several contemplating eyes in Delta Wedding must confront the ugly and the dangerous—the truth of their own mortality. As much as Laura tries to belong, others try to disengage. The issue is not static; Welty's view of the human plight is not that of the dogmatist.
Through the use of recurring, symbolic moments of confrontation with the images of fear, Welty diversifies the meaning of her novel. It is not a social document or even an emotional memoir of the real or imagined pastoral South. The novel faces the insoluble question of belonging in the world as a self and as a member of a larger body. Needs are complex because the human heart is complex. Physical comfort and protection are important, but just as vital is the need for wonder. And so the butterflies, symbols of delicacy and grace, that weave through the world of the novel, are an important motif. They are the presence of a dream world within the waking one. (p. 75)
Sympathy, or a widened susceptibility, is the theme of the novel; each of the characters who furnishes a point of view undergoes a series of experiences in which sympathy is to be gained or lost. Only Ellen shows genuine sympathy. She is the heroine, to use the handbook term; her sympathetic vision is the crown of Delta Wedding. (p. 76)
Unity [in The Golden Apples] appears on its most visible level in the fixed cast of characters who are followed through time in the specific world of Morgana, Mississippi. In one story, "Music from Spain," which takes place in San Francisco, Morgana is conspicuous by its absence. On another level unity is created by the network of mythological and literary allusions. The Atalanta and Perseus myths are central. Also supplying images and meanings is the body of Celtic myth introduced by quotations from Yeats. The radiations and interconnections of these networks of imagery and theme create the impression of a firmly wrought whole. (p. 77)
In Delta Wedding the parts recapitulate and reflect the whole in miniature. This does not occur in a sequential order, but in a simultaneous order that flows from several sources into the moment when the vision of the novel is fully realized. The Golden Apples is composed in a similar way and rises to a similar kind of climax in vision…. Focus shifts from [the natural world to the world of mythical and poetic truth] … so easily and so silently that the two "shimmer" in the vision as if with unity.
The motif of meeting has always expressed this vital theme in Welty's fiction…. (p. 78)
The Bride of the Innisfallen is dedicated to Elizabeth Bowen. Her fiction frequently asserts the independent and real existence of "the heart," the kernel of each human's identity. The heart is susceptible to dream, memory, sensation, and a host of other forces, but it remains in mystery because it is neither material nor analyzable. The heart lives its own life, in its own time. (p. 119)
[The stories in The Bride of Innisfallen] assert that there is truth in the life of the heart, and that this truth is daily obscured by a prosaic attitude to life. The obscuring attitudes may be dispersed by attention to the rhythm possible in fiction. In the stories of this collection something new in the potential of fiction is realized. In the collection itself Welty discovers a form more complex than the simple assembling of stories and sheds light in areas of human experience and consciousness not generally illuminated in most novels. (pp. 119-20)
Through style in the first story ["No Place for You, My Love"] an initiation process begins. The prose uses few and oblique transitions. At several moments the woman and man think of love, but they do not find it or any contact that promises love. They remain separate souls, with no place for love. The incidents of the first story establish important motifs—place, journey or pilgrimage, relationships of the heart threatened by routine or hardness, the marking and withholding of commitment and love. Each of the stories in The Bride of the Innisfallen elaborates upon these motifs; they reappear rhythmically as part of the pattern of the collection as a whole. (p. 124)
[This is] the central goal of the theme and technique of these stories: inside the business and circumstance of the world is a serenity and a stillness toward which the heart naturally moves. This movement is rhythmic, for the heart itself is rhythm…. Each of the women of The Bride of the Innisfallen strives toward the stillness, serenity, and joy of vision that redeems the heart from its hopeless isolation in the corruptible world. Each of the pilgrim hearts in the collection approaches this goal, and some attain it. But it is never so vividly won as it is in the title story. (p. 139)
Losing Battles is celebratory, beautifully interwoven with nuance and the colors and sounds of a world. Its lonesomeness is real but not terrifying…. Losing Battles is about the poor farmers of the Mississippi hill country during the depression of the 1930s. (p. 143)
In Losing Battles myth and history battle for the allegiance of men's minds and lives, the timeless fights the temporal, the circle struggles against the line. Welty views her people and their condition with the depth and breadth of the philosopher who sees the universal in each moment….
Welty knows (if we accept the novel as testimony) that the battle for human consciousness is not definitively lost or won at any single time or place. She knows that the battles continue, that the casualties mount, that the fierce loyalties do not fade away completely because it is "the desperation of staying alive against all odds that keeps both sides encouraged."… From her elevated point of view, Welty sees that these battles are always losing but never finally lost. Above myth and history is the novelist's point of vantage on the battles. She can listen to and watch both sides, feel with each, and know that the all-encompassing world is friend and foe alike. This is a complicated perspective, three spheres overlapping and conflicting. The wonder of Welty's achievement in Losing Battles is that, in her multifront battle, her casualties are almost nil. (p. 144)
The overarching world of natural creation contains the human worlds and battles, provides symbolic meanings, and works, through Welty's use of descriptive similes, to restrain the human world of speech and action from bulging out of perspective. These similes are the heart of Welty's descriptive technique in this novel….
The natural world also supplies the novel with its symbolic meanings. (p. 145)
Welty thoroughly invests the reunion with the circle motif, allying the family with the daily cycle of sunrise, sunset. With the rise of the sun in the first section of the novel, the life of the family begins. With the darkness the reunion comes to a halt, and there is nothing to do but "stand it."….
In addition to symbolic meaning and the use of the circle motif, Welty portrays the reunion in ways that leave no doubt about its mythical consciousness. The reunion celebration itself is the reenactment of the cosmogony in which its consciousness is grounded. It occurs at a crucial time…. (p. 146)
Looking at the novel in terms other than strictly literary reveals the real scope of its achievement. Welty has refined what she acknowledges as the raw material of fiction—place, character, plot, symbolic meaning, and feeling—into a novel both delicate and durable. Place is both concrete and universal in application; it is Banner, Mississippi, and the whole condition of earthly existence as men try to live it. Characters, even to the smallest bit part, are finely drawn and patiently watched and listened to. They are also human examples of the abstractions called mythical and historical consciousness. Trees and gold rings, both natural, plausible objects, are the agents of symbolic meaning for the story. And the feeling is the honest judgment of limitations and the praise due to worthy thought and actions. The result of the refinement is a novel true to the widest range of human life….
The triumph of Losing Battles is largely the triumph of the "onlooking" point of view. Always serene, it is never aloof or condescending. Welty's reverence for things—to return to the opening of the novel—is the real source of authority in Losing Battles. We are not in a silent world of translucent consciousness … but in a tactile, substantial, teeming reality. The world is, as every Welty novel and story strives to say, and to the susceptible it opens with beauty and meaning of which we ourselves are natural parts. (p. 152)
It is as if the experience of reading Virginia Woolf presented Welty with the images of her own unspoken, as yet unwritten ideas, hopes, and themes.
Both novels, To the Lighthouse and The Optimist's Daughter, return again and again to an idea of distance, whether the distance is created by the passing of time or by the gulf between the self and the public role, self and society, self and loved one, and self and the truth. (p. 153)
In The Optimist's Daughter a single individual, Laurel McKelva Hand, is herself the battlefield and the conflicting sides—the self with the McKelva family name, rooted to a place and its people; and the self with the married name Hand, bound by love and memory to an individual life outside the family and place of birth.
Welty focuses on one family—mother, father and only daughter—through the eye and memory of the daughter. The events and images of the novel are simple, homemade, yet charged with the possibility of a miraculous richness, or the threat of tinny emptiness. These are the same kinds of mundane, daily events out of which Virginia Woolf produces miracles.
Laurel contends with the issues of distance in human relationships, with memory, and with faith in human life—issues that concern Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse. (p. 154)
The distances show up clearly, in their full and surprising magnitude. But this short, controlled novel is not complete until the forces that seem to separate have yielded their treasury of connection. However chaotic and potentially destructive those forces may seem, there is a possible unity that can encompass them. The unity is created by the act of seeing, which, faithfully performed, stills the seer so that she, or he, might see the connections that link us to one another and to the world. (p. 155)
Laurel, in the novel, strikes deeper roots. She faces her weaknesses and mistakes, and leaves them behind her. She leaves her house to Fay, not in shame and surrender, for she has burned everything of value. She leaves it, not as a temple deconsecrated and left to the vandals, but as a real place, a house, where real lives were lived and will be lived, the site of errors, love, faith, and treason. She leaves the house in Mount Salus and goes on to live the rest of her life, believing in its continuity without the need for palpable symbols. (p. 173)
Welty's constant theme is communication itself, the state of human existence in which individuals, because of some connection with each other in the natural world, become more than the simple integers they might seem. Every hero and heroine, from Mrs. Larkin to Laurel McKelva Hand, leaving the private, silent world of memory, grief, or dream, crosses a threshold into a real world that is enriched by that very entry, by that self so long withheld. (pp. 174-75)
In Welty's work the how is the what. Technique in its most fundamental aspect—its unique way of responding to the world and of expressing the impact of the world it meets—is what is given to the reader.
Welty has given, and will continue to give (for these works are soundly made and will stand), a literature that reaches great stature in its theme of love. Few writers understand that the most complex human emotion, love, is also the most simple, and that a true treatment of the theme is both discussable and not. (p. 177)
Welty's achievement is exactly this. The world she creates in her fiction is unmistakably hers, and also irresistibly the world itself. One approaches Welty's fiction with humility and imagination, which needs order to "survive."… In Welty's fiction the reader must not expect or depend upon the infallible key, for meanings shift and "doubleness" … abounds in all things. The hero, the writer, and the reader—each is expected to try to "come to terms" with a protean existence that flows and metamorphoses before the eye a thousand times between reach and touch. In such a world, then, the writer must keep eye and heart open to the vital movement in which beholder and beheld merge, in which Perseus, slaying Medusa, becomes his own victim. Reading fiction that is rooted in such an intricate sense of the interconnectedness of time, gesture, and identity, the reader must not be anxious for the definitive slogan, the point of the story. "The mystery lies in the use of language to express human life." From Welty's earliest stories her use of language and style attempts to find expression for the life and the mystery, to communicate the thing without omitting its mystery. (pp. 177-78)
Michael Kreyling, in his Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order (reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press; © 1980 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1980, 187 p.