(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Losing Battles is not an easy novel to read, not because it is philosophically demanding or because it has a complex plot, but rather because of its style (it is written almost entirely in dialogue) and because of the large number of characters (twenty-eight listed in the cast at the front of the book) who populate it and who join in the talk that makes it up. It is precisely the talk and tale-telling of the rural family, however, that constitute the novel’s essence, as it attempts to capture the spirit of a tight-knit oral culture. The plot is so simple as to be nonexistent, even though this, unlike many of Eudora Welty’s earlier works, is a long novel of more than four hundred pages. The action takes place on the day of Granny Vaughn’s ninetieth birthday—the occasion for a reunion of the family that includes the Renfros and the Beechams—and the following day, which is the day of the funeral of the old schoolteacher of the rural area, Miss Julia Mortimer. Indeed, although Miss Julia does not figure in the novel in actuality, her legend and her influence dominate the last half of the book, much as the clan of Granny Vaughn dominates the first half.

The central event which unites these two strands is the return of Jack Renfro, who has just been released from prison; Jack, the oldest son of Beulah Renfro, one of Granny’s grandchildren, is the central hope of the family—an innocent but brave and loving young man who has chosen to stay with the family instead of making his fortune elsewhere. Jack has been in prison because of a fight he had with Curly Stovall, the town storekeeper, over Granny’s gold ring, which Curly took in payment for a family debt. After Jack fights Curly and carries off the safe in which the ring is kept (which is lost on...

(The entire section is 726 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Losing Battles is a book-length illustration of Welty’s theory of confluence. When the Beechams, the Renfros, and the Vaughns gather to celebrate Granny Vaughn’s ninetieth birthday, they all talk. In the southern social tradition, this talk involves a great deal of storytelling and reminiscence. In this way, people long dead appear among the living, and past events are revived to determine present actions.

As the title implies, there are many conflicts in the novel. Many involve an outsider’s attempt to deal with a highly structured society—in this case, the large, extended family present at the reunion. Aunt Cleo Webster is one of the characters who has a problem with the family into which she has recently married. Early in the novel, it is clear that her questions show her ignorance of the family heritage and, worse, her slightly different perspective. Because she is from southern Mississippi and the reunion takes place in the hill country of northern Mississippi, there is a geographical explanation; however, when the family discovers that she was previously married to a member of the Stovall clan, the hereditary enemies of the Beechams and the Renfros, Aunt Cleo becomes, to a degree, the object of suspicion. Fortunately, by the end of the novel, Aunt Cleo has been taught much about family history and, by learning the correct responses in the never-ending conversations, has become a part of the family.

Another outsider is Gloria Renfro, who is waiting for the return of her husband, Jack Renfro, from the penitentiary, where he had been sent because of an altercation involving a Stovall snatching a family ring from Jack’s young sister. Because Jack is the family hero and Granny’s favorite, after his return Gloria has difficulty getting him alone. The family demands that he avenge himself on the judge who sent him to the penitentiary....

(The entire section is 768 words.)