Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

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.

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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 his trip home), he is sent to prison by Judge Moody for “aggravated battery.” The story of Jack’s trial and adventures surrounding his return home from prison is presented in great detail by the symphony of voices of the characters themselves, in such a way that, as is typical of an oral culture, the past blends with the present. On Jack’s way home to the reunion, he helps pull a man’s car out of a ditch, only to find out when he arrives that the man is none other than Judge Moody himself. When Jack returns to undo his Good Samaritan deed, his wife and child barely escape being run over by the judge, who swerves off the road to avoid hitting them; as a result, the judge’s car is stuck in a precarious position perched on the edge of a precipice. Because Jack claims that the judge saved the life of his wife and child, he vows to help him free his car and then brings him and his grumbling wife back to the reunion with him. Jack’s wife, Gloria, is the schoolteacher who has succeeded Miss Julia; she fell in love with Jack when he was one of her overgrown students. She had his child, Lady May, while he was in prison. Gloria is in many ways at the very center of the tension between the rural world of the clan and the sense of progress and ambition that Miss Julia represents. Miss Julia has been set against her star pupil and protégée, who married Jack Renfro and thus became merely a wife and mother in the midst of the clannish backwardness of the rural world. When the clan checks its genealogy in the family Bible, it discovers that Gloria is actually a cousin of Jack and thus she is welcomed into the family much more warmly than when she was considered to be an outsider aligned with the foreign world represented by Miss Julia.

Following the freeing of the judge’s car, a comic masterpiece of description, the novel comes to a close rather quickly with the funeral of Miss Julia. At the end, Jack, Gloria, and Lady May walk off together, presumably to a new life somewhat freed from both factions, with Jack singing “Bringing in the Sheaves” so loudly that “all Banner could hear him and know who he was.”

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

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. Desperately, Gloria plays every card she holds in order to keep Jack from getting in trouble and being sent away again. She tries to focus his attention on their baby, on her own physical charms, and on their future life together.

However, the family does not want to let go of the past. They would rather have another mythic character to tell stories about than have a real Jack Renfro, happy at home. It is chance, Gloria, and the Renfro sense of honor that unite to keep Jack at home. When Judge Moody, who had sentenced Jack, sacrifices his wife’s beloved car in order to keep from hitting the baby and Gloria, Jack cannot harm him; instead, he invites him and his wife to the reunion.

During the celebration, Gloria undergoes a kind of initiation into Jack’s family. At one point, several of the women hold her down and force watermelon into her mouth; at another, they criticize her wedding dress, which she has worn to welcome back her husband, and finally cut it up because they say it has far too much material in it. For a time, Gloria feels that Jack must choose between his family and her; eventually, however, she realizes that the love between them is so strong that she can afford to share him with his family.

These main plot lines indicate the importance of the theme of reconciliation in Losing Battles. In all these cases, individuals become accepted by a society that had initially viewed them as outsiders. Yet there is another character in the novel who has chosen to remain an outsider—Miss Julia Mortimer, the influential schoolteacher, who has just died. Although she appears at the reunion entirely through anecdote, nonetheless she is a very real presence. Early in the novel, Gloria has to choose whether to go to the funeral of Miss Julia, her friend and mentor, or to stay and wait for Jack. She chooses Jack, as she had chosen him when she left teaching to marry him. In her battle for Gloria, Miss Julia loses, as she had lost most of the battles that she had waged against ignorance. At the end of her life, she was still fighting, but she had come to the conclusion that if her students did learn anything, it would be more or less a miracle rather than anything she had consciously done.

Despite its length, its structural complexity, and the innumerable characters, living and dead, that crowd its pages, Losing Battles is considered one of Welty’s most interesting novels. Superficially, it appears to be little more than a record of conversations, yet it is a superb exploration of the subjects and themes that dominate Welty’s works.

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