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 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.”
Losing Battles is a book-length illustration of Welty’s theory...
(The entire section is 1,494 words.)