The basic theme of the book centers on the conflict between two different cultures—the oral culture of the rural South and the written culture of the modern world. (The tension is also between the related values of remaining at home within the protection of the family as opposed to striking out on one’s own.) Losing Battles is thus a book about cultural survival, but, ironically, the oral culture which the book celebrates exists only in the written work that Losing Battles is.
Welty takes a great artistic risk in this novel, for she tries desperately to present it as an oral work. The book, filled as it is with so many different voices, departs so much from the conventions of writing that it is difficult to follow. Judge Moody is the immediate representative of the written word, and it is the letter of the law that sends Jack to prison, but, still, it is talk that dominates the book. When the judge reads the family a last letter from Miss Julia, someone asks if he cannot simply tell them what the letter is about rather than read it. The letter from the dying woman, now deserted and deprived, is the center of the irony that gives the book its title. She writes that, all of her life, she has fought a hard war with ignorance: “Except in those cases that you can count off on your fingers, I lost every battle. Year in, year out, my children at Banner School took up the cause of the other side and held the fort against me.” Although Miss Julia says that she has lost the battles, the novel itself indicates that ultimately she has won the war, for even as this novel celebrates the oral culture, it also is an elegy for its inevitable loss. As Miss Julia continues in her last words, one hears the death knell of the oral culture itself: “It’s the desperation of staying alive against all odds that keeps both sides encouraged. But the side that gets licked gets to the truth first.” The truth is that although it seems as if the oral culture has won the battle, it has indeed lost; for the world of Miss Julia ultimately dominates.