Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Most people experience a moment in life when they understand, for the first time, the physical realities of the world and their own relationship to them. Eudora Welty presents that moment here with objective clarity and great emotional depth. When the story begins, the teenager is a child. By the time it ends, she has entered adulthood. The difference lies in her new perception of the world. The ugly family on the beach breaks into a world that centers around the young girl. This world is neat and well ordered, almost fanatical in its insistence on conformity. Within it lives a moment, a memory, that embodies perfection.

Just as the young boy is betrayed by his physical body when he suffers a nosebleed, the memory is betrayed by a world that contains the ugly reality of the family of bathers. Life is not perfection, nor is it orderliness; instead it is a messy span of seventy or so years, where age reduces beauty to wrinkles and fat, and where the cherished perfection of a newly budded body must be replaced by the casual indifference the fat woman shows as she dumps sand from her bathing suit. Her body is no longer a shrine, but merely a home for her spirit, filled with cracked linoleum and peeling paint.

This is the mystery the teenage girl dimly glimpses when she thinks of the boy, and what she finally understands as she lies on the beach, overcome with horror at the other bathers. Opening and closing her eyes, she sees light and dark as two sides of the same coin and understands that “the sweetness of my love seemed to bring the dark.” Still physically innocent, she has nevertheless glimpsed one of the primal mysteries of the universe.