Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Critics often describe this story as a study of the vulgarity or grotesquerie of modern life, and certainly Eudora Welty uses the beauty parlor and the freak show here as microcosms of small-town America. Leota, a stereotypical gossiping beautician, goads her clientele into revealing their vanities and their pettiness. In the case of Mrs. Fletcher, it embarrasses her that a stranger could detect that she is pregnant. Leota emerges as a self-aggrandizing, basically cynical person whose care for her customers extends only so far as it benefits her.

Mr. Petrie, the convicted rapist who has been masquerading at the freak show, is not the only “petrified man” in Welty’s story. Each male character, except for Billy Boy, is in his own way a hardened or stale version of manhood, dominated in an unhealthy way by the woman in his life. In the story’s final scene, Welty leaves it to the bratty Billy Boy to have the final word, a stinging rhetorical question about human motive. He is the only character in the story capable of speaking without pretension or posture, and he clarifies the story’s theme. Basic human dignity easily gives way to ugly character assassination when the self is placed at the center of relationships. Welty seems to be making the point that no one in the story, females included, can rise above his or her shortsighted and selfish ambitions.

The real freak show is located not in a traveling sideshow but in the very beauty parlor where Leota holds forth, creating disguises and false identities for the women who seek her magic. Thus, Welty strips away the veneer of respectability that distinguishes Leota and Mrs. Fletcher from Mr. Petrie.