The Ponder Heart

by Eudora Welty

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Critical Evaluation

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If the origin of comedy is in the disruption of routine and logical or rational expectation without the result of genuine pain, then The Ponder Heart is a comic masterpiece. The world Eudora Welty creates in the small town of Clay, Mississippi, in the early 1950’s is peopled by characters for whom reason and logical predictability appear to be the exception rather than the rule. The punch line, after all, is that one of the characters dies not by being smothered by her estranged husband or from a fright-induced heart attack but from laughing.

At the center of the novella, which is narrated in a dramatic monologue to the reader—“you,” a stranded guest at the Beulah Hotel three days after the famous trial—is Uncle Daniel Ponder, who has the mind of a child and is unable to deal with the world rationally. Lovable in his imbecility, Uncle Daniel spends most of his time giving things away. When, however, Grandpa Ponder attempts to commit Uncle Daniel to an asylum, the tables are turned and Grandpa ends up being detained while Uncle Daniel, then in his fifties, promptly marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, a girl of seventeen who works at the dime store.

Incongruities of all sorts show up throughout the novella, not only in how the characters behave but also in what they say. Edna Earle Ponder, who narrates the events in a torrent of clichés and colloquialisms, is master of the non sequitur. The comic centerpiece of the novella is the trial. The occasion is founded on the assumption that justice derives rationally from motivation and evidence, but in a case in which the coroner is blind and the only motive for the supposed murder appears to be love, it can be expected that justice will have little to do with reason.

As the title implies, the main theme of the novella concerns the heart, or love. The doctor has described Bonnie Dee’s death as heart failure, “death by misadventure,” but, as Edna Earle describes it, the prosecuting attorney, Dorris Gladney, scratching his head and pretending to think, thereupon asks the double-edged question, “What makes the heart fail?” The real mystery is not whether Uncle Daniel did or did not murder his childish, materialistic wife but why love fails.

Ironically, the character who seems most capable of universal and selfless love is Uncle Daniel, but society first commits him to an asylum and then accuses him of murder. The question arises whether Uncle Daniel’s benevolent and loving nature is itself the object of ridicule, for he has only the slightest grasp on reality. His “fond and loving heart” is bent on an array of women, beginning with a motorcyclist, Intrepid Elsie Fleming, at the county fair, but, as Edna Earle says, he was in his forties “before we ever dreamed that such a thing as love flittered through his mind.” Welty’s choice of the word “mind” here may be significant.

Grandpa Ponder arranges a marriage for Uncle Daniel with the widow Miss Teacake Magee, but that lasts only two months because the noise of her heels unnerves her new husband. His love for Bonnie Dee, who stays with him for five and a half years before leaving for no apparent reason, has as much to do with her willingness to cut his hair as anything else. For her part, Bonnie Dee appears to love only “things,” and her return to Uncle Daniel is obviously in response to that portion of Edna Earle’s poem in the newspaper that mentions “retroactive allowance.” Although Uncle Daniel does feel her loss, he is quite willing...

(This entire section contains 1007 words.)

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to transfer his affections to her sister, but when he gives away all his money at the climax of the trial, he has nothing to offer that she wants.

The most important character in the novella is the narrator, Edna Earle, who understands the claims of both the head and the heart and who has set aside her own craving for romantic love in order to care for her family. The last of the Ponders, and the best embodiment in the novella of Christian charity, she describes herself as “the go-between . . . between my family and the world.” The closest she comes to a self-indulgent romantic love is her affection for a traveling salesman named Ovid Springer; Welty’s choice of first name, an obvious reference to the Augustan poet noted for his erotic love poems, appears to be ironic, for Springer shows no romantic inclination toward Edna Earle.

Edna Earle frequently comments on love, but her observations are usually buried in such a variety of contexts that they are easily overlooked. When Grandpa Ponder tells her about his plan to “fork up a good wife” for Uncle Daniel, she informs the guest, “The heart’s a remarkable thing, if you ask me.” She does not, however, let on to Grandpa Ponder that she herself might wish to be married. Commenting on Uncle Daniel’s inability to understand money, Edna Earle says, “The riches were all off in the clouds somewhere—like true love is, I guess, like a castle in the sky.” Although she is speaking of her uncle, her own wistfulness is apparent. When she attempts to bring Bonnie Dee and her uncle together after she sets up at the Ponder place outside town and leaves Uncle Daniel at the Beulah Hotel, Edna Earle comments, “I don’t know if you can measure love at all.” She adds, “There’s a lot of it. . . . Love! There’s always somebody wants it.”

At the end of the novella, however, there appear to be no takers for the Ponders’ immense love. No longer wealthy, they have been alienated from the town, for the citizens of Clay feel guilty over having accepted Uncle Daniel’s last extravagant cash giveaway. Some critics have pointed out that the future belongs to the proud but worthless Peacocks, whereas the Ponders, whose name suggests thoughtfulness and something weighty or substantial in character, are left standing alone.