Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The power of the artistic imagination is the basic theme that Welty explores in this story. That imagination is what gives Powerhouse his ability to cast a spell over his audience, to draw them into a reality that he creates with his voice and his piano, and with the members of his band. The small-town narrator articulates the fascination of this man, declaring, “He’s a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face.” The creative energy that flows from Powerhouse is something beyond the limits of ordinary existence, as the power of the artist transforms ordinary lives, enabling others to experience the world in a different way.

That same imagination enables Powerhouse to give expression to his fears: In the jive story about the death of his wife, and then about the singer, Uranus Knockwood, who had taken Powerhouse’s place with his wife, Powerhouse creates an imaginative reality that he may confront and dispel, so that he may continue to function as a man of the world. Powerhouse recognizes the nature of his fiction, so that when the waitress questions him about the “real truth” of his wife, he tells her that the incident did not happen; however, he goes on to say that “Truth is something worse”—the real facts of humankind’s existence are terrible. However, he, Powerhouse, believes that he has the ability eventually to grasp that truth and then to relate it to others. The implication is that he will relate it as an artist through the medium of his music, through the jazz blues that he plays.

The setting contributes to the strength of the theme, for the fact that Powerhouse is a black musician playing in the segregated South, a place where black people cannot even come into the hall and dance to his music, gives added pain and despair to the already bleak circumstances of the human condition.