The Robber Bridegroom

by Eudora Welty

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Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

Vital to all of Welty's work is the knitting together of the actual and the imaginative. As she says in One Writer's Beginnings (1984), "My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world." Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Robber Bridegroom where she uses an actual setting in an historical frame and peoples it with figures from both history and fantasy. (The Harp brothers were flesh and blood outlaws, and Mike Fink was a legendary flatboatman on the Mississippi River.) Some of the book's episodes are based on real events, others are pure invention, and still others are a blend of the two or lifted in fragments from the Grimm brothers or from myth and legend.

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Much of the book reads like a fairy tale, and its name, of course, is the same as that of its fairy tale counterpart. Moreover, its oral quality makes for pleasurable reading aloud. The book's magic derives more from its language than from its incidents, though they are magical enough. For example, the book's second paragraph, which describes Clement's arrival at the frontier town of Rodney's Landing on the Mississippi River, captures the flavor of Welty's setting on the borderline between wilderness and civilization and establishes the role of imagination that is to shape events and characters through the course of the book:

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As his foot touched the shore, the sun sank into the river the color of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon . . . There were sounds of rushing and flying, from the flourish of carriages hurrying through the streets after dark, from the bellowing throats of the flatboatmen, and from the wilderness itself, which lifted and drew itself in the wind, and pressed its savage breath even closer to the little galleries of Rodney, and caused a bell to turn over in one of the steeples, and shook the fort and dropped a tree over the racetrack.

The book also abounds in wordplay and whimsical humor. The first question Clement asks his prospective landlord in Rodney is, "But where have you left your right ear?" He trusts only people who have both ears, and the larger the better. Later, when Rosamond returns home naked from herb gathering in the woods and reports that a bandit (Jamie Lockhart in disguise) stole all her clothes but left her intact, Clement and Salome are understandably incredulous. "And at first they did not believe her, until there was nothing else to do but believe her, unless they jumped down the well." Welty likes to attach the unexpected phrase to the end of certain sentences to give an incident a humorous turn, and she uses the tall tale in delightful fun whenever Mike Fink is on stage. In short, this book blends techniques from its various sources as readily as it blends content.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

Although Welty saw a good deal of poverty in her work for the WPA during the depression, and although she grew up in a class conscious South, her work rarely espouses social causes. Her subject is the humanity that links all people rather than the social issues that divide them. In fact, in 1965, in answer to critics who expected her to use her fiction to promote social equality, she published "Must the Novelist Crusade" in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly. She insists in that essay that "the zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done fiction any good." In another sense, however, all of Welty's writing focuses on social concerns because she writes about human matters, principally human relationships and the relationship between the individual and the community.

In The Robber Bridegroom, Welty takes a piece of her country's past and produces what she says is not an "historical historical novel," but is rather a blend of history and place with fantasy, fairy tale, legend, folklore, and myth. It is a tender, funny, terrifying, wondrous tale of a planter and his beautiful daughter, of a wicked stepmother and her jealous greed, of bandits and Indians, of braggarts and comic grotesques, all brought together in the late eighteenth century along that dangerous traveler's trail adjacent to the Mississippi River, the old Natchez Trace. Among other things, the novel looks at historical processes and the losses and gains inherent in those processes. Captured by Indians and awaiting his fate, the planter, Clement Musgrove, indulges in a bit of philosophy as he looks at "the sad faces of the Indians, like the faces of feverish children." To himself he says, "The savages have only come the sooner to their end; we will come to ours too. Why have I built my house, and added to it? The planter will go after the hunter, and the merchant after the planter, all having their day." The book is about what happens in the human heart as these processes unfold.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

The most obvious have already been suggested — fairy tales, folk tales, legends, frontier humor and tall tales, classical mythology, and regional history. The Robber Bridegroom is fantasy, but not in the manner of J. R. R. Tolkien's work or C. S. Lewis's. Welty uses the real world — she does not create a never-never land — and she populates it with earthy people who sometimes behave like characters in a fairy tale.

Adaptations

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The Robber Bridegroom was adapted as a Broadway musical in 1974. Although the characters essentially retained their identifying traits, the musical was a rowdy, heehawing, hillbilly affair. The production's regional flavor overwhelmed the novel's sometimes delicate humor and its fairy tale atmosphere.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

Champion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. In her introduction, Champion presents an overview of the criticism on Welty’s fiction. Four separate essays by different scholars are devoted to various aspects of The Robber Bridegroom. Includes a helpful bibliography of works for further reading.

Gretlund, Jan N. Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994. A comprehensive overview of Welty’s work focusing on the vivid sense of setting and place that Welty brings to her novels. Includes two interviews with Welty.

Horn, Miriam. “Imagining Others’ Lives.” US News and World Report 114 (February 15, 1993): 78-79. Profiles Welty, who has spent most of her literary career revealing mythic dimensions in the most ordinary of lives. Explores Welty’s genteel southern background and briefly examines some of her works, including The Robber Bridegroom.

Kreyling, Michael. Author and Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991. Emphasizing their correspondence, this book explores the relationship between Welty and her agent Russell. Kreyling examines Welty’s development as a writer, as well as the encouragement and devotion of Russell to her work. Many of her novels are discussed.

Waldron, Ann. Eudora: A Writer’s Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998. An unauthorized biography, as well as the first to be written, about Welty that presents new material about her personal life and career. Although Waldron does not present in-depth analysis of Welty’s works, this book sheds light on her background and writings.

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Critical Essays