Style and Technique
This story has a background in fact. Welty wrote it on the night she learned of the murder of Medgar Evers, a local black civil rights leader much like the fictional Roland Summers, which took place in 1963 in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Unaware of the killer’s identity, yet familiar with the bitterness of racism and class resentment, she created a poor white narrator who so closely resembled the real murderer that several details of the story had to be altered before its publication in The New Yorker, in order to avoid prejudicing the case.
A major strength of the story is the speaker’s voice, rich in local dialect, which also reveals him as uneducated and self-righteous. A proud man, he feels himself betrayed by everything in which he has believed. Clearly, he is a man overwhelmed by a growing movement he does not comprehend and cannot prevent. By allowing this narrator to tell his own story, Welty does not treat him as a stereotypical villain but presents him with understanding and even a certain level of compassion.
The credibility of the story is increased by passing references to historical persons, including Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi; Caroline Kennedy, the young daughter of then-president John F. Kennedy; and James Meredith, the African American student whose enrollment integrated the University of Mississippi. In addition, sensory details are plentiful. When the narrator describes his early morning journey to Summers’s neighborhood, he offers a litany of typical street and business names, locating the familiar railroad tracks and the lighted bank sign that gives the time and temperature. He notes the brutal heat, even at night; the intense emotional pressure that he experiences; and his sudden relief when Roland Summers falls.
Perhaps the most obvious symbol is the gun. Although the gun bestows temporary power on a powerless man, the narrator tells his wife that he threw his rifle in the weeds because the barrel was scorching hot and because there was really nothing worth holding on to anymore. At the story’s end, he has replaced the gun with his old guitar, an enduring part of his own past, while he plays and sings “a-Down” to comfort himself—a mindless refrain and a foreshadowing, for now he, not Roland Summers, is going down.