20 Short Stories of Eudora Welty

Mr. Sumanraj Banerjee

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A Curtain of Green and Other Stories: The first published collection of Eudora Welty’s short stories, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941) comprising of seventeen stories dealing with a variety of themes, records the odd, mundane but often beautiful situations in the life of men and women of different social standing. Using a sublime combination of myth and reality, Welty focuses searching light on different sections of the contemporary Mississippi society. A number of recurring themes unite many of the stories; for example, the predominance of violence in claustrophobic spaces haunting the lives of women characters such as Lily Daw in ‘Lily Daw and the Three Ladies’, Keela in ‘Keela, or the Outcast Indian Maiden’, Sister in ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, or Ruby Fisher in ‘A Piece of News’. The description of these women is subtly counterpoised with that of other characters that are implied as leading the ideal life. Besides, Welty’s inhabiting of the complex position of woman writer from the South is problematized through many of the stories in this collection. Critic and researcher Peter Schmidt draws our attention to the fact that Welty’s portrayal of the predicament of the women protagonists in many of the short stories in A Curtain of Green implies the Southern woman writer’s voicing anxiety and guilt for sins unleashed by the repressive customs of the American South on women over the ages. Katherine Anne Porter (by then an already acclaimed Southern American female writer of short stories), in her much-discussed introduction to Welty’s first book struck an important chord when she talked about Welty’s twin abilities; first, the fact of being naturally awake to the deeper implications of trivial episodes in human life and second, the gift of being able to render these incidents with photographic precision.


Perhaps the most anthologized and most powerful of all the stories in this collection, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ shall be the focus of our discussion here. Like many other stories in this collection, this one also focuses on female character(s) trapped in the web of societal (here, more poignantly, familial) oppression. While most critical thinking about this particular story seems to have been sealed off once and for all by Katherine Anne Porter’s comment that this story offers “the most terrifying case of dementia praecox”, there is indeed a good deal more to the story. The narrator and protagonist of ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, Sister belongs to a family of impulsive talkers who refuse to listen to anybody but themselves. Sister herself reveals the tendency most clearly throughout the story, most clearly typified by her declaration at the end of the story: “And if Stella Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr Whitaker, I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen.” (Welty 73) This is her attitude throughout the book, and it is not very different from that of most other of her family members. Mama fails to convince her that if she had been in Stella Rondo’s position (that is, if she had run away with the man of her choice and returned with a child) she would have got the same warm reception that Stella Rondo was receiving. Stella Rondo claims that anybody with ears could hear Sister saying she could not understand why Papa Daddy never shaved his beard. As Sister protests with increasing gusto against this, it seems Papa Daddy is not ready to listen at all. Interestingly, the utter lack of communication reaches the readers as a result of Sister’s attempt to build up a well-reasoned argument to show why she chooses to live at the post-office. However, the attempts of Sister’s supposedly well reasoned subjective self to order the objective world around her fail to convince us on account of her hyperactive rationality. Her obsession with trying to prove the malicious nature of Stella Rondo, assisted by the biased views of the rest of the family (ironically, Sister claims that it was Stella Rondo who had caused a split between her and Mr Whitaker by telling him that Sister was one – sided) rather than drawing sympathy for her, raise confusions in the reader’s mind about the moral superiority she claims for herself. While she might not have voiced surprise over Papa Daddy’s decision to ever shave his beard, her claim that she had not even got ‘the idea’ in her head is complete falsehood; so is her claim that she had never thought of Uncle Rondo as a fool. What Sister tries to do in order to show her perfect rationality and good-will is to dismiss everybody else, thereby enclosing herself into a central, water-tight compartment of higher moral ground. In doing so she cuts herself off from the objective world around and ends in bitter isolation. The paradise of being that she imagines her life at the post office to be is ironically devoid of contact with all life which is substituted by abundance of machines and gadgets, proving beyond doubt the schizophrenic nature of the narrating voice of Sister. Simultaneously, however, it must also be acknowledged that Sister’s schizoid nature does not function in a vacuum; rather, the unsympathetic and bizarrely cruel behavior of her family members is complicit in turning her schizophrenic. While psychological deviance from the standards of normalcy characterizes many female characters in the stories of this book, Sister is unique in being economically self-dependent and overtly rational. While in stories like ‘Lily Daw and the Three Ladies’ characters like Lily (who do not conform to the standards that define an ideal lady) are framed through a narrative controlled by others (the other ‘ladies’), in ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ Sister is in complete control of the narrative. In both cases however, it is the presence of significant gaps in the narrative that allow the reader to read between the lines, unearthing inherent tensions and repressions so far as women in Southern American society are concerned.


The Wide Net and Other Stories: Whereas A Curtain of Green and Other Stories mostly dealt with situations realistic, the first line of the first story ‘First Love’ in Welty’s next collection The Wide Net and Other Stories professed a move away into a “season of dreams” (Welty 170). Readers going through the thematically varied stories in Welty’s first collection might notice a sense of the writer’s innate sense of gaiety at the variety of life in the American South. The tales in The Wide Net and Other Stories deriving in part from Welty’s experiences as a Works Progress Association (WPA) employee in the 1930s revolve around the evocative history of the Natchez Trace. The historical Trace had been the site of settlement for Native Americans in the 1790s, as well as a major travel-route for emigrants from the trans-Appalachians and trans-Allegheny east to the new territory of the lower Mississippi. In the 1930s, the Department of the Interior’s decision to survey the Trace and use the area as part of a highway connecting Natchez to Nashville ushered in a new era in the history of the Natchez Trace. Later stories in Welty’s first collection such as ‘A Worn Path’ and ‘Powerhouse’ had seen Welty putting to use the history of the Trace in the Realist vein that characterized the stories of that collection. The stories in the Wide Net use the Trace and its history to build up the “season of dreams”. The dominant theme of ‘First Love’ engages the history of the Trace in involving the awakening of love in the orphaned deaf –mute boy Joel Mayes for the charismatic historical figure of Aaron Burr, who at the turn of the nineteenth century had infamously conspired to separate the Southwestern state of Mississippi from the United States of America.


‘A Still Moment’- the story from the present collection that we are about to discuss in greater detail, is another instance of Welty’s skilful handling of the history of the Trace. Playing on a theme that runs all along her first collection we can see Welty stressing on the loneliness of the three uniquely obsessed characters Lorenzo, Murrell and Audubon in ‘A Still Moment’. The Evangelist Lorenzo Dow in his obsession with conversion of the maximum possible numbers, preoccupation with God, the Devil and ethereal symbolism represents the highly conservative band of Church Fathers exclusively bent on rejuvenating the hold of Christianity in America in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Murrell- the only actual historical character among the trio, was an outcast and exile from Tennessee, convicted and branded for crimes  as wide ranging as horse stealing, murder, instigating clan-fights, etc. It has also been historically proved that news of Nat Turner’s rebellion had actually made Murrell hopeful of using the hysteria to strengthen his own position. In the present story, from the moment of his entry into the scene we find Murrell completely absorbed in the idea of perpetrating murder and mayhem to suit his own needs. As the two men ride on side by side, each is shown by Welty as taken up with his own private obsession, thereby serving as counterparts to one another. The entry of Audubon the painter (so absorbed in art that he has not spoken for days on end) completes the triad of obsessed people. Audubon’s absorption into his vocation is so absolute that even at the moment when the three strangers co-habit a common space from where they gaze upon the white heron, the fanaticism of the religious man Lorenzo or that of the fiendish Murrell fail to penetrate the sphere of concern with art that solely surround him. An important point that the noticing of the bird by each of the three reveals about the complexity of individual character is the importance of perception. The different viewpoints of the three characters shape the same heron that they all see in different ways, associating  the bird with different trains of thought. For Dow, the bird is an emissary from God, made visible through overwhelming love of being. Murrell in trying to shade his eyes from the sun sees the brand H.T. (Horse-Thief) on his thumb. The artist, the only person who actually sees the bird as precisely “as if he held it in his hand” (Welty 212), lay in wait “knowing that some birds will wait for a sense of their presence to travel to men before they will fly away from them” (212). The association of three strangers, three men whom Welty unites on the common thread of desire for ‘all’, each in his own way (Lorenzo “to save all souls”, Murrell “to destroy all men” and Audubon “to record all life that filled this world”) is brought to an end with Audubon shooting the bird dead all of a sudden. Lorenzo Dow is the first to retreat from the scene in horror, contemplating on God’s separateness from all beings in Creation, including Lorenzo himself. Resolutely religious, Lorenzo hovers on the brink of blasphemy in supposing that God’s plan (oblivious of the sense of Time) in giving Love first and then Separateness might be a perversion. But the engulfing nature of his obsession soon catches up with the train of thoughts in his mind, as borne out by his exclamation “Tempter!”, looking back at the spot where the heron had been feeding in the marsh. Murrell seems to be the least affected by the tranquil scene and slips silently away on his own after the heron has been shot. Audubon, once he has committed the act, feels that although his had been one of the perspectives, it was not the sole one. While looking at the live bird, he had felt the urge to know it feather by feather to sympathize with it emotionally, required if he were to paint it. Once he has killed the bird, he feels that the painting he is going to produce may strive to catch the beauty of the live object, but all it can actually become is merely “a sum of parts” (214) but “never the essence” (214).


In ‘First Love’ or ‘A Still Moment’ Welty strives to filter the history of the Trace through her exquisite historical imagination. In other stories of her second collection like ‘Livvie’, ‘The Wide Net’ or ‘Asphodel’ Welty’s use of the geographical entity of the Trace involves entwining of myth and imagination, where the indwelling forces of life, rather than actual historical persons occupy the center stage in the unfolding of the drama of human passions and emotions.


The Golden Apples: Welty’s third collection of short stories The Golden Apples (1949) is often considered as her masterpiece in the genre. Having completed ‘Moon Lake’ (a story based on the rural summer camp for girls at Mississippi set in the 1930s) and ‘Shower of Gold’ (featuring the virile, unfaithful figure of King Maclain and his long suffering wife Snowdie), Welty suddenly came to realize that these along with two other stories-‘The Whole World Knows’ and ‘Golden Apples’ actually involved a common cast of characters (involving King Maclain, his wife Snowdie, their twin sons Ran and Eugene, the piano- teacher Miss Eckhart, Cassie and Virgie Rainey and a host of others) separated by time and generations, but all acting out their destinies in the small, fictional, Mississippi town of Morgana. The name Morgana itself had a history of its own, alluding to Fata Morgana, a kind of mirage owing its name to the enchantress Morgana la Fay in the Arthurian legends. In creating the interconnected cast of characters and their inter-related development over a rough span of fifty years, Welty was furthering the distinctly American short story cycle of inter-related short stories that left a similar effect as the novel, typified through earlier works such as Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.


Any discussion of the characters portrayed in the Golden Apples ought to begin with King Maclain- the potent, highly sexualized and unfaithful husband of Snowdie, who is impregnated by King Maclain in the first story of the sequence (the twin brothers Ran and Eugene result from conjugation). Welty’s fascination with the poetry of William Butler Yeats and Celtic mythology is noticeable in not only the naming of the town (Morgana may also have derived from Morrigan-the Irish goddess who fought Cuchulain in the Irish epic Tain) but the name Mac-lain possibly ‘meaning son of Cuchulain’ (‘Mac’ meaning son). The train of associations may be continued, if we view Maclain and his sons as comic echoes of Cuchulain, engaged in sexual combats with the domineering female characters of the town of Morgana. On another level the collection may also be viewed as Welty’s continuation with the theme of Southern female characters who transcend the traditional boundaries of the feminine, so much so that male experience is framed by and circumscribed within the feminine space and perspective. ‘Shower of Gold’ (the title serving as an allusion to the mythical episode where Zeus impregnates Danae having come to her as a shower of gold in her lap ) for example is narrated by the gossipy Katie Rainey, a woman who is also the mother of the central female character Virgie Rainey. The third story, ‘Sir Rabbit’ falls into a similar category in being narrated by one of the female characters Mattie Will Sojourner whom King Maclain rapes, in language reminiscent of Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’. The second story ‘June Recital’ introduces us to the figure of the teen-aged female student of Miss Eckhart’s- Virgie Rainey, who is initially the favorite of her teacher but later turns her back to the culture she tries to impart. Following the tragedy in her life, Miss Eckhart, already lonely and now an ostracized figure in the small town society of Mississippi loses her hold on the world of material reality, trying to ignite the now deserted building which used to be her home. Virgie, initially abhorrent of anything to do with Miss Eckhart, comes to realize at the end of the last story ‘The Wanderers’ (when she herself is a forty year old woman) that she had never actually hated Miss Eckhart. Evocative in this process of realization is the memory of a picture she had seen hanging in her youth on a wall in Miss Eckhart’s house.


In retrospect, the slaying of the Gorgon Medusa by Perseus in that picture symbolically stands for Virgie’s refusal to develop the musical talent that Miss Eckhart had tried to inculcate in her. In two other stories from the collection we are intimated of the fates of the twin sons born to King Maclain and Snowdie- Ran and Eugene. By interesting twists of fate, married lives of both the sons of the Priapic and almost mythic figure of King Maclain (who interlinks many of the stories simply by fathering children on numerous women in and around Morgana) are highly disturbed. Ran begins an affair with a woman who faintly resembles what his childhood sweetheart and now unfaithful wife used to be like, but is then torn apart as we encounter him once again after this other woman commits suicide (as we learn in ‘The Wanderers’). The fate of Eugene is not much dissimilar, though he leaves Morgana early to settle in San Francisco. In ‘Music From Spain’, we find him an embittered man, after the grief resulting from the death of his only daughter has distanced him from his wife gradually over the course of time. His hitting out suddenly at his wife begins the action of the story, following which he (in shock at having done such a thing) roams around the streets of the city, accompanied by a Spanish musician though neither can communicate with the other. Katie Rainey’s funeral serves as the occasion for the union of the two distraught brothers back in Morgana, while the Priapic figure of their father King Maclain returns to make an appearance in this final story, to be revealed as pitiably human after all.


The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories: The fourth collection of Eudora Welty’s short stories The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955) continues her habit of reworking and refining narrative technique, besides bringing in a host of changes from what had been the salient features of her earlier short fiction. One of the most important among them was the change in setting; four of the seven stories in the collection are set in places away from the American South, so characteristic of Welty’s earlier short fiction. In ‘Circe’ Welty for the first time explicitly uses Greek myth deriving from the Odyssey. In stories like ‘The Bride of the Innisfallen’ (depicting a band of Irish people on their way from London to Cork) and ‘Going to Naples’ (dealing with a group of Italian-Americans on board a ship headed to Italy) or ‘No Place for You, My Love’ (two of the major characters who feature in this story being non-Southerners, one a self conscious woman from the Mid-West region and another a businessman from the East characterized by gentility) are stories where Welty moves away from her niche of characters set in the society of the American South. In the story titled ‘Kin’, Welty presents another side of her innovative face to us in dealing with a young woman returning to the South after she had left for the North with her family as an eight-year old girl. The perspective of the outsider is something that Welty brings in for the first time in the short stories of this collection. The faculty of historical imagination that had so marked the stories featuring the Natchez Trace re-surfaces in ‘The Burning’, Welty’s only story drawing on the American Civil War. The only story in the sequence that consolidates on rural Southern American settings is ‘Ladies in Spring’ (where Welty sets the action in a small fictional Mississippi town she calls Royals).


A casual reading of the stories also succeeds in informing the readers of Welty’s preoccupation with the theme of journey in this collection (a marked feature in ‘No Place For You, My Love’, ‘The Bride of the Innisfallen’ and ‘Going to Naples’), echoing similar themes in earlier works such as ‘A Worn Path’ or ‘The Wide Net’. However, there is a subtle difference in the way Welty handles the theme of journey in stories in her fourth collection. While journeys in the earlier stories had been undertaken by characters towards clearly defined objects and objectives, it is impossible to pinpoint why the journeys in the later stories are undertaken at all. While Old Phoenix or William Wallace could identify their motivations behind taking their respective journeys, the fact of taking the journey in the ‘Bride of the Innisfallen’ is as obscure for the little girl as the pivotal problem of her life. We find a similar vagueness shrouding the journey (rather the flight) of the young woman in ‘No Place for You, My Love’. The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories also marks advancement in terms of Welty’s narrative technique. This is most evident in ‘The Burning’, where Welty uses impressionistic detail narrated through language subtly adjusted in order to suit the relationship, idiom and consciousness of the three women Miss Theo, Miss Myra and their young female slave Delilah.


The suggestive language employed to depict details as blood-curdling as the ravishment of Miss Myra (“the soldier…dropped on top of her”) and the burning alive of little Phinney (“but it was like a bellowing like a bull, that came from inside-Delilah drew close”) shows Welty’s skill in handling language under tense circumstances.

Subtlety underlines much of the narrative in the stories of this collection. The difficulty of the metaphors that depict the inter-relationship of the two sophisticated protagonists in ‘No Place For You, My Love’ may be taken as a characteristic instance. About the couple on the verge of estrangement, Welty comments: “Something that must have been with them all along suddenly, then, was not. In a moment, tall as panic, it rose, cried like a human, and dropped back” (Welty 487). In gauging the nature of change that Welty’s writing in the journey from A Curtain of Green to The Bride of the Innisfallen, one can see parallels of the transformation from innocence to experience that she herself admits of as characterizing her longer fiction.

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