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Eudora Welty: The Three Moments


ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

THE characters in Eudora Welty’s fiction are fortunate indeed, for they are conceived in kindness, justice and compassion by the imagination that creates them. In Miss Welty’s work, the strong and the weak, the magnanimous and the mean alike, in every circumstance retain their human dignity. “I don’t have an ounce of revenge in my body,” Edna Earle Ponder assures her auditor, and the words may aptly be applied to the author of “The Ponder Heart.” The reader, too, enjoys Miss Welty’s even-handed bounty. On every page she tacitly gives him credit for being adequately prepared to face the shock of truth, sufficiently enamored of the real to relish its unexpected faces, rational enough to know that reason yields in the end to mystery. Her view of life is not idealized, nor is it tough in the sense of denying mortal existence its proper and inalienable graces. We are safe, in reading a Welty novel, from being dinned at, scolded, hoodwinked, lectured, flattered or condescended to. Secure from malice, anger or contempt, we enjoy a vision of the world depicted with an objectivity which is enriched by warmth and charity. If Eudora Welty has a bias, it springs from affection for the human race.

Three of Miss Welty’s novels—”Delta Wedding,” “The Ponder Heart” and “The Optimist’s Daughter”—unfold through the consciousness of female characters. And these women are also fair-minded and humane. Of course, they present a feminine point of view; but this, in Miss Welty’s work, is a matter of perspective which does not involve distortion. For Eudora Welty, showing the action of a novel through a woman’s eyes is not an act of aggression but of illumination.

To be sure, Miss Welty delights her readers with the heroic antics of certain male characters: Uncle Daniel, Mike Fink, Jamie Lockhart, Jack Renfro, Curly Stovall, Major Bullock. However, as we will try to show, the suggestion here is not that male heroes are inherently ridiculous but that these characters are not, at least initially, true heroes at all. Criteria for genuine heroism as Miss Welty sees it can be found obliquely conveyed throughout her fiction. The work of demolition—to call it that—which she performs upon the conventional image of the male hero has the effect not of attacking the male sex and its image of itself but of clearing the way for a conception of heroic action which does fuller justice to the actual potentialities for heroism in men and women alike.

II

The tendency of Eudora Welty’s fiction is indeed anti-heroic; that is, it makes legitimate fun of the posturing male hero-adventurer whose main objective, to paraphrase Uncle Curtis in “Losing Battles,” is to butt the world like a billy goat and make it pay him heed. An appropriate emblem of this species of hero is the Perseus of Greek myth; appropriate, that is, when Perseus’ heroics are taken at face value: he averts his eyes, swings the magic sword, and lo!, with upraised arm he displays his trophy—the snaky severed head of the Medusa. Thereafter, he can use the Medusa-power as his own, striking his pose again and again with the gory trophy held on high to turn his enemies to stone.

A survey of Miss Welty’s heroes shows at once that their achievements in the public eye bear only a marginal resemblance to those of conquering Perseus. George Fairchild, as Ellen Fairchild correctly observes, is not “a challenger, a proud défier,” although his family does conspire to place him in that false position. On the other hand, Jack Renfro, loser of battles, egged on by his adoring family, challenges and defies to such disastrous effect that his father, surveying the damages, can only say in wonder, “You couldn’t bring something like that to pass just by trying.” The most flamboyant vaunting hero is the legendary Mike Fink of “The Robber Bridegroom.” He drinks and brawls superbly but finds himself demoted from king of the river boats to carrier of the territorial mails. He has been put down with shocking ease by brainy Jamie Lockhart, a bandit who also takes his lumps before he settles down with charming Rosamond to fatherhood and domesticity.

The female hero in Miss Welty’s fiction may not be recognized at all as such by the unwary reader. Rosamond regularly faints in critical moments. Ellen Fairchild, from the outside, is simply a preoccupied mother of eight. And when Laurel McKelva in “The Optimist’s Daughter” raises a weapon over her adversary’s head, she does not complete the blow but arrests it in mid-air. Even that most staunch and pertinacious of heroes, Miss Julia Mortimer of “Losing Battles,” proves no match for her particular dragon; and Miss Beulah Renfro says of her with some justice, “Taking over more’n her territory, that was her downfall.”

III

The interpretation of the Perseus myth in “The Golden Apples” is put forward by Miss Welty through the thoughts of that book’s hero, Virgie Rainey. She appears in “June Recital” as by far the most talented piano pupil of Miss Lotte Elisabeth Eckhart; then we lose sight of her for 25 years before, on the occasion of her mother’s death, she re-enters the story in “The Wanderers.” On the morning after the funeral, Virgie has pulled up stakes and is about to leave Morgana for good. She is sitting on the stile in front of the courthouse in MacLain, enjoying the light rain and the solitude. Her thoughts turn back to Miss Eckhart and to a picture that had hung on one of her walls— Perseus with the head of Medusa. “The vaunting was what she remembered, that uplifted arm.” Yet it is not the image of the hero triumphant that has become a permanent part of her mind but the stroke of the sword he wielded. “Cutting off the Medusa’s head,” she thinks,

was the heroic act, perhaps, that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love . . .—the separateness.

The stroke of Perseus is not, in itself, a triumph of any kind. So far from ridding the world of a horror, it reveals one. It is not an act of liberation, not even an assertion of the sovereign will. The important thing, for Virgie, is not what Perseus has done to Medusa; it is what the deed, like a stroke of fate, has done to him.

The hero Virgie has in mind is not Perseus alone but a composite being, Perseus-Medusa, seen as one. Identification of the hero with the victim is essential to this conception of the heroic act:

Because Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them— and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one.

Realizing long after the fact that Miss Eckhart has taught her far more than how to play the piano, Virgie recalls the teacher herself as both hero and victim. All of Miss Welty’s teachers, and above all Miss Julia Mortimer, play this double role. Gloria Renfro remembers Miss Julia’s saying, “If it’s going to be a case of Saint George and the Dragon, I might as well battle it left, right, front, back, center and sideways.” As Gloria points out, “She was Saint George. . . . And Ignorance was the dragon.” Unhappily, the dragon weathers this contest better than Saint George. Virgie’s Miss Eckhart, isolated from the beginning in Morgana by her foreign origin and ways, had also fought a losing battle and had also died in misery. She had seemed to fail even with Virgie, who had done no more with her talent than play background music at the Morgana picture show, who thought she hated Miss Eckhart and had refused to greet the mad old lady when they met for the last time on the streets of Morgana. Yet, as we now discover,

Virgie had not, after all, hated [Miss Eckhart] . . ., for she had taken Miss Eckhart’s hate, and then her love, extracted them, the thorn and then the overflow—had hung the picture [of Perseus] on the wall for herself. She had absorbed the hero and the victim and then, stoutly, could sit down to the piano with all Beethoven ahead of her.

In the first moment of the heroic stroke, the hero wields the sword; in the second moment, he becomes the victim of that stroke. In the third moment, he achieves some measure of gain in understanding which leads on to self-renewal. Having “absorbed the hero and the victim,” Virgie had been able to accept Miss Eckhart’s gift of Beethoven—not Miss Eckhart’s Beethoven but her own.

 

As hero, Virgie has seen the horror in life and love, vicariously through Miss Eckhart and her mother’s life and death. She herself has felt the separateness which can cripple and kill, and they have not destroyed her. On the evening of her mother’s death, “alone, untouched now, she felt like dancing; knowing herself not really, in her essence, yet hurt; and thus happy.”

Although, in the eyes of the world, Virgie Rainey has achieved nothing noteworthy, she is, in her context in “The Golden Apples,” a type of the true hero. Her heroism does not derive from what is usually thought of as heroic action but from her capacity to feel and, through feeling, to know. Like a virgin goddess, an Artemis, she is self-sufficient and inviolable. The harmonious accord which she has reached exists between herself and natural things—the Big Black River, the moon—and within herself, where the eternal pair of mother and daughter, woman and child, continues to exist in peaceful oneness. Mother and daughter are the complementary elements of a whole feminine personality, a whole self. This is beautifully suggested by Miss Welty in the waking vision which comes to Virgie late at night after her mother’s funeral:

She knew that now at the river, where she had been before on moonlit nights in autumn, drunken and sleepless, mist lay on the water and filled the trees, and from the eyes to the moon would be a cone, a long silent horn, of white light. It was a connection, visible as the hair is in air, between the self and the moon, to make the self feel the child, a daughter far, far back.

Virgie’s uniqueness, the child in herself as the source of her renewal, is sometimes lost for a while, but it will always be returned. The mother, mistress of the cycles of natural things in time, will include her always, wherever and for however long she may remain a wanderer.

 

IV

“Delta Wedding” provides us with the counterpart of Virgie Rainey, a type of the male hero. The subject of heroism is explored and developed in fugue-like fashion in almost every corner of the book, in relation to every major character and even some of the minor ones. The main focus, however, is upon George Fairchild and Ellen Fairchild, his sister-in-law. The two characters are closely interrelated because there is a bond of feeling between them and because we see George mainly through the eyes and thoughts of Ellen.

The emblematic heroic act which is recalled and recounted again and again in “Delta Wedding” concerns George as hero. The essentials of the incident are these: a group of Fairchilds find themselves on a railway trestle when the train, the Yellow Dog, approaches them. All but two of the group quickly jump to safety from the trestle to the dry creek bed below. But Maureen, a child of nine who is mentally afflicted, has caught her shoe on the track and George is still trying to free her as the train bears down. At the last possible moment, Mr. Doolittle, the train’s engineer, brings the train to a stop; and, by this simple miracle of fact, potential tragedy becomes the subject of anecdote, a tale to be told as one more bizarre incident in the Fairchild family history.

Throughout “Delta Wedding” it is George Fairchild who serves to set off in the minds of the other characters reflections upon the association of feeling with knowing, and of both of these with acute perception of the outside world. For example, the thoughts of Shelley, the eldest Fairchild daughter, turn at one point on her memory of a tiny incident at a picnic, when a butterfly crossed the gaze of her Uncle George:

She had then known something he knew all along, it seemed then—that when you felt, touched, heard, looked at things in the world, and found their fragrances, they themselves made a sort of house within you, which filled with life to hold them, filled with knowledge all by itself, and all else, the other ways to know, seemed calculation and tyranny.

It is because George possesses the faculty which Shelley describes and because his very presence inspires in others the recognition and exercise of that faculty in themselves that one can say he is, so to speak, a full-time hero of the sort which Miss Welty celebrates.

 

In the mind of Ellen Fairchild, toward the end of “Delta Wedding,” George’s habitual intensity of feeling is brought together with his public heroic act on the railway trestle. At that moment the heroic act emerges clearly as an occasion when a quality of life in an individual meets and responds to a challenge from fate. Ellen notices the disparity between the way in which she is coming to perceive the meaning of the trestle incident and the meaning of it for others in the Fairchild family:

. . . the family would forever see the stopping of the Yellow Dog . . ., as a preposterous diversion of their walk . . ., for with the fatal chance removed the serious went with it forever, and only the romantic and absurd abided. They would have nothing of the heroic, or the tragic now, thought Ellen, as though now she yielded up a heart’s treasure.

Here we have a valuable clue to the heart’s treasure of Miss Welty’s fiction itself: the combination, in a kind of double vision, of surface events which are preposterous, romantic and absurd with the inner perception and effect of those events, which emerges as the essence of what is tragic and heroic in human life.

 

George, Ellen goes on to reflect, “saw death on its way, if [the others] did not.” Like the bird in the house in both “Delta Wedding” and “The Optimist’s Daughter,” like Laura McRaven whose loss of her mother makes her, for the Fairchilds, “Insistently a little messenger or reminder of death,” the Yellow Dog superimposes death on heedless and self-regarding life and sets the stage for the moment of heroism. Seeking in her mind the true nature of George’s heroism, Ellen finds that it springs from “a quality of his heart’s intensity and his mind’s.” George regarded some things,

just things, in the outside world—with a passion which held him so still that it resembled indifference . . . But . . .shock, physical danger . . .roused something in him that was immense contemplation, motionless pity, indifference.

The heroic moment for George, as for other Welty characters, combines vaunting—”I’m damned if I wasn’t going to stand on that track if I wanted to!”—with acceptance of danger, the threat of change and its necessity. Further, it combines both of these things, paradoxically, with the capacity for strength in love. “He was capable,” Ellen thought,

—taking no more prerogative than a kind of grace . . . —of meeting a fate whose dealing out to him he would not contest . . . And . . .the darker instinct of a woman was satisfied that he was capable of the same kind of love. . . .

George carries within himself the reconciliation of life and death, of indifference and passion, which is the essence of the third moment of the heroic act and which sums in itself Virgie Rainey’s understanding of the stroke of Perseus.

 

V

The emphasis, in Miss Welly’s conception of the hero, upon feeling and knowing applies to male and female alike. However, this kind of experience seems to come more easily to women than to men. Unlike George Fairchild as Ellen sees him, male heroes on the conventional Perseus model are likely to be preoccupied, up to a point, with a reckless reliance on physical force like that of Jack Renfro’s unfortunate father, Ralph, who cripples himself with dynamite just before his marriage to Miss Beulah and, some 20 years later, still looks to dynamite for the solution to hard problems:

“He’ll shortly blow up something else. He won’t learn, he’s a man,” said Miss Lexie.

“Yes sir, your touch is pure destruction!” Miss Beulah told him.

Because, for all their own liability to error, women know man-foolishness when they see it, they are often, in Miss Welty’s work, the teachers of their unwilling lovers and husbands. In that capacity they are unflaggingly persistent in their efforts to save their consorts from untimely ends brought on by their extravagant behavior:

“The system you’re trying won’t work,” Gloria said. “I wouldn’t need to bring you down to earth if I wasn’t your wife . . .it’s up to your wife to pit her common sense against you, Jack. . . .”

To be sure, it is Gloria’s love and not her common sense that works for Jack in the long run, but it would be futile to deny that Miss Welty’s women have her men beaten easily when it comes to keeping their feet planted firmly on the ground.

 

Rosamond, the charming ingénue in “The Robber Bridegroom,” is called upon not only to bring Jamie Lockhart down to earth but also, having accomplished that, to find the man beneath the disguise of lawlessness he wears. Fortunately, Rosamond’s love, like Gloria’s, never falters while she suffers one adversity after another at her lover’s hands. When she first meets him, Jamie is a typically opportunistic male hero, his worser self always “out for a devilment of some kind.” By day he is a respectable merchant but by night, having stained his face with berry juice, he becomes the notorious Bandit of the Woods. What is worse, like other male heroes where women are concerned, he combines a theoretical high romanticism with an efficient bent for sexual brigandage. As romanticist, “in his heart Jamie carried nothing less than a dream of true love—something of gossamer and roses. . . .” For this reason, he had been collecting clothes and jewels “that would deck a queen,” but “as for finding his dream on earth, that Jamie was saving until the last. . . .” One result of Jamie’s romantic attitude is that when he first comes upon Rosamond in fancy dress, he strips the poor girl naked and ravishes away not the girl but her clothes. At next encounter, however, he is all brigand and makes off with the maiden herself—not to become his dream on earth but to serve perforce as housekeeper and bedmate for his robbers’ den.

Rosamond’s heroic act, her stripping away of Jamie’s disguise, together with the consequences of her boldness, unfolds before us by degrees in an amusingly exact sequence of three moments. The prelude to the first moment begins when Rosamond, hiding behind a barrel in the robbers’ den, witnesses the rape and murder of an Indian girl, the victim of Jamie’s alter ego, a homocidal maniac named Little Harp. Though she remains concealed while the deed is done, Rosamond had heard the robbers swear to Little Harp that the Indian girl was none other than herself, and she “was almost ready to believe that she stood out in the room under the robbers’ eyes and was not hiding down behind the barrel.” Rosamond’s curious intuition is, in fact, essentially correct. What she sees enacted before her eyes is her own plight as captive of the bandit king. Being ravished away by an attractive stranger, however delightful it may be at first, is not without its penalty. Ignorance of her lover’s name, as Rosamond begins to find, deprives her of her own, and such a loss is rape of individuality, a threat of murder to her own identity. As she puts it subsequently,

My husband was a robber and not a bridegroom. . . . He brought me his love under a mask, and kept all the truth hidden from me . . ., and what I would have given him he liked better to steal.

Now, in order to satisfy her longing for the secret truth, she takes her courage in both hands and wipes the berry stains from Jamie’s face while he is sleeping.

 

The consequences of doing the necessary and forbidden act, as always, are immediately disastrous. She recognizes the King of the Bandits as Jamie Lockhart; and at the same instant he recognizes her, alas, as “Clement Musgrove’s silly daughter.” Charging angrily that Rosamond did not trust him but only wanted to know who he was, Jamie disappears through the window, and Rosamond, intent on following him, falls in the dust. Then, just before losing consciousness, “she felt the stirring within her that sent her a fresh piece of news.” The primary event of this first moment of the heroic act is, of course, Rosamond’s successful bravery or foolishness in finding the reality hidden behind her lover’s disguise. To find him is to lose him, for she can never be the bandit’s property again. But a hint of the fruit of her continuing love, to arrive in due course, simultaneously appears.

Not long after Rosamond regains consciousness, she is presented with her second moment—another grisly tableau. This time the vision consists of a severed male head, held up in Perseus fashion “at arm’s length so it turned round like a bird cage on a string. . . .” This, it is clear, is Jamie Lockhart’s head by another name. It has a price on it, and it will soon be displayed over Jamie’s name on a post in Rodney Square. Gazing upon it, Rosamond can hardly fail to be aware of the horror which she has made visible in her life and love. It is more than she is prepared to cope with at that moment, and she swoons again. This marks the end of the second moment, one in which Rosamond identifies herself with the victim of her own heroic act. Of course, if Rosamond only knew it, her desolation would be eased by the fact that as there are two Jamies there are also two heads; and one of them, that of the respectable merchant, is still fixed securely to the neck of its owner. But Rosamond is unaware of this, and her sense of irredeemable loss is unassuaged.

The third and final moment begins when Rosamond, having recently awakened from her second swoon, is captured by the Indians. These are a people who, being themselves marked for early extinction, bear an aura of death about them. Their camp in the Devil’s Punch Bowl is a Land of Shadows. Finding herself the prisoner of these savages, Rosamond not unexpectedly swoons once more, and she is borne away to the Indian camp to be sacrificed in revenge for the slaughtered Indian maiden. The Land of the Dead cannot, however, retain Rosamond long, any more than it could retain her prototypes Persephone and Psyche, for these women carry the secret of freedom within themselves. That secret is faithful love. Through love’s agency, Rosamond’s escape is soon accomplished, and Salome, the wicked step-mother, is executed in her place. This is appropriate, for, unlike Rosamond, Salome loves no one whatsoever. She believes that she is subject to no power and is by herself in the world: a philosophy dangerous at best and, in this instance, fatal. Assured that Jamie is still alive, and full of hope and confidence, Rosamond sets off to find him and claim him for her own. The third moment has brought renewal of life through a love that knows its object truly. If anything has died, it is Rosamond’s passion for the Bandit of the Woods. The death of that outmoded sentiment clears the way not only for reunion of the lovers but for the clear-eyed recognition by each of the other’s true identity, shorn of disguise.

VI

In fairness to Jamie Lockhart it should be said that his guide in casting off his role as Bandit of the Woods was not the love of Rosamond alone. His reform was dramatically accelerated by seeing his seamy side personified as Little Harp, a man with a head “no larger than something off the orange tree . . .” and generally “just as ugly as it was possible to be.” Jamie makes unconscious reference to himself when he tells Little Harp, “You are not the fool I took you to be, but another fool entirely, and I ought to break all your bones where you need them most.” Probably it is too much to expect of a woman that she should make her lover see himself as a person with a head the size of an orange. One may, on the other hand, doubt the wisdom of a woman who goes to the opposite extreme and makes it her business to protect a man not only from the truth about himself but from reality of every sort. In the scheme of values suggested by Miss Welty’s fiction, recognition of reality holds a very high place, and it is interesting to see what Miss Welty envisions happening when habitual blindness to reality collides head-on with an inescapable stroke of fate. That is exactly what takes place in “The Ponder Heart.”

One would anticipate that the result of the collision described above would be bathetic, and it is. Uncle Daniel Ponder, an advanced eccentric in his fifties, has for some time been separated from his wife, Bonnie Dee, aged 17, who unceremoniously “ran him off” from his own house in the country. Finally, he has been persuaded to cut off her allowance, and as a result she has summoned him and his niece, Edna Earle, to a conference. When they arrive, simultaneously with a fierce thunderstorm, Bonnie Dee is not at all glad to see her husband. This is hardly surprising, as she has never shown any sign of enthusiasm for him. Still this does not prevent Edna Earle from being enraged at Bonnie Dee for snubbing the man she has guarded “heart and soul” for “a whole lifetime:”

”. . . he came into the parlor all beaming pleasure and went shining up to her to kiss her and she just jumped away when the storm went boom. Like he brought it . . . . she just looked at him with her little coon eyes, and would have sent him back if I hadn’t been there.”

But Uncle Daniel, in a world made safe by fantasy, shows no awareness that he is being ignored and humiliated. There is a flash of lightning and a burst of thunder. Bonnie Dee buries her face in a pillow and starts to cry. And Uncle Daniel, to make her stop crying, begins to tickle her ankle with the tassel of an antimacassar. While the storm rages on and Bonnie Dee shrieks louder and louder, Uncle Daniel continues to play “creep-mousie” with the tassel all the way up to her neck and her ear,

with the sweetest, most forbearing smile on his face, a forgetful smile. Like he forgot everything then that she ever did to him, how changeable she’d been.

It turns out that Bonnie Dee is not shrieking in fear of the storm but in reaction to the tickling. Then she is suddenly silent. She has always suffered from a weak heart, and now she has died laughing.

 

Faced with this bizarre horror, Uncle Daniel does nothing at all. He only sits absolutely still with his feet drawn up. All his life he has been oblivious to fatal or even threatening events:

Oh, he hates sickness and death, will hardly come in the room with it! He can’t abide funerals.

He had never mentioned his father’s name since the old man died. It is impossible for him to react in any positive way to a reality which demands reaction. He has avoided believing in every species of reality—money, for example. His riches, says Edna Earle,

were all off in the clouds somewhere—like true love is, I guess, like a castle in the sky, where he could just sit and dream about it being up there for him.

Safe with Edna Earle in her Beulah Hotel, he seemed quite content with being married ex officio. But now, as a ball of fire big as a man’s head comes out of the fireplace, crosses the parlor and goes out through the beaded curtains into the hall, he is right up against a reality he can neither accept nor ignore—so he faints.

 

Edna Earle, on the other hand, does experience the horror that unfolds with the stroke of fate. Her first reaction to the catastrophe is anger at Bonnie Dee:

I could have shaken her for it. She’d never laughed for Uncle Daniel before in her life. And even if she had, that’s not the same thing as smiling; you may think it is, but I don’t.

Even in retrospect, after Uncle Daniel’s trial for the murder of Bonnie Dee, Edna Earle is still angry:

. . . I wished that Uncle Daniel had just whipped out and taken a stick to Bonnie Dee. . . . He might have picked up Grandpa’s trusty old stick . . .and whacked her one when she wasn’t glad to see him.

But Edna Earle’s anger is combined with a reaction of quite another sort. It is as though she and Uncle Daniel are being mocked—mocked by the dead. When she rushes into the bathroom for ammonia, she sees herself in Bonnie Dee’s mail order magnifying mirror and gets the shock of her life: “Edna Earle, I said, you look old as the hills!” And when she returns to the parlor, neither her momentary absence, nor the ammonia she applies, nor the water she douses Bonnie Dee with, nor Uncle Daniel’s presence, “still as a mouse,” has the slightest effect on the laughter frozen on the dead girl’s face.

 

Uncle Daniel remains unchanged. Edna Earle, who has lied at the trial about the actual circumstances of Bonnie Dee’s death, will not permit Uncle Daniel, when he rises to recount those events himself, to get beyond a certain point, though she does have a moment of doubt: “You don’t think I betrayed him by not letting him betray himself, do you?” Then Uncle Daniel begins giving his entire cash assets away to the crowd in the courtroom. “By that time,” says Edna Earle, “I think that all he wanted was our approval.”

VII

The psychology of feeling suggested in Miss Welty’s fiction deserves careful attention. It is clear that feeling and perception of reality are closely interconnected and that both are essential to heroic action. Uncle Daniel does possess a capacity for strong feeling, but his almost total ignorance of reality so badly distorts his understanding of himself and of his relationships to others that his feelings are, for useful purposes, null and void. His heart, as Edna Earle repeatedly points out, is full of love; but the two women he loves—Edna Earle and Bonnie Dee—are actually strangers to him, just as Rosamond, for all her intimacy with Jamie, was at first a stranger to him and was obliged to remain one until she met the problem squarely and scrubbed away his disguise. Uncle Daniel knows nothing about Edna Earle except that he can depend upon her to support and protect him. That Edna Earle herself is aware of this comes out, with unintentional irony, in her account of her uncle’s habit of appropriating other people’s stories for his own:

. . . he’d tell yours and his and the Man in the Moon’s. Not mine: he wouldn’t dream I had one, he loves me so. . . .

As for Bonnie Dee, her unreality for Uncle Daniel is epitomized by an incident during the trial when the Ponder heart begins beating wildly for Bonnie Dee’s sister, Johnnie Ree, who does not resemble her sibling in the least but nevertheless soon attracts a Ponder-style proposal from Uncle Daniel simply because “she’s got on rags and tags” of Bonnie Dee’s clothing. One is reminded of Jamie Lockhart’s initial preference for Rosamond’s clothes over Rosamond herself. Love of this kind is not only blind; it is autonomous. Neither it nor the feelings associated with it requires anything more than a token object; and when this object does not respond to the love which it fortuitously inspires, the product of the impasse must be a marriage and no marriage like Uncle Daniel’s to Bonnie Dee. “I’m sure Bonnie Dee and Uncle Daniel were as happy together as most married people,” Edna Earle can say, but her thought as she passes in the line beside Bonnie Dee’s coffin comes from a deeper level of her understanding: “When you saw her there, it looked like she could have loved somebody!”

A Welty character ideally ill-equipped for genuine heroic action would be one deficient both in feeling and in sense of reality and therefore all but incapable of love. As it happens, the character is not hypothetical. She appears in Miss Welty’s most recent novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter,” and her name is Fay McKelva.

Several of Fay McKelva’s qualities suggest the unreconstructed Perseus-hero to whom Miss Welty never accords heroic stature. Among these are her vanity, her belief in the efficacy of physical force and her allegiance to her own sovereign will. The bluntness of Fay’s sensibilities is always painfully apparent. The immediate cause of Judge McKelva’s death was her violent physical attack upon -him as he lay helpless in his hospital bed. Yielding at last to Laurel McKelva’s insistence that she give the reason for that brutal act, she replies, “I was trying to scare him into living!. . . . I tried to make him quit his old-man foolishness.” Fay combines self-pity with an ominously defiant self-sufficiency: “I haven’t got anybody to count on but me, myself, and I.” The sentiment recalls Salome, the wicked stepmother of Rosamond, and also Gloria Renfro, although it must be said at once of Gloria that, unlike Salome and Fay, she is far from being a hopeless case of self-idolatry:

“And what’s your feelings now, Miss Gloria?” cried Miss Beulah.

“They don’t change! That I’m one to myself, and nobody’s kin, and my own boss . . .,” she said.

At first glance, this insularity may seem to resemble the poised completeness of Virgie Rainey, but the likeness is superficial. Virgie is the calm center of something far greater than herself. The only thing she fears is the experience she has from time to time of feeling herself “at some moment callous over, go opaque . . . .” and lose touch with the realities outside as well as within herself.

For all of her blunt and corrosive self-assertion, Fay has little grasp of what is real. As Laurel observes of her, “Death in its reality passed her right over.” Her “own life had not taught her how to feel.” Such a person is not so much impervious to the horror of life as insensible of it. She is a member of “the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them.” The terrible irony of those whom Medusa turns to stone is that they do not know it.

The heroic task of Laurel McKelva is to meet with Fay and to resist her—not, as she comes close to doing, by physical violence, but by finding a way at last to pity her. As Laurel recognizes, her true peril lies not in anything Fay can do to her. “For Fay was without any powers of passion or imagination in herself. . . . She could no more fight a feeling person than she could love him.” Laurel’s peril lies in suffering an awful inner transformation into Fay’s own likeness. When Laurel arrests the stroke of the weapon with which she intends to strike her enemy, the reason, she realizes, is that she has suddenly imagined Fay as she might once have been: “undriven, unfalsifying, unvindictive.” Pity for Fay’s lost self, the child within her, saves Laurel at the crucial instant. At the same time, it recalls to life her own past: her husband, killed in the war, her father and her mother. “Memory,” she reflects, “lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.”

VIII

Like all of Miss Welty’s novels, but with unequaled abundance, “Losing Battles” is supplied with landmarks of human existence: birth, marriage, death, separation, and related points of transition which mark “the lonesomeness and hilarity of survival. . . .” Within the time span covered by the action—thirty hours or so—the following events take place: Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday and the family reunion which commemorates it; the first anniversary of Grandpa Vaughn’s death; the death, wake and funeral of Banner School’s retired schoolmistress, Miss Julia Mortimer; the first day of the school year and the début of the school’s new teacher; Jack Renfro’s triumphant return from Parchman Penitentiary and his humiliating defeats by Curly Stovall and other agents of fate; Gloria Renfro’s “second wedding day”; discovery of the identity of the orphaned Gloria’s mother; the “engagement” of Ella Fay Renfro to Curly Stovall; the uttering by Miss Julia Mortimer of her last words (“What was the trip for?”) and by Lady May Renfro of her first ones (“What you huntin’, man?”); the blossoming and withering of the Renfros’ night-blooming cereus; the rising of the full moon; and a rain-storm that ends a long season of drought.

Having equipped her story with a wealth of parallel and contrasting events, Miss Welty, with immense virtuosity, introduces on almost every page reference to irreconcilables whose confrontation provides for every feeling a counter-feeling, for every positive its negative and vice versa. The effect is that of a series of montages in which opposites stand face to face and, on occasion, merge into mysterious accord. To cite a few examples: the Renfros, gathered for a festive occasion, are told by Miss Julia, as from the grave, “You’re all mourners.” Mrs. Moody’s Buick, because it is impaled on Uncle Nathan’s inspirational sign, “Destruction Is At Hand,” is saved from plunging over the cliff at Banner Top. Jack’s horse, reportedly long since defunct at the hands of the renderer, comes into view alive and well, immediately after Miss Julia’s funeral. And Brother Bethune, who had mistakenly thought that he was to preach Miss Julia’s funeral sermon, waits for Jack and Gloria at the church, this time mistakenly believing that he is to conduct a wedding ceremony. Thus “Losing Battles” moves between Scylla and Charybdis, “swearing everything into being, swearing everything away—but telling it.”

The axis upon which “Losing Battles” turns, spinning off evocative details, is the gradually unfolding life and death of Miss Julia Mortimer, followed by a dawning sense of her resurrection. The three moments of Miss Julia’s life, which was a single, single-minded act of heroism parceled out in time, are re-created in the minds and emotions of her former pupils, and in this sharing they advance toward heroism of their own, each according to his lights. Their experience is accompanied every inch of the way by reluctance, protest and recrimination, all aimed at Miss Julia as she lived and now disconcertingly continues to live, beyond the grave. The very fact that she has died restores her memory to all who had been only too glad to put her out of mind. As Miss Beulah points out, “the littler you wish to see of some people, the plainer you may come to remember ‘em. . . . Even against your will.” It soon becomes apparent that Miss Julia’s spirit is indeed abroad and just as authoritarian as ever:

“Well,” said Miss Beulah, “she may be dead and waiting in her coffin, but she hasn’t given up yet. I see that. Trying to regiment the reunion into being part of her funeral!”

Miss Julia’s will, read to the reunion by Judge Moody, gives explicit instructions for the proper conduct of her funeral and burial. It closes with the words, “And then, you fools—mourn me!”

“If this ain’t keeping after us!” Uncle Dolphus cried. “Following us to our graves.”

“You’re following her,” said Judge Moody. And, taken in more ways than one, his remark is right.

As Miss Lexie reports, Miss Julia had told the children on her first morning at Banner School,

“Nothing in this world can measure up to the joy you’ll bring me if you allow me to teach you something.”

But just at the end of her days, when she is dying of neglect, loneliness and despair, she admits in her uncompromising way that, although she has waged a lifelong battle against ignorance, “Except in those cases that you can count off on your fingers, I lost every battle.” Uncle Noah Webster has a word for what he takes to have been her aim in teaching:

“She thought if she mortified you long enough, you might have hope of turning out something you wasn’t.”

That is how some of her pupils felt and continue to feel. They are not so much losers of battles as the battles that are lost.

 

Not all of Miss Julia’s battles, fortunately, ended in entire defeat. The rejection and neglect of Miss Julia by those who knew how much they owed her troubles the conscience of two characters in particular—Judge Moody and Gloria Renfro. Judge Moody’s neglect of his old friend and sometime tutor seems originally to have been caused by his resentment of her tampering with his career. He had long put off a visit to Miss Julia. Then she wrote in desperation, summoning him; and the letter, written as it was at the cost of almost indescribable pain and difficulty, had immobilized the Judge with shame. “Men are the rankest cowards,” Mrs. Moody tells him; and, if that is true of Judge Moody, he pays for it in full. He is obliged to suffer hearing every detail of Miss Julia’s long ordeal, something which he calls, after all is said, “The complete and utter mortification of life!” Himself now in the grip of change, he awakens fully to the horror that had opened up in Julia Mortimer’s life:

“She knew exactly who she was. And what she was. What she didn’t know till she got to it was what could happen to what she was.”

As an austere, impartial man of law, Judge Moody had long been accustomed to deal with human misery impersonally, without emotion. Now, thanks to Miss Julia, he proves that Medusa has not robbed him of the power to feel. Of what has happened to his friend he says at last, “It could make a stone cry.”

Gloria, who had planned to follow in Miss Julia’s footsteps, still is bridling at the determined battle waged by that lady against her decision to marry Jack and by the wounding laughter with which she greeted Gloria’s announcement that, for the future, she “wanted to give all [her] teaching to one.” From Miss Lexie, who was Miss Julia’s grudging nurse in her final days, we learn that her patient, when she “lay getting worse,” daily expected Gloria to visit her:

“First she’d say, “Gloria Short will be here soon now. She knows it’s for her own good to get here on time.” Even in bed, she’d lean close to her window, press her face to the glass even on rainy mornings, not to miss the first sight of Gloria’s coming.”

To Aunt Cleo’s question, “Where were you hiding, girl?” Gloria replies, “Hiding? I was having a baby. . . . That’s what I was doing, and you can die from that.” And Miss Beulah has her answer ready: “You can die from anything if you try good and hard.” But Gloria remains unbending. Later, when Jack, taking the role of teacher in his turn, urges her not to “pity anybody you could love,” she does admit that she “can think of one [she] can safely pity.” She means Miss Julia; and pity, at least for the present, is the closest thing to love that Gloria can spare.

 

Of all the celebrants at Granny Vaughn’s reunion, it is Jack Renfro who shares most generously and most fully in the heroic moments of Miss Julia’s life. He has none of Gloria’s resentment. Having suffered his own enforced separation from all he loved and all that he was meant to do, he is conditioned to understanding the anguish of another exile:

“Are you trying to say you could do better than pity her?” Gloria asked him. “You never laid eyes on her.”

“I reckon I even love her,” said Jack. “I heard her story.”

In her letter to Judge Moody, Miss Julia pointed out that she had found, even in her deepest misery, a redeeming grace:

. . . the side that gets licked gets to the truth first. When the battle’s over, something may dawn there—with no help from the teacher, no help from the pupil, no help from the book.

Now Jack has confirmed Miss Julia’s paradox of losing battles. Like Miss Julia, he has lost them all—or nearly all. And, like her, he has gotten first to the truth. Death has not put an end to a lifetime of devoted teaching. Jack has listened to Miss Julia’s story well. However many battles he has lost and still may lose, he has become truly a hero in the world given us by Eudora Welty.

 

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