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The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction.

Peter Schmidt's The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction provides a happy confluence (to use a word Eudora Welty loves) of lucid analysis, painstaking research, theoretical savvy, and personal engagement. Like Welty's fiction, it is rich, generous, and revealing. In Schmidt's reading, Welty's stories concern themselves deeply with women's desires for independence and self-expression and with the cultural conditions that restrict such freedom.

Feminist theory informs his readings, alerting him to the many ways in which men and women behave according to socially constructed gender roles rather than according to "timeless" or "natural" impulses, and providing him an efficient vocabulary for discussing these dynamics. He buttresses his central, feminist reading with an analysis, based on new historicist models, of material and cultural conditions, those in which Welty wrote her stories and those she portrays in her fiction. Thus Schmidt proposes an expanded approach to Welty's use of myth which not only points to that which is "universal" in human nature but also identifies and critiques socially constructed beliefs about men and women, beliefs whose destructive power we have tried to ignore by insisting they are universal and eternal.

After reading Schmidt's study, one has trouble imagining Welty as a writer whom generations of readers have praised for the universality of her portraits of human nature. Implicit or explicit in such praise has been the assumption that Welty achieves greatness by transcending narrower cultural and political concerns that would limit her scope. That Schmidt finds a more specific cultural critique in Welty should not be surprising in view of her stress on the importance of place in fiction and her discovery of the particulars of her own region as central to her development as an artist. Welty scholars have always been aware of her fascination with myth, but too often have assumed that her alignment of her characters with those of classical mythology allowed her simply to retell these myths, showing that even in the Mississippi Delta human beings enact universally heroic stories. Schmidt's reading argues persuasively against limiting ourselves to this understanding of Welty's use of myth.

Schmidt argues that Welty uses Medusa, Perseus, and sibyls "as a means of investigating the dilemmas facing modern American women" (p. 80). In the small Southern towns Welty portrays, women either marry and conform to a strictly defined and limited role, or are considered eccentric, misshapen misfits. Schmidt notes that Welty often associated "Medusa motifs" with women who chafe at such restricted roles; in her stories it is the culture that defines rebellious and creative women as unnatural monsters, as Medusas. Through the mirror of our culture we see not the reality of women's and men's lives, but the distorted images these cultural definitions create - a twist on Perseus's slaying of the Medusa by looking not at her but at her reflection in the mirror of Athena's shield as he cut off her head. In order to slay the Medusa - to destroy these harmful beliefs and allow women and men to express their true natures - one must examine the mirror, must recognize the social constructions that define powerful women as monsters.

Schmidt observes that throughout her short stories, Welty includes mentions of turbans, streaming and snakelike hair, sibylline poses, mirrors, paintings and sculptures of the mythic characters themselves, and even poses and descriptions that echo such artwork. These motifs heighten the social significance of Welty's characters, whose opportunities are restricted by the social construction of gender roles. In early stories, Schmidt contends, Welty portrays these constructions without suggesting any alternatives. Women in "Clytie," for example, can only resist such cultural definitions through self-destructive acts: when Clytie looks at her reflection in a barrel of rainwater, she sees herself as grotesque, and drowns herself. Further, this story does little to question the reliability of this image of Clytie or of other rebellious women. But as Welty matured, developing her artistic powers and confronting her own anxiety as a woman artist, these Medusa motifs inscribed a more direct cultural critique. Rather than portraying the downfall of rebellious women as inevitable and perhaps even merited, Welty created much more sympathetic "tragic heroines" who are "blocked not only by social restrictions but also by ... the |Medusa's gaze,' their view of themselves as monstrous" (p. 52). In her coinic stories, however, "Welty's strong heroines ... are at least partly accepted as role models for their communities, not treated as monsters or scapegoats" (p. 108). Virgie Rainey, for example, develops a wholesome image of her own powers, and a wider sympathy for all of Morgana, by the end of "The Wanderers." Schmidt writes that Virgie "assaults Morgana's deadly, stereotypical image of a strong and independent woman as a monster. To do this, like Perseus she reflects that dangerous image back to itself, identifying it as an image, a cultural fiction, thus taking the first step towards conquering its power to dominate her" (p. 250).

Welty also explores socially constructed roles through her references to sibyls, female oracles whose authority was widely acknowledged. Schmidt analyzes the way written texts figure in many of Welty's stories - telegrams or messages on scraps of paper such as in "Powerhouse," newspaper clippings in "A Piece of News," articles in "women's magazines" in "Petrified Man," and even the writing of Easter's name in "Moon Lake." Frequently the written texts are associated with patriarchal authority, while the oral texts that also appear in the stories are associated with rebellion. Such rebellion may not be officially recognized, but Welty endows sibylline characters with power that is not subject to the domination of the "Medusa's gaze." Of "A Piece of News," Schmidt writes, "Ruby's energy and independence, like the fire in the room, is |something that never stops,' and it secretly revises the texts that are dictated to it" (p. 37). Welty invites readers to identify with the mysterious and subversive behavior of the sibylline characters, in effect continuing their struggle: "Welty's references to sibyls and to the Medusa teach her readers to identify and change the cultural texts that confine them - to evolve from identifying with Medusa to identifying with a sibyl, from self-destructive rage and guilt to empowering acts of disguise and revision" (p. 263).

Schmidt's interpretation of Welty's use of myth proves to be supple enough to illuminate story after story. In his reading of "Powerhouse," Schmidt argues that Powerhouse's performance forces his listeners to look beyond the cultural mirror, to "gaze" in Schmidt's words, "at his Medusa's face - the face of his anger and suffering - and recognize that |Somebody loves me!' ... Maybe it's you!' " (p. 141). Schmidt's analysis of "Petrified Man" shows the myth at work in that very different setting: "If there is a Medusa in |Petrified Man' who turns all who gaze on her to stone, therefore, it is the world of commercial culture, not the women who are its victims" (p. 84). Schmidt's tour de force analysis of "The Wanderers" shows it making use of the Medusa myth perhaps most directly as it champions the potential of its strongwilled women characters. In Virgie's recognition of Miss Eckhart's gifts, Welty emphasizes the power of both women, whose "musical skills (at least potentially) are as sibylline as Powerhouse's; they have the power to revise the cultural |scores' that determine how women are defined" (p. 154).

Schmidt also examines Welty's use of mythological figures to explore male roles that have often been culturally sanctioned, yet are artificial and unreliable. Heroic figures and their admirers believe in their image of themselves as independent and free, but are no more free or courageous or heroic than the rebellious women are monstrous - both characterizations are social constructs rather than descriptions. In "A Shower of Gold," King MacLain appears to resemble Zeus, who overcame resistance to his divine authority by impregnating Danae through a "shower of gold." However, Schmidt argues, Welty presents King MacLain satirically, as a "vaunting" figure rather than a truly heroic one.

Alienated from satisfying relationships to others or to their work, many of Welty's male characters fear and envy women for what the protagonist in "Flowers for Marjorie" calls their "excess of life," their biological ability to reproduce and their culturally sanctioned nurturing role. Schmidt argues that in "Flowers for Marjorie," Welty shows that even gestures of chivalry are often closely related to violence against women. In such tragic stories men can only use violent and destructive behavior to express their dissatisfaction with their own roles and their inability to forge bonds with men and women. Yet in Welty's comic stories men's suffering is lessened when they confront their fears of women's regenerative power. As the men in "The Wide Net" drag the river, their visions of nature and of their dominant place in it must confront a different reality, a world that cannot be subdued to their control. Further, since it is Hazel who sets the river-dragging in motion with her unfinished "suicide" note, it is she who is the author of her husband's cure, which moves him from infantile egotism toward a maturing manhood that is not threatened by his wife's power.

Thus Schmidt's study broadens and deepens the context of Welty's fiction. His consideration of the social construction of gender reveals Welty's more generalized critique of cultural beliefs and practices, for the harmful images of masculinity and femininity within her characters are always echoes of cultural expressions of such beliefs. From "Flowers for Marjorie" to "The Whole World Knows" and "Music From Spain," Schmidt writes, we see Welty's evolution as a writer, her movement "from depicting gender stereotypes in mass culture to a careful analysis of the process by which children inculcate these stereotypes"; in so doing Welty "anticipates" psychoanalytic, sociological, and linguistic theory by several decades (p. 64).

Schmidt's research is impressive; his comments inform readers about the changing economic conditions of the South, about Welty's manuscripts and the particular conditions in which she wrote them, about changing opportunities for women during and after the world wars, about trends in advertising and mass culture, about painting and sculpture, about popular fiction in the nineteenth century. Many of these densely packed paragraphs and footnotes contain more ideas and information than can be found in many a published article. He gives more sustained space to Welty's literary context in his final chapter, where he examines several nineteenth-century American women writers, including popular novelists who have only recently received critical attention. Schmidt argues not for the direct influence of these writers upon Welty - she has read few of them - but for the omnipresence of the questions that they raise about women's place in American society. He notes many examples of "sibylline women" who "stage scenes of instruction that teach their initiates to identify, question, and alter the cultural |texts' - the stereotypes - that define what a woman's identity may be" (p. 248). These works resonate with Welty's fiction through their concern for "recovering the lost power of oral discourse - the ability spontaneously to revise what society has tried to make permanently fixed" (p. 248). Nineteenth-century American women's fiction helps us read Welty, and Welty helps us read this tradition.

In his discussion of Welty scholarship and other scholarship relevant to his book - women's studies, literary theory, American humor, and Southern history, among other subjects - Schmidt is concise, clear, and generous in acknowledging the contributions others have made to his own understanding. Schmidt's approach is theoretically wellinformed, even sophisticated, yet, to this reader, he never becomes arcane. An eclectic use of such critics as Gilbert and Gubar, Bakhtin, Baym, Irigaray, Chodorow, and others, expands our understanding of Welty and shows how much contemporary theory can do to illuminate a literary work.

This study is particularly useful because Schmidt's critical apparatus is almost self-effacing, merely the window through which we see Welty. His readings of Welty's stories are consistently brilliant, giving detailed attention to the text and to the cultural contexts that give the text meaning. His study is focused, but never narrow, emphasizing the feminist themes outlined above, but expressing an energetic appreciation for the richness and complexity of Welty's work, continually reminding us of her expansive vision that will always extend beyond any critical classification. While it is impossible for this reader not to admire Schmidt, the strongest impact his book produces is increased admiration for and delight in his subject. Readers of The Heart of the Story will be grateful for Schmidt's labors, which serve to increase the treasure that is Welty's art.
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Author:Eichelberger, Julia
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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