31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 6: “Petrified Man” by Eudora Welty

May 6, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Collected_Stories_Eudora_WeltyThe fiction of the American South is steeped in an oral tradition of storytelling. The cadences and rhythms of the local vernacular provide Southern writers a unique lexicon, and the best of them – from Faulkner to McCullers to Styron and beyond – have found in this tradition a rich vein of gold to tap in their fiction. “A great deal of the Southern writer’s work is done for him before he begins,” writes Flannery O’Connor, “because our history lives in our talk.”

Few writers understood this better than the great Eudora Welty, whose novels and stories positively seethe with a Southern idiom. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty was highly attuned to the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of her region and its people, and to the deep scars of history that inform their attitudes and opinions. Welty’s great gift was her ability to hold this society, in all its attributes and foibles, up for examination, bringing her characters to life in almost forensic detail and, at the same time, crafting out of these specifics something universal.

As befits a Southern writer with a keen ear for speech and dialect, “Petrified Man” is cast as a dialogue story, focusing on two separate conversations between a hairdresser, Leota, and her haughty client, Mrs. Fletcher. It is interesting to note that on the level of dramaturgy, nothing much happens in the story: the two women chatter and converse while Mrs. Fletcher submits to her weekly styling appointment. The bulk of the story’s significant action takes place offstage, as it were, and is only reported by one of the two lead characters. But it is precisely the women’s talk that gives the tale its vibrancy and its momentum.

The talk that Leota and Mrs. Fletcher engage in is of a particular stripe, one familiar to salons and barber shops the world over: at base, the two women gossip. As Joseph Epstein points out in his book on the subject, the nature of gossip implies an intimate and complex transaction among the people who engage in it. Epstein quotes Wilhelm Busch, who defined gossip as “the confession of other people’s sins,” and goes on to remark that “[a]lthough almost all gossip speaks to one or another form of moral contamination, by no means does all gossip require the response of moral indignation.” Of course, a work of fiction is predicated upon the conflict between particular individuals, so in the case of Welty’s story, moral indignation is practically demanded.

The source of indignation is Mrs. Fletcher, who, unbeknownst to most of the other townsfolk, is pregnant. When she discovers that Leota knows her secret (something about which even Mr. Fletcher remains innocent), Mrs. Fletcher becomes irate. Her ire is not mollified when Leota confesses that it was Mrs. Pike, a New Orleans native who has been renting a room from Leota, who put the suggestion in the hairdresser’s head. “I bet you another Jax [beer] that lady’s three months on the way,” says Mrs. Pike when she and Leota observe Mrs. Fletcher exiting a local pharmacy. “What gall!” is Mrs. Fletcher’s scandalized response.

Like O’Connor, Welty was fond of caricaturing the snootier elements of Southern gentility; Mrs. Fletcher is pictured as a petty, jealous woman who assumes Mrs. Pike, whom she has never met, must be older and plainer than she is, and who gets sniffy when she discovers that the Pikes own a new model Dodge. Mrs Fletcher is happier to find out that Mrs. Pike, like Leota, is a beautician – that is, someone of a reliably lower station than herself. Mrs. Fletcher is engaged in a constant battle to prove her superiority: when Leota tells her about conjoined twins in a bottle at a carnival freak show, born congenitally defective due to inbreeding on the part of their parents, Mrs. Fletcher assures the hairdresser, “Me and Mr. Fletcher aren’t one speck of kin.” Similarly, Mr. Fletcher is “five foot nine and a half,” much taller than the freak show’s Pygmies. (Leota makes a point of telling Mrs. Fletcher that her own husband, Fred, is five foot ten.)

The freak show Leota and Mrs. Pike attend forms the central metaphor in Welty’s story, which is about various kinds of deformation. There is actual deformation – the so-called freaks Leota and Mrs. Pike view at the travelling show – and there is spiritual deformation, manifest most insistently in Mrs. Fletcher. (Welty ironically highlights this when she has Mrs. Fletcher declare to Leota, “I despise freaks,” to which Leota responds that “talkin’ about bein’ pregnant an’ all, you ought to see those twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself.”)

The two types of deformation come together in the person of the freak show’s “petrified man,” so called because of a digestive disorder that results in his joints calcifying, or, as Leota delicately puts it, he “has been turning to stone.” The petrified man is actually Mr. Petrie, who is wanted in California for raping four women. It is Mrs. Pike who discovers this, recognizing his picture in Leota’s copy of Startling G-Man Tales, along with a notice offering $500 for information leading to his apprehension. The realization prompts indignation in Leota, who had discarded the old magazine and failed to recognize Mr. Petrie as the petrified man; Mrs. Pike’s discovery also seems to bear out the precognition of a carnival fortune teller who predicts that Mr. Pike will soon come into money.

All of this is played in tones of black comedy, but at its core, “Petrified Man” is also a kind of horror story. The Pikes’ good fortune, after all, comes on the backs of four unfortunate California rape victims, women Leota says “didn’t have the faintest notion at the time they’d be worth a hundred an’ twenty-five bucks apiece some day.” Leota’s callous disregard of the victims’ trauma points to a spiritual disfigurement every bit as vile as that of Mrs. Fletcher. Nor does Welty allow the latter off the moral hook, having her delight in the small victory of knowing that the reward money could have been Leota’s if only she’d been perspicacious enough to make the connection between the picture in the magazine and the petrified man.

Asked about why Southern writers continually return to the grotesque in their fiction, O’Connor suggested that the reason is they are still able to recognize it when they see it. Welty lures us unawares into her tale with the idle gossip of two women in a beauty parlour; by the time we realize that the subject of their conversation is much different, and much, much darker than we initially surmised, it is too late to prevent the shock of moral opprobrium that, ultimately, implicates us as well.

Comments are closed.