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.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 25: “The Wide Net” by Eudora Welty

May 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty has written extensively about the responsibility that writers have to be mindful of and to establish connections with their readers. “At the other end of the writing is the reader,” she says. “There is sure to be somewhere the reader, who is a user himself of imagination and thought, who knows, perhaps, as much about the need of communication as the writer.” She notes that “looking at short stories as readers and writers together should be a companionable thing,” a process in which both parties participate, a friendly dialogue in which the ultimate goal is textual understanding and meaning. But, declarations of affection for readers notwithstanding, Welty’s fiction often belies her avowed closeness to readership and reveals instead an entirely different and problematic paradigm for discovery. To be sure, some of Welty’s fiction might be said to offer a kind of companionable read, but much of her fiction challenges readers in peculiar and disturbing ways and imposes on them an obligation to make sense of the implications that reside in those texts.

– Rebecca Chalmers

“The Wide Net” is very much a story that “challenges readers … and imposes on them an obligation to make sense” of its – admittedly rather peculiar and outlandish – events. Welty withholds explanation or implication about the meaning of the story, choosing instead to present the events unadorned and allow readers to draw what conclusions they might.

The story focuses on William Wallace Jamieson and his wife Hazel, who is three months pregnant. After staying out all night drinking, William Wallace returns home to find a note from Hazel saying that she has gone to drown herself in the local river. Being a man of action, like his Scottish namesake, William Wallace rounds up a posse, consisting in part of Virgil, one of his drinking companions from the previous night, and Doc, the town’s self-appointed philosopher (and owner of the titular implement), and sets about dragging the river in search of his wife’s body.

This sounds grim and foreboding, but Welty’s first challenge to the reader involves the disconnect between the subject of her story and the tone in which it is narrated. The dominant tone of the story is comedic, and the sprightly and humorous narration employed throughout is at odds with the rather sombre mission that the party has set out on.

One of the central sources of comedy is the stoic Virgil, who seems blithely unconcerned about Hazel’s potential suicide. When he is told that Hazel has gone to the river to drown herself, Virgil’s only response is, “Why, that ain’t like Hazel.” And when William Wallace asks Virgil to help him drag the river, Virgil says, “Right this minute?” William Wallace, in a moment of reverie, tells Virgil that Hazel is “smart, too, for a girl,” and Virgil agrees, saying that she’s much smarter than her cousin Edna Earle, who “could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in the Coca-Cola sign.” When William Wallace wonders aloud how his wife, who is deathly afraid of water, could have worked up the nerve to jump into the river and drown herself, Virgil responds reasonably: “Jumped backwards … Didn’t look.”

The motley crew that William Wallace rounds up to help drag the river includes a bevy of men from two local families – the Malones and the Doyles – and two local black boys named Sam and Robbie Bell. The group’s antics belie the seriousness of their mission, occasionally degenerating into outright farce:

They all laughed then at how clever old Doc was and clapped William Wallace on the back. But that turned into a scuffle and they fell to the ground.

“Stop it, or you can’t have the net,” said Doc. “You’re scaring my wife’s chickens.”

Once the group has set out on their expedition, Welty’s tale begins to take on the tenor of folklore: the group proceeds into the woods, symbolic of chaos, where they encounter a group of alligators, an eel that the Malones “rassle” with, and various other fish and fowl. Not for nothing is William Wallace’s companion named Virgil; the allusion to Dante’s guide through the underworld is explicit and intentional. In case there was any doubt about the folkloric aspects of her story, Welty puts it to rest when the group stops to cook some of the catfish they caught and William Wallace does a manic dance, “leaping all over the place and all, over them and the feast and the bones of the feast, trampling the sand, up and down, and doing a dance so crazy that he would die next.” William Wallace’s dance calls forth a creature from the depths, with “an old hoary head” and whiskers – a creature the Malones identify as “The King of the Snakes.” The King of the Snakes slips beneath the surface of the water, and a storm rolls in.

The entire central portion of “The Wide Net” takes the form of a tall tale, and Welty does not return to a naturalistic mode until the party has made its way back from the Pearl River and William Wallace returns home, where he finds his wife waiting for him. He puts her over his knee and spanks her, and there is the subtle implication that this kind of situation has occurred before. Earlier, with William Wallace and Virgil heading toward the Pearl River, we are told, “The path they always followed was the Old Natchez Tate,” indicating that this is the first time such a journey has been undertaken. After Hazel’s return, Welty writes: “It was just as if he had chased her and captured her again. She lay smiling in the crook of his arm. It was the same as any other chase in the end.”

“I will do it again if I get ready,” Hazel tells her husband. “Next time will be different, too.” Is this a kind of game that the husband and wife play with each other, varying only the specifics of the chase and capture? This is never made entirely clear. In the end, Welty’s tale is dependent more on mood than on the verifiable truth of the incidents in its plot. The descent into the wilderness and back again, the movement from order to chaos and back to order, is reminiscent of Dante and Shakespeare, but Welty only teases us with the potential implications of her story, refusing to draw any definitive parallels or to make explicit her story’s meaning. The end of the story finds the husband reunited with his wife, her “smiling as if she were smiling down on him,” which is a happy end to what has been in effect a mock hero story, but one that “imposes on [its readers] an obligation to make sense of the implications” within its pages.