Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Eudora Welty's Dance with Darkness: The Robber Bridegroom

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Eudora Welty's Dance with Darkness: The Robber Bridegroom

Article excerpt

The nature and purpose of the relationship between fairy tale and reality in Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom has been discussed since the earliest reviews. (1) In what is probably the most perceptive long critical analysis of the work, Michael Kreyling has seen in the mixture of fairy tale and history an expression of the tension between pastoral dream and capitalistic reality in America. (2) It is possible, however, to view the work in a larger metaphysical scheme--one which suggests that the moral weight of the tale comes down on the side of recognizing and accepting the unity of contraries in life, not in choosing one pole of a pair of opposites (such as pastoralism over capitalism) at the expense of the other. In this reading, we can see in the collision of fairy tale and history the tension between the human impulse to simplify life, on the one hand, and, on the other, life's insistent complexity.

Indeed, the folk fairy tale that Welty incorporated into her story is grounded on the child's need for simplicity. As Bruno Bettelheim writes:

   The figures in fairy tales are not ambivalent--not good and bad at the same
   time, as we are in reality. But since polarization dominates the child's
   mind, it also dominates fairy tales. A person is either good or bad,
   nothing in between. One brother is stupid, the other is clever. One sister
   is virtuous and industrious ... [etc.]. (3)

The child cannot handle the grandmother's crabby moments, so she sees the mean grandmother as the wolf, the nice one as the object of Red Ridinghood's charitable visit. She avoids direct confrontation with her own double nature in stories such as "Sister and Brother," in which her undisciplined self, projected as her brother-companion, is turned into a fawn. (4) In The Robber Bridegroom, the characters attempt to sustain the child's simple vision of human nature, while life works inexorably to introduce them to its doubleness. In this way, Welty's novel is about the lesson needed to move us from the child's world to the adult's, from a fairy tale vision of life to a philosophically, psychologically, and historically corrected outlook. (5)

The ontology of this corrected vision is based on the old principles of concordia discors and coincidentia oppositorum. Reality is not an either/or matter, but is created by the dynamic tension of co-existing opposites. The challenge of life is thus not choosing between opposites--joy or sorrow, true or false, beginnings or endings, life or death--but coming to see a whole in which both poles are as inseparably united, as interdependent as the two poles of a magnet. (6)

In Welty's The Robber Bridegroom Clement Musgrove's journey from his blissful home in Kentucky into the Mississippi wilderness is itself a trip from fairy tale to reality. Anthony Steven's analysis of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden applies to Clement's move: the loss of paradise, Steven says, is "a parable of the emergence of ego-consciousness, and the replacement of harmonious unity with the conflicts born of awareness of opposing categories of experience (e.g., good and evil, love and hate, pleasure and pain)." (7) However, Welty's characters will learn a lesson opposite Adam and Eve's. While life in Eden was possible only in the presence of one of the paired opposites (good, love, pleasure) and while Judeo-Christian teachings urge a similar either/or morality in life outside of Eden, in the world Welty presents life can only be lived fully with the acknowledgement of the harmony to be found in the co-existence of the contraries.

In The Robber Bridegroom nature itself bears witness to the cosmic reality of concordia discors, contrasting vividly with the human desire to see everything in either/or terms. When Jamie Lockhart (the gallant who is also the robber) leaves Clement Musgrove's house after he has failed to recognize in Clement's daughter Rosamond the girl who attracted him in the woods, he enters a natural world whose complexity adumbrates the reality that he avoids. …

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