Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Focus of Mystery: Eudora Welty's Prose Style

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Focus of Mystery: Eudora Welty's Prose Style

Article excerpt

In 1970 Eudora Welty published her first lengthy novel and, in many respects, her first serious one. Although it has been followed by yet another novel, Losing Battles will be remembered as Miss Welty's major work. (1) Its characters are more grotesquely, ingenuously funny than Flannery O'Connor's; its countryside glares in even dustier poverty than Faulkner's; its action foments amid a welter of mythical symbolism. And however comic Losing Battles is, it is a literary work of much greater seriousness than Miss Welty's earlier attempts at extended narrative, such as The Robber Bridegroom or The Ponder Heart. This novel is also a commitment; in it she returns solidly and, one assumes, forever to Southern regionalism after those excursions to Italy and Ireland in The Bride of the Innisfallen, those attempts to show that Place is where you are and not always where you were born.

The stories of The Bride of the Innisfallen further represented Miss Welty's most radical experiments in the possibilities of myth and impressionistic narrative technique. Losing Battles grows out of myths, too, but even though confusingly rendered, the mythic roots and reflections are more homogeneous, less devices of the author than they have been before. And the action of Losing Battles moves almost without a narrator. Except in the heavily directed concluding scenes, when narration occurs it is skeletal, dead-pan, almost hidden, as though the author were unwilling to give the reader any point of view to attach to, even though the view itself is starkly, almost intimidatingly concrete. Losing Battles is a significant change--in some ways a further development and in others a coming back--but for all this change, Miss Welty's style has not altered significantly.

As we try to understand a writer's art and its effect on us, an understanding of the elements of style often helps, although what we can learn may yield only supplementing glimpses of artistic idiosyncracy. In such cases analysis of style reassures us that we do indeed have a grasp on our author, but it is not in itself a central tool of criticism. But with some writers, including Eudora Welty, an understanding of style may be the very best start of an understanding. The complex of characteristics that together make up a style, when unravelled, and identified, then explains or even brings to light artistic choices in areas of theme, characterization, imagery, even plot and the application of the story to nonfictional man's less ordered, real existence. More than any other element of her art, Eudora Welty's prose style has been the focus of critical discussion about her writing ever since Robert Penn Warren defended her against Diana Trilling in 1944. (2) Detractors have spoken of her "obscurity," and "diffuseness"; defenders refer to "separateness" or, more poetically, to "the mysterious threshold between dream and waking" in her method. Increasingly in her stories, less obviously but more central in Losing Battles, some consistencies of style have become apparent in Miss Welty's writing. Her style might be characterized as dreamy, mysterious, or remote. It is hard to pin down, yet an understanding of the nature of that style will certainly help in both understanding and teaching the sources and directions of Eudora Welty's art. The stories will be especially helpful as a start, because so much of Miss Welty's natural style is masked in the dialogues and relationships of Losing Battles. The Beechams are so very clear that the author is hard to see.

Picking up any of Eudora Welty's stories, one soon becomes aware of various elements of style which gradually, and impressionistically, begin to collect toward what their author has called a "signature." (3) The general sense, especially in the earlier stories, is one of vagueness contrasting with or containing delightful and colloquial concentrations of detail. Before we know anything substantial about Mr. Marblehall, for example, we see him standing impatiently on a street corner "as if" expecting traffic to take notice of him. …

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