Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Making a Scene": Some Thoughts on Female Sexuality and Marriage in Eudora Welty's 'Delta Wedding' and 'The Optimist's Daughter.'

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Making a Scene": Some Thoughts on Female Sexuality and Marriage in Eudora Welty's 'Delta Wedding' and 'The Optimist's Daughter.'

Article excerpt

It is around sexuality that issues about power are raised in some of their most difficult forms. For it is frequently in their sexuality that women find their feelings and actions seem to belie their aspirations for independence.(1)

The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves . . . . Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.(2)

Eudora Welty's preface to the selection of photographs which appeared as One Time, One Place emphasises the way in which "a snapshot is a moment's glimpse" into the "common feeling" residing in each individual, an outward expression of inner feeling caught in a momentary gesture that registers on the face or in the bearing of a person's body. Her preference for taking unposed photographs, many of them of black women at work, leisure and worship, underlines her interest in the way that women express themselves and connect with others through physical means in all spheres of their everyday lives. This physicality, the use of gesture and the body as a means of self-expression, plays an equally important part in her fiction, not least in her portrayal of female sexuality in which performance - the playful representation of desire - embodies the ambiguities of female sexuality.

In several recent feminist readings of Eudora Welty's work, female sexuality is presented in a rather essentialising way as a natural and liberating expression of desire that helps to shape women's sense of self.(3) The celebratory tone of these readings effectively conveys the importance of the female rites of passage which make Welty's female characters aware of their sexual feelings, an awareness which contributes to their conception of their individuality. However, I disagree with the tendency to focus on Welty's portrayal of women's sexuality as a wholly dark, mysterious and "natural" force which, merely because it is unknowable, represents a challenge to the patriarchal order. Whilst Welty's foregrounding of female voices (as narrators, diarists, musicians and teachers, for example) certainly does achieve this to an impressive degree,(4) the mystery of female sexuality can be usefully read alongside these voices as an arena of unresolved (and irresolvable) struggle, ambiguity and contradiction. The female body becomes a medium for the expression of this ambiguity as women struggle to project and define their identity through engagement and disengagement with the stereotypes of female sexuality created by the dominant male discourses of the Southern woman, marriage and motherhood. These discourses seek to control and contain women's sexual behavior, yet, by playing with the images of women which they construct, Welty's female characters subvert, question and re-present female sexuality in ways that reveal the power imbalances involved in heterosexual relationships.

In this paper, therefore, I would like to suggest that Welty presents female sexuality as something that is complex and problematic, experienced and expressed by women themselves in ways which play with its ambiguous and contradictory nature. I will begin by suggesting the ways in which sexuality is linked to subjectivity through the pervasiveness of power across the arenas of the family, marriage, and community. Secondly, I will look at how this sexuality emerges through some of the female rites of passage depicted in Delta Wedding, before focusing my discussion on two of Welty's "outsiders," Robbie Reid in Delta Wedding and Wanda Fay Chisom in The Optimist's Daughter. Both women express their sexual feelings with a direct physicality which challenges the social codes of the families and communities they enter. Furthermore, Robbie and Fay play with the constructs of female sexuality located within marriage by performing or "making scenes" out of their assumed roles as wives and lovers. These "scenes" or performances articulate the power games with which the women in Welty's fiction must engage. …

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