Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Reticent Beauty and Promiscuous Joy: Textual Framing in Eudora Welty's the Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Reticent Beauty and Promiscuous Joy: Textual Framing in Eudora Welty's the Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories

Article excerpt

The stories of The Bride of the Innisfallen are often called Welty's most enigmatic (Hutchens 2); and even their sequence may puzzle first readers of the 1955 collection, for example, the logic of positioning the title story, set on a boat train from London to Ireland, between two others that are part of what Albert Devlin has called Welty's "Mississippi chronicle": "The Burning," her only Civil War story, and "Ladies in Spring," set in the Depression years (xii, passim). However, these works cohere not around setting but around important image patterns relating to women's paradoxical status with respect to cultural bonds, as both "powerful and powerless" as Ann Romines has described the protagonist of Welty's "Circe" emphasizing that these qualities do not result from the story's basis in mythology but, rather, "are rooted in ... gender" thus revealing "Circe" as "in many ways a quintessential story by an American woman" (4). Many such gender-based cultural judgments relate to an individual's daring or reticence, promiscuity or chastity. In "The Burning," for example, the Southern culture's obsession with female chastity is responsible for the two sisters' self-conviction and suicide after their rape by Union soldiers: they are now tainted by what would have been seen as promiscuity, however involuntary. And it is miscegenation, another form of promiscuity, that has resulted in the birth of Delilah's baby, who dies in the burning of the plantation home.

The thematic tension between promiscuity or daring and chastity or emotional reticence in Welty's fiction is undergirded by the tension between two seemingly contradictory aesthetic principles, one of which she has described as the imagination's "power to reveal, with nothing barred" (Eye 134) and the other as narrative "reticence." In explaining the latter, she says that "the finest story writers seem to be in one sense obstructionists. As if they held back their own best interests.... And what is stranger is that if we look for the source of the deepest pleasure we receive from a writer, how often do we not find that it seems to be connected with this very obstruction.... We are speaking of beauty. And beauty is not a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality; indeed, it is associated with reticence, with stubbornness, of a number of kinds.... Beauty ... is a result; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect" (105). Michael Kreyling finds that this reticence occurs throughout the collection in terms of a protagonist's rhythmic movement "toward the stillness, serenity, and joy of vision that redeems the heart from its hopeless isolation" (139). Noel Polk finds "clues" to the reticent text in the subtle and tenuous connections amid the profusion of "incidents ... that come at us in wild and furious counterpoint" (110, 112).

Identifying Welty with the ancient tradition of poet/storytellers, poet William Jay Smith contrasts the emotional reticence of Welty's fiction with the emotion-releasing precision of its poetic images in The Optimist's Daughter (80). And, indeed, her delight in the natural dialogism of language--in the fact that "we start from scratch, and words don't" (Eye 134)--lends added resonance to the theme of "promiscuous ... joy" in two stories that might at first glance seem quite unrelated: "The Bride of the Innisfallen" and "Ladies in Spring" stories that also evince Welty's own joy in language and narrative. The meanings of reticent texts (perhaps all texts), according to contemporary short story theorist Ian Reid, are keyed not only by linguistic play but also by various kinds of textual framing (300). Such framing in Welty's fiction contributes to its acknowledged intertextuality, as it helps to establish the balance between human emotion and vision throughout The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories.

Ideas of sexual promiscuity and chastity, as well as certain liminal crossings of the understood thresholds between those states to achieve "reversal[s] of vision," are necessary to a society's ability to deal with change, according to Carey Wall ("June" 26). …

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