Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Rewriting Violence in Eudora Welty's Losing Battles

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Rewriting Violence in Eudora Welty's Losing Battles

Article excerpt

WHEN GLORIA SHORT RENFRO DECLARES IN Losing Battles, "I don't want to be a Beecham!" in response to the family's insistence that they have discovered her real parents, the women of the family respond with violence. They shove her to the ground and force drunks of watermelon in her mouth, asking her to say "Beecham" in a scene that is described as nothing less than a rape. (1) Finding violence in a Southern novel is hardly surprising; the Southern narrative from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass to the fiction of William Faulkner is indeed invested in violence, violence needed to maintain a racist social order and violence needed to overthrow that same order. Rape historically plays a specific role in the Southern narrative of violence; both the white master's power over the black female body and the threat of lynching against the possibility of the black male rape of the white female body act to maintain the patriarchal power structure. (2) The rape in Losing Battles, however, is surprising. Although Eudora Welty's fiction is filled with bizarre rape scenes, the other literal and figurative rapes are committed by a man against a woman, such as Jamie Lockhart's rape of Rosamund in The Robber Bridegroom and Ran MacLain's rape of Maideen in The Golden Apples. The critical consensus on Welty's use of unusual rape scenes is that she rewrites the traditional rape narrative with its powerless female victim and heroic male conqueror. Rebecca Mark, for example, finds that in The Golden Apples, "To write a narrative in which the male character cannot gain control over the female through either rape or marriage is to destabilize." (3) While the other rapes certainly oppose the stereotypical Southern narrative, Losing Battles demonstrates a different kind of rewriting with a female victim and female rapists. In depicting women as not just the objects but also the subjects of violence, Welty complicates a simplistic model of male power/female oppression. I will argue that Welty rewrites the narrative of violence in the watermelon scene to enable readers to see other scenes in the novel as acts of violence although the activities, such as sewing and nursing, are traditionally coded as feminine. Through this rewriting, the male violence in the text becomes a comic foil. The depiction of men as ineffective and women as powerful is not, however, a simple reversal that emancipates the women in the novel and erases the female position as victim. Losing Battles, instead, gives us a dark picture of a female enemy and thus a different story of Southern women than that of the stereotypical helpless and passive "belle." (4)

The Beecham-Renfro women reach the point of violence in the text because they perceive Gloria to be a threat to their close family. In the Depression-era Mississippi setting of the story, family is identity. That Gloria, married to the eldest and favorite Renfro son Jack, is an orphan is thus unacceptable. Gloria has clung to her status as an orphan because it makes her feel independent: "one to myself, and nobody's kin, and my own boss" (p. 315). (5) Unlike the identities of the other characters in the text, Gloria's is not solely prescribed by a group; she then flaunts the ability to construct her own character. The family, however, is annoyed by her belief that she came from someplace "higher" than Banner and threatened by her desire to take Jack and their baby, Lady May, and move away from the family. Consequently, they construct a tale that would make Rachel Sojourner Gloria's mother and the family's own Sam Dale Beecham her father, not only destroying her special status as an orphan but making her a blood relative and therefore inevitably tied to the family. Gloria repeatedly insists that she does not believe their story. When words fail, the women resort to violence.

On the surface, as many critics have noted, the method the women choose seems more of a simple watermelon fight than actual violence. …

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