Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Sexing the Domestic: Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding and the Sexology Movement

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Sexing the Domestic: Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding and the Sexology Movement

Article excerpt

EUDORA WELTY PORTRAYS a growing sense of sexual freedom for women during the 1920s through the 1940s within the southern United States domestic tradition. When read in conjunction with the historical artifacts and texts of the early twentieth-century sexology movement, Welly's work reconfigures the stereotype of the isolated 1920s Southern woman who remains uninfluenced by her Northern sisters and the popular culture depictions of their increasing sexual freedoms. Critics of Welly's work, like those of many other Southern women writers, sometimes overlook her references to historical events and ideological shifts. Yet Welly catalogs a distinct shift in domestic thinking-one that integrates domestic and sexual roles for the Southern woman even in her supposed isolation from such innovation. This shift was due in large part to lhe new availability of sexual information and to the general cultural influence of the sexology movement. As Welly's characters navigate conventional images of the Southern belle, plantation culture, and social groups such as the garden club, they are indeed navigating, rather than making binary choices between "appropriate" and "inappropriate" roles.

The Fusion of Sexual and Domestic Identities

In her analysis of sexuality in Delta Wedding (1946) and The Optimist's Daughter (1972), Danielle Fuller remarks that "the multi-voiced narrative of Delta Wedding makes it impossible to ignore the parallels and echoes between the journeys toward selfhood of Laura, Shelley, Robbie, and Dabney" (297). In her comparisons of these characters' changing roles as women, Fuller clearly equates selfhood with at least some degree of realization of a sexual role. She is right to note that Welty's narratological structure of multiple, fused points of view insists on exposing women's sexual identities in relation to one another, not as purely heterosexual dyads nor as individual journeys. Fuller does not address the role of domesticity on the formation of these identities; however, Welly's characters frequently evaluate each other in terms of more than sexuality. In Delta Wedding, for instance, several Fairchild women regard Robbie Reid with suspicion not only because of her overt sexuality, but also because of her domestic ineptitude. Welty crafts a narrative structure that allows the reader to eavesdrop on the women's judgments of each other. Frequently these judgments do not focus entirely on the performance of one role or the other. Instead, the female characters examine how well another woman has integrated her sexual and domestic identities.

Rather than using domestic skills as the sole measurement of a woman's worth, Welty creates characters who struggle to integrate new attitudes about sexuality into lives rich with family traditions and legends. Instead of placing her characters in an isolated Southern cultural bubble, Welty places them squarely within their era: an era saturated with many new ideas, including new ideas about sexuality, sexual practices, and women's sexual roles. This is not to say, however, that Welty crafts polemical novels that do for sexology what Fielding Burke did for unionization. Welty's incorporation of cultural materials, such as her use of advertisements, songs, and fashions, is typically subtle, as are her references to a new sexual culture. But if we overlook these references, however subtle, we risk the marginalization of Welty as just another Southern woman writer, isolated from her larger environment.

It comes as no surprise that the women in Welty's 1920s-1940s Mississippi might turn to one another for guidance on establishing and maintaining domestic norms. Ann Romines comments on the conditioning of Southern women to "read" the "texts" of domestic products, such as cakes and recipes, for their commentary on social life: "In the United States, especially in the South, most cakes have been baked by women, and domestic female culture has often been oriented to texts such as the cake, while male culture has been devoted to objects and destinations of fixity and permanence" (602). …

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