Playing with Fire: Women's Sexuality and Artistry in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Eudora Welty's the Golden Apples (1)
Harrison, Suzan, The Mississippi Quarterly
WHILE THE START OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY finds us with a large, varied, and sophisticated body of criticism about Eudora Welty's fiction, essays, and photographs, there are still some surprising gaps in that criticism. The recent publication of Eudora Welty and Politics: Did the Writer Crusade? moves toward filling in one of those gaps and recognizing the subtle yet pervasive political dimension of Welty's work, a dimension that has been overlooked by some readers, as Harriet Pollack observes in the introduction to that collection, because they fail to realize the degree to which women writers, and Welty in particular, have often approached 'the public and historical through the private," (2) and they have failed to notice the ways in which Welty's characteristic narrative strategies of obstruction, intertextual play with masculine texts, and indifference to authoritative Histories are in themselves highly political (pp. 4-5).
Another gap in Welty criticism, one this special issue of the Mississippi Quarterly calls on Welty scholars to question, has to do with sexuality in Welty's oeuvre. The answer to the question of why Welty scholars have not fully explored this significant dimension of Welty's work is complex and multifaceted. Perhaps there has been a reluctance to address sexuality in her work because of a tendency, particularly in the study of Southern fiction, to identify the work closely with the individual author, with his or her life and personality, despite the cautions first of New Criticism and then postmodernism, and despite the critical sophistication of Welty scholars. Eudora Welty is, after all, a living author (having turned ninety-two this year), and she has cultivated a public persona--that of the Southern lady--that may steer writers away from a consideration of sexuality in her works. Then again, the critical reticence about sexuality in her work may have something to do with our knowledge that Welty never married, or it may result from the widespread knowledge that Eudora Welty is a private person, carefully choosing what she will and will not reveal about her personal life. (3)
Of course, the topic of sexuality in Welty's work has not been entirely ignored. Writers like Patricia Yaeger and Rebecca Mark, (4) among others, have done much to map out the ways in which sexuality is figured in Welty's fiction. Much of the work on sexuality in Welty's fiction has, not surprisingly, focused on the stories in The Golden Apples. In addition to being some of Welty's most sensual writing, the stories in this collection include several explicit sexual encounters: Virgie Rainey and Kewpie Moffitt enjoy playful sex in the abandoned MacLain house in "June Recital." In "Sir Rabbit," Mattie Will Sojourner engages in sex with King MacLain, the Zeus-like masculine fertility figure of the collection, a tryst that reminds her of an earlier sexual encounter with MacLain's twin sons, Ran and Eugene. Loch Morrison's life-saving technique in "Moon Lake" is, as Miss Lizzie Stark observes and numerous critics have noted, graphically sexualized.
By contrast, Virginia Woolf is a writer in whose work sexuality is, and has been for over two decades, a major critical concern, despite the fact that there are virtually no overtly described sexual encounters in her fiction. Scholars have explored sexuality in Woolf's writing as well as her biography and have devoted much attention to the relationship between the two. In particular, the relationships, for women, between sexuality and artistic creativity, between being a woman and being a writer, are central to Woolf's work. Her body of writing suggests multiple and complex responses to the question of what it means to be an artist and a woman. "There are," as Xaviere Gauthier points out, "women who write.... In what ways does their writing call attention to the fact that they are women?" she asks. (5) For Woolf, the answer to that question is intimately tied to sexuality, and in particular, as many writers have observed, to an erotic attraction between women. …