Giant in Southern Letters
o In Lewis Simpson’s characterization of Welty’s fiction, he says that “the work of the southern storyteller has been shaped, in Miss Welty’s retrospective vision, by the exigent force of memory against history” (The Brazen Face of History 241)
o Difficult to reign in scope, her influence is so huge (both style wise, who she worked with, knew, helped career)
o Pulitzer, French Legion of Honor, National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, National Medal of Freedom,
o member of National Institute of Arts and Letters and elevated to American Academy of Arts and Letters
o honorary degrees from at least 39 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton—Marrs says probably most honoraried writer in history of American letters
o Curtain of Green (short story collection) 1941
o The Wide Net (short story collection) 1943
o The Golden Apples (short story collection) 1949
o The Bride of Innisfallen (short story collection) 1955
o Moon Lake (short story collection) 1980
o The Collected Stories 1980
o The Shoe Bird (children’s story collection) 1964
o The Robber Bridegroom (novella) 1942
o Delta Wedding (novel) 1946
o The Ponder Heart (novel) 1954
o Losing Battles (novel) 1970
o The Optimist’s Daughter (novel) 1972--**won Pulitzer Prize**
o The Eye of the Story (essay collection) 1978
(part of which was published as On Writing 2002)
o One Writer’s Beginnings (memoir) 1984—bestseller
o Age of 75—autobiographical work focusing on the elements of her life she deemed pertinent; started as a series of lectures at Harvard
o How her family, community, early reading, travel, education, shaped her writingàacc to Marrs, shaped image of Welty as shy and retiring (Reynolds Price: “the benign and beamish maiden aunt of american letters”)
o One Time, One Place (book of photographs) 1971
o Photographs (1989)
- b. Jackson, Mississippi (central MS, east of Vicksburg), MS April 13, 1909
- Dad, Christian Webb Welty, Ohioan who had moved to MS just after the turn of the century to work for the Lamar Life Insurance company; by his death in 1931 (age 52) from leukemia, he had become president
- Mother, Chestina Andrewes Welty (1883-1966) taught in a rural school
- Marrs describes mother as a model for defying convention—anecdote about refusing to contribute to a missionary society because she didn’t wish to tell people in other countries what to think
- Established Jackon’s first garden club, which was actually about doing work rather than ladies who lunch [which Marrs ties to gardening to a way of defying conventionality in Welty’s work, such as in the story Curtain of Green] [and she did take to gardening after her husband died]
- Michael Kreyling says situations involving family interrelationships, especially between mothers and daughters, are one “master theme” of her work
- Early influences: As a child, read Grimm’s fairy tales, Greek & Roman mythology, histories of opera and music, various encyclopedias of all kinds of information, and tons of popular & literary fiction available in her public library (mythic, compare robber bridegroom, based on Grimm fairytale)
- High school—Central High School in Jackson—contributed to high school newspaper as well as St. Nicholas Magazine (Scriber’s run magazine for children (1873-1940)—which also published Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris—first publishers of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fitzgerald, E.B White, and Stephen Benet)
- 1925-1927—attended Mississippi State College for Women (Columbs, MS—150 miles northeast from Jackson)
- Wrote humors sketches and poems for the campus newspaper, The Spectator
- 1927-1929—University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI), where she got her BA in 1929
- Kreyling: “In Madison, the young woman found a literary, artistic, and cultural milieu commensurate wither ambition” (2)—further exposed her to western canon; she particularly admired Yeats
- Kreyling: traveling by train between Madison and Jackson contributed to the “journey motif” of her writing, which Kreyling identifies as another “master theme”
- Frequent layovers in Chicago allowed her to spend time at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was influenced by works of impressionism and later modernist works)
- 1930-1931—attended Columbia University School of Business in NYC (at father’s urging, though she expected to pursue a career in art, photography, writing)
- 1931—father died; Welty returned to Jackson—worked variety of jobs (copywriter for radio station, society correspondent for the Memphis Commercial Appeal; contributor to other local papers)
- They took in a boarder after her brother built a duplex on their property; mother briefly gave bridge lessons for money
- Suzanne Marrs describes Welty’s feelings of guilt (leaving her mother behind) traveling back and forth from Jackson to NYC, looking for work there and trying to sell her stories
- She enjoyed New York culture, such as shows at the Cotton Club or an all Africa-American cast production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles
- Worked for WPA 1930s—toured Mississippi as a junior publicity agent, covering local gatherings facilitated by WPA—photographyàhand around books of photography
- Took pictures at county fairs, markets; also photographed rural Mississippi poor and NYC “ordinary people” out of work (in flowers for Marjory)
- Photographs exhibited in 1936 and 1937 in NYC galleries
- Experience of seeing true rural poverty effected stories such as death of a traveling salesman, clytie, hitch-hikers, worn path, piece of news, whistle
- Her work has continued to gain praise
- 1971 One Time, One Place
- 1989 Eudora Welty Photographs
- Now spoken of along with Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, contemporary photographers
- Originally planned prose to go along with her pictures (manuscript called Black Saturday), but the market was saturated—started publishing short stories by themselves in late 1930s
- Originally wanted to write short stories for photographs (see example on handout)—you can see how such an image contains a story (this photo, for example, has been used on many book covers)
- More and more critical attention is being given to her photography (SSSL two papers on Eudora Welty panel were about her photographs), and looking at her fiction in terms of photography
- 1936—Manuscript Magazine published “Death of a Traveling Salesman” and “Magic”—along with three other stories published elsewhere around this time, though of these she chose to only include Traveling Salesman in A Curtain of Green—thus, Kreyling says that “Welty’s career as a writer of fiction begins with “Death of a Traveling Salesman”
- From the start was identified as a southern/southern gothic writer and compared to Faulkner, O’Connor, Carson McCullers
- Some consider her as part of the “second generation of southern renaissance writers who followed Warren, Tate, Ransom, and Fualkner”—in 1943 “Old Mr. Marblehead” and “A Piece of News” was included by Brooks and Warren in their Understanding Fiction textbook
- Kreyling claims that the short stories of Welty’s most often anthologized only present her as a southern gothic writer, but if her longer short stories, such as those from the Golden Apples collection, were more frequently read, her “intricate weavings of motifs from classical mythology and modernist imagery” would give her a reputation as a foremost modernist like Joyce & Eliot.
- Greatly influenced by Jane Austen (“the sheer velocity of the novels, scene to scene, conversation to conversation, tears to laughter, concert to picnic to dance, is something equivalent to a pulsebeat”); Woolf (epiphanic moments, “hers was a sensitivity beside which a Geiger counter is a child’s toy made of a couple of tin cans and a rather common piece of string”)
- For a time during her last three decades, Welty periodically worked on fiction, but completed nothing to her own high standards, standards that made her literary celebrity. She appeared on televised interviews, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor, served as the subject of a BBC documentary, and was chosen as the first living writer to be published in the Library of America series. After a short illness and as the result of cardio-pulmonary failure, Eudora Welty died on 23 July 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi, her lifelong home, where she is buried.
· Published a month before Pearl Harbor (12/7/41)—hard time gaining notice
· Popular prejudice in favor of novels over short stories
· Southern lit known as Caldwell & Faulkner—grotesques, cruelty. Katherine Anne Porter wrote intro for collection, which contributed to focus on grotesque and morbid
o Porter’s intro has been seen as a drawback: Kreyling says she preferred Welty’s original readers to see her as a naïve genius who toiled very little at her art” (described her work as “spontaneous”)
o Emphasis: ear for distinctive speech and dialogue; eye for the odd or monstrous; naïve presenter of “complete realism” whose great art is to give readers what appears on her first glance but escapes theirs
· Welty’s own characterization in a letter to Ford Maddox Ford: “They are not very exciting stories, although sometimes violent, but only come from the complexity and the burdens of poverty or love or grief I have tried to describe through some incident or moment in people’s lives. (I imagine all this would apply to any story at all).
· Other themes identified:
o Onlooking artist figure struggling to shape the messiness of reality
o Women among flowers and gardens cultivating nature rather than imposing their wills on it
§ Jackson—Night-Blooming Cereus Club—group of friends—there were real announcements in the paper inviting people to open houses to see these (bloom once or twice a year, around May 30; eaten by pack rats, so often hard to catch seeing them)—their motto “Don’t take it “cereus” life’s too mysterious” (the cereus appears in a few of her stories)
§ Curtain of Green—Marrs –the gardener, like the writer, confronts the dark irrationality of human experience and attempts to deal with that irrationality
o Threshold story—(A Memory, The Key example)—photographic—“eschews traditional narrative in favor of nonchronological disturbances, conceives of character as psychological rather than physical, and responds more clearly ot its status as a work of art by bringing allusion, reference controlled patterns of imagery, and other aesthetics of the work into play” (Kreyling 25) (way the story is told is the story rather than the means to it)
o Peter Scmidt’s Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty’s short fiction (1991) takes Gilbert & Gubar (1979) and sees the central female voices in the stories to represent the woman writer, specifically the southern woman writer in the south, expressing anxiety and guilt for sins against social conventions by engaging in the act of writing; Kreyling did a more formalist reading
§ Early imagining herself in the gallery of the European modern art tradition
· Curtain of green; memory; key; piece of news; whistle; hitch-hikers; clytie; flowers for margory; death of a traveling salesman
§ Later youthful seizing of the unposed, documentary photograph as integral to her vision
· Clinical Studies of Vulgarity
o Strong first person narrator, figures of physical or sexual abnormality, sketch and rapid brushtrokes of composition, and mythological or psychoanalytic imagery
o Lily Daw and the Three Ladies—compare Lily Daw to Erskine Caldwell’s female sexuality/gross caricature of female sexuality
§ Ironic edge between documentary realism and literary allegory
o Petrified Man
§ Line between realism and grotesque
§ “views human meanness with mercy, whereas O’Connor is quick with damnation”
§ Petrified Man exposed as rapist wanted for attacking four women in California
· Subtext of sexual politics, enhanced by classical imagery from medusa myth
o Screwball comedy of Why I live at the PO
§ Fast pace, eccentric characters involved in more and more complicated relationships, improbable events, doesn’t end in happy marriage—chooses self-sufficiency over marriage
· More recent scholarship are getting Welty out from under Faulkner’s shadow and focusing more on her darkness and subversiveness
o Joseph Flora’s “Subverting Mythologies: Refiguring Faulkner and Welty,” overview of recent scholarship. Quoting Noel Polk Jackson’s 2008 Faulkner and Welty and the Southern Literary Tradition, saying “The Ponder Heart is not the generous and loving, if eccentric, “Heart” of our need and our mythology, but rather a dark and complicated place, perhaps the heart of the heart of a domestic darkness no amount of electricity can illuminate”
o My own interest—Sarah Gleeson-White’s 2003 article in the Southern Literary Journal, in which she sees the ugly women that Welty writes about as a grotesque parody of southern womanhood, engaging in a politics of dissent against traditional visions of white southern womanhood [looks at A Memory, Lily Daw, Petrified Man]
v How do Welty’s images of poverty compare with those of other authors we’ve read so far? How do the grotesque elements in her fiction affect her portrayal of poverty?
o A Worn Path (275)—recognition of bureaucracy
§ Phoenix Jackson—neat and tidy poverty—not slovenlypoverty, but details
· Was too old at the surrender to go to school—reference to institutionalized poverty post civil war
§ Old—imagines boy with cake (278)
§ Female gothic—sees things which are explained (ghosts, etc.)
§ Compare “A Visit of Charity”—220—how does this kind of charity compare to the charity at the end of A Worn Path
o Piece of News—lurking violence (21-22)
o Death of a Travelling Salesman
§ Career begins with this
§ Realism—begins with illness
§ Compare long black song? Rural poverty
v How does the portrayal of female sexuality (particularly in stories such as “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and “Why I Live at the P.O.”) compare with those of Erskine Caldwell or Flannery O’Connor? How do these representations of the grotesque function?
o Clinical Studies of Vulgarity: Strong first person narrator, figures of physical or sexual abnormality, sketch and rapid brushtrokes of composition, and mythological or psychoanalytic imagery
o Lily Daw and the Three Ladies (3)—compare Lily Daw to Erskine Caldwell’s female sexuality/gross caricature of female sexuality
§ Ironic edge between documentary realism and literary allegory
o Comedy—violence and beauty in petrified man; woman gets a perm while in labor—beauty is not natural or innate but wholly constructed
o Why I live at the PO
§ Stella-Rondo breaks up speaker and Mr. Whitaker, telling him she’s lopside—comedy
§ Speaker takes a kind of agency not shown in other authors’ work
o A Memory (147)
§ Gargantuan female body contrast with fantasy of touch of wrist
§ Epiphanic moments (frames—photograph)
o Petrified Man (32)
§ Line between realism and grotesque
§ “views human meanness with mercy, whereas O’Connor is quick with damnation”
§ Petrified Man exposed as rapist wanted for attacking four women in California
· Subtext of sexual politics, enhanced by classical imagery from medusa myth
v Where does the figure of the female artist or writer appear in the Curtain of Green collection? What kind of commentary does this provide?
o Curtain of Green (209)
§ Women among flowers and gardens cultivating nature rather than imposing their wills on it
· Jackson—Night-Blooming Cereus Club—group of friends—there were real announcements in the paper inviting people to open houses to see these (bloom once or twice a year, around May 30; eaten by pack rats, so often hard to catch seeing them)—their motto “Don’t take it “cereus” life’s too mysterious” (the cereus appears in a few of her stories)
· Curtain of Green—Marrs –the gardener, like the writer, confronts the dark irrationality of human experience and attempts to deal with that irrationality
o Petrified Man (32)
§ Female community/creation
o Clytie (163)
Costello, Brannon. Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Flora, Joseph M. “Subverting Mythologies: Refiguring Faulkner and Welty.” Southern Literary Journal xlii.1 (Fall 2009): 139-45.
Gleeson-White, Sarah. “A Peculiarly Southern Form of Ugliness: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.” The Southern Literary Journal 36.1 (Fall 2003): 46-57.
Kreyling, Michael. Understanding Eudora Welty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2005.
Marrs, Suzanne. One Writer’s Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Pingatore, Diana R. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
---. On Writing. 1983. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
---. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
Ugly Women in Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green
In her consideration of ugly women in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, Sarah Gleeson White says that Welty’s first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, is the one in which Welty is most “preoccupied with female ugliness” (49). Unlike the overtly grotesque women of O’Connor’s short fiction (such as Hulga in “Good Country People,” who is missing a leg), Welty’s ugly women are not so much grotesque as they are ugly, lacking the physical beauty so often connected to traditional ideas about the ideal southern woman. From the scarred, mentally-challenged Lily Daw who runs around in her petticoat “looking like a Fiji” (11), to the gargantuan woman on the beach in “A Memory,” to the poor asymmetrical Sister in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Welty presents a variety of women who defy categories of traditional southern beauty. In her larger discussion of images of ugly women appearing in American literature from this period, Dale Bauer attributes the ugliness in this fiction to a shift away from the sentimental in literature. This move is key, as the ugly women in Welty’s short fiction often function as a challenge to idealized white southern womanhood, especially through ties to sexuality and violence.
While Gleeson-White (along with other critics who have looked at images of ugliness in Welty’s work) tends to conflate ugliness with the grotesque, in my own analysis it is important to tease apart the differences between ugliness and the grotesque. While there are important similarities, ugliness is distinct from both the grotesque as well as the abject—two categories which certainly inform ugliness, but which I see as separate categories. Mikail Bakhtin, in his seminal consideration of the grotesque Rabelais and His World, says that “Exaggeration, hyperbolism, [and] excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style” (303). Specifically, it is the “exaggeration of the inappropriate to incredible and monstrous dimensions [which] is…the basic nature of the grotesque.” In A Curtain of Green, the fat woman on the beach in the story “A Memory” functions in this capacity, as the gross sexuality she represents undercuts the idealization of the narrator’s romantic crush. In this way, then, “A Memory” demonstrates Bakhtin’s conclusion that “the grotesque is always satire” (306).
The ugly women in Welty’s stories exemplify what Bakhtin calls the “body of the new canon,” one in which previous possibilities inherent in the grotesque body are no longer possible:
In the modern image of the individual body, sexual life, eating, drinking, and defecation have radically changed their meaning: they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole. In this new connotation they can no longer carry on their former philosophical functions….The body of the new canon is merely one body; no signs of duality have been left. It is self-sufficient and speaks in its name alone. All that happens within it concerns it alone, that is, only the individual, closed sphere. (321)
Ugliness, then, is the echo in this new body of the formerly sublime grotesque. It references this older, deeper, more complex mode, while keeping the body itself separate and individual. Instead of grotesque interaction, we instead are only able to stare. I contend that what makes us stop and look at an ugly figure is the echo of the grotesque (and the potential for the sublime) it contains. What is ugly makes us stop and stare—more briefly than the grotesque does—for similar reasons of novelty. We still feel (and perhaps miss) the echo of the grotesque in our new individuated bodies.
Welty often references the grotesque in her work through mythic allusion, especially in her incorporation of Medusa imagery. Medusa was a Gorgon in Greek mythology whose appearance turned people to stone, and she was ultimately slain by Perseus. Several critics discuss the appearance of this myth in Welty’s story “The Wanderers” in The Golden Apples, in which a painting of Medusa’s death by Perseus appears. To Patricia Yaeger, the Medusa story traditionally has forged a link between “gynophobia and heroism,” and it is Welty’s subversive approach to language which allows her to “‘free’ language systems that have encouraged us to associate gynophobia and heroism” (“‘Because a Fire Was in My Head’” 964). Lauren Berlant also sees gender as a key element in Welty’s use of the myth, explaining that the “Perseus-Medusa myth contains a paradigm of sexual difference; for Welty, the violence it embodies is inevitably inscribed in desire” (59). However, Berlant notes that “Yaeger’s attempt to articulate the feminist question as a question limited mainly to language does not account for the supra-linguistic, materialistic tendency of Welty’s work….forcing the reader to stop and face up to the violent, material relations in which she is engaged” (60 n. 4). Berlant’s clarification foregrounds the corporeal qualities of beauty and ugliness which the Medusa myth evokes.
“Petrified Man” contains the most overt retelling of the Medusa myth in the Curtain of Green collection, focusing on women in a beauty parlor with their grotesque, dripping hair (echoing Medusa’s head of snakes) and a petrified man which might refer to the effect of Medusa on those who looked on her. Berlant’s explication of the story echoes Gleeson-White’s contention that ugly women in Welty’s fiction work against expectations of passive white southern womanhood:
“Petrified Man” is designed strategically to expose the grotesque, the inelegant level of women’s desire: not to assert that monstrosity and violence are essentially feminine, but to refuse the nostalgic and sentimental construction of female superiority by creating a scene of embarrassment, to insist that monstrosity is female as well as male. (60)
Alternately, Berlant’s explication of Medusa imagery also supports Bauer’s reading of female ugliness which is connected to female sexuality, as she explains the Freudian reading of Medusa, in which “Medusa represents knowledge of sexual difference” (61). Ultimately, the Medusa myth calls attention to gendered dimensions of ugliness, as the sexuality and rebellion represented by the ugly woman gain strength from a dynamic of gender difference. When the ugly woman faces a man, he is not only forced to stop, but is petrified (in both physical as well as emotional meanings of the word) by the threat she represents. The extent of the threat she represents is so great that it requires a mythic register in order to be fully represented.
Nor is ugliness synonymous with abjection, though like the grotesque, theories of abjection also inform my ideas about ugliness. In her discussion of the abject, feminist theorist Julia Kristeva says that “what is abject[,]…the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses….It lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the latter’s rules of the game. And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master” (2). To Kristeva, the abject concurrently defines and challenges borders. Similarly, Judith Butler says that abjection “presupposes and produces a domain of agency from which it is differentiated” (243 n.2). For both Kristeva and Butler, the abject’s existence outside of a system constitutes a threat to this system: in Butler’s words, “I want to propose that certain abject zones within sociality also deliver this threat, constituting zones of uninhabitability which a subject fantasizes as threatening its own integrity with the prospect of a psychotic dissolution (‘I would rather die than do or be that!’)” (243 n. 2).
Abjection in such terms resonates with Gleeson-White’s consideration of female ugliness in the work of southern women writers, especially as she sees these images “engag[ing] in a politics of dissent” as they “challenge idealized and, needless to say, oppressive visions of white southern womanhood” (46). Such visions were supposed to be embodied through physical manifestations of the “cult of true womanhood” described by Barbara Welter in her germinal feminist essay of that same name. Welter’s “cult of true womanhood” identifies the foundations of this archetypal femininity as “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (152). Any physical characteristics which take away from this image—such as scars (which violate purity) or a generally slovenly appearance (which violates all of the True Womanhood characteristics)—are physical markers of failure to conform to these norms. Women described as “ugly” are in direct violation of systems which uphold and rely upon such enforced feminine ideals and therefore cannot be considered as an integrated part of systems.
The unnamed narrator of “Why I Live at the P.O.” (who is only referred to as “Sister”) could be considered an example of abject ugliness, except for her almost cheerful defiance of her status. Stella-Rondo’s insulting description of Sister’s body as “one-sided” (57) is a particularly sexual one, as it refers to Sister’s breasts. In this way, Sister’s ugliness detracts from her femininity and her womanhood, and Stella-Rondo’s accusation leads directly to her losing her love interest Mr. Whitaker and with him her chance at normative heterosexual coupledom. Sister’s ugliness is a form of abjection, as she is no longer welcome in her family home. Nevertheless, Sister’s tone is one of cheery defiance, and I am inclined to believe Sister’s claim at the end of the story that she is happy.
Mab Segrest, in a slightly different vein from Gleeson-White, sees the ugly women who appear in this fiction as not posing a challenge to the expectations of southern white womanhood, but instead providing a necessary pressure valve for a system which otherwise would implode from its own pressures. Segrest says, “The town freak (or eccentric, the eccentric being in one’s own family, the freak in someone else’s) is often sancrosanct, protected because her/his insanity is recognized as necessary to preserve collective sanity….These community demands for normalcy are particularly strong around matters of female sexuality—hence the prevalence of the female grotesque in these fictions” (25). To Segrest, ugly women such as Sister provide a necessary outlet for the strictly policed gender norms of the community, allowing others in the community to vicariously experience rebellion without risking their own status.
While Segrest’s characterization falls more under the rubric of abjection, Patricia Yaeger’s discussion of ugly women in A Curtain of Green relies more upon theories of the grotesque. Unlike Segrest, who focuses on such women’s real-life counterparts in southern communities, Yaeger is more interested in the larger canon of which works such as Curtain of Green are a part. Yaeger says that “southern women writers who appropriate the grotesque are at work constructing a female tradition that refuses the genteel obsession with writing (or inhabiting) the beautiful body in exchange for something more politically active and vehement: for the angry sex- and class-conscious writing of the southern gargantuan” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 312). Like Gleeson-White, Yaeger sees the image of the ugly woman as enabling southern women writers to perform a politics of dissent. Frequently in her work, Yaeger points to “A Memory” in this collection as exemplifying this larger tradition of dissenting southern women writers: as Segrest points to southern roles in the community, Yaeger instead focuses on the role of the southern woman writer within the culture of the South.
In the larger tradition of southern literature, Yaeger identifies the “racially pure and diminutive female body in need of protection” as a southern myth: “this fragile white body helps to motivate (1) southern modes of population control reproducing black and white populations as separate, (2) the regulated segregation of these racial bodies in space, and (3) the need for deeply interiorized categories of racism that will do the work of segregation” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 312). It is writing such as Welty’s that Yaeger sees as refusing this discipline, specifically through its portrayal of images of ugly women and grotesque bodies: “When the grotesque body marches onto the page, the ideology that controls southern bodies explodes in the most unexpected of ways. Southern women’s writing is filled with bizarre somatic images that seem unnecessarily cruel or out of control, and yet this cruelty has a function: it tears at the social fabric and leaves it in shreds” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 293).
As I have touched upon earlier, the ugly woman in “A Memory” offers just such a challenge to traditional images of southern womanhood. Gleeson-White says that, for the narrator, “the group she encounters by the lake…will not fit into her narrow vision. The woman overflows the bounds of acceptable identity to challenge restrictive images of petite and gracious womanhood, written into a history of terror and (self-) denial” (50). Not only is the ugly body female, but there is an evocation of foreignness in the description of the ugly group: “They were brown and roughened, but not foreigners; when I was a child such people were called ‘common’” (“A Memory” 94). Such foreignness seems to be both a literal foreignness, in that their dark complexions links them to geographical outsiders, as well as a socioeconomic foreignness (as the narrator’s characterization of them as “common” implies). Both of these outsider statuses represent a threat to the traditionally southern ways of life typified by the traditionally beautiful southern white woman.
Sexuality is present in this scene—but it is an earthy, uncontainable, base sexuality completely located on the body. Such corporeal sexuality is in stark contrast to the idealized, romantic fantasies which remain the imagination of the narrator. The narrator’s description of the woman on the beach is one of fear, alienation, and disgust:
She was unnaturally white and fatly aware, in a bathing suit which had no relation to the shape of her body. Fat hung on her upper arms like an arrested earthslide on a hill. With the first motion she might make, I was afraid that she would slide down upon herself into a terrifying heap. Her breasts hung heavy and widening like pears into her bathing suit. Her legs lay prone one on the other like shadowed bulwarks, uneven and deserted, upon which, from the man’s hand, the sand piled higher like the teasing threat of oblivion. (95)
In this description, the woman’s inability to fill the highly charged gender marker of a bathing suit undercuts her own femininity even as it foregrounds the monstrosity of her body, which is itself described in terms of nature imagery. This threatens not only her own identity (“I was afraid that she would slide down upon herself into a terrifying heap”) but also of civilization itself, as her legs described as deserted bulwarks evoke a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Such threats exemplify Kristeva’s theory of abjection, as it is “not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (4). Such disturbance is quite apparent in the narrator’s response to the fat woman. To Kristeva the abject delimits the “border of my condition of a human being….the place where I am not and which permits me to be” (3). In “A Memory,” the disgust the narrator feels in response to the fat woman’s appearance along with the overt, vulgar sexuality of the people in the group represents such a challenge to what she thinks of as her ordered life. The narrator’s prolonged visual attention—staring emphasized by her framing hands—reveals her attempt to impose what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls a “regulating visual dynamic” (41), or “visual acts…[which] help to create, enforce, and register our social positions (42). As the narrator literally tries to make a frame around the people with her hands, she attempts to reconstruct a literal border between herself and these people, in an attempt to re-establish the borders which have been challenged by the sight of these people.
In Yaeger’s larger discussion of the grotesque in the writings of southern women authors, she characterizes this particular scene as one of threefold violence. First, she observes that this woman’s body “possesses a vitality that shatters the complacency of the prim narrator.” Second, she sees the sand being piled by the man’s hand as “smashing this girl’s delusions about an idealized division of sexual labor.” Finally, she sees the fat woman as responding with a violence of her own: “If her slovenly body, her sandy disarray, seems threatening, it is because she mouths a new world where the beautiful body fails to keep at bay the heterogeneity and injustice that southern manners are designed to hide” (Dirt and Desire 139). In the narrator’s fantasy, her romantic love goes no further than her touching the wrist of the boy she loves. This fantasy of physically innocent romance cannot survive the reality—or rather, the grotesque corporeality—she is faced with on the beach.
Gleeson-White agrees with Yaeger that Welty’s work is rife with submerged violence: “Welty is playful and teasing as she gently parodies ideal southern womanhood, yet this is frequently undercut by a lurking violence” (55). Gleeson-White points to Lily Daw in the short story “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” as an example of “the violence so typical of the collection underneath the comic tenor of the story” (50). After Lily’s mother died, her father beat her and tried to cut off her head; this violent history is marked permanently on Lily’s body in the scar on her neck. Lily’s appearance is described as generally unattractive, despite (or perhaps in contrast to) her new hat: “Her milky-yellow hair streamed freely down under a new hat. You could see the wavy scar on her throat if you knew it was there” (8). “Milky-yellow” is an oddly unattractive description of blonde hair, when compared with “golden” or “sunlit” or the many other descriptors which Welty might have chosen, had she wanted to Lily to be considered pretty.
After her father attacks her, Lily is taken from him by the ladies of the town who find her a safer home. These concerned ladies subsequently decide to send Lily to the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded of Mississippi, as Lily “isn’t bright” (5), and is inappropriately sexual. The story opens with the ladies of the town trying to find Lily, who has disappeared after the performance of a travelling show. Mrs. Watts’s question, “‘The point is, what did she do after the show?’” and her observation that “‘Lily has gotten so she is very mature for her age’” (6) shows the ladies’ shared suspicions about Lily’s promiscuity. Despite hearing that Lily claims to have become engaged to the show’s xylophone player, the ladies assume that the xylophone player “was after Lily’s body alone and he wouldn’t ever in this world make the poor little thing happy” (10). Further, they discuss the fact that Lily frequently wears only a petticoat for a dress (8), and Mrs. Watts offers to give her a “pink crêpe de Chine brassiere with adjustable shoulder straps,” noting that she “needs it” (11). This judgment that Lily’s breasts “need” to be contained demonstrate that, once again, the figure of the ugly woman represents a sexuality which is difficult to control. Mrs. Watts goes on to ask, “What would they think if she ran all over Ellisville in a petticoat looking like a Fiji?’” (11). Her characterization of Lily as a “Fiji” further distances Lily from traditional white southern womanhood, connecting her with a subaltern identity.
However, despite her scar, Lily’s ugliness is not on a scale which aligns her with the grotesque ugliness of the fat woman on the beach in “A Memory.” Still, Lily’s is a sexualized ugliness, like that discussed by Dale Bauer in her analysis of early twentieth century literature. Bauer sees ugliness as a marker of uncontrolled sexuality in this fiction; it is during this time period that she identifies a shift away from sentimental literature, which “deliberately obscured physical intimacy since it could not contain or account for sexuality.” In Bauer’s consideration, earlier literature demonstrates “how culture sentimentalized sexuality by displacing sex onto unsentimental—i.e., ugly—bodies” (58). Female purity required that sexuality be located elsewhere from romantic plots. Bauer describes this displacement as being both a historically-specific move as well as a primarily class-based one:
While the rising commercial culture was obsessed with advertising and selling beauty culture to middle-class women as an alternative to sex-expression, the Social Gospelers imagined that they discovered in working-class women perhaps the source of cultural degeneration. Those who did engage in sex are depicted, curiously enough, as “ugly girls.” The cultural logic that links ugliness and sexuality goes like this: if sexuality can be found to originate in ugliness, then patriarchal control can flourish when it is exerted over beauty. (62)
Such “Social Gospelers” who attempted to exert control are represented by Welty in the figures of the ladies in the story; their significance is reinforced by including them in the story’s title, which references both “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies.”
Betina Entzminger’s discussion of the “Southern Belle Gone Bad” in her 2002 The Belle Gone Bad: White Southern Women Writers and the Dark Seductress is applicable in my consideration of Lily Daw, though Lily is not exactly the “belle gone bad” of Entzminger’s work. Entzminger’s belle is “a hyperbolic version of the normally coquettish belle…a type of femme fatale—sexually knowing, physically powerful because of her allure, and morally dangerous” (2). Though not a femme fatale, Lily’s physical and mental scars do make her morally dangerous, as they allow her a sexuality which the ladies attempt to contain. Lily’s threatening sexuality connects her to Entzminger’s dark belle who was “the opposite of the ideal southern lady, the mature women the belle was intended to become” (2). That Entzminger’s belle has somehow “gone bad,” or not become the proper kind of southern woman which was expected, shows that she is no longer the young belle, virtuous and eligible for marriage. Instead, she “uses her sexuality as a tool” (2). Lily, too, is considered ineligible for marriage, despite what turns out to be a legitimate proposal from the carnival’s xylophone player. Her mental status, threatening sexuality, and history of violence make her ineligible for the marriage market, which is reserved for those who would properly reproduce and perpetuate the correct kind of society.
Though Entzminger focuses on Welty’s novels rather than her short stories, she includes Welty in her larger characterization of contemporary southern women writers who “use the bad belle figure to critique the southern social system, particularly as it relates to the role of women” (123). InWelty’s novels, Entzminger sees Welty “us[ing] the bad belle as a hyperbolic version of society’s traditional view of powerful women” (129). In her short fiction, I contend that Welty’s ugly women represent a more nuanced critique of this system. Lily’s sexuality and existence (albeit an enforced one) outside of the marriage economy demonstrate that a possible alternative exists to that kind of southern womanhood. It is, in fact, Lily’s Daw’s complete lack of autonomy which, while it keeps her from maintaining any agency (as ultimately, she is sent to Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded of Mississippi), instead reveals the vulnerability of the town’s traditional system represented by the ladies.
The vulnerability of this system reflects that it is in no way an innate or organic one, but rather an artificial construct which must be policed and reinforced. It is just such a system of reinforcement which Elaine Scarry discusses in her work On Beauty. According to Scarry,
The political critique of beauty is composed of two distinct arguments. The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just. The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object. (58)
In Scarry’s view, beauty functions as an integral part of a system which is policed through discipline and violence. However, while beauty’s allure renders people vulnerable to interpellation into a policed system, beauty itself is vulnerable to attack. As violence is an integral part of both of the possibilities, it follows that ugliness, too, is part of this larger system undergirded with violence.
Such violence is evident in the “The Petrified Man” and specifically implicated in the enforcement of these norms. Gleeson-White sees violence and issues of beauty as “intriguingly entangled in ‘The Petrified Man,’” which she says “constructs feminine beauty not as something natural or innate, but as wholly manufactured….The women who are associated with southern beauty are, in a nutshell, silly” (50). The story takes place in a southern beauty parlor in which the beautician Leota recounts for her customer Mrs. Fletcher her adventures with the exciting Mrs. Pike. Indeed, the silliness of the pursuit of artificial beauty is exaggerated to the point of absurdity, as exemplified in the anecdote she relates about Mrs. Montjoy, who stopped by the shop to have a permanent wave put in her hair while she was in labor so that she would look pretty for the birth of her new baby.
Beauty here not only is completely artificial but also has a definite sexual undercurrent, what Berlant refers to as an “illicit quality of pleasure” (63) in the story as typified in this description of the beauty parlor: “Hidden in this den of curling fluid and henna packs, separated by a lavender swing-door from the other customers, who were being gratified in other booths” (22). This description of customers are being “gratified in booths” evokes scenes of prostitution. The beauty process is not a pretty one; hair frequently drips, for example, requiring cotton to “sop it up” (45). Here, the process of changing ugliness to beauty is a sexual one, though it is not a romantic sexuality (which would properly take place in the bedroom of a married couple). Instead, this is a sexuality of consumption, hunger, and need. It takes place between women in “booths.” Functioning as a semi-public, semi-private space, these booths provide visual privacy for their female customers while allowing verbal communication between booths.
Even with the assistance of the services the beauty shop provides, the women seen in the story are ugly. Mrs. Fletcher, for example, is described as having “her hair-line eyebrows diving down toward her nose, and her wrinkled, beady-lashed eyelids battling with concentration” (23). It is important to note that the beauty shop services seem to only magnify her ugliness, as her “hair-line eyebrows” are unnatural and must be the result of a salon service. There is additional ugliness in the story, as Leota describes the “ugly” dead conjoined twins she sees at a freak show. The twins are allegedly the offspring of parents who were first cousins (26): once again in these stories, sex (and inappropriate, societal-forbidden sexuality) and ugliness are yoked.
Such aberrant behavior ends up marking the body. As in the case of Lily Daw’s scar, Gleeson-White notes “the contorted and fragmented bodies that fill these writers’ stories at the same time own up to a tragic history in which they have partaken” (46). Many of the women in Welty’s stories have bodies physically marked by class difference, histories of violence, grief, and other aberrant experiences. Elaine Scarry explains that language itself is connected to the body: “Human responsibility for the ‘materiality’ of language has often been portrayed by directly tying language to the body itself, as when Sartre, echoing Marx, described the writer’s voice as ‘a prolongation of the body.’” (“Introduction” xiv). Scarry’s statement explains what Yaeger refers to as the “body as testimony” (Dirt and Desire 218), or the palimpsestic medium provided by the female body in literature. Yaeger’s use of the word “testimony” emphasizes how visual appearance functions as a speech act, a performative expression which not only tells a story but also insists upon a response. In “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,” for example, the scar on Lily’s neck can be seen “if you knew it was there” (Dirt and Desire 9). The ability to see Lily’s disfigurement implies a knowledge of the violence done to her and consequently a responsibility to at least attempt to assuage the wrongdoing. The ladies’ actions may be at times misguided, but they do represent a certain kind of moral responsibility which cannot ignore the suffering of others.
The main character in the title story, “A Curtain of Green,” has put beauty completely behind her. A widow, in her grief she has shirked all of the duties expected of her by her traditional southern neighborhood, including the duty of allowing her neighbors to comfort and care for her in her grief. Her appearance is described as slovenly by the neighbor woman watching her: “Every morning she might be observed walking slowly, almost timidly, out of the white house, wearing a pair of the untidy overalls, often with her hair streaming and tangled where she had neglected to comb it” (130). The lack of tidiness in her clothes and hair shows her not willing to submit to her neighbors’ expectations of a proper woman’s appearance; even her preoccupation with gardening, a potentially appropriate pastime for a woman of her status, is not executed appropriately. It isolates her, as she fails to share what she grows with her community.
She further fails to take their feelings into account in how she gardens. Her neighbor comments, “And if she thought of beauty at all (they regarded her stained overalls, now almost of a color with the leaves), she certainly did not strive for it in her garden. It was impossible to enjoy looking at such a place” (131). In the value system of the neighborhood, flowers (which are usually considered to be a symbol of beauty) are not beautiful by themselves: they require cultivation and a proper context in order to qualify as beautiful. Growing wildly without order disqualifies them from being considered beautiful, as does the widow’s failure to use them to show the proper regard for her neighbors. The widow’s rejection of beauty parallels her larger rejection of her community through her rejection of its aesthetics, values, and expectations. She refuses community interaction or to register the stares of her neighbors.
In Bakhtin’s discussion of the particular body parts which are the most often involved in the grotesque (the bowels and genitals in particular), he notes that “All these convexities and orifices have a common characteristic; it is within them that the confines between bodies and between the body are overcome: there is an interchange and an interorientation” (317). Similarly, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson characterizes what happens during staring as an interactive moment of possibility: “Staring,” she explains, “makes things happen between people” (33). Among the myriad paradigms of staring she explores are two opposing ones which are relevant to this consideration. First, there is what Garland-Thompson terms a Foucauldian mode of staring, which builds upon Foucault’s Panopticon theory of discipline. The Foucauldian paradigm is one in which the threat of the stare is internalized: “By institutionalizing the dominating stare, the idea of the Panopticon tames Medusa, stripping away her petrifying stare and replacing it with the banal surveillance camera we’ve all come to accept….Surveillance differs, however, from interpersonal face-to-face staring in that it is controlling, static, and exercised by the few on the many” (43).
The alternative to the Foucauldian mode is Sartre’s “parable of interpersonal shaming through domination staring” (43). Acknowledging the interactive nature of the staring configuration, Garland-Thompson explains that “This scene asserts the perversity of staring and the anxiety of being a staree” (43). Sartre’s configuration complicates the binary configuration by making the starer also at risk of being caught staring—in other words, being in the double bind of being stared at while staring, which Garland-Thompson characterizes as “simultaneous domination and subjection” (43).
Such a double bind is demonstrated in “A Memory,” as the narrator is irrevocably affected by what she sees. Her position as a viewer is emphasized from the beginning of the story when she describes how taking painting lesson has taught her to make “small frames with my fingers, to look at everything” (92). At one point, however, her position is viewer is threatened in the Sartrean mode by the man in the group (whom the narrator describes as doglike) whose careless gaze includes the narrator. Being seen—being caught—while looking causes the narrator to be “stunned” (96); in this story, she is the victim of Medusa. By the end of the story, she is so horrified by the grotesque sexuality on display—“victimized by the sight” (97)—that she tries to end the interaction by closing her eyes repeatedly.
In addition to the two modes—Foucauldian and Sartrean—of staring, Garland-Thompson also examines the role that curiosity plays in staring:
To those who condemn it, the curiosity launched by the impulse to stare at inexplicable sights is a grab for unauthorized knowledge, a presumptuous overreaching….A poke in the eye of the gods, curiosity puts us in charge of the story, trouncing obedience and risking sound punishment. Eve, Prometheus, Icarus, Oedipus, and Frankenstein warn us the hubris of curiosity, of wanting to know more than is good for you. ( 63)
In Welty’s work, particularly in “A Memory,” not only is the one who does the looking as important as the one being looked at, but the interaction which results from this encounter is also critical. The girl’s looking at the group on the beach through her own fingers, framing the scene and calling attention to the ugly woman, enacts the Sartrean mode by forcing us as readers to see her staring. Here, the staring relationship is a highly sexualized one, as the girl’s framing of both the overtly corporeal scene on the beach as well as her own idealization of her school crush give her a sense of sexual agency, even if only in her imagination (which, especially in the context of a short story, is itself a form of action).
The narrator’s response to what she has seen and the changes which have been wrought on her through her eyesight are emphasized by Welty’s use of eyesight imagery at the end of the story. The narrator, after bursting into tears, says, “I remember continuing to lie there, squaring my vision with my hands, trying to think ahead to the time of my return to school in winter” (97). As the narrator’s disturbance points to ugliness as catalyst for interaction and change, Bakhtin’s discussion of the potential inherent in the grotesque is relevant here. To Bakhtin, “the artistic logic of the grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences (sprouts, buds) and orifices, only that which leads beyond the body’s limited space or into the body’s depths” (318). It is in “A Memory” where what I have been categorizing as ugly is mostly closely related to the grotesque, as the description of the fat woman’s body— “unnaturally white…in a bathing suit which had no relation to the shape of her body. Fat hung on her upper arms like an arrested earthquake on a hill….Her breasts hung heavy and widening like pears into her bathing suit” (95) —so well fits with Bakhtin’s description of the grotesque body. However, unlike an encounter with the Bakhtinian grotesque, which might open up the observer to sublime possibilities—a shock which might shake the viewer out of her accustomed frame of reference and act as a catalyst for personal transformation—this encounter with the banally ugly leaves the narrator momentarily upset (and even frozen), but ultimately (though with less confidence) restored to her idealized fantasies of romance.
Such a mythic register is evoked in a different way in the story “Clytie.” We first see Clytie out in the rain with her bonnet drooping “like an old bonnet on a horse.” She is ugly: “The old maid did not look around, but clenched her hands and drew them up under her armpits, and sticking out her elbows like hen wings, and ran out of the street, her poor hat creaking and beating about her ears” (100). Not only is she characterized as an “old maid”—a state at odds with the expectations of woman as wife and mother—but in this description she is compared to two different barnyard animals: a horse and a hen. Further, her posture draws attention to her armpits—loci not connected to feminine beauty—and makes her appear less than human.
The story draws its strength at least in part from the irony produced by the tension created by the mythical names given to such ugly characters. Clytie is an ugly, bitter old maid, nothing like the mythic water nymph who pined after Apollo so desperately that she was transformed into a sunflower. Nor does her sister Octavia, an angry bedridden invalid, resemble Mark Antony’s virtuous wife. Such irony is complicated, though, by Clytie’s trust in the meaning of the external: “The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face. Was it possible to comprehend the eyes and the mouths of other people, which concealed she knew not what, and secretly asked for still another unknown thing?” (101). As the mythical Clytie in her sunflower form kept her face constantly turned toward the face of the Apollo in his guise as the sun, so Welty’s Clytie is equally attached to outward forms. If appearances are to be trusted, then Clytie’s physical hideousness confirms Gleeson-White’s assertion of feminine ugliness as a challenge to traditional southern womanhood.
Despite the troubling meanings implied by ugliness, its power to captivate remains. We stare at ugliness because ugliness represents some sort of disorder or violation of expectation. We are caught in a stare in an attempt to make sense of what we are seeing. In Garland-Thompson’s explanation, we “attempt to impose a frame of reference on the chaos of a visual field by integrating what is unknown into what is already known[,]….impose a logical narrative on what at first glance seems to be random visual stimuli” (21). In Welty’s work, the images of ugly women offer openings in the narratives, providing what Garland-Thompson means when she says that the “capacity to create meaning is unstable and open-ended” (39). Through narrators such as that in “A Memory” or even “Petrified Man,” readers are forced into a staring encounter with ugliness. Hopefully, the reader is not turned to stone by this vision, but does experience a formidable transformation from this experience, as she is forced into a more interactive relationship with the story than is usually required. Such interactions result in the kinds of stories that Garland Thompson claims are possible only through such an act:
If an encounter can be sustained, staring asks questions. And those questions open up stories. To stare is to ask, ‘Why are you different from me?’ and ‘What happened to you?” To observe the stare is to ask ‘Why are you different from me?’ and ‘What is his interest?’ To undergo the stare is to ask ‘What is attracting her?’ or ‘What is wrong with me?’ Each of these implicit questions is the nub of a narrative about who we are, how we fit into the human community, or how we understand each other. As such, scenes of staring can generate new stories. (95)
So, by leaving stories such as “A Memory” not completely resolved, Welty utilizes the dynamics of ugliness and staring in order to leave open a generative space.
Patricia Yaeger, in her lengthy consideration of “A Memory,” describes it as a “wonderful, puzzling story,” though “the story seems to go nowhere—its plot line and its sense of character development are almost nil” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 289). I argue that the lack of closure and the very ambiguity of the ending, through the interactive relationship which emerges as a result of the Sartrean staring dynamic it portrays, is in fact the site of production for the development of these characters. The staring relationship we are forced into vicariously as readers requires us to construct our own narrative for the scene. In fact, Yaeger emphasizes the compositional aspects of the story, noting that “Although nothing happens, a little girl’s secure southern world comes crashing down around her. In this moment the child’s imaginative or writerly character is formed, and the results are the highly rebellious and political stories in Welty’s first volume” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 289). In other words, Yaeger, too, sees the ambiguity provoked by the ugliness in the story as foregrounding the reader’s awareness of and participation in the narrative process.
Additionally, Yaeger draws attention to the uniqueness of the narrator of the story: “Unlike most of the characters in Curtain of Green…the heroine of ‘A Memory’ seems out of place, for she is solidly middle class and hopelessly lyrical….suggesting that this story’s narrator may be Welty herself.” As a photographer, Welty certainly saw value in what others registered as a lack of beauty. Yaeger sees this possible kunstlerroman aspect of the story as suggesting a “mode of transformation”: “‘A Memory’ offers the beginnings of an epistemic break, of a new era in one writer’s consciousness: a suggestive description of that moment in Welty’s own life when the feminine obsession with the romance ethos shatters, to be replaced with a passion for the ordinary power plays of southern life” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 310-1). As Yaeger explicitly points to the transformation of the narrator from one who is “at first repelled but finally feels eroticized by the grotesque world around her” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 311), she draws attention to the significance of the gendered nature of these dynamics. Further, as Garland-Thompson explains, “Whereas the male stare is a potentially hostile instrument to be mastered, the female stare compromises a woman’s virtue, which is the ultimate threat to her position as a lady” (69). By openly staring at the group on the beach, the narrator is further subverting the expectations of her own ladylike status, as her willingness to witness overt sexuality compromises her own moral standing.
In Yaeger’s consideration, the ugly women who appear in Welty’s work show her “explor[ing] a southern world that fails to support its bodies” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 313). In focusing on these ugly women, I wish to further Yaeger’s project of revising traditional readings of Welty. In her discussion of Welty’s work, Yaeger rejects the earlier readings exemplified by such canonical critics of southern literature such as Louis Rubin, who described Welty’s style as having a darting, light, “hummingbird”-like style. Instead, Yaeger wishes to “formulate new habits of reading that will take us beyond the hummingbird…and into the hot southern day. My hope is to recover the political intrigue, the largeness and largesse, of fiction by southern women” (“Beyond the Hummingbird” 289). As Elaine Scarry says, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people” (3). Why, then, bring ugliness into art—why have ugly women in literature?
While an easy answer seems to be to provide a foil for beauty, there is more to it. The perspective that Welty gains from her photographic perspective allows her to create visually striking images which often arrest the reader’s attention. By making us look at ugliness, Welty puts the reader into an uncomfortable position. Within the frames of her stories, she includes elements of the abject and grotesque which threaten the very borders she constructs. However, the dynamic interaction which emerges from the imagery of ugly women as well as the staring it provokes in Welty’s stories offer the reader new and productive opportunities for considering female characters previously caught in a tradition of southern literature which offered limited models of femininity. Despite popular images of southern women as beautiful belles, stories such as Welty’s reveal that these images not only are not representative of women in the South, but also are much less interesting than their uglier sisters. The ugliness read on their faces and bodies function as markers of dissent, sexuality, and histories of violence and neglect. These stories interrupt our expectations of southern angels of the house, and thus make us stop and reconsider our expectations of southern women. As ugliness requires the one staring to imagine a story to explain what is being seen, so Welty’s ugly women require us to imagine our own new narrative possibilities.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Bauer, Dale M. “‘In the blood’: Sentiment, Sex, and the Ugly Girl.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11:3 (Fall 1999): 57-75.
Berlant, Lauren. “Re-Writing the Medusa: Welty’s ‘The Petrified Man.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26(Winter 1989): 59-70.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Entzinger, Betina. The Belle Gone Bad: White Southern Women Writers and the Dark Seductress. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Gleeson-White, Sarah. “A Peculiarly Southern Form of Ugliness: Edora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.” The Southern Literary Journal 36:1 (Fall 2003): 46-57.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Roberts, Mary Louise. “True Womanhood Revisited.” Journal of Women’s History 14:1 (Spring 2002): 150-155.
Scarry, Elaine. “Introduction.” Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. Ed. Elaine Scarry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. vii-xxvii.
----. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Segrest, Mab. My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1985.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860.” American Quarterly 18:2 (Summer 1966): 151–174.
Welty, Eudora. A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. 1936. New York: Library of America, 1998.
Yaeger, Patricia. “‘Because a Fire Was in My Head’: Eudora Welty and the Dialogic Imagination.” PMLA 99.5 (October 1984): 955-973.
----. “Beyond the Hummingbird: Southern Women Writers and the Southern Gargantua.” Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts. Ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 287-318.
----. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
 See, e.g., Patricia Yaeger, “‘Because a Fire Was in My Head’: Eudora Welty and the Dialogic Imagination” as well as Lauren Berlant, “Re-Writing the Medusa: Welty’s ‘Petrified Man.’”
 Though this early work of Welter’s has since been criticized as more “descriptive” than analytical, it is still recognized as a valid model of nineteenth century ideals of American femininity (Roberts 151)
 In her own self-exile to the P.O., where she plans to live an independent life, Sister demonstrates Gleeson-White’s contention that ugliness in women poses a direct challenge to expectations of traditional white womanhood. However, I do not rule out the possibility that Sister’s happiness will not last, and that her statements at the end of the story—“But here I am, and here I’ll stay. I want the world to know I’m happy. And if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker, I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen” (110)—while meant sincerely at the time she says them, are meant to be taken as her final, permanent thoughts on the matter. In fact, the very open-ended nature of the story’s ending allows for multiple plausible possibilities in imagining what might happen next.
 Such foreignness may also link the group to ugly women of the North, as Gleeson-White also sees the ugly woman as a being linked to “a new northern style of woman….an androgynous, sterile one, the type of ugly body we frequently encounter in Welty’s…fiction” (47). This “movement away from the [southern] feminine ideal” (47) further implies a threat to the traditional southern ways of life.
 Patricia Yeager identifies the narrator of “A Memory” as “an avatar for Welty herself” (130). If this is the case, then the story is complicated by the possibilities of artistic expression and erotic knowledge implied by this additional level of authorial construction.
 Certainly, Lily Daw’s scar clearly demonstrates how ugliness represents as well as results from systemic violence, manifested in that story as child abuse.
 I will address the significance of the Medusa in Welty’s work later in this essay.
 In this story, it is not just the women who are described as ugly, but the entire group of “common” people (152). In this way, the narrator’s staring at the group reveals two aspects of ugliness as class markers. First, the group’s ugliness reveals their own “common” status, as they are “resigned to each other’s daring and ugliness” (154). In addition, as overt staring itself is not a ladylike behavior, the narrator’s own standing is shown as being vulnerable. See Garland-Thompson 69.