Sunday, January 15, 2012

Eudora Welty--The Ponder Heart (1954)

Edna Earle Ponder narrates this story about her Uncle Daniel, accused of murdering his estranged wife Bonnie Dee.  Taking place in rural Mississippi, Edna Earle runs the Beulah Hotel, a family business given to her by her Uncle Daniel after her grandfather turned it over to him to run.  Uncle Daniel, whom Grandpa at one point describes as hiding behind the door when brains were being handed out, was institutionalized at one point, though he managed to escape almost despite himself.  Once out of the asylum, he marries: first Miss Teacake Magee, and then Bonnie Dee Peacock.  His first marriage doesn’t last, and Bonnie Dee only agrees to marry him on a trial basis.  Eventually, she drives him out, and he leaves her living at the old homeplace while he lives at the hotel with his niece.  Bonnie Dee leaves town for a while, causing Uncle Daniel to pine for her and repeat the story of his heartbreak daily for the hotel’s dinner guests.  When she returns, she invites him back; upon his return, however, she is found dead, and Uncle Daniel is put on trial for her murder.  Fortunately, Uncle Daniel is acquitted.
Edna Earle is identifiable as a Welty narrator, for me evoking Sister in “Why I Live at the P.O.”  Though she makes occasional references to her on-again, off-again romance with Mr. Spring, a traveling salesman who occasionally stays at the Beulah Hotel, she is primarily a supporting character in her own story.  I read her role as caretaker and narrator as an important analysis of the role of women in Southern communities: in her own words, “I’m the go between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world.  I hardly ever get a word in for myself” (404). 
Bonnie Dee also reminds me of a Welty short story character, that of Lily Daw in “Lily Daw and the Women.”  Both Lily Daw and Bonnie Dee suck on flowers (357), an odd characteristic I’m curious about.  Though Bonnie Dee is often described as pretty as a doll, her appearance is marked as odd: “She was little and she was dainty….But I could tell by her little coon eyes, she was shallow as they come” (355).  Edna Earle claims to be able to read people from their appearances, a trait she connects to her job as innkeeper: “I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now” (341).[1]  Like Lily Daw, her lack of intellect is apparently readable in her appearance, as well as connected to a certain implication of wantonness.
It would take a certain kind of wantonness to take advantage of a man as simple and sweet as Uncle Daniel.  His primary motivation in life was happiness; according to Edna Earle, “H loved happiness like I love tea” (343).  Such vulnerability also has a physiological manifestation, which is what is meant by the title reference to the “Ponder Heart”: “Well, it’s our hearts.  We run to sudden ends, all we Ponders.  I say it’s our hearts, though Dr. Ewbanks declares Grandpa just popped a blood vessel” (358).  While she’s referring specifically to their hereditary heart condition, she could also be referring to the vulnerability of their very way of life.  Though their family at one point was “rich as Croesus” (410), Uncle Daniel throughout the novella is constantly giving away not only their possessions and property, but cleans out their bank account and gives away most of their cash money as well.  There is a certain satirical tone about the South and its wealth and identity throughout the novel—at Uncle Daniel’s trial, a relative of Bonnie Dee is quite disparaging of the Ponders’ wealth, claiming that it comes from the fact that “the Ponders did not burn their cotton when Sherman came” (418).  And Edna Earle dismisses the judge’s authority because he “wasn’t even born in this county” (418). 
Published in 1954, the novella’s representation of and commentary on the South comes at a real moment of crisis and change for the American South.  In this texts, African Americans are still treated as childlike inferiors by the white people, and there does not seem to be any irony in this presentation (despite claims I have heard by Welty scholars to seem willing to perform major contortions to make Welty seem in retrospect to be much more (anachronistically) politically liberal that seems plausible).  Nevertheless, it’s a very fun read—Welty’s use of language is really stellar here, with lines such as, “with the wrong element going spang through the middle of it [the town] at ninety miles an hour on that new highway” (342). 

[1] As an aside, Welty several times uses this double colon sentence structure (which I don’t think I’ve seen before) in this story; I’m curious to think more about it’s meaning.

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