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Eudora Welty: Social Significance in "A Piece of News" and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" Several of Eudora Welty's stories, such as "Why I Live at the P.O.", are humorous and entertaining. Most of her fiction, however, shows a higher purpose at work. Welty's paramount talent is her ability to express her characters' thoughts and emotions. She enters their inner selves, and she shows the universality of human experience through them. Particularly in "A Piece of News" and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?", Welty creates a character's testimony which stands as an example for society, and which asks the reader to become aware of problems in society. Admittedly, Welty does not often embrace the injustices in Deep South society as material for her work. In One Writer's Beginnings, she says that most of her work centers on "human relationships" (95). She believes that authors should not allow the "political ideas of the time" to govern their work. Welty has been accused of not participating in causes or movements, especially civil rights and feminism, but she "thinks she was always clear about those issues" (To the Bone 111). She takes a stand on social issues, but expresses it in a subtle, descriptive manner. As Charles Clerc writes, " . . . no literary work exists in a vacuum. Fiction is the art of lying well, but every story comes out of a particular time and place, and may convey that zeitgeist . . . " (396). Although she does not suggest solutions to social problems, Welty creates awareness of the problems. Awareness of a problem in society will hasten its solution. She is simply taking the first step toward a solution: she is "defining the problem", as the first step in the scientific method states. One of the testimonial characters which Welty presents to the audience is Ruby Fisher. In her story "A Piece of News," Welty reveals a character who is consumed by
loneliness, who has a great need of attention, and who shares an unfulfilling, oppressive relationship with Clyde, her domineering husband. To amuse herself when she is alone, Ruby talks to herself and sashays around the house. She appears to be lonely in the domestic sphere, as Welty conveys when she finds the bag of coffee wrapped in a newspaper: "She must have been lonesome and slow all her life, the way things would take her by surprise" (Welty Collected 12). She is enchanted by a newspaper, which most people take for granted. As a result of her loneliness, she retreats into her imagination. The newspaper story that she sees, which reads, "'Mrs. Ruby Fisher had the misfortune to be shot in the leg by her husband last week,'" sets her reverie in motion. As she reads the sentence, one gleans that she is uneducated: she leaves "the long word, 'misfortune,' until the last" (13). Ruby imagines that this woman with the same name and she are one. She tends to confuse her dream with reality, as Welty shows when Ruby says, "'That's me' . . . very formally" (13). The erasure of the line between dream and reality becomes a central theme. As in several of Welty's works, in "A Piece of News" she incorporates a mirror concept. In this case, the fire acts as the mirror. As Ruby looks into the fire, "it might have been a mirror in the cabin, in which she could look deeper and deeper . . ." (13). She imagines Clyde actually shooting her, not in the leg but in the heart, and killing her. Her life is so lonely and miserable that the romanticized thought of her own death makes her ecstatic. Alfred Appell comments on Welty's use of imagery to support Ruby's reverie. He argues that the fire and the storm become "an objective correlative that charts the growth of Ruby's daydream as it envelopes the lonely reality of her life" (15). From Ruby's loneliness comes her desperate need for attention.
Because Ruby is lonely, she attempts to make contact with and get attention from people in any way possible. She tries to fulfill her need for affection by having brief trysts with strange men. She accepts even negative attention, as when Clyde slaps her when he finds out about her affairs. Her daydream also shows this need: if she is dead, Clyde must buy her a new dress, make her a coffin, and dig a hole in which to bury her. She fantasizes about his mourning her, and even the act of killing itself is a form of attention which she would receive. Clyde, who is a cold, unsupportive husband, does not meet her need for attention; and their relationship is another source of misery for Ruby. The relationship between Ruby and Clyde is quite common in that the man dominates and the woman submits. Welty says that "when she was still, there was a passivity about her, or a deception of passivity, which was not really passive at all" (13). Yet in her interaction with Clyde, she assumes the submissive role, perhaps as a defense against his apparently volatile temper. According to William Peden's interpretation, Ruby is "sensuously attracted" to Clyde when he returns home (159); however, the way she tiptoes around him more strongly suggests fear, but at the same time her abiding need for attention. Clyde's first words are indicative of their relationship: his abrupt "'What's keepin' supper?' he growled" (Welty Collected 15). He also pokes Ruby with his gun, which is not a loving gesture. As Ruby serves Clyde's dinner, she is excited about showing him the newspaper story. This is in part because of the possibility of the story's coming true, and also because Ruby does not know what will happen next. She enjoys the potential drama of the moment. Before she shows Clyde the newspaper, Ruby spills coffee on him. He pounds the table and says, "'Some day I'm goin' to smack the livin' devil outa you.'" To this, Ruby's
response is to "dodge mechanically" (16). When she shows him the story, he suspects her of hitchhiking and calls her a "hussy." After he reads the sentence, the two share an epiphanic moment. Michael Kreyling writes, "The curtain which separates them, man and woman, worker and dreamer, is parted just for an instant. Then Clyde bursts the dream, and life goes on in its ordinary time" (11). The possibility of Clyde's actually killing Ruby and their separation as a result faces them, and they almost make a true connection. Yet "communion is rejected" (Kreyling 12), and they maintain their loveless marriage. Welty shows the reader a woman who has unknowingly been victimized by a society which has not given her an opportunity to be educated, and which has not taught her to expect more respectful treatment from others. The main social significance of Ruby Fisher is that she, like countless other women in fiction and in reality, has been oppressed by a society which had already decided that she must be confined to a life within the home, filled with boredom and loneliness, and that her husband could work outside the home. Ruby Fisher does not have a chance. She is an attention-hungry, helpless housewife who seeks out any particle of attention she can get, including tawdry flings with uncaring, nameless strangers and abuse, both mental and physical, from her husband. For one uneasy moment, the couple imagines the prospect of their separation from each other through Ruby's death, and in that moment their relationship could have changed completely. But it did not, and as Appel states, "A Piece of News" is an "eminently modern story, after Chekhov's example, in which nothing--and everything-happens" (13). Their lives remain the same as they were in the beginning, and nothing is resolved. Welty bears witness to and brings to life this character and compassionately portrays her thoughts and experience.
Welty presents all of her characters objectively. She does not judge them, and she displays a remarkably skillful negative capability. In One Writer's Beginnings, she says, "If somewhere in its course your work seems to you to have come into a life of its own, and you can stand back from it and leave it be, you are looking then at your subject--so I feel" (111). She creates a character who is completely foreign to her for her story, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," which is certainly her most provocative social statement. It is based on the murder of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was shot in the back in June of 1963. The story was written in one day, when Welty was working on a novel. She felt a compulsion to write about this horrific occurrence. She says, "I thought to myself, 'I've lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this'--this was before anyone was caught. So I wrote a story in the first person as the murderer, because I thought, 'I am in a position where I know. I know what this man must feel like. I have lived with this kind of thing.'" (qtd. in Hargrove 78). Again, Welty does not usually "take the South's social turmoil as subject matter", and she believes a writer should "be a writer, not a tractarian" ("Eudora Welty" 358). However, in "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," Welty creates another character whose testimony contains social significance. Her assassin, whose name is not revealed in the story, serves as an eerily similar counterpart to the man who killed Evers in real life. Also, the awareness generated by Welty's portrayal of this man leads the reader to wonder who is really responsible for this act of hatred. In "A Piece of News," Welty's mirror theme lies within the story. The reality was Ruby Fisher's uneventful life, and the "mirror" was the other woman with the same name, in Tennessee, who had actually been shot by her husband. The mirror functions on a different level in "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," as the mirror is the story, and the
reality is literally historical fact. Welty's narrator bears a striking psychological similarity to Byron de la Beckwith (nicknamed "Delay"). According to Charles Clerc, the assassin's personality "wavers between self-exaltation and self-loathing", and he states that most assassins grow up in broken homes. Clerc then describes the "troubled circumstances" that Welty shows us concerning her narrator's home: he runs away and comes home only when his mother places an ad for him in the county weekly (390-91). Beckwith also comes from a broken home; his mother was mentally ill and his father died in an institution of alcoholism and pneumonia. He was raised by his uncles, and Williams says, "That pattern of loss became a hallmark of Beckwith's life" (E1). Nancy D. Hargrove argues that Welty's narrator suffers from low self-esteem, and that he betrays himself by saying, "I was on top of the world myself. For once." And, upon hearing that the NAACP possibly killed Roland Summers "to get the whites in trouble," the narrator says, "You can't win" (qtd. in 83). In a Knoxville News Sentinel interview, Reed Massengill, Beckwith's nephew, said, "I think 'Delay' Beckwith felt like he had no control over what was going on around him. The only control he could exert was control over his wife, over taking of someone else's life, maybe, and any other activity that made him feel he had control over the destiny of the South" (qtd. in Williams E2). Beckwith, like the narrator, wants recognition and fame for his despicable action. Hargrove also points out that Welty's narrator may have a "fundamentalist religious background" because he compares Summers' back to a preacher's eyes while he yells, "Are you saved?" Just like Beckwith, religion means nothing to the narrator as he kills another human being (84). A notable fact about Beckwith, as well, is his religious fanaticism. He is a minister in the Christian Identity Movement, whose doctrine states
that the "dusky races: blacks, Jews, Mongols, Turks, and Tartars--are the literal offspring of Satan." In fact, Massengill says, "What people don't understand about Beckwith and about all these white supremacist movements is that many of them are theologically driven and that Beckwith is not so much a racial fanatic as he is a religious fanatic" (qtd. in Williams E1). Another interesting similarity is that Welty's narrator says, "Didn't do it for you. Hell, any more'n I'd do something for them Kennedys!" (Welty Collected 605). Beckwith, according to a letter written to his ex-wife, "expressed glee" upon Kennedy's murder. Welty's mirror of reality is convincing, but she did not wish to write about Evers' assassination "editorially" ("To the Bone" 111). She includes several discrepancies: some intentional, some unintentional. These work to help the story stand on its own, because after all, Evers is not the only civil rights leader to be killed. The discrepancies function to give the story universality. Welty does not set the story in Jackson, but she invents a town called Thermopylae. By including a reference to Goat Dykeman, she makes Mississippi a neighboring state. Two differences in particular are unintentional, but they detract nothing from the story. Welty's narrator is a poor, unknown, lower-class man who does not have his own vehicle, and he resents Summers' modest prosperity. On the other hand, Beckwith has a higher social standing, and he has been active in white supremacist groups. He even ran for lieutenant governor of Mississippi, with white supremacy as his platform (Williams D14). Another unintended difference is the murderer's wife. The wife of Welty's speaker jeers him by making comments such as, "Trust you to come off and leave it (the gun)," and "You're the one they'll catch" (Welty Collected 606). Beckwith's wife, while
they were married, was a victim of his abuse. Massengill says she was terrified of Beckwith, who beat her and supposedly tied her up and left her all night. She was an intimidating figure herself when she was drinking. During those times she was verbally abusive toward family members, but now she is in recovery. She has assumed a new name and location in order to avoid white supremacist harassment (Williams D14). The most outstanding discrepancy that Welty intentionally incorporates was originally a similarity. She deleted this part of the story. The speaker, in her first draft, says, "I might even sneak old Ross in to be my lawyer, if ever should come a little trouble. How about that, Ross? I sure as hell voted for you" (qtd. in Clerc 399). He is referring to Ross Barnett, a politician who at the time espoused racist views. But Welty, who did not want her story to match the actual event too closely, decided to cut that part, because no suspect had been arrested. Ironically, when Beckwith was officially charged, Ross Barnett's law firm represented him. This is another way that Welty proves her insight into her geographical location and the people in it. The subtle way that Welty describes her character and transforms his words into a dramatic expose about the racist 1960s Deep South is admirable. To go further, and write the story in the first person, is courageous. She educates the public by making it aware of the mentality of a bigot. There were bigots in the 1960s, and they are still around today. Racism, like virtually any problem, will not go away if we ignore it. Eudora Welty certainly does not ignore it--she confronts it. problem, though, in the title of the story. Clerc proposes three possible interpretations of Welty's title, although it should be noted that she is not completely satisfied with the title. The first is an author's question to herself: she asks herself where this man's voice is coming from and how it infiltrated her She addresses an even deeper social
thoughts. The second asks the reader to "search him out and determine the cultural mentality behind that voice." The third, and most relevant, of the interpretations compels the reader to ask, "who committed the real crime upon which the story is based?" (395). As previously stated, Welty does not judge her characters. She sees beyond the murderer's hatred, and she does not treat him, or Beckwith, with the same hatred. When giving reasons for the changes she made in the first draft, she says, " . . . the story must not be found prejudicial to the case of a person who might be on trial for his life" (Welty Collected xi). She knows that society is the true culprit. Just as society created the "black rage" of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son, society created the hate which lives in the heart of Welty's narrator and the heart of Byron de la Beckwith. Welty understands this, and she also understands that while she is familiar with racism, she does not adopt this view. She is secure in her compassionate, progressive views, and she was not afraid that this story might have led others to believe that these were her own words. This is all part of her extraordinary negative capability. She conveys a man who is so brainwashed by a racist Deep South society that he repeats, "I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction" (Welty Collected 604). No one is born with hate in his or her heart; it is imposed upon each person at an impressionable age. Beckwith and Welty's character learned this way of thinking racial slur by racial slur, "Coloreds Only" sign by "Coloreds Only" sign. Reed Massengill says, "What I've tried to do is make people understand Beckwith as an individual. If you understand what drives the individual, you understand the consciousness of a group like the Klan" (Williams E1). This is what Welty is also trying to do in her exceptional social critique, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" Although Eudora Welty does not strive to make the majority of her fiction into a
"crusade," she creates two characters whose stories elevate social consciousness. In Ruby Fisher of "A Piece of News," she shows the reader a woman who is sentenced, by society, to remain in the role of a housewife and to tolerate unacceptable treatment, without even knowing any better. In the narrator of "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," Welty reveals a society which developed a human being into an inhumane monster by manipulation of thought. These stories are not typical of Welty's work; she has said that most of the time, writing makes her extremely happy. But society is lucky to hear her voice when it speaks with anger, however, even though she is characterized by an unsurpassed sensitivity and kindness. Welty summarizes her feelings on this subject in One Writer's Beginnings: " . . . I don't believe that my anger showed me anything about human character that my sympathy and rapport never had" (43).
Works Cited Appel, Alfred Jr. A Season of Dreams: the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1965.
Clerc, Charles. "Anatomy of Welty's 'Where Is the Voice Coming From?'." Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 389-400. "Eudora Welty." American Women Writers: a Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Lina Mainiero. 1 vol. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.
"Eudora Welty: To the Bone." The Economist 15 May 1993: 110-11. Hargrove, Nancy D. "Portrait of an Assassin: Eudora Welty's 'Where Is the Voice Coming From?'." The Southern Literary Journal 20.3 (1987): 74-88.
Kreyling, Michael. Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Peden, William. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change 1940-1975. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Welty, Eudora. One Writer's Beginnings. Cambridge: Warner Books, 1984. Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
Williams, Don. "Beckwith: Kin Fits Pieces of Family Puzzle." Knoxville News Sentinel 20 Dec. 1992: D12+.