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The Essential Eudora Welty

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Caedmon Records, Recorded 1956
 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these three short stories “Why I live at the P.O.,” “Powerhouse,” and “The Petrified Man” was Welty’s feeling for language. In “Why I Live at the P.O.” Welty dramatized the experience of a southern family in which patriarchy was alive and well: fathers dominated their daughters, while unmarried women were expected to skivvy around the house looking after everyone else. The central character puts up with this kind of life for a certain length of time, but eventually decides to leave after her father lets off a firecracker in her bedroom at 6 a.m., just to see how she would react. As the local postmistress, the narrator decides to up traps and live in her post office. Naturally this causes great consternation amongst her fellow family-members, who not only feel that she is being ‘disloyal’ but cannot believe that she can forge a new existence for herself. After six days alone, the narrator discovers to her delight that she can exist alone, without worrying about anyone else, which bodes well for the future.

 

“Powerhouse” recorded the experience of watching an African-American musical specialty act. While Welty was still imbued with the prejudices of her time, treating the African-American as a second class citizen, she nonetheless has a feeling for his passion; his way of expressing his disquiet and his desire for freedom through music. Like Langston Hughes, Welty realizes the possibilities of language and how it can persuade as much through sound as sense. The ending of the story is particularly significant, as the lead singer repeats a chorus of the popular song “Somebody Loves Me” and looks around at the entire audience before delivering the last line “maybe it’s you.” In this line there a lurks a whole spectrum of meanings, not only dramatizing the African-American’s desire for recognition, but his belief that all human beings are alike, regardless of skin colour.

 

“The Petrified Man” is another tale of revelation. The eponymous hero is another specialty act, this time in a local funfair. Rumour has it that he is someone imported from the African continent who has actually learned to act petrified: quite literally he has turned to stone. As it turns out, the petrified man is not a foreigner but rather a local fugitive on the run from the police for committing three rapes of young women. He is eventually brought to justice. But Welty’s concern is not so much with plot as situation: the story is set in a beauty parlour, where groups of housewives gather both to pass the time of day and to obtain security in numbers. This is their place of refuge, where they can escape their husbands and talk about the world. However Welty shows that even this place cannot insulate itself from reality: however much these women may work, both for their families and for themselves, they will always remain unfulfilled. This is brought out in the story’s last line, where a little boy observes scornfully: “If you’re so sweet, why aren’t you rich?” This phrase sums up the shortcomings of the 1940s housewife; she may work hard, she may be devoted to her family, but still be unfulfilled.