Life in Mississippi: A Curtain of Green (Eudora Welty)

Eudora-Welty-x3

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty’s Curtain of Green (1941) was the first collection of short stories she published. Its introduction, by Katherine Anne Porter (author of Pale Horse, Pale Rider among others), is full of praise for the emerging writer and especially for her command of the short story as a narrative medium.

On the surface, these are simple stories of life in rural Mississippi in the early 1900s. However, this simplicity is a powerful tool — the personal triumphs and tragedies in these stories easily translate to our day. Welty’s writing is physical, visceral, it speaks of familiarity with the land, the climate, and the people she writes about. The South she portrays here is not some romanticized version of history, it is full of dust and small pebbles that blister the foot in its shined shoe. There is plenty of intelligently expressed, non-preachy social commentary in these stories if you want to see it. 

collage made from Eudora Welty's "Sunday Morning"

collage, Eudora Welty’s “Sunday Morning”

A Curtain of Green contains many memorable characters, from Lily Daw, the retarded young woman whose future has been taken hostage by older women in the town, and Clytie, who takes care of what remains of her upper-class family, to the fiercely gardening widow, and the inconspicuous, dull 66 year-old man who leads a secret second life — virtually each story has a strong, interesting, moving character at its heart.

The stories themselves are often heart wrenching, at times shocking. A good example would be “A Visit of Charity,” where a Campfire Girl (a type of girl scout) visits a rest home in order to get points. This story, for me, was the most intense of them all, even though there is very little action. The emotional intensity of the story is internal: the girl, at first only a bit uncomfortable and eager to get this assignment over with, is sent into a room shared by two old women, one of them bedridden. From the moment the old woman opens the door and smiles a strange smile, the assignment that just seemed like a hassle turns into a harrowing experience for the girl. The room is dark and too full of furniture, so that she feels trapped. The old woman’s hands feel like claws, the other old woman makes noises like a sheep, and in the girl’s imagination the two become robbers in their cave who are about to murder her.

“Did you come to be our little girl for a while?” the first robber asked. Then something was snatched from Marian’s hand — the little potted plant. “Flowers!” screamed the old woman. She stood holding the pot in an undecided way. “Pretty flowers,” she added. Then the old woman in bed cleared her throat and spoke. “They are not pretty,” she said, still without looking around, but very distinctly. Marian suddenly pitched against the chair and sat down in it. “Pretty flowers,” the first woman insisted. “Pretty — pretty…” […] “Stinkweeds,” said the other old woman sharply. (221-2)

While the first woman exclaims that the flowers the girl brought are beautiful, the way she expresses this is not ‘normal’ or ‘polite’: She grabs the flowers before the girl can offer them, and her speech is fragmented, like baby-talk. The second woman’s response is not exactly polite either.

The woman who is in bed is less willing to play the game — she is less willing to accept this ‘act of charity’ because she sees it for what it is: a stranger visiting strangers. She also sees her situation in the home as what it really is: two complete strangers made to live with each other. When she speaks, it is with clarity and conviction. In this passage, where the bedridden woman scolds her roommate who is telling the girl about her past, Welty captures very well one of the strange aspects of getting old, of dementia, of losing oneself:

“Hush!” said the sick woman. “You never went to school. You never came and you never went. You never were anything — only here. You never were born! You don’t know anything. Your head is empty, your heart and your hands and your old black purse are all empty, even that little old box that you brought with you you brought empty — you showed it to me.” (227)

If you wanted to take the story apart and analyze it, there’d be plenty to discuss. Social issues as well as literary aspects, aspects of craft and language, and of course the biblical references.

There are several stories where older women / old people are central characters, and for some reason, — maybe because I grew up around so many aging and dying family members — how old people are portrayed and treated in stories is immensely interesting to me. I think Welty does this well; her old characters are round, interesting, often determined, and always credible and dignified.

The story “The Hitchhikers” felt like it could have been a part of the Lolita manuscript, for some reason. Not that it has any references to Lolita or its themes, but there’s a certain sense of carelessness, if not recklessness in the main character as he drives, picks up hitchhikers, and the way he (doesn’t) handle the violent assault that happens when he turns his back. This is similarly true for “Flowers for Marjorie,” although this story seems more tender. In this case, we witness the violent assault, but it is not the center of the story: the center of the story is Marjorie’s faith that things will work out, and the sheer terror Howard feels when, after he stabs her, things do fall into place.

curtain-of-green

Some articles about Eudora Welty that you might find interesting:

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Hush Hush, by Steven Barthelme | Outside of a Cat

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