Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 154: Eudora Welty, Petrified Man (#185)

Eudora Welty, "Petrified Man" (1939) from Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir:

The LoA page--and some of Welty's contemporaries--make a connection between this story and Ring Lardner's "Haircut": they both take place in hair salons/barber shops that are also implicitly social places, they both involve strife, they're both told in a vernacular... sort of. What the LoA page doesn't note is that "Haircut" was told by the barber, with no exterior POV. (Which is why Wayne Booth uses it for his example of irony and the implied author.) But "Petrified Man," though it includes several long narrated sections from the hair stylist,  is actually told from a 3rd-person POV, and so can get away with saying things like, "Leota's eleven o'clock customer pushed open the swing door upon Leota paddling him heartily with the brush..." Which is a sentence that doesn't tell us about how any one feels, only what things look like from the outside.

And that's one of the central concerns of this piece: Mrs. Fletcher is newly pregnant, a state which is evident to the mysterious Mrs. Pike, a lodger with the stylist Leota. Leota has lots of nice things to say about Mrs. Pike at first--she's very beautiful for one thing--but at the end, has quite a different take on her friend. And then there's the central issue of the Petrified Man, who is a member of a freak show who is supposed to be suffering from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva--i.e., turning to stone; but who turns out to be a rapist from California who Mrs. Pike knows as a gentle neighbor from New Orleans who now has a $500 reward on his head. And so you could probably write a paper about how the story's mode emphasizes the themes of seeming vs. being, etc.

But this story also has a strong resemblance to a movie from 1939, The Women, which had the brilliant tag line, "It's all about men." Because while The Women had almost entirely an all-woman cast, the women were talking and fighting over possession of a few mostly off-screen men. So here, the issue isn't who is going to end up with whom--there's no hint that Mrs. Pike is interested in anyone but Mr. Pike; it's more like "How much control do women have over themselves when men are involved? And how much control do they have over their men?" So Mrs. Fletcher brags about her control over her husband--while her somewhat unwanted pregnancy may remind us that she doesn't really have control. Similarly, Mrs. Pike may have some control over the fugitive rapist--she can turn him in to the police and collect the reward--but that doesn't necessarily undo the rapes. As Leota sourly notes, each of those raped women isn't being avenged by Mrs. Pike: they're being turned into $125 each for Mrs. Pike.

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