Narrative Voices in Eudora Welty’s Stories
“To be or not to be?” Hamlet’s cry, meaning to live on Earth through the pain and torture or, to instead leave and die, was a difficult dilemma faced by the Danish prince. This is similar to a writer’s choice in narrative techniques, or points of view, as the decision to reveal can be deadly to the prose, making the story either better or worse; so, when it comes to different types of narrative point of view, it’s more like … “to tell or not to tell?”
There are many choices available to an author in terms of narrative style, or narrative voice, and here are just a few: omniscient narration, selective omniscient, and dramatic monologue are some forms of narrative perspectives and determine how much of the story and its characters the reader is exposed to. Omniscient narration is when the narrator of the story has access to all the characters, knowing their thoughts and details that normally are unable to be felt or seen. Selective omniscient narration is when the narrator knows only one particular character well, while the others blur into the background, though this not necessarily makes them less important in the story. Dramatic monologue is when the character is the narrative voice of the story, and is speaking to someone in the environment. Then there is multiple narrator, a first-person narration voice, telling the story by several different characters’ points of view. Another narrative voice is interior monologue, and this is when the narrator tells the story as a vivid memory without leaving out important details. Stories can also be written in the form of a letter or a diary entry and the narration used will be that of the personal and confessional. Also, there is third-person limited, which is similar to selective omniscient except the narrator is a character in the story. The narrator tells the story in a third person’s point of view, but sometimes informs the readers with his/her own experiences, feelings, and insights.
Eudora Welty, like many other fiction writers, utilizes many different kinds of narrative voices in a variety of stories. She wrote The Worn Path in selective omniscient, Livvie in omniscient, The Whistle in third person limited, and Why I Live at the P.O is a dramatic monologue. Some omniscient choices bring out the story, entertaining the readers while still keeping the suspense. However with other omniscient choices, the narrator seems to lack the awareness of characters’ emotions and reactions, weakening the connection between the readers and the characters. Overall, I reduced Welty’s stories to three levels of control in the information release of the narrator for the insights and emotions of the characters: tell all, tell most, or tell some.
Welty chose selective omniscient for “The Worn Path”, which is about one elder’s brave journey through the countryside in order to reach the nearest city that provided medicine her sick grandson needed. Her choice of using selective omniscient matches the plot of the story beautifully, for the readers gained access to the exact appearance of Phoenix Jackson: “Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark” (T.W.P., 4). Like a little bird perching on her shoulder, the reader gets a close view of her mien and personality. In an interview with Beth Henley, Eudora Welty explained her inspiration for the story: “… In Jackson there were good many painters that I knew. I didn’t know any writers… And I used to go out with them [painters] when they were painting, into the countryside around, and I would sit there and read. I would have a good time. And I was doing that one day and I looked up in the distance … and I saw this figure moving across the, almost the horizon, the very end as far as I can see, of an old lady … make a slow way across the landscape and I could tell she was going somewhere. She wasn’t just out; she was, she had a purpose…”. Welty also said that she didn’t use the old lady as a source for a story immediately but instead, absorbed the image and landscape and eventually created “The Worn Path”. Also in the interview, Welty was asked about when Phoenix Jackson was already halfway through her journey when she said, “… something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay.” Beth Henley asked, “What do you think is pleading for her to stay?” Welty replied with, “She has very serious things that pleads she should stay. I mean everything was against her doing this. I mean her old age, and her physical task was really beyond her and what she was doing. But it didn’t occur to her not to go. I mean the journey was some of a ritual that she did … ” Welty had a keen sense of Jackson’s weaknesses and chose a narrative voice that could highlight and show off the difficulties in the journey by reflecting Jackson’s fragile physical appearance and old age. Finally, not only does the appearance of Phoenix Jackson contributed to the overall feeling of the story, but the name Phoenix itself contains meaning. Welty said in the interview, “I think that name, of course it’s rather symbolic, but would not have done it except that … whenever I was writing Mississippi stories, I did things that were done here. I would read old county papers … and I noticed how many names in it, were classical names, … names handed down the family. Now you don’t hear names like that, but you did then… Latin names, names out of the bible, and all that. I knew she’d have a name like that… but then there was someone named Phoenix… but it’s a perfect name for her because… year after year she did it [made the journey]… but she rose again like a Phoenix … ” This made it clear that Welty wanted Phoenix to shine brighter than the other characters, because for starters, she is the only named character in entire story. Other than Phoenix Jackson, Welty didn’t give as close of a description of the other characters like the hunter with his dogs and the nurse, which allows the story to feature Phoenix Jackson. In The Worn Path, selective omniscient narration is suitable since Welty wanted to emphasize the character Phoenix Jackson rather than all the characters. (Not all characters are created equal!)
In Livvie, Welty used omniscient as the point of view. In Livvie, an old man, Solomon, married and took away a sixteen-year-old girl into the deep Natchez Trace and there they lived until the day that Solomon died. By using the omniscient voice, Welty was able to tell the fiction piece in a clear and entertaining way. However, though telling the story in an amusing way due to its strong story plot, the narrative voice felt rather unvaried and characterless since it did not reveal any of the character’s inner thoughts and emotions that could’ve contributed greatly for Livvie. The story would have been more interesting if it was told from a character’s point of view, or in other words, dramatic monologue, because the readers can get a sense of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. For example, Solomon is pictured sleeping upon a throne-like bed. However, all the description and imagery is directed towards his environment, rather than his appearance or dreams:
Solomon had a houseful of furniture. There was a double settee, a tall scrolled rocker and an organ in the front room, all around a three-legged table with a pink marble top, on which was set a lamp with three gold feet, besides a jelly glass with pretty hen feathers in it. Behind the front room, the other room had the bright iron bed with the polished knobs like a throne, in which Solomon slept all day. There were snow-white curtains of wiry lace at the window, and a lace bed-spread belonged on the bed.
He seems to be in control of Livvie by not allowing her to go outside or visit her family. If the narrative voice of the story were partial to Solomon’s thoughts, the readers would know why he is being imperious, and empathically connect to his need to keep Livvie hidden deeply inside the Natchez Trace. On the other hand, if the story were told from Livvie’s point of view, the readers could discover her reaction and emotions when Solomon forbids her to associate with others, therefore allowing the reader to sympathize. Before Solomon took Livvie away, he asked her if she would be happy:
Solomon asked her before he took her, would she be happy? – very dignified, for he was a colored man that owned his land and had it written down in the courthouse; and she said, ‘Yes, sir,’ since he was an old man and she was young and just listened and answered.
If Welty wrote the story in the point of view of Livvie, the readers could know what Livvie was thinking when Solomon asked her to take her away and what her family would say.
For “The Whistle”, Welty used third-person limited narrative technique. “The Whistle” is about the hard life of two planters who work under the fierce orders of a master. One winter the couple gave everything that they had in order to stay warm for the health of plants and ended up burning all their furniture away. For “The Whistle”, third-person limited is good since the main idea of the story was for the readers to feel the depressing mood and the pain and hardships that were faced in the story. Welty did a great job of creating a gloomy and painful feel that the readers can experience. Since the story is in third-person limited, readers, instead of focusing on all of the characters’ emotions and opinions, are more centered upon the senses and thoughts of just one character that can truly bring out the distress that the couple goes through. Using third-person limited narrative perspective is similar to selective omniscient since “The Whistle” focuses more on Sara, however the narrator is able to bring the readers into Sara’s thoughts, feelings, and even dreams. During the night, the readers get a glance Sara Morton’s dream; “There in her mind, dusty little Dexter became a theater for almost legendary festivity, a place of pleasure…” The readers can sense her longing for a jubilant surrounding and a happier way of life.
Welty used dramatic monologue for “Why I Live at the P.O”, creating a perfect humorous piece. “Why I Live at the P.O.” tells the tale of a sister arriving home with her unannounced child and the arguments she rouses. Sister, the character who’s telling the story, expressed her thoughts freely to herself, making the readers feel as if they were involved in the story. By using first-person, one can feel the sarcasm in the statements and Sister’s annoyance. Unlike from an omniscient or selective omniscient point of view, the readers tend to favor and support Sister; since after all, she is the one telling the story, therefore making her more persuasive. However, this doesn’t make Sister necessarily right all the time. The readers are unable to judge who is actually right since the narrator doesn’t choose to reveal both sides of the story, leaving the readers to believe more toward the side that is shown.
Welty’s stories finally conclude to three levels of control in the information release into the insights and emotions of the characters: what I’ll call tell all, tell most, or tell some. Tell all is omniscient, and the narrator lets the reader know every aspect of every character. It creates a feeling as if all the characters in the story are your best friends and, like old buddies, you notice more about their appearances and feel more empathy. Tell some is selective omniscient and third-person limited, where you only know and get insights on one character. Usually this form of control is used to make one character appear more significant though not lessening the role of the supporting characters. Tell most is dramatic monologue and usually is character driven. The narrator is a character in the story and by being part of the conflict, usually the narrator only reveals one side of the story – their side. Dramatic monologues have a persuasive voice since the narrator doesn’t tell the readers the thoughts and feelings of the other characters because he or she might not understand or know how they feel and react, thus leaving the readers with only their side of the story to believe.
Whether it is omniscient, selective omniscient, third person limited, or dramatic monologue, Welty covered them all, using the narrative voice creatively. No matter the perspective of her stories, all of her fiction pieces had a great flow and enlightened the readers with their exciting twists and turns. In the end, points of view are decided on one general question: to tell or not to tell?