Monday, June 29, 2015

The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty’s first three short story collections, A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), and The Golden Apples (1949) are among the finest short stories in American literature.  Although there is unity in theme and style in the first two volumes, The Golden Apples describes the life of a small Mississippi town called Morgana around the beginning of the 20th century.  A number of characters recur through the seven stories of the volume, foremost among them King McLain, a man renowned for his seductive powers.  He is a primary character in only one of the stories.  Mostly he is talked about, because he is rarely at home, rarely in town.  He’s elusive and evasive.  His sons Ran and Eugene also often appear, along with his wife Snowdie. 
The Yeats poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” provides the title of the volume along with the figure of a wandering and unrequited lover who is obviously associated with King MacLain.  More closely linked to him is Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” his reimaging of the Greek myth in which Zeus in the form of a swan visits and forcibly impregnates a young woman.  In Welty’s stories Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman with white hair, is swanlike.  Greek myths faintly inform these stories.  The name of the town Morgana itself suggests something elusive and infused with legend.
Welty writes in a fluid, flowing prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse.  In some stories, particularly “June Recital,” told from the perspective of a fevered young boy with malaria, and “Moon Lake,” told from the viewpoint of young girls in a summer camp, the style verges on poetry.  In a way, the general narrative structure of the collection is fluid.  Characters prominent in one story may be barely mentioned in another story.  Loch Morrison is the character whose point of view Welty uses to tell the story of Virgie Rainey and her former piano teacher Miss Eckhart in “June Recital,” but in other stories he disappears almost entirely, appearing again as the lifeguard in “Moonlake.” 
Set in the early decades of 20th-century Mississippi, these stories focus on middle-class white residents of Morgana.  They are not concerned with race or racism in any direct way, but they clearly reflect the racist attitudes of the day. Black residents occasionally appear, as servants or passersby, but never in primary roles. Occasionally they’re referred to as “niggers.”  When the narrator and characters in these stories use the word, they’re not doing so with deliberate racist intent, they’re not conscious of its racist significance.  It is just another word they use to refer to black people.  Its presence in these stories, and the presence of other words like it, marks the difference between our world and the world of Morgana.
Class differences separate a number of the characters in these stories.  Cassie and Loch Morrison are clearly middle-class, while Virgie Rainey is from the lower middle-class, if not lower class.  She strains in these stories to find her place.  She’s one of the central characters of “June Recital” and the volume’s concluding story, “The Wanderers.”
Welty is particular interested in young people, especially women, being introduced to the social, sexual, and marital conventions of Morgana.  She describes women who are trapped by circumstance without knowing it.  Snowdie MacLain is a prime example.  So is the young woman in “Sir Rabbit” who is seduced (some would say raped) by the Zeus-like King McLain.  So is, foremost, Virgie Rainey.  While the future is clearly and securely laid out for her friends like Cass Morrison, hers is not.  She’s unsettled and ungrounded from the beginning.  “June Recital” is about how she chafes against the constraints of the town, her own talents as a pianist, and the expectations of others.  In this story she rebels through sexual affairs, through playing the piano at the local cinema (she chooses songs that have little connection to the film that is playing).  At the end of the collection, in the final story about her mother’s death and funeral, she is consoled by all the friends and so-called friends who have chosen to remain in Morgana.  Virgie lived outside Morgana for a time, but she returned to be with her mother.  At the end of this story and the volume as a whole she is selling the family home and giving away possessions and planning to move away.  She is the wanderer of the story’s title, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, still seeking to chart her course in life.

No comments: