Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty

Delta Wedding is Eudora Welty's beautiful 1946 novel about a family wedding. A wedding is one of those fundamental events in the life of a family that brings (or can bring) all the members together in a moment of peace and harmony and discord. Welty treats it as a moment that opens up the deepest consciousness of a family. The wedding is the superficial topic of this novel. The real topic is more complicated.

I love this novel, but it's deep and detailed and difficult. I can't claim to have understood it, at least not completely, though I began by the end to grasp what it is about. Welty is vastly underrated, even though she continues to show up in lists of the great Southern writers. Some people dismiss her, I think, because they see her as a genteel relic of an old South best forgotten. Not so. She was a keen critic of her life and times, not an apologist. At the same time she was a person of her times, and in writing about them she uncovered the deeply held beliefs of the mid-century American South.

Welty narrates this novel in an impressionistic, dreamlike, lyrical style that is more indirect than direct. In some ways we might think of it is an emotional style of narration, in which we come to know the characters more as emotional beings than as intellectual ones. My friend Hubert McAlexander compares Delta Wedding to a Virginia Woolf novel, and I wonder if he has in mind To the Lighthouse which also has at its center, at least in the first half, a woman who is the head of a family.

Delta Wedding is about the Fairchild family of Shellmound Plantation near a small town called Fairchild, Mississippi. The Fairchilds seem to be an upper-class family, not incredibly wealthy, but at least well-off enough to maintain a fairly large house and farm with servants and hangers on. Their importance to the community is reflected in the name of the town. We learn a great deal about them, the wars they have fought and sometimes died in, the people they have married, the places where they live, the occupations they pursue.

There perhaps are similarities between the family history of Ellen and Battle Fairchild and Eudora Welty's own family. Ellen Fairchild is from Virginia, as was Welty's mother. She moved to Mississippi to marry Welty's father. To a certain extent Ellen feels like an outsider, although after bearing nine surviving children by the time of the novel that's not a strong force in her thinking.

The novel opens with a focus on the 9-year-old Laura McRaven, and at first it seems she is going to be the narrative focus, the center of consciousness. In fact, although she surfaces frequently, and though we often are with her when important scenes occur, she's not always present. She's not the dominating center of the narrative. Instead I would say it's all the members of the Fairchild family, and perhaps more precisely it's the women members of the Fairchild family, especially Ellen Fairchild, the mother of the nine children and the wife of Battle Fairchild. Another key figure is George Fairchild, brother of Battle. He's much beloved by the family, is regarded as sensitive and giving and attractive, and also perhaps is a bit too sure of himself, also perhaps a bit arrogant.

As in her other writings, Welty uses objects and creatures of the outer world – in this case flowers, plants, and birds – as indicators of the inner life of her characters, especially of Ellen Fairchild.

The plantation's name, Shellmound, is a reference to Native American mounds somewhere nearby that signify in a loose way the people who used to live on the property that the plantation occupies years before white settlement. Similarly but more directly, the African-Americans who work for the Fairchild family and who live in the surrounding area are immediate descendants of the slaves who at the time of the novel had been free only for around 60 years. Probably the Fairchild servants are the children of African-Americans who were slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. Welty is not directly concerned with issues of civil rights or the treatment of African-Americans, but she does make clear the complicated history of the Fairchild family and the land they live on. African-Americans are important secondary characters: they observe but do not actively participate in the action. Interestingly, the only person in the novel who is heard to use racist language is Troy, overseer of Shellmound and the fiancé of Dabney Fairchild.

Certain plot motifs interweave: one is the impending marriage of Dabney to Troy. The Fairchild family regards this marriage as beneath Dabney because Troy is not of their social class. They are polite enough for the most part not to talk openly about this perceived social inequity, but it's clearly an issue, and it comes up in subtle ways. Another motif is that Laura McRaven's mother has died, some nine months before the time of the novel. Laura’s mother was the sister of Battle Fairchild. And her father, who seems to be a distant and uninvolved man, has sent her to the Fairchilds to attend the wedding. Near the end of the novel Ellen Fairchild invites Laura to come live with the family. It's not clear whether she will decide to do so—she thinks to herself that she will return to her father. Everyone is aware that Laura's mother has recently died, but they rarely talk about the fact, though it is alluded to now and then. We are also told that Laura herself has never wept over her mother's death though she occasionally thinks about her mother and at one point she and other members of the Fairchild family go to the cemetery and visit the Fairchild plot where she is buried.

Another interwoven plot motif, an important one, is the marriage of George and Robbie. George married Robbie sometime before the time of the novel. The family also regarded that marriage as beneath George, and Robbie is conscious of their opinion. She seems to be emotionally unbalanced and her sense of social inferiority governs her behavior. When we first learn about George he comes into the Fairchild house and announces that Robbie has run off. She does appear on the day before the wedding.

Most women in a social class and time such as that occupied by the Fairchild family would expect to be headed towards marriage. Some of the younger girls in the novel talk about who they will and won't marry. At one point Roxie and Laura vow that they will never marry. The fraught marriage of Robbie and George gives us the darker side of marriage, perhaps suggesting an unsettling future for Dabney and Troy. Although the marriage of Ellen and her husband Battle has been productive biologically (she is pregnant with a tenth child at the time of the novel), it perhaps is not the marriage Ellen would've chosen for herself, as a scene late in the novel implies. Welty uses marriage to comment and meditate on the freedom or the lack of freedom of the women in the Fairchild family and of others to choose their own destinies. It's also a way of commenting on the fact that those women who are already grown such as Ellen and who have already entered middle age are not free to determine the course in life they might take.

Delta Autumn is a lyrical stream of consciousness tone poem. Other than the fact of the impending wedding, it has no real plot. Small narrative entanglements previously commented on work themselves out. The wedding takes place without incident. The guest who have arrived depart and the family members who don't live at Shellmound disperse and the story concludes. This novel is about the life of the Fairchild family, the consciousness of the family as a group together, and as a group of individuals apart. I had thought this would be a difficult novel to teach. However, when my Southern literature class read and discussed the novel in the spring of 2017, they found it fascinating. 

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